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“What is Missing,” a case study

It’s hard to be anything but impressed by Maya Lin’s “What is Missing?” memorial project. Upon entering onto the home page, you’re greeted by thousands of travelling symbols and dots that bring to mind the dynamism of our planet and migration of our species. Every dot on the world map tells a story of extinction on our planet, sortable through a multi-layered filtering system. Each story is beautifully curated, with an intriguing photo and nicely written text. Every video is a miniature art house production. Take for instance, this short film on the depletion of antarctic krill from our oceans:

With the click of a button, the map can transform into a timeline. And with every selection you make, the content of the website rearranges itself as if in a dance. Everything is choreographed. And on top of all of this, there’s also a functionality to let you share your own memory. Here’s a screen shot of the memory I just uploaded:

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 9.34.27 PM

Currently, my memory is under review.

“What is Missing?” is what Maya Lin, an artist famous around the world for her memorials, calls her “last memorial.” It’s a memorial to all the species that recently have been lost, or are about to be lost in the sixth mass extinction in our planet’s history, and the only mass extinction caused by a single species: man kind.

After my initial sense of awe wore off from exploring the “What is Missing” project, I began to poke holes in it and look for all the ways it needed to be improved (the natural response of any critical graduate student). I noted how my computer loudly hummed, labored by the project’s tab being opened in my browser. I looked skeptically at all the pretty symbols that danced around my computer, thinking that beauty and effectiveness are not one in the same. Maya Lin broke the cardinal rule of design being “form follows function,” I thought. It took me a few minutes to find my way around the site, and develop an understanding of all of its functionality – to be truly quality shouldn’t the platform be more self-explanatory? And then I questioned, that by being such a demanding website and in need of the highest of internet speeds, was this really a platform designed for everyone?

Finally, I considered the cost. I have no idea how much “What is Missing?” cost to produce, but I’m guessing it must be up in the several hundreds of dollars at least. It took five years, and a team of people to produce. So it’s hardly a project to emulate, unless you, like Maya Lin, have all the resources and time in the world.

But all of these criticisms miss the point, and aren’t particularly constructive. Is the project perfect? No. But is it totally awesome? Yes. Is it a worthwhile use of $1M? Totally. The “What is Missing” project isn’t supposed to be an easily searched archive of every species lost. As Maya Lin explains, we lose a new species from our planet every 20 minutes of every day. So the website isn’t exhaustive. But the point isn’t to find that particular species you’re looking for (there’s no search option), it’s to get lost in all of the species we’re losing, and understand the value of every one. We’re intended to walk away feeling the gravity of all that’s being lost due to our unsustainable lifestyles. I think it’s important to remember that Maya Lin isn’t an educator in the most pure sense, but an artist with a message. And the more time I spend exploring “What is Missing?” the stronger her message is heard.

Walking Cinema: Evolution of Mobile Documentary

The landing page of Walking Cinema’s website displays a slick two-and-a-half-minute video which, without much informational text and no spoken words, introduces the viewer to the Boston-based organization’s specific brand of mobile documentary productions. The video’s framing moves in and out of reproduced mobile app interfaces and the real-world locations that the app-based storytelling projects correspond to using charming but perhaps overly-gimmicky 3d animation tools, all to a soundtrack of royalty-free deep house music. My curiosity is piqued, but this introduction inspires a degree of skepticism as I proceed to the website’s “Projects” tab, where the organization’s portfolio is on more detailed display.

Continue reading “Walking Cinema: Evolution of Mobile Documentary”

Fact Assembly: Library Days

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For my practicum at RISD’s Archives + Special Collection, I am digitizing materials from Brown University and RISD’s Community Art Project (1932-43). The person teaching me how to scan and add metadata into Digital Commons is a library science student who is writing his thesis on subjectivity and archives.  His name is Taylor McNailly, and he’s crazy about Japanese sci-fi detective fiction.

As we work together, I make small talk mentioning readings in our Digital Public Humanities course. He’s interested in description and encoding; and talks about it in terms of teleology, “access points” and “cultural turns.” I mention Lauren F. Klein’s “The Image of Absence: Archival Silence, Data Visualization, and James Hemmings,” to acknowledge the politics of the archive and its legacy excluding non-White/male publics.

Reflecting more on encoding for this post, I’m recalling a presentation last year at Brown’s Digital Scholarship Lab on the Early Modern OCR project, Primeros Libros. I bring to mind the theoretical concerns expressed by Primero Libro’s presenter regarding metadata: the issue of material and linguistic analysis. How to bring native skill to Latin texts? Primeros Libros had been for the most part Latin-centric.

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This not only limits interpretation, but as texts continue to be digitized, whole knowledge systems are also being silenced. Primeros Libros acknowledges this problem and advises librarians and digital scholars to take ocular and modify.

When introducing public humanities to students, Steve Lubar mentions how communities are defined by mining the archive and digitizing. The problem with digitizing native texts, however, seems much rooted in project development as digital curation. Namely: what if a team of Zapotecs collaborated with a team of linguists, archivists, digital scholars, and technologists in the effort to digitize native texts? Level the playing field to diversify semiotic forms. The John Carter Brown Library has such a rich collection of Zapotec texts. What if the subaltern were allowed to speak?   What if digital natives were thought of in terms post-coloniality? It’s a project I hope unite collaborators to apply for a mega grant. Last week’s conference Digital Futures of Indigenous Studies gave me stock on native digital activism, but Paja Faudree’s presentation on Zapotec cyber revival, hit the mark.

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Inside of RISD’s Archives + Special Collections I look for opportunities to connect new media with humanities computing. The archivist Andy Martinez shows me cool stuff in their collection. I am ouu-and-awe over J. Kevin Barton’s thesis How to Fail at Archiving. It’s a project he conceived while shopping for mid-20th century photographic collections on eBay. After purchasing 12,000 images and coming to an impasse using standard archival practices, Barton realized he could use the actual photographs as index subject headings instead. In so doing, he questioned the normalcy of archiving and collecting, and got at deeper meanings in collections, like mystique, serendipity, and aura.

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Since last week’s class exercise to Archive Yourself on Omeka, I got into the idea of using the platform for an artistic archival practice very similar to how John Miller used PowerPoint to combine narrative and video art, critique, and biography to reconstruct notions of a public sphere. Following Miller and Barton, then, I repurpose Dublin Core’s reference system to experiment with writing, fragmentation, sensory urbanism, and alternative knowledge presentations.

Lost in search

I’ve spent the last week thinking and navigating Archivo Memorias de la Patagonia Austral (AMPA), an Argentinian digital humanities website. Probably because of my professional inclination, I’ll read everything my eyes—and their best friend, my glasses—can catch. When I typed on my browser http://www.koluel.org my sight immediately started scanning titles, words in bold and italic, and deciding where to start reading. I guess because academic writing is what I read the most, my experience of the website started by reading what seems to be its introduction. Although I could link you to those sentences, [1] the AMPA’s description of itself is important, which I would translate to:

Archivo Memorias de la Patagonia Austral is a “project that organizes documents through its digitization and managing, providing public access to them. The archive contains twentieth century documents of Patagonia’s different places as a way to make them accessible to scholars, educational system, and community in general. The archive has been a collaborative effort of museums and municipal archives.”[2]

Throughout these lines, there are a few things that immediately catch my eye. Let’s dive into a couple of them. AMPA’s identity seems to me undefined and unclear: I still don’t know if AMPA is organizing and digitizing collections that were already put together at the different organizations that collaborate, or if they are creating new collections by selecting materials and documents owned by those organizations. I guess part of my confusion is because they introduce themselves first as a project and then as an archive. We have been discussing those concepts in our DPH class and the different meanings they have for different people. For example, Price describes the digital archive as a “purposeful collection of surrogates,”[3] something with which Theimer would disagree.  Beyond the lack of consensus on what those words mean or should mean in a digital context, there is a lack of clarity when it comes to this website’s mission.

Not only the website mission is unclear, but also its searchability, its information display, and its categories. I’ll analyze some of those themes through the following lines as well as suggest some ideas that might resolve some aspects of the website’s lack of clarity.

Along with that lack of clarity, I found myself confused when trying to navigate the website and make sense of its contents. For example, there are a few different ways in which you can access information: by directly searching through tags, through typing, though location, or by browsing—which you can just access from the home page. And I am using quotation marks because it is a pretty guided kind of exploration, where you are given a few alternatives, one of each of AMPA’s categories: Elementos (items), Colecciones (collections), and Exhibiciones (exhibitions).

For instance, I clicked on the newest incorporated item which is titled “Rovillard, Antonio”—a man’s name. The weird thing is that the item—as you can see in the picture below—despite having a person’s name—is a picture of a house.

Last item added at AMPA: “Rovillard, Antonio” item.

It is also confusing that under the “Rovillard, Antonio” item there are at least 30 different and very diverse other items, some of which are pictures scanned together—more than one per page—as a PDF. Even though every PDF page has a little caption, I can just imagine how frustrated I would get if I were trying to use this as a resource for research. As I suspected that finding these hidden and poorly cataloged items would be hard, I ran some tests by trying to find one specific picture I liked through other methods. None of my searches got me to it. The closest I got was to the “Rovillard, Antonio” item, which seems to be the only way to access to these other documents.

“Rovillard, Antonio” item’s documents

Thinking in AMPA’s interface terms—into which I’ll dive later—I guess a more accessible way for “Rovillard, Antonio” would be by making it a collection or an exhibition, not an item. In that way, each of the multiple pictures in PDF pages could be an item by themselves, making its the search for them easier and its display more appealing. As it seems that the connection between these items is important, they could have tags that relate them to each other.

The tons of metadata shared through each of the items are also a problematic characteristic of AMPA. Metadata is supposed to help us understand the context of the item itself, but it just makes it harder and boring—even for me: who, as you may remember, reads everything. Indeed, having for example a whole description/biography of Antonio Rovillard as part of the items’ metadata doesn’t help much. There is also an inconsistent use of Spanish and English on the metadata that makes it look a little wordy and probably difficult to understand for who don’t have a familiarity with the language.

"Rovillard, Antonio" item's metadata
“Rovillard, Antonio” item’s metadata

I guess that at this point we can agree that finding information in AMPA is confusing and that this confusion makes the website hard to use. As they mention in their introduction, the website’s intended audience are scholars and the general public. How are they supposed to achieve their mission of facilitating the public access of this material if it is extremely hard to locate particular material? A good thing that the website does have, is how easy it is to save and/or print the documents that were uploaded as items and not as archives—as happens in the case of the PDF-pictures. Regardless of how hard it is for me to navigate this website, I think that something that would work really well for it and its public is allowing the creation of personal collections, as the MET Museum has in its online project “One MET. Many worlds” visitors’ gallery.

Before going any further, let’s recap: I click on a man’s name but I’m seeing the picture of a house. I click anyways but I just find tons of metadata. As I am curious I scroll down even when I wasn’t getting getting what I was supposed to, and I find a bunch of other documents, mostly scanned pictures on a PDF page.

It is not hard to notice that AMPA’s collection is built on Omeka: its interface gives it away. As you may know, Omeka is a pretty popular web-publisher platform used by museums, archives, cultural organizations, and, among others, digital humanities projects. It offers a free subscription that allows the creation of collection and exhibits though the uploading of a diverse selection of formats. With the free subscription you will get the basic interface and limited space storage. With a paid subscription you will get more space and the possibility of installing different plugins on your website. If you happen to know about web programming, you can actually customize your site. Although I don’t know for sure, because of how it interface look, it seems that AMPA has the basic Omeka interface and no web design or web programming presence on its team.

AMPA is using some of Omeka’s predetermined categories: items, collections, and exhibitions. These pre-determined categories direct the understanding by which we, the users, interact with the website. The experience(s) we can have while navigating projects like this one are mediated by the way in which the information is given—or not. Users respond to and interact with interfaces through, mainly, already prescribed channels. In this sense, how much can be done by a user of AMPA? In what ways are the categories already mentioned determining and imposing a unique view of the content here displayed?[4]

AMPA has constructed its users’ activity into near-passivity. The website content can mainly just be used as it was intended, which share some of Emerson’s ideas about current popular interface—being Apple’s iPad is his best example. Despite that AMPA is not giving any illusion of creativity, as Emerson argues that the Apple does, you are sort of playing but a limited set of possibilities and your movements are restricted. You can search by its rules, and that doesn’t assure you success—as I experienced with “Rovillard, Antonio” item. You can download and print some of its items; the others are in formats that make it hard.

On the border of being restrictive about the website uses and being clear about its expectations about its users, they offer a description of each of the categories they use that work as some sort of guidelines on how to use the site. They describe Elementos as different items organized by title, author or creation date, Colecciones as groups of items about a particular theme, and Exposiciones as written interpretations based on items. Even though AMPA is being straightforward of these definitions, it is important to remember that in “Rovillard, Antonio” case, not even they used them as intended.

There are invisible choices that are really hard to understand. For example, one of AMPA’s collections contains just a one-page item. If we are responding to their own categories, wouldn’t that work better just as an item? Are there any explanations behind this curatorial decision or is it just an unfortunate mistake?

One of AMPA's collections containing just one item.
One of AMPA’s collections containing just one item.

I might have been tough on AMPA but it is just because it does have great potential, and I would like for it to explode it. Beyond its current problems in terms of searchability and interface, Archivo Memorias de la Patagonia Austral could make a great impact, as it is working towards exalt the historic and cultural value that its documents have. It’s dedicating all its effort on putting together a project/archive for a really remote area that is probably underrepresented in all the national archives of the country. In this sense, it is working towards making visible collections that probably won’t ever be part of “big” archive. It is democratizing the web by being an active writer of its own history and by preserving its own memory. Something like “from Patagonia to Patagonia.”

I keep thinking about what this website would look like if some of the things that we have been discussing during the last month were taken into account. What if the generosity principles of digital collections were applied here? What would this site look like? Would the documents be better understood? And also, what a crowd-source approach would look like?[5] What would it mean for the website’s interface and the structure? What would it mean for its unclear self-presentation? I guess these questions might be taking the website to a path completely different from its current one, but if you ask me, the way it is now is making really difficult to access it (and please, read access as if it were in bold all caps).

 

 

Notes:

[1] Although links are extremely useful—we all used them all the time—there are, in part, though as a democratic tool that allows the reader to go as deeper as she/he wants to go.

[2] Archivo Memorias De La Patagonia. Web. 7 Mar. 2016. <http://www.koluel.org/>.

[3] Price, Kenneth, “Edition, Project, Database, Archive, Thematic Research Collection: What’s in a Name?” at Digital Humanities Quarterly. Web. 7 Mar. 2016 <http://digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/3/3/000053/000053.html#p14>.

[4] I have to say that I have mixed feeling about what it means to have a popular, free, and easy to use content management platform. It’s a really good resource for those who cannot afford building a digital archive/collection/project/exhibit from scratch—at least for those who make good use of it—but it also sets a structure, a pattern for those DH endeavors, legitimating and popularizing just one way to do things, and there by, limiting the results.

[5] Even though they do accept contributions, this is not a crowd-sourced project.

Digital Accessibility in isolated areas

Digital Accessibility in isolated/rural areas

 

“Well, this certainly buggers our plan to conquer the Universe”                                          Image source: redbridgeweb.com.au

Accessibility is something we must think about when we start a Digital Humanities project. The concept of accessibility can be articulated in many ways, depending on how we can share the content we upload in our project space: strategies, media, software, design, and/or any kind of documents that are going to be available for future users. Many of these interdisciplinary projects are connected to a wide network of diverse types of issues, people, and of course, other kinds of projects. Thereby, what DH is doing with information, I think, is actually aligned with the outcomes of what Nicolas Bourriaud claims in his Altermodern manifesto, as an “attempt at contextualizing art made in today’s global context as a reaction against standardization and commercialism.”  Continue reading “Digital Accessibility in isolated areas”

Thinking Digital Archives Through Fan Cultures: The Fan Fiction Archive

Why do I want to talk about fan fiction in an academic context, specifically related to digital humanities? What has a fan fiction archive, filled with non-profit texts produced by fans for fans, to do with academically sanctioned projects? Some scholars might even argue that fan fiction is a sub-cultural phenomenon that lacks originality and exists on the fringes of legality. So what is there to be gained in an analysis of fan fiction archives? I argue that fan fiction functions as a way to re-write and re-think canon storylines, characters, and stereotypes. It is one of the most tangible and legible ways to analyze how fans respond to cultural objects, how they create communities, and social networks in which they can disseminate their views and uses of these objects. Continue reading “Thinking Digital Archives Through Fan Cultures: The Fan Fiction Archive”

Student Blog Posts: Overview

As the course syllabus outlines, students will write four types of blog posts over the semester:

 

  • Digital Project “Case Study”: You will write and publish a blog post that reviews at least one digital project in-depth. This project doesn’t necessarily have to be a model you seek to imitate in your own work, but taking that approach might be useful to you.
  • Social Media and Public Humanities: You will discuss some dimension of the role of social media in the field of public humanities. You may also decide to take a more active / participatory role in social media here (and document that in your blog post): crowdsourcing information on Twitter, brainstorming the circulation of your own digital project on social media, creating a Twitter bot or Twitter archive, etc.
  • Mystery Post! Aka a post related to at least one reading / resource discussed in class: While you have a degree of flexibility with each assignment, this one gives you even more flexibility. I’ve provided this as an option with the understanding that different students might have different interests / responses to particular topics. That being said, some of you might end up writing about the same texts / projects, which is fine with me.
  • Digital Project Debrief: To be completed towards the end of the semester. Here I’d like you to think about your objectives, resources, completed work, next steps, etc.

Important note for student bloggers: please make sure to use the “blog” category when posting work; otherwise, your posts won’t appear on this page. Use the “Categories” widget when you’re in “Edit Post” mode in WP.