Treemaps are not maps of trees…

As the Curarium platform finally enters its beta stage, we are fleshing out some cool functionality, like the ability to embed curarium generated visualizations in other platforms such as wordpress. With two simple lines of HTML code like this:

<script src=""></script>
<div class='curarium' style='width:800px;height:600px;'></div>

We can embedd a treemap visualization displaying information about a particular collection.

Like, for instance, a diagram of all topics in the Homeless Paintings Collection:

A diagram of topics once we filter the collection to include the topic ‘beards':

A diagram of dates once we filter the collection to include the topic ‘beards':

A diagram of topics once we filter the collection to include the topic ‘saints':

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openLab Recap

This past Wednesday, metaLab hosted its Spring openLab at the multi-tiered Arts@29 Garden space to demonstrate the progress and interconnection of projects underway by the core metaLab team, students, and affiliates

The upcoming metaLABprojects publications were out for preview. Core provocations from one, The Library Beyond the Book, were remixed in a derivative playable card deck while Library Test Kitchen’s inflatable mylar reading room, receipt printer spewing forth the U.S. Constitution, and custom 3D View-Masters encouraged discourse about library space and content interaction. All the while reels of Cold Storage, an interactive documentary about offsite storage through examination of the Harvard Depository, played out not just the library beyond the book, but the library beyond the library.

Cold Storage is complemented by a humanities studio course, one of two to debut this semester (along with Homeless Paintings of the Italian Renaissance). Existing outside a traditional departmental structure, these interdisciplinary courses have stressed a team-teaching dynamic and learning through experimentation in order to grapple with new materials, problems, and developing approaches to solving those problems with constant and critical evaluation of the process. In Cold Storage, a student may wireframe a web interface to host a staggering body of multimedia content or produce a tightly-focused video or audio piece that is part of the featured content itself. In Homeless Paintings, a student may investigate painterly representation of religious themes or design an algorithm to help identify a lost painting’s present whereabouts.

The lost paintings come from Bernard Berenson’s monochrome photo archive of Renaissance art, which concurrently is the pilot collection of Curarium—a web platform that ingests collection metadata and media to enable both item-level annotation and macro-visualizations that showcase and tell stories about the relationships among objects. Looking forward it seeks to also enable and enrich the kinds of stories that can be told about the relationships among multiple collections most immediately adding content from the Harvard Art Museums and the Arnold Arboretum.

Approaches to visualizing data from the Arnold Arboretum is the focus of The Life and Death of Data, which brought a series of projections and a topographic foam cut to openLab in order to map spatial and temporal acquisition patterns of plants and shrubs. The project is also slated to develop an online interactive documentary experience.

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All of this merely scratches the surface of openLab, which also featured student work in data narrative, digital ethnography, and adversarial design from Mixed-Reality City and Connections, projects from the History Design Studio, work from Palladio at Stanford, and the bioluminescent Luminosities. Check out the video for a feel of the event.

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Visualizations Week in HS2!

In class during visualizations week, we focused to a great degree on the content of the viz, the value-add, the real reason for its rendering. But in section, we worked mostly on getting familiar with some data viz platforms. The students will carry these skills with them into their final projects and create visualizations that straddle nicely the gap between form and content, but for now they are strictly eye-candy. 

Some Lev Manovich Imageplotting:

776 Van Goghs plotted Hue-Median (x) v. Saturation-Median (y)

hue_median vs brightness_median

Students noticed some potential trends, do you?

Van Gogh Again, 776 Again

Brightness-Median (x) v. Brightness-Median (y)



Manyeyes Tag Cloud of the screenplay of 12 Years a Slave 

Screen Shot 2014-03-30 at 11.37.45 AM


Self-Explanatory Tagxedo



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Humanities Studio 2 Midcourse Highlights

For their midterm project, students were asked to develop a set of criteria for building a collection of Homeless Paintings and create a spotlight in Curarium to share the collection they derived from those criteria. The criteria could take the form of an ontological scheme, or it could focus on iconography, place, or creator, or take entirely different form. Regardless, the spotlight needed to explain the criteria, curate individual works by its terms, and strive for the high comprehensiveness.

You can see some of the students’ work on the Curarium platform, which has an ever-changing and improving face:

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In “Sign Sign of Three”, ungrad Shuya Gong studies paintings that feature Madonna, baby Jesus, and a third figure. She found 700 paintings and chose a sample group of 75 for her study. She categorized the paintings by how the three figures were arranged, finding that faces and poses came up again and again. She created a visually striking map and key of her chart of these figures’ relationship in space:


Screen Shot 2014-03-30 at 7.43.57 PM

Shuya went on to do a fascinating close reading of some particularly similar sets of paintings. You should certainly check out her spotlight on Curarium.

Ben Zauzmer’s “Auto-Reverse Google Image Search” was another stellar project, which also gives a sense of the diversity of skill sets and interests in the class. Ben explains in his spotlight: “I wrote a program that loops through all 11,233 and marks which ones have a Best Guess on Google Reverse Image Search. Since Google prevents scraping, I used Selenium WebDriver to repeatedly open and close a browser that would automatically search Google Images, and then I used Python to record the results and write them to a CSV. The program took about 31 hours to run, or 10 seconds per painting.”

He found that about 771, or 7%, were matches, and that, true to that proportion, 7 of the first 100 had matches. So he investigated those records manually as a representative sample. Take a look at what he found at his spotlight.

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

photo (16)

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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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 .


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.

olScreen Shot 2014-02-19 at 10.05.11 AM



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.

2014-02-19 11.22.27

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.

2014-02-19 11.27.42 2014-02-19 11.24.56


*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


-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


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.



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.


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.


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

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 7.55.54 PM

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 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.

vista 1

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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