Category Archives: event

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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Regarding the Brain

Technology and culture determine our view of the brain

What does the brain look like? What do we really know about our brains? For centuries, we’ve been telling ourselves time and again that we now have an objective view of our brains. However, objectivity depends on technological developments, human actions and social and cultural factors, to name but a few. This has been revealed by research by Sarah de Rijcke, (yes, this blog’s Sarah) who will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 18 February 2010.

More on the thesis, Regarding the Brain. Practices of Objectivity in Cerebral Imaging. 17th Century-Present.
And more from the horse’s mouth can be found here, where Sarah was ‘PhD of the week’ on BNR nieuwsradio and defended her thesis in just a minute.

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This past week, a very interesting discussion has been emerging around the role of models, in the course of work on a new programme of the KNAW on computational humanities. The representational role of models tends to be at the forefront of people’s minds in this discussion. This means that models are seen as representations of the world. In this line of thinking, the power of models is in simplifying or emphasizing certain elements. In being less complex than reality, models enable specific dynamics to be explored. And, in this view of models, they can be evaluated as good or bad representations, depending on their proper relationship to the world.

Models, however, like any other tool, also have a performative function. This means that in building and using them, they shape our understanding of the world and of the questions we pose using models.

In trying to find good ways to bring forward this aspect of models, I have been thinking about the work collected by de Chadarevian and Hopwood and Natasha Myers’ Molecular Embodiments. But mostly I was thinking about David Gooding’s work on Faraday’s drawings, on his visual reasoning, and subsequent work on the role of visual models in scientific discovery. The reasons for drawing on this work are multiple. David’s work can be considered a kind of historical ethnography, which is a very difficult kind of work to do, and one that is especially well done in David’s work on Faraday.  David’s cases are also ‘hard’—because of the areas he looks at, and because of his demonstrations of just how essential the visual was in taking particular steps in the development of knowledge. And finally, David’s orientation to cognitive issues and use of a cognitive vocabulary will go down well with the crowd I’m hoping to engage.

While David’s work remains for me to share with others, I have just heard the sad news of his death.

David was designated as mentor for me, as a new staff member at the Science Studies Center at the University of Bath in 1999. These were tumultuous times for us both (for David: new MSc programme, new love and shortly after new wife, daughters leaving home for uni, diagnosis of a very serious illness…. for me: first job, finishing my PhD, having a baby, figuring out life in the UK with my new husband…). David was a consistently supportive presence throughout all of this, though, not surprisingly, most of our intellectual exchanges took place in writing, and our meetings focused on putting out various fires, admin- or student-related.

More recently, as life seemed to quiet down a bit and as our research interests were again converging, I was looking forward to further working with David, and invited him to join the advisory board for this project.  In this too, David was very supportive.

He was an insightful scholar and a generous and thoughtful man. Besides his work, the memory of the kind gaze he invariably turned on the world also remains with me.

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Museums and measuring performance, part I

Last week, Trilce Navarrete and I attended a debate at the Reinwardt Academy of cultural heritage in Amsterdam on performance indicators and changing roles of museums in the present “information society.” The debate was part of a monthly series called Erfgoedarena (Heritage Arena), co-organised by the Reinwardt Academy and the Netherlands Institute for Heritage (NIH). In this first part of the post, I’ll provide a brief overview of the debate. In part II, I’ll link the debate to two books on the politics of policy making, and will raise some points for discussion.

The NIH asked freelance consultant Natasja Wehman last year to explore the particular shapes the changing roles of museums might take.  Her report can be found here (in Dutch). Wehman signalled 4 possible scenarios, or roles:

1. the museum as networker: the institute is up-to-speed about things happening around the museum, functions as a conduit, facilitates existing (knowledge) networks. This can take different shapes, depending on the museum

2. the museum as a laboratory: also comes in different guises, f.i. as a space for contemporary (new media) artists to experiment, or art-science lab, or cooperation with creative industry

3. the validator: museum as knowledge and information expert, but with a 21st century twist: the museum as cultural producer instead of reproducer

4. the innovator: combination of the three scenarios above. According to Wehman, this is the ideal museum of the future. ‘Possession’, either the possession of a collection and/or of knowledge, she argues,  is now usually put first. But museums are losing their monopoly on these ‘possessions’. They need to innovate, or transform. The representatives she interviewed mentioned a number of relevant preconditions for that transformation: a. work together, b. create opportunities for research & development, c. create time, d. be aware of relevance for society at large. Wehman adds that museums need to create new ways to engage with audiences, and need to realize that the meaning and relevance of a museum is not static but in flux.  (post continues in part two)

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Museums and measuring performance, part II

This brings us back to  last week’s debate. There were 3 discussants: Gitta Luiten, director of the Mondriaan Foundation (supports projects in the visual arts, design, and cultural heritage); Arnoud Odding, head of the National Glass Museum; and Marc Jacobs, senior advisor Culture and Cultural History for one of the Dutch provinces. Their job was to set the stage for a discussion with the audience, consisting of representatives of heritage institutes, researchers, Reinwardt Academy students and a strikingly small number of new media people. While all discussants agreed that museums needed to innovate, and traditional performance indicators did not suffice, they differed in their analysis of the situation, and in the kinds of alternatives they brought forth. Luiten and a small number of other people in the audience stressed that museums could be more flexible in the way they account for past performance – they tend to come up with numbers (of visitors, acquisitions, etc.) themselves, while for instance the Mondriaan Foundation would be open to other formats. If it fits a particular project, Luiten argued, why not send in a video instead? Marc Jacobs took a pragmatic position. He argued that museums would do well to think very thoroughly about their audiences, and just simply focus on what delivers. This is where he diverged from Arnoud Odding’s position. Oddding was invited because his museum is successful in engaging new audiences, in experimenting, and in making smart use of new media. Odding’s position was clear: Don’t go looking out for a particular audience, don’t focus on numbers, just focus on what you as a museum think is exciting and stimulating. In a network society, museums can benefit greatly from the many communities of interested people already out there. Maybe that means that your number of visitors to the museum declines, but that’s too narrow a focus anyway, he argued. He himself experienced that, indirectly, smart new media use created new and unexpected partnerships with craftsmen and companies. This is perhaps hard to capture in numbers, but certainly no less relevant.

The debate afterward again highlighted that while museums realize the need for change, they also feel that innovation conflicts with the way their performance is now usually measured by for instance governmental grant providers, etc. These parties, they argue, keep asking for traditional performance indicators like amount of visitors, number of times mentioned in the press, number of exhibitions or publications, or number of website visitors.

While it is interesting to bring to mind what Gitta Luiten said about the Mondriaan Foundation being open to, even challenging institutions to come up with, alternative indicators of past performance, the centrality of the relationship between performance and numbers was striking. Coming from the field of science studies (where researchers analyze ‘science in action’, to borrow a phrase from Latour), it struck me how much the debate resonated with similar discussions in the sciences. There, too, quantification is the ‘preferred’ way to measure performance or ‘output’. I think it is worth translating  some of the work done in sciences studies to the current debate in the cultural heritage field. The work of historian of science Ted Porter was the first that came to my mind. In his book Trust in Numbers, Porter argued that using numbers to judge and measure quality is a way to manage trust between parties that are at a distance. Numbers travel over larger distances (not only geographically, but also more ‘psychologically’) and are today seen as more ‘objective’ than other ways to build trust, based on more informal rules and agreements.

A related issue: administrators themselves usually have to justify their own work and their decisions in impersonal terms. When decisions about distribution of funding etc. are made, they try to avoid arbitrariness by using instrumental, standardized tools. In Policy Paradox, Deborah Stone tackles this rationalist approach by laying bare the complexity of policy making. She shows that policy making is a “constant struggle over the criteria for classification, the boundaries of categories, and the definition of ideals that guide the way people behave” (Stone, p. 11).  Stone contends that there are multiple ways to define a problem, present relevant issues, creating relevant categories, leaving things out. This is not, and can never be, a neutral process. Policy making is done by parties with a vested interest in presenting the problem in a certain light.

When I translate the above to the topic of the debate on performance indicators and changing roles of museums, I think that further interaction between institutions and funding agencies would benefit from explicitating the following points:

  • What particular policy is supported by this portrayal of information via numbers?
  • Which categories are constructed behind the numbers, and what are the consequences? A simple and seemingly innocent example: counting the annual number of visitors implies that you define what you consider as a ‘visitor’ first. These decisions are not neutral, and shape all kinds of work processes in and outside of museums (hiring staff or technologies to register these numbers, defining what a visit is, how that changes when a museum ‘goes virtual’ etc).
  • What shape do the trade-offs take between the goals of different parties?
  • If this is clear, what would be workable alternatives to deal with the inherent ambiguity in these particular decision making processes?

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Attending Kom je ook?2

Sarah and I attended a very interesting meeting at the Hermitage yesterday, Kom je ook? 2 (preceded and followed by other Kom je ook? meetings). From the 350 curators, new media designers and artists and cultural sector actors who attended, many already reported on twitter, Facebook and Flickr on the event, which leaves me to add here my own reactions.

Mobile polling stations

Originally uploaded by maaikelauwaert


First, there was an amazing energy in the room. That buzz of people being excited to see each other, unsure and curious about what they were about to hear, and grasping at new input with the goal of doing something–very enjoyable! (And the sugar from the ubiquitous candy probably helped too…) The atmosphere probably also struck me because of its contrast with most (academic) events I attend, which have other pleasures, but not that kind of energy (nor spontaneous participatory opera!)

Parade of Platforms

The audience was promised an afternoon free of techno-enthusiasm, and given the means to punish any offending speaker (toeters were handed out at registration). And indeed, there was little of that kind of talk. There was, however, a strong tendency to focus on platforms, and to draw out their design advantages (several fantastic-sounding tools were shown).  We heard very little about actual uses and users, about variations and creativity in the way the platforms were used, etc. With the exception of Gillian Moore who spoke eloquently (but somewhat generally) about the values needed for creating relationships with audiences (honesty, respect, integrity, commitment, innovation), there was little about people and meaning and interaction.

Beyond ‘public’, ‘audience’, ‘community’

So I came away feeling there was a big role for social science and cultural studies to fulfill in this emerging arena. For example, we can provide a vocabulary to talk about the kinds of engagements with cultural institutions, via these platforms. The words community or audience were mentioned once in a while, but these terms are very broad and general. It gets you about as far as talking about a museum collection as ‘containing paintings’, or saying of a website that ‘it has hyperlinks’. True and relevant, but quite poor as a way into a good description and real understanding!


So, what can be done? Also involve people who are not only creating, but also studying these new modes of interactions.  And ask the speakers to talk not only about the best practices of their designers, but also to address the following points, which I think would bring out users and uses:

1. surprises–ways in which their tools/sites/platforms were used in unexpected ways, and by whom?

2. dynamism-ways in which visitors or users get involved in different ways with institutions and platforms, and how they might go through different kinds of involvement (i.e. from information-seeker to produser?)

3. new skills–the issue of needing new expertise and to dedicate human power to developing relationships came up several times yesterday. Might this also be true of visitors and audiences? Are they developing new skills and new knowledge?


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