Visual In-Sights

Jason Kass’ doctoral research is jointly supervised in the schools of art and psychology at the University of Southampton. His research concerns an exploration of aesthetic experience, artistic volition, and spectatorship, approached through an understanding of visual cognition. In this post he reports upon his attendance at the Visual In-Sights conference held in Newcastle over the summer.

At the end of June I attended and presented a paper at the Visual In-Sights Conference at the University of Newcastle . The conference brought together a range of individuals who research the visual and/or work with visual materials and methods. The conference organisers described their goal to “to host an inclusive, cross-sectoral engagement event which create[d] spaces for academic, practical and exhibitive work within the framework of a conference programme”.

From the start, I was particularly interested in this conference for a number of reasons. On the one hand, as a researcher working across disciplines I was keen to present my research in a forum that took into account the difficulties that arise when attempting to breakdown disciplinary boundaries. And as a practice-based researcher I was equally enthusiastic to belong to a space that was inclusive of both traditional academic research outputs alongside the exhibition of practical research outputs.

The conference met its goals in many respects and gathered a truly varied group of presenters. The presentations were divided thematically and grouped into sessions as diverse as Art and Aesthetics, Embodying the Visual, Visualising Identities, Visual Cultures and Geopolitics, and Landscapes of the Visual. My paper titled Abstracting concepts from sets of instances: the case of serial works of art, was included in the Art and Aesthetics session.

Jason Kass, ‘Untitled (The Unique Particular)’, C-print, 2013.

The paper applied theories from visual cognition to an understanding of spectatorship of serial artworks. The work forms part of my PhD thesis and is supported by a practice-led project that responds to an aspect of Roland Barthes’ essay Camera Lucida, in which he describes the experience of remembering his mother through photography. The project is informed by mechanisms of visual memory and face recognition, particularly the model of ‘stability from variation’ whereby essential information is abstracted from discreet but related instances to produce stable concepts. The work generated to date has considered the relationship between exemplars and prototypes and the potential role of averaging in the formation of robust mental representations. Using personal family photographs as a starting point, my practice-based research examines the tension between instances and concepts both in relation to pictorial modes of address and the more private desire to come to terms with the limits of remembering those loved and lost.

In addition to the oral presentation, I had the opportunity to exhibit practical research outputs within the conference space. The available resources did not conform to the traditional white cube model as researchers were each given two, bright-blue pin-up boards in the entrance lobby to one of the Universities venues. This brought up issues that I have dealt with in the past regarding the status of images and artefacts resulting from the research process and to what extent they might be considered and treated as artworks. If anything, my experience at the conference only exacerbated these issues rather than offering any sense of resolution. This is an area that I hope to explore in more detail moving forward as I believe it remains ambiguous within practice-based research in the arts.

One of the highlights of the conference was the exciting plenary speakers. David Campbell spoke candidly about “the changing function of photojournalism in the new media economy” and offered a range of insights in relation to the proliferation of images in contemporary visual culture. Marcus Banks, Professor of Visual Anthropology at Oxford, presented a case for the “banality of crime scene photography”. Both speakers touched upon the changing parameters of visual storytelling in a post-digital environment and current tensions around the authenticity of the image. I found it interesting to hear that many of the same concerns around the status of the image in an art context are shared by researchers working in other areas of visual research.