Ideas

Boston-area Snowfall Via Drone

Over the last few snowfalls here in Cambridge, we flew our little DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter, which we previously used in shooting Cold Storage, to document the wintry conditions from above. We observed instances of icicle build-up on various Harvard buildings from up close, could see how pedestrian traffic was directed through the narrows of cleared pathways, and were also able to see how the storm affected visibility compared to what clear conditions would afford us on the same kind of flights.

We were careful to observe new FAA regulations by keeping the craft in visual line of sight, and as we already had done through the firmware, limited the elevation of our flights to sub-500 feet. The expanse of the spaces we captured were in effect stitched together from a number of shorter flights, which was also necessary due to the battery-life limitations of the craft on a single charge. The on-board transmitter we installed also enables us to also see what the onboard GoPro is seeing in its immediate vicinity, giving us two visual references. As another safety measure, we always ensure that the quadcopter has a GPS-link before taking off, which has it return to hover over its starting location in the instance of any issue due to interference or incapacitation of the pilot.

Getting to these kind of visuals has been a gradual learning process, taking numerous test flights to understand how well the drone corrects its own position due to wind drift, how immediately responsive it is at various altitudes, and developing refined motor skills for the operation of the remote control. Through responsible usage, we hope to provide a unique vantage point for numerous other metaLAB projects and initiatives.

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Cold Storage Premiere Today

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Harvard President, Charles William Eliot, spoke of the library’s needs at the turn of the 20th Century, proposing “not a crematorium for dead books, but only a receiving tomb.” Receiving tombs were holding places for bodies that couldn’t be buried in the frozen winter ground and so an apt analogy for those books that a library was not quite ready to retire permanently from the collection. With its single-module beginnings in 1986, the Harvard Depository was a module of narrow-aisled, space-saving, climate-controlled efficiency that was designed with the dark archive in mind—a place principally focused on preservation rather than convenient access.

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But in time, it would emerge that with the many spokes of Harvard’s library network, having an offsite hub to aid in dissemination and circulation materials was something desired by the University. With electronic requests and van-based courier service, the Depository grew into something more. It grew into a place just as likely to hold Battlestar Galactica DVDs and Playboy Anthologies as it was to hold Harvard Police archives, Julia Child cookbooks, and 35mm film prints. While much of the collection retains the spirit of non-circulation, the small percentage that does circulate still amounts to a sizable 250,000 items each year.

From one module, the Depository grew to 7. Eight if you count module B. And with the latter modules 5-7 being larger than their earlier counterparts, it would seem that even these numbers do not do the expansion justice. With each module more trees cleared away from the Southborough campus’ landscape and more processed trees with ink laden on compressed pulp found its way to its chilly interiors. These interiors also maintained by visible expressions of scale, with massive air ducts, fans, and other churning mechanisms filtering the air from pollutants and regulating both humidity and temperature along cycles adaptive to the exterior environment.

Cold Storage, in delving into the story of the Depository and what it says about the bigger picture of expanding human knowledge, found its storage mirroring its subject. One hard drive module grew to two. Manners of codifying materials became increasingly necessary to be able to call what was needed for the execution of the film. And it would now seem that in backing up the repositories of production to datatape, the Harvard Depository might become the receiving tomb for their storage as well.

The digital is not the end point for the challenges of decay, as hard drives too feel the slow march of time. And digitization across collections still butts up against a number of challenges. There are challenges of scale when different items need different handling and manners of imaging. There are challenges of copyright—where despite no active rights holders coming forward, a number of so-called “orphan works” remain off limits. Changes to copyright law has made created an opt-out environment that defaults items to protection and over longer terms than ever before. Then there is the artifactual value—books with sheep-skin bindings, palimpsests with traces of previously written works, and the notes from past readers complete with makeshift bookmarks that signal clues to their lives in aggregate to the author’s own ponderings.

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Today culminates a journey in storytelling using drones for aerial footage, with dollies to track long expanses, and with GoPros to get to perilously high, on the move, or hard-to-reach places. It brings together discussions we’ve had about libraries of the past, made most manifest in reference to Alain Resnais’ Toute la mémoire du monde, with what challenges for the future of libraries look like in their ever-evolving role as network, database, and civic space. Following on the release of the film, we will be making available a website to explore the many artifacts we came across, from the repositories of our own production material to documents dug up in the corners of the Harvard Archives by hardworking summer interns. And in this, we will explore notions of the database as documentary, the curatorial attentions of the visitor, and the blurred lines that coexisting media forms from multiple creators create in conversations about genre and authorship.

Join us for the premiere today, February 6th, at 3:30 PM in the Piper Auditorium at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Cold Storage will debut along Icons of Knowledge, an architectural research exhibition by Daniel Rauchwerger and Noam Dvir, which looks at the history and evolution of national library buildings.

Following the screening there will be a panel featuring:

Haden Guest, Director of the Harvard Film Archive
Sarah Thomas, Vice President for the Harvard Library
Eric Howeler, Department of Architecture, Harvard Graduate School of Design
Daniel Rauchwerger, Co-curator, Icons of Knowledge, GSD
Noam Dvir, Co-curator, Icons of Knowledge, GSD
Cristoforo Magliozzi, Director, Cinematographer, and Editor, Cold Storage
Matthew Battles, Associate Director, metaLAB

Jeffrey Schnapp, Faculty Director of metaLAB, will moderate.

For those unable to attend, check out the ever-expanding and developing web documentary at coldstoragedoc.com.

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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.

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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 ArtMuseumTeaching.com, 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.

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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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