DiVersions: an introduction
Elodie Mugrefya, Femke Snelting
DiVersions experiments with the potential of digital collections of specific cultural institutions as a site for decolonial and intersectional practice. DiVersions considers digital collections as locations that could and should expose normative curatorial processes, work with conflicts, allow collaboration and make space for other narratives.
DiVersions asks questions such as: How can different orders coexist in digital collections? In what way do we make room for material and immaterial heritage of the future, for material that is felt to be beyond the scope of museums and archives, or for material that is consciously being ignored? Do these digital environments allow us to crack open a discussion on relations between categorisation, colonisation and heritage? How can online collections accommodate radically different, and sometimes opposing perspectives?
The project is centered around seven artistic experiments that test out in practice how techniques and technologies of networked collaboration can support other imaginations of digital collections. The proposals are applied to several different e-collections such as Wikimedia, Museum for art and history and Werkplaats immaterieel erfgoed. The projects are collectively developed in dialogue with each other and with partner institutions, and presented twice. Each of the two versions is accompanied by a version of a catalog, a workshop and a public discussion.
With the neologism 'DiVersions' we wanted to allude to the way 'versioning', an operation inscribed in most daily software-practices, might be a way to foreground divergent histories. Even if the conventional narrative of 'versioning' is one of streamlining collaboration and producing consensus, these techniques and technologies inherently pay attention to difference. In Dutch, this became 'di-versies' as a play on divergent or diverse versions. Translated to English and French, the title also evokes 'diversity', a term that especially in an institutional context started to be used to cover up issues of inequality and oppression with feel-good variability.. It is for this reason that we decided to explicitly articulate the project as a decolonial and intersectional practice to reflect its political direction more clearly.
Framing DiVersions as both 'decolonial' and 'intersectional' could appear as a contradictory gesture, if we consider that the practice of constructing a (digital) collection has been deeply entrenched in colonial efforts of sorting out and categorizing the world, including humans. DiVersions is consciously making this paradoxical move because it seems more than necessary to imagine, without attempting to repair, e-collections that can become self-reflexive on and aware of the physical and epistemic violence that powers them and keeps them in place. Starting from software processes that make the muliplicity of versions visible in the workings of a project, DiVersions links with an intersectional perspective as a framework in an attempt to not ignore the persistent complexities of human-to-human and human-to-machine relationships and the underlaying tensions and conflicts that result from it.
In December 2016, when the first phase of DiVersions took place, the Museum of Tervuren was already closed for several years for renovation. Three years later, just before relaunching the second phase of the project, the museum finally re-opened. The renovation was claimed to be a pivotal moment for the decolonisation of the institution, a fundamental symbol of the Belgian colonial entreprise. The re-opening prompted many heated debates on whether the museum did or did not succeed in this endeavour but also on whether such an institution, considering its inherent links with Belgian coloniality, could ever claim such a process. Not that the decolonial discourse was ever absent in Belgium, but it has not enjoyed the same mainstream platforms as it had during these debates.
The discussions surrounding the re-opening of the Museum of Tervuren made clear that DiVersions brings together many related urgent questions. While working on and with digital collections of cultural institutions, we ran into large questions, such as the implications of digital technologies on representation, collaboration and access; the inherent problems of archiving and collecting; the troubles of institutional normativity and the assumptions of homogeneous identity that slip into cultural heritage policy.
Cultural heritage functions mostly in the context of national or regional governments. It is sometimes considered to be a category that brings economic benefits, but above all it operates as a source of social and symbolic capital that is supposed to contribute to a sense of belonging. This complex set of expectations projected on cultural heritage leaves little room for a critical approach to what counts as heritage and what not. The construction of cultural heritage calls for the collection of archives which serve as repository for what is considered as representative of this heritage. Institutionalized archives, as collections of digital and/or physical documents, are generated through codified practices hence allowing institutions to keep authority on the archives. The institutions' authoritative position has enabled them to shape and construct specific narratives echooing their position of power. However, DiVersions sees potential in experimentating with digital collections by looking at how archiving has also become a tool and practice of resistance against oppresion and annihilation. By looking at the historicity of archive, their processes of construction, their gaps, the project discerns possibilities for turning around, digressing from, questioning, opposing the narrative built-in and opens-up the possibilities for archiving and its performativity with an emphasis on collaborativity.
These practices connect to Constant's long interest in relations between archives, institutions and memory and our conviction that it is possible and important to develop feminist practices within technological and institutional spaces. It lead to multi-year projects and investigations such as Active Archives [LINK], Mondotheque [LINK] and Scandinavian Institute for Computational Vandalism [LINK]. These projects provided different constellations to try to come to terms with the power-relations, oppressions and projections at work in the (digital) archive. DiVersions could in some way be seen as a continuation of these threads, taking inspiration from the fact that such work is never finished and continues to invite reflection, critique and new work.
Digital spaces themselves are permeated by seemingly neutral criteria, templates standards, and so on. For example, database technologies xxxxxx are used to affirm the authority of certain kind of experts and not others; algorithms corroborate gender clichés and Wikipedia leaves surprisingly (and unnecessarily?) little space for deviating world views. DiVersions therefore not only attends to the content of the e-collections, but also with the way metadata, software packages and web technologies prevent or provide space for Di-Versions. Versioning and its specific understanding of conflict and collaboration.
'versioning' is one of the core operations in xxxx and became central to the way collaboration is fostered.... Free, Libre and Open Source software (FLOSS) and more widely Free Culture (through the mechanism of Open Content licensing). Constant has been committed to Free Culture because whe think it is a way to acknowledge that culture is a collective effort that deserves to be shared. When it comes to technology, we think Free Software can make a difference because we do not need to ask for permission if we want to consider, interrogate and discuss the technical details of software and hardware, or when we want to engage with its concepts, politics and histories. However, in the context of archive and cultural heritage, such a commitment to radical access is tragically lacking. This inaccesibility functions as a way to protect institutions's authority against [...]. But while Constant would like to see a more promiscuous approach to the often proprietary behaviour around cultural heritage, we also become increasingly aware of the need to rethink our relation to permission and access. As the selection of stills xxxx shows, there are many questions to be asked about the aliance of Free Culture and the Western privilege of assumption of full access/permission/properties.
To work with digital collections also means that the physical vulnerability, material and historical value of heritage objects can not be used as an argument for maintaining conventional arrangements. Such inertia is at the expense of a lively decolonial and intersectional discourse and blocks the opening up/deconstruction of categories. DiVersions is experimenting with digitized and digital heritage so to bring opportunities of trying out divergent forms of historiography, for telling untold stories and to open wide the possibilities of conceptual deconstruction. Even if it does not definitively transform the symbolic order, it at least makes space for fantasies of it.
Artistic practices and imagination. Entering the concerns of DiVersions through artistic practices solves everything!
[conclusion ...] Versioning ... With two subsequent moments of making the research public, DiVersions itself becomes an environment for collective testing and trying, vulnerability xxxxx. On every level we try to resist simplification and homogenization, xxxxx that make the contradictions of digital collections visible.
- AHMED on being included
- There is a deeply interesting historicity just in the name of the museum which was originally called Palace of the colonies to pass by various names until today's “Africa Museum”. This evolution transpires as an attempt to further away the institution from its colonial roots and transform it into a museum of Africa, the land and its people. The succession of those names works as an meaningful archive of the museum’s slow evolution struggling to respond to its environment.