Richard Vijgen: A landscape of boxes, or the archive as digital playground

Published on January 3rd, 2015

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Richard is interested in new strategies for looking for stories contained in large data sets. Although his work is embedded in the digital domain, he is always on the lookout for links with physical or social spaces. For this commission he looked for specific approaches and experimented with new models, with the aim of gaining new insights in to the archive and ways of using it.

This interview is part of New Archive Interpretations a research project by Het Nieuwe Instituut, Rotterdam, curated by Annet Dekker

New Archive Interpretations #1 : The Museum Archive

A Landscape of boxes, or the Archive as Digital Playground : An interview with Richard Vijgen

by Annet Dekker

“A great advantage of the digital age is that it is easier to present the same information in different ways and in doing so reinterpret it and give it new meaning.”

‘Archive interpretations’ is the title given to a series of works commissioned by Het Nieuwe Instituut by artists, designers and other creative practitioners, starting in 2014. The process was set up to explore the influence and impact of the digital archive in relation to its analogue predecessor, the paper archive. Over a two-year period this project will explore the challenges and opportunities of digital archiving. The most important focus is on the exploration of the invisible layers of digital archives, in which archives are seen as a system. The artist or designer – or even better ‘archive thinker’ – is asked not to build a new archive nor to analyse the content of an archive, but rather to approach the archive as system that is in a constant state of flux: some parts are largely invisible, yet at the same time an archive symbolises monumentality, authority and is nowadays embedded everywhere.

The first commission was made in connection with Het Nieuwe Instituut’s Structuralism exhibition, an exhibition in two simultaneous parts about Dutch structuralism, an important force in 20th-century architecture that reached its peak in the 1970s. Structuralism in the Netherlands strived to build a new social space in which both the individual and the collective could thrive. Architects designed buildings that offered plenty of space for social interaction and inspired people to experiment and use their imagination. At the same time, the structuralists rebelled against the rational, bureaucratic building style that predominated in the 1950s. The goal was to make a clean break with traditional, hierarchical forms of building and social relations. These ideas led to complex forms in which buildings continued to be hierarchical in nature (large spaces were divided up in a very systematic way into smaller spaces) but the form was supposed to stimulate creativity and give the residents the opportunity to put their own stamp on their surroundings.

For this first commission we chose to take the archiving system Adlib (the system that Het Nieuwe Instituut has adopted to archive its collection) as the point of departure. Adlib is a software package that categorises, localises and internally links all the objects, papers, photos and other documents that Het Nieuwe Instituut houses in its collection. By taking this all-embracing system as an example, we will be able to explore the extent to which the system behind the archive influences the form of the archive and how it is used. By looking at a specific part of the archive, namely the part containing information about a number of structuralist architects, Richard Vijgen looked for specific approaches and experimented with new models, with the aim of gaining new insights in to the archive and ways of using it.

Richard Vijgen is an independent designer and programmer. In 2009 he founded Studio Richard Vijgen, a design company for contemporary information culture. Richard is interested in new strategies for looking for stories contained in large data sets. Although his work is embedded in the digital domain, he is always on the lookout for links with physical or social spaces. His designs, interactive installations and visualisations vary in scale from the microscopic to architectonic constellations, and his clients are equally diverse. He currently teaches information design and interactive architecture at the ArtEZ Institute of the Arts in Arnhem. In this interview I try to find out more about his background and in particular his interest in ‘Big Data’ and the search for stories.

Could you say something about your background? How did you get to where you are today?

I started out as a graphic designer at the ArtEZ Institute of the Arts in Arnhem. In the beginning I would turn to the computer at the end of the design process to implement the design, but gradually that shifted and I ended up spending most of my time at the computer. That brought me to the idea of trying to use the computer as a kind of ‘printing press’ that I could use to knock up a book, or to investigate the specific qualities of the computer and see how, for example, you can translate big data sets in different ways. After the Academy I first spent some time investigating the border between the book and the computer, and how you can look at the future from the point of view of a book designer. At that time I was studying at the Jan van Eijck Academy in Maastricht and I was interested in the potential of the computer and its influence on the design process. Eventually I went on to focus on these questions in my own practice. I wanted to make visible things that are normally not visible in the information structure. This fascination stems from the fact that we live in an age in which information is collected and activated without our clearly knowing how this happens. Making this process visible, the question arises of the extent to which we can talk about new insights or new conclusions being drawn in the light of such developments. Using concrete examples or commissions I try to research aspects of this area of research in my work.

What do you consider specific qualities of the computer in relation to analogue practices?

An interesting quality of digital information is that you can continually rearrange it. That doesn’t mean the end of linearity, but you could see a digital archive as a big collection of separate blocks that you can look at in the structure in which they are constructed, for example in an archive, and at the same time, without being destructive you can build an endless number of other perspectives. I’m interested in looking for a way of configuring information that invites the viewer, makes them curious, or is interesting for further research.

The specific thing here is also that you can work with large information units in a very process-oriented way. You can work on a very different scale than when you’re a graphic designer. That doesn’t mean that the one replaces the other: they co-exist. I can still get excited about a beautifully designed book that’s made with great attention to detail, and at the same time there is a world that functions on a very different scale. The huge scale in which information can now be captured is becoming increasingly important and can be referred to as ‘Big Data’. The term Big Data suggests that only the amount of data increases, but it is also our connectedness to this data that is increasing at the same pace, and I consider that of equal relevance.

I am particularly interested in looking for new ways of finding new forms in this data, or discovering how they are influenced by translation in to a different form. Visualisation, for example, is part of these new forms, but it is not the only one. I think it’s important to be able to visualise something that you want to relate to. Take Big Data. You can think about it in an academic way, but if you can’t create a concrete image of it because it’s too abstract, a subject often remains undefined. Visualisation allows you to give something a face, but there are other ways of imagining information that go beyond a two-dimensional representation on the computer screen, in an installation, performance or event. An expression like Big Data can be misleading, because it can bring about a big ‘shock and awe’ effect. I think it’s important that there are people who interpret the data, preferably a lot of different people, so that it becomes clear that the meaning of large quantities is always a question of perspective.

Het Nieuwe Instituut asked you to interpret the archiving system Adlib. Can you explain how you approached the task?

I see the archive as a world in itself. A world that is unfamiliar to me, but which I would like to be able to and want to discover. The archive contains a huge amount of information, but my lack of knowledge on the subject prevents me from forming an idea or image of that information. So in the beginning I tried to get to grips with the way the information is organised in order to better understand how the disparate parts work and how they fit together. Actually I kept trying to look at what there was to see, in the sense of admiring it.

Certain things then suddenly become apparent, such as materials that recur, like chalk, wood or glue. On the one hand this is a fairly basic type of information that says little about what is really there and only hints at an idea of volume or form. However, it does give you some sense of a rather closed world. Based on specific elements of the archive I then went on to do a series of small experiments to see if I could get some impression of the complexity and the ‘layeredness’ of an archive of this kind. In that sense you could say that I am approaching this in a naïve way, designing a world that I can relate to.

Can you give an example of one of these experiments?

One example is that I looked at image recognition software to see whether I could discern certain patterns in the huge number of images that I had available to me, but that fairly quickly led me to a dead end, with all sorts of technical issues. Instead of becoming more open, the world that I wanted to show became more hermetic. This technology, the way I’m able to use it currently, requires you to be able to indicate very precisely what you’re looking for, but if you don’t know it’s much harder to use. I was after a system where I could ask open questions and not search for or find specific differences. I don’t believe that technology is always necessarily the answer if you’re trying to make something accessible or visible. Often you have to try something out, maybe in a naïve way, to see if it works or not.

What do you base your final choices on?

It very much depends on the project, but I always think it’s important that something sparks your imagination, that it opens up an attractive world that I can explore and which sets off further research. I try not to try and understand the whole archive, but select a series of specific things that interest me to show and, in general, I like to use metaphors to understand information. In the case of the archive at Het Nieuwe Instituut I found it interesting to use the spatiality of the physical archive in my digital version. The idea of lending spatiality to a flat, 2D environment had never really appealed to me, but the archive boxes offered a good point of reference. In the end I decided to make a 3D representation of the boxes because they literally give the information an extra dimension. They remain architects’ sketches, I can’t change that, but the way that you are invited to research and discover a new layer to the information, in the sense that you get involved in the material in the archive in a more associative way. This is intensified by the fact that you can also apply different search combinations and come across less obvious results or constellations. I don’t change the content of the individual objects in the archive but by giving them a new context I can imbue them with a different or extra meaning.

The archive boxes should be seen as a construction that can be shaped and that reflects a formal organisation. You can make other combinations, based on chronology, theme, or different sorts of materials. These combinations are my personal vision on how you can look at something. Someone else would probably make different choices. The fact that you offer different options within a design is an interesting development, I think.

Could you say that you have made a new interface for the archive?

Yes, I wanted to offer a new way of looking at the archive. The challenge in designing a search system or interface is always about the issue of how you build a system for something when you don’t know what you’re looking for. For me it was important that the interface let you deal with certain information in a playful way, without specific knowledge. Working with data often has the illusion of being objective and almost appears ‘true’ by definition, whilst that of course is not the case. For example, if I give someone a spread sheet with hundreds of rows of figures it’s very unlikely that someone will say it’s not true. After all there’s not much you can say about it and it looks correct. I’m always aware that, as soon as I visualise something I’m creating a point of view that is never value free. For me it’s important that you can make choices, just as in an archive choices are made about what to keep and what not. In my view it’s more important to show and tell what you can do than to say if something is true or not.

My digital archive interpretation currently offers only limited information. It shows that an object is part of a project, but a lot of contextual information is missing. In order to interpret how different projects relate to one another you still need more specific knowledge. It was never my intention to create a new archive. I’m not an architecture expert and I wanted the project to retain a certain element of uncertainty. By taking the physical archive box as a point of departure you could compare the interface to a set of building blocks that can be configured in every changing ways. You can turn boxes over, throw them on the ground, pick them up and arrange them in a different way. Instead of the rigid, analytical structure of the traditional set up of an archive, this offers a more playful approach.

However, my system also contains a lot of disadvantages. As I said, I made a conscious decision to ignore certain things, for example by searching in an associative way rather than a structural one, to make it more accessible and interesting for other people. In the end it’s debatable whether one or the other approach, the practical and the associative, can co-exist. A big advantage of the digital era is that it’s easier to present the same information in different ways and at the same time to reinterpret it and imbue it with meaning.

To what extent does working with a digital box also influence what’s in the box?

In the end it’s a simulation of the physical boxes and you can do things with this that you otherwise couldn’t or are not allowed to. You could see it as a landscape of boxes. A digital environment that calls for endless play and experiment: you can open boxes that contain other boxes or things that you can then look at. At one point I experimented with ascribing weight to things so that a box can be heavier or lighter. These are all literal translations and consequences of the original idea of using a box, but give an insight in to what works and what doesn’t.

The spatial reproduction allows you to see other patterns than when you put the same information in a list. It’s similar to the difference between walking through a city and cycling through it. You change the orientation and see something in a different way. A different relationship also means a different perception and it is this that offers opportunities for (new) discoveries. And this could also make it interesting for researchers, for example.

I’m not particularly interested in something that is only digital. I often look for a link between the physical and the digital world. I think it stimulates you more to look at it in a different way. If I look at something from a purely digital perspective, as a programmer or information technician, it often remains very instrumental.

How do you relate as a designer to an archivist and programmer?

In one sense a computer gives you a lot of power: in a matter of seconds you can manipulate things that someone else spent years making. But in reality you are adding to what someone else has already started. So thanks to someone else’s work, including the archivist, I can experiment with the data and come up with new forms.

I always try to programme as much as I can myself. I think it’s an interesting and important part of the process. I discover new things by playing with different parameters and the relationship and interaction between code and form. With my background and training it might seem a more obvious choice to only be involved in form, but I think that the result would then become much more illustrative and less layered.

I regard most archive systems primarily as tools to get to grips with a collection and to answer the question of what and where something is, but not what it means. I think there are other ways of approaching this. That’s why I think that interpreting archives with non-archivists could be a good way of making information accessible to other target groups than the professionals in the field.

Your commission is partly linked to the theme of structuralism in architecture. Has structuralism influenced you in some way?

For me structuralism was an area of knowledge that I recognised but one that I could not clearly define or position. It turned out that it contained interesting interfaces with my own way of working. We may live in a different era and I work with a different medium, but I do recognise, for example, the process of recombining, working according to a set of rules or game elements, and using these to make simulations and combinations. I think there are also some parallels in the forms that this process brings about. Of course, structuralism goes further than method and form, but it is interesting to see how a process changes or stays the same when it’s applied to urban infrastructure and buildings, or to information. In the end the relationship is partly associative because the methods are similar, but I am particularly interested in the similarities in the methodology in relation to dealing with dynamics and creating dynamic environments.

What do you expect, or hope, people will do with this new interface?

I hope that people will get a sense of the huge scale of the archive and that by playing with the archive in a playful way, the effort and the time they put in to it becomes visible.

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