On Scanning Fluff

Haidy Geismar, UCL

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I’ve been working on a paper for a workshop on “Transforming data: drawing otherness into data debates” next week. I will be talking about one of  my current research projects, Te Ara Wairua – Pathways of the Intangible. In collaboration with Kura Puke and Stuart Foster of Massey University and Te Matahiapo Research Organization in Aotearoa New Zealand we have been exploring how digital technologies can connect to a Maori Korowai (cloak) held currently in the UCL Ethnography Collections.

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Tukutuku roimata, I.0013

Together we are developing a critical perspective on the ways in which digital technologies can, or cannot, be used to connect communities to far away collections. We all have different interests and investments in the project, and these have generated different research questions. Kura Puke and Te Matahiapo have brought the Maori conception of Wairua (meaning spiritual energy), to the project. This is a category that instantiates Maori philosophies of the virtual within which the digital fits neatly inside. Wairua is understood as a form of connectivity across space and time connecting people, through taonga such as the Maori cloak. Stuart Foster, a spatial designer, is interested in creating virtual environments in which people can simultaneously experience the same events and objects. As curator of the Ethnography collection and director of the UCL Centre for Digital Anthropology, I am interested in thinking about the process of digitization and exploring different digital modalities in order to critique the world view and subject position that is all too often celebrated unthinkingly in contemporary efforts to reconstruct objects as 3d Digital surrogates.

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Huirangi Eruera Waikerepuru, Mereiwa Broughton, Te Urutahi Waikerepuru, Tengaruru Wineera being projected through Facetime into UCL Octagon Gallery from Wharenui Te Ururongo, Pouakai, on June 17, 2014

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Representatives of Ngati Ranana, and UCl Museums and Collections engaging with Te Matahiapo in the UCL Octagon Gallery, June 17 2014

 Together our project has had a number of different events and outputs. We have held several virtual powhiri – ritual environments in which Maori elders have been able to connect to communities in London through real time broadband and cellular connections. We have exhibited the cloak within a digital environment using specially developed sound carrying light. These LEDs channel live sounds to bathe the cloak with light drawing attention to the materiality and environmental qualities of the digital and creating a DIY method of facilitating connection between communities and artefacts across time and space. We have experimented with 3D imaging of the cloak, using laser scanning, photogrammetry, and different software platforms.

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An attempt to create a 3D image of the cloak using photogrammetry

In the places I’ve presented this already we have started to think a lot about deconstructing the positivism of 3D scanning in museum projects. The Korowai, made up of flax, wool, and the hair of the polynesian dog is remarkably resistant to digital data capture – its very difficult to scan textiles or to recreate the exact form of hair tassels. I’m interested to explore this process in terms of what the digitization process can illuminate about the object even if it is a failure in terms of creating a perfect simulacrum. Do my “failed” scans and photogrammetric representations of the cloak expose something else about the object? A sense of loss and disconnect? or do they open the door to alternative ways in which digital technology may represent the cloak?

I’ve therefore been thinking about failed scanning and failed digital representation. I took a piece of wool, similar to that on the cloak, from the Ethnography Collections to UCL’s Institute of Making and have spent some time trying to scan it with the intention of showing the limits of current technologies to represent certain kinds of objects. Working with the Institute employee and artist Zachary Eastwood Bloom we struggled to scan the fluff to various degrees of failure.

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3d scan of a piece wool from the ethnography collections

Whilst there are craftspeople who could create a perfect simulacrum of wool using digital tools, the photographic metaphors currently used to describe 3d museum collections failed us in trying to understand the kinds of images of wool and fluff we generated directly from the 3D scanner. The conversation turned at the Institute of Making in the same direction my conversation with Kura and stuart had turned – what other properties of digital materialities could bring us closer to these objects?

Eastwood Bloom’s own work mirrors that of our work within Te Ara Wairua. He has been interested in converting 3D digital scans of objects by editing the scans to create new kinds of objects and like us is interested in the process of translation that the digital affords – converting light into shape, two dimensions into three. Uncannily just as we were converting the cloak into a landscape using gaming software, converting sounds channeled from New Zealand into light to connect to the Cloak at UCL, and converting images of the cloak into sound,  Zachary was experimenting with creating digital terrains from audio outputs.

This convergence shows the benefits of having a make space like the Institute of Making on campus  enabling academics to move their ideas into material realm no matter what their discipline or skills set. These experiments, and our research project with the cloak, are increasingly working with the digital as a medium of translation rather than a technique of perfect visualization which has important effects for the possibilities of how we may use digital collections to connect objects to communities in ways other than that of the simulacrum, using discourses other than that of “virtual” repatriation.

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