Out now: Representation in Scientific Practice Revisited (MIT Press)

Representation in Scientific Practice, published by the MIT Press in 1990, helped coalesce a long-standing interest in scientific visualization among historians, philosophers, and sociologists of science and remains a touchstone for current investigations in science and technology studies. This volume revisits the topic, taking into account both the changing landscape of STS and the emergence of new imaging technologies in scientific practice. It offers cutting-edge research on a broad array of fields that study information as well as short reflections on the evolution of the field by leading scholars, including some of the contributors to the 1990 volume.

Our chapter Networked Neuroscience discusses the conditions that make brain scans authoritative visual objects and analyses three important dimensions of scans. We show how scans are increasingly parts of suites of networked technologies, rather than standalone outputs. We then trace the increasing presence of databases of scans in the constitutions of atlases and the consequences of ʻdatabase logicʼ for visualisations. The third related development is the role of scans as interfaces, where they serve to open up a range of possibilities, rather than to stand in as a fixed representation. Together, these dimensions help characterise the visual in digital and networked settings of contemporary science, and enable us to trace how the very concept of the authoritative image has been transformed.

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Staging the Studio – forthcoming publication

One of the final fruits of our labor will be published next year: A contribution to “Hiding Making, Showing Creation. The Studio from Turner to Tacita Dean.” In: Esner, Kisters & Lehmann (eds.), Amsterdam University Press. The chapter is called Staging the Studio: Enacting Artful Realities through Digital Photography and focuses on some of the complex relationships between artistic creation and forms of photographic documentation and (web-based) display. It does so through the lens of fieldwork done at the Rijksakademie for the visual arts in Amsterdam in 2009-10.

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What difference does a website make?

A website that presents the collection through gorgeous visuals is now considered a must for any self-respecting museum. Photographs of objects, of exhibitions and of the museum itself are increasingly frequent interfaces, linking museums, visitors, experts, collections. How are users engaged by these interfaces? Which skills and strategies are needed for this engagement? What are the consequences of visually mediated interfaces for users of digital knowledge in/about/from museums, archives, and other collections? These developments are discussed in terms of their consequences for how museums view their role in a recent article written with Sarah de Rijcke, Image as Interface: consequences for users of museum knowledge. It appears in a special issue of the journal Library Trends on ‘Involving Users in the Co-Construction of Digital Knowledge in Libraries, Archives, and Museums.’

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Current labour of love…

… is the finalisation of a chapter for the edited volume New Representation in Scientific Practice, edited by Catelijne Coopmans, Mike Lynch, Janet Vertesi & Steve Woolgar. MIT Press.

Our contribution is entitled:
Networked neuroscience: brain scans and visual knowing at the intersection of atlases and databases

Anne Beaulieu and Sarah de Rijcke

Abstract
Brain scans have been in heavy circulation these past 20 years as some of the most fascinating and ubiquitous digital images in scientific and cultural spheres. In this chapter, we analyze how the scans are both digital and networked images that depend on suites of technologies (Shove 2007) for their constitution and meaning. In particular, we will show how the production and reading of brain scans function in different suites, some of which reinforce a modernist, mechanical, pipeline approach to brain imaging, where digital images are acted upon as measurements, and others that highlight the interactive and interventionist potential of digital imaging, where brain scans are constituted as fluid animations. We argue that brain scans come to be associated with specific kinds of authority through complex ecologies of visualization routines in digital visual culture. In particular, brain scans are focal points in arrangements of scanning and database technologies, constituted in electronic networks where individual experiences are mediated by interfaces. New modes of seeing and novel technologies co-evolve with adjustments in particular epistemic approaches, at times resembling earlier practices and at times moving towards new kinds of objectivity.

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Exciting conference coming up!

In March, scholars of visualisation and digital imaging will gather for what promises to be a great event entitled Visualisation in the age of computerisation. The call for papers can be found on the conference website. Deadline is 1 December.

We will be submitting an abstract for this conference, on one of complex topic we’ve been investigating in this project, at the intersection of STS and new media studies. We’ll be trying to characterise the epistemological styles we have  found around networked, digital images–in other words, analysing the new forms of visual knowledge practices around databases of images. Watch this space!

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Insights on visual digital scholarship

A geat piece by Tara McPherson has recently appeared. Not only does it contain important insights about the first few years of experimentation at the journal Vectors, but is also describes important efforts to rethink scholarly communication in relation to the visual and to the archive. Topics close to our hearts here at Net Real.

Go read this!

Scaling Vectors: Thoughts on the Future of Scholarly Communication

Tara McPherson
Journal of Electronic Publishing
Volume 13, Issue 2, Fall 2010
DOI: 10.3998/3336451.0013.208

Abstract

This essay proposes that bold new forms of experimentation and bookishness are necessary if we are to advance (and perhaps save) scholarly publishing in the humanities. Possible issues facing presses are considered through consideration of two examples in scholarly publishing that involve the author. The first example, the experimental journal Vectors, highlights the advantages and limits of certain types of multimodal scholarly communication for the humanities. The second example, the new Alliance for Networking Visual Culture, points toward new methods of workflow and publishing that link archives, scholars, and presses. The essay ends with a list of key questions that presses will need to address as various stakeholders collectively expand what we understand humanities publishing to be.

 

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Network realism in the States

Coming up: the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts annual conference in Indianapolis (28-31 October), the Reimagining the Archive conference at UCLA (12-14 November), and a two-week stay in San Diego (UCSD) in the middle. I’m looking forward to all three!

The first talk, in Indianapolis, will focus on the production, handling, and dissemination of images of art at the Rijksakademie for the visual arts in Amsterdam – a setting where new, networked technologies blend with existing documentation practices. I am interested in the entanglement of images and art works with the institute’s image database. In addition, I focus on how the visual documentation relates to the complex experience of making/seeing art objects. And how do these documentation practices relate to other electronic settings and networks in which the images might circulate (artist’s website, Flickr, sites galleries, etc.)?

The talk at the science studies colloquium at UCSD will center around our project label “Network Realism:” a new form of visual knowing, taking place at the intersection of digital images and computer networks at the point where they purport to convey the ‘real’. I will discuss results from our fieldwork at four sites where network realism is central: the Rijksakademie for the visual arts; the Tropenmuseum (an ethnographic museum); real estate database Funda; and Flickr as used by scholars who study street art. At each of the fieldsites, images are part of databases and circulate in complex electronic networks in ways that are not reducible to, but are intimately related to their digital format. The manipulation of digital images in networks enables other kinds of knowledge than those possible by physical co-presence with the objects represented.

At the  UCLA conference, our contribution will focus on networked knowledge and epistemic authority in the development of virtual museums, based on the fieldwork pursued at the Tropenmuseum. In light of the popular claim that new technologies will radically reconfigure existing socio-technical relations and dramatically alter the basis for scientific and scholarly authority, we will argue that it is important to draw attention to emerging forms of epistemic authority in relation to pre-existent institutional and infrastructural elements.

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ethnography and networked images

In a couple of weeks, I’ll be taking part in a summer school at the Copenhagen Business School. Part of the great programme for this event is intense interaction around PhD student papers, and it’s a true pleasure to be reading these pieces, all fresh from the keyboard, with the loose ends and struggles still in there. It also makes clear how polished (and maybe even a little bit stale) a lot of the published material is–not surprising given how long it takes to get things in print.

My own contribution will be built around a series of vignettes, narratives about moments from the field, that will serve to discuss methodological sensibilities, decisions and processes. So far, the themes will be:

  • following the actors
  • authority in a network
  • symetry of people and things

And I want to come up with one more to stress ethical issues in practice.

In the course of preparing for this, I’ve come across some recent (and not so recent) material that could also be of interest but that didn’t make it to the reading list:

Rabinow, Marking Time (suggested by Ine Hoyweghen)

Kien, Global Technography

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The art of randomized landscaping

Sarah Janssen is a cross-media designer, and is currently enrolled in the Frank Mohr MFA Interactive Media and Environments. Janssen recently launched an interesting project called Googlescape. She advertises it as a web-based gallery of photographs generated via Google Streetview.

The Googlescape project website reloads automatically, showing a new randomly selected ‘landscape’ somewhere in the Netherlands every minute. The photographs are displayed in the middle of the screen, against a black background. It is as if you are looking at these photographs as works of art. This experience is heightened because Janssen left out most of  Google Streetview’s interactive interface, and because she used other display conventions familiar to the art world besides the centered presentation, for instance by giving the photos a title, an ‘author’ (Google), and a date.

Googlescape made me ponder on the differences between interactive Google streetview users, who usually look at particular places with a particular goal in mind, and Janssen’s passive spectators, who watch the randomly generated views on Holland pass before their eyes. The composition of the photographs is also intriguing. The Google camera was placed on top of a car. When these images travel to Janssen’s website in the guise of landscapes, they feel artificial, in the sense that they do not refer back to a human body or an eye behind the camera. This sense of artificiality is enhanced due to the stitching of different images taken at regular intervals. The human, ‘subjective’, element of individual scene selection we know from conventional landscape photography was not part of the production process.

Interestingly, some of the images do come across as very pleasing to the eye, and it would not surprise me if they could serve as sources of inspiration for landscape photographers.

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Photographic documents of beauty and truth

Photographer Hans van den Bogaard was recently commissioned by the Amsterdam Academic Medical Center (AMC) to photograph part of the Vrolik collection. This 19th century collection consists of over five thousand anatomical, pathological-anatomical, zoological and teratological specimen. Van den Bogaard’s photographs are currently on display at photography museum Foam. Last week, we took our guest Andrew Sempere (MIT-based designer, curator, artist) to see the intriguing and also unsettling exhibition.

The Vrolik collection was originally privately owned by Professor Gerardus Vrolik (1775-1859) and his son Professor Willem Vrolik (1801-1863). It was the last collection of its kind in the Netherlands. Increasing specialization in science and medicine decreased the need for a collection that covered the very broad spectrum of comparative normal and pathological anatomy. Six years after Willem Vrolik passed away in 1863, an Amsterdam citizens committee acquired the entire collection. It was handed over to the Athenaeum Illustre, the predecessor of the University of Amsterdam. Today, the collection is housed at the AMC.

On the Foam website, we read that Van den Bogaard’s assignment “was not just to document the collection, but to visualise it in a much freer manner. (…) The result transcends traditional scientific photography in which the medium primarily serves a specific branch of science. Van den Bogaard has succeeded in creating many photos which fascinate not only because of what they depict, but because of how the specimen is depicted. The specific use of both natural and artificial light, his choice of a particular camera and special lens and his well-considered use of the blue background in photographing many of the specimens ensure that the photos far surpass the straightforward recording of a collection.” A similar text was displayed at the beginnig of the exhibition. We therefore entered the exhibition space with this specific ‘artistic’ mind-set.

Personally, I came across a lot of photographs of anatomical specimen when I was working on my dissertation on brain imaging. I thought I was used to dealing with the discomfort one may feel in not knowing if consent was given to anatomists for using the human remains. I thought  I was used to these kinds of images, also to more aesthetic ones. I guess I was wrong. I found it to be quite an unsettling experience to look at these aestheticized photographs of anatomical preparations, ranging from parts of the human face to anencephalic fetuses, and to find beauty in the womb of a chicken, for instance (image on the right).

Considering the long history of anatomical imaging, using an artistic eye for the purposes of clinical, medical-scientific documentation has from the mid-19th century onwards become much less common. But Van den Bogaard’s photographs fit well with an earlier tradition of anatomical display, dating back as far as the Renaissance. One of the most famous examples is Andreas Vesalius’ spectacular folio of the human anatomy, De Humani Corporis Fabrica, published in 1543. In Vesalius’s day, the beauty of the images was seen as an essential part of achieving accuracy. In the Netherlands, the 17th century anatomist Frederic Ruysch is still well-known for his artful anatomical museum. Ruysch preferably displayed his specimen in separate cabinets, each displaying a separate anatomical still life, a nature morte (Luuc Kooijmans, De Doodskunstenaar, Bert Bakker Publishers, 2004). Quite similarly, Van den Bogaard’s photographs can also be seen as timeless memento mori‘s.

In some ways, the move of the Vrolik collection from the  academic hospital to the white walls of a gallery is less successful. Van den Bogaard’s aesthetic photographs are accompanied by captions with very dry descriptive medical information, revealing the fact that the exhibition was commissioned by the academic hospital. This has a very disquieting effect. Medical-anatomical information is prioritized over, for instance, background information on the photographer’s artistic and technological choices. I considered this to be a missed opportunity to build bridges between the two poles, and resorted to the web to find more information on Van den Bogaard’s take on the exhibition. Luckily, Radio 6’s De Avonden aired an interview with the photographer on May 6.

On the other hand, this type of photography and captions might actually fit quite well with the long-standing tradition of anatomical display I was referring to above. As said, the combination of artistic visualization and anatomical description was much more common in Vesalius’  and Ruysch’ days.  Moreover, it was also quite customary for scholars to look for ways in which to disciplineartists.

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