Surveillance, material openings, and subversive movements.
It was a real pleasure to hear Cory Doctorow’s keynote at Museums and the Web at the Biltmore Millennium Hotel in downtown Los Angeles earlier this month. The themes of the talk, probably unsurprising to those aware of Doctorow’s work, were surveillance, data capture and privacy, framed within the context of galleries, libraries, archives, and museums. In a truly engrossing hour or so, Doctorow made a captivating and convincing case for these themes to be acknowledged as critically important in the contemporary age, if not more so in the future. As we approach the end of the Artcasting project and begin to analyse the cast data we have acquired through our pilot sites and workshop events, it seems to be a timely opportunity to reflect on the data capture we have undertaken in this research.
One of the issues highlighted by Doctorow was the tacit assumption, perhaps in all sectors, that one simply must be collecting as much data as possible and urged attendees to consider whether they really should be gathering and storing as much as they do. Artcasting is based entirely on user data, which is integral to the platform itself, rather than being an abstracted measure of its use. Furthermore, most of what we collect becomes semi-public, in the sense that casts are visible to users of the app. Nevertheless, while we worked to protect the anonymity of participants, as well as encouraged them to be mindful of privacy when creating casts, the nature of the data has often revealed quite personal stories or memories. As we develop our dashboard of cast data, and begin to consider future directions for the Artcasting platform, I think we need to keep the nuanced issues of surveillance and privacy in the forefront of our minds. Given that we have designed a platform to allow users to cast into the future, we must also ask what will happen to the future of the casts. As Doctorow masterfully pointed out, the very nature of data means that its control in the future is very difficult to determine.
Perhaps the most interesting question arising from my presentation of the Artcasting project concerned the ways the locations of casts served to restrict access to artworks. The delegate wanted to know why act of reencountering casts was limited to the actual physical location of the cast, revealing a fairly common perspective on digital cultural heritage projects: that they must inevitably be about opening access to archives and artworks to the widest possible audience. Maximum access was not our goal with the Artcasting project, and indeed the platform itself was conceived as something that would work within the context of actually visiting an exhibition space. This question did make me think about the different qualities of ‘openness’ and ‘closed-ness’ that Artcasting creates, in the sense of experiencing exhibition work. Cast locations open the exhibition into new spaces, but they also delimit the work to specific contexts defined by the caster. Furthermore, the very fact that a cast work can only be reencountered in its location seems to reinstate the importance of material location in the encounter with art. The idea that digital archives simply make work accessible ‘anywhere’ seems to render space meaningless in the process, and also appears to avoid responsibility for being involved in where art work is encountered. This sense of rematerializing the ‘virtual’ is an important outcome from Artcasting, and one I shall perhaps pursue further when I discuss the project at the Tate Modern next month at the New Materialism workshop.
The other important aspect of this question relates to subversion. Digitising archives do make them more accessible, and this can be a creative form of resistance against established exclusions. While Artcasting is there to fully support the ARTIST ROOMS exhibitions, I would also like it to act in ways that creatively critique the exclusivity and restrictedness of exhibition and gallery attendance.
Through one or two conversations after my talk I realised the particular significance of talking about Robert Mapplethorpe in Los Angeles. According to these in-the-know locals, Mapplethorpe had achieved a certain popularity in recent years with a number of shows, and completely unbeknownst to me, an exhibition currently at LACMA. This was significant in the sense that I had been describing Artcasting as a means of creative ‘imaginative journeys’ for artworks, so much so that I think some of the very real journeys made by these works have been overlooked. Mapplethorpe’s work, as well as Lichtenstein’s, make actual voyages across continents, all the time, probably right now, in just the way they are depicted on the Artcasting map, but to real places, where they take on new meanings in the context of their location amongst the many visitors to their exhibitions. The mobilities of art works and exhibitions are material as much as they are imaginative.
Whilst in Los Angeles, and unfortunately not visiting the LACMA Mapplethorpe exhibition, I decided to read Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. The novel is set in California and provided an interesting background to visiting the west coast. However, more than this, the plot of the novel, involving the mysterious and shady postal organisation Trystero, offered some additionally interesting opportunities to reflect on the Artcasting platform. In the novel, Tystero provide an underground, secretive postal service that subverts the official US Mail. In order to use Trystero, enlightened citizens make use of disguised post boxes to send mail under the radar.
The Crying of Lot 49 prompted two valuable ideas. Firstly, the significance of intrigue (which was discussed in one of the early Artcasting workshops) and the conspiratorial in the way one might promote an application such as Artcasting. Just as the uncovering of clues about Trystero, and its ultimate mystery, act as plot device within the novel that captivates the reader, Artcasting itself could have adopted more of a secretive presence within the pilot exhibitions. The idea that visitors would be left to discover Artcasting and its features, perhaps through subtle clues (such as discreet displaying of the logo, reflecting Trystero’s ‘post horn’) would of course be a more risky approach, but perhaps one which could have catalysed interest.
Secondly, the idea of a subversive postal system highlighted another important way of perceiving the ‘platform’ capacities of Artcasting. Regardless of the specific works in the pilot exhibitions (but potentially also interestingly linked to them), ‘casting’ can act as a message delivery service. We’ve seen this in a number of the casts, and the idea has surfaced in deep day discussions and workshops (specifically the Bowes visit on April 15th). While Artcasting has been used to publicise particular ‘messages’ – in other words the sender seems very conscious that there will be a wide audience for the message – other casts appear more concerned with messaging particular people, at particular times and places. People have used casts to kind of nudge people, perhaps in the same way that one could ‘poke’ someone else on social media. What makes this particularly ‘subversive’ for me is the fact that the images are themselves involved. This seemed to become clear when discussing Artcasting with History of Art students at the Bowes gallery last week, who seemed concerned with the lack of information related to each art work. In this sense, rather than providing users with encyclopaedic entries about the artworks in question, Artcasting associates different kind of information with the work: more personal communication between known and unknown users, where the art itself becomes symbolic of the message trying to be communicated.