Research on e-books with Wikimedia content/Interview with Renee Turner, Andre Castro, Manufactura Independente

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On the 21st of October 2016, Renee Turner ( welcomed us into her house, where we discussed the project she is currently working on together with Andre Castro (, Manufactura Independente ( and Cesare Davolio ( Renee and her team have just begun an archival project on the work of artist Gisèle d’Ailly.

The Warp and Weft of Memory, is a research project with Castrum Peregrini, which will run from September 2016 to September 2018. The work explores the wardrobe of Gisèle d’Ailly van Waterschoot van der Gracht, and the ways in which it reflects her life, work, and various histories through textiles and clothing. The aim is to not only mine the past, but also make connections to the present. As a whole the project will have different public manifestations: public lectures, educational events, an online narrative combining fact, fiction and artefacts.

Below is a transcript of some of the things that we discussed that morning:

Sandra Fauconnier: Could you give us some context of the project?

Renee Turner: I was in Castrum Peregrini and it was right after Gisele, the founder, had died. They had some of her clothing in the studio. And they said that they would probably give it away to a theatre company or something like that, so I contacted them the next day and said that I would love to work with her closet. Cause some time ago, in the early 2000s, we -meaning Geuzen- did a project in the Rijksmuseum called Unravelling Histories. At that time, we were first of all super naive about what it took to do a data bank and Michael Murtaugh had to do the whole thing because there weren't any predefined systems for that at the time. We worked with this dress and had this data bank and it stayed with me because the online part was a failure. The analog part workedgreat, but all three of us underestimated what it meant to do something parallel that was actually quite large. [...] I thought it would be interesting to make good on that because I really learnt a lot from working on it. Everybody else thought it was a success, I say this from being inside the project and imagining another potential there that for me wasn’t reached. So this felt like a great opportunity to work through this closet that taps into this woman’s history, really moving from her body -meaning her clothing- and outwards to these broader histories and get others in to think with me about how to find digital form, but also to think dialogically not just that I come up with the content and somebody designs the front end but think in what way does such a digital space shape the writing. And then the other dilemma was that if we were digitizing these objects and if Castrum gets rid of them, I felt responsible about making that archive of things accessible for other writers and artists to come in in the future, so that brought me to Andre for thinking through mediawiki to archive things and create a semantics that will distinguish between for example something coming out of the photo archive that is a factual object versus the fictional or interpretative elements that are going to be there. We're buried deep on semantics trying to figure out a good way to leave a legacy for others to go in and then thinking with these guys how do we clean things up to create a narrative on the front end that brings different media together but also writing styles. It was really an experiment on that front. Yesterday we were playing with getting things to the front-end from the wiki so we can even understand what was going on with the semantics because you know how wikis dictate a certain form of reading and a certain form of writing and you immediately start taking the wiki as a specific space and trying to solve the problem in that framework. So yesterday they prototyped to get us out of that environment for a moment so we can come back and look at the wiki through a different way.

Andre Castro: As soon as we have a visual map and you can determine how that visual map is structured and materialised, then a lot of what we had as preconceptions of what we are doing, because we are trying to tag things for what we think will be the end result or how it would function, but we cannot see that so we are trying to structure the information with tagging in ways that make sense within the archive and will also make sense when the archive is translated onto other forms. I think It was quite a realisation yesterday to see it in a certain form and being able to have all the content being mapped out in visual form in a web environment away from the wiki, but it is essentially more about editorial work.

RT: It's important to note that I have only just begun in Gisele's collection. I thought I would work from the closet, but I didn't realise that she was such a compulsive archivist. She has gathered all of her photographs, nothing is digitized, she has kept every letter that she has ever written and every letter that came to her. She has created multiple taxonomies and her clothes are labelled, everything in her studio is labelled. Even the dilemma of things always mirroring: you have her posing in a smock for a painting and that's in the photographic archive, then you have the painting with her in the smock and then you have the smock in the closet, so everything is constantly looping. You can kind of drown in it. The day before yesterday we visited the space, maybe you guys can talk about your experience in the physical space and the challenges that poses.

Ana Carvalho: So when we started working on this at the beginning of this year and when we started we only had the images that were online on the wiki of the project and so for us was a really different relation because we didn’t know the space and many of the photos are in black and white or the colours have faded away and so you have this type of imagery that sends you back to the past and you have photos of the artist and you have images of her paintings and then also the clothes and the places and people. When we visited Castrum Peregrini on Wednesday, things were finally coming together. You could see the history and learn how everything took place in time and what was the order of things. The colours of the space were so different from the photos. And then because she lived for a very long time you have different spaces that show you a different period of time and also because they kept it really well. They kind of freeze different moments, like where she began living and then the rest of the house as she went on to acquire more space.

Ricardo Lafuente: So in the beginning we had this perception just based on loose documentation that was also loosely connected and we built this prototype from that. After seeing the space it became a lot clearer how the interface must represent these actual connections that we saw in the space and that we couldn't see before just with this loose material whose connections were not very evident for someone who has not seen the space. It's not like you can build an interface that can provide you with all these connection but it made clear that there’s a kind of responsibility to imbue this into the interface. So this interface we built yesterday as a technical exercise to work with the MediaWiki API and to map the categories but we kind of started this process of producing little demos to make sense of the semantic structure that we were building so that this could feed the cataloguing effort and vice versa. So yeah right now is just making little drawing of the next one that weshould be working on. This interplay between semantics and their representation and how the representation of semantics comes back to make us reevaluate how they should be structured and we are pleasantly lost at this point and because this is really rich the volume of stuff that we are looking at. And as we said yesterday this has to go way beyond making a “Giselopedia”: not a simple dry cataloguing effort of things and their connections. There needs to be some kind of poetry, some kind of life connection.

RT: Yesterday within the wikispace Andre and I were trying to do pages that would pull everything together which then became confusing when we tried to bring it into the front end because suddenly everything would quadruple up. So now we are busy un-cutting some weaving that was done within the wiki. Now we are establishing a workflow so the challenges are how to work with the writing, the fictional elements, to create different registers, how those are distinguished, how to leave a legacy for someone else to be able to go in and create other interpretations of the archive. Then the other thing is that I've been funded for two years, so two years from now in September there will be an exhibition and we were talking about how someone could take a printed souvenir from their pathway through the site so we thought to have some of the clothing in the space and then different publication forms. That would be our connection, our common ground to think through, if that’s possible.


AC: Our struggle at the moment is to find vocabularies and properties that are meaningful, understandable and compatible with other archives. I think we are trying to do a little bit more than we know and are learning along the way, things that we might need to undo later on. The fact that it's this form of semantic tagging doesn't help, because every time we go back to it, we need to rethink the system that's in place. But when you start seeing these list forms in the frontend, then it becomes a lot more tangible. It gives it an understanding of what we're doing.

RT: And the other thing is that the difficulty is that if you tag everything with Gisele, then the semantics don't make sense anymore. It just flattens.

SF: Exactly. In a way maybe you need it, because she is a central point, but then whatever diverges from her needs to be more specific. So, I think you need to devise a system where she is the central point, but where everything that is described around her is within a manageable set of things. If I were you guys, I'd be looking at the data model of Wikidata, that's a very dry system, but it has kind of worked out how you describe this very dry context that you have from time to people to context, kinds of animals. And then I would try to find a way to fit into that framework what makes your project special, the fiction behind it.

RT: Yesterday while we were working at some point I was thinking that somebody has probably already crunched that before.

SF: Yes, all the time. But it's been crunched before in the very formal context of the archival people who just want to describe artworks or describe the taxonomy of species. All these people have done this in a very dry, very descriptive context, and you want to do something more poetic. So I think as a structure you need something that is quite rigid and then you add something that is more fluid.

AC: But I think the fluidity and the poetics will come from the materials themselves. Even with a very dry system, seeing things being collected in our minds, things that wouldn't be directly connected. This relational model bringing to front all this material creates narratives that don't exist, it's a bit more speculative.

Lucia Dossin: You could use a system of classification that has already been done and then work with that. It's the second layer, the second part of the work is then to find interesting connections among these categories and these taxonomies and build a narrative from there.

SF: I think also one layer where your perspective will become apparent is how you ask questions to the system. So if you have a few thousands of things thta you have described in a rigid way, you can ask very creative questions to it. Like, I don't know, give me everything related to creatures that she did in the 50s that are not related to gender. You can go crazy with that. You get some dry results cmoing from that but then you get a design layer that is very important in how it's going to be displayed. So that's also a very creative part about it. There's a rigid system underneath, but what is done with it is very open. We did that in v2 already and we were also ahead of our times, because it was too early to do that. We split up the archive in very small parts, in the sense that a time is a very small thing, a person is just one thing, a concept is just one thing and then it all came together like lego blocks. It's not like you build up a wiki with a really long story, link to another long story, but you connect many small connected things together and you get a very rich multi-dimensional universe of things that you can do complex things with.

RT: So basically keep units small and manageable in a way.

LD: And specific.

RL: I was thinking when you were discussing the idea of dry taxonomy, that I am also curious about the wet side of it. How you can take advantage of this cataloguing to show something that is not just like an encyclopedia but is maybe in opposition to a dry categorisation and how wet this can get. Because when you get fiction into it, you can seriously get away from the world of classifiers.

AC: Maybe this comes out through these chapters, I keep calling them chapters, but...

RL: ...yes exactly! The fragments that we were discussing yesterday. The idea of the chapters being smaller units but then they can be pieced together in strange, unexpected ways which might be the most interesting approach.

AC: Because the ingredients and the outcomes, the dish, are all going to exist in the same space. So do you acknowledge them as the same entities, like the same kind of item but just classified differently? Like a piece of fiction and then a photograph form the archive: are they on the same level? Or do they weave around each other?

LD: But wouldn't in this case fiction and non fiction also be a type of taxonomy?

AC: Yeah. But then you have for example non-fiction something that is generated from the archive.

LD: Yeah, but I'm not sure I understand your question whether they would be treated the same way. Because if you're talking about taxonomies, if instead of fiction/non-fiction you were talking about another type of classification: person and object, would you ask the same question? Or is it only important for this one?

AC: No, I don't think I would ask the same question. We have an illustration that Cesare made, based on material that was, like the butterflies that were found there. And we have images of the butterflies, but we also have the illustration, so they both exist in the same space and probably will have the same categorisation. But one is coming from a long history, and the other one is a recent fiction based on that history. Would we allow someone to think that Cesare's illustration is something that existed in Gisele's things? Or would we separate them very clearly?

RT: Yesterday we did these registers that would be a meta-narrative, so perhaps that meta-narrative would be related to my own archivist project being in this space and sort of reflecting on going through this person's material, then you would have fiction. Kate Pullinger is a writer who I am working with, she will contribute fiction. I'm also thinking about another poet who's written on craft, asking her to contribute, so this is another register of text. But then, there is also the question: who is Arnold? who was Gisele's husband, and that's non-fiction. We thought it's important to have some sort of taxonomy to know how to read it and if other people go into the archive later, they can say "Oh this is interpretation. I can decide to use it or not" or "This is fact and I can work from this".

Cesare Davolio: But like any historical event, you can create fiction based on the historical facts. Whether there is something about feelings for Arnold that you want to fictionalise, that then is also fiction with real people.

RT: And then it's going to have the taxonomy of fiction as register, Arnold as a person, Gisele as a person. I think that's how you can tackle it.