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DiVersions: an introduction

Elodie Mugrefya, Femke Snelting

DiVersions is inspired by the software-practice of ‘versioning’, as a way to experiment with online collections of cultural institutions. It approaches these collections as potential sites for decolonial and intersectional practice, that could and should allow for conflict, invite collaboration, and make space for other narratives.

DiVersions asks questions such as: How can different orders coexist in online collections? In what way do we make room for material and immaterial heritage of the future, for things that are felt to be beyond the scope of museums and archives, or for other things that are consciously being ignored? How can these digital environments allow us to open up a discussion on relations between categorisation, colonisation and heritage? How can online collections accommodate radically different, and sometimes opposing perspectives?

We organised the project around seven artistic experiments that evolved in response to specific e-collections such as WikiMedia, the Carmentis database from the Museum for Art and History and the website of Werkplaats immaterieel erfgoed. Using a variety of artistic strategies, the projects test out in practice how techniques and technologies of networked collaboration might generate other imaginations. The projects are collectively developed in dialogue with each other and in conversation with partner institutions. DiVersions unfolds in two subsequent public installations, first in De Pianofabriek in Brussels and later in De Krook in Ghent. Each of the two versions is accompanied by a version of a publication, a workshop and a public discussion.

With the neologism 'DiVersions' we wanted to allude to the possibility that technologies of 'versioning' might foreground divergent histories.[1] Version-control systems, Wikis, etherpads and other digital writing tools save log files and so-called ‘diffs’ routinely, potentially changing linear relations between original and copy, redefining questions of authorship and the archive. Meticulously logged workflows promise to make the process of shared editing transparent since any action can be reversed or repeated at any time; errors or unwanted inputs can be later corrected. 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, DiVersions also evokes 'diversity', a term that especially in institutional contexts started to circulate as a blanket term for covering up issues of inequality and oppression.[2]. It is for this reason that we decided to explicitly articulate the project as a decolonial and intersectional practice.

Framing DiVersions as both 'decolonial' and 'intersectional' could appear as a contradictory gesture, if we consider that the practice of constructing a (digital) collection is deeply entrenched in colonial efforts to sort out and categorize 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 and aware of the physical and epistemic violence that powers them and keeps them in place. Starting from software processes that make the multiplicity of versions visible in the workings of a project or a process, DiVersions is an attempt to take into account the persistent complexities of human-to-human and human-to-machine relationships and the underlying 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.[3] Three years later, just before relaunching the second phase of DiVersions, the museum had finally re-opened. The renovation was claimed to be a pivotal moment for the decolonisation of this institution, a fundamental symbol of the Belgian colonial enterprise. The re-opening prompted many heated debates on whether the museum did or did not succeed in its endeavor 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 had not yet enjoyed the same mainstream platforms as it had during these debates.

The discussions surrounding the re-opening of the Museum of Tervuren made us realise that the work of DiVersions might be more urgent than we originally thought. Three years into the project, we are only at the beginning of addressing 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 and above all, how all this plays out in the complex Belgian environment and its specific colonial history.

The construction of physical and digital repositories is a consequence of the social and symbolic capital that cultural heritage represents.[4] This value necessitates institutionalized archives, the keeping of digital/physical documents, and the establishment of codified practices that allow institutions to maintain their authority through classification and mediation. This mutual confirmation of what counts as heritage, as identity, as history and as beneficial future, constructs specific narratives that usually leave little room for a critique. However, possibilities opens up for the practice of archiving cultural artifacts, especially in a digital context, as it can become a tool of resistance against oppression and annihilation.

To arrive at this potential is easier said than done as digital spaces themselves are permeated by seemingly neutral criteria, templates, standards, and so on. For example, database technologies routinely affirm the authority of certain kind of experts and not others; algorithms corroborate gender cliches and Wikipedia has surprisingly little space for deviating world views. DiVersions therefore not only attends to the digital items brought together in e-collections, but also to the way metadata, software packages and web technologies prevent or provide space for Di-Versions.

Digital collections can technically be copied, repeated, downloaded, and used in many contexts at once. It means that the inertia of conventional arrangements operates differently; the physical vulnerability, material and historical value of heritage objects can not be used as an argument. DiVersions wants to actively explore the potential of digital collections to support a lively decolonial and intersectional discourse and the opening up of categories. DiVersions therefore experiments with digitized and digital heritage as a way to try out divergent forms of historiography, for telling untold stories and to open up wide the possibilities of conceptual de- and reconstruction. Even if these experiments do not definitively transform the symbolic order, it at least makes space for fantasies of it.

DiVersions continues some of the threads in Constant's long commitment to the exploration of institutional and archival technologies from a feminist perspective. Multi-year investigations such as Active Archives, Mondotheque and Scandinavian Institute for Computational Vandalism provided platforms for different constellations of artist-researchers to come to terms with the power-relations, oppressions and projections at work in the (digital) archive. As DiVersions shows, such work is never finished and continues to invite reflection, critique and new attempts. We need to try again.

This publication accompanies the first public unfolding of DiVersions. The texts included in this volume, and the documented projects each in their way resist simplification and homogenization. They pay attention to the historicity and performativity of archives and work with their contradictions rather than against them. DiVersions is a persistent attempt to collaboratively rethink the narratives built in digital collections, and to play with and within their gaps.

  1. DiVersions started with a worksession in December 2016, organised in collaboration with the Museum for Arts and History. Documentation:
  2. "The language of diversity might have efficacy as a 'coping mechanism' for dealing with an actually conflicting heterogeneity". Himani Bannerji quoted in: Sara Ahmed, (2007) On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life
  3. There is a 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.
  4. UNESCO defines Cultural heritage as "the legacy of physical artifacts and intangible attributes of a group or society that are inherited from past generations, maintained in the present and bestowed for the benefit of future generations."