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«Abstract The essay offers an introduction to the special issue, and further attempts to situate the concept of the prototype within the larger field ...»

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The prototype: more than many and less than one


The essay offers an introduction to the special issue, and further attempts to situate the

concept of the prototype within the larger field of an anthropology of prefiguration. I make

a particular claim for the rise of ‘prototyping’ as a cultural discourse today, in design,

engineering and artistic circles, but also among analogous experimental moments in social studies of science and critical theory. I focus in particular on the affordances of the prototype as material culture and sociological theory: prototyping as something that happens to social relationships when one approaches the craft and agency of objects in particular ways. Last, the essay examines the work that prototypes do as figures of suspension and expectation, where they can be seen to function as ‘traps’ for the emergence of compossibility. They offer in this guise a design for contemporary complexity that is at once ‘more than many and less than one’.

Keywords: prototypes; experimental cultures; anthropology; traps; recursivity ‘Our mistake is to look for an explanation where we ought to look at what happens as a ‘proto-phenomenon.’’(Wittgenstein 2009, 654–656) ‘a goat is not a very good pig; the best pig is a cow.’1 Prototypes have acquired much prominence and visibility in recent times. Software development is perhaps the case par excellence, where the release of non-stable versions of programmes has become commonplace, as is famously in free and open source software (Kelty 2008). Developers are here known for releasing beta or work-in-progress versions of their programmes, as an invitation or call for others to contribute their own developments and closures. An important feature of prototyping in this case is the incorporation of failure as a legitimate and very often empirical realisation.

Prototyping has also become an important currency of explanation and description in art-technology contexts, where the emphasis is on the productive and processual aspects of experimentation. Medialabs, hacklabs, community and social art collectives, dorkbots, open collaborative websites or design thinking workshops are spaces and sites where prototyping and experimentation have taken hold as both modes of knowledge-production and cultural

and sociological styles of exchange and interaction. Common to many such endeavours are:

user-centred innovation, where users are incorporated into artefacts’ design processes; ICTmediated forms of collaboration (email distribution lists, wikispaces, peer-to-peer digital channels), or; decentralised and so-called ‘horizontal’ organisational structures. Some economists favour the term ‘open innovation’ to describe an emerging production paradigm, where theboundaries between production, distribution and consumption (inside and outside an organisation) are increasingly blurred and interpenetrated (Chesbrough 2005). Computer-aided rapid manufacturing or 3-D printing are for example contributing to the collapse of some such categories, say, when a person can customise an artefact’s design from her home computer and have it immediately printed out in 3-D. The object’s materiality is then rendered ‘propinquitous’ (Buchli 2010), ‘an intangible everyware (Greenfield 2006), less of a thing than an event. From a historical and sociological angle, the backdrop of such cultures of prototyping is not infrequently connected, if in complex and not always obvious ways, with a variety of artistic vanguards, the do-it-yourself, environmental and recycling movements, even the development of cybernetic philosophy (Turner 2006).

Experimentation has also been at the centre of recent reassessments of the organisation of laboratory, expert and more generally epistemic cultures in the academy.

An interesting development is the shift in emphasis from the experimental as a knowledgesite to the experimental as a social process. For example, in open access publishing, or more generally in open collaborative scientific exchanges, where sociality and social exchange often become the limit-tests of experimentation itself, such as in debates about interdisciplinary exchanges (Strathern 2004a). Other examples include the use of social media to enable new para-sites of collaboration, where researchers and informants mutually co-design and modulate an epistemic space, or, simply, occasions where researchers (for example, anthropologists) are drawn into a research problem at the request of their informants (say, an international organisation that turns to the anthropologist for advice).

Where researchers once entered the field as outsiders (academics) they are now suddenly and unexpectedly being turned into insiders (colleagues, advisors). The traditional entry and exit points of knowledge-creation now face a permanent threat of abduction and destabilisation (Mosse 2006).

In art, design, science, even entrepreneurial and political organisation, the languages of openness and open-endedness, of provisionality and experimentation, are thus taking hold as models for cultural practice. The prototype works as descriptor for both an epistemic object and an epistemic culture (Knorr-Cetina 1999). It is a language of, and reference for, a new techno-political consciousness of craft, skill and communal selforganisation. The experimental and open-ended qualities of prototyping have become a surrogate for new cultural experiences and processes of democratisation.

In an age of audit justifications, social impact and public and ethical accountabilities, the seductiveness of the prototype is hard not to miss. Here is an epistemic culture built on collaboration, provisionality, recycling, experimentation and creativity, which seems as much oriented to the production of technological artefacts as it is to the social engineering of hope. If the culture of prototyping indeed prototypes hope, shouldn’t we all hope for prototyping cultures more generally? It is inspiring to be part of a cultural moment that takes the prototype seriously as a social form; it is slightly more daunting to have such a form prefigure our cultural moment. Ours is the time, so it seems, that makes both possible.

The prototype offers in this sense a privileged vantage point from where to critically examine some of the key debates in social theory today. Thus, the artefactual and objectorientation of prototyping feeds directly into recent discussions about the materiality of political process (Marres and Lezaun 2011). The intrinsic futurity of the prototype addresses too some crucial questions about the hopefulness and promise of critical and collaborative work. Prototypes are also inscriptive objects in their own right: objects that hold within various biographical, techno-scientific and cultural lines of flight. They are ‘things that talk’ (Daston 2007), and that in this capacity can contribute much to present discussions about the objectual and material qualities of culture. Last, the prototype’s porosity, indefiniteness and epistemic interdisciplinarity as a ‘boundary object’ offers new materials with which to think the place of models and model-building in science, art and cultural production at large (Creager, Lunbeck, and Wise 2007; Manchanda 2006;

Chadarevian and Hopwood 2004). It offers, in particular, another route for reappraising the status of ‘things-that-are-not-quite-objects-yet’ as modelling devices in their own right.

Prototyping Cultures examines the claims, affordances and purchase of the prototype in a number of social and historical contexts. The history of science, as well as anthropological studies of innovation and technology, can help us situate the rise of the prototyping paradigm in a useful comparative framework, appraising both its (alleged) political promises and sociological justice, but also its critical value. The technological promises of the prototype seem to have instated a new illusion of democracy: it has brought the worlds of objects, engineering, design, cultural practice and politics together in some new fertile assemblages. It is therefore high time for social theory to take the prototype to task as both an epistemic object and a critical tool.

In the rest of this Introduction I shall make a particular claim for the rise of ‘prototyping’ as a cultural discourse today. My interest is in the affordances of the prototype as material culture and sociological theory: prototyping as something that happens to social relationships when one approaches the craft and agency of objects in particular ways. A cultural moment, then, when the prototype stands for the mutual prefiguration of objects and sociality; when objects and social relationships are recursively parenthesised, now as protos, now as types, with respect to each other. In this mutual bracketing, prototyping appears as a figure of possibility and suspension where relationships and objects can be at once ‘more than many and less than one’.

The Barber Shop In 1968 Gerhard Nonmemacher, a Chicago barber, battled with the city’s Public Building Commission over copyright issues concerning the reproduction of Pablo Picasso’s monumental sculpture at Daley Plaza. The construction of the sculpture had been undertaken by the Commission following the original design of a maquette by the artist. On 21 August 1966 Picasso signed a ‘deed of gift’ whereby he donated the maquette to the Art Institute of Chicago, and the sculpture, and the right to reproduce it, to the Public Building Commission, ‘desiring that these gifts shall, through them, belong to the people of Chicago.’ (Anon.) The Commission and the City of Chicago undertook then a successful publicity campaign where drawings and photographs of the maquette were widely displayed and exhibited to advertise the Chicago Picasso.

The campaign’s success prompted Nonmemacher to market a copy of the sculpture as his own business logo. The ensuing case battle went down in history as ‘The Letter Edged in Black Press, Inc. (Plaintiff), v. Public Building Commission of Chicago, a municipal corporation (Defendant)’. The defendant’s legal argumentation rested on an attempt to draw a distinction between copyright invested in the maquette and that of the public sculpture.

‘The defendant’s basic contention’, as District Judge Napoli put it, ‘is that the work of art is the properly copyrighted monumental sculpture not the models.’ The judge, however, thought otherwise, and sentenced that when ‘the monumental sculpture was finally completed it could not be copyrighted for it was a mere copy, albeit on a grand scale, of the maquette, a work already in the public domain.’ (Anon.) The Commission’s very use of the maquette in its publicity campaign had already divested the piece of any copyright entitlements. The drawings and photographs that the Commission had strenuously divulged to promote the ‘Chicago Picasso’ had effectively relocated the art piece into the public domain. Through the marketing campaign the city had literally ‘owned up’ to the sculpture.

The Barber’s Shop would only two years later become an art piece itself, when William Copley assembled a portfolio of photographs, press clippings and copies of the exhibits attached to the Letter Edged legal opinion. Copley was at the time producing a series of editioned sets that were mailed directly to subscribers in an exercise meant to upend the traditional art gallery system. He curated six portfolios in all (known as S.M.S., Shit Must Stop), including sets with pieces by Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp or John Cage.

His own portfolio on The Barber Shop, as Catharina Manchanda has noted, is ‘a hilarious exercise in the question of original, copy, and commerce’, where Copley ‘suggests that Picasso’s three-dimensional model (an image of which Copley included in his piece) was in fact a prototype, the finished sculpture and all subsequent commercial adaptations copies of varying degrees.’ (Manchanda 2006, 39–42) The image of the prototype, as deployed by Manchanda and Copley, captures beautifully the tensions that inhere in the production of late twentieth century forms of (artistic) knowledge: a figure whose contours are always already temporally stretched and spatially blurred. The Barber’s Shop set explicitated the prototypical qualities of Picasso’s artwork by revealing its retention and protention in a complex web of relations, including for example a copy of the letter that Nonmemacher addressed to Picasso, press clippings of the affair, or a copyrighted photograph of the sculpture. Copley’s art set prototypes the prototype that inhered in Picasso’s.

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