Falling Leaves: the Ardes blog

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Academia: The Beckoning

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.