Beautiful Data: a summer institute for telling stories with open art collections

June 16 — June 27, 2014
Harvard University
Supported by the Getty Foundation

With art museums worldwide making collections data accessible, several questions arise: where do the areas of greatest opportunity lie for transformative uses that expand the impact of collections and exhibitions, and enhance the quality, scope, and reach of scholarship and teaching? What are the most engaging and innovative things that can be done within and across collections? What sorts of genres of collections-based work are emerging within the expanding universe of open collections? And how exactly might these new collections-based knowledge forms find a home within everything from exhibition spaces to scholarly publications? The aim of BEAUTIFUL DATA, metaLAB’s summer 2014 open collections workshop, is to introduce a new generation of scholars and museum professionals to emerging forms of engagement and interaction with art-historical collections that begin to address some of these questions. Participants will be exposed to the core concepts, skills and practices necessary to make imaginative use of open collections data and assets, and to develop new forms of art-historical argument and storytelling that involve visualization, interactive media, expanded definitions of curatorial description, and hybrid analog/digital approaches to exhibition design and teaching.

Rather than providing an overall survey of digital art/humanities skills, tools, and resources, the workshop is intended as a hands-on experience, enabling art historians and museum professionals to work side-by-side within three broad domains that are central to metaLAB’s own research: critical and expressive practices of collections visualization (the critically informed use of visualization tools for analysis, communication and storytelling); digital curation, interpretation and argumentation (methods of multimedia narration that leverage open collection data and tools); and collections-centered work across the analog/digital divide (bringing 3D art objects into the digital realm, bringing digital collections content into the analog realm so as to enhance the experience of individual art objects, and rendering visible the families of objects to which they belong).

Designed for participants who have had some exposure to working with digital tools and platforms, but are neither IT specialists nor expert practitioners, the workshop will span 10 days, with each day run collaboratively by the core metaLAB team in tandem with colleagues from the Harvard Art Museums and other participating Boston-area art museums and collecting institutions. The first six days will be seminar-like in format, devoted to talks, tutorials, discussions, and short exercises that acquaint participants with tools and platforms. The remaining four days of the workshop will be studio-like, a project-based modality in which participants will engage in a cycle of problem setting, solving and critique related to their own curatorial or scholarly endeavors relating to the study of collections. The workshop will conclude with a final critique of participants’ projects in which the results will be presented to and discussed with the Harvard museum and art history community.

Applicants to the workshop will be asked to submit a short bio, a synopsis of their experience to date, and a description of a present or future project that they’d like to explore within the setting of the workshop. Eighteen participants will be selected based on experience, balance of fields and interests, and the fit between their ongoing research interests. As noted below, we are hoping that some of the final projects will involve teamwork between art historians and museum professionals, so our selection process will favor possible pairings and convergences. Apply here.

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Voices in the data stream: hacking networked storytelling

One of the richest parts of the Berkman fellows program is the way the convergent interests of a spectrum of expertise and sensibility express themselves in collaboration and collegial engagement. A terrific example from the current fellowship cycle is the networked storytelling group, in which a multidisciplinary band of thinkers and makers come together to look at—and experiment with—narrative experience in networked life. Last weekend, the group held a hackathon at MIT’s Center for Civic Media, furnishing an opportunity for journalists, data wranglers, scholars, activists, and artists (an overlapping map of cohorts and crafts) to explore the challenges of telling a complex story by various means.

We focused our efforts on a shared pool of material relating to an underreported story of unrest in Bangladesh, which centered on the trial and sentencing of Abdul Quader Mollah, an Islamist party leader accused of mass murder in the context of Bangladesh’s 1971 struggle for separation from Pakistan. With material curated by Ivan Sigal, a 2013 Berkman fellow and executive director of Global Voices, along with fellows Dalia Othman, Tim Davies, and others. We relied heavily as well on special coverage of the protests curated by Global Voices. Despite a helpful explainer from blogger and Global Voices contributor Reswan, delivered to the group via Skype from Dhaka in the wee hours of the night, we all felt underprepared to take on the enormity of the protest story and the fraught history and politics of Bangladesh. With a certain degree of humility and uncertainty, then, we dove into finding ways to explore media and data associated with the story in hopes of bringing aspects of it to light.

Having offered the exceedingly-vague notion of creating a project that explored my own ignorance, rather than seeking a false sense of expertise; and further animated by a desire to understand the materiality of Shahbag Square in Dhaka (center of the protests) and its connection to the online movement fostered there, I fell into a conversation with Ainsley Sutherland of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program. Casting about for ways to embody or evoke a spatial sense of a place neither of us had visited, we hit upon the power of audio—both for its intimacy and somatic intuitiveness and for its estranging powers—and quickly set ourselves the constraint of developing an audio-only project.

Joined by designer/engineer Mike Estee, we combed Youtube and Soundcloud for sonic traces of the story, finding a wealth of material in songs, protest, interviews, and news coverage. As rich typologies inherent in the media began to emerge, we turned towards abstraction, playing with various strategies for narrativizing, gamifying, or otherwise interactively animating a database of sound. Immediately, however, we faced the limitations imposed by our own ignorance—of language, culture, and context—with respect to the question of responsibly organizing any such rubric. We returned then to reliance on the senses, on the intuitive response to our confusion and doubts, as an organizing principle for the eventual experience of the work. In particular, the use of sensory rather than epistemological principles for organizing the material—and activating the help of others—became appealing.

We decided to confront the alterity of the story—in a certain sense, to embrace and explore the problem of what press critic Jay Rosen calls the “view from nowhere” that is often the ground of mainstream media consumer’s perspective. In the second instance, we were curious to ground our experience of the story—to spatialize it—to understand it as a congeries of material, somatic encounters and network effects. The sheer diversity of our audio sources took us away from a confrontation with Shahbag Square, ushering us towards a more wide-ranging and abstract notion of space as a quality emerging from sonic experience.

In the end, we designed an audio installation piece, suitable for a gallery, in which several thread of audio clips played serially through headphones. Our inspiration was nothing other than the kindergarten classic “telephone game,” where whispered voices introduce generative effects. Listeners, each having a private experience of the audio clips, would be prompted to describe what they heard for those not listening; gradually, the separate streams would diverge, with different clips played for the several listeners, who then would confront in dialogue the divergent sounds they were experiencing. For simplicity’s sake, Mike, Ainsley, and I dj’d the sounds by hand from our laptops for a group of volunteer listeners; the file below offers one of the prototype sounds streams we edited together quickly over the course of the afternoon:

(NB: the name of the file, “newlucky,” comes from the source of the first clip in the stream: an interview with Lucky Apter, a young woman who became something of an avatar and spokesperson for the protesters in Shahbag.)

Mike, Ainsley, and I agreed that, while our knowledge of the complexities of the Shahbag movement remained beyond our grasp, our understanding of the issue was tweaked upward in promising ways. This provocation came mostly out of the encounter with material which, while raw to us, was very much cooked for participants in the events. The sheer impact of sound, combined with the invitation to discourse and description, felt like a promising modality for discovering limits to our comprehension as consumers of the news as well as thinkers and makers. I hope to explore the possibilities of a project of this nature for animating audio from a host of news projects—steering away from the didactic and the explicative, opening up dialogues of uncertainty and humility often missing from mainstream news channels—a possibility emerging in the context of networks, offering the chance to create new networks in turn.

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Library Test Kitchen Open House: Friday the 13th

The fall semester of Library Test Kitchen will be wrapping up this Friday with an open house in Loeb Library. Currently in its third year, Library Test Kitchen is an Advanced Seminar led by Jeff Goldenson, Prof. Jeffrey Schnapp, Ann Whiteside, and Jessica Yurkofsky. Students have spent the past three months investigating and re-imagining libraries, inventing and prototyping what we’re calling “library machines.”

Library Machine (n.) – A mechanically or electronically operated device for performing a library function.1

Projects range in scale from the object level to environments to virtual spaces. They tell stories and collect stories (often at the same time).

All are welcome to stop by 4pm-6pm to demo projects, drink some wine, and talk about libraries. If all goes according to plan, in March the library machines will be packed into a Sprinter van and driven to SXSW Interactive.

1 Where library function is broadly defined.

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Teaching with the Japan Disaster Archive — A Report in Medias Res

This fall I’ve joined Professors Andrew Gordon (History) and Theodore Bestor (Anthropology) in teaching a course on the disasters in Japan in March 2011 — it has proven very suggestive for approaches to a new “humanities studio” model, and here I’d like to sketch some of the things I see raised so far.

At the course’s core is the Japan Disaster Archive, a digital archive developed at Harvard over the last two and a half years by the Reischauer Institute in collaboration with metaLAB, Zeega, and the Center for Geographic Analysis. Within hours of the 9.0 earthquake a number of organizations inside and outside Japan began an unprecedented effort to gather and make accessible the billowing mass of digital records connected to these events. The basis of the JDA’s contribution is its aggregation of an increasingly large measure of these organizations’ material into a single place, primarily through APIs — photos from Yahoo! Japan and Tohoku University, tweets from Hypercities, documentaries from Sendai Mediatheque, etc. The archive platform provides the means for users to explore this aggregate by keyword or by time and place, making it possible, for instance, to see in bird’s-eye view the tweets during the anti-nuclear protests in April 2011 in Tokyo. The archive — and the term is unusual, especially given how little the JDA stores — also invites a range of participatory responses, allowing users to annotate and expand the evolving index of records, and, most suggestively, to use those records as the basis for community storytelling. Users can add tags and translate; they can submit new content found on the web with the JDA bookmarklet; and they can pull items together into shareable collections. Collections can stand on their own or feed into multimedia nonlinear presentations, authored with an editor built for the archive by metaLAB creative technologist Jessica Yurkofsky.

Before turning to the course it’s worth recasting the foregoing narrative in terms other than the vocabulary of software development, which seems to me to risk eliding the singularity of the actual lived project. Here we have an emergent community — professors, post-docs, librarians, administrators, graduate students, undergraduates, volunteers — forging untested social formations within the University and across the world for the sake of cross-national digital memory construction; here we have millions of records whose single through-line is extraordinary upheaval — the tragedy born of this upheaval but also the subsequent resilience, unknowing, recovery, contradiction, reconstruction; here we have shared confidence that even at this scale and complexity archives must join other media in serving as active sites of discourse and production; and here we have a tool that is also a propositional machine — pressing us to think stakes, potentials and contradictions in this project and others like and unlike it. A conference at Harvard in January followed out some of the most challenging lines of inquiry in the practice of “participatory archiving”; I tried to capture and build upon them in a subsequent “field report” for Contents Magazine.

So the course sits amid these energies and uncertainties. We have a lively group of thirteen undergraduate and graduates from across the humanities, sciences and social sciences. They’ve opted to take on the considerable challenge of thinking critically and compassionately about these disasters — in many cases, like me, doing so without speaking Japanese — while producing multimedia presentations on topics they select. The basic logic of the editor consists in building individual frames using one’s bank of media — collected from within or outside the JDA, or authored oneself — and forging pathways between them by hyperlinking objects, e.g., each of three images of government officials on a single frame links to another frame showing an example of the the official attempting to calm the public down in a press conference. What grows out of this relatively simple logic is wide open for expressive and rhetorical innovation, and raises hard questions around the implications of expanding or limiting viewers’ options for navigation.

In planning the course we joined an increasing number of faculty investigating a new concept of the humanities studio. The first weeks of exploring the disasters and its historical precedents coincided with critiquing examples of multimedia scholarship, and, most importantly, immediate attention to not only thinking about possible projects but starting to make them. Students began by generating JDA collections and introducing provisional topics to fellow students by way of records of interest projected on the screen; they then went back into the shop to forge their individual proposals. When planning how students would share progress on their projects throughout the rest of the course, we considered a more traditional humanities model in which students narrate their ideas with slideshows and receive feedback focused on refining those ideas — a well-tested method for a course with a written essay as the final project. But we recognized that courses with audiovisual capstones require considerable parallel conversation about methods of presentation as well as prototyping. Too often these conversations do not happen in courses with the best intentions of having students produce non-written work. For us inquiries into audiovisual and networked rhetorics seem especially important, and ends in themselves, because such rhetorics play essential roles in how large-scale crises unfold and become represented, and because the web needs better formal language for networked and non-linear argumentation. We opted therefore for an approach melding the design and humanities classrooms: having students not only describe their work in “status reports” but build and exhibit their current frames and navigation structures — to demonstrate as much as narrate their projects. The resulting conversations have been distinctly multidimensional and collaborative, with the class and teaching team moving fluidly between discussing concepts and imagining means of conveying them.

An insight one ponders in a humanities classroom — that the medium is or at the least heavily constrains the message — has become tangible as, for instance, a student generating separate sequences on positive and negative views of social media during disaster was pushed to both question the sustainability of that conceptual binary, and to think how a presentation structure could reflect more complex relationships like intersections, overlaps and contradictions. A la Wittgenstein, we see the limits of our language are the limits of our world — researching things to think is researching means to make others think.

By way of conclusion a final observation on our humanities studio model: Our Oct. 23rd class focused on disasters and media. Over the summer we had selected a few representative examples from American and Japanese media to complement our readings. However having witnessed students’ adeptness at gathering materials from the web into collections, we realized a practice more attuned to the spirit and affordances of the JDA’s participatory archive model would have students find and share examples on their own. By the time our class rolled around our collaboratively authored collection had 54 items pulled from dozens of places across the web, none of those items until then a part of the archive. Students broke into small teams to compare what they had collected and came back to report their findings to the class. During our discussion it felt like a kind of organic criticality emerged — we broached many of the same questions academic articles would but found ourselves immersed in the forest of signs we simultaneously analyzed and remixed from above. Now that collection, once made public, can serve as a resource or an inspiration for any researcher down the road.

Much to look forward to, much still to explore.

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Track Changes: the literary history of word processing, with Matthew Kirschenbaum

With the Humanities Center’s Book History Seminar, metaLAB is sponsoring a visit by Matthew Kirschenbaum, whose forthcoming Track Changes: The Literary History of Word Processing (Harvard) is already helping to illuminate the effects of word-processing systems on literary works and lives in the late twentieth century. I can say “already” because Kirschenbaum is a generous scholar, quick to share discoveries and insights as they unfold in his research through speaking, publishing, and social media (you can sample the work at Tracking the Literary History of Word Processing, his tumblr for the book in progress). Kirschenbaum will be speaking on Thursday, October 17 at five o’clock in the evening, in Barker Center, Room 133; he sets up his book, and the talk, as follows:

Mark Twain famously prepared the manuscript for Life on the Mississippi (1883) with his new Remington typewriter, the first literary text ever submitted to a publisher in typewritten form. Today we recognize that the typewriter changed the history and material culture of authorship. But when did writers begin using word processors? Who were the early adopters? How did the technology change their relationship to their craft? Was the computer just a better typewriter—faster, easier to use—or was it something more? And what will be the fate of today’s “manuscripts,” which take the form of electronic files in folders on hard drives, instead of papers in hard copy? This talk will provide some answers, and also address questions related to the challenges of conducting research at the intersection of literary and technological history.

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum is Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Maryland and Associate Director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH, an applied think tank for the digital humanities). His first book, Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination, was published by the MIT Press in 2008 and won the 2009 Richard J. Finneran Award from the Society for Textual Scholarship (STS), the 2009 George A. and Jean S. DeLong Prize from the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing (SHARP), and the 16th annual Prize for a First Book from the Modern Language Association (MLA). Kirschenbaum speaks and writes often on topics in the digital humanities and new media; his work has received coverage in the Atlantic, Slate, New York Times, The Guardian, National Public Radio, Wired, Boing Boing, Slashdot, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. See for more.

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Opportunity at metaLAB: project coordinator

MetaLAB Is looking for a new team member to perform a wide range of coordination, administrative, research, and related activities. This project coordinator will integrate the efforts of multiple team members, monitoring overall timelines and outputs. Additionally, the coordinator will help to manage events; maintain online project management tools such as mailing lists; and oversee projects’ web presences. The project coordinator will help to guide the work of interns and research assistants.

The right candidate will thrive in a committed, collaborative, and tight-knit community that encourages creativity, supports deep inquiry, values novel approaches to solving problems, strives for transparency, continually builds upon best-practices and lessons learned, and supports its community members’ independent and collective goals.

The job is ideal for someone interested in the role of technology in the arts and humanities. A full description and application information may be found at the Harvard Human Resources web site. Spread the word!

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Curarium distilled

A contingent of metaLABbers crossed the Law School campus today to present a Berkman-Center lunch talk on the Homeless Paintings project and Curarium, the crowd-curation platform we’re building to support the project. The discussion was energizing, as Berkman sessions invariably are, and we came away with ideas and plans to follow up with many of the friends, colleagues, and experts in attendance. One of the great gifts of the afternoon was a Prezi (below) created by Willow Brugh, a research affiliate at the Center for Civic Media and the Berkman Center, which distills the story of the project more vibrantly and cogently in a half-dozen or so mouse clicks than we managed to do in an hour of talk. When I think that the prezi here represents Willow’s notes, made extemporaneously while we presented our talk, I’m reminded of what Emerson said about genius: that in it “we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” Consider me alienated—in the best way!

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digitalSTS and Design Workshop


Over the course of two days this summer (June 27-28, 2013) metaLAB hosted scholars from around the world at Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum to explore the use of design methods in the social study of science and technology. The results are documented online in this tumblr:

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Balloon Mapping Bussey Brook Meadow

The view from 500 feet above Bussey Brook Meadow, the Arboretum's urban wild. One of over 4000 photos taken during a recent balloon mapping experiment for the Design Learning Workshop, research project and a class at the Graduate School of Design. Also pictured here: Peter Del Tredici, Stephen Ervin, Sara Wylie, Jessica Yurkofsky, Matthew Battles, and Yanni Loukissas

The view from 500 feet above Bussey Brook Meadow, the Arboretum’s urban wild. One of over 4000 photos taken during a recent balloon mapping experiment. Also pictured here: Peter Del Tredici, Stephen Ervin, Sara Wylie, Jessica Yurkofsky, Matthew Battles, and Yanni Loukissas

See a short video of the experiment here:

Design Learning Workshop at the Arnold Arboretum from Yanni Loukissas on Vimeo.

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digitalSTS Workshop: Designing Data Narratives at the Arnold Arboretum

metaLAB(at)Harvard is hosting the second digitalSTS workshop at the Arnold Arboretum on June 27-28. We will explore the potential of the “data narrative” as a hybrid genre for the expression of Science, Technology and Society (STS) scholarship. The design of data narratives is a new-media practice that merges distinct cultural forms for organizing knowledge: the database and the narrative. Narratives are linear, sequential, and animated by actors; databases, by contrast, are non-linear, random-access, and driven by algorithms. Data narratives operate in-between, threading visualized data through verbal exposition to produce hybrid timelines, maps, models, animations, and interactive texts. In this context, design can be thought of as the synthetic work of layering disparate ways of knowing. Indeed, as hybrids that leverage both database and narrative structures, data narratives bring the epistemic worlds of science and the humanities together in new configurations useful for telling grounded stories in a form likely to have impact both in scholarly discourse and in broader audiences beyond academe. We see the Arboretum as an ideal context to explore such use of design for STS scholarship and the public understanding of science.

As expressed at its founding in 1872 by director Charles Sprague Sargent, the Arboretum would be many places in one: a research station, a horticultural grounds, a forestry lab. It would also serve as an educational establishment uniquely positioned for what he suggestively called “object teaching.” The woody plants, systematically organized and delicately cultivated, would convey natural history in the flesh, in a splendid setting accessible by urban audiences, lying at the ready for use by diverse experts and plant lovers.

Since the late nineteenth century, of course, these desiderata have been reorganized by a shifting set of norms, practices, and social configurations—not only in plant science and ecology, but in landscape design, higher education, and the city itself. This dynamic interposition of qualities and forces—ecological, social, aesthetic, and pedagogical—has left its traces in the forms of interaction between the institution, the university, and the city; in the reception of the arboretum by varied audiences; and in the very disposition of plants and other living things in the landscape. In data narratives, we see an opportunity to reflect, interpret, and critique these shifting arrangements, and to reinvent Sargent’s concept of “object teaching” for a networked world.

Team Leaders:
Matthew Battles and Kyle Parry, Harvard University
Carl DiSalvo, Georgia Institute of Technology
Kelly Dobson, Rhode Island School of Design
Hanna Rose Shell, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Daniela Rosner, University of Washington
Sara Wylie, Northeastern University

Yanni Loukissas, Harvard University
Laura Forlano, Illinois Institute of Technology
David Ribes, Georgetown University
Janet Vertesi, Princeton University

The Arnold Arboretum
The Consortium for the Science of Sociotechnical Systems
in collaboration with the National Science Foundation Digital Societies and Technologies Research Coordination Network
Microsoft Research

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