the noise, the database and the museum
Uit de keuken van de curator

the noise, the database and the museum

06/02/2009

Yesterday the third internal seminar in preparation of the 14 month project on the position of the museum in the 21st century took place at the Institute for the Cultural Heritage Collection of the Netherlands (ICN) in Amsterdam. The subject was ‘copy and original’ and the day existed out of four lectures from Nicolle Lamerichs, Ysbrand Hummelen, Florian Schneider and Jos de Mul. It was in inspiring afternoon, which was especially fruitful in presenting new metaphors in which to formulate the central questions of the project. Terms like ‘Noise Margin’, ‘ownership’ and ‘Wittgenstein 2.0’ were small portals through which we could see old concepts like ‘the work’ and ‘knowledge’ or ‘truth’ in a new way.

The first term was introduced by Florian Schneider, presented within a talk on the myth of ‘soul stealing’ – the old idea that primitive people believe that ones soul is stolen when they are photographed. This talk, with an immense wealth of material, presented analysis that were more open suggestions for further contemplation than fixed ideas that demand straight forward rejection or approval.

Meditating on the notion of copying, it developed an elaborate critique of an essentialist notion of identity. Schneider departed from the discovery that it is not the ‘primitive’ that has developed the notion of ‘soul stealing’, but that it were modern ethnographers who introduced this idea. This idea of the ‘primitive’ and its understanding of reproduction media is therefore itself a modern notion – a counter figure that was born as a sort of Janus-face of the modern subject. The ‘primitive’ in this formula is characterised by a natural aversion from modern forms of representation, which in a romantic fashion refers to the essential unity of the primitive identity. The ‘taking’ of an image, displacing, as it were, a layer of this unique identity into an object that itself can be reproduced ad infinitum and by doing so, destroy the uniqueness of the subject, is here presented as threshold between the modern subject (the one able to make and use reproductions) and the primitive Other.

In his talk Scheider explored how we can measure the abyss that is opened between a presupposed ‘whole’ subject and a reproduced subject that loses its identity in the endless proliferation of itself in an image. One of the theoretical formulas that he proposed to this end, was an idea of Bakhtin, who envisioned the subject (and its soul) as an aesthetic event, an instable formation of images that find temporary relief in an encounter which establishes a possible world. (I have to admit, that I represent this idea from memory and it could very well be that already in the course of 12 hours, my mind has warped the notion of Bakthin as presented by Schneider into perhaps a new ‘possible’ world.) The advantage that Schneider draws out of this complex notion of subjectivity is that it in a sense displaces the whole idea of a clear opposition between subject and object, for both are born out of the same formative event of establishing a ‘possible’ world. (An idea that seems to have also a close affinity with Heidegger’s concept of art as ‘world disclosure’, be it that he seems to privilege the work over the subject and in this sense still thinks in a hierarchical way.)

The clearest form of practicing this revised notion of subjectivity Schneider seems to recognize in ‘ownership’. A notion that he understands not in a static form as ‘possessing’, but in a dynamic, performative sense of being constantly forced the act up to that what one owns. One has to ‘own up to’ that which is owned, and present and represent it all the time, realizing that each presentation is in a sense a recreation, or perhaps even creation. For that which is owned does not exist in an abstract time of a singular ‘History’, but only has presence in the actualization of it in real lived time which is the flowing together of many histories.

At the end of the talk Scheider related this performative notion of subjectivity to that site where perhaps the most frantic copying and with it ‘creating’ of possible world is practiced: the pirate web communities. At this point also the beautiful notion of ‘noise margin’ is introduced. Schneider points out that our common perception of what happens when we ‘copy’ a file is based on error. For when we copy, we do not literally create a duplicate of all the zeros and ones that somewhere, in the depth of the laptop, constitute the file. The software making the copy analyzes the information and only replicates those elements which for this particular program are necessary to be able to recreate the file. The threshold that marks the point beneath which no information is copied is called the ‘noise margin’. In our everyday computer use we encounter this mechanism mostly in image and video files as jpeg. and avi., formats which limit the file size by means of a high ‘noise margin’. Within our computer world we therefore do not simply copy files, but in a sense by means of our software constantly find new ways to create out of the philosophically spoken ‘infinite’ noise of the file an image that is more a possible actualization, than that it is the presentation of a file we got stored on our hard drives. As a representation of this one can think of the opening sequences of the Matrix films, which show a dazzling journey through signs, constantly opening up a new possible world with a single sign that is raining down on the screen.

Before connecting these ideas to the museum, let me note that this ‘situational’ notion of subjectivity and identity was mirrored in a remarkable way in the talk by Jos de Mul. Where De Mul was first planning on giving us a presentation on Walter Benjamin’s classic text on ‘The work of art in the age of technological reproducibility’ trying to translate some of its arguments into the digital age, he ended up giving a presentation on the digital edition of the collected writings of Wittgenstein. This perhaps unlikely topic for a seminar on copy and original in the end proved to be very fruitful. The most charming argument within this lecture was the suggestion that there is an immanent affinity between Wittgenstein’s late ideas on language and the possibilities that are opened up by a digital, database of his collected work.
De Mul made this point by introducing a division in the work of Wittgenstein, which he coined, Wittgenstein 1.0 and 2.0. Wittgenstein 1.0 still believed in a fixed, single signification for a single word. As such following the platonic idea that behind the world of experience an ideal world is hidden of eternal ideas. Wittgenstein 2.0 however, comes back from this understanding of the relation between words and things, developing the theory that a word in the end is determined by the context in which it operates and gains signification – the famous language game. Meaning is therefore not fixed, nor is development linear. The meaning of a word, a sentence or idea, depends on the constellation in which it is (re)produced. An understanding of language that as De Mul suggested could be mirrored in a database-type presentation of the collected writings. For a database gives the possibility to find a new route through the text each time one enters a new organisational principle. Just as Wittgenstein in late fragments described his thinking as creating a web or network, the database of collected writings gives the possibility to read Wittgenstein in a web-like fashion, mapping out a new Wittgenstein with each new search entry.

But back to the museum. For what is the relation between all these ideas and the museum and its complexity of dealing with copies and originals? a patient reader of this blog entry might think. The most prominent possibility lays not so much in concrete proposals done in the lectures, but more in the possibility of rethinking familiar things as the work and its mediation by the museum. In a time of databases and its correlative notion of subjectivity and truth, the idea of presenting one single narrative on the basis of the authority, be it academic or not, of the museum, is outworn. Neither the work nor the collection can be reduced to one shining identity at the end of the tunnel of long academic research. Just as with the copying of files each re-installation of a work and the collection present a new ‘noise margin’ and break earlier ones. Each new installation of works draws out of the dark well of the ‘noise’ of the work and recognizes other elements that are worthy of inspection by the public. The task and challenge for the museum in the years to come is to be able to find ways in which one can determine the noise margin. What is the web or network that is shown? Who has the authority to make choices and could it be possible to democratize the process of making choices, without becoming populistic? For making a new web, replacing the noise margin, will always force viewers to change their own ‘software’ so to speak. And this requires effort and a transgression of boundaries, which are in contrast with the familiarity sought by a populistic approach. A genuine attempt to realize these ideas therefore do not mean a blunt opening of the gates of the museum, allowing everybody to show whatever one wants, but developing new skills to be able to have an open debate about what would be relevant for the community to see.

This leads to the second possibility that is opened up by the talks, which relates to the patron of the public museum: a political community. If the rightful ‘owners’ of the museum collection are the people that together form a political community which reserve public funds to establish an collection, then the practice of the museum exists out of a constant performance of what is ‘owned’ publicly. A museum collection is not a static image that shows – for once and for all – the cultural identity of a people (note the singular), but it is a stage which performs everyday again this question of where one can find a interpretation of that complex notion of ‘us’. The museum will need to function as space where this continuous production of ‘possible worlds’ can take place. A production that no longer can be guided by a singular idea of truth, but by the wish to create the most relevant and perhaps confrontational configuration out of the database that is the collection. It will be difficult to practice this communal notion of ownership if one can no longer hide in the ivory tower of a singular truth, but perhaps it will be necessary if one wants the museum to resonate with today’s database version of thinking something as instable as: we.