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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Curarium launches a new version for the holidays!

The Curarium project at metaLAB has spent the fall in the shop tuning up. For the holiday season we have re-introduced new and improved functionality. Users pages are finally here, the design has been tweaked across the site to enhanse user experience, tray and annotation functionality has been reworked and fine-tuned. Meticulous collection importation and site navigation guides have been added with images and step-by-step instructions. While Curarium is still in its beta stages, feel free to get on and play around. In early 2015 we will set up a bug reporting project so that you all can help us find bugs and better understand the most intuitive UI.

Check out Curarium in its shades of red while you can. We will be going to a gray scale in 2015!

We’d found that our visualization tool was blocking some of the visualization modes; in a comparison of the two images directly below, you’ll see that the viz tool is completely collapsible now and that it expands vertically rather than horizontally.




The Annotation Tool


Annotation Tool


The Tray Tool: Users can save individual works, groups of works, visualizations and annotations of interest to them in private trays or trays shared in Circles of users


Tray Tool

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Encountering the archive: Notes from El Saniyya

metaLAB’s DocShop and MIT OpenDocLab Fellow Lara Baladi are happy to invite you to Notes from El Saniyya on Thursday December 11th from 4-9 pm, with the main event and conversation from 6:30-8:00, at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Based on a growing archive that artist Lara Baladi has been gathering since the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, Notes from El Saniyya is an invitation to participate in the making of a “transmedia painting” and is part of the interactive history-telling project Baladi is developing at OpenDocLab, called Vox Populi, Archiving a Revolution in the Digital Age .

Tahrir Square was the most digitally documented and disseminated event in modern history. It is the archetype of a global phenomenon that marks the beginning of the 21st century. Baladi’s Vox Populi will act as a tribute to this symbolic event and represent its impact on and resonance with the uprisings and socio-political movements that followed, and continue to do so worldwide.

Notes from El Saniyya is the first in a series that DocShop and artist Lara Baladi will present during the 2014-15 academic year. Experimental and conversational, the event will offer participants the chance to interact with archival media, give feedback, and contribute ideas which will help inform later events in the series. This open lab experience mixing art, history, and digital media will encourage participants to immerse themselves in the creative process of making socially-engaged art.

Notes from El Saniyya will take place on Thursday December 11th, from 4-9 pm in Gund 522 (The HILT room) at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, 48 Quincy St, Cambridge, MA 02138.

Space for this event is limited, please RSVP.

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Ripples of Beautiful Data: reflections on museum practice

A photo posted by Matthew Battles (@mbattles) on

At the end of Beautiful Data, the summer workshop on digital art history run by metaLAB with the support of the Getty Foundation, we asked participants to report back in a few months, to let us know how their experiences here at Harvard were working their way into their practice over the long term. It’s great now to have posts like this one from Chelsea Kelly, who manages school and teach programs for the Milwaukee Art Museum. At, Chelsea ponders the work participants did to reflect on the various definitions of “openness” in galleries and museums:

We all want our collections to be open to the public. We all want to give visitors opportunities to engage with objects. All that said, the devil’s in the details, as they say, and, as I learned from fellow participants at Beautiful Data, “openness” might mean different things in different contexts, or to different people within our institutions. For a museum technologist who’s part of the OpenGLAM movement, it might mean creating an API for her institution’s collection. For a curator, it might mean presenting art with minimal labels to allow visitors to bring their own thoughts to the work. For an educator, it might mean hosting a monthly “slow art” day, facilitating a one hour conversation about a single work of art. For a visitor, it might mean taking a selfie with a work of art to share with friends on Instagram—or perhaps having a life-changing, transformative moment with an object—or maybe exploring the collection online even though they live halfway around the world from the institution itself.

Much of the work of participants in Beautiful Data consisted in taking these definitions and experiences of openness and putting them into dialogue with each other, in ways that opened the experience of art to improvisation, play, and the aleatory. (Chelsea’s own Flickr set documenting her Beautiful Data project gives a full sense of the richly improvisatory inquiry she suggested). Chelsea reflects further on the back-and-forth between her experience of the workshop and the work she does at the Milwaukee Art Museum:

When my teen program started up again this fall, I brought my students into the Milwaukee Art Museum galleries to look at a single work of art for an hour…. As usual, I noticed the high schoolers opening up to each other, to new ideas, and to finding ways that art relates to their everyday life—whether a photograph of Milwaukee or a landscape by a Baroque Italian painter…. [A]s I watched the students unfold these pieces and their own thoughts every week, and as I thought about my own project at Beautiful Data, I started to realize how intimately connected my discussion-based teaching style and experience-based project are to the big ideas behind the open collections movement.

That’s the dialogue we had hoped to provoke through Beautiful Data. The same kind of enterprise and application can be seen in some of the work of Neal Stimler, another BD alumnus (and digital asset strategist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Neal is incorporating the rapid-prototyping and collaborative design methods we exampled in the workshop into his own outreach work. It’s great to see our participants making Beautiful Data their own—for ultimately, they were the ones who made it—and passing it along.

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Object, museum, and machine

The Harvard Art Museums are on the verge of their grand re-opening, and we at metaLAB couldn’t be more excited. This would be true even if we weren’t working with the museums on a number of engaging fronts—in particular in the Lightbox Gallery, a lapidary media space nestled high in the lantern atop the Renzo Piano-designed new wing. metaLAB has been working with museum staff on design thinking for the Lightbox Gallery since Spring 2012; in the last few months, we’ve been developing a media-and-data-animated experience for visitors, making use of the room’s large display panel and projection system. A key part of that experience is the “object map,” a sortable, interactive visualization of some 1800 objects on display in the museums’ galleries—the reflection of which appears to float in the vertiginous space of the Fogg Museum’s Calderwood Courtyard in the image above.

Our project in the Lightbox Gallery is meant to help museum-goers explore how contemporary visual experience is transformed by digital media. Images now come to us morphed and animated, remixed and glitched, in a flood of file formats, every time we browse the web or use a mobile device to encounter art. These high-tech images are never perfect surrogates for the original objects (which are technology themselves, patterned with their makers’ skills, beliefs, and aspirations). And yet through their agency, we find ways to fill our lives with art.

At a preview event last Sunday evening, I had the chance to spend a couple of hours sharing the object map with museum professionals in attendance. I found it enlivening to talk about differences between the objects the computer sees—strings of alphanumerics contained within curly brackets—and objects that are fashioned by human hands, framed by ever-shifting notions of value and desire, and yet invested with a glamor and power that abides. While both machines and humans interact with objects, then, we do so in different ways. For machines, symbols are widgets—chocks and levers for making systems of computation move; for humans, symbols are banners we follow, desires we defer, the glimmers that haunt our nights… whether in fact they’re widgets as well at some deeper level doesn’t matter very much when it comes to how we forge them, seek them, and treasure them up. Do paintings likewise burn in the secret dreams of our web browsers? Perhaps—but if so, they appear there as streams and strings of data. The object map allows visitors to pry open the boxes where the machine keeps these strings and streams, to observe how craftily they thread through the ways we keep, experience, and value works of art. Thanks to the craft and ingenuity of metaLAB team members Jessica Yurkofsky, James Yamada, and Krystelle Denis, the project offers us the chance to experience these relations in the making, embodied through beautiful objects and images, rather than through words (like mine!) alone. We hope you’ll pay the Museums a visit soon after opening—and that when you come, you’ll give the Lightbox Gallery a test drive.

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Constructing a Virtual Depository

As Cold Storage readies for submission this week to the South by Southwest film festival, the interactive web component of the project remains ongoing.


The chapter-marked timeline of the short documentary and the blueprinted architecture of its setting, the Harvard Depository, become two cooperative scaffolds upon which to hang and hyperlink various media. The source material spans four hard drive vaults, and while two are redundant, that still leaves four terrabytes of unique content to sift through consisting of video, images, sound, text and combinations thereof. Perhaps this is less surprising as the memory speaks to an operation which itself has grown to store nearly ten million materials in Southborough, Massachusetts with seven modular additions since 1986.

As the site rises from its code foundations, a curatorial practice operates in tandem. How much does one resurrect from the cutting room floor? When does behind the scenes content reveal detract from the magic of unknowns and surprises on screen? Should there be a guide to all the embedded easter eggs, or should some remain latent for future archaeologists to unravel? Some of the content will be raw. Other content will be produced. Some will be original. Other content will be referential. Some materials come from the Harvard archives. Other materials come from Harvard students who partook in the Cold Storage humanities studio course, which metaLAB team taught in the earliest phases of production.

In the months ahead, we will seek the right balance of quantity and quality as well as of guidance and open exploration.

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The Internet Arcade and the textures of emulation

A couple of weeks ago, I paid a lightning-fast visit to San Francisco to attend the digital-publishing summit Books in Browsers (where I gave this talk). I was sorting through my post-talk tweets when one came in from historian of digital culture Jason Scott:

Jason has been working on archiving software and games for the Internet Archive (whose founder and head, Brewster Kahle, had spoken immediately before me that morning). “Proprietor” and curator of, Jason has been archiving arcade games and computer software for the Internet Archive since 2011. Knowing him as an archivist and historian of internet culture with a rare storytelling gift, I skipped the post-lunch conference session, called up a Lyft, and headed up to the Presidio to take him up on his invitation.

After a quick tour of the Internet Archive’s digs—contained within the post-1906, temblor-resistant bones of a former Christian Science church (above). The site was in the midst of an upgrade to a beta version of a new interface (now live), and thus the place was in a happy uproar, with folks bustling about amidst heat-gushing server racks and the plaster mannequins of archive staffers that vie for space in the resplendent sanctuary; or staring intently into monitors in various shared workspaces, some cavernous, others cubbyholed. Finally, Jason sat me down in front of a wall-mounted screen in a bare meeting room and gave me a tour of his special project, the Internet Arcade, which treasures up hundreds of playable arcade games from the eighties and beyond.

Switching between keyboard and game console, Jason dove through a series of URLs on the dev server to show me some of the hundreds of arcade games that are now playable online, thanks to a carefully-orchestrated set of interoperating, open-source emulation systems and standards. The crucial move on the part of Jason and a host of collaborators is a project called JSMESS, a system that brings a great deal of emulation power to javascript, allowing all kinds of systems to run virtually in web browsers (the technical side of this is well documented; you can start down the rabbit hole here if you’re interested in the cascade of open-source emulation projects that inspire and undergird the Internet Arcade and related software archiving projects).

(Above) Back to the future, with some of the Internet Archive’s hundreds of playable arcade-game titles.

It’s technologically both antic and elegant: Jason’s system has parsed and transcoded hundreds of games, automatically playing them thousands of times to unlock levels, detect bugs, and set up screenshots to guide visitors browsing the arcade. But the technological side of the project is less interesting than its cultural dimensions (although this very dichotomy is a specious one, as the Internet Arcade itself amply demonstrates). Jason showed me a bit of this depth by taking me to the page for Marble Madness, a maze game from mid-eighties. “Now this game is deep,” Jason said, flicking through URLs to find the stable page. “And it forged a relationship with the player right away.” As the game started up and the “insert coin” legend blinked, Jason continued. “If you didn’t start right away, watch this”—we regard a moistly-rendered ball at rest in a landscape of gridded slopes and steps, the timer counting down—”watch this: if you don’t do anything, it gives you a push.” And with that, a sliver of the grid tongues upward and the ball—the player’s avatar in this eight-bit Escherian world—starts rolling, gently and inexorably, towards its fate. “But look,” Jason continues,” here’s what I mean by deep.” And in a few more keystrokes, he’s virtually opened up the back of the Atari arcade cabinet and flipped a switch: at a swipe, the ball maze is replaced by a severe table of fat alphanumerics, an owner’s interface offering more fundamental control over the game than I ever realized was possible during my adolescent sojourns in the local pizza parlor. The proprietor could see what levels people had the most trouble playing, and which ones made them slip another quarter in the machine; it coded gameplay by score, time of day, and a host of other metrics—big data before the fact, measured out in the local Bally’s franchise.

Whipping through a series of games—Pac-Man and Phoenix; Quasar and Qwak—Jason went on, extolling connections to art, design, business, and culture, all discernible across the landscape of the arcade. “By putting them all up here, making them all playable in the browser,” he explained, “we get people thinking about these connections right away.”

Earlier in our tour, Jason had offered a telling remark on the philosophy of emulation. We were standing in front of a rack of early videotape decks, which the Archive is using to play and digitize old media. I asked if the hardware should receive the same kind of curatorial attention as the data. “It’s an interesting question,” he mused. “All of this represents relationships, working methods, ways of doing things,” he said, passing an explanatory hand of the machines’ many buttons and sliders. “And eventually, we’ll be able to read the data from the media and know what the relevant hardware would have been, and we’ll know about all those relationships as well.” As Jason writes at textfiles, “you won’t find many of the reasons why people spent night after night, grinding their eyes and their minds to post rebuttals to BBSs, by picking up a pile of hardware at a tag sale and plugging it in.” The data themselves are artifacts, transmissible across material and format, curatable in vast aggregates. I’m eager for the stories that will spring from it all.

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Sharing Beautiful Data with the World

In June, thanks to the support of a grant from the Getty Foundation, we had the remarkable opportunity to bring nearly two dozen curators, technologists, and scholars to Cambridge for two weeks of coinvention, discovery, and reflection on the possibilities of putting data and media to work in museum collections. Although conceived as an engagement in digital-humanities “training,” we thought quick-and-dirty tutorials in javascript and topic-modeling would be less useful than the chance to discover ways of collaborating “in the wild” around questions of computation in art history, museums, and collections-based scholarship. And so the Beautiful Data workshop played out less as a training session than a design charette and summer camp for museophiles. Participants built data visualizations out of Legos and Post-It notes; they toured local museums with sets of wild provocations in mind, prompting them to see collections from novel perspectives; they engaged in conversation with designers, technologists, and neuroscientists as well as colleagues in core museum disciplines.

Out of all that work, a troika of publications have emerged—at once playful and practical, documentary and polemical—to reflect those explorations and share them with a wider community. With the intention of “open-sourcing” the elements and processes that came out of the workshop, these publications complement the material available on the Beautiful Data website, offering routes for exploration of this material that are meant to be applicable in diverse contexts. We hope that you will activate whatever elements seem useful to you, fostering the continuing evolution of Beautiful Data.

The field guide documents the concepts and flows of information that came out of the Beautiful Data workshop, linking critical discussion with invitations to experimentation and making. Using a range of modes, including case studies, maps, activities, and prototypes (and linking to online documentation of these elements), the guide aims to serve as a resource, providing various entry points into the dialogue surrounding Beautiful Data and promoting further experimentation around this material.

The prototyping game provides a set of raw materials for remixing and rethinking the ways in which we design experiences with objects. This playful framework, drawn from institutional missions and contexts, offers springboards for discussion, ideation, and project development.

The provocation cards, drawn from the work of participants in Beautiful Data’s weekend workshop component, provide prompts for adventures in museums, lightly provoking users to engage with these spaces in new and generative ways.

While these documents are the product of the entire Beautiful-Data community, they’re richly the result of considerable invention and energy on the part of two of our summer interns: Laura Mitchell, who provided editorial direction; and Ebru Boyaci, who furnished creative direction. Of course that very dichotomy—the editorial and the graphic—is an instance of the sort of thinking we wanted to break down and remix in the Beautiful Data workshop—and Ebru & Laura’s work constitutes a wonderful example of the kind of collaborative performance of thinking, dreaming, and doing that all of us present at the workshop saw glimmering in our exercises and iterations. So let’s extend that dialogue: take these documents, apply them in new contexts, and tell us what you make!

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