Ideas

Your Story Has Touched My Heart

YOURSTORY_ (1)

For the last year, metaLAB artist-in-residence Sarah Newman and I have been exploring the American Professional Photographers Collection, a remarkable—and largely hidden—collection of images in the Harvard Art Museums. The collection contains the work of journeyman and master photographers, artisans who worked in their communities to document the hopes and fears of their neighbors and clients. Encompassing weddings and house fires, grand openings and crime scenes, funerals and parades, this body of work reflects nearly a century of American prosperity, turmoil, and transformation. And throughout, the collection has surprised us with its strangeness and intimacy.

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With some twenty thousand images dating from the 1890s to the 1970s, the collection defies the embrace of a single narrative or explanatory gesture. In its archival richness, its documentary idiosyncrasy and depth, it resists categorization. We see strange hints of wonder and worry, of joy and abjection, of collective struggle and piercing individuality.

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With generous help from the Harvard Art Museums, and in collaboration with our metaLAB colleagues (Jessica Yurkofsky, Cris Magliozzi, Marshall Lambert, and Krystelle Denis), we’ve created a multimedia appropriation piece in response to the material. Entitled Your Story Has Touched My Heart, the resulting video and computational installation will be exhibited in the Museums’ Lightbox Gallery from May 23 to June 6.

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In an event on May 25th at 3 pm, we’ll screen the work in the Museums’ Menschel Lecture Hall, and discuss the collection with art historian Kate Palmer Albers and Bobbie Norfleet, the sociologist, photographer, and former professor who developed the collection for Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. We’re excited to show Your Story Has Touched My Heart to friends, colleagues, and museum visitors, and to share the richness and wonder of this amazing collection. Full details on the project, the opening event, and a series of associated gallery talks, are available here.
Images courtesy of the Harvard Art Museums.

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Documenting Beautiful Data

With art museums making both their imagery and collections data open and accessible, the question arises: what to do with it all? This was the question put to participants in Beautiful Data II, a summer workshop supported by the Getty Research Institute and hosted by metaLAB with the Harvard Art Museums and the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts. For two weeks in July 2016, a gathering of art historians, curators, designers, and technologists forged concepts and skills necessary to make use of open collections to develop art-historical storytelling.

The workshop was extensively documented by participants and staff. metaLAB has now made that documentation public, in the form of a web site incorporating several data-visualization modes. As a provocation, we’ve treated this documentation as “data,” turning it into an array in JSON, an open data format used widely in web programming. This site visualizes the resulting data set in three ways: styled as content tiles; as “raw” metadata, with cross-referencing tags visibly linking records; and as a rotary timeline expressing those connections as arcs of adjacency. So although each visualization expresses the same data, its styling and features privilege certain characteristics and connections. Each has its emphases, and its missing elements as well. These interdependent visualizations not only offer a set of mnemonics for our class of participants; they also offer a collective provocation on the multimodal nature of “data” as a concept and norm.

In the first instance, our documentation data are visualized as media, in combinations of text and image. People are visualized as scans of their ID badges, which, during the workshop, identified us to one another and helped us pass in and out of the museum. Books, articles, and other resources show up as citations not unlike cards in a library catalogue or index file; presentations, projects, and other excursions are documented in images and descriptive tags. Vague, oblique, and fitfully incomplete, these documentary traces represent a “problem collection” in themselves.

An alternative visualization displays our documentation data in “raw” form as JSON, or JavaScript Object Notation, an open format which describes data objects as combinations of pairs of attributes and values. That formula might not be penetrable to you; what is essential to understand here is that we can use HTML, JavaScript, and other languages to interact with these data on web sites, making a direct connection between server and browser. Typically, these data reside invisibly in files accessed by the web sites we use to search and browse collections; here, we’ve made them visible. Clicking on tags visualizes additional linkages, as shared tags connect up and down the array. Clicking on ID numbers links every instance of that object cross-referenced in other fields throughout the dataset.

It’s important to note that these “raw” data are thoroughly cooked—they’re constructs, painstakingly transcribed in JSON format from manuscript notebooks and digital documents. This transcription necessarily involved ordering, structuring, excision, and revision. Increasingly, museums and other collections institutions are making their metadata available in this form for outside developers to interact with via Application Programming Interfaces that are open, accessible, and direct. JSON and APIs are not the only means for doing this. Another approach, called “linked open data,” is favored by some; still others practice “structured data” approaches using versions of XML. Each option has its benefits and drawbacks, its promises of utopia.

In an evocative circular graph, events, projects, presentations, and resources—“data objects” all—manifest as spokes on a wheel, their relative lengths reflecting the amount of media associated with each of them. Arcs express adjacencies in the form of shared tags. The default display, in color, expresses connections made in the JSON array on the previous screen. Mousing over an individual spoke shows its connections across the circle to other data objects that it references, with which it will tend to share resemblances. The arcs and spokes are evocative of connection and system, even as they may be less “transparent” in this view than in the other visualizations. What are “beautiful data”? They’re appealing, they’re lovely—and perhaps they’re a bit distant and incomprehensible as well, as they withdraw from us into their beauty.

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Blueprints and Happenings

Coming up on Tuesday, May 10, 5–8 pm:

Talk + Exhibition event celebrating the publication of
BLUEPRINT FOR COUNTER EDUCATION
EXPANDED EDITION (Inventory Press — DAP)
CRC/bookshop, Level 3
Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts
Harvard University
24 Quincy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
+1 617.496.5387
ccva@fas.harvard.edu
http://blueprintforcountereducation.com/

with
Maurice Stein (original co-author)
Larry Miller (original co-author)
Jeffrey Schnapp (metaLAB)
Adam Michaels (Project Projects)

The book Blueprint for Counter Education by Maurice Stein and Larry Miller appeared in 1970 as a boxed set with three large graphic posters and a bibliography and checklist that map patterns and relationships between radical thought and artistic practices⎯from the modernist avant-gardes to postmodernism⎯with the philosopher Herbert Marcuse and media theorist Marshall McLuhan serving as intellectual points of anchorage. The book could be assembled into a portable, do-it-yourself learning environment with the posters and an accompanying “shooting script” functioning as a basis for a critically informed, activist and learner-driven model of education. Blueprint for Counter Education became one of the most defining works of radical pedagogy of the Vietnam War era and eventually integrated into the Critical Studies curriculum at California Institute of the Arts.

On the occasion of the release of an expanded edition of Blueprint for Counter Education designed by Project Projects and published by Inventory Press, the Consumer Research Center/bookshop at the Carpenter Center hosts a two-day exhibition, roundtable discussion and book presentation. Organized by Jeffrey Schnapp, the event brings together original authors Maurice Stein and Larry Miller Blueprint for Counter Education in conversation with Schnapp and Project Projects principal Adam Michaels.

Jeffrey Schnapp
Jeffrey Schnapp is the founder/faculty director of metaLAB (at) Harvard and faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. At Harvard, he serves as Professor of Romance Literatures and Comparative Literature, and is on the teaching faculty in the Department of Architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Effective June 2015, he assumed the position of Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of Piaggio Fast Forward, a Cambridge-based company devoted to developing innovative solutions to the transportation challenges of the contemporary world.

Adam Michaels
Adam Michaels is a graphic designer, editor, and publisher. He is cofounder of Project Projects, winner of the 2015 National Design Award in Communication Design, and founder of Inventory Press, which publishes books on topics in art, architecture, design, and music, with an emphasis on subcultures, minor histories, and the sociopolitical aspects of material culture.

Larry Miller
Larry Miller is a sociologist and was a member of the editorial collectives of the New American Movement newspaper and the journal Socialist Revolution/Socialist Review. He has written about major theorists and writers such as Marx, Gramsci, Althusser and Machiavelli.

Maurice R. Stein
Maurice R. Stein is an American sociologist and innovator in higher education. Stein is co-recipient of the 1987 Robert and Helen Lynd Lifetime Achievement Award bestowed by the American Sociological Association’s Community and Urban Sociology Section. Retired from Brandeis University since 2002, Stein resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

 

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The Book Biography Machine at the Medieval Academy of America

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The Book Biography Machine was recently presented at the conference for the Medieval Academy of America, along with studies of The Divine Comedy by Dante scholars Matthew Collins and Francesco Marco Aresu.

Currently in development, it is an interface that permits humanities scholars to map the diffusion of written works across geographic space and time in order to ask new questions about the history of literature. Written works are organized into collections of bibliographic information that are differentiated by color. Time is represented on the vertical axis, while space is represented across the horizontal plane. Information may either be initially downloaded via the WorldCat API over the Machine’s interface and iteratively edited for accuracy and scholarly intent, or it may be independently collected, curated and organized into a spreadsheet by the scholar. The latter was the case with the work presented at the MAA, since both Matthew and Marco rigorously constructed and verified their own very large data sets.

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As a more recent development, individual fields of information are associated with their own tertiary color. The example above contains information for manuscript material for Divine Comedy Manuscripts from 1355 to 1400 – paper vs. parchment, to be precise. Paper is magenta / purple, while parchment is magenta / pink.

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Matthew’s study centered on printed publications of Dante’s work, with time and place referring to point of publication, coinciding with the original graphic intent of the interface. Collections pertaining to printings in English and printings with illustrations were developed and visualized.

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Marco’s study focused on written manuscripts, many of which had no record indicating place of creation – only current place of occupancy. This provided an interesting challenge for legibly visualizing his information, which we addressed by drawing lines back from each place of occupancy to the region surrounding Italy.

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This opened up a conversation about the study of provenance in literature: What about the dates of accession for the different manuscripts? Were there places of rest between the area of origin and final destinations? Were there physical changes to any of the manuscripts along the way? If there is a general notion pertaining to any of these questions but no certainty, or if there simply no notion at all, how would probability or ambiguity be expressed so other scholars would know that there is a mystery to solve? To package these questions: Could there be a way for the Machine to express a deep and complex history for a few books in addition to a broad history for many?

In addition to other points of feedback, these questions are providing direction for further development of the Machine as a tool for humanities scholars.

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Appropriate Memories: A Photography Remix Studio

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In this studio-based design workshop, students will respond to and remix an extensive set of photographs from the Harvard Art Museum’s collection: over 20,000 images amassed by sociologist and photographer Barbara Norfleet in the late twentieth century, and known as the American Professional Photographers Collection.

This wintersession course will be team-taught by artists and designers from Harvard’s metaLAB, and will focus on contemporary precedents (artistic and philosophical) for remixing, archives, and making meaning from complex historical artifacts. Students will use appropriation, photography, drawing, collage, and writing to respond to this historical collection. The four-day workshop will culminate in a pop-up exhibition, open to the public. Great for anyone interested in art, photography, history, experimentation, and narrative, the workshop will be playful and the outputs will be rich. No previous experience required.

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Visualizing Textual Data

Rows of black bars break across an expanse of digital whiteness, each unfolding branch asserting a tenuous yet implicit truth. Graphical data, whether taking form as a mass of scatterplots or a confluence of lines summoned into being, assume the function of pure fact. To some, it can come across as cold, unkind, even patriarchal. At the same time, such data, as fact, betrays the sense in which, as early modern Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico would put it, “the truth is made.” What truths, indeed, do we observe upon observing the “graphs, maps, and trees” that increasingly form the epistemological units of literary and other areas of humanistic study?

This fall, the metaLAB team began to mull the implications of these questions while considering design challenges inherent in presenting computationally-produced data. In the process, we began to realize that whatever information a graph may offer, it generally does not evince insight into its own ontology. To the contrary, data mined using traditional tools and methods arguably conceals as much as it reveals. To this end, we began to wonder: how might we leverage design skills to re-conceive how text mining looks, works, reads, functions?

These questions animate a metaLAB project focused on text mining and multi-authored early modern works. Initiated at Vanderbilt and developed recently at the Folger Institute in D.C. and at Harvard’s metaLAB, Shakespeare, Editor deploys both digital and traditional analytical methods to visualize the “hand” of Shakespeare in a selection of works to which he contributed so as to better grasp his role as collaborator and editor. Primary among these works are Robert Chester’s 1601 multi-author pamphlet, Love’s Martyr, a singular collection containing poems by Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, George Chapman, and John Marston as well as Robert Chester, the traditionally assumed editor of this volume, to whom only this work of print has been attributed.

Shakespeare, Editor?

The hypothesis behind Shakespeare, Editor, which mines and visualizes Love’s Martyr’s authorial boundaries using various stylometric applications, is that portions of text attributed to Chester within Love’s Martyr indicate stylistically significant departures from work signed by him here and in manuscript. As findings suggest, these sections—known as “The Cantos”—align stylistically and technically far more with Shakespeare’s poetry than with the work of either Chester or the other authors who contributed to the volume. As I shared with the lab, one of the most intriguing components of this research was my discovery that sixty years ago, G. Wilson Knight independently reached similar conclusions regarding Shakespearean “doctoring” in this pamphlet using traditional philological methods.

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G. Wilson Knight’s The Mutual Flame. “The thoughts and impressions continually suggest the theme of Shakespeare’s Sonnets,” the scholar wrote of Love’s Martyr’s “Cantos” in 1955.

Due to the collaborative nature of the text, as well as the controversial possibility that Shakespeare may have been enlisted as editor or indeed composer of poems not signed by him, the data structures produced by this project beg important questions regarding the epistemological status of the graph. As Matthew put it following my recent presentation, how might these graphs “blackbox” certain knowledges while privileging other, perhaps less telling data? Questions or observations raised by Cris, James, Jeffrey and Jessica likewise drew attention to the nature of data that appears, at first instance, to be self-explanatory, yet upon closer inspection is revealed to be increasingly difficult to interpret and decode.

These questions bear upon Shakespeare, Editor particularly, for our interest is not merely to map author X’s ontological boundaries onto text Y, as revealing as this endeavor may be. Rather, we wonder, how might we develop a lucid methodology for representing conversational, collaborative, and editorial energies within a text as strangely palimpsested as Love’s Martyr? That is, how might we produce data structures that responsibly and accurately delineate such distinctions and progressions while yielding interpretive models that might be interactive, or even attempt to mirror the conversational dynamics of the volume itself?

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The only work signed by Shakespeare in Love’s Martyr is “The Phoenix and Turtle”; stylometric and other evidence suggests that he may have collaborated elsewhere in the volume. Image courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Further work on imaging Love’s Martyr’s collaborative boundaries will be explored in the coming months. Mainly, work will be done to elucidate the text’s editorial dimensions alongside works Shakespeare was known to have written collaboratively. These efforts build toward metaLAB’s partnership in the Text Mining the Novel Initiative (NovelTM), an international consortium that “seeks to produce the first large-scale cross-cultural study of the novel according to quantitative methods.” Moving forward, metaLAB will seek not only to imagine possibilities for displaying textual data more expressively, but also to explore how the very processes of “mining” works of literature might yield new forms of data altogether, including visual data.

Additionally, we’ll continue to explore the philosophical and practical implications of our research. As I began to consider recently, quantitative research may always yield adamantine impressions, even to digital practitioners at ease with quantitative tools and forms of articulation. However, when treating objects like dendrograms as if they possess ontologies, bound up with yet distinct from the textual bodies to which they have come in contact, we may be better prepared to regard these graphs as something other than crude interpretations of texts to which they refer. Recognizing that these data are also representations of this very content, we may also come to regard these objects with a feeling of heightened curiosity. For in addition to whatever practical knowledge may be gleaned from them, these diagrams present us with a virtual image, a distortion of an event in time that has been instantaneously stamped and destabilized.

Shakespeare, Editor will be featured as a Digital Exhibition at the Shakespeare Association of America’s 2016 Conference in New Orleans, March 23-26.

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Little boxes, anechoic & illuminated

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Again and again, we humans tire of standing upright in the sun, protruding into the buzzing, blooming world; as Gaston Bachelard explores in The Poetics of Space, his revelatory study of the dreamworlds of domestic dwelling, we’re forever wanting to wall ourselves away in order to nourish reverie and repose. As children, we treasured ourselves in closets, burrows, and hampers, where in fragrant dark we discovered our embodied selves at once tidily composed and diffuse, disaggregate. The best spaces for such secreting, in Bachelard’s estimation, are small, dark abodes, rooted in the earth. As adults, and moderns, we may want to resist this atavistic impulse—and yet the shadowed intimacy draws us into its embrace again and again. Accessing a sudden smallness amidst the solvent shadows, we escape for awhile the prison of our edges.

A couple of recent projects at metaLAB have me thinking with a fresh, frank ingenuousness about small spaces, and sense and affect, and reverie, and wonder. Each project—A Bit in the Abyss, a shipping-container-based light and sound installation for Boston’s Illuminus festival, about which Cris Magliozzi previously posted; and To Sit Without Echoes, a pop-up, flat-packable anechoic chamber we produced in collaboration with Peter McMurray (Harvard) and Michael Heller (Pitt)—was motivated by its own unique set of questions. Although the projects started from very different places—one began with an attempt to meditate on magnitudes of cyberspace and digital memory in cosmic context; the other emerged from exploration of John Cage’s interest in the impossibility of silence—they quickly plunged us into material encounters. Starting from datasets documenting domain-name registrations and archival research into twentieth-century acoustic science at Harvard, we suddenly found ourselves sorting out knotty problems with mirrored acrylic, transducer speakers, foam insulation, and the acoustic properties of plywood, sorbothane, and medium-density fibreboard.

These material and design problems were hard! They asked everyone at metaLAB to make use of their skills in art and design, while pushing ambitiously into woodworking, sound design, and physical computing. Due to a conjunction of unanticipated rescheduling and ambitious overcommitment, both projects came due on successive weekends, and the combined stress took a toll on everyone. In the midst of this crush of fabrication and installation, metaLAB shone as a team of gritty, ingenious makers. Despite the madness, a few themes and notions emerged from our tiny boxes that have me buzzing still.

silence is a fabrication
Peter McMurray, Mike Heller, and I had been speaking for the better part of a year about the composer John Cage (1912–1992) and his productive relationship with the impossibility of silence, famously activated by his visit to the anechoic chamber at Harvard in 1951. An apparatus for acoustic research built to support Harvard’s wartime research, the chamber was designed to shut out sound from outside while suppressing the reflection and propagation of sound within. The chamber no longer exists; there is a grassy sward where the large, blocky, temporary structure once stood on Oxford Street, and all that remains is a cluster of pyramidal foam tiles, wan and dessicated, treasured in the Collection of Historic Scientific Instruments.

We were pondering intersections of our interests in archives, memory, sound, art and science with Cage’s evocation of silence in the world as a kind of impossible, demoniac quality, fickle and elusive. But Peter and Mike wanted to ponder materially—they wanted to make an anechoic chamber for ourselves. Where do the possibilities of scholarly inquiry trickle away, and the chances for discovery through materials, making, and creative research well up? So with metaLAB’s collaboration and a portfolio of research funds pieced together by Mike and Peter, we set to work. With the ingenuity and elegance of James Yamada, one of metaLAB’s architects, the tracery of a structure began to take shape as measured drawings in plan and section. James curated possible materials with great care, assessing the likely anechoic properties of poplar and fiberboard, expanded metal and bluejean-based insulation.

As we went from design to construction, however, a realization gathered force: we had gone searching for silence in such fractious and recalcitrant materials. With the rest of the team working on working on the shipping container installation, fabrication challenges on the anechoic chamber imprisoned Cris for what seemed like weeks at a makerspace across the town line in Somerville, where he wrestled mightily with sheets of plywood, glue, and table saws. Day by day, help arrived: Marshall Lambert, our graphic designer, got herself cleared to use the woodshop, and soon her days too were speckled with sawdust. Don Rodrigues, a grad student specializing in text mining, commuted in from Rhode Island to lend his hand with gluing and nailing, while Peter McMurray made his way to the shop to help with measuring and marking, even after an injury left him painfully restricted to crutches. (Peter also produced the video montage below documenting the chamber’s construction, and composed three scored encounters with silence as provocations for anechoic listening, one of which is reproduced above.) In the last few days, James Yamada, our creative technologist and architect, who designed the structure with careful attention to acoustic criteria, joined the team to oversee the delicate work of joinery. Amidst a clamor of machining, welding, and other making activities washed over us from adjoining studio space, a chamber-like structure began to suggest its shape in plywood. And yet the glamor of silence seemed elusive.

Fabricating Silence from peter mcmurray on Vimeo.

Throughout the building work, I often found myself running a hand across a rough face of plywood or tapping a sheet of MDF with my knuckles, wondering where the silence was in the stuff. Even as James, Mike, and I stood on the day of installation amidst panels (laid out pell-mell in a music rehearsal room in Lancaster and freshly glued up with insulation and acoustic foam), I wondered whether silence would ever make itself as it were heard. And yet, even before the foam-and-fiber-swaddled chamber was fully assembled, we discovered that it produced an anechoic effect: I dipped my head into the uncompleted space to tighten a zip-tie, and felt the air around my head go dead and wooly. We had expected the suppression of noise from outside would be a simple enough matter, while a true anechoic effect—creating a space that actively attenuates the propagation of noises within, dampening and deflecting all detectable resonance—would be harder to achieve. What we found was precisely the opposite: although the finished chamber doesn’t block outside sounds entirely, the anechoic effect within is striking. The dark space seems to envelope tangibly, while the edges of the box—the walls, still redolent of Elmer’s glue and the binding agents of the MDF board—are difficult to intuit and locate in space. Snapping one’s fingers produces a report in the hand without resonating in the space; vocal utterance curdles, trapped in the mask of the face. Leaving the completed chamber for the first time after several minutes of anechoic listening, I was struck by the shrill timbre of my voice, which seemed to rebound shimmeringly from the walls of the conference center hall.

I might have composed a piece of prose that tried, however fumblingly, to measure the burgeoning internet against cosmic scales; similarly, we could explore the cultural history of silence in anodyne, textually-driven scholarly terms. And yet these acts of making generated questions that complement and extend the scholarship in fresh and surprising directions: toward the affective dimensions of data and space, which tend toward reverie and wonder.

affect
How is connection signalled, sensed, solicited, resisted? What kinds of abundance spill over in the allegedly-efficient passage of information from node to node? What stirs and shapes the mood or atmosphere of a room, a class, an institution, a district, a network? How is silence done? We built the Anechoic Chamber for an Affect Theory conference hosted by Millersville University in Lancaster, PA, where it appeared as a material complement to Mike Heller’s panel talk on the uses of silence in science, technology, and art in the mid twentieth century. The conference presented us with a chance to muse on the affective dimension of experience and its role, complicating and ramifying, in politics, art, and everyday life. I fear that at its least useful, “affect theory” treats attention to emotional states and qualities as a kind of universal acid—always at the ready, promising neat reductions of art works, discourses, and social milieux. But approached judiciously, the affective dimension offers an inspiring vector of insight into phenomenologies of meaning, intention, connection. Without the animating presence of affect, A Bit in the Abyss and the anechoic chamber are nothing more than figured volumes; awash in the emotional energies we co-create with them, however, they become vital spaces, liquid spaces, expansive and alive. These small structures, which begin to feel like homes for or (better) shrines to the senses, don’t produce any given affect automatically (though they can, admittedly, be powerfully persuasive in suggesting or privileging forms of response). Rather, they take up and throw off various striations, defenses, borders; they welcome and succor certain dispositions while abrading or aggravating others. They invite us to come with a certain attitude, a poise. They cultivate relations. They’re co-creative.

theatrical materiality
Recognizing affect’s role, I have a dawning appreciation for the theatricality of objects. Theatre—the social and embodied art form of human bodies and voices—cultivates an intersubjective liquefaction deeper and more thoroughgoing than the mere suspension of disbelief. We enter this uncanny, playful, rewarding realm through affective disposition—a shifting choreography of attitudes and receptive postures taken up by both players and audience. Carpentered together with skill, these postures generate an overspilling abundance of responsive wonder. Objects, too, participate in this choreography; things can invite and partake in theatrical play in surprising ways. Such happens perforce with stage props, of course; but objects are already poised to perform, and can enter into theatrical play with an audience without the direct intercession of players.

Again, this glamor emerged out of fractious materials, as the metaLAB team labored to make something new together. Krystelle Denis devised the structural approach to mirroring the container, and created a sound piece sampled from the ringing, dappled soundscape of the container itself, putting data into play with the gestural form of a rectangular prism sketched in angle brackets and lit with LEDs programmed by Jessica Yurkofsky. Sarah Newman and Cris both furnished crucial design-thinking rigor and inspiration. And when she wasn’t sawing and gluing the anechoic chamber, Marshall Lambert designed a winning keepsake postcard for festival visitors, which could be cut and assembled into a tiny shipping container. It must be said, too, that the whole project hummed along thrillingly thanks to the kind support of Eagle Leasing, who provided the container, granted us space, time, and advice in construction, and delivered the work to Boston’s Landsdowne Street on the day of the show. It arrived as a metal box on a flatbed truck at 6:30 in the morning; twelve hours later, it transported festival-goers to an immersive realm of wonder and speculation.

“As I have said there are certain prerequisites” to making magic of this kind with small spaces, Junichiro Tanizaki asserts in his essay “In Praise of Shadows”:

a degree of dimness, absolute cleanliness, and quiet so complete one can hear the hum of a mosquito. I love to listen… to the sound of softly falling rain… one can listen with such a sense of intimacy to the raindrops falling from the eaves and the trees, seeping into the earth as they wash over the base of a stone lantern and freshen the moss about the stepping stones.

Tanizaki is describing the outhouse of a traditional Japanese home, with its twilight mood and softening surfaces of tatami and wood. “In such places,” Tanizaki concludes,” the distinction between the clean and the unclean is best left obscure, shrouded in a dusky haze.” As Tanizaki shows, whole realms of taste and judgement emerge out of just these humble cultural commitments, adumbrated affectively in daily entanglements with space and materials. metaLAB’s two tiny houses are put to purposes more abstract and academic than Tanizaki’s cherished toilets. But as shrines to sense, affect, and reverie, they’ve proven an inspiring start.

A Bit in the Abyss from metaLAB(at)Harvard on Vimeo.

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A Bit in the Abyss

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The lot at Eagle Leasing. Photo by Sarah Newman

As the metaLAB team arrived in Oxford, Massachusetts at Eagle Leasing, a tidy inventory of shipping containers greeted us. One is destined to be the home of an immersive, multi-sensory experience we are crafting for the upcoming ILLUMINUS Boston, a nighttime festival to take place on Landsdowne Street the weekend of October 3rd as part of HUBweek.

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The staff was incredibly helpful. GIF by Cristoforo Magliozzi

Our entry in the festival asks what information looks like when it reaches towards infinity with knowledge, memory, and data stored in ever-larger aggregates of servers. The project is inspired by the Internet Archive, which hosts Open Library, the Wayback Machine, and several other digital-archiving projects; together, they seek nothing less than to digitize and treasure up all the world’s knowledge. It is a theme familiar to metaLAB with a number of projects, such as the Cold Storage interactive documentary, engaging archives and storage systems.

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Our shipping container, the smallest available, is roughly a 10-foot cube. Photo by Marshall Lambert.

In first contact with our staging, the team was struck by the sensory experience a shipping container creates when shuttered. The resulting disorientation and discomfort evoked accounts of human trafficking and ongoing migrant crises around the globe. We decided we would like to engage these thoughts further, but with the time limitations of this particular piece, we are sticking to the initial themes we set out to convey.

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Even with doors wide-open, a shipping container is not the brightest of places to inhabit. Photo by Marshall Lambert.

Through representation of a “Petabox” — the digital storage server designed by the Internet Archive for the networked curation of digital data, the use of extended mirrored walls to transcend the shipping containers confined quarters, and a data-expressive use of lights and sound, the piece will require a combination of physical and digital fabrication to realize our vision. It is a vision which at its core, makes use of the “Droste Effect,” which occurs when images are reflected among multiple mirrors to create the impression of an infinite series. The effect is also called mise-en-abyme, a French phrase, which translates as “to place in the abyss.” The phrase evokes the existential condition of information storage: as we digitize recorded knowledge, it falls into a virtual abyss of abstraction.

Some notable precedents in mirrored exhibition:


Unlimited Urban Woods in Amsterdam.

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Lucas Samaras 1966 Mirrored Room. Images from Twistedsifter.com


Infinity Cube by Microsoft


Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama has done a number of infinity-room-based pieces, including this one, entitled Fireflies on the Water in 2002.

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A early metaLAB mock-up of a server in a mirror room.

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The team mise en scéne for “A Bit in the Abyss” Photo by Sarah Newman.

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Beautiful Data II

Collecting inherently involves choices— what to acquire or not acquire, preserve or not preserve, and what to exhibit or not to exhibit, whether that collecting occurs in the physical or virtual realm.

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We sift through what is available and sort out materials, media, and metadata based on subjective relevances and so when collections get established, reconfigured, appropriated, or integrated with others, they all surface themselves as problem collections. This was an underlying theme to the second edition of Beautiful Data, a 9-day workshop sponsored by the Getty Foundation, and this year hosted in a combination of spaces from the Harvard Art Museums and Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts.

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Participants were able to dialogue with content in the Harvard Art Museums’ galleries, conservation center, and look at materials behind-the-scenes in the Arts Study center, while also having a space back at the Carpenter Center to engage on a journey of rapid prototyping ideas within in a cross-pollinated and interdisciplinary environment.

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What unfolded was a dynamic mix of specific, micro-examinations of particular collections and enlarged perspectives at the system level with the macro perspective that metadata lends to help us question how we label and describe the world around us. But there were also many conceptual forays into qualitative and quantitative art scholarship, exhibition, and even law with a look at how museums convey terms of service.

One moment brought discourse on the decontextualization of King Tutankhamun’s loin cloths outside the original tomb, while the next would examine how art is catalogued in ways that exhibit absences and excesses of race. Cat photos lent themselves to discussion about web privacy and the Carpenter Center’s architectural features were used to create an algorithm for displaying media. As some proposed modes to reintroduce the use of senses forbidden to the museum visitor, others sought ways to capture asynchronous emotional engagement with art through a generative projection exercise.

Through paper, code, video, animation, wireframes, and other means, participants experimented and expressed curiosities as both individuals and teams with both personal and institutional goals. Much can be done to test ideas with simple arts and crafts materials, basic technology, or, even just some imagination. It was a thrill to see the community of Beautiful Data II test the limits with what was at their disposal, expanding the field of possibility and then working to isolate a few ideas to test from an abundance of concept.

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The ghosts of poets’ voices walk the yard

I’ve long been a fan of Halsey Burgund, a sound artist and musician who works with the human voice in both compositions and place-based installations. So I’ve been excited to work with Halsey these last few weeks, in conjunction with the Woodberry Poetry Room, to develop a locative experience on poetry for Harvard’s upcoming LitFest. The resulting project, re~verse (for iOS devices), is a portal to a participatory, location-based sound installation in which fragments of recorded poetry from Harvard’s collections—the voices of renowned poets—crowd together at the gates of Harvard Yard. Like tourists, students, and the many passers-by who make up the migrant denizens of campus, they cluster at the gates before dispersing, chorusing with music and one another across stanzas and centuries. From gate to gate, they combine with the voices of users of the app, who are invited to contribute to a growing, unfolding work of art with responses, recitations, and reveries.

The app assembles more than a thousand pieces of audio, samples taken from the extraordinary audio archive of poetry readings gathered in the Woodberry collection (see the map below, which shows Halsey’s placement of audio files for the project, and gives a sense of the magnitude of the media in play). And yet Halsey’s app allows this density of archival sound to reach listeners intimately and evocatively, as voices whispering quietly, pacing alongside, inviting them to venture their own reflections.

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While re~verse is available globally from the App Store, it ties its sound media ineluctably to site—in this case, to the gates of the Yard—so to experience it fully, you’ll need to install the app on your iOS device, plug in your headphones, and wander Harvard’s Cambridge campus. This is a poetic encounter with place.

This Tuesday night, you can join us in Barker Center’s Thompson Room for the opening celebration of re~verse. During this event, those dynamic and vital voices will fill the Thompson Room in Barker Center as participants immerse themselves in, contribute to, and stand among a growing, unfolding work (or working) of art. We’ll invite participants to install the app or borrow a device to wander across Quincy Street, where the books stand open and the gates unbarred, to chorus with poets.

Get re~verse (for iOS)

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