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.
Silence Is a Fabrication
In 1943, the U.S. Navy built a soundproof box at Harvard University. Fifty feet tall and blanketed on all six walls with fiberglass wedges, the so-called “anechoic chamber” was central to a broad collaboration between the military and Harvard to build more efficient war machines using sound, including sonar-guided torpedoes and hi-fidelity headphones for use in airplane cockpits. The chamber found uses in non-military research, too, enabling the discovery of echolocation in bats. The chamber would be mythologized in musicology by composer John Cage, whose oft-repeated visit inspired him to write his “silent” piece 4’33”. Except for a few sound-absorbing foam wedges in the Collection of Historic Scientific Instruments, however, Harvard’s chamber exists no more. In collaboration with Peter McMurray (Harvard) and Michael Heller (Pitt), metaLAB has developed a portable chamber, designed by metaLAB creative technologist James Yamada and built chiefly by Cris Magliozzi and Marshall Lambert, to test and explore the cultural and material dimensions of audition. We’ve learned that silence is a fabrication—a designed thing, made in dialogue with fractious materials and particular habits of body, mind, and sensibility.
A Bit in the Abyss
For Illuminus Boston, A Bit in the Abyss consists of a digital storage server in a small shipping container, similar to those used by the Internet Archive for storing the scanned, hard-copy source media they acquire. As data are accessed, their processing is sonified to represent the growth of server hosts spanning from the origins of the internet to the present. Within the container, mirrors reflect the server’s blinking indicator lights in all directions. Audience members enter the container in small groups to experience the prismatic effects of light and sound produced therein. The design of the project 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.
Book a Nook
Book a Nook is a prototype fund project within the Knight Foundation’s Library News Challenge. It consists in a digital toolkit for enabling the public’s use of the community spaces found in public libraries. The project aims to increase the offsite visibility of physical library spaces and to streamline reservations through the use of an open API. It also explores how libraries can leverage patron use data to inform the design and evolution of their physical spaces.
Experimental Teaching as Design Practice
Experimental Teaching as Design Practice is a one-day workshop supported by the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching. The workshop convenes stakeholders in experimental teaching for a day of conversation and rapid prototyping. Participants will collectively surface critical and creative questions and propositions in the field, bringing design thinking to bear in the process.
Beautiful Data II
The second edition of our summer workshop supported by the Getty Foundation will be taking place between July 6 — 16, 2015 at the new Harvard Art Museums on 32 Quincy Street in Cambridge. As was the case in 2014, the workshop will address the following question: with art museums and other collecting institutions making both their imagery and collections data open and accessible, what are the most productive, innovative, and powerful ways to work with these materials? During the summer of 2015 a diverse group of curators, scholars, and technologists will gather at Harvard to consider the turn to openness in museum collections and the metadata that order them. They’ll work together to specify and refine 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. And they’ll consider critically the ways in which open data and media present a host of ethical, practical, curatorial, and intellectual challenges and opportunities for museums and the communities of which they are a part.
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.
Developed in collaboration with the Japan Disaster Archive, Waku (from わく, the Japanese word for “frame”) is a pedagogic tool for analyzing collections of digital objects and embedding them in media-rich textual narratives. Waku maintains the integrity of digital archival objects as irreducibly individual artifacts while inviting their excavation as hyperconnected loci of unsettled meanings through authors’ acts of framing, juxtaposition, and interlinking. Waku aims to shift emphasis away from developing topic-specific presentation styles toward engagement with the digital objects and collections of the JDA as the central units of inquiry and the unique means of telling stories about the disasters and their aftermath. Continuing development will focus expanding compatibility with digital archives, including Curarium.
How do we experience a collection? The Lightbox Gallery in the brand new Renzo Piano designed facility is a venue for digital experiments and new media projects that respond to collections held at the Harvard Art Museums. Built in collaboration with faculty, staff, students, and visiting artists, projects in this space use digital tools to reveal connections between objects and play with traditions of display. Some of these projects are responsive, allowing users to navigate and manipulate the collections. Other projects are cinematic, transforming the Museums into a landscape of digital performance. The Lightbox is a space for cross-disciplinary exploration, turning the gallery into an experimental digital lab. The gallery will be inaugurated in tandem with the inauguration of the new museum in November 2014.
Cold Storage is two interwoven media artifacts at once. It is a web documentary—a so-called “database documentary”—developed by metaLAB (at) Harvard in collaboration with students participating in Library Test Kitchen and Humanities Studio 1 that provides an institutional portrait of the one of the world’s largest book and document depositories: the Harvard Depository (HD). It is also a documentary short that reworks and updates Alain Resnais’s classic 1957 documentary on the National Library of France Toute la mémoire du monde, while serving as a dynamic extension of the volume The Library Beyond the Book, published in 2014 in the metaLABprojects series by Harvard University Press. The former will premiere in January 2015; the latter in December 2014. Stay posted for announcements regarding venues.
Interactive Documentary Workshop
Current discussion of interactive documentary tends to take shape as a practical discussion of tools and platforms; reflection on the aesthetics, audience, and impact of such projects is harder to find. In 2014, metaLAB is hosting a team of students, drawn from across Harvard’s schools, charged with the exploration of this emergent genre as a cultural form. the #docShop team will explore critical literatures, dialogue with makers, and reflect on their own work as producers and viewers (or consumers? or users?) of interactive media. The workshop is organized in conjunction with the Berkman Center’s Digital Problem-Solving Initiative, which fosters competency in various digital literacies by engaging problems in research, design, and policy relating to the digital world.
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.
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. 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.
metaLAB is an institutional partner of the NovelTM project, which seeks to produce the first large-scale cross-cultural study of the novel according to quantitative methods in order to bring the unique knowledge of literary studies to bear on larger debates about text mining and the place of information technology within society. It aims to impact how we think about the nature of reading and the way we increasingly access our cultural heritage today.
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 role of digital tools in our relationships with the environment and the animals and plants with whom we share it. 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, we keep a critical watch over the contexts and stakes attending this work.
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, taught by Jeffrey Schnapp and Matthew Battles in fall 2012.
Book Biography Machine
Book Biography Machine proposes to further develop and refine a graphic and interactive visualization tool that was initially designed for representing the bibliography of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations so as to extend its use to a wide variety of bibliographic databases. It is a prototype interface for mapping the diffusion of books across time and space. Scholars may download rough bibliographic sets from WorldCat for visualization, save them, and upload curated sets in order to tell stories, make arguments and ask new questions concerning the history of a single book or multiple books in comparison to each other.
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.
In collections of scientific and cultural history that are too big to see, metadata act as virtual handles for rare and delicate artifacts from the past. At the Arnold Arboretum, a long-lived collection of trees, vines and shrubs managed by Harvard University, landscapes from around the world and across time are stitched together by metadata. However, metadata are worthy of study themselves. Created in varied social and technological eras, they register the organizational structures and values of their time. Through a combination of data visualization and interviews with Arboretum staff, this essay illuminates what metadata can teach us about their own social and material histories, as well as how to study collections digitally.
A summer workshop supported by the Getty Foundation, taking place between June 16 — June 27, 2014 at Arts @29 Garden Street, Harvard University.
With art museums making both their imagery and collections data open and accessible, a question arises: what to do with it all?
From June 16-25, 2014 a diverse, elite group of curators, scholars, and technologists gathered at Harvard to consider the turn to openness in museum collections and the metadata that order them. They’ll work together to specify and refine 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. And they’ll consider critically the ways in which open data and media present a host of ethical, practical, curatorial, and intellectual challenges and opportunities for museums and the communities of which they are a part.
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 Library Observatory (for DPLA)
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.
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.
Ghost (A Multimedia Installation Project)
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.
new media archive @ ZKM
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.
Imagining a Digital Public Library of America
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.
Before They Invented Light
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.
my time is your surroundings
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 became 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.