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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
Taking place between July 6 – July 16th, 2015, Beautiful Data II represents our second annual workshop supported by the Getty Foundation aimed at addressing challenges and opportunities with art museum open data.
Participants will be introduced to concepts and skills necessary to make use of open collections to develop art-historical storytelling through data visualization, interactive media, enhanced curatorial description and exhibition practice, digital publication, and data-driven, object-oriented teaching.
This second annual offering of Beautiful Data will focus on “difficult collections” poised on the edge of the digital/material divide. We’ll address collections of things that resist ready digitization, or exist as ephemeral and hybrid objects and events. We’ll ponder data as a medium for art with its own curatorial and preservation challenges. And we’ll consider ways of working with new-media artists in the context of materials and mixed-media collections. The workshop will take place at the recently-reopened Harvard Art Museums, in its remarkable new building designed by Renzo Piano, where we’ll have access to reimagined facilities for the study and exhibition of objects of abiding interest. Check out the video above for a preview of the venue.
Intended for art historians, scholars of visual culture, and museum professionals at all career stages, admission is on a competitive basis. All participants will receive a stipend covering housing and travel expenses.
Applications are due by 11:59 p.m. EST on April 1, 2015.
For more information including documentation of last year’s workshop, and to apply, please visit beautifuldata.metalab.harvard.edu.
Please direct questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
During the summer of 2014, the Getty Trust launched an important new initiative in digital art history designed to help art historians and museum professionals to explore the opportunities and challenges of new and emergent technologies. Along with George Mason and UCLA, metaLAB hosted one of the workshops devised for this purpose: ours was entitled Beautiful Data and involved some 23 scholars, curators, technologists, and designers. The program has been renewed, so a new and improved Beautiful Data II is now in preparation, along with analogous workshops at George Mason and UCLA. As a token of the importance that the Getty attributes to the digital turn in art history and cultural history writ large, the Trust invited Johanna Drucker and myself to contribute brief prefatory essays to its 2014 Annual Report. These have now been published at http://www.getty.edu/about/governance/trustreport/2014/index.html also available in a downloadable pdf.
My contribution is entitled “The Scale of the Human Record.” It begins with a rumination on Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the 2010 documentary in which,under difficult conditions, the German director set out to explore the remarkable complex of Aurignacian paintings discovered in the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave in 1994. It then moves on to consider questions of cognitive scale:
In the wake of this vicarious journey to the beginnings of human culture, I was left reflecting on a question of scale that informs much of my current speculative thinking and experimental practice in the domain of digital art and humanities. The stories that the Chauvet parietal paintings tell, like the story that unfolds in frame after frame of Cave of Forgotten Dreams, is closely tied to the scale of the human body and its perceptual apparatus. Both traffic in objects and events that fall within the framework of ordinary, possible, or plausible human experience; objects and events that humans can somehow see, hear, smell, taste, or touch; animals that can eat others or be eaten; tools by means of which such creatures can be subdued from a safe distance; corridors available to the ancient hunter or modern spelunker; image arrays that, no matter how big or small, remain readily graspable by human eyes. Whether as individuals or collectivities, we typically find meaning in what is available to us as experience and, accordingly, it is on this very scale that human experience and the cultural record of human experience have been shaped. One might say that, in this one regard, little has changed from the Aurignacian era to our own, despite the many ways in which our perceptual faculties have been extended by instruments such as telescopes, microscopes, microphones, and sensors.
The essay goes on to show how even an apparently simple site such as Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc can contain spatial, temporal, and material complexities that defy our cognitive abilities unless these are aided by tools and techniques that expand their powers. It concludes by extending this lesson to the data rich caverns of our own era:
In the immersive data caves of the twenty-first century, the same sorts of complexities and opportunities abound that made this ice age database the worthy subject of Herzog’s probing eye. They arise at the level of understanding large systems in all of their sometimes overwhelming intricacy; and they arise alike at the level of grappling with the beauty and significance of individual objects as well as the particulars that make them up. This is not an either/or proposition with respect to traditional practices of art-historical inquiry, but rather an expansion of their scope, reach, and even audience. As open content initiatives like those undertaken by the Getty expose ever vaster portions of the cultural record to public view, the tools and tasks of storytelling must themselves expand to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities of the Digital Age.
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.
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.
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.
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.