metaLAB projects seek to establish new standards of scholarly excellence, imagination, and impact even as they hack conventional academic structures. They privilege collaboration, experimentation, and iteration. Large or small, they derive their substance not only from rigorous research and design thinking but also from the input of audiences, end-users, and peers.
Some projects operate within university walls, others outside. metaLAB serves as a catalyst, incubator, and platform, working to spin off selected projects into freestanding, sustainable ventures.
Effective the spring semester of 2014, metaLAB has launched a new category of studio courses that are open to all FAS students. Humanities Studios are project-based courses designed to foster translational thinking. They combine in-depth research, design thinking, and hands-on training with digital tools and media in an environment that involves sustained cross-disciplinary teamwork. At once practical and experimental, Humanities Studio courses renew the relevance of the critical and narrative tools of the arts and sciences for a world in which technology is a means of inquiry.
A project of the Berkman Center for Internet and SocietyThe Harvard Art Museums are reopening in Fall 2014. Part of the remodeling includes a physical space with a “programmable” wall which is not yet committed to any specific function or mission. The space will also contain monitors and welcome technology; it may provide a place for installations, exhibitions, or activities.This project will conduct a design studio to generate a concrete, proposed scenario for programming in the space: what are creative approaches to technologically animating such a space? What can its role be in a museum? What should its mission be? How would it be curated? In addition to the practical use of the space, the scenario would also engage with broader discourses related to the role of the museum and archives, and the frequent disconnect between how an institution might be defined according to its presented collection, when much of its assets may be in holding, invisible to the public; for example, ninety-eight percent of the Harvard Art Museums’ works are in storage. Additional guiding questions might include: What does the collection really look like chronologically and geo-spatially? How could the collection serve as a better navigational tool for the museum staff? How does the nature of the collection accord with the institutional narrative of the institution? How might the technologically enhanced space enable new experiences of the collection over all?
An uninvited guest, an intractable weed unleashed from its native Chinese forests, the embodiment of a failure to properly police vegetal immigration—Ailanthus altissima, or the Tree of Heaven, is perhaps the example par excellence of the weedy urban tree. And yet Ailanthus also makes for a curious example of a species adapted to city life, flourishing as a knee-level weed and vaulting up to match the oaks and beeches of the proper, approved urban forest. What would it mean to contest the limitations imposed on our companionship with the plant? How can we expose our contemporary urban perceptions of Ailanthus as not natural but constructed? What constraints do we face in collecting or creating alternative interpretations? What perspective on the contested biopolitics of the city can Ailanthus offer? We’re developing a design-forward interactive documentary to catch the elusive qualities of these feral urban trees. The work will consist of a web-based experience which, in its attention to green and woody ways of knowing, the well-wrought quality of its media, and the estranging effects of weediness on the geographical imagination, will offer a singular experience of weedy flourishing in the city.
The metaLABprojects series provides a platform for emerging currents of experimental scholarship, documenting key moments in the history of networked culture, and promoting critical thinking about the future of institutions of learning. The volumes’ eclectic, idea-driven style advances the proposition that design is not merely ornamental, but a means of inquiry in its own right. Accessibly priced and provocatively designed, the series invites readers to take part in reimagining print-based scholarship for the digital age. The first books in the series, due out in the spring of 2014 with Harvard University Press are Matthew Battles, Jeffrey T. Schnapp, The Library Beyond the Book; Johanna Drucker, Graphesis – Visual Forms of Knowledge Production; and Todd Presner, David Shepherd, and Yoh Kawano, HyperCities – Thick Mapping in the Digital Humanities.
Curarium is a collection of collections, an “animated archive,” designed to serve as a model for crowdsourcing annotation, curation, and augmentation of works within and beyond their respective collections. A web-based platform, Curarium aims to construct sharable, media-rich stories and elaborate arguments about individual items as well as groups of items within a corpus. The first project to be ingested into Curarium is Villa I Tatti’s Homeless Paintings of the Italian Renaissance collection, a unique archive of photographs of “homeless” paintings assembled by art historian Bernard Berenson. Taking the collection and its metadata out of VIA and putting it into Curarium will allow engagement with a wider audience, which will then identify, classify, describe and analyze the objects in the collection, as well as reconstruct the stories of objects that have either disappeared or been destroyed.
Digital Ecologies is a collaborative initiative started in summer 2012 with Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum. At its core is a shared passion for exploring past, present and potential relationships between digital tools and human-environment interactions, particularly human-landscape and human-plant (human-woody plant) interactions. Supported by seed funding from the Provost’s Office and the Academic Technology Group, the initiative is plural and evolving, a hybrid of digital development, experimental pedagogy, critical inquiry, community building and expressive invention. This hybrid quality is essential to metaLAB’s approach to the project: it implies, for instance, that as we work on imagining digital tools—together called “Trellis”, things like open databases, participatory mapping, virtual collecting—we keep a critical watch over the contexts and stakes attending this work relative to sites like digital cultures, the history of botanical gardens and the public faces of science—and that we look to expanding on the questions that arise with students in our spring 2013 seminar of the same name. Likewise we hope that our project can facilitate emergent ecologies, helping build unanticipated community connections and providing opportunities for expressive offshoots, be they spontaneous, educational or commissioned.
To explore open library data—and similar datasets, with support from the Digital Public Library of America, we’ve started the Library Observatory to create and host a shared set of visualization tools for contemplating the full range of open library information. Initial funding to develop an open-source library graphics code base—the technical framework for the Observatory—will enable a sample set of highly usable, intuitive visualization tools tailored for the Digital Public Library of America’s collections in all their technical, socio-cultural, and material dimensions. Crucially, we plan to express and develop these tools in an open forum for discussing, contextualizing, and refining our approach, in conversation with others involved in collections-driven scholarship, teaching, and administration. The Observatory will be technologically-enabled, but also sensitive to the ways in which information is always embedded in social, cultural, and institutional contexts. Information wants to be free, but it needs to be in dialogue—with the people that harvest it, the institutions and social relations that structure it, and the audiences that activate it.
Teaching with Things leverages Harvard’s unique archival, library, and museum collections in the pursuit of a flexible, scalable approach to representing the material and sensory attributes of three dimensional objects, to building “artifactual interfaces,” to annotating three-dimensional objects, and to exploring relationships among objects and multimedia data sets. Funded by the Hauser Initiative for Learning and Teaching, the project supports and promotes collections-based teaching, research and training with categories of objects that are rarely if ever accessible. The technologies involved include photogrammetry, 3D scanning, multimedia annotation and presentation tools, as well as the construction of hardware for the rapid scanning and animate gif generation.A number of courses are being supported and employed for user-testing by Teaching with Things over the course of the 2012-2013 academic year. These include Romance Studies 220, Fragments of a Material History of Literature, being taught by Jeffrey Schnapp and Matthew Battles this fall.
In the digital age, we believe archives are no longer simply storage facilities for future generations, but can be dynamic public spaces. The Digital Archive of Japan’s 2011 Disasters aims to collect, preserve, and make accessible as much of the digital record of the disasters as possible, to enable scholars and a wide public audience in the disaster area, in Japan, and around the world to understand these events and their effect. We hope that the records preserved will be useful both in the near term as a source of understanding of these disasters, as well as long into the future for those who experienced these events, as well as scholars and policy makers.
We are developing the interface and data model for the archive by expanding and customizing the Zeega platform. The project is led by the Reischauer Institute for Japanese Studies.
The Networked Museum of the Invisible Hand is a research project concerned with the global influence of Adam Smith’s writings and economic theories. The project’s aim is to create a new genre of exhibition that highlights the relationship between the material objects of Smith’s work—in the form of books and manuscripts—and the tangled web of interpretation and implementation of his ideas in numerous locales and time periods. Using web-based technologies of data visualization and media-rich narratives, we will make these varied, and historically dependent interpretations the fundamental material for exhibiting Smith’s work. The first instance of the project will consist in a series of networked, site-specific installations around Harvard University. These strategic micro-exhibitions will be situated in different schools or departments and will focus on the historical interpretation of Smith’s ideas from a given disciplinary vantage point. Combining video, photography, sound recordings, and interactive data visualizations, each installation site will allow users to explore these discipline-specific histories in a mediated, media-rich fashion.
Sensate is an online, media-based journal for the creation, presentation, and scholarly critique of innovative creative projects in the arts, humanities, sciences, and media. Driven by the conviction that the making of creative projects is an inherent part of academic or scholarly work, we aim to expand conversations and collaborative communities among scholars, film/videomakers, sound artists, and others. Initiated within Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab and produced jointly with metaLAB (at) Harvard, Sensate is a collaborative and interdisciplinary initiative involving graduate students and faculty as well as independent artists and scholars from various universities, centers and departments, with the intent to integrate new modes of media-based scholarship and critical media practice into the cognitive life of the academy and beyond.
openLAB is a platform for curatorial experimentation and innovation. Migrating from site to site, ranging from local galleries to public spaces to Harvard arts venues, the openLAB series provides a forum to share everything from recent hacks and projects in progress to ad-hoc spectacles and polished productions. openLAB participants include core metaLAB members and other artists, scholars and technologists engaged in exploring new modes of practice, exhibition and knowledge design.
Keep an eye on the metaLAB website for announcements of upcoming openLAB events (or, better yet, sign up for the metaLAB mailing list).
Built for the Host & Guest exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, GHOST is a composite formed out of the words that make up the exhibition’s title. It is available online and consists in six multimedia montages built on the Zeega interactive storytelling platform. Entitled Footing, Bed, Wall, Hotel, What’s in a name? and Carrier, they form less a cohesive set than a scatterplot of seeds harvested from across the digital landscape, assembled on the fly within the quires of a virtual Guest Book. The Guest Book is an empty container full of found materials: texts, photographs, recordings, animations. Instead of being downloaded, these are served up live from remote online hosts. Wrenched from familiar surroundings into ones where they wander like strangers in a strange land, they arrive stitched together in real time. Like the places of passage that make up the contemporary economy of hospitality—the hotels, hospitals, hospices, and hostels that take us in and where life’s scripted plans collide with its hazards and accidents—Ghost operates inside the walls of the public-private home of the World Wide Web with its electronic handshakes and data protocols.
metaLAB collaborated with ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany on a speculative design for its archive. In its collection, ZKM holds thousands of time-based media artworks, rare and historically significant playback hardware, and detailed documentation for the development of many exhibitions. With experimental methods of representation, we proposed an online environment for browsing and experiencing these pieces. We are also working closely with ZKM’s art historians to build a series of database-driven data-mining tools for performing new methods of scholarship that blur the distinction between quantitative and qualitative research. Believing that the physical space of the archive is significant to its use and efficacy, we are contributing to the re-design of ZKM’s mediatheque, and are collaborating on set of augmented and curated experiences in the museum itself that bring ZKM’s rich archive to life.
What happens to copyright in the wild? How do we decide who owes what to whom when we go about making, remixing, and sharing; when we share work with students, colleagues, friends, and fans; when we generate stories, scholarship, and experiences in text or multimedia form? MetaLAB is exploring these questions by hybrid means, mixing scholarship, data visualization, and media-making. We’re talking to cultural producers—from bloggers and Wikipedians to writers, scholars, and filmmakers—to find out what concepts like “attribution,” “intellectual property,” and “cultural commons” mean to them. Through interviews and testimonials, essays and media arguments, databases and visualization, we’re beginning to tell the story of copyright’s cultural impact—and in time, to puzzle out new ways to think about the vexed relationships between creativity, commons, and individual rights in a networked world.
Panorama of the Cold War / Gjiri i Panormes
Working with Elisabetta Terragni of Studio Terragni Architetti in Como, metaLAB founders Jeffrey Schnapp and Daniele Ledda have developed concept designs for the conversion of the former submarine base in Gjiri i Panormes, Albania, into a multimedia Cold War museum. Gjiri i Panormes is located on an unspoiled section of the Adriatic coastline and was the site of one of the Popular Republic of Albania’s most important defense facilities. The bay has a history dating back to antiquity, with archeological remains confirming its role as a significant place of maritime trade. It is also the site of the Ali Pasha fortress from the Ottoman era. The project divides the visitor experience of this once secret site up into seven immersive environments that are imagined as if the acts in a play. Acts 1 and 6 serve as transitions between the landscape of Porto Palermo and the underground world of the base. Acts 2-5 lead the visitor through missile storage facilities, down the 2 km tunnel/canal to a Soviet-built Whiskey class submarine, and then back down the tunnel on glass-bottomed rafts that conclude the visit with an outdoor excursion around the bay. The project is currently on display in the Albanian pavilion at the 2012 Biennale of Architecture in Venice.
With the support of the Harvard Library Lab, we have been expanding the Zeega platform to imagine a new future for multimedia library collections. The project is one of six finalists in the Beta Sprint competition of the Digital Public Library of America. We believe the open web demands a new model for media access and production that provides citizens integrated tools for collection-building, editing, experience design and publishing. Zeega allows anyone to easily explore, visualize and curate collections from public APIs and then use this media to collaboratively create multimedia projects that are accessible online, on mobile devices and in physical spaces. While books (in material and digital form alike) are vital to the future of libraries, we believe that in an increasingly audiovisual world of public knowledge and discourse, it is essential that libraries play a major role in preserving, making available and providing innovative tools for interpreting society’s audiovisual past, present and future across media.
Consisting of partners across the University, we are in the early stages of developing a multi-year, University-wide installation that is composed of a network of physical artifacts that unlock site-specific experiences. These artifacts, or HUBS, might consist of such devices as thermal receipt printers, hacked Kinects, speakers or programmable LEDs. Augmented Harvard allows faculty, students, curators and the public to link Harvard exhibitions to other spaces and objects across the University, and to see otherwise invisible features of the campus landscape such as long-ago demolished structures, alternative architectural plans, and inaccessible archives as they rove the campus core. The initial release is planned in conjunction with the fall 2011 exhibitions GSD075 and Cold War in the Classroom, co-curated by History of Science PhD students Jeremy Blatter and Christopher Phillips, and to be staged at the Special Exhibitions Gallery of the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, with additional materials borrowed from the Harvard Film Archive and the Graduate School of Education’s Monroe C. Gutman Library.
A looping series of multimedia artifacts that moves from a print copy of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media (1964) to a Kinect-driven LED interactive jukebox for live mixing of The Medium is the Massage LP (1967). In between, projections of McLuhan, Quentin Fiore and Jerome Agel’s Medium is the Massage (1967), Jeffrey and Adam Michaels’s upcoming The Electric Information Age Book and Jeffrey and Kara’s Sensate article “the first spoken arts record you can dance to,” (2011) a collection of YouTube video clips that respond to the 1968 LP. Images on Flickr.
metaLAB founder James Burns designed and developed the Kinect hack to create the LED jukebox. A sincere thanks to Susanne Seitinger, a researcher in MIT’s Program in Media Arts and Sciences, and to Philips ColorKinetics for donating the LED (light-emitting diodes) light strips.
The Oracle was an installation led by metaLAB Research Affiliate Joseph Bergen for Hyper-Public: A Symposium on Designing Privacy and Public Space in the Connected World. It used an algorithm that browsed conference participants’ Twitter archives for their personal tweets. Anyone making use of the #hyperpublic hashtag was automatically added to this community of producers of public secrets. The tweets thereby retrieved were then projected onto a screen at the conference entry/exit, as well as transformed into thermally printed “receipts” consisting in the republished tweet accompanied by a QR code that took the recipient back to the original record. Conference participants were invited to read, collect and circulate these fragments of an elusive narrative. We are currently working on a number of networked receipt printer implementations as way to physicalize and spatially locate digital curation projects.
This project invited the visitors to The Divine Comedy exhibition to contribute with the production of personal multimedia responses to three site-specific installations by Olafur Eliasson, Ai Weiwei and Tomás Saraceno. Launched at the same time as Ai Weiwei’s detention, a portion of the project invites people worldwide to participate in Weiwei’s work by creating a response on Twitter. All tweets with the hashtag #mtys were incorporated into the project and projected live at The Laboratory [at] Harvard. The responses were produced and uploaded both on and offsite, and were curated and exhibited online and on location. The project was lead by Joana Pimenta, a researcher at metaLAB, produced using Zeega, and benefited for its installation from the kind support of the The Laboratory at Harvard, the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies, and the Graduate School of Design.
Zeega is an HTML5 platform that makes it easy to create interactive storytelling projects that combine original content with photos, videos, text, audio, data feeds and maps via APIs from across the web. Its aim is to revolutionize web publishing and interactive storytelling for a future beyond blogs. Incubated at metaLAB and supported by the Berkman Center, the Sensory Ethnography Lab, the Film Study Center, and the Library Lab, Zeega is a now an independent venture housed in Matter media accelerator in San Francisco. The Zeega team first started working together while developing Mapping Main Street, a collaborative documentary co-created with radio producer Ann Heppermann and funded through the Association of Independents in Radio’s MQ2 initiative and the Berkman Center. Zeega’s core tools for curatorial practice and participatory archiving were developed in partnership with metaLAB with particular reference to metaLAB’s work on the DPLA (extraMUROS) and the Digital Archive of Japan’s 2011 Disasters.