Exploring and resisting the museum’s authority on the web: a project proposal for the RISD Museum

This semester I’ve been thinking a lot about authority and power dynamics within the museum space. My thinking has been informed by a variety of sources: I took a class about museums at the RISD Museum, I did a practicum at a Chilean University that is working on opening a new museum, and I worked on a class project at a Historic House Museum in Providence. All these experiences had me exploring different ways in which museums—and other cultural institutions—both acquire and transmit cultural authority, which comes with the idea that they are the custodians of a secular truth.

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“The New Exchange”: a New Urban Arts Web Archive and Exhibit Tool Prototype

My project took the form of a thought exercise and preliminary digital and web-hosted proof of concept for a front-facing digital archive and curation tool for New Urban Arts. I thought about what an archiving and exhibition tool might look like so as to be relevant to the needs and everyday operation of the organization, its staff, and the students and families it serves. Centering on a test run of the Omeka interface, I thought specifically about the types of users who will interact with the tool, as well as the kinds of information they would find most useful in an accessible, searchable presentation.

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Concentration camps and torture centers in Chile during Pinochet’s dictatorship, 1973-1990

The “Concentration camps and torture centers in Chile during Pinochet’s dictatorship” mapping project consists in diagramming every place used by military agents and civilian supporters of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, which was held between September of 1973 and March of 1990. To accomplish this, I will use a list of centers, camps, and public buildings used for torture and systematic killings provided by Valech Report I.

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Novi Narativa/New Narratives

I graduated from high school at the United World College in Mostar, which is an international school that accepts students from all over the world based on their commitment to creating world peace. It’s kind of an absurdly idealistic mission, and the school itself is a bit absurd, too, housed in a huge, bright orange Ottoman-style building in the middle of a town which was in the middle of the armed ethnic conflict that happening in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1993 to 1996. I haven’t been back to Mostar since I graduated from school there in 2013, but this summer, I’ll be catching a plane and doing a project. Here’s basic the idea:

December 2015 marked twenty years since the formal end of the armed conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). But reading international media coverage about BiH, you might think the country was still at war. In the surface­-level stories most commonly published, Bosnia is consistently connected with phrases like “war-­torn,” and “impoverished,” and more in-depth pieces almost always focus on current ethnic tensions or memorials to genocide. Those issues are real and relevant in Bosnia and Herzegovina ­ but they aren’t the whole story.

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#ladiesofshred, #skatefeminino, @girlswhoskateproject: Reflections on Skateboarding’s Online and IRL Communities of Women and Girls.

This past summer, I drove around the country for six weeks, attempting to meet and hang out with as many women and girls who skate as I possibly could, with the intention of conducting interviews and eventually producing a film with the resulting material. Instagram became a crucial means of connecting, communicating, and building a reputation as a legitimate and well-meaning outsider to the community I was aiming to connect with and document. In the process, I discovered the active and growing social media communities built up around women and girls’ skateboarding, a community whose online dimension illustrates a hopeful side of social media’s potential both for building supportive and connected communities, and for gaining knowledge and insight about how those communities function.

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Where did the internet radio go??

I started looking into the weird and messy fileworld of internet radio archives because I was trying to find my storytelling forebears.

Last winter, I started an audio storytelling project at Brown, Now Here This. At the time, there hadn’t been any outlet for podcasts or narrative-driven radio on campus. As far as my team knew, Brown students had never been making the same kind of content that we were. As soon as we launched our new radio project, though, we started hearing that yes, actually, there was a precedent for the kind of storytelling we were doing at Brown. A really high-quality, successful precedent. The only problem was that no one knew how to access their story archives.

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@Veteranas_and_Rucas: a case study

As of April 3rd, Veteranas and Rucas (VaR), an Instagram-based photographic digital archive of the Chicano underground scene from the ‘90s, had 59.9K followers and over a 1.730 publications. Each post gets over 700 likes and a lot of them go over 1000. Beyond those numbers, what makes the Instagram account really interesting and, let’s say, relevant, are the comments and people’s reactions. Followers are not just liking and commenting on the pictures but are establishing personal relationships with them by tagging their friends and asking them to share their own pictures to the account, by inviting relatives to follow the feed, by remembering those they had lost, and by wanting to recreate those old moments—among others.

The Chicano underground scene from the ‘90s in LA has been for years an underrepresented community in the pop culture depictions of urban Latino culture. It has been mainly represented by its gang affiliations and, because of that, linked to violence and transgression. But it is more than that as it includes other subcultures, such as the party crew scene that began during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s as an alternative to gangs. Party crews found unity within its members and, through the listening of house and techno music, were able to create a sense of belonging that last until today.

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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:

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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.

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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.