Mapping the Archive

Digital mapping: Nielsen’s archive is a mess. Thousands of artworks from hundreds of artists, entangled pieces in different media, sizes and themes, half forgotten stories about for example The Cold War, the nature of art, and a wide network of artists experimenting with fluctuating, intertwining information and structures long before the Internet was an integral part of the culture.

Struggling with ephemeral and entangled art collections forces you to reconsider the way we classify and organize, and the way we deal with the vast collections and the information, people, and ideas associated with the material.

Between order and chaos: You need a good map if you want to navigate in chaos. Every entry in the archive is somehow connected to other entries, artists and concepts in and outside the archive. So, instead of concentrating on cataloguing and analyzing the archive material as small, autonomous art-works, I began working on ways to create a databasse and a digital, visual map of the archive. The aim was to create a digital map where users would get a see a part of the network, not just its pieces, while also enabling users to go deeper into the structure, and to unlock the many stories told in pictures, drawings, collages, assemblages, texts, video, and audio. It would preserve the creative and chaotic order in the archive, but allow outsiders access to the material without spending weeks with their head in suspension file folders.

A new way of making sense out of nonsense

Museums and other cultural institutions are looking for new ways to organize and present their collections. New entries challenges the old orders, and digitizing the old collections stresses the need for better ways to store, access, describe, visualize, and connect the new data. The mapping of Mogens Otto Nielsen’s archive is therefore an exceptional case study for experimenting with digital mapping of ephemeral and entangled collections of art and cultural heritage.

The archive: The database currently contains about 16.000 digitalized artworks and other artefacts with 7.200 images (scans and photos) from about 600 artists from 42 countries. The artworks are primary paper works (pictures, drawings, collages, letters, and texts), but there are also a number of audiotapes, videotapes, and assemblages (three-dimensional collages).


Building a database: The first task was to build a database where we could catalogue, tag and map the many relations between artists, artworks, non-art, ideas, and other closed/open categories. The majority of man hours were spent on digitizing and cataloguing not just items but also chunks of items and their many different connections and associations. In addition to standard categories, different types of “associations” were added, for example “related artists”, archival uncertainties, archival notes, and free associations or tags – something that allows you to add more freely. This was an attempt to make it easier to find a piece in the manner that the brain actually works, skipping from association to association, not bound by museum taxonomies.

Prototype One

The dataset later evolved into an experimental visual database in collaboration with Martin Luckmann who works as an artist and interactive designer. Below, the screencast show the prototype in a second beta-version.

Basically, the prototype is an attempt to stretch, spread out, and visualize an Excel sheet in virtual space.  At least, that was the initial task. Later, the work with the visualization seemed to head off in other directions.

Patterns are created automatically and at random. Users are forced to follow the lines, to explore, and perhaps to go to tags or nodes, you wouldn’t have gone to otherwise.

The visualisation was partly based on the idea of the meshwork. The patterns and curved lines between nodes were created at random within a specific range of numerical values. The image of the “meshwork” as described by Scottish Anthropologist Tim Ingold was a way to avoid the conventional image of networks with nodes and point-to-point connections of straight lines. Networks have no center, only nodes, but every node is usually depicted as a closed-in, self-contained entity where we are somehow beamed from one node to the next.

Attempting to visualize the structure of the mail art archive as a “meshwork” instead of a network was a way to approach these digital mappings in a slightly different way. The visualization should illustrate the structure as a meshwork of interwoven lines, not merely nodes in a network. Of course, it is impossible to visualize a database in the manner of Ingold’s meshworks, but visually, at least, the database appears as something else than the usual hub-to-hub network models.

It is somewhere in-between a database tool and a(n early version of a) data visualization to be used in an exhibition. There is no clean line anymore. At least with this kind of material, the archivist and the user need the same tools for navigating and enriching the meta-data – only divided by different levels of clearance.

In this version, the prototype  retrieves data from Amazon Web Service. In the next version, the prototype will be linked to the Nielsen’s archive in the CHAOS database (Cultural Heritage Archive Open System) at DigHumLab at Aarhus University. In here, users will be able to use the visual database as a tool for accessing, editing, and enriching data.

In addition, we are discussing ways to enable users to turn down/up for the straightness of lines, thus simulating or mimicking the museum artefacts’s transformation from the non-neat and the non-linear to the straight lines, the neatness, and the order in our databases and museum collections.


Prototype Two

Nielsen’s archive was also enrolled in a larger experiment.  In “Mapping the Archive”, I am working with a small group of digital designers, dramaturges, and museum professionals from museums of art, cultural heritage, and natural history.

Here, the idea was to try to visualize the unstable, vibrating nature of the material in our collections. In corporation with two other art museums, a museum of natural history, and a museum of cultural heritage, we tried to connect our collections in a digital pool of shuffling cells.

We tried to associate and categorize via more dubious and uncertain taxonomies such as colour and emotions in addition to standard taxonomies. They are related, not via strings, but via proximity and volume.

In the outer rim, users can attract and repel museum items with “magnets”. Setting the magnet to attract items with a particular colour, emotion, or museum type, the items are drawn to the category. Charging two magnets, the artefacts might find themselves suspended in-between the two. Visually at least, the art-works and artefacts are not in a category, but  rather related to categories.

In addition, users can add items to their own collection (stories). For the next version, we are talking about ways to create and visualize curated connections between items in the pool. These curated clusters or stories should appear in the pool alongside other user’s stories, albeit with a clear difference between the curated and the user-generated.

Hopefully, semi-stabile versions of the prototypes will be up and running in the autumn of 2015. I will keep you posted when they go online.

Network into Meshwork into Text

In-between these mapping projects, I’m currently working on a PhD dissertation about mail art, archives, digital mapping, and preservation of networked and ephemeral art. In the final chapters, the archive material is tied to two different understandings of networks. In the first, everything is portrayed as circulating nodes in a network (actor-network theory). In the second, everything is portrayed as knobs and entangled lines (as meshworks or lines of flight). To a certain extend, the two prototypes echo the two different philosophical perspectives on the world and its things (although always in unsatisfying ways).

The second prototype is made by Kollision Aps and the “Mapping the Archive” project. This public-private partnership  includes Aarhus University and KUNSTEN Museum of Modern Art, Kollison, Teater Katapult, Museum of Eastern Jutland, Natural History Museum in Aarhus, and Meaning Making Experience (MMEx).  In 2014, the project merged into the larger “Interact” project with ARoS and Heart Museum of Contemporary Art. The project is funded by  Central Denmark Region.

The PhD research project is funded by The New Carlsberg Foundation, Aarhus University, and KUNSTEN Museum of Modern Art.  In 2014, the PhD project received a generous grant from The Salling Foundation (Købmand Ferdinand Sallings Mindefond).

3 Responses to Mapping the Archive

  1. anna Banana says:

    Hmmm, this is way more complex than what I’ve been thinking about how to document my archive of 45 years of mail-art practice. It’s a bit overwhelming, especially as I see this work is being funded, and no doubt has professional archivists dealing with the material. I have no funding and no archival training, but am determined to document, one way or another, my collection of mail-art, artists stamps, publications and other works on paper that have arrived in my mailbox over the past 45 years. I’ve got a guide: Introduction to Archival Organization and Description put out by the Getty, which is a lot more formal approach than what I see you’ve done with Mogens collection. What I’m really looking for is input about which computer program would be best to use, so I don’t end up with years of work locked into a program that cannot be accessed by others. Any advice/assistance/reference material that you can recommend would be greatly appreciated! Thanks in advance for any such you can provide.

  2. Pingback: Mogens Otto Nielsen « Mail Artists Index

  3. Pingback: Mapping archives | From the archive

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