Project proposal: Digital Archive/Research Platform

Venezuelan State TV, 31 January 2014. President Nicolás Maduro presents an image photographed by workers in a tunnel in Caracas' underground where they claimed to have seen the face of late president Hugo Chávez.

Venezuelan State TV, 31 January 2014. President Nicolás Maduro presents an image photographed by workers in a tunnel in Caracas’ underground where they claimed to have seen the face of late president Hugo Chávez.

Original ideas (skip to “Meeting 1” if you want to fastforward to the conversations with Ian…)

While exploring the visual culture of the Bolivarian Revolution of Venezuela, I have amassed an archive that traces the visual saturation and ubiquity of Hugo Chávez’s political career and the commemorative strategies that have been created since his death last year. I’d like to find a way to work with this material in a more collaborative and experimental way.

At the same time, I’m interested in web interfaces that respond to the general status of contemporary visual culture. It’s a platitude to say that today we produce more images than ever before, that digital image production no longer requires professional technical skills. Traditional media is reproduced and embedded across digital channels and social media ad infinitum, producing memes, repurposed content and new interpretations along the way, like http://chavezhugs.tumblr.comIt’s this context that I’m interested in.

The surge in visual material has led to a vast, global(ised) image world where traditional archival technologies are experiencing a complex transition from material to virtual storage. So this project aims to transform a personal archive into a interactive website

This web-based interface that would function as:

  • Interactive and collaborative digital archive of visual material of the Chávez era
  • Space for realizing curatorial/investigative projects: public-facing, e.g. temporary, archivable digital exhibitions and annotated encyclopedias of curated images.
  • Platform for disseminating research

Multi-modality

The site would approach the image in broad terms, understanding the visual as a multi-modal experience where text, image, and sound are interconnected.

  • Visual (jpg images taken from the web, generally low-res)
  • Audio-visual (clips downloaded from YouTube)
  • Textual (pdfs or text)
  • Digital (e.g. gifs)

Functions:

  • Online image archive: search and browse facilities
  • Research publication hub: Site to publish journal articles with additional visual material included in research but not in the journal article
  • Visual-encyclopedia: Analytical commentary on key images
  • Virtual exhibition: interface for viewing for curated material by guest editors
  • Sign-up sheet: to create database of subscribers (to be used later for call for proposals for virtual exhibits)

 Authors/collaborators

  • Networked-international team: the website will need different user profiles to provide access and editing permissions to members

 

Meeting 1: Devonshire House

“I’m feeling lucky… coeherences, faultlines, rules of engagement”

Our first meeting, like others on the CCI program, was a way to get to know each others’ interests.

Screen capture of part of the image archive.

Screen capture of part of the image archive.

Entropy?

Ian and I had a really fascinating conversation about the productive possibilities of entropy: the idea that considering my archive of images of Chávez or related to chavismo is already unorganised, then how could this internal (controlled) chaos be manifested in some way in the way the website would operate and of users’ experience of it?

Metadata?

We talked about various options: using collaborative, emergent metadata that users could add to images in order to create a collective taxonomy of the images that would base search criteria on personal (subjective) perception, yet would add to the images by making them more available to multiple search criteria. We also discussed, in this context, the possibility that the images could exist in many places simultaneously: that is to say, rather than the physical storage that is associated with tangible archival spaces, these images –as a series of binary codes that have no physical original- could float interstitially as multiple presences that emerged when called upon (by search criteria).

Slot machine?

However, during the conversation the chaos/entropy/randomization of the images was also something that we considered as an overriding format for the website; i.e. that the user would enter the site and have a function similar to Google’s “I’m feeling lucky”, which would produce –much like a slot machine at a fair- a set of images that the user would/could then associate in some way to create a reading of those images that would then be filed in a separate category.

This option would certainly work for an informal and fast-moving guest-curator experience, but it reduces agency on the part of the user.

The meeting certainly left me with things to think about…

Rules of engagement / assets

Ian’s terminology provided an interested (curious?) insight for me on how the language of combat and gaming is perhaps present in ways of looking at web-based architectures. I had confessed to him that this is what I find especially complex: how best to organise such a lot of information/what sort of structure or entropy to provide for it to be

Negotiation of chaos:

The notion of chaos is probably not as useful because there has already been a pre-selection of visual material that I have done over the time I’ve been accumulating this information, so that poses questions I need to answer:

  • What are the criteria I’ve used to select the images?
  • How has this impacted on how I’ve organised them?

 

Meeting 2: Leeds Art Gallery Café

“Semi-organised entropy… looking for emergent meaning in an unstructured but curated superset”

 

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work in progress…

This meeting was really key to finding a way to give shape to the ideas and basically establishing the rules of engagement so that the user experience with the prototype interface would be:

– unpredictable but not entirely random

and,

– controlled without being dogmatic.

Content

Users would be invited to take part by “admin”; i.e. participation, like the images, would be curated.

“Admin” (me) would select a group of initial images (“assets”) from the archive and upload them onto the system with initial metadata.

Process

We came up with a structure that would elicit certain responses to the three images that would be produced randomly once the user had registered:

— tagging images with metadata and thus building a collective archive

— being able to reject images, but having to explain why

— exploring the sub-set that emerged randomly from the superset by offering a more articulated response to it in approx. 150 words

Promoting entropy

Against the positive feedback that characterises starring, retweeting or “liking” content, we decided to give positive feedback (Ian would build this into the randomising algorithm that would make images appear in the “fruit machine”) to the images that users rejected. By weighting those images, the questions or problems and “dislikes” they elicited in users would make those faultlines more visible. Basically: more rejection = more visibility.

 

In the interim

After the meeting at Leeds Art Gallery, we went about our own tasks, Ian designing and programming the prototrype and me selecting the first batch of images.

This interval coincided with Venezuela’s Independence Day military parades on the 5th of July. These events were a firm fixture in the national calendar under Chávez: in fact, military parades, that also incorporated historical figures represented by people in period dress, would take place on several dates throughout the year. The state television coverage this year featured an image that really speaks to what interests me about the way Chávez’s image continues to be evoked and made present in public life.

The image (see below) also triggered different hyperlinkages in my imaginary that are never controllable but are just set off. It is this volatile effect that is so interesting, how our senses link up in our memory in unpredictable ways. The experience was a nudge I needed to reactivating a website that I had left inactive for over a year:

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