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The Elastic System launches online

September 10, 2018 Leave a comment

Richard Wright’s art project the Elastic System has launched now online too. Originally commissioned as part of our AHRC funded project Internet of Cultural Things, the piece was first a temporary installation at the British Library (and subsequently touring to Hartley Library, University of Southampton where it was presented with support from Dr Jane Birkin and AMT).  Please find below the Press Release for the online launch. I myself am currently writing a text on art practices, library infrastructures and contemporary cultures of data in cultural institutions.

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Press Release

www.elasticSystem.net

Follow: https://twitter.com/ElasticSystem

You are invited to visit the new high resolution version of the ELASTIC SYSTEM, an artwork by Richard Wright in collaboration with the British Library.

The ELASTIC SYSTEM was produced during a year-long artist-in-residency at the British Library and is the first artwork to be given access to their core electronic networks and databases.

The work takes the form of an interactive portrait of the C19th librarian Thomas Watts, an obscure but important figure in the early history of information technology. In 1840 Thomas Watts invented his “elastic system” of storage for the British Library to cope with the enormous growth in their collections that was threatening to overwhelm them. This photomosaic has been generated from 4,300 books as they are currently stored in the Library basements at St Pancras, an area not normally accessible to the public. The “Elastic System” functions like a catalogue, allowing people to visually browse part of the British Library’s collections, something which has not been possible since Watts’ time. Furthermore, each book is connected live to the Library’s electronic requesting system. By clicking on a book you can find out more about the item and how to request it from the Library. If you do request a book, it is removed from the mosaic to reveal a second image underneath. This image is a portrait of the staff who work in the underground storage basements, the hidden part of the Library’s modern requesting system.

In order to create the second image, the artist spent two days working with the basement staff at the St. Pancras site, taking hundreds of photographs. With a collection as large and as diverse as the British Library’s, its successful functioning depends on a well tuned human element, which although it is as essential as the electronic networks, is less visible and less appreciated.

After being exhibited as an installation at the British Library, the Hartley Library and the Digital Catapult centre, the “Elastic System” has now been optimised and rebuilt at double the resolution. It is being released as a public web site on September 9th to mark the anniversary of the death of Thomas Watts in 1869.

This work is part of an AHRC funded research project called “The Internet of Cultural Things”, a partnership between the artist Richard Wright, Dr Mark Cote (KCL) and Professor Jussi Parikka (Winchester School of Art) with wide representation from the British Library including Jamie Andrews, Head of Culture and Learning, Dr Aquiles Alencar Brayner and Dr David Waldock. The aim is to use digital data and the creative arts to transform the way people and public institutions interact. The “Elastic System” uses Watts early C19th insights into database access to create a new catalogue out of visual metadata (digital photographs), making it a portrait that is also an extension of his work.

Richard Wright is an artist working in animation, moving image and interactive media. An archive of his work can be found here: www.futurenatural.net

Email: contact@elasticsystem.net

The artist has written three blog posts about their research behind this project:

https://internetofculturalthings.com/2016/06/08/where-is-the-library/

https://internetofculturalthings.com/2016/06/18/what-can-you-do-with-a-library/

https://internetofculturalthings.com/2016/09/01/elastic-system-how-to-judge-a-book-by-its-cover/

Google Photos: https://tinyurl.com/ElasticSystem-images

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The Elastic System – Data in a Cultural Institution

September 11, 2016 Leave a comment

One of the milestones in our Internet of Cultural Things-project (AHRC: AH/M010015/1) was the launch of artist Richard Wright’s Elastic System. With an interesting media archaeological angle, the art project creates an alternative visual browsing/search/request system on top of the existing British Library one. As an experimental pilot, this interface (an installation and soon an online version) returns the library to an age of browsable, visual access to books.

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The King’s Library at the British Library in 1851. Now the King’s Library tower is the only permanently publicly exhibited collection at the BL. Source: suzanne-historybritishlibrary.blogspot.co.uk

While still in the middle of the 19th century the library space could be seen more as a public space with visual access to the collections, the modern storage and delivery systems at the BL created a different sort of a spatial setting. The sheer increase in the number of items in its holdings necessitated this change that could be easily seen as a precursor to the issues the more recent information culture has had to face: lots of stuff that needs to be stored, equipped with an address, and locatable. The short animation Knowledge Migration by Richard Wright is one way to visualize the growth in acquisitions on a geographically mapped timeline. The video is a short animation made by Richard Wright,  showing “each item’s place and date of publication (or date of acquisition where available) since the library’s foundation in 1753.” Knowledge Migration used a random sample of 220,000 records from the print catalogue.

The current reality of the British Library as a data institution can be approached through its infrastructure, also the many datasets and systems, including the ABRS (Automated Book Requesting System); this infrastructure includes both the data based systems and digital catalogues, online interface and searchable collections, their automated robotic systems in Boston Spa storage/archive space and also the important human labour that is part of this automated system.

The Elastic System project introduction by Wright states:

“ELASTIC SYSTEM is a database portrait of the librarian Thomas Watts. In 1838 Watts invented his innovative “elastic system” of storage in order to deal with the enormous growth of the British Library’s collections.

The mosaic image of Watts has been generated from 4,300 books as they are currently stored in the library basements at St Pancras, an area not normally accessible to the public. Each one is connected live to the library’s electronic requesting system.

The Elastic System functions like a catalogue, allowing people to visually browse part of the British Library’s collections, something which has not been possible since Watts’ time. When a book is requested it is removed from the “shelf” to reveal a second image underneath, an image that represents the work that goes on in the library’s underground storage basements, the hidden part of the modern requesting system.”

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You can view and use the installation system at the British Library in London until September 23, 2016 – it is located at the front of the Humanities Reading room (during library opening hours).

The online version will be launched in the near future.

Here’s Richard Wright’s blog post about his artistic residency at the British Library as part of our project: Elastic System: How to Judge a Book By Its Cover.

We are discussing these themes in Liverpool on September 14, 2 pm, at FACT – this panel on cultural data is part of the Liverpool Biennial public programme.

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A thank you to Aquiles Alencar-Brayner (BL, Digital Curator) for the snapshots of the texts above.