Ideas

Nick Montfort, Pall Thayer, and the spare poetics of code

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In “Programs at an Exhibition,” a recent show at the Boston Cyberarts Gallery, Nick Montfort and Pall Thayer offered a cluster of works that play with and subvert the divide between analog and digital art (the show closed on the 16th of March). While superficially similar, the work of these two artists is quite different in media and computational means—and it was that difference, as much as the wit and slow unfolding of the work itself, which served to animate the show.

BASIC, the language in which Montfort works here, is structured by the unique computational demands of the Commodore computer and the version of Microsoft BASIC its creators cobbled together in the late 1970s. Its processes take place in a universe simpler and more severely determined than today’s faster, capacious, richly-networked systems, and its constraints are severe, even harrowing. Perl by contrast, born a decade later than Commodore BASIC, lives in a realm of relative computational abundance, making easy reference to character sets, file structures, and networked assets beyond BASIC’s ken. The contrast is a striking one—and strikingly expressed in the installation at the Cyberarts Gallery, where Montfort’s chunky vintage machines lined up on a table opposite the sleek, flat display panels playing Thayer’s works in Perl. In their instantiations, both sets of programs wittily evoked analog works by the likes of Damien Hirst, Vito Acconci, and Joseph Bueys with cascades of characters and strobing colors.

The pieces comfortably took up residence in the light-splashed Cyberarts Gallery (which wonderfully lives in the MBTA’s Green Street station in Jamaica Plain). The decision to pair each machine with a printed-out caption of the code it ran put the starkly different means of the two programming languages into dialogue. Montfort’s involuted, single-line programs give BASIC something of the tang of the Old English of Beowulf—sharp and shorn, barbed and battered by the harsh economies of its habitat. Perl, by contrast, might be the programmer’s version of Occitan, the language (a cousin to latter-day Catalan) of the medieval troubadors, whose poems chimed with the decadent elaborations that flavored courtly life in medieval southern Europe—a fanciful dichotomy, which manages to caricature both the software and the vernaculars in question. Programmers of philological bent will find the comparison to Occitan especially laughable, given Perl’s cobbled-together nature and its reputation for clunkiness; a better example might be the macaronic jargon of the later middle ages, of which Pig Latin is an impoverished descendant.

Both artists have written about the expressive power and aesthetic powers of code—Thayer offers a comprehensible primer on the peculiar beauty of Perl, while Montfort has written copiously on the software’s artistic depth and richness (here, here, and here, for starters). In any case, Montfort and Thayer’s wit and economy are well-matched in these snippets of code which, while similar in length, are so contrasting in their ways and means. Taken together, their work offers the non-coder a satisfying look into the expressive possibilities of software, while deftly stretching code’s constraints into the realm of sensibility.

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Data Artifacts of the Arnold Arboretum

Image Credit: Yanni Loukissas

Last week, I attended the two-day symposium Thinking with Your Eyes: Visualizing the Arts, Humanities, and Sciences along with metaLAB graduate student researcher Krystelle Denis. We presented a lightning talk (just five minutes long) and an animated poster to illustrate our work in progress on a segment of the Data Artifacts research initiative. The broader initiative is an inquiry into how metadata are made at diverse public and private institutions of collecting. Using a novel combination of visual and ethnographic methods, the project aims to reveal what we call “data artifacts,” patterns in data that speak to the social and material history of their creation. This new work is sited at the Arnold Arboretum, Harvard’s living collection of trees, vines and shrubs. Dating back to 1872 and host to over 70,000 plants throughout its history, the Arboretum is an opportune context in which to learn about how data collection and management can change over the course of an institutional lifetime. Indeed, metadata used to trace the development of Arboretum collections over time have themselves evolved.

Each image (above and below) is a radial timeline displaying accessions data from 1872 to 2012. These visualizations are structured by yearly rings, similar to the way trees record the microphysics of their annual growth. Around the circumference of each ring, months and days index accumulated specimens, represented by translucent dots of different sizes and colors. Although this method presents some distortions, we feel that the metaphor to embedded arboreal processes and its preliminary results are evocative enough to bear further exploration.

The first visualization illustrates fluctuations in the way the Arboretum has created accession numbers. It shows that these data have their own histories, changing in response to the complexity of the collection as well as more mundane technical limits. For example, acquisition dates have been an element of more recent numbering systems. This has resulted in an artifact at the Y2K line, when date codes switched from two to four digits.

Image Credit: Yanni Loukissas

The second visualization tracks changes in the provenance of the collection:

Green = a plant collected from the wild
Yellow = a cutting from a plant collected from the wild
Black = a cultivated plant
Grey = a plant from an unknown origin

These variations reveal shifts in the organizational mission of the Arboretum, between wide-ranging scientific exploration and local horticulture.

Image Credit: Yanni Loukissas

The last visualization displays the understories of each day at the Arboretum in 3D, exposing the true rate of accumulation along the z-axis. Thus, moments of rapid growth in the collection appear as vertical sections, whereas periods of slower development flatten out the overall form.

In addition to changes in the Arboretum itself, these visualizations implicitly register external cultural and even political rhythms and events. Look closely and you can spot World War 2 and Christmas in the gaps between accessions. These examples are early sketches and furthermore, merely screenshots of richer interactive pieces. But they already suggest ways in which the Arboretum’s metadata are materially, culturally and historically situated. In the next few months, we will be working towards a series of full, interactive portraits of the Arboretum, which tell the story this aged institution through the inner lives of its metadata. Check back soon for more updates.

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Library Machines & Raspberry Pi

Since the Open House in December, Library Test Kitchen has been preparing to go on the road. In just a few weeks we’ll be heading to Austin, TX for South By Southwest Interactive. With a huge hand from the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation, we’ve secured a spot right in the center of the action for LABRARY, a bike-powered pop-up library that will be open to the public .

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In addition to a brand-new inflatable reading room (designed and built by Ben Brady and Arielle Assouline-Lichten), a couple of student projects from last semester are getting revised and will be featured at LABRARY. One that I’ve been helping out with is Object Lens, by LTK III students Carmine D’Alessandro and Kate Brown. Object Lens “allows users to capture video of their drawings, notes, and other two-dimensional or low-relief objects.” The act of looking is transformed through the device, which employs a series of internal mirrors to set the user’s field of view; Object Lens “defamiliarizes and reframes the user’s experience of the object, and gives him or her an opportunity to easily narrate and save that experience.” The project explores questions of what can and should be archived, how the physicality of an object can be communicated through digitization, and how information about an individual’s relationship to an object may be folded into the archiving process.

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The Open House prototype of Object Lens used an iPhone for the brainpower behind recording video and audio; the SXSW iteration will be powered by a Raspberry Pi, which I’m putting together to hook up to a redesigned and rebuilt device that Carmine and Kate are working on. This is my first real Raspi project, and the process has been much more about learning what is out there than it has been coding and wiring.

Raspberry Pi is a single board computer that costs $35 and is about the size of a smart phone. There are a number of microprocessor options out there (see herehere, and this chart for a solid comparison). I chose to use a Raspberry Pi because it excels at graphics processing and has a very active community — we’d like all of the LTK projects to be as fork-able* as possible, so having available community and resources was an important factor. All of the above platforms have a number of ports (HDMI, ethernet, USB, more), as well as all kinds of accessories you can plug in — motors, LCDs, GPS, motion sensors, to name just a few.

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After choosing the right platform, the setup itself was quite simple. The essential piece of hardware is the Raspberry Pi’s camera (which is a pretty competent little thing, check out some high altitude ballooning). My Pi is running Debian and uses the picamera Python library. The program basically just records 30 seconds of video at the press of a button, using single LEDs within the Object Lens field of view as a non-intrusive countdown display. And that’s about it! Next step is getting everything to fit safe and sound inside Object Lens V2.0.

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*Forking is actively used in the open-source community. When a developer finds a code base that they want to use as a starting point for their own project, they “fork” it, copying the code and starting a new branch. We’d like to foster the same sort of sharing and building-off one another’s work with LTK projects by making them as easy as possible to copy, riff, and remix. Check out Fork the Cookbook to see the same principle applied to recipes.

 

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Humanities Studio 2: Homeless Paintings of the Italian Renaissance: A Hands on Curatorial Experiment

 

In our first studio section last week for Humanities Studio 2, we had the opportunity to get a virtual tour of Villa i Tatti‘s phenomenal photography archive, the Fototeca, as well as of the villa itself and its grounds. A big thanks to Giovanni Pagliarulo, Curator of the Berenson Art Collection, and his team.

Villa i Tatti Virtual Tour

 

The students’ assignment for the first week’s studio was simply to get to know the platform we are using in the course to investigate, organize, annotate, and curate the collection: Curarium. The students were told to pick a single object from the Homeless Paintings archive and try to locate it using a variety of search tools. For those who haven’t heard of Bernard Berenson’s Homeless Paintings, it is a collection of over 11,000 art objects that have been lost or stolen, but for which there exists a photographic record.

The majority of these paintings and art objects have been lost for at least 60 years and we emphasized to the students that their goal should not be to find the painting they chose to search for, but, rather, to look for it. It was important to us the process: they they get to know Curarium as a platform, that they learn to search within it, to understand the metadata, to create spotlights (like dynamic blogs) within the platform to ‘turn in’ as proof of hours logged on the hunt.

To my great surprise, two students showed up claiming that they had found their paintings. To my even greater surprise, they’d found them at two of the world’s most renowned museums, and they’d found them doing simple google searches.

Can we trust the attributions of these students? You be the judge (Click on the links in the captions to view the images on their host sites):

Dominic Ferrante searched for Curarium record #8775:

Barna da Siena – Christ on the Cross with the Virgin, the Holy Women, St. John the Evangelist, Nicodemus and soldiers

Process

-google search of artist and title
-google search of artist and ‘triptych’
-google search of artist and ‘pelican’
-searched Barna da Siena in The Amica Library
-google image searched portions of the paintings
-got a hit at the Fondazione Federico Zeri (Università di Bologna)

-Final Location: Musee du Louvre (Paris) Dep. of Painting, Inventory # RF 1984-31

Curarium Record Curarium Record

Louvre Record Louvre Record

 

Ben Zauzmer searched for Curarium record #41:

Andrea Mantegna – Bacchanal with Silenus 

 

Check out his Spotlight (still in the beta stage) on Curarium for details on his find.

Mantegna Spotlight

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Not a Crematorium for Books, but a Receiving Tomb

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People verily recall the Library of Alexandria for its eventful burning, but how many wonder whether also engulfed were the 48,000 duplicate scrolls remotely stored in the Egyptian quarter’s Temple of Serapeum? Such offsite holding was certainly on the mind of 1902 Harvard’s President Eliot: “I am not proposing a crematorium for dead books, but only a receiving-tomb. Neither am I proposing that the bibliophile or the antiquarian should be absolutely deprived of his idols, but only that his access to them should made somewhat less convenient and attractive.” Though not a tomb, but a crematorium for books in their prime was the fate of the 1764 Harvard library. Tour-mongers learn of its accidental burning replete with the flourish of the student who had evaded borrowing restrictions to survive a lone volume (and then reveal it at the outcome of his own expulsion). Whether for redundancy or efficiency, Harvard’s present answer to systemic remote library storage opened in 1986—the Harvard Depository. It is here our story begins.

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Students in the second meeting of the spring semester’s Humanities Studio 1 ventured to the woods of Southborough, MA—the kind of area that hosts a Pine Hill Drive and a Pine Hill Road within a mile-radius to the lament of field trip bus drivers, and as we would later learn, to delivery services.

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A flyover would showcase a structure composed of modular additions resembling a swappable hard drive array, or from the interior, an evocation of the Titanic’s vast water-tight compartments. With the grid-independent power generators and leak precautions, the Depository appears ready for an iceberg and its climate-controlled interiors seem to reminisce the northern Atlantic.

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As each interior cargo door upended by pull chords, the adventurers hastened through receiving and processing stations until
reaching the “general population” of item storage, where, gliding up “ladders” of shelving, are cherry-pickers. Their skilled operators can retrieve an item in a minute or less. The minutemen we saw were uniformed in protective harnesses as they steered their machines—the long expanses of shelving exponentially deadening their operative noise as they went back. Motion sensors flicker-illuminated each new section, the 9 million items in aggregate calling to mind the expanse you’d suspect of the warehouse where the Ark of the Covenant is stored. A gallery of convex mirrors paired each lane for the line of sight of the moving machines and purple-glowing fly zappers outfitted them against invaders. Awareness of this facility’s spatial and procedural layout lays the foundation for the semester’s course to explore the technical dimensions of libraries, depositories, and storage facilities alongside the research, development, and production of an experimental web documentary. Entitled Cold Storage, the course represents one of two humanities studios launching under a new rubric and helmed by Jeffrey Schnapp with the metaLAB team.

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Fairy Tales Competition

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I recently had the opportunity to collaborate with a team of architectural students, headed by Lucas R.R. Muniz, at Universidade Federal do Ceara, in a Blankspaceproject.com competition that asked this question:

“Have you ever dreamed of an architecture competition that would inspire you to create something whimsical, magic and fun? A competition that would excite your fantasy to produce something that can be appreciated not just by your fellow architects and designers, but by all audiences?”

I tell the story of a people who are given a magical cube that performs their work for them while they sleep. Through generations they slowly realize that they are forfeiting their lives, literally in years, by forfeiting their potential and thus their potential futures.

Muniz and his team of architects and artists drew up the plans of the hermetically sealed time-thief structure that eventually is torn apart by the populace and turned into a public space where the people can render concrete the potential realities of their imaginations.

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The night the cube appears.

Tune into Blankspace in February to read the winning stories.

 

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Humanities Studio 1 Field Trip: Cold Storage

Caution: Books may be slippery

A settlement thickly

A Settlement Thickly.

Harvard Depository

DSCF6336 The Harvard Depository storage facility is modular by design, so that additional storage units can be added as needed. The site will allow for the eventual construction of 15 main storage units, amounting to approximately 200,000 square feet of storage space, with a capacity of three million linear feet of shelving. The majority of the storage spaces are kept at 45 deg F and humidity is maintained at 35% RH.

Chairs & Clocks

Aisle 94

Book Ruler

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Sailing the Ship of Theseus through Shadows of Pale Fire

In 1962, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire cheekily fronted a 999-line poem by the fictional John Shade—a poem to which the forward and footnoted commentary by his self-appointed editor, Charles Kinbote, enters the more compelling narrative at the margins. While this notion of metafiction is nothing new, in the expanding era of ebooks, a more visceral metafiction has broke with S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst that, in form, may make one of the best defenses of print in recent memory.
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Taking a break from cinematically executing excessive lens flares, J.J. Abrams, along with author Doug Dorst, have created an artifact not easily translatable to an electronic or an audio incarnation. With the facade of a library copy of V.M. Straka’s The Ship of Theseus, the novel contains margin notes in hand-written scrawl that dialogues between two readers—one a college reader and the other a disgraced graduate student. Unlike Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which plays with “you,” the reader, aligning and misaligning with the protagonist who himself is a reader in dialogue with an “other reader,” S. opts to more fully externalize those who encounter it. Loose inserts of various sorts flirt out from spreads in the form of postcards, letters, telegrams, photos, napkin doodles, and other distinct materialities. Approaching the text feels more akin to the field of archaeology with clues detached from chronological origin yet still buried in the context of their creation.

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Ironically, this “library book” by virtue of its form has wrought complaints from librarians, not because it mimics the use of writing to deface a volume from a lending institution, but rather because the non-anchored pieces are easy to misplace, making it difficult to preserve. Regardless of librarian disapproval, S. is showing strong circulation, even accompanying actor Neil Patrick Harris on his recent margarita-fueled Mexican vacation.

Are you love-drunk for S.? Tell us your thoughts or examples of print experimentation you recommend in the comments below.

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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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