A Bit in the Abyss

The lot at Eagle Leasing. Photo by Sarah Newman

As the metaLAB team arrived in Oxford, Massachusetts at Eagle Leasing, a tidy inventory of shipping containers greeted us. One is destined to be the home of an immersive, multi-sensory experience we are crafting for the upcoming ILLUMINUS Boston, a nighttime festival to take place on Landsdowne Street the weekend of October 3rd as part of HUBweek.

The staff was incredibly helpful. GIF by Cristoforo Magliozzi

Our entry in the festival asks what information looks like when it reaches towards infinity with knowledge, memory, and data stored in ever-larger aggregates of servers. The project is inspired by the Internet Archive, which hosts Open Library, the Wayback Machine, and several other digital-archiving projects; together, they seek nothing less than to digitize and treasure up all the world’s knowledge. It is a theme familiar to metaLAB with a number of projects, such as the Cold Storage interactive documentary, engaging archives and storage systems.

Our shipping container, the smallest available, is roughly a 10-foot cube. Photo by Marshall Lambert.

In first contact with our staging, the team was struck by the sensory experience a shipping container creates when shuttered. The resulting disorientation and discomfort evoked accounts of human trafficking and ongoing migrant crises around the globe. We decided we would like to engage these thoughts further, but with the time limitations of this particular piece, we are sticking to the initial themes we set out to convey.

Even with doors wide-open, a shipping container is not the brightest of places to inhabit. Photo by Marshall Lambert.

Through representation of a “Petabox” — the digital storage server designed by the Internet Archive for the networked curation of digital data, the use of extended mirrored walls to transcend the shipping containers confined quarters, and a data-expressive use of lights and sound, the piece will require a combination of physical and digital fabrication to realize our vision. It is a vision which at its core, makes use of the “Droste Effect,” which occurs when images are reflected among multiple mirrors to create the impression of an infinite series. The effect is also called mise-en-abyme, a French phrase, which translates as “to place in the abyss.” The phrase evokes the existential condition of information storage: as we digitize recorded knowledge, it falls into a virtual abyss of abstraction.

Some notable precedents in mirrored exhibition:

Unlimited Urban Woods in Amsterdam.


Lucas Samaras 1966 Mirrored Room. Images from

Infinity Cube by Microsoft

Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama has done a number of infinity-room-based pieces, including this one, entitled Fireflies on the Water in 2002.

A early metaLAB mock-up of a server in a mirror room.

The team mise en scéne for “A Bit in the Abyss” Photo by Sarah Newman.

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Beautiful Data II

Collecting inherently involves choices— what to acquire or not acquire, preserve or not preserve, and what to exhibit or not to exhibit, whether that collecting occurs in the physical or virtual realm.


We sift through what is available and sort out materials, media, and metadata based on subjective relevances and so when collections get established, reconfigured, appropriated, or integrated with others, they all surface themselves as problem collections. This was an underlying theme to the second edition of Beautiful Data, a 9-day workshop sponsored by the Getty Foundation, and this year hosted in a combination of spaces from the Harvard Art Museums and Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts.


Participants were able to dialogue with content in the Harvard Art Museums’ galleries, conservation center, and look at materials behind-the-scenes in the Arts Study center, while also having a space back at the Carpenter Center to engage on a journey of rapid prototyping ideas within in a cross-pollinated and interdisciplinary environment.



What unfolded was a dynamic mix of specific, micro-examinations of particular collections and enlarged perspectives at the system level with the macro perspective that metadata lends to help us question how we label and describe the world around us. But there were also many conceptual forays into qualitative and quantitative art scholarship, exhibition, and even law with a look at how museums convey terms of service.

One moment brought discourse on the decontextualization of King Tutankhamun’s loin cloths outside the original tomb, while the next would examine how art is catalogued in ways that exhibit absences and excesses of race. Cat photos lent themselves to discussion about web privacy and the Carpenter Center’s architectural features were used to create an algorithm for displaying media. As some proposed modes to reintroduce the use of senses forbidden to the museum visitor, others sought ways to capture asynchronous emotional engagement with art through a generative projection exercise.

Through paper, code, video, animation, wireframes, and other means, participants experimented and expressed curiosities as both individuals and teams with both personal and institutional goals. Much can be done to test ideas with simple arts and crafts materials, basic technology, or, even just some imagination. It was a thrill to see the community of Beautiful Data II test the limits with what was at their disposal, expanding the field of possibility and then working to isolate a few ideas to test from an abundance of concept.

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The ghosts of poets’ voices walk the yard

I’ve long been a fan of Halsey Burgund, a sound artist and musician who works with the human voice in both compositions and place-based installations. So I’ve been excited to work with Halsey these last few weeks, in conjunction with the Woodberry Poetry Room, to develop a locative experience on poetry for Harvard’s upcoming LitFest. The resulting project, re~verse (for iOS devices), is a portal to a participatory, location-based sound installation in which fragments of recorded poetry from Harvard’s collections—the voices of renowned poets—crowd together at the gates of Harvard Yard. Like tourists, students, and the many passers-by who make up the migrant denizens of campus, they cluster at the gates before dispersing, chorusing with music and one another across stanzas and centuries. From gate to gate, they combine with the voices of users of the app, who are invited to contribute to a growing, unfolding work of art with responses, recitations, and reveries.

The app assembles more than a thousand pieces of audio, samples taken from the extraordinary audio archive of poetry readings gathered in the Woodberry collection (see the map below, which shows Halsey’s placement of audio files for the project, and gives a sense of the magnitude of the media in play). And yet Halsey’s app allows this density of archival sound to reach listeners intimately and evocatively, as voices whispering quietly, pacing alongside, inviting them to venture their own reflections.


While re~verse is available globally from the App Store, it ties its sound media ineluctably to site—in this case, to the gates of the Yard—so to experience it fully, you’ll need to install the app on your iOS device, plug in your headphones, and wander Harvard’s Cambridge campus. This is a poetic encounter with place.

This Tuesday night, you can join us in Barker Center’s Thompson Room for the opening celebration of re~verse. During this event, those dynamic and vital voices will fill the Thompson Room in Barker Center as participants immerse themselves in, contribute to, and stand among a growing, unfolding work (or working) of art. We’ll invite participants to install the app or borrow a device to wander across Quincy Street, where the books stand open and the gates unbarred, to chorus with poets.

Get re~verse (for iOS)

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Beautiful Data II — Applications Due Tomorrow, April 1.

Taking place between July 6 – July 16th, 2015, Beautiful Data II represents our second annual workshop supported by the Getty Foundation aimed at addressing challenges and opportunities with art museum open data.

Participants will be introduced to concepts and skills necessary to make use of open collections to develop art-historical storytelling through data visualization, interactive media, enhanced curatorial description and exhibition practice, digital publication, and data-driven, object-oriented teaching.

This second annual offering of Beautiful Data will focus on “difficult collections” poised on the edge of the digital/material divide. We’ll address collections of things that resist ready digitization, or exist as ephemeral and hybrid objects and events. We’ll ponder data as a medium for art with its own curatorial and preservation challenges. And we’ll consider ways of working with new-media artists in the context of materials and mixed-media collections. The workshop will take place at the recently-reopened Harvard Art Museums, in its remarkable new building designed by Renzo Piano, where we’ll have access to reimagined facilities for the study and exhibition of objects of abiding interest. Check out the video above for a preview of the venue.

Intended for art historians, scholars of visual culture, and museum professionals at all career stages, admission is on a competitive basis. All participants will receive a stipend covering housing and travel expenses.

Applications are due by 11:59 p.m. EST on April 1, 2015.

For more information including documentation of last year’s workshop, and to apply, please visit

Please direct questions to:

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The Cave


During the summer of 2014, the Getty Trust launched an important new initiative in digital art history designed to help art historians and museum professionals to explore the opportunities and challenges of new and emergent technologies. Along with George Mason and UCLA, metaLAB hosted one of the workshops devised for this purpose: ours was entitled Beautiful Data and involved some 23 scholars, curators, technologists, and designers. The program has been renewed, so a new and improved Beautiful Data II is now in preparation, along with analogous workshops at George Mason and UCLA. As a token of the importance that the Getty attributes to the digital turn in art history and cultural history writ large, the Trust invited Johanna Drucker and myself to contribute brief prefatory essays to its 2014 Annual Report. These have now been published at also available in a downloadable pdf.

My contribution is entitled “The Scale of the Human Record.” It begins with a rumination on Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the 2010 documentary in which,under difficult conditions, the German director set out to explore the remarkable complex of Aurignacian paintings discovered in the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave in 1994. It then moves on to consider questions of cognitive scale:

In the wake of this vicarious journey to the beginnings of human culture, I was left reflecting on a question of scale that informs much of my current speculative thinking and experimental practice in the domain of digital art and humanities. The stories that the Chauvet parietal paintings tell, like the story that unfolds in frame after frame of Cave of Forgotten Dreams, is closely tied to the scale of the human body and its perceptual apparatus. Both traffic in objects and events that fall within the framework of ordinary, possible, or plausible human experience; objects and events that humans can somehow see, hear, smell, taste, or touch; animals that can eat others or be eaten; tools by means of which such creatures can be subdued from a safe distance; corridors available to the ancient hunter or modern spelunker; image arrays that, no matter how big or small, remain readily graspable by human eyes. Whether as individuals or collectivities, we typically find meaning in what is available to us as experience and, accordingly, it is on this very scale that human experience and the cultural record of human experience have been shaped. One might say that, in this one regard, little has changed from the Aurignacian era to our own, despite the many ways in which our perceptual faculties have been extended by instruments such as telescopes, microscopes, microphones, and sensors.

The essay goes on to show how even an apparently simple site such as Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc can contain spatial, temporal, and material complexities that defy our cognitive abilities unless these are aided by tools and techniques that expand their powers. It concludes by extending this lesson to the data rich caverns of our own era:

In the immersive data caves of the twenty-first century, the same sorts of complexities and opportunities abound that made this ice age database the worthy subject of Herzog’s probing eye. They arise at the level of understanding large systems in all of their sometimes overwhelming intricacy; and they arise alike at the level of grappling with the beauty and significance of individual objects as well as the particulars that make them up. This is not an either/or proposition with respect to traditional practices of art-historical inquiry, but rather an expansion of their scope, reach, and even audience. As open content initiatives like those undertaken by the Getty expose ever vaster portions of the cultural record to public view, the tools and tasks of storytelling must themselves expand to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities of the Digital Age.

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Boston-area Snowfall Via Drone

Over the last few snowfalls here in Cambridge, we flew our little DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter, which we previously used in shooting Cold Storage, to document the wintry conditions from above. We observed instances of icicle build-up on various Harvard buildings from up close, could see how pedestrian traffic was directed through the narrows of cleared pathways, and were also able to see how the storm affected visibility compared to what clear conditions would afford us on the same kind of flights.

We were careful to observe new FAA regulations by keeping the craft in visual line of sight, and as we already had done through the firmware, limited the elevation of our flights to sub-500 feet. The expanse of the spaces we captured were in effect stitched together from a number of shorter flights, which was also necessary due to the battery-life limitations of the craft on a single charge. The on-board transmitter we installed also enables us to also see what the onboard GoPro is seeing in its immediate vicinity, giving us two visual references. As another safety measure, we always ensure that the quadcopter has a GPS-link before taking off, which has it return to hover over its starting location in the instance of any issue due to interference or incapacitation of the pilot.

Getting to these kind of visuals has been a gradual learning process, taking numerous test flights to understand how well the drone corrects its own position due to wind drift, how immediately responsive it is at various altitudes, and developing refined motor skills for the operation of the remote control. Through responsible usage, we hope to provide a unique vantage point for numerous other metaLAB projects and initiatives.

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Cold Storage Premiere Today


Harvard President, Charles William Eliot, spoke of the library’s needs at the turn of the 20th Century, proposing “not a crematorium for dead books, but only a receiving tomb.” Receiving tombs were holding places for bodies that couldn’t be buried in the frozen winter ground and so an apt analogy for those books that a library was not quite ready to retire permanently from the collection. With its single-module beginnings in 1986, the Harvard Depository was a module of narrow-aisled, space-saving, climate-controlled efficiency that was designed with the dark archive in mind—a place principally focused on preservation rather than convenient access.


But in time, it would emerge that with the many spokes of Harvard’s library network, having an offsite hub to aid in dissemination and circulation materials was something desired by the University. With electronic requests and van-based courier service, the Depository grew into something more. It grew into a place just as likely to hold Battlestar Galactica DVDs and Playboy Anthologies as it was to hold Harvard Police archives, Julia Child cookbooks, and 35mm film prints. While much of the collection retains the spirit of non-circulation, the small percentage that does circulate still amounts to a sizable 250,000 items each year.

From one module, the Depository grew to 7. Eight if you count module B. And with the latter modules 5-7 being larger than their earlier counterparts, it would seem that even these numbers do not do the expansion justice. With each module more trees cleared away from the Southborough campus’ landscape and more processed trees with ink laden on compressed pulp found its way to its chilly interiors. These interiors also maintained by visible expressions of scale, with massive air ducts, fans, and other churning mechanisms filtering the air from pollutants and regulating both humidity and temperature along cycles adaptive to the exterior environment.

Cold Storage, in delving into the story of the Depository and what it says about the bigger picture of expanding human knowledge, found its storage mirroring its subject. One hard drive module grew to two. Manners of codifying materials became increasingly necessary to be able to call what was needed for the execution of the film. And it would now seem that in backing up the repositories of production to datatape, the Harvard Depository might become the receiving tomb for their storage as well.

The digital is not the end point for the challenges of decay, as hard drives too feel the slow march of time. And digitization across collections still butts up against a number of challenges. There are challenges of scale when different items need different handling and manners of imaging. There are challenges of copyright—where despite no active rights holders coming forward, a number of so-called “orphan works” remain off limits. Changes to copyright law has made created an opt-out environment that defaults items to protection and over longer terms than ever before. Then there is the artifactual value—books with sheep-skin bindings, palimpsests with traces of previously written works, and the notes from past readers complete with makeshift bookmarks that signal clues to their lives in aggregate to the author’s own ponderings.


Today culminates a journey in storytelling using drones for aerial footage, with dollies to track long expanses, and with GoPros to get to perilously high, on the move, or hard-to-reach places. It brings together discussions we’ve had about libraries of the past, made most manifest in reference to Alain Resnais’ Toute la mémoire du monde, with what challenges for the future of libraries look like in their ever-evolving role as network, database, and civic space. Following on the release of the film, we will be making available a website to explore the many artifacts we came across, from the repositories of our own production material to documents dug up in the corners of the Harvard Archives by hardworking summer interns. And in this, we will explore notions of the database as documentary, the curatorial attentions of the visitor, and the blurred lines that coexisting media forms from multiple creators create in conversations about genre and authorship.

Join us for the premiere today, February 6th, at 3:30 PM in the Piper Auditorium at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Cold Storage will debut along Icons of Knowledge, an architectural research exhibition by Daniel Rauchwerger and Noam Dvir, which looks at the history and evolution of national library buildings.

Following the screening there will be a panel featuring:

Haden Guest, Director of the Harvard Film Archive
Sarah Thomas, Vice President for the Harvard Library
Eric Howeler, Department of Architecture, Harvard Graduate School of Design
Daniel Rauchwerger, Co-curator, Icons of Knowledge, GSD
Noam Dvir, Co-curator, Icons of Knowledge, GSD
Cristoforo Magliozzi, Director, Cinematographer, and Editor, Cold Storage
Matthew Battles, Associate Director, metaLAB

Jeffrey Schnapp, Faculty Director of metaLAB, will moderate.

For those unable to attend, check out the ever-expanding and developing web documentary at

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Offered This Spring: Humanities Studio IV — Mixed Reality City

The contemporary city is constituted by multiple overlapping, intermixing realities articulated across built form and imagined space, individual experience and collective memory, embodied sensation and digital mediation. Often, these multiple realities are invisible or illegible, with certain narratives dominating particular environments. However, realities always leave traces, to be excavated and reconstructed. The Mixed-Reality City is an exploratory research seminar and workshop in which students pursue studies of urbanism-in-the-making through means and methods emerging in the digital arts and humanities, including: data narrative, digital ethnography, adversarial design, and critical technical practice. The course focuses in equal parts on unpacking discourses and developing interpretative digital artifacts.

The course will illuminate distributed spaces of urban activity that take on collective identities through networked events, ranging from the mundane (a conversation) to the momentous (a hurricane). Indeed, spatial events and phenomena are connected across cities by information technologies. Social networks, participatory maps, and online media collections are shaping mixed-city social spaces. In 2013, the image of the city is a composite image, in which fragments of dispersed urbanism are drawn together and entangled online. The Mixed-Reality City will explore how artists and designers might intervene in this emergent, hybrid cityscape.

For Spring 2015, the course is taking transit as its focus. Movement through the city has long been a rich source of urban storytelling, meaning, and critique, and travel provides a useful heuristic for interpreting urban dynamics in history and in contemporary life.

Administered by Jeffrey Schnapp and Matthew Battles with Joseph Steele, Kyle Parry, and the metaLAB team, Mixed Reality City will be held Wednesdays, 8:30-11:30 AM, in Gund Hall 522 at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

A preview of the course syllabus is available here.

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Vault Preview: A Peek at the Cold Storage Glossary

As the premiere of Cold Storage draws near, we are starting to unveil some of the content that will be featured in the online interactive media vault that formulates the complete documentary in its online home. Within the heterogeneous set of artifacts it offers for exploration is a series of illustration-accompanied glossary terms.


The glossary includes historical and internal lingo that pertains in various ways to the Harvard Depository’s origin and operations. Those wishing to get a sneak peak of this series may follow along with the Cold Storage Instagram account.


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Cold Storage Local Premiere Date Set

Cold Storage, consisting of a short documentary film and an interactive online media archive, is set to premiere a month from now on Friday, February 6th at 3:30pm in conjunction with Icons of Knowledge, an architectural research exhibition by Daniel Rauchwerger and Noam Dvir, which looks at the history and evolution of national library buildings. Through original models, murals, and drawings, the exhibition traces national libraries to their origins in 15th century Europe through today. Studying the crossroads between symbolism and program, the exhibition is a visual examination of how nations seek to be read.

The short film was shot this past year at the Harvard Depository out in Southborough, Massachusetts with the cooperation and support of its dedicated staff. The early planning stages were conducted during metaLAB’s teaching of Humanities Studio I, which engaged students in making their own short films with diverse reflections upon the Depository while also studying the traditions of library storage. The film’s concept stems from the concluding chapter of Jeffrey Schnapp and Matthew Battle’s own The Library Beyond the Book, itself exploring what libraries have been in the past to speculate on what they will become.

Mirroring these concerns, the film looks back at Alain Resnais’ 1956 documentary, Toute la mémoire du monde (All the World’s Memory), which paints a portrait of the French National Library’s cathedral-like grandeur in the context of its functions, which hold many parallels to the sprawling expanse of Harvard’s refridgerated book vaults despite their placement offsite—accessible while nestled away from physically browsing eyes. In light of this connection to and reverence for Resnais’ work, Cold Storage will make a European debut at the French National Library in Paris this coming September.

Pulling from the Harvard archives’ holdings on the Depository, and also including photographs, videos, and vignette material, the website for Cold Storage will allow visitors to peruse picking lists and find various artifacts and content to explore beyond the film’s minutes.

Those wishing to follow the excitement leading up to the premiere can check back here, follow on Twitter, or view the blogroll on the film’s Facebook page.


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