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The University of Southampton
Critical Practices Research Group

Situations of Writing

Devised by Sunil Manghani and Jane Birkin, Situations of Writing is an ongoing research project that seeks to work towards an expanded notion of writing as a practice that is concerned with both form and content. The project stems from Manghani and Birkin’s long-standing interest in ‘writing with images’, developed through various approaches and sites of production, including, in Birkin’s work, performative techniques of description.

Iconic publications from the early to mid-twentieth century emerged as important statements within the broader intellectual and political discourse of the time. These publications were often distinctive for their complex interplay of word and image and for their alternative typographic styles and page layouts. The art critic and writer John Berger, for example, remains one of the most widely cited inspirations to the field of visual studies, yet contemporary art historians or specialists in visual culture appear unwilling to experiment similarly with the form and style of writing and production. This is exacerbated by the fact that despite the opening up of interdisciplinary fields concerned with visual culture and creative practice, publisher habits have remained conservative, with the production process typically still based upon an artificial divide between text and image—and an unwillingness to see text itself as image.

The rich history of experimental publishing has also been overlooked in our contemporary post-digital context. From this perspective, a key consideration is how old and new technologies co-exist, transition and interact. Despite the advances gained for authors, designers and publishers through the adoption of digital technologies, we need to ask why pre-digital experimentation and complexity of forms observed in the twentieth century has not been carried forward—and even expanded—in the post-digital environment. A tension exists between the availability of means to manipulate text, image and layout and the increasing propensity for strict design templates. This is especially evident within mainstream publishing, which is framed through Internet dissemination, separating form from content to allow information to be aggregated across multiple platforms. Unlike those seminal publications of the twentieth century, composed through careful consideration of both form and content, contemporary publishing is not sufficiently engaged with the notion of writing through, with or as practice, despite current intellectual debates.

Meanwhile, the format of the book remains a wholly interactive interface: it can be read from the beginning, middle or end; it can be dipped into in the briefest of ways or devoured in one sitting; it can be picked up and put away at will; pages can be folded over, torn out, marked up or even defaced (with the post-publication life of the book itself now an expanding field of research). The final line in Berger’s seminal Ways of Seeing (1972), ‘To be continued by the reader …’, is an important declaration on the interactivity of the book and the status of the reader. In the same vein, in Parallel Texts (2011), artist and theorist Victor Burgin suggests the participative approach cited by Marshall McLuhan in The Medium is the Massage (1967), might be a viable alternative to what we now accept as (screen-based) interactivity. McLuhan’s book similarly questions and disrupts the traditional formatting of printed media and, like Ways of Seeing, makes the case for new ways of writing that have not been followed up.

Through its layered investigations into making, writing, designing and reading, Situations of Writing seeks to assert a new degree of authority for practice research. This has acquired new urgency in the light of the high numbers of practice-based PhDs coming out of art institutions and needing a sympathetic and relevant publishing environment, outside of self-publishing ventures. There is also a growing insistence to successfully and succinctly present art practice, and practice research more generally, including such fields as music, performance and even software design, all of which are largely non-text based and often multicomponent and multimodal. This might be for the purposes of the Research Exercise Framework, as well as for informing practitioners, through data sharing, about current practices that might be relevant to their own. In this context, the thinking around Situations of Writing has informed a project to devise a multidisciplinary aggregation of practice research, a ‘Web of Arts’ that parallels the Web of Science as a form of analytics. it is vital that a new platform such as this is open and transparent, which in turn can prompt a community of researchers that are motivated to present their work. Based on an initial research stimulus project funded by the University of Southampton’s Web Science Institute, and now seeking further funding, the ‘Web of Arts’ will aim to offer an architecture for practitioners to make their research visible, through an accessible and intelligible consolidation of form and content.


Related publications, talks and projects:

Birkin and Manghani (2018) Situations of Writing talk and workshop session, part of the project ‘X marks the Bökship’, Flat Time House, London.

Birkin, J. (2018). Translate and describe: archive-based image description as an intermedial translation technique. Amodern, 8 (Translation-Machination).

Birkin, J. (2016). Describing the archive: preservation of space, time and discontinuity in photographic sequences. Networking Knowledge: Journal of the MeCCSA-PGN, 9(5), 1-19.

Birkin, J. (Arranger). (2015). 'Writing the Image: Reading Allan Sekula'. Exhibition, artist's contribution to conference: 'Silence!' McGill University, Montreal, Canada

Manghani, S. (2013). Image Studies: Theory and Practice. London, GB: Routledge.

Manghani, S. (2008). Image critique and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Chicago, US: Intellect Books with University of Chicago Press.

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