If I were to leave art-speak out for a moment and address larger issues of access and education within institutional practice, I wonder what would happen to the shift in balance about stories that get told (or not told) within institutional practice. I am in search of questions that provoke new opportunities afforded by unprecedented amounts of cultural data now available on the web, that in turn is directly informing seemingly provocative ways to analyze larger questions of digitized cultural heritage in institutions.

Sometimes I wonder if we should just measure everything that can be measured, just to see what happens. If you can talk about it, you can measure it. Somehow, such a reductive approach makes me believe that just as data sets get bigger and bigger and more reliant on predominant digital traces, there is a simultaneous push against voices that don’t get heard. Just because we’re examining bigger data doesn’t mean it’s discerning data.

As institutions are considering new approaches that include “open” and “shared authority” online, what other ways can we also seek to expand institutional practice to become more inclusive and expansive in its reach, and how can it occur in real-time? How can we meet real-world challenges in the context of the institution to represent missing voices, and how can we engage the power of big data to facilitate change? And, finally – what would such a shift look like in the hands of artists working in the institution?

This really struck me was attending the opening of the 1993 show last week – and I happened to visit the “Age of Abstraction show from 1910-1929. Lev Manovich and I were talking about what it means to look at the entirety of cultural production from a single year, and possible ways to understand culture by taking such a narrow slice of New York history. What do we learn by leaving so much else out? What can be understand by examining such a sliver of history in a city like New York that can be extrapolated for deeper analysis? Dividing the data in the context of a museum space is really fascinating to me, and opens new questions for education and curatorial practice.

I’m not an expert on that 1993 show that just opened last week at the New Museum, but their pointed look at the 20th year anniversary of the Whitney Biennial has definitely pointed viewers towards considerations about how art production in general just looked so different back then. Maybe we weren’t spending all of our time on email or snapping photos with our phone cameras… and yet maybe there are just so many more places and contexts and types of institutions that can show work now in 2013 that we cannot help but look backwards in a wave of nostalgia.

And while we both acknowledged that this isn’t truly possible because we could never ever track down all those mix tapes of our 1990s youth! (Although I wish we could…) New possibilities now abound to consider “cultural production” as a massive data set that could be analyzed to help us connect or understand influences that simply not visible before. This, in turn, might lead us to some kind of higher understanding about relevance, about perceived value, about culture and maybe even why more of it has become digitized, whether we like it or not.

I’d like to argue that this only slightly expands the role of the traditional institution, and museums, cultural organizations and other institutions will become tapped to fill in the void that is being left by traditional modes of schooling. I believe it is time for us to think through how our fields could work together to expand the educational role of the institution – and inject ourselves into larger cultural relevance. This may happen through informal learning systems that exist outside of school, through apprenticeship models about art-making, through online learning unafraid to address the culture of “critique.” We can’t predict what the future holds. But here are some possibilities:

– Institutions could study societal shifts through shifts marked in social media and social computing (i.e., beyond merely sophisticated analysis through Twitter that mark connections between audiences and viewers)
– Institutions could help detect large-scale cultural patterns not visible in normative possibilities of display, exhibition or catalog
– Institutions could present move inclusive understanding of cultural history, and include more voices that are typically under-represented
– Institutions could position themselves to map cultural variability and diversity.

The skeptic in me is always going to say that the more data we are able to collect, the more we will find how much we continually leave out – immigrant experiences, the undocumented, and any other euphimisms for marginalized communities that academics like to name. Screen Shot 2013-02-21 at 6.29.35 AM

The goal should always be about moving towards more inclusive understandings of cultural history and point to predictors using larger cultural patterns that we can trace and back up with data. What’s the line then between, say, an archive fetish and a top-level analysis? At what point, do we become seduced by too much data, and lose our ability to recognize encroaching data-blindness?

I’m not sure, but I sure loved those directional speakers that showered audio from the early 1910s at MoMA’s Age of Abstraction show. Totally worth it.

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