Venue: Geological Society, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London 8-10th Feb 2016
Organisers: ADAPT project, Royal Holloway, University of London
This was an eclectic conference which wrestled with various methodological issues with relevance to technological history, over three days. There was a strong international contingent, with papers and demonstrations from the United States, the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, as well as the UK.
John Ellis gave the first keynote, exploring the theories and methodologies behind the, ERC funded, ADAPT project. ADAPT is investigating the adoption of new technological arrays in the production of broadcast television, from the late 1950s to near present day. The project is tracing the evolution of technological arrays, and the working practices around them, as well as looking at the institutional power structures at play, and the impact that new technologies had on the television programmes made with them. Much of this investigation takes place through industry veterans being reunited with the technologies they used to use.
The keynote began with the notion not of us being homo sapiens (beings with wisdom and knowledge), but of homo faber – humankind the maker, who is able to instrumentalise the world. John talked of anthropocene, a new era we are entering where humanity can have an impact on the world, mainly negative, often in the form of man-made disasters. He proposed that Lambros Malafouris’s material engagement theory was particularly useful in the context of ADAPT’s work: that we think through things and through material engagement with things. He also spoke about actor network theory: that our brains can change through this engagement with things – citing the ‘Knowledge’, the test which London taxi drivers had to complete, and which led to a growth of the hypothalamus in taxi drivers’ brains. Our brains are pliable, and change due to what they are physically encountering. Remembering can occur through enacting a physical process, which our bodies used to habitually do. He explained his concept of ‘the tooled body’, a new perceptual and cognitive unit, a hybrid agent, of man and machine working symbiotically. He went on to describe audio-visual as a new way of seeing, and a new method of data collection, an extension of human exploration of the world, where through visual reconstructions we are able to see things previously overlooked. Filming, he described as a new form of intervention, and a double intervention, because of the shooting and then the editing. Audio-visual is a new tool for historiography, through seeing the physicality, we can observe processes not easily verbalised. ‘Hands-on history’ and the audio-visual enables us to better understand homo faber.
Two members of the ADAPT project, Nick Hall (postdoctoral research officer) and Amanda Murphy (digital producer), built on John Ellis’s presentation. Nick’s paper centred on the language relating to the re-enactments that ADAPT is involved in. He said that these were deceptively similar, but in reality very different from historical re-enactments, of say Civil War battles. The crucial differences were around the fact that the actors in the ADAPT reconstructions are in fact the people who originally used the equipment themselves, they aren’t playing at being someone else – they are being their old selves, but with the experiences gained from their present selves. This is living history. He also argued that ‘simulation’ wasn’t the right word to describe the encounters, as this implied a lack of something genuinely happening, which wasn’t the case. He made the case to reclaim the term ‘living re-enactment’.
Amanda Murphy’s presentation asked ‘Whose hands on whose history?’ are we dealing with. It was a more practical explanation of how the ADAPT re-enactments work, and what we can observe from them. She talked about the importance of trying to put together the teams of people who used to work together, and get them to actually re-enact how they would shoot, or edit a particular type of programme. The clips concentrated on a reconstruction of shooting on 16mm film, with former members of the BBC Ealing film unit, which was done over several days. The clips demonstrated John Ellis’s point about audio-visual allowing us to dissect the processes in a manner not possible through other methods. We observed how one of the cameramen instantly referred to the camera as a ‘she’, and said ‘come to daddy’, showing his affection, as well as the power relationship he had with the machine. He immediately picked the camera up and set it up for himself to use hand-held. All of this was very telling, as was the later group shoot, where the sound recordist was resistant to using the old kit, which the cameramen were so fond of, and instead substituted his own more modern mic, because the resultant sound would be better. It was a fascinating piece of people watching, with the power politics of the hierarchy being played out in front of us.
My own presentation, entitled: ‘The highs and lows of reuniting old men and their machines’, fitted well with John’s hybrid agent of the ‘tooled body’. I spoke about the challenges of video recording the encounters of men with their old machines, in relation to my Pebble Mill project: http://pebblemill.org. The project aims to document the programmes and production culture at BBC Pebble Mill from 1970-2004, and part of this is done through reconstructions and demonstrations of how historic pieces of broadcast kit were operated. I noted that the challenges of this work relate to each individual element: finding the right men, finding the right machines, capturing the encounter in the right way, and then editing it and displaying it in the right way. It is an imperfect art, with some significant problems, but is not without merit. The ‘lows’ I mentioned included the resulting films being a pale imitation of the original, and only giving us a snapshot of part of the process, rather than the full array. I also noted the issues of the original equipment frequently not working, and the impact of limited resources in terms of the quality of the reconstruction films. However, the ‘highs’ outweigh the ‘lows’ in my opinion: the films can provide an informative and engaging end product, and give as close an impression as possible of the actual production process, but more than this, they can be the starting point for an online conversation, which engages other users, who can then add further context. Perhaps the best thing about these audio-visual explorations are the unexpected revelations which on each reconstruction I have come across. Every contributor has mentioned something in their film, which I don’t think they would have done if the filming had been a straightforward interview, rather than a haptic encounter with a piece of old equipment; these revelations have included how slow-mo was handled for sports in the 1980s on 1” tape, how transmitters could go off air if the sound assistant had not adjusted the audio levels correctly, and why the EMI 2001 was such a great camera for getting cameramen closer to the action in a drama.
A high point of the conference for me was Susan Douglas’s keynote entitled, ‘From Social Constructivism to Hands on History: How media archaeology, the ethos of reconstruction, and empathy are reshaping media historiography’. She talked about how media archives are shaped by those who create them, and the need to create our own archives, and to develop an empathy with the past. Much of Susan’s recent work has been about the history of radio, and she mentioned the importance of how media has been written about, in terms of shaping the development of a particular medium, for example press reports can become a crucial actor. She argued that the technological affordances of a medium often have results other than that which their inventor heroes intended. For example, Marconi envisaged radio waves as useful for wireless telegraphy, to send message in Morse Code to ships. He did not envisage the growth of radio as a one to many medium of broadcast, whereas radio ham operators had been quick to see the possibilities. She saw the development of media as one of contest and negotiation. Technological affordances have the ability to shape society. In her research, Susan has listened to radio broadcasts covering a 60 year period, and has analysed them in terms of pace, accent, race, tone etc – carrying out an archaeology of listening for the 20th Century, exploring the semiotics of sound. She acknowledged the importance of radio in terms of race relations in the 1960s and ‘70s, particularly with the popularity of black music, and the concept of the global village. She then turned her attention to how technologies can in fact end up with us being more inward looking, rather than outward looking, and sometimes have the reverse effect to what we might expect. She used the reactions in the States to the 9/11 attacks as a case in point. We might have expected these events to make us look at the world in a wider sense, to try and understand our differences and similarities, especially given the abilities of new satellite technologies to bring us live news from anywhere in the world. Instead we have tended to use technology, not as a telescope to see other worlds outside our own, but as microscopes, to look inwardly on ourselves. Citing examples of reality TV, and celebrity culture, Susan Douglas spoke about the ‘irony’ of technology, of not developing in the ways we would expect. The point was made in questions afterwards, that this was not due to the technologies themselves, but due to the uses and affordances of those technologies. She finished with talking about new methodologies, and their ability to provide original insights, due to the inherent affordances of technologies like audio or audio-visual.
Another notable keynote came from Tim Boon, head of research at the Science Museum. It was the presentational style of his talk which was as interesting as the subject matter. Tim gave a live video essay – a beautifully choreographed presentation which interspersed edited video with Tim talking. I spoke to him afterwards about how he had created the piece. It had taken a couple of days using iMovie, but fortunately he had all the clips he needed from Horizon and Eye on Research from previous projects. His argument centred around the idea that the evidence of how any film was made can be observed from the film itself. He demonstrated this through showing a number of clips of different science shows. He looked at the genealogy of science presentation through television, noting how difficult it had been for early producers to find scientists who could actually present, and examining what a professional job presenters like Raymond Baxter did in producing the scientists they were interacting with. This was especially apparent from live outside broadcast shows, which were predominantly delivered to a single camera, following a developing shot, before being picked up on a second camera. It was easy to observe how Baxter was steering the extremely nervous scientist to end up at the right spot, and expertly picking up on what he’d said to make the content intelligible to a lay audience.
Other presentations examined ‘hands on history’ methods around histories of personal computer development, and video games, as well as ways to conserve 1980’s digital art. It was an enjoyable and thought provoking conference, which included some very esoteric, as well as engaging presentations, and I’m sure that in the fullness of time, the papers from this conference will result in a rich edited collection of different ‘hands on history’ approaches.