Metadata and the Rhizome of Museum Practice

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When the young Carl Linnaeus – the botanist now known as the father of taxonomy and perhaps also data architecture more generally – grew tiresome, his parents calmed him by placing a flower in his hand. As the apocrypha goes, it was perhaps these early ministrations that inspired in him the enduring fascination with the natural world that would lead him away from the career in the church that his parents intended, towards studies in medicine. Through medicine he found botany, and in 1735 published the Systema Naturae, formalising the process of defining biological nomenclatures whose roots persist today. Carl was obviously something of an original, but in Linnaean terms the apple did not fall far from the tree. His father had been a keen amateur botanist and also a product of self-definition; contrary to the Swedish patronymic convention Nils Linnaeus had fashioned his own surname from the Swedish word for the linden tree.

The point is that systems beget systems. Programmatically, output is dependent on input, and information architecture determines the scope of the enquiry, far down the line. In 1768 Linnaeus’ protégé, Daniel Solander, accompanied James Cook on his first circumnavigation as expedition naturalist. The first university-trained European scientist to set foot on terra Australis, he brought back its first plant specimens to Europe and, along with Joseph Banks, helped define the continent’s unique flora. In 1985 art historians and students of Cook, Rüdiger Joppien and Bernard Smith, were indebted to Solander and Banks in cataloguing Cook’s voyages.[1] Smith had also documented the first catalogue of Australian oil paintings in the collection of the then National Art Gallery of New South Wales, helping to establish foundational conventions of curatorship by creating networks of information about material and provenance.[2]

This is to say that in museology, like botany, the ontology of specimen taxonomies defines their nature. In curatorial records and museum collections, works of art are classified by artist, date or reign (then, if still fashionable, by style or school), country of origin (depending on the colour of the map at the time), medium, material, genre, exhibition history and innumerable sub categories besides. In the natural sciences, encountering an unexpected taxonomy can have a disruptive effect (remember the platypus), but in museology, the weight of metadata holds even more value. This is because assignations of artistic worth are recorded in metadata, which has the power to legitimise artistic practice or elevate an object to a work of art, recognise relationships between artists, cultures and epochs, assess historical relevance and adjudicate on authenticity. Institutional authority is preserved not only by data fidelity, but in the conditions under which access to these narratives is granted.

On the gallery floor for example, historical narratives are the sole domain of the curator and entrenched in room hangs by period, culture or theme. A-historical or cross-disciplinary interventions are carefully and ‘daringly’ staged. A viewer’s reception of a work may be subjective, but the possible knowledge-paths to that encounter are fixed. It was probably the prospect of unwinding these mediated paths and the expertise they protect, rather than concerns around image aura and copyright, that lay behind the institutional anxieties that first accompanied the online publication of museum collections in the 1990s.

Yet in spite of noble claims to the democratisation of culture, the online publication of collection data does not automatically create equitable access to cultural knowledge. The tempting tendency to think of museum collections as mobilised big data (the British Museum for example documents over 3.5 million objects, encompassing many more millions of metadata chunks) can often mask the reality that this data is often delivered through myopic and preordained paths.

Convention dictates that collections are made accessible via text-driven databases, but these rely to a great extent on prior knowledge. Visitors to a gallery’s website are often directed to search for what they already know in areas that accord with institutional strengths. The online collection of the Museum of Modern Art, for example, prompts users to ‘search for artists and works’.[3] Compare the limitations of these results to the Cooper Hewitt’s collection search, which allows users to organically discover all objects featuring the shade of ‘rosybrown’.[4] While it is of course reasonable for institutions to focus on the character of their collections, a consequence is that museum datasets can entrench hierarchies of knowledge rather than liberate them, by promoting linear art historical teleologies bound to fixed stylistic categories centred on ‘influence’, often western derivatives.[5]

Cleveland Museum of Art Collection Wall. Image courtesy of CMA

Cleveland Museum of Art Collection Wall. Image courtesy of CMA

How then, might these teleologies be re-evaluated? In the context of digital collections, visual browsing metaphors deployed through embodied, interactive systems provide better methodologies for self-directed narrative-making, both in physical and virtual spaces. For example, the Cleveland Museum Collection Wall – an immense, 40-foot-long interactive touch screen display – allows visitors to the Museum to chart their course through physical space by a process of associative visual exploration on the digital screen. The Wall visualises all works of art currently on display in the institution, allowing up to 20 simultaneous users to interact with high resolution images. Every 40 seconds the animated display reconfigures, providing groupings of works based on collection metadata. Users are able to curate a group of associated objects and download a tour onto their smart device, enabling them to chart their own course through the museum.

While innovative, these explorations are still limited by the boundaries of the institution. More exploratory visualisations of socio-cultural relationships become possible when liberated from individual collections altogether, such as they appear the form of web-based repositories. The Scanlines experimental browser 2015, an embodied 3D installation developed for a 160-degree 3D theatre and also exhibited in 2D in the 2016 dLux Media Arts travelling exhibition Scanlines, was one such attempt at reconfiguring data relationships.[6]

The browser visualises over 2500 art works from the Scanlines database – a wiki that collates information about Australian media art from 1960 and feeds through to other art and media archives.[7] It uses the visual metaphor of a DNA helix to structure multiple points of connected data taken from three fields exported from the database, while simultaneously demonstrating the density of each element’s related imagery as defined in the metadata. In the 3D theatre, data nodes hover in the physical space around the user as they navigate chains of association that branch between artist, artwork, curator and exhibition history. In doing so, threads are revealed that weave between time and work. This mechanism is designed for serendipitous discovery based on aesthetic exploration rather than by Boolean search, rewarding users who wander.

Scanlines also questions two foundational tenets on which online taxonomies of art have been constructed. Firstly, instead of being object-centric and defined by material characteristics, the search mechanism relies on the relational tendons between artworks and their professional networks, situating them in a fluid social history. Secondly, it encourages a reconsideration of how users might expect to interact with cultural information in virtual and online platforms.

As many have argued, institutional philosophies manifest in the manner in which collections are visualised and allowed to be interacted with.[8] I add that, like the branching families of Linnaeus’ nomenclatures, the structure of an institution’s metadata in fact becomes a rhizome that, when interrogated by artists or users, can reveal the ecology of an institution’s practices and its relationships with artists and communities.[9] One such ecology was exposed in the course of Benjamin Forster and Sarah Rodigari’s digital intervention Seven Hundred and Forty Three Fragments Drifting 2016, part of the 20th Biennale of Sydney.

Benjamin Forster and Sarah Rodigari, Seven Hundred and Forty Three Fragments Drifting (screenshot), digital intervention on Biennale of Sydney website, 2016.

Benjamin Forster and Sarah Rodigari, Seven Hundred and Forty Three Fragments Drifting (screenshot), digital intervention on Biennale of Sydney website, 2016.

 

Seven Hundred and Forty Three Fragments Drifting took as its platform the website of the Biennale of Sydney. The work consisted of fragments of text, generated during the artists’ participation in the exhibition program the ‘Bureau of Writing’. These fragments were scripted to continuously fall slowly down the screen, with a speech-like cadence, as users browsed the site. As such, it broke with both institutional conventions and user expectations by escaping containment from both a dedicated, isolated online exhibition space (as was the case with the Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia’s first net art commission, Marian Tubb’s transmission detox 2015), as well as from usual collection pages. In doing so it co-opted a platform built for informational enquiry to be a medium for poetic reverie.

Part of the intention of the artists was to disrupt the concept of the internet as a transactive platform in which data is merely informational and its flow is on-demand, utilitarian and efficient. This of course put the poetry of their work at odds with the economic and functional imperatives of their website – namely, to sell event tickets, communicate opening hours, present exhibition information and broadcast sponsor messaging – and several complaints were received from users who found the intervention distracting or frustrating. What unexpectedly emerged from this friction between the hierarchy of the website and the code of an intervening artwork was a visualisation of institutional anxieties. On the one hand were the needs of the corporate stakeholders and authority of the institution, on the other the work of the artists whose participation in the Biennale such sponsorship made possible.

This tension resulted from a temporary rupture in exhibition architecture, not in a physical sense, but in the ways in which audiences expect art to be generated and encountered. And yet, while they often employ suspensions of time and space, museums, galleries and biennales do not operate in social, political or economic vacuums. It is precisely the interactions and interventions within an institution’s ecology that Seven Hundred and Forty Three Fragments Drifting exposed that create the evolutions in artistic practice that give rise to new taxonomies and through which exchanges of ideas and meanings occur.

A form of this speculative exchange lay at the core of the Guggenheim’s first online exhibition in 2015, the Åzone Futures Market.[10] Åzone was a web-based stock market simulation, also staged as an immersive installation featuring interactive visualisations of the emerging data, that allowed users to take speculative positions on future world events predicted by emerging technologies.

Azone Futures Market

Azone Futures Market

Given ‘10,000Å’ of Åzone currency, users were encouraged to buy fictive stocks in a range of technologically-enabled future events such as ‘Communized Intellectual Property’, ‘Legislated Luddism’ and ‘Bloodless War’. They took positions on these events and provided data input in the form of links to news stories about technologies, which accordingly altered market metrics in real time. According to the Åzone exhibition site, the intention was to explore new exhibition forms in order to make sense of technological change.

The result was the visualisation of a form of crowdsourced social zeitgeist, in which stakeholders negotiated a collective mood based on their personal interests, anxieties and interpretation of technological change. As an experiment in data-driven exhibition architecture, the Åzone Futures Market was not intended to provide a replacement for the physical museum. And yet as an interactive metaphor it does reflect on the rhizome of museum relations – the processes by which they evaluate importance, acquire data and knowledge, engage with their users and present information.

To assign something a nomenclature is to also authorise. To categorise is to legitimise and to select for digital documentation is to equate value to an object. Through this, institutional histories and characters can be traced through shifts in the types of collection metadata that preserves meaning. Returning to the Linnaean line, the methodologies established by museums and galleries now, in an age where open access to information is being rapidly normalised, will have immense impact upon their future ability to engage with and shape culture. The challenge is once again one of self-definition: to find ways of visualising materials and data that both preserves institutional integrity while also encouraging stakeholders to become co-producers of unfamiliar narratives. For to do so could better reshape museums as zones of research and engagement in which new futures are debated, predicted and evolve into being.

First published as ‘Metadata and the Rhizome of Museum Practice’, Artlink, Issue 37:1| March 2017

 

[1] Rüdiger Joppien and Bernard Smith, The Art of Captain Cook’s Voyages, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, three volumes, 1985–1987

[2] Bernard Smith, A catalogue of Australian oil paintings in the National Art Gallery of New South Wales 1875-1952 : with annotations, biographies and index, Sydney: National Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1953.

[3] Located at https://www.moma.org/collection/. Accessed 15 December, 2016.

[4] Located at https://collection.cooperhewitt.org/objects/colors/bb9685/. Accessed 15 December, 2016.

[5] This is a pervasive problem with the writing of art history by western historians dealt with more generally in Partha Mitter, ‘Decentering Modernism: Art History and Avant-Garde Art from the Periphery, Art Bulletin, Vol. 90, No. 4, Dec 2008, 531-548.

[6] The Scanlines experimental browser was produced at the Laboratory for Innovation in Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums, University of New South Wales. As a researcher in the Laboratory I assisted in the production of the browser.

[7] Located at http://www.scanlines.net.

[8] Keir Winesmith and Flora Grant, ‘How Do Institutional Philosophies Manifest in Online Collections?’, September 2014, https://www.sfmoma.org/read/how-do-institutional-philosophies-manifest-online-collections/. Accessed December 15, 2016.

[9] With a nod to the net art database http://www.rhizome.org.

[10] Located at http://azone.guggenheim.org