From the start of working on my research, I've used the terms "aesthetics" and "ethics" as centerpieces of what I was looking at. Often, though, even people close to what I'm trying to do (the four or five) have stumbled or been put off by the words, saying that the terms feel too heavy to describe what I'm looking at. Or, that they refer only to the most esoteric or advanced forms of practice, not something that would apply to everyday knowledge art practice.
To me those terms don't have that kind of heaviness. For "aesthetics" I like how Ellen Dissanayake refers to the act of "making special." Whenever you invest something with that extra that lifts it out of the purely mundane, making it fit better with the goals you have for that something, it is an aesthetic act. This applies equally to the way someone might plant their garden or build a birdhouse as to an expert rendering of a knowledge map. Either can be done in a more or less quotidian way, nothing special, or can get the extras, touches, nuances that make it more than that. For "ethics", I mean paying attention to the ways that a practitioner's actions affect others, especially how choices about a representation might intersect with the needs, goals, and feelings of participants. What I'm especially interested in is the way the two aspects (aesthetics and ethics) intersect -- how do choices about the making and shaping of the artifact interweave with acting for, against, or with the interests of other people.
I've been interested in this question ever since a college philosophy class in aesthetics, taught by Kendall Walton. I took it at the same time I was taking Buzz Alexander's class on filmmaking about the Vietnam War, where much of the discussion was about the meanings of representations and the roles and responsibilities of the artist in social action, what the choices made in a film dealing with so fraught a subject meant for its audiences as well as the people or situations depicted. It struck me that there was a connection between aesthetics and ethics that could be discerned and discussed in any film, whether or not the director intended it to have any social consequence. Films have aesthetics and ethics whether intended, cared about, or not. They set up their audiences and subject matter through the ways they are made, and those ways and their consequences can be seen and talked about if you look closely enough.
I've been stuck with this question ever since. What does it mean to be making, and what does the making mean? As a filmmaker or as a maker of any other sort of representational artifact, you make thousands of choices about the way you use your medium, and those choices always have some kind of meaning, effect, or consequence for others coming into contact with the things you make. Studying this means understanding the medium, understanding the situation of making, looking at the actual making and the actual reception of that making.
Compendium practice, in the context of live mapping work with groups, offers an especially rich set of examples for trying to answer this question. This is because the making and shaping of the artifact (the knowledge maps) happens at the same time and place of their reception, and in many cases the making and shaping is participatory -- the audience is not just receiving the maps, it is engaging with them and helping (or demanding) to make decisions about what they should show. I've been watching and listening to videos of such practice and trying to learn to look at them closely enough to pull out the ways that these acts of making and shaping happen and what they "mean". It's often difficult and slow work, in part because of the very everydayness of the mapping situations. No big things are happening, no grand virtuosic displays of mapping artistry, no weighty and dramatic themes.
Nonetheless everything I said above is applicable to these situations. Choices are made about how to shape the maps (aesthetics); the choices are made in ways that affect people in various ways (ethics). The fact that the choices and consequences are small-scale doesn't mean that they don't exist, or that learning to see and talk about them won't eventually, hopefully, lead to some kind of useful and generative discourse.
But to get back to where I started with this post, perhaps the terms "aesthetics" and "ethics" are too heavyweight for what I'm talking about, especially if they trigger associations that take people away from the main points, as they seem to. Lately I've been thinking that just using the term "shaping" would be better. There are acts and choices about shaping the artifact, and the meaning of those shaping actions can be read and discussed in the context of their making. Shaping is something that happens in nearly every act of making something (like choosing words and punctuation for this post, imperfectly as it may be done). By choosing that as my term of focus, it may help people , including me, approach the subject without being misdirected.
In an upcoming post I'll talk about this in relation to some of the videos I've been analyzing lately.