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.

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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.

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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.

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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.