The Tour as a Method: Infrastructures of Data

In the project we are piloting one interesting experimental methodology: infrastructural tours. We are interested in question of the cultural institution as a data institution and this necessarily asks such questions as to: what are the infrastructures of that data? What are there more than software transactions? What is the experiential level of that data circuit that includes books, their travels, transfers between physical objects and data base searches, retrievals and tracking?

We tried a small informal run of the infrastructural tour during our first workshop at the British Library on December 9th, 2015 . Led by David Waldock (BL), the tour took us, literally, to the depths of the Library and introduced the ways in which you can track a request in the database to its movement in the system, and delivery to the reader. What is the mundane level of normal functions of a library, reveals how the British Library has always been a data management system based on paper, information management and the infrastructure that involves people and machines that deliver information (such as books). It becomes fascinating when considered against the backdrop of such new, emerging automated data retrieval systems in libraries, like the one at the National Library in Oslo, Norway.

Mattern picks up on the recent years of emerging critical literature on infrastructure, and picks up as a method and educational tool the idea of visiting “the internet”. In other words, to map the sites and routes of infrastructures of wireless society and data, and that way bridge interfaces between experience and the supposedly immaterial digital: “To visit the sites that are producing our networked experiences is thus an attempt to understand these new entanglements, sensations and practices, these network-associated changes — this new way of being.” (source)

Mattern acknowledges the important work done in STS (not least Susan Leigh Star and Geoffrey Bowker) as well as media studies (Lisa Parks, Nicole Starosielski) l as well as in design studies, an important context where to consider this. Indeed, one could also mention James Branch’s recent article on the topic, “Mapping the Mast” as a way to acknowledge the work of designed environments as a way how media is physically present.

In Mattern’s words:

“Urban designers and historians have recognized that remote and often hidden technologies dramatically inform how we design cities, manage natural resources, interact with other living creatures and inanimate objects, and understand our place in the universe. What’s more, the cities, landscapes, objects and systems that we design often interrelate with each other independent of human involvement or awareness.”

What’s more, this situation is also mobilized in recent critical art methods. Mattern discusses “Invisible-5” but there would be also other examples of projects that complexify our relation to the surroundings whether outside or in institutions. Such “critical spatial practice” is not however only a means to visualize something otherwise left unnoticed. The critical question becomes how such infrastructural mapping becomes a way to enable new sorts of interventions and involvement that goes past the usual subjectivity of the tourist as a passer-by, voyeur.

We will continue elaborating this early idea about the infrastructural tour as a design and art method, and as an institutional method. We are interested in how it might make accessible and understandable in new ways the idea of the cultural institution as a data institution – not merely the data that is visualized on screens as a spectacle or as predefined interactive format, but data that circulates in and of the building, with humans, interfaces, physical transmission systems, doors and passages, and more. This idea could become a useful institutional affordance and feature as a look and a visit into the insides of cultural data too. In other words, it would imply injecting some art methodologies inside the institutional environment as one way to both facilitate relations with the public in new ways and as a way to investigate institutional processes that would then improve the self-understanding of the institution too.

Jussi Parikka


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