Between June 16-June 27, our friends at the metaLAB at Harvard
held a Getty Foundation-funded workshop that concentrated on the digital humanities. Titled "Beautiful Data,"
metaLAB described the workshop as a time to "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." The event brought together curators, historians, professors, programmers, librarians, scholars and museum practitioners of various types.
The metaLAB team invited me to travel to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to give a talk about the work that I've done that crosses both the digital and physical worlds. I spoke about two of the projects that I worked on with my previous studio, Thinc Design
, and presented FIND's collaboration with Fall 2014 Fellow Roberto Lopardo, Moving Abu Dhabi. Though I could have presented many things about what FIND has done, I chose Moving Abu Dhabi
because I increasingly think of it as a dataset (and his other Moving pieces as a rich database of imagery of Middle Eastern cities) as much or more than simply an artwork. I also mentioned to the Beautiful Data participants that reactions to Moving Abu Dhabi confirm that digital storytelling can have the ability to make a physical place more real to those who have never experienced the specific location.
The first week of the workshop was full of extraordinary talks, discussions, and rapid hands-on activities that focused on different angles, questions, and theories each day. On the day I spoke, I was put in dialogue with the seminal museum media designer David Small. David presented work that his studio Small Design
executed for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Historical Society, and a science-research company's private gallery. It was an honor to sit beside David and get to talk with him about his work; we were later joined by the designer and entrepreneur Rachel Binx, the co-founder of bespoke jewelry company Meshu
and animated gif printing company Gifpop
. Rachel enthusiastically finds ways to bring digital ephemera into the physical world in ways that we may find personally meaningful, and she easily linked her product-driven companies to the exhibit and institutional work that David and I have completed.
Before and after my talk, metaLAB invited me to join their team for the entire two-week run and the public event held on the weekend in-between. Led by a metaLAB Fellow, the writer Tim Maly
, Enter Through the Gift Shop
combined the workshop participants with other interested participants from around the general geographic area. The workshop was described as "a weekend exploration of archives, collections, museums, libraries, and the strange things you can do to them." Participants created and shared provocations for how to experience museum spaces differently, visited multiple local museums, and created rapid prototypes and presentations of ideas for "gifts" that they would bestow on any one of the specific, visited institutions to improve the experience for the visitor. The gifts ranged from mobile apps to a proposed retraining of particular types of museum staff to embody different values, with a lot of variation in-between.
The second week resumed with the participation of the core workshop participants, and the majority of time was spent developing projects that addressed the topics of week 1 as individuals and small groups. At the end of the week, all participants created displays and/or presented the results of their work to the group and invited guests. Participants took a varied approach to the topics. Art History Professors and Curators Mike Maizels and Gloria Sutton both concentrated on the relationship between online publications and the art and exhibit worlds. Multiple participants created different types of interactive data visualization tools that looked at collections of information; Richard Barrett-Small of the Tate Museum now publicly shares the alpha version of his tool, Colour Lens
, online. Designer Pietro Santachiara and Curator/Museum Director Gundrun Bühl proposed an interaction within which objects would communicate with visitors,
while scholar Katherine DeVos Devine made a physical mockup of the networked relationships of an art object. In a project resonant with FIND’s own methodology, MIT Librarian Laresse Hall spent the time teaching herself to make handmade books, recording her process, and summarizing how she learned. And, similar to FIND's own hashtag aggregation system for our site, Ernesto Miranda from the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (Mexico) worked with metaLAB Creative Technologist Jessica Yurofsky to create a hashtag analysis system to look at the meaning of words used on Instagram that are relevant to his institution.
I thank Jeffrey Schnapp and Matthew Battles at the metaLAB for their kind invitation and the FIND team for their support during my attendance. I found many innate connections between the discussions and production of Beautiful Data and FIND's own mission. The workshop consisted of ongoing conversations questioning the role of digital publications as a part of research and knowledge dissemination. Participants consistently enabled the creation of connections between objects and ideas, whether using digital tools or (as Katherine did) simply physical ones. And the international attendance made the discussion immeasurably rich; as we've found with FIND, bringing those of different backgrounds together in a spirit of exploration can often manifest interesting and beautiful things.