“Experience and Experimentation in the Sensory Moving Image Archive Project” – Dr. Eef Masson (University of Amsterdam)
While increasing numbers of archival moving images are becoming digitally available, our methods and tools for accessing them are remarkably unchanged. Users of archival repositories tend to approach digital records in much the same way as analogue ones: through verbal descriptions. In the case of moving images, those descriptions tend to cluster around select productional, generic and content information (including named or featured entities), the bounds of which are set in cataloging practice. From today’s perspective, this is quite surprising. Digitization, after all, makes archival objects highly ‘fungible’. Consequently, it allows us to take bits from those objects away, substitute them, or otherwise, calculate, measure, or compare them with the bits that other items in the same database are made up of. In principle, then, we might also repurpose those data to enable alternative forms of access. In the process, we might focus on features that verbal descriptions cannot easily capture, that are equally crucial to how we experience and interpret them; for instance, sensory ones.
In her talk, Eef departs from her own involvement in the research project The Sensory Moving Image Archive (SEMIA), which explores the possibilities of visual analysis and data visualization as means to reorient access to digitized moving image collections. This endeavour is motivated in part by a wish to circumvent the requirement for clearly articulated queries, still central to practices of search and retrieval but ill-suited to archival exploration intent on making more ‘serendipitous’ discoveries. Specifically, she reflects on the different ways in which experimentation has propelled their research: how it served to continually modify not only their objectives in tool development, but also their understanding of what exactly it is that they were doing in the process. Two issues are of particular interest here. On the one hand, Eef considers how time and again, their experimental approach helped them realize the need to challenge – undermine, or counteract – a ‘state of the art’: both in the field of computer vision (the domain of informatics concerned with image feature extraction, central to the first development phase) and interface design – as it happens, two fields where practitioners tend to heavily rely on experimentation (and in the latter, on prior user experience). And on the other, she delves a little more deeply into the obstacles they ran into (also conceptually) as they sought to achieve their goal, in working towards a more exploratory form of ‘browsing’ (as opposed to searching), to delay the moment in time when meaning gets assigned to the objects in a collection, archive or database.
Eef Masson is an assistant professor of Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam, where she teaches courses in film and media history and media archiving and preservation. She has published on non-fiction and non-theatrical films, media archives, museum media, and more recently, data visualization, specifically in artistic practice and media (history) research. Currently, she is a senior researcher in the NWO-funded project The Sensory Moving Image Archive (SEMIA): Boosting Creative Reuse for Artistic Practice and Research, a collaboration between the University of Amsterdam, the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (HvA), Eye Filmmuseum, the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision and Studio Louter.