Saturday 28 January 2017

Reading list, 28 January 2017

Very NYT biased - must still be slow news season.

Adam Nagourney profiles LACMA director Michael Govan and his mission to reshape the museum's campus; Govan commissions photographer Vera Lutter to document the buildings that will be demolished using a camera obscura.

Roberta Hughes recaps the 25-year history of New York's Outsider Art Fair and positions "outsider art" as an alternative narrative to Conceptual Art in an interesting way.

Joshua Barone profiles designer Irma Boom and her development of a library of radical book design.

The NYT magazine produces 25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music Is Going, noted especially for the design of this interactive feature.

Yale produces principles on renaming - canvassing the vexed issue of monuments and buildings named for people whose beliefs and actions no longer fit with social mores. (Download the PDF here)

Incoming Tate director Maria Belshaw on the art that stood out for her in 2016.

Friday 20 January 2017

Art News New Zealand column, Summer 2017

Museums and data collection

Browsing around online this week, I saw a picture – a heatmap visualisation – that showed the paths visitors to the Art Institute of Chicago take as they move through the museum's million square feet of display space.

Once, this information would have to be collected by hand, through visitor surveys or physically tracking people. Today, the information is easily and cheaply collected by tracking visitors' smartphone connections to the museum's wifi network.

We live in a time where we constantly exchange personal information for convenience or access. We hand over contact details, and dates of birth for loyalty cards at stores in exchange for discounts and marketing. We buy from sites like Amazon, which store our browsing and shopping behaviour and use this to tailor the information they present to us, and others. We organise and communicate our lives through social networks, which sell our attention on to advertisers. Our behaviour is commoditised, predicted, and traded in an opaque, yet increasingly valuable, market.

Collecting information about visitors has been an imprecise business for museums and galleries. Hand counting, automated door counters and visitor surveying didn’t enable visitor surveillance. But, as a paper called 'Mobiles Phones and Visitor Tracking' presented at the 2011 American Museums and the Web conference observed of this new use of smartphone tracking:

"the opportunity not only to track the paths of visitors unobserved, but also to record anything from their overall dwell time in the museum to dwell times in front of specific exhibits, their previous visits to the museum and the time between visits, and even the country where their phone is registered, has the potential to dramatically assist museums in areas from exhibit design to marketing."

Methods aside from involuntary tracking are in widespread use. MONA's O device replaces wall panels with interpretation delivered via an iPod - and collects information about where visitors went and how long they spent in front of each work. The Pen at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum, the Ask App at the Brooklyn Museum and the text message-based rewards programme at the Dallas Museum of Art all collect information about visitor movements.  Each tracks the galleries and objects that do and don't attract visitors' time and attention.

None of this is inherently evil, of course. And having data to back up observations and anecdotal feedback on what visitors are doing and enjoying (or not doing and not enjoying) is invaluable.

At the same time, the imbalance of knowledge between what institutions are doing and what visitors are aware of makes me uneasy. As does the way our ability to easily collect and store data about our visitors vastly outstrips the resource we can apply to managing that data now and into the future.

Concerns about the collection, security and use of data – from shaming philanders on dating sites to influencing national elections – are hardly new.

A theme in this discourse that I find fascinating is the comparison of the data age with the nuclear age. Internet thinkers Cory Doctorow and Maciej Ceglowski have compared the responsibility of managing nuclear power to that of data power: as far back as 2008 Doctorow wrote that "We should treat personal electronic data with the same care and respect as weapons-grade plutonium – it is dangerous, long-lasting and once it has leaked there's no getting it back." Ceglowski echoed this thought at the 2015 O'Reilly Big Data conference, saying we should think of reservoirs of stored data as "not as a pristine resource, but as a waste product, a bunch of radioactive, toxic sludge that we don’t know how to handle", and going on to say "information about people retains its power as long as those people are alive, and sometimes as long as their children are alive. No one knows what will become of sites like Twitter in five years or ten. But the data those sites own will retain the power to hurt for decades."

It is easy, in a time of falling public funding and increased competition for the philanthropic dollar, to imagine a scenario where selling visitor data to third parties becomes an appealing (or necessary) scenario. We in cultural organisations think of ourselves as the white hats and the good guys. Libraries in particular have a strong ethos of free and protected access to information. As institutions trusted to collect, preserve and manage society's material culture and expressions of creativity and knowledge, we need to apply the same forethought and ethics to the data we collect from and use on behalf of the public, always asking - who benefits from our data collections, and how do we keep our people and institutions safe?

Saturday 14 January 2017

Reading list, 14 January 2016

I'm really enjoying the writing on Racked right now. Here's Cory Baldwin interviewing designer Liz Pape on her decision to publish in detail the costs of producing her garments.

When is a sad burger excusable, and when is it not? NYT food critic Pete Wells, profiled in the New Yorker last year, gave a zero stars review to a chain of LA restaurants trying to improve food options in different neighbourhoods. Eater explores Wells' reasoning and tracks the backlash.

danah boyd's 'Hacking the Attention Economy' looks at how hacking of mainstream media has transitioned from lulz to serious political impact.

On my last trip to the US, the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis stole my heart - largely because of the coherence of its identity, which spread all the way from language classes to exhibitions to the cafe. So I was fascinated to read about Sweet Home Cafe, the restaurant inside the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C.

Thomasin Sleigh's 'Babies and time: The stolen and beloved minutes, weeks, days, nights and years' is a wonderful read, regardless of whether you are a parent or not.

Thursday 12 January 2017

Tiny Letter newsletter update

I've been writing a weekly newsletter using Tiny Letter since April last year. As part of my new year mental clear out, I'm changing my approach to this newsletter.

Previously, I've largely focused on a longer and more elaborate version of the Reading Lists I publish here every weekend. However, the most positive feedback I've received on the newsletter has been occasioned by more personal essays, like this one about watching pro wrestling, or this one about getting my purple belt.

So, to reduce the number of deadlines in my life, and to push my writing a bit, I'll be using the newsletter from now on to explore the personal essay format. If you'd like to subscribe here's the link.

This blog will keep being a repository for interesting things I've read, presentation and talk notes, and publishing pieces of writing I've produced elsewhere.

Saturday 7 January 2017

Reading list, 7 January 2017

Bloomberg Business Week's round up of the best articles (published elsewhere) in 2016 is full of gems - I particularly like how it ranges out to food journalism, a topic I read very little about but always enjoy when I do.

Glenn Fleishman for The Atlantic on the history and internet-enabled decline of the curly quote.

Wesley Morris for the NYTVisiting the African-American Museum: Waiting, Reading, Thinking, Connecting, Feeling.

A virtuoso breakdown of the influence of one of my most favourite ever songs: Kit Lovelace's 'All Mapped Out' for Popbitch.

Rob Walker's 'The Year in Nine Objects' for The New Yorker. More end of year lists like this, please.

Another instance of the evolution away from advertising-funded arts coverage: a Buffalo radio station will add an arts and culture desk this year, producing around 50 segments on local culture, supported by two philanthropic groups.