New work in progress: A Commission from Het Nieuwe Instituut, Part I

June 20 note: This post ended up being an intro and rough list of ideas. It will stay that way. Here’s Part II.

I am thrilled to have received one of five research commissions about New Archive Interpretations from Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam. I’ve been working with Annet Dekker to shape the commission, and this blog post is the first blob of thoughts on my research so far. It’s rough stuff, and a new type of work for me, but part of my commission is about sharing work in progress.

Here’s how the commission is described:

In 2014 Het Nieuwe Instituut launched New Archive Interpretations, a series of commissions for artists, designers and researchers to examine the influence and impact of the digital archive in relation to its analogue predecessor, the paper archive. Over a two-year period they investigate the challenges and opportunities of digital archives.

[From Annet’s introduction:] The primary focus in this research project is on looking at the invisible layers of digital archives, seeing archives as systems. We ask the artist, designer or ‘archive thinker’ not to build a new archive or analyse an existing archive, but to view archives as systems that are in a constant state of flux: some parts are largely invisible, and yet at the same time an archive symbolises monumentality, authority and can be found everywhere in this day and age.

I think it was as early as 2005, when I first began giving talks about my design work on Flickr, that I proclaimed an interest in organic information systems. We were all part of a huge information system, with photographs as nodes, which many separate humans were able to classify and organise. That folksonomic data system was supported by auto-generated metadata about the photograph and its (digital) camera too, which has only increased in volume and facet as cameras continue to improve. (See Tom Coates, Native to a Web of Data, 2006-2008.)

Sadly, I suspect the quality of description of photographs on Flickr has degraded considerably since the user interface has hidden the tagging and other annotation features almost completely in favour of “sit back” interfaces for browsing big photos. I can confirm that the quality of metadata on my photographs there has degraded to practically nothing.

Het Nieuwe Instituut

As I understand it, Het Nieuwe Instituut (HNI) is a 2013 amalgam of four separate institutions, including the Netherlands Architecture Institute. Annet asked me to do my research using the archive of the Rotterdam (and now global) architecture firm, MVRDV. MVRDV is transferring its archive to Het Nieuwe Instituut now-ish, and it’s the first major archive to be added to the HNI, which holds the collection of national architecture and built environment. The archive consists of primarily of digital materials. This commission is hoped to provide some prompts about working with born-digital stuff, and ongoing born-digital acquisition policy. (I was very sorry to miss an panel event at HNI about this acquisition, along with the Zaha Hadid archive! I wonder if it’s archived.)

I’m still learning about the firm, but the basics are: formed in 1993, three founders at the core, hundreds of projects, lots of design output, several manifesto releases, lots of blue foam modelling blocks, and many new buildings in the world. There’s a continuing theme of stacking and layering present in their work, across different scales. They’re also known as early pioneers of “datascapes,” and continue to push the boundaries in the way they animate their future plans with exceptional, beautiful digital design and affect, like this:


Construction begins on infrastructure for Almere Florida 2022


Field trip

In November, I went to meet HNI to discuss the commission outline with Annet, Arianne and Suzanne, the archivist who will be responsible for the MVRDV archive. From there, we all went to MVRDV to have a look around, and thank you very much to Jan K and Isabel P for being so welcoming and generous.

The head office is on a side street, and it’s a big old warehouse building that is light and open. Amusingly, the three directors are sequestered off in the smallest working space, since they’re out and about so much, and don’t really need big workspaces. The office is full of project displays, computers, blue foam models and colour.

The company keeps an archive downstairs, which we had a look around. It looks messy — as every good archive does — but the organisation slowly revealed itself…

The office is also designed to entertain clients, and show off previous work. The foyer places the visitor immediately amongst models and cases full of interesting colourful things. It’s fun and engaging.

Physical history traces

There was also a wall right there — and Jan had a name for it, something like “the highlight wall” — which was a grid of about 50 gorgeous images for those highlight projects. I became interested in how that wall was also an artefact of the company, and noticed that it changes over time, as new highlights are overlaid on top of older projects.


Preliminary thoughts, threads to pull

  • survey – expected results
  • project centric; output centric
  • 5% of projects built; lots of speculative design
  • what’s it like INSIDE the firm
  •  working at a small company, it’s all about the people
  • interesting to see now how they’re represented in the press – no formal archive of Flickr, as far as I know
  • inspired by Zoe Padgett’s work
  • BPMA – development of postal service written down
Archives are not particularly about object-level description; they’re often described through sets of things like boxes or folders.
  • dance – humans must be there
  • leila @ rambert
  • New Movement
  • how do we show people in an archive?
  • people, subjects in wellcome – 233,000, mostly old white guys
  • who worked there, when, what projects?
  • long term live performance?
  • “Getting to Good” Erika Hall
  • design of an archive – about the why, not the how?
  • what is the objective of this archive? if it’s to represent the output of the studio, then list of projects might do that. If it’s to represent the studio, then we need more.
  • what are the “rules and relationships” underlying the studio? that will make the archive endure
  • we can connect with multiple subjectivities now; we’re now in a worldwide dialogue
  • Ranganathan’s fifth law
  • MVRDV 93000 followers
  • People ID systems
  • Digital metadata is often very thin, and doesn’t feel especially deep. It’s been interesting to (finally) become an actual researcher of a few different cultural collections.
Things to think with:
Simone Forti, New Movement, Brecht on Theatre, Paper Knowledge, The Facilitated Collection, OMA/Progress catalogue, Archive or Memory? The Detritus of Live Performance, Library of Congress Architecture, Design & Engineering Drawings collection
Things to do:
Look more deeply into MVRDV online presence, visit RIBA, sketch some visual archive ideas?

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