Decolonial information technology workshop

TALKING OBJECTS Research Lab

A digital conversation on the digital in December 2021. With Chao Tayiana Maina, Erik Stein, Mahret Ifeoma Kupka, and Isabel Raabe.

 

So, my question for a decolonial digital archive is: How do you make an archive that is for people as much as it is for objects and inanimate things? Could digital technology possibly be a way to bring the tangible and the intangible, the human and the social aspects of these artifacts and documents together?
Chao Tayiana Maina

 

 

Isabel: The TALKING OBJECTS Archive is to become a digital archive for decolonial knowledge production, based on a collection of objects that serve as door-openers to other schools of thinking and other epistemologies than just the Eurocentric canon of knowledge. The main question we are pursuing – in the think tank and exhibition series Talking Objects Lab, and in the Archive – is: What can knowledge be today?

Today, we want to discuss what a digital archive for decolonial knowledge production might look like, taking information technology into consideration.

 

What does “digital” mean?
 

Erik: For me, “digital” means making very clear decisions about how you differentiate things. Because this is how technology works. If you decide to make a database, you have to decide what to include, how to form things, how to distinguish between one kind of object or text and another. This is a big challenge.

I have been trying to reflect on how to make an interesting database of thoughts, of collections, of objects for a long time. I think the important aspect to think about is: What do we mean when we talk about an “object”? Is the object actually a whole body of objects? And should we try instead to make a database of many things rather than just some objects? One should never talk about one vocabulary or one kind of digital archive – we should try to build a technical platform where we can really show this manifold view of things. We might never succeed in making it complete. This is an ambitious idea, to make a complete representation of something. It is more about starting a process.

Chao: For me, the starting point, particularly around digital technologies and digital archives, is as follows: The systems that we have today have been designed and upheld largely by Western societies, and the kind of separation that we see on digital platforms is the same separation that we see in the real world. I am talking about the ways in which museums, for instance, remove objects from their living contexts to display them as solitary items devoid of the contexts they come from. So, my question for a decolonial digital archive is: How do you make an archive that is for people as much as it is for objects and inanimate things? Could digital technology possibly be a way to bring the tangible and the intangible, the human and the social aspects of these artifacts and documents together? 

The things that interest me primarily are relational thinking and relationality between things, between people, and between documents. I believe that nothing exists in isolation. Especially as we are looking at cultural, historical, human expression. How does the digital capture that relational way of understanding artifacts, of understanding items or databases? 

 

An open technological structure for multiplicity and relationality
 

Chao: When I think of a digital archive, I think of complexity. By complexity, I am referring particularly to the ways in which one thing can represent so much in terms of narrative, location, people, geography. How do we bring that into the digital archive? The fact that a single item or a single entry is complex and related to other things? Storytelling and narratives are very important for me. I am envisioning an archival space that accommodates stories in different forms, be they linear or nonlinear.

Isabel: The key question is how to display multiplicity, how to show that everything is interwoven with everything else, how to display that little universe that belongs to each object and all the knowledge that is inherent in objects. And how to present and digitally store objects in a non-hierarchical, non-hegemonial way. We can think about storytelling as a way to show this poly-perspectivity, but how can we build an open technological structure for poly-perspectivity? A structure that creates an open space for the objects and that allows people to decide what is important for them, and how they want to navigate through such an archive. How can we develop this open structure based on open digital technology?

Mahret: Yes, openness is important. But we must also bear in mind that it should not be too open. Users are already kind of conditioned, in a way, in matters of usability. And if the structure is too open then we risk losing people instead of giving them the joy of engaging with it. How do we find this balance between openness, while at the same time not being too open?

Erik: I think it is important to try to think of everything from the perspective of the people. I think the question of how to display this relationality is, in itself, not so important. Of course, it is interesting to have overviews and show maps (of relations), but I think it is more important to design a technical system for storing information on or related to the things, or a multifaceted diversity of (media) representations – and to think about how to store them in order to animate this kind of dynamic story. Like people listening to someone’s narrative. It is more about the process of experiencing the knowledge and the artifacts than it about presenting it all at once and providing an overview.

I would like to avoid being misunderstood at this point: The relationality – or we might also think of it as the landscape and the history of the things – must be inherent to our thinking and information processing. It’s just that the idea of overviews or a map is kind of an illusion or maybe even an imperialist tool.

Isabel: You are also referring to the distinction between a database and a website – the one being the basis for the other, actually.

Erik: Of course, there are many layers. You must develop the database and you have to decide how to store and value things. Even a book is a database, in a way; it is a specific form of storing something. I don’t want to end up with that old-fashioned approach of making a list of a hundred objects and writing down when they were ''found'' by the colonialists and how much they are worth, and so on. On the other hand, I would say that just writing a long story about the objects is not enough.

 

Redefining labels – reconnecting to objects

 

As Souleyman Bachir Diagne emphasized, you must have a relation to an object to understand it. Not in the sense of being equipped with information about it, but of having an emotional relation to the object – is this even possible in a digital space?
Isabel Raabe

 

Isabel: I wonder how you can connect people to objects in a digital archive. Usually, we navigate through a digital archive as we would navigate through a museum – equipped with the “academic knowledge,” and maybe an audio guide or a catalog. But do we connect with the objects we see? How can we make them accessible to people in an emotional way? As Souleyman Bachir Diagne emphasized, you must have a relation to an object to understand it. Not in the sense of being equipped with information about it, but of having an emotional relation to the object – is this even possible in a digital space? And another thought: If we consider objects as things that change – things that change while they are stored in European museums, change when they return, change again in the gaze of the person looking at it, that have the ability change from an object to a subject – is there a way of making this dynamic transition visible in a digital space?

Chao: If you envision yourself as a user of the archive, what freedoms do you want to see in the archive? For me, it’s the freedom to imagine and to redefine things – maybe a freedom to have different labels. There are certain restrictions we have with digital archives in terms of labeling, in terms of language, in terms of the media. So, I’m wondering: What is the flipside of that?

Erik: What is also interesting in this regard is the restriction of having just one label. What if, on the contrary, we have many labels, categories, or systems? Maybe different stories? And we could try to remove these limitations in thinking about what the object is. Maybe a certain ceremonial sculpture was used at a certain time in one context and in a different context at another time, in another period. We really should try to create a technical system where we can choose manifold relations. And the whole thing needs to be playful!

Isabel: We once designed a graphic with the “Talking Object” in the middle, which was surrounded by aspects relevant to a poly-perspective narrative: oral history, African philosophy, spirituality, the meaning of loss, contemporary artistic perspectives… Maybe this approach is too focused on the object?

Chao: The thing I like about this approach is that it is based on an understanding that, when we are dealing with objects that have been migrated or separated, we may be dealing with a huge gap in terms of the historical context surrounding the object. We cannot assume that information is accessible or that it still exists within living memory. I’m wondering what happens when you know very little about the object. I mean, if the whole system is built on displaying an object as it relates to other things, what happens if we can’t find these historical relations? I think the power of such an archive is in acknowledging that absence in itself is a powerful statement. Absence has meaning and is representative of a particular action or a point in time. 

At the same time, there is always something to say about an object – whether it is a contemporary response, a reflection, an emotional expression, or whether it is the history itself. This material is an equally important part of the object’s digital life – and afterlife.

I like that this graphic also considers the meaning of loss – which is not necessarily about the particular artifact, but is intertwined with the life of the artifact, or the object.

 

Re-thinking cataloging practices

 

I really want to get away from the dominating catalog – and I hope that this can be achieved by multiplicity, by having many views on an object.
Erik Stein

 

Isabel: I am wondering how an object in the database should be handled. How radical do we have to be regarding digitized objects in a database? We must address this moment of having the digitized file and uploading it and cataloging it in a database – and that’s when the problems start.

Erik: Of course, you must think in a radical way because, usually, databases are not constructed in the way we discussed. If you think about taking a picture of an object, this is already very complicated for museum databases, because it literally shows only one side of the object. You also need pictures of the other side, from the bottom, or from the top. And then you must somehow relate those pictures to each other. You have the object and then you have all those stories being told. And for all those stories, you would have to upload lots of detailed photographs. To design a database that allows this level of complexity is a challenge, but it is not radical or complicated in a technical way. The database as a technical platform can be achieved, but we have to recognize that there are two more important aspects to our work: “filling” the database – so, gathering and storing the context and information – on the one hand, and then output and presentation in an interactive medium on the other.

Isabel: But does it become complicated to rethink terms and ways of cataloging? Because there we usually have this very limited structure. With every term we determine the objects and immediately give it a meaning. How can we deal with this? The TALKING OBJECTS Archive is about counter-narratives, counter-images, counter-perspectives. We must be very aware of the fact that an archive is never neutral. So we will, again, determine something by putting our wishes onto it, or our visions – which is okay, but it’s not neutral. And I think the only way to address this problem is to present as many perspectives and voices and truths as possible – even standpoints that are contradictory. This is something the decolonial archive has to cope with.

Erik: Obviously storing and writing down is never neutral; it is probably more about the question of how we deal with it. For instance, we shouldn’t be afraid of deleting things from the database, or putting things out there for the time being and then deciding later if we want to keep it. We should be very prudent and mindful with everything to store, but we shouldn’t be afraid of deleting things. The archive should evolve. And regarding cataloging, I think it could be very interesting if we just start with fragments of cataloging systems, which are also intertwined with certain relations in the database. These fragments make up a whole picture.

Isabel: Rethinking cataloging!

Chao: The thing about catalogs is that they are too standardized. From my experience working with different museums in different capacities, I think that the idea that you can have a standard catalog for the whole world is ridiculous! Because there are so many differences in culture, differences in knowledge systems, differences in thinking. We really must do some research with communities. Because, however we decide to structure it, we do need a catalog to find information in the database. I would strongly suggest working with communities in different places and asking them: What do you want to know about an object? We could sit here and come up with this whole thing only to discover in the end that it doesn’t work and doesn’t make sense to people.

We could determine that a catalog should include this and that, but I would suggest simply showing people an object and asking them to think of as many ways of describing or identifying it as possible. It is so very interesting to see, for example, what the museum staff come up with when they are not bound by international standards. I know this is not an answer to the question, but I do feel that there is a need to do some form of research and speak to people. This is the first step before building the database.

Erik: This is what I mean when I talk about making decisions within digitality. A database is a catalog. If we do not have a catalog, we do not have a database. Even if it’s ignored, there is always a hidden catalog in the back. I, as a programmer, would need to make this catalog regardless. For me, the way to get out of this dilemma – making a digital system without forcing something onto it – is to make it manifold; to make many catalogs or catalog fragments. And I think that totally matches your approach, Chao, in terms of how you want to work with people. It can be a catalog of round things and square things if that is what people suggest. We could have many of these identification systems. We need to build a structure for a database that can be developed further, while at the same time developing a system for displaying the kind of knowledge we store.

Isabel: The catalog is the basis for the search engine, right?

Erik: The database is mostly a bunch of Excel sheets. It is always a catalog – even if you just store text. As soon as we try to bring semantics in, we have a catalog. And I think we all agree that we shouldn’t develop a museum catalog. We should use it as a synonym. Database is the technical term for what we do, and catalog is the semantical term.

Isabel: But it would be possible, technically, to have different or multiple catalogs? To address the poly-perspectivity and to have a search engine that has access to both catalogs?

Erik: It depends on what you want to find. If all those catalogs had a basic vocabulary in English, of course it would make sense to have this catalog search index. But a search index only works if people know what they want to find. We also have to do the work of displaying things and making them accessible. And I think the category systems need to be made visible. I really want to get away from the dominating catalog and I hope that this can be achieved by multiplicity, by having many views on an object.

Chao: How do we envision the catalog? Is it something that can continue to grow even after it has been designed or developed? After the initial base has been set, can we envision a catalog that has the capacity to grow, shrink, or change? Can people interact with the data and provide a direction for the catalog?

 

Displaying and exhibiting online
 

Isabel: Good point! Especially when we think of the idea of seeing the digital archive as a dynamic platform for exchange, it has to remain dynamic. The Musée Théodore Monod, an ethnological museum in Dakar, just came to my mind. We were just there, and I was very impressed with the way the curator Malick Ndiaye conceived his permanent exhibition by displaying some objects without any signage or information. He believes that the visitor will find a way to start a conversation with the objects and to find a relation to them. Leaving the object completely uncommented is something we cannot really do in a digital archive, because – as you said, Erik – we need this catalog. And the second aspect about the exhibition at Musée Théodore Monod that I found very interesting is that, from time to time, the curator takes some objects out and puts others, in or maybe rearranges them slightly, because the objects are communicating with each other in another way – and suddenly a curatorial narration emerges. And this is achieved through only very slight changes. As I like the way he deals with his collection, I am wondering how to transfer these approaches into the digital sphere.

Erik: We could display an object without text, but the database would need to know what it is. And the way things are displayed could always evolve as we build a website: it is dynamic.

Mahret: At the same time, referring to what I said in the beginning: Who is actually the target group? Who will use the digital platform? If you are a researcher and you really want to know something about an object, you might get frustrated. So, who is the target user? Does it have to be a person who is interested in engaging with an object? Does the person need prior knowledge about it? Will it be an archive in the end? Or is it more of a project, or an experiment, or an art piece? These are questions we need to answer.

Isabel: Yes, absolutely. What will it be? Chao suggested an archive by the people for the people. Will it be a knowledge-seeking archive or a memory-keeping archive? I guess it will be a hybrid archive, which will be faced with the big challenge of addressing a wide range of people and their needs. I think it has to be open; you have to be able to dive into it as deep as you want or need – to let yourself flow from one item to the other, to get lost in a positive way. And you are right: getting lost and researching are two completely different things.

Erik: I think we should consider the digital archive as a website, but I also imagine it as a data set that people can download and play with; an installation we can put on a forty-dollar computer and just distribute; a seed you sow that then can evolve. You could also envision some data flowing back into the archive if people add stuff. It is crucial for me that we at least think about this – about sharing the data and the knowledge.

 

Sharing data – questions of ownership and dependence

 

Ownership in digital space: We’re talking about the ownership of looted objects – they can’t be looted a second time in a digital space!
Isabel Raabe

 

Isabel: We also discussed this question of sharing data in the framework of the RomArchive project, as we were handling quite sensitive content which – again – needed to not be shown in a prejudiced, negative way. The decision in the end was to always contextualize the objects; downloading a single, isolated item was not allowed. So, do we want people to start playing with objects? To download, use and distribute the content? Or do we need to be more careful with the objects to prevent them from once again being shown with misinformation or from a Western perspective? Allowing people to play around while also preventing inappropriate use is the challenge here.

Chao: I agree with Mahret’s point of this being an experiment. It does give us the freedom to think. I am always pro data being accessible. I do believe the digital should possess a freedom the physical does not possess. On the other hand, it is not a decision you can fully make without understanding the nature of the object. Certain items have certain restrictions and others do not – so, you could decide to have some available to download and others not. Some objects would also certainly need the consent of communities. We need to investigate each specific object’s context; the specific issues and ethics that exist around each artifact.

Isabel: When we talk about data being accessible or downloadable, we also must talk about ownership in the digital space. For instance, where is the server hosted? Where are the files stored? Who is the owner of the digital files? Also, in terms of the long-term maintenance of a project that is funded for a limited period of time: What comes next? We’re talking about the ownership of looted objects – they can’t be looted a second time in a digital space! We have to avoid that.

 

Maintaining the digital garden
 

Erik: I would suggest we build the system with open-source software. In terms of the basic technical requirements, it wouldn’t be necessary to spend a lot of money on the server. I think we should try to find partners who host copies of the whole thing. And we should have a global server somewhere.

I can’t really answer the ownership question. I would try to be really careful not to make a decision that would mean technical dependence on any actor. I wouldn’t use any software from Microsoft, for example. I would keep the programming as simple as possible and use existing software as much as possible.

Chao: I agree with Erik with regard to identifying different partners. For custodians of the data, I think the best-case scenario would be to find partners from multiple countries who are active in both private and public spaces or are community organizations – and who have both scope and reach. Obviously, they also need to have the budget for that, because people forget that you need funding for data. It’s funny, it gets to the point where people just don’t have the money to take care of data anymore. It is not even a question of not wanting to; they do not have the capacity.

Isabel: This is what you once called the digital garden, right? I liked this image very much. You have to sow it and then you have to take care of the flowers for a long time so that it flourishes and grows.

Erik: I just wanted to add that we should also train people on a technical level – so, in the skills required to take care of the hosting. We should not forget this. From a financial viewpoint, it would be possible to host this for €10 a month.

Isabel: I like the idea of a consortium of partners who come from different fields and are responsible in the long term.

 

The language of data – who do we reach?
 

Isabel: Chao said in the beginning that she hopes digital technology might be a way of reuniting the tangible and the intangible, people and artifacts. So, we have to rebuild this connection.

Chao: At a very basic level, it is about situating facts and objects in the oral stories and narratives that exist – and that means showcasing different meanings or emotional loss, or how it was made. For me, it is a question about the ways in which the object comes to life, how it grows, and that data is able to tell a story. The idea that the object exists through time and in different forms. How does a database accommodate oral history in many languages, etc.?

Isabel: Language is another keyword another dilemma, maybe. We want to use languages that many people understand, so we are back to the colonial languages – English, French, etc. But can we even translate situated, local knowledge in these colonial languages? And should we do this? Or should we maybe leave each source, each text, in its original language? This is something Mahret and I were already discussing with regard to our Talking Objects Lab blog, and we decided not to translate everything. So, we will have articles in various languages, like Wolof and Swahili, that are not translated into English, French or German. But on the other hand, we want things to be accessible to as many people as possible.

Mahret: We might have to free ourselves from the idea of reaching everyone. In a way, this is also a good challenge. Maybe it is also part of our work process.

Erik: I really hope this project won’t fall victim to simplification, to having a common form for things. To simplify things is one of the negative developments of digital technology. For me, this is a catastrophe for the development of knowledge. I hope we don’t try to reach everyone with everything. Things are complex sometimes. And I don’t see a point in simplifying things.

Isabel: I very much agree. I envision having this hybrid approach: not reaching everyone with everything, but reaching everyone with something.

Chao: I would like to go back to the initial point: having a research phase in which we speak to different people and try to understand what they need. A platform such as this could be beneficial for people working in museums, researchers, and users. And this is what will guide the level of complexity the platform offers. But at the same time, something like this should also have an element of play, as Erik mentioned in the beginning. This would also make it very intuitive as a platform.

The question of who the platform is for is also determined by the scope of the project, as well as the different perspectives that we know of. It’s about taking different needs into consideration. And these do not have to clash, but could in fact complement each other.

Erik: I think we need to bring one important restriction into our thoughts about the technical aspect. We must understand that we won’t be able to have an elaborate user interface with all the bells and whistles. That would take a lot of effort and be very costly to realize. Instead, we have to find an interesting and multilayered way to store things mainly working on the possibilities of displaying it, making it accessible, and so on. So, there should be an ongoing deep collaboration between storytellers, researchers, programmers and graphic designers. Or, even better, we should all try to take on parts of these various tasks and in a playful way.

Isabel: I think we all agree that content and technology are deeply interwoven. They have to be considered and developed together, which is not an easy task.

We gathered some very important points: We want to have an open technological architecture that provides open ways to store things; we need a flexible way of cataloging that involves many catalogs and many perspectives; the relation to the people is important we want an archive for and by the people; we need to conduct research, asking people what they need and what they want to know; and reaching out to the people is key in order to include multiple perspectives and build a dynamic digital platform that is based on an open technical structure and provides the freedom for not only one truth, but a poly-perspective approach to objects and knowledge. Let’s take it from there!

 

This conversation took place in the context of a workshop funded by Goethe Institut. It has been edited and shortened for publication.