Author Archives: Sarah de Rijcke

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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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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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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networked images and new media design

This morning I was watching vimeo footage forwarded by Nick, one of our colleagues at the Virtual Knowledge Studio. Designer Hendrik-Jan Grievink presented his book project on Wiki Loves Art at the CPOV conference in Amsterdam, held on March 27 and 28.

After interviewing Coralie Vogelaar at the Rijksakademie in January, and hearing Kim de  Groot (Jan van Eyck Academy) present her work at last week’s VKS Maastricht workshop, it struck me that there’s a lot of synergy between their individual projects and our work on Network Realism. It is very interesting how their work really embodies the idea that images are not merely tools, but are themselves sites of knowledge production and dissemination.  In the case of Hendrik-Jan, his forthcoming book on Wiki Loves Art (see also our two earlier blog posts on the topic) promises to be a critical reflection on WLA and Wikimedia Commons in general and an artistic re-use of images under CC-license at once. He hopes this will ‘create a never-ending loop’ of cultural capital. Coralie’s work – and her cooperation with Tinkebell is perhaps the most well-known example – also clearly reveals how the re-use of images and other sources on the web produces new, at times controversial, knowledge. Lastly, Kim de Groot is currently studying ‘the inverted relation between image and reality’ at the Jan van Eyck, in a project that specifically focuses on the performativity of images. Kim is coming to the Virtual Knowledge Studio on May 6th. I am really looking forward to exploring these and other links between our respective projects.

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The ‘Othering’ game

“New media and new technologies  – these not only require critical analysis but may be treated as occasions for exploring and testing assumptions embedded in social science and everyday understandings of the world.” (Moser & Law 2001, p. 12)

The quote is taken from an article by Ingunn Moser and John Law, in which they discuss the ‘Othering’ of disabled people. This is an enactment of personhood, the authors argue, that fits a grander modernist narrative of the romantic vs. the rational subject. Moser and Law call this a ‘trap’, “because it romanticises that Other [in this case, the disabled] by telling stories which celebrate Otherness, difference and passivity by telling of the desirability of silence, nature, immanence and the feminine. The body and emotions are lauded against the cognitive, the rational, and the verbal (…).” (p. 12) Obviously, these dynamics are also common elsewhere. I was reminded of it when I came across  this video, in which artist Bradley Pitts and scientist Raymond van Ee discuss their mutual interest in Pitt’s Ellipsoidal Introspective Optic (EIO). The EIO is an optical device, a  mirror that reflects the image of the one eye into the other and vice versa. In this case, both Pitts and Van Ee are heavily involved in this ‘Othering’ game, by drawing and re-affirming boundaries between Pitt’s artistic (individual, creative, subjective) and Van Ee’s scientific research (collective, quantifiable, objective). Ironically, while their co-operation was anticipated as an opportunity to build bridges between art and science, the two protagonists in the video inadvertently end up reifying the boundaries between their ‘two cultures’.

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