Monday, 5 March 2012

'I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, and I think'

More and more open and/or linkable cultural heritage data is becoming available, which means the next big challenge for memory institutions is dealing with 'death by aggregation: creating meaningful, engaging experiences of individual topics or objects within masses of digital data.  With that in mind, I've been wondering about the application of Roland Barthes' concepts of studium and punctum to large online collections.  (I'm in the middle of research interviews for my PhD, and it's amazing what one will think about in order to put off transcribing hours of recordings, but bear with me...)

Studium, in Wikipedia's definition, is the 'cultural, linguistic, and political interpretation of a photograph'.  While Barthes was writing about photography, I suspect studium describes the average, expected audience response to well-described images or objects in most collections sites - a reaction that exists within the bounds of education, liking and politeness.  However, punctum - in Barthes' words, the 'element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me' - describes the moment an accidentally poignant or meaningful detail in an image captures the viewer.  Punctum is often personal to the viewer, but when it occurs it brings with it 'a power of expansion': 'I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, and I think'.  You cannot design punctum, but can we design collections interfaces to create the serendipitous experiences that enable punctum?  Is it even possible with images of objects, or is it more likely to occur with photographic collections?

While thinking about this, I came across an excellent post on Understanding Compelling Collections by John Coburn (@j0hncoburn) in which he describes some pilots on 'compelling historic photography' by Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums. The experiment asked two questions: 'Which of our collections best lends themselves to impulse sharing online?' and 'Which of our collections are people most willing to talk about online?'.  It's well worth reading both for their methods and their results, which are firmly grounded in the audiences' experience of their images: a 'key finding from our trial with Flickr Commons was that the mass sharing of images often only became possible when a user defined or redefined the context of the photograph', 'there’s a very real appetite on Facebook for old photography that strongly connects to a person’s past'.

Coming back to Barthes, their quest for images that 'immediately resonated with our audience on an emotional level and without context' is almost an investigation of enabling punctum; their answer: 'anything that How To Be a Retronaut would share', is probably good enough for most of us for now.  To summarise, they're 'era-specific, event-specific, moment-specific' images that 'disrupt people’s model of time', that 'tap into magic and the sublime', and that 'stir your imagination, not demand prior knowledge or interest'.  They're small, tightly-curated, niche-interest sets of images with evocative titles.

That's not how we generally think about or present online collections.  But what if we did?

[Update, May 16, 2012.

This post, from Flickr members co-curating an exhibition with the National Maritime Museum, offers another view - is the public searching for punctum when they view photographic collections, and does the museum/archive way of thinking about collections iron out the quirks that might lead to punctum?
'It is frightening to imagine what treasures will never see the light of day from the collection at the Brass Foundry. I got the sense that the Curators and the National Maritime Museum in general see these images as closely guarded historical documents and as such offer insight location, historical events and people in the image. There seems to be a lack of artistic appreciation for the variety of unusual and standalone images in the collection, raising an important question concerning the value attributed to each photograph when interpreted by an audience with different aesthetic interests. ... In my opinion it is the ‘unknown’ quality of photography that initially inspires engagement and subsequently this process encourages an exploration of our own identity and how we as individuals create meaning.'  Source: 'The Brass Foundary Visit 19/04/2012']

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