On photo books, spimes and big data

Hester Keijser
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This text is the transcript of the talk I gave at the invitation of the organisers of the NIDA symposium on photography, held in Nida, Lithuania, September 7th, 2018. It is a reworked version of an earlier talk in which I attempt to think through how photo books are tied up with and in part a product of the particularities of life online in the first half of the 21st century. First of all, I want to thank the organisation of the Nida Symposium for inviting me to give this talk. I always welcome opportunities such as these, because they give me an excuse to spend time doing research, meaning: reading books. So last night I finally had time to finish Ellen Meiksins Wood's Democracy against Capitalism.

Meiksins Wood, of Latvian ancestry, was a formidable writer and thinker in the field of political theory and economics. What I love about her, what makes me happy when reading her books, is the fact that you can practically hear her thinking through her subject matter. You're with her as she takes step by step in creating a foothold from which it is becomes possible to criticise capitalism, which is a most necessary foothold to have, still and perhaps even more so in our times, as capitalism is entering an extreme phase in which it threatens to destroy us and our planet.

Meiksins anything but thoughtless, she's anything but passive, she's anything but uncaring and brazen, and she is utterly generous in letting her readers come so close to her thought processes. Taken together, she's all about empowering you as her reader to understand you still have agency over the socio-economical & political position you occupy in this life, and how to activate it.

Now of course my talk is not going to be about economics, capitalism, or the finer points of the political history of democracy through the ages. We're here to talk about photo books. The reasons why I mentioned Meiksins Wood is her being anything but thoughtless. A certain thoughtlessness that pervades society is something that preoccupies me since a long time. Looking back on the writing I have published, I can see that I spent a lot of energy trying to make my audience less thoughtless and more aware of the specific power dynamics of the field in which they are operating, even if it is in such a relatively limited and well defined field as photo books. Before you get all riled up about being called thoughtless, when you take such care in every decision you make regarding your photographs, or the details of the book you want to see them published in, let me add this.

This particular thoughtlessness has little to do with the production process of your work, with its artistic and aesthetic concerns. It is a thoughtlessness that pervades many people's lives, and for which they are not responsible, because it has been put there from the start by the kind of state structures we have been brought up to accept as normal – ones in which we have been put at a distance from any position of political power, ones in which our voices – especially female ones – are not heard in the arenas of public debate. By and large, as Meiksins Wood reminds us, we are expected and even educated to perform the role of passive consumers in a form of democracy in which we have relinquished active power and transferred it to our elected representatives. By doing so, we have become alienated from this power and from the idea of having a right to exercise it. More than that, we have come to not question the separation of the political and the economical spheres of action, and to ‘understand' that the economical realm is practically untouchable by ordinary people, because it governed by ‘the market'.

So naturally, we go about (işe koyulmak) our daily lives and work mostly without a thought about the social and economic relations that are at play and with which we engage– because why spend time on the things you cannot change? And who would have the audacity to think you can change the capitalist rule book? Who even has time for that, when the hours of your day are taken up by working for even the most minimal wages – as tends to be the case in the creative industry? Right? Of course there will always be people, also within the photo community, to whom power play comes almost as a second nature, but they tend to coast along (fazla çaba göstermeden ilerlemeye çalışmadan iş yapmak, sığ sularda yüzmek?) the system quite comfortably and are rarely inclined to question what gives them prestige and cultural capital. In other words, there's no reason for them to be any less thoughtless than anyone else.

Now back to the world of photo books. In my brief for this symposium I quoted Stephen Gill, saying that 'the main point of making a book is getting lost' amidst all the noise we make about the book awards, about finding the right publishers, about books going viral, about fundraising campaigns and about generating sufficient publicity and attention for your publication. Now Gill may be somewhat of a romantic curmudgeon who still believes in the autonomy and intrinsic value of artistic output, he is right to point out that amidst all this kerfuffle, something central is lost. And it is not so difficult to see what this is.

When I look at the places where photo books are promoted – most of this is on social media, because they are usually ‘free' (free but with a catch) for self-promoters – I tend to to encounter formulas that say: look at this book, this book is good, this book was shortlisted, it got a mention on a blog or in an article, it won an award, etc. But it never tells me why I should be looking at it, why it's worth my or anyone's time, or why someone considers it to be good. Book content, the main point of making a book, what you are trying to say and who you are hoping to move with your work, with and through the images you have edited so carefully – that all seems entirely lost nowadays.

Even if your book would go viral, it still doesn't mean that much attention will be spend on fleshing out its content and further significance. Your work can be picked up and carried along by a stream of nominations, awards, exhibitions and new book contracts, but all that is still no guarantee that the book gets to communicate what you intended, that it gets heard for what you hoped it would say. And this can be very frustrating, both for the photographer or independent publisher who made the book, as for people in the audience like me, who don't want to be force fed publicity alone.

It's not about the artisanal quality of photo books as material objects that I have concerns. By and large production is running on a pretty high level these days, and you can see how much love and effort is poured into the making of these books. Rather, it is in the reception of the book that things have a tendency to go terribly wrong. And it was with an eye on this poverty of the reception that I asked: "What type of labour do we perform when we engage with the photo book and what other types of engagement are left?"

In the past, I've tried to approach this question by looking at Bruce Sterling's notion of Spimes, platform economics and networked technologies. So, Spimes what are they?

We're going to do a a mapping exercise in which you lay one blueprint on top of the other and see if you can trace structural elements similar to both. Of course it is not arbitrary which map you use as such a blueprint, but I prefer to find maps from other disciplines, which I can put to work for the questions at hand. It also helps me to avoid the tunnel vision that comes with trying to solve everything with the tools available in the field of photography and art history.

Sterling writes: "In my grand vision, there's a history of the relationship of objects and human beings. It goes like this. Up to the present day, during previous history, we humans have had, and made, four different classes of possible objects. These classes of objects are called, in order of their historical appearance, Artefacts, Machines, Products, and Gizmos.

The lines between Artefacts, Machines, Products and Gizmos aren't mechanical. They're historical. The differences between them are found in the material cultures they make possible. The kind of society they produce, and the kind of human being that is necessary to make them and use them.

Artefacts are made and used by hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers.

Machines are made and used by customers, in an industrial society.

Products are made and used by consumers, in a military-industrial complex.

While Gizmos are made and used by end-users, in whatever today is – a "New World Disorder," a "Terrorism-Entertainment Complex," our own brief interregnum. An end-user is the historically evolved version of a consumer.

A Gizmo is not manufacturable by any centrally planned society. In a Gizmo, development has been deputised (tayin etmek) to end-users. End-Users, who are people like practically everybody in this audience, do a great deal of unpaid pro bono work in developing Gizmos.  The next stage is an object that does not exist yet. It needs a noun, so that we can think about it. We can call it a "Spime," which is a neologism for an imaginary object that is still speculative. A Spime also has a kind of person who makes it and uses it, and that kind of person is somebody called a "Wrangler." At this point in time, many people are still end-using Gizmos. My thesis here, my prophesy to you, is that, pretty soon, you will be wrangling Spimes.

The most important thing to know about Spimes is that they are precisely located in space and time. They have histories. They are recorded, tracked, inventoried, and always associated with a story. A true Spime is going to get ahead of the curve by bringing you inside the tent of the designers and developers and engineers, and the sales and marketing people. A true Spime creates spime wranglers.

A Spime is a users group first, and a physical object second. – Hold on to that last thought!

Photo books as we used to know them, mass produced on printing presses, belong to a time when there were products made and used by consumers. These were the heydays of the publishing houses churning out paperbacks and coffee table books in editions of thousands for the masses that were clamouring for novels to read, to spread their ideas in, to educate and entertain their children with. Think centrally planned societies, think stand-alone devices.

Photo books first started to appear when it became easier to reproduce photographs mechanically, when there were machines made and used by customers, in the industrial age, which more or less ended with World War 2. The reason we like modernistic looking books, is because photo books were born and became popular at the same time as modernism started to happen, about one century ago, in the 1920s.

The past decades have seen massive shifts in the publishing industry, which was foreseeable, considering that their business model stems from the already bygone (mazi, geçmiş) era of products and consumers. Also, financing of the books has been decentralised, often off-loading production costs to photographers or raising funds through pre-sales, crowdfunding and special editions, with publishers more and more concentrating on the distribution instead. New independent and self-publishing practices are springing up, because the Spime wants us to become actively involved in the production and help further its development.

We have become a users group of photo book lovers, geeks and fans. The internet with its capacity to collapse geographical distances has allowed us to do so. We feel connected, through social media. We tell each other how great it is to make and sell photo books, we discuss its future, its history, the highs and lows, we make books on collectible books sold on eBay, we exchange tips and tricks on where and how to print, we meet in book fairs, we exchange our books, we collect lists of independent publishers worldwide, we acquire intimate knowledge of different printing and binding techniques, paper type and how they behave, we attend gatherings like these …

In short, we risk being sucked into a permanent state of wrangling with photo books, and we occasionally even make one, but almost as a by-product, in small edition sizes to share with our support groups, or with our fan base, our Kickstarter backers. We do this so much that we hardly have time to actually engage with what's inside the book itself. The content is in danger of becoming irrelevant. In effect, we are called upon to become experts in wrangling the book as something that is part of an increasingly networked industrial process. Some do this better than others.

An artist taking these developments to the extreme is Elisabeth Tonnard, who made a book that is so transparent, that it wasn't even visible anymore. Her invisible photo book was a huge success in her community of wranglers, and it allowed them to exchange thoughts about the photo book as an object and a subject of commerce. It was brilliant in that it was a true Spime, for which the user group came first, and the physical object came second, became irrelevant. She understood what it means that the photo book in the age of spimes is first a virtual master object that can, at various times, have physical incarnations of itself but this is not strictly necessary.


These thoughts were developed over the course of several years, and I still have not exhausted exploring the potential of Sterling's predictions mapped onto the world of photo books. Where it has been most productive for me so far, is that it enabled me to understand the contemporary photo book as an outcome, an almost accidental materialisation of a networked, communal activity we are drawn into as we begin to engage with the field of photography. And that a majority of these photo books will be self-published in the age of the Spime.

Papers published on photo books tend to only look at the physical object and its history and classifications. I have yet to encounter an author who offers a possible model explaining our frenzied and sustained engagement with the contemporary photo book. In this we differ fundamentally from previous generations of readers and consumers. Because the contemporary photo book is first of all a product of our digital, virtual, connected world. The photo book as a platform, a playground, an open end. And we keep making them, because the activity itself and the exchange between users is perhaps more important and even gratifying than the holding the physical object itself. As Elisabeth Tonnard demonstrated so cleverly.

The most important thing to remember is that in the age of sharing through networked technologies, the ontological status of the photo book has changed from being a product into what Sterling has termed a Spime, and that means there is a users group first and a physical object second. As a users group, we are really busy developing and producing photo books, but we sometimes don't even know why we do it, at times it seems an almost involuntary gesture.

In an interview published last year, Dragana Jurisic, the author of YU. The Lost Country, hits this point acutely in an almost casual remark when she says: "The Photo book World is a weird world. I'm not really sure what the game is. I find it very interesting that so many photo books are so redundant. They're about nothing, they're just like having a really nice design, or like playing an instrument and finding a really nice tempo but there's nothing there. What is the point of this exercise. I think that's why so many of them fail. Or they start saying something but they never really finish it."

She is not sure what the game is, or what's the point of what she calls exercises. That's really the most vital part of her comment, not the question if her criticism of the current range of books being produced is justified. With Sterling's help we can answer and say that the game is the Spime and the incessant wrangling of the user groups. Stephen Gill sees this massive output in terms of "becoming and moving as a swarm". How many times have I not spoken with young photographers who consider it almost a fact of life that what you do with your images is either hang them on a wall or get them published in a book or a magazine. As if those were really the only places to put images!

You may say, so what? Why be so alarmist about the fact that people who love photo books get together and create a sense of community in an already pretty hostile world and try to advance their careers? Isn't it beautiful that we can connect on such a global level, make friends, find partners even, and see our work disseminated to the far corners of the earth, where it can touch the hearts of others? Yes, that is undeniable a beautiful thing and it has real value in our lives. But as a users group, we are blissfully unaware or perhaps we simply don't care that the information we share so generously in online environments is also of interest to people who turn this content and its metadata into monetary value, into a commodity that can be traded with.

What will be turned into a marketable commodity is the user generated content, which amassed together becomes so called Big Data. And Big Data is big business right now. The data analysts will gain insight in your photographic preferences, your age, gender, location, your camera's metadata, which tells which brand and type of camera you use, maybe what school you attended, what books you made and where you exhibited your work and all this information you will have given freely or at least after accepting the terms of use. And finally, an online platform for photography like for instance Lensculture would probably be able to sell this bundle of Big Data without even having to ask for your consent.

To be absolutely clear, I am not here to critique Lensculture in particular. I've just used them as an example to tell you the facts of life and to show you how business is made and how you become part of that as data to be mined, sold and targeted by companies wanting to sell you their products. I could also have taken Amazon or Facebook as an example.

All of this is part of the surveillance industry, which, thanks to Edward Snowden, we have mostly come to associate with state business, terrorism and unwelcome and often unwarranted intrusions on our privacy but which plays an equally big role in corporate business. However and this is where I have concerns: for profit platform economics is disrupting or at least intruding on a genuinely participatory culture of sharing and exchange that already existed in the online photographic community, and in that respect changes the power dynamics between the platform on which it is hosted and the participants that use this platform as a basis for their gift economy.

While we "play" in our sheltered photo garden, others are observing us, silently and invisibly. That would make me uncomfortable. It would make me question the integrity or authenticity of their interest in my work as a photographer or curator. They want something else of me than what I have come to share; they want to profit from me in ways that I didn't imagine, and they have no intention to share their profit with me later down the line. I'd feel played.

Now what, you may ask, does this have to do with photo books and independent publishing in the age of networked technologies? 

When we speak of self-published or independently published books, we mean books that are not published by an established publishing house which still carries negative connotations of vanity publishing or work not yet mature enough to take financial risks for. On the upside, it also suggests an autonomy of the makers who take the freedom to publish whatever they like. It has a rebellious sound to it. But in the typical thoughtlessness that we are bred into – we tend to disregard the environment that enables us to do so.

Yet as we have seen, when we self-publish we do so as wranglers of the contemporary photo book, because we answer the call of the Spime, which is nothing else than the call of our time, what Sterling called the terrorist-entertainment complex. And wrangling is not something we do alone, but as communities who inhabit the infrastructure of the platforms that seem to have magically dropped from the sky especially to fulfil this purpose.

As we gather and form communities, we enable the mining of our data, the rise of monetisation and commodification of ourselves and our spimes labours of love which are by definition "recorded, tracked and inventoried." Because the spime is made to be loved by Big Data.

Furthermore, we don't launch our books into a void, but in very well-defined spaces with their own regulations and demands, gatekeepers and tastemakers, power relations and politics.  And we pay to be admitted through fees and self-funded or crowd-sourced production and printing costs, in the end becoming experts and stakeholders ourselves, and as such protective of our shared assets and furthering the continuation of the Spime's life cycle.

We make ourselves willingly and even eagerly dependent on the existing power structures of these platforms and on the gatekeepers of the communities who inhabit them. And this kind of power is distributed vertically, and not horizontally, just like the money flows upwards in our current era of capitalism, instead of getting divided more equally. If we are exploited, then it's because we let it happen and even contribute to it actively.

So how is independence still possible within this constellation? Perhaps it can be found in becoming aware of these dependencies in the first place. We can choose to stop coasting thoughtlessly along the infrastructure that is provided or we can question it actively by asking the right questions. Realising your own role as a wrangler, as part of the incessantly buzzing swarm, already will make a difference, because you will start to grasp to what extent you are played by or playing with the system. To fully internalise this realisation is harder than you think, because it it somehow still very counterintuitive to the arts.

And finally we return to Meiksins and the realms of politics, or rather, the absence of politics in the domain of the spime and its wranglers. This is something that Sterling doesn't touch upon in his lecture and that is significant. He also didn't speak about Big Data, even though it is foreshadowed in his concept of the spime. Big Data is of course also intertwined with current politics. So where and why did politics enter into the picture?

When you reduce your work as an artist or photographer to a marketable commodity, then you strip it almost completely from its political potential and most of our ruling classes like to keep the general public as far as possible from having any real political agency. In Holland for instance, the average hardworking men and women as they are called have been alienated from the arts by our politicians and policy makers, by painting artists as the enemies of the average working person we are lazy, we only live on funding, we are useless, we don't generate an income, we are not productive in the way society wants us to be.

And this strategy has worked, which is of course not good for the artists and for the arts, but which is even worse for the working classes, although they don't realise that they too have been cut off from yet another way by which they can gain a critical distance or assert their agency in the face of the power that governs them. Odd enough, this phenomenon, if you can call it that, is seldom talked about, at least not in photography as I see it happening around me.

I would say most photographers just like most average people in our part of the world are sold into the neoliberalist dream, which in their case translates into becoming dependent on blue chip galleries, into finding rich patrons, into siding with those who ruthlessly exploit the working class or the cheap labour forces out of our sight in other countries, into turning a blind eye to the money laundering that also happens in the art world, as the Panama Papers have brought to light once more.

The unwritten rules of neoliberal globalism encourage us to compete for fame and recognition, we pay to listen to the ones who have built their success, we ogle the sleekest booths at art fairs and we fawn over the ones amongst us whom we deem powerful. So have we chosen the right masters? Not if we become neutered pets in the process.

Establishing ones independence as self-publishing photographer can also mean to disengage from the Spime society, and produce books for audiences that you might otherwise not have much contact with. And by that I mean beyond the creative elite including artists, musicians, fashion designers, skateboarders, film fans or comic book artists. For instance, can you imagine making a really nice book that is actually useful for swim coaches, zoo keepers or city planners? 

For accountants, agricultural vehicle companies or for chess champions? In short, for an audience whose life goal is not to be always up to date with the latest trend, and who are not wrangling the same spime as you are?

And finally, you can assert your independence by throwing all your "aching to belong" into the wind and going for what you really fancy, like Dragana Jurisic, who said she would like to produce spaghetti western movies. 

Like Andrea Stultiëns who travels around Africa reconnecting average local people with their historical archives in an utterly unspectacular yet meaningful way. You see, we all have to lead our lives, there's nothing special about that. Important is to make it as colourful as possible. And on that happy note I'd like to end, even if much more can and maybe needs to be said on this topic.

* The original of this essay was published at beikey.net, and it is translated to Turkish by Ipek Cinar by courtesy of the author.