Fred Wilson, a name probably familiar to most people who work in museums, is a contemporary artist who made headlines in 1992 for his exhibit, “Mining the Museum.” Wilson makes site-specific installations with museum collections, often juxtaposing the museum’s holdings in a way that creates a new public persona for the museum and exposes the deliberations and decisions about exhibits (Wilson 1994). In “Mining the Museum”, Wilson selected several of the fine examples of plantation furniture curated at the Baltimore museum, then arranged these chairs around a slave whipping post that was used until the 1950s, and stashed in the museum’s basement in 1963. He has had several exhibitions since, even rearranging the collections at the Phoebe Hearst museum at the University of California, Berkeley, my “home” museum. I chose Fred Wilson’s work as an example of what can broadly termed as a remix, a refashioning of more traditional (albeit, in themselves derivative) forms. Wilson’s explicitly political work demands that we consider ethnographic and archaeological exhibits closely, and asks if we could benefit from different perspectives. I wonder what an entire recombinant museum would look like, and if we could achieve this remix by digital means.
(images from Maurice Berger’s Fred Wilson: Objects and Installations 1979-2000)
What exactly is the agency of the virtual non-human human? This question hit me when I was in the midst of editing what is shaping up to be my first publication, (Re)Building Çatalhöyük: Changing Virtual Reality in Archaeology, a text refashioned from my more stridently titled paper presented at the World Archaeological Congress, Get Real: A Manifesto for Virtual Reality in Archaeology. In this paper I establish Second Life as a pretty good venue for changing the way we reconstruct archaeological sites and examine the use of avatars and non-player characters (NPCs) in these reconstructions. My good friend (and professional copy editor!) Lei-Leen had done me the favor of proofing it and she highlighted my use of “person” while I was discussing these NPCs. Certainly these people-created constructs were not people themselves.
In the paper I argue against the creation and use of NPCs in virtual archaeological reconstructions:
NPCs are “non-player characters,” entities generally created as a kind of set dressing, present to answer scripted questions about the reconstruction, or to provide ambiance. This tends to bring out the worst in reconstructive impulses; in one example, Julius Caesar reclines on his couch, reciting information about his villa to the user. A recent simulation of an African American site in Oakland, California contained prominent members of the community who stood by the side of the road to robotically impart their knowledge when approached by the user’s avatar. Turning people of the past into mere mouthpieces for their architecture diminishes the rich potential of reconstructions to impart information about complex lifeways. Using programmable objects such as the previously mentioned mano and metate allows avatars to act as their own guides to the past, populating the re-created ancient landscape with avatars of people interested in the past, interacting with artifacts and taking on roles suggested by these artifacts. This is simple for archaeologists who are accustomed to telling stories through objects and adds another level of interactivity to the virtual reconstruction.
I still believe this to be true, that fundamentally we are better off wearing Caesar’s crown for ourselves rather than asking a poor simulacrum about the weather in the Republic. Thinking of Caesar as a non-player character in history is a stretch by any means. But game developers (and digital archaeologists) will probably not stop populating virtual worlds with fake people. These NPCs are nonhuman manifestations of a network of agents (polygons, “modern” humans, fiber-optics, and the dead person herself) and the relationships between these agents and as a result should be studied as such. But does this understanding of an NPC as a network make it ethical to take such liberties with the visages of the dead? What does it mean when Joey Ramone comes back from the dead to sell Doc Martins?
Of course, I could just be reading too much Latour. Let’s ask Eliza.
* Hello > How are you today.. What would you like to discuss?
* Latour > Tell me more…
* Have I been reading too much Latour? > Can you elaborate on that?
* He’s a modern social theorist. > What does that suggest to you?
* That I should be reading him for my dissertation. > Say, do you have any psychological problems?
* Possibly. > Tell me more…
While doing some reading for my dissertation, I came across a reference in The Robot and the Garden to the Mercury Project, an art installation based out of USC in 1994-95. The Mercury Project was co-directed by Ken Goldberg and Michael Mascha, the former now being at UC Berkeley, and with whom I took a class two years ago as part of my designated emphasis in New Media.
Mercury Project combined robotics and archaeology in an interactive art installation. To our knowledge, the Mercury Project was the first system that allowed WWW users to remotely view and alter the real world via tele-robotics. Users excavated artifacts buried in a sand-filled terrarium in our laboratory in Los Angeles. All buried artifacts were derived from an unnamed 19th Century text which provided a meta-commentary on science and the Internet. Users were challenged to collectively identify this text by describing their findings and hypotheses in an ongoing Operator’s Log.
Telerobotics is controlling robots at a distance, like the Mars rovers or those remote hunting websites that were in the news a few years ago. As a side note, the main website for remote hunting no longer exists and the Texas legislature passed a ban on such activities in 2005. Lo, marginalia.
Anyway, the installation involved a robotic arm and a pneumatic puffer that WWW users could use to remotely excavate objects in a sand-filled terrarium. The buried artifacts included a watch, a pipe, a lock, and other objects inspired by Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth. As they state on their webpage, “we viewed the process of discovering artifacts as a metaphor for the Internet itself. Choosing artifacts with some ‘underlying logic’ presented a challenge for collective interaction which motivated users to return to the site.” While this all emphasizes archaeology as a rather Victorian, fantastic enterprise, I’m still pretty chuffed that the first example of telerobotics on the web was an archaeologist.
I finally made something that just might be Archaeography worthy, so I abused my limited moveabletype knowledge and posted an entry over there about the wall paintings and Second Life. Let’s hope I didn’t break anything in the process.
(I reposted it below as Archaeography is no longer)
This past summer I excavated a series of paintings on a platform at Çatalhöyük, the last being a spectacular series of five hands, negative white with a red background, all pointing west. While collaborating on the archive report with my fellow excavators, I decided to reconstruct the “red phase” of Building 49 in Second Life so we could see how the building might have looked while in this phase. The painting of the hands was part of the phase, and I began “fixing” it in photoshop, removing animal holes and replacing patchy areas of the paint, so I could import it into the virtual reconstruction.
The process made me uneasy, and very aware that I was not presenting a “real” or a “fake” representation of the past, but something in the hazy middle, a third space that does not exist for the archaeologists or the people of the neolithic, but a space that exists digitally. I decided to push this boundary, and made an even more figurative version, an unambiguous white and red representation that would better suit the cartoonish world of Second Life. It would look more real, make more visual sense in the context on Second Life than an if I had used an actual photo, baked on to the texture of the platform.
The fourth image is what brought the photographs together–I happened to glance up at one of the concrete buildings in downtown Berkeley, where someone had stenciled a hand, in negative, with a red background. I felt a nexus in the past/present/real/digital tangle come into sharp relief for one brief second, then become hopelessly, wonderfully intertwined once again.
I’ve been banging away at the buildings in Second Life–they’ll be ready by Wednesday, but only just! The event is being pretty widely publicized, so let’s hope the servers in Linden world aren’t acting up that day. I love that I’ve been able to get so much research for my dissertation finished, but I think I need a computer/media black-out week someday soon!
The south-facing wall and return are both of medieval origin and were repaired in the mid-1800s with undifferentiated gray and red bricks and concrete mortar. This repair had been heavily degraded by the elements, and later repaired once again with a series of tiny (1cm x 3cm) multicolored plastic blocks. The overall feature is 1.3m high and 0.3m wide, bolstering 12 courses of brick. These small blocks were not structually viable for additional wall support, but may have served as protection from further degredation of the original mortar.
However, as conventional mortar was available at the estimated time of repair, it is suggested that these blocks represent a decorative element later appended to the structure. The blocks are predominantly blue, perhaps representing a color preference, morphological convenience, or simply an abundance of that material. Additional information regarding its internal structure will become apparent during the excavation of this feature.
(edited in 2014, as the original links to images were broken. Sadly the text no longer reflects the images)
Pyramiden was a Soviet mining town in the high Arctic that was completely abandoned in 1998. We were lucky enough to have Bjørnar Olsen, an archaeologist from the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Tromsø in Norway come speak to us about his recent documentation of the archaeological-site-in-the-making. Pyramiden is a fascinating town all around, built on a remote archipelago by the Swedish, then rented by the Soviet Union in 1927 until it was rapidly abandoned one day, leaving many of the official buildings and residences intact.
Dr. Olsen’s presentation was truly compelling and left me wondering about developing a methodology addressing modern abandonment. There is a growing genre contemporary archaeological studies, for example the archaeological excavation of a van and Gavin Lucas and Victor Buchli’s study of an abandoned flat in the UK.
I found the exploration of Pyramiden to fit more into a growing post-apocalyptic aesthetic, one that I have commented on before, but that remains of interest to a large segment of the population, if the many flickr groups dedicated to the topic are any indication. I was also reminded of the “Elena” narrative that was circulating several years ago; a woman posted a travelogue of her motorcycle trips through Chernobyl, with astonishing photographs accompanying an astonishing story. The details of the trip are falsified, but the images are real, and fed the imaginations of an audience fascinated in a World Without Us.
Ruins turn us all into archaeologists, speculating on the lives of the absent people and the meaning of the objects they left behind. I wonder if these more contemporary studies bring us even closer to an everyday archaeology, living in our own future decay.
A story on NPR about Braille city maps for the blind instantly reminded me of some artifacts I had read about during one of my literature surveys for my oral exams (Place as Recently Imagined by Archaeologists, to be exact).
Peter Whitridge wrote a brilliant article titled Landscapes, Houses, Bodies, Things: “Place” and the Archaeology of Inuit Imaginaries that queried the binary set up between space and place wherein space is portrayed as empty, scientific, geometrical, and place is embodied, historical, culturally-constructed. To do this, he demonstrated Inuit placemaking in songs, myths, legends, even tongue-twisters where Unalakleet place names are strung together–mnemonics of places along travel routes. Personhood encorporates place, and every personal name corresponds with a place name; both people and places are signified as important by the very fact of being given specific names.
The Inuit made songs, but they also made maps. These were often sketched in snow or sand, but some of them were sketched on paper with pencil for European explorers, and were intelligible to these Westerners. These are interesting in comparable abstractions of space (thus directly addressing Whitridge’s question about the space/place binary) but I am more interested in the 3D wood carvings of the East Greenland coastline, with the details of inlets and islands in sculptural relief. These could be employed by at night in conjunction with the stars, feeling your way along the coastline, navigating at an intimate scale.
I wonder if tactile maps could be extrapolated to other domains–what would a tactile BART map feel like? What about an archaeological map? Would the relief become sharper under our fingertips as we came closer to concentrations of artifacts, living spaces? Would it become hot as we came closer to the hearth, cool as we traveled to a periphery? I’ll have to try it sometime–the reaction of a field director as I handed her a carved stick after survey might be worth it.
Here’s a slightly better picture–my pdf-scrape to jpg job above didn’t turn out very well:
“In The Practice of Everyday Life, the astonishing structuralist Michel de Certeau examines the hidden movements beneath the surface of the Production-Consumption pair, showing that far from being purely passive, the consumer engages in a set of processes comparable to an almost clandestine, “silent” production. To use an object is necessarily to interpret it. To use a product is to betray its concept. To read, to view, to envision a work is to know how to divert it: use is an act of micropirating that constitues postproduction. We never read a book the way its author would like us to. By using television, books, or records, the user of culture deploys a rhetoric of practices and “ruses” that has to do with enunciation and therefore with language whose figures and codes may be catalogued.”
This photo of a “Indiana Harbor Belt R.R. switchman demonstrating signal with a fusee, used at twilight and dawn when visibility is poor” was taken in 1943, and found on Shorpy.com. Click on it to view the incredible beauty of the full size.
These traces of light are so evocative and so ephemeral–as anyone who ran around with a sparkler and traced their name into the sky could attest. Urban lightwriting first appeared on my radar from my interest in graffiti and placemaking, a subject I touched on briefly in previous posts (and in a few papers).
It seems that there is now an open source instrument for live performance drawing and animation called Tagtool that I am trying my best to spec out for this summer for some live, night-time annotation of a certain Neolithic mound.
Being able to lightwrite what once was on top of what is could be a fascinating opportunity for interpretation and performance in archaeology. I’ll reiterate something I’ve been saying for a while:
I uploaded another one of my videos to youtube so that I could show it in class tomorrow. I’m taking over half the lecture from Ruth, to tell the students a bit about archaeology and new media, since that’s the way that most of them will experience archaeology, outside of television.
It’s not my best editing job (it’s from Fall ’06), but it will have to do for now. Remind me to take a better microphone to Turkey next year.
I’m reusing my 2007 SAA slides, even though they are woefully outdated. (Banksy? Who cares about him anymore?)