Falling Leaves: the Ardes blog

To Sum

7 July, 2016

Ray Drainville
  • Undecided about its place in the modern world, the UK breathes out a barely-audible “meh” and commits a very public act of seppuku;
  • Hours after the vote has been declared the following day, the Prime Minister resigns, displaying his Eton stick-to-itiveness with the rhetorical question “Why should I do the hard shit?” and disappears for three days;
  • Farage walks back Leave campaign promises literally within minutes;
  • Duncan-Smith walks back promises that he literally stood in front of during the campaign;
  • Gove goes into hiding;
  • Johnson goes into hiding, writes an incoherent article for the Telegraph, and then reappears, betraying the whole group he just led;
  • The Leave campaign declares they don’t have a plan for Brexit and tells a reporter to talk to government;
  • The Chancellor hides for three days, peeps out for a moment, declares government don’t have a plan, and then goes back into his room to sulk as $3 trillion is wiped off of international markets;
  • The opposition leader, who went on holiday in the midst of the campaign over the most important decision of a generation, and whose support for Remain may be fairly described as ‘sabotage’, has lost the backing of his parliamentary party, leaving opposition rudderless in a period when the country is—literally—ungoverned;
  • A minority opposition party adopts the winning slogan “We are the 48%”, which they evidently view as aspirational, since that is a higher percentage of the vote than they’ve ever received;
  • It’s discovered that government don’t even have enough experts to negotiate the trade treaties necessary to effect a Brexit;
  • The Prime Minister then goes to Brussels and demands—demands!—that the EU give the UK more control over immigration; is sent home on his bike;
  • The only prominent politican who displays anything like leadership heads a party whose aim is to split off from the UK;
  • Racist hate crimes increase nearly 60% across the country;
  • The term “Bregret” is born as an unknown but seemingly sizeable number of Brexit voters realise that they may have made the worst decision of their lives and want some sort of do-over;
  • Johnson, one of those who got us into this mess, is metaphorically knifed by Gove, another one of those who got us into this mess;
  • Johnson, no longer finding any of this jolly fun, decides to walk off into the sunset;
  • And still no one knows what is going on, or who is running the ship. The only thing we know is that the ship, having already hit an iceberg, is now bound for the rocks.

So, how was your week?

Aylan Kurdi Report Published

12 December, 2015

Ray Drainville

I’ve mentioned previously that I contributed an article, called “On the Iconology of Aylan Kurdi, Alone”, to a report about the impact of the Aylan Kurdi photographs on social media. I’m pleased to say that the report has now been published, and you can download it from the Visual Social Media Lab’s website. This contains 15 reports covering quantitative and qualitative aspects of social media and viewer response to the images.

Everyone who was involved in this report recognised that the image of Aylan Kurdi acted as a cipher for the for the wider plight of refugees escaping intolerable conditions in their own countries, and that this was simply the most publicised of the incalculable tragedies suffered by so many. There are many reasons for this, and this is what many of us have set out to explore in our articles. I encourage you to download it and have a read. (Due to the terrible nature of the images involved, no pictures were published—we linked to them instead, which you can view at your discretion).

For my own purposes, I’m going to list where this report has been highlighted in the press (international, national, and local): Guardian (UK), Buzzfeed (CA), the Independent (UK)Daily Mail (UK), The Scotsman UK)Yahoo (UK), AOL (UK), BT (UK), Irish Examiner (IE), Corriere della Sera (IT)Asian Image (UK), Yorkshire Post (UK), Sheffield Star (UK), Lancashire Evening Post (UK), PR Week (UK/US/Asia), The Next Web (Internat’l), Quartz (Internat’l), .

The report can be referenced thus: Vis, F., & Goriunova, O. (Eds.). (2015). The Iconic Image on Social Media: A Rapid Research Response to the Death of Aylan Kurdi*.  [Online]. http://visualsocialmedialab.org/projects/the-iconic-image-on-social-media.

First Publication

11 November, 2015

Ray Drainville

Because I’m studying iconography and social media at MIRIAD, and because my supervisors are Simon Faulkner, Farida Vis, and Jim Aulich, I have been extraordinarily fortunate to work with a smart and very engaging group of researchers. My good fortune has been augmented by the fact that because of all of this, I am part of the Visual Social Media Lab. This expands my interaction with smart and very engaging researchers that much farther, extending outwards into a wide variety of disciplines associated with analysing social media.

Recently, Farida organised a number of VSML researchers to produce a “rapid response” report about the impact of the death of Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian child who drowned, along with his brother, mother, and a slew of other people as they attempted to cross the sea to Greece and seek refuge in Europe. The pictures of Aylan taken by photographer Nilufer Demir were shocking and powerful, and they helped change the debate about these desperate people—before the photos were published, they were referred to as “migrants”; immediately afterwards, people saw them as “refugees”. The Lab’s report will be published shortly, in partnership with Magnum. You can read summaries on the Lab’s website. A draft of my report, “On the Iconology of Aylan Kurdi, Alone“, is available for reading online. Potential readers should be forewarned that the article deals frankly about death and links to pictures of dead children. Here is the abstract of my contribution:

Iconography and iconology have traditionally been restricted to interpreting works of “high” art. Here I use them to explore the impact of the Aylan Kurdi images. By examining iconographically their conceptual and formal antecedents, as well as the pictures that social media users have made in response to those images, we might come to understand their interpretations of this event in a broader visual context. A joint iconographic and iconological exploration might provide an insight into why they resonated within a broader European context to such an extent that they shifted the debate about the status of refugees.

I am very grateful to Farida and the rest of the Visual Social Media Lab for the opportunity to write alongside them—however harrowing the subject—and for the comments that I received from them, which immeasurably enriched my work.

Ray Drainville

I’ve mentioned earlier that I’ve decided to return and get an advanced degree. I wrote a proposal over the Summer, which has subsequently been approved. For those readers interested in art historical methodology and social media, this is what will be occupying a lot of my time in the next few years.

Algorithmic Iconography: Intersections between iconography and social media image research

Private individuals, professionals, political movements, businesses, and other parties produce and share nearly two billion images on social media platforms daily. This amount to nearly 65% of all social media data. Systematic studies of social media and virality concentrate upon social network forces, social collaboration between individuals, or alternatively on marketing concerns, such as elements of persuasion. In addition, their focus is usually on video, not still images. When they do address the content of social media (images or otherwise), they cite meta-characteristics such as emotive content or appeal to specific demographics. Beyond this, however, there appears to be little analysis of their visual content, including images shared so widely that they are deemed “viral”. How might we go about analysing the content of such images? What methodologies might be useful?

Outlined in its most classic form by Erwin Panofsky in 1939, the iconographic method applies not only to the analysis of the sources, history and spread of specific forms and attributes of content in art, but also to the interpretation of the meaning of art based upon the use of these attributes and the cultural and intellectual context of their production—this context having since been expanded by some to a wider socio-historical context. Traditionally, the focus of iconographic analysis has been “high” art—particularly Renaissance art—steeped in sources from Greco-Roman Antiquity and the Bible. In contrast, I aim to explore whether iconographic analysis is relevant for a medium, cultural register, and sources radically different from the context of the methodology’s development and traditional employment.

Before applying iconography to social media imagery, I will form a systematic overview of iconography’s methods and assumptions, focusing upon the approaches of Aby Warburg, Panofsky, and others. How do their approaches differ from one another? How might we “update” iconography to address the unfamiliar territory of social media? Do images in the “long tail” of sharing mimic Warburg’s estimation of the “lesser” arts’ iconographic value? If we can show that some social images lend themselves to iconographic analysis, do others defy the methodology? Is it possible to provide content-oriented insights for why users so enthusiastically share such images as the “Pepper Spray Cop” from a University of California-Davis “Occupy” protest?

Iconographic practice and theory—in particular, the outsized influence of Panofsky’s rendition of them—have been criticised from many angles by art historians, questioning the methodology’s very validity. What evidence bolsters or undermines the assumptions of iconographers? Can research in other fields aid us in this investigation? For instance, iconographers are sometimes accused of falling prey to certain problems; there is a danger of replicating the same problems if the method is used, say, on digital media. As an example: for iconography, understanding a concept’s portrayal in a visual medium frequently depends upon connecting it to its putative source. It is assumed furthermore that at least a subset of the intended public is familiar enough with the source to understand the meaning rendered in the work. How do motifs convey meaning—e.g., conventions of portrayal, the ideologies behind them, and our reception of them—from one work to another, over time and distance? Can we plausibly claim that social media users and art historians share the same interpretation for a given image shared online? What is our evidence for this? Interpretative issues have been identified previously on theoretical bases, but have been inadequately examined as a psychosocial mechanism. I propose to examine this in part via Bourdieu’s notions of representation and habitus.

As part of this examination, I will investigate a series of case studies of images shared on social media. I will contextualise them through the literature on social media and virality research, examining network, inter-network and infrastructural forces to map their production, recognition, promotion, and spread. I will iconographically analyse at least three new, disparate images/themes—a viral image, a less popular image in the “long tail” of sharing distribution, and an image that has transferred from social media to the material world of the visual arts, to parallel the connections and cultural implications that Warburg drew between the “high” and “lesser” arts.

I will quantitatively analyse my cases with Pulsar’s suite of advanced social media data analytics tools, which will help me track their spread across various social media, time their dispersal, and examine the depth of penetration into various communities and networks. This analysis may provide an opportunity to track the iconographic reception of imagery in near real-time, and—depending upon the users’ commentary accompanying the shared image—provide some insight into how they interpreted the image. I will also attempt to construct a “null hypothesis”, i.e., investigate the possibility that iconography is not relevant to social media.

Select Bibliography

Alpers, S. (1983) The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century. London: Penguin, 1989.

Bal, M. and Bryson, N. (1991) ‘Semiotics and Art History.’ The Art Bulletin, 73(2) pp. 174-208.

Bann, S. (1998) ‘Meaning/Interpretation.’ In Preziosi, D. (ed.) The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology. Oxford University Press, pp. 256-270.

Berger, J. and Milkman, K. L. (2012) ‘What Makes Online Content Viral?’ Journal of Marketing Research, XLIX(April 2012) pp. 192-205.

Bourdieu, P. (1990) The Logic of Practice. Cambridge: Polity.

Bourdieu, P. and Nice, R. (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

D’Orazio, F. (2013) How Video Goes Viral, Part 2: The Role of Audience Networks. PularPlatform Blog.

Harbison, C. (1991) Jan van Eyck: The Play of Realism. London: Reaktion.

Khedakar, N. (2014) We Now Upload and Share Over 1.8 Billion Photos Each Day: Meeker Internet Report.

Nahon, K. and Hemsley, J. (2013) Going Viral.

Owens, J. (2013) How Stuff Spreads: How Videos Go Viral, Part 1. Facegroup.

Pächt, O., The Practice of Art History: Reflections on Method. London: Harvey Miller, 1999.

Panofsky, E. (1982) ‘Iconography and Iconology: An Introduction to the Study of Renaissance Art.’ In Meaning in the Visual Arts. pp. 26-54.

Shifman, L. (2014) Memes in Digital Culture.

Straten, R. v. (1994) An Introduction to Iconography. Rev. English ed. ed., Yverdon, Switzerland ; Reading: Gordon and Breach.

Swartz, D. (1997) Culture & Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Chicago ; London: University of Chicago Press.


Ray Drainville

I’m not dead. It may be quiet here, but I’m too busy to be dead, and with a lot more than my standard work. I’ve a lot to explain.

In January this year, a PhD studentship was advertised with MIRIAD, the research arm of the Manchester School of Art, which itself is a part of Manchester Metropolitan University (it’s all a bit like a Matryoshka Doll, as you can see). This aim of the studentship was to look at the viability of using iconographical analyis upon images distributed through social media. There’s a more practical, business-y side to this as well where the student will be working with a marketing firm on big data sets of imagery in order to create testable theories.

As described, this idea was intimately related to several facets of my life for the past, erm, 30 years or so. You see, long before I was a web developer & graphic designer, I studied as an art historian, and iconography—the analysis of images through the signs & symbols contained within them—was very much something I did on a daily basis in my student work. I went on to Princeton & got an MA in the field, but at the time really (really) didn’t want to continue on there to work on a PhD. In any event, I had become fascinated with the possibilities of the “World-Wide Web”, as it was then called (best viewed with Netscape Navigator!), and after a few of the standard dodgy apprenticeships, I launched my career in design & development. In my graphic design work, iconography has always played a strong role. And as for viral images, well: anyone who knows me fairly well will have heard me talk about how we make sense of popular images partly through their iconographic connections with other images. Finally, the idea of contributing towards testable theories of analysis was very appealing. So, almost on a lark, I decided to apply for the studentship. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it, but I was absolutely sure that if I didn’t try for it, I’d kick myself for a good decade afterwards.

In March, I was approached to give a presentation and undergo an interview for the position. I’ve given dozens of presentations in my career, but they were all oriented towards presenting my work to the business world—this was therefore fundamentally different. This was about my ideas & a pretty strenuous examination of them. The interview was in retrospect friendly, but I felt very much out of my depth. I felt like running, screaming, from the room. I’m not sure why I didn’t, to be honest.

Anyway, they were clearly in a generous mood, because I was offered the studentship. The programme started with alarming speed: this past 20 April, in fact. I have lots to say about the place & the people, and I’ll do so in due course—my impressions & aspects of my research will feature on this blog. For now, though, let me just say that I’m really pleased to be part of MIRIAD: the staff are approachable, we have very good, friendly, rigourous, open discussions, the training on offer is vast, practical & excellent (so much better than at Princeton), and I even love the building that houses them. As for my fellow students, well: a significant number, I think the majority, are practicing artists, and they pursue fascinating subjects. I’m acutely aware that I’ve entered a very different associative realm of thinking with them: they’re filled with deeply interesting observations, any one of which is worth exploring in depth, and few of which are what you’d encounter in any other environment—certainly not a “standard” academic department. It’s bracing.

Some readers may wonder, then, what becomes of the business. The business continues on as usual. I’ll be saying “no” to more projects than I used to, but I couldn’t give up the work, as I love it. Plus, we have this little thing called a mortgage.

It remains to be seen how my study will affect my work: will it integrate with my work? Will it draw me away from it? That’s very far in the future, though: perhaps I should prove to them (and myself) that I can write as well as talk. In any event, as Lou Reed said: it’s the beginning of a great adventure.