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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Funda Fieldwork

These past weeks, I’ve been scouring the country and especially my hometown Groningen, to do interviews and spend time with people for the ‘Funda’ case. In exploring the various practices that sustain and that rely on Funda, a database of real estate in the Netherlands, I’ve been exploring how visual material about real estate is produced and used and re-used.

The aim is to understand how photos (but also floor plans, 3D plans, and videos) contribute to the constitution and circulation of a knowledge about real estate objects, as a kind of everyday knowledge that is strongly visual.  Through participant observation, I follow how material is produced by real estate agents, how it is used by house-buyers, and how Funda as a web-based information infrastructure plays a role in shaping this. I’ve also been tracing how other sources of visual material get used by house-buyers, and how various sources relate to each other.

By the way, I’m still looking for users of Funda or potential house-buyers to talk to, so get in touch if you’re willing to talk to me about your experiences (anne.beaulieu@vks.knaw.nl).

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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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The image as interface

Digital photographs of objects are ubiquitous in the work and presentation of museums, libraries, archives and collections, whether in collection-management infrastructure or in web-based communication. Last week, we submitted an article for a special issue of Library Trends on the visual practices at and around the Tropenmuseum, in which we trace the role of digital images in the production of museum knowledge. A better understanding of how users interact with images must include careful attention to the databased and networked aspects of images and to their functions as interfaces. These are related to, but not reducible to their digital status.

Our analysis shows that the images, like any other sources of authoritative knowledge, are most effective when they remain in dialogue with other sources. Furthermore, particular skills are required of users to pursue and constitute such connections, especially when the images are embedded in web-based collection databases. We argue that it is therefore crucial not to reify the database, and equate it with ‘the knowledge of the museum’.

The image as interface also has a number of very practical consequences for museums. As images become increasingly active objects that have many functions besides being viewed, this should lead to renewed attention to how images are made available. For example, images are often only retrievable through keyword search possibilities. There are projects that experiment with different formats, allowing for greater browsing freedom. Our analysis indicates that other kinds of engagement with the material could offer new possibilities for knowledge production.

As images as interfaces provide a networked context for digital knowledge, interactions with the images exceed the limits of single images, single collections or institutions, and even of single platforms, with consequences for how museums view their role. Lateral connections to other cultural institutions and to web-based settings could mean not only increased visibility, but also increased opportunity for new forms of knowledge production.  On the other hand, new forms and intensity of media work is also needed on the part of museums, to engage with new kinds of actors in new ways.

Although it was  beyond the scope of our article, the issue of virtual repatriation is also relevant here. Other projects are currently pursuing the issue of knowledge transferal in digital heritage initiaves and the possibilities to create bridges between museums and source communities. A paper delivered by Devorah Romanek (The British Museum/University College London)  at last year’s CHArt  annual conference was particularly sensitive to all kinds of corrollaries of digitisation in ethnographic museums. Among other things, Romanek argued that is is crucial to take into account concerns about ownership and ethics, but also the cultural sensitivity of images in ethnographic museum collections. These issues, Romanek points out, are also highly relevant when lateral connections enable the (web-based) reunion of once-dispersed collections.

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