Processing Post

“Javitz sharply criticized his ideas, cautioning that his approach required a subjective appraisal riddled with personal aesthetic bias that would endanger the objective, impartial study of images.”
This was funny to me because if one visits the NYPL Picture Collection, the categories are quite subjective. For example, in an image of the moon in the night sky, how does one determine if the picture should fall under moon, or sky?

The two genealogies of image classification discussed in Kamin’s piece also made me think of the different computer vision techniques used in analyzing images and if they might fall into either category. For example, I might categorize object detection under Javitz’s line of thought, whereas something like the watershed algorithm (which views the image as almost a black and white topographical map seeing brighter areas as elevated points) better fitting with Karpel’s philosophy. Regardless of this binary categorization, I think the notion that there are many, many ways to analyze an image is interesting and also carries over into Computer Vision.

Processing post

The points brought up in all of these readings/talks/interviews support my thinking that the decolonization of archives is much more complex than an ‘undoing’ of archival injustices. It is not simply a matter of repatriation or ownership, a returning of materials to where they come from. The very methodologies used in colonial archiving practice, (for example as Christen brings up, the viewing of indigenous/colonized peoples as a subject of study rather than collaborators), have enduring effects on the categorization, preservation, metadata, and dissemination of these artifacts even in today’s context. Moving forward, I would also like to linger on the question of what non-western archival practices look like. Caswell several times in the interview draws a strong dichotomy between western and non-western archival thought. Particularly with the notion of subjectivity. “Records are supposed to be impartial, which means that the people creating them should have no notion of how they might wind up in an archives in the future.” This is an important distinction because all of these readings argue that archivists should have respect for the intended visibility, distribution and preservation of artifacts during their creation (i.e. the intended illegibility of certain rap lyrics for particular audiences (Doreen St.Felix), or the right to be forgotten).

Artists Countering Colonial Archives

I’m going to do a very brief survey of a few artists that are working around the theme of countering colonial archives in different ways. Some of these artists use actual archival material from existing archives as a starting point for their work, while others create alternative archives of their own to surface narratives that are often obscured or hidden from general discourse. All incorporate collecting as part of their creative practice and explore complicated ideas around cultural heritage, acquisition and repatriation when dealing with archival materials from the “global south” that exist in institutions in the West.

The first artist I’ll talk about is Sameer Farooq. He’s a Canadian interdisciplinary artist who creates what he refers to as speculative museums in order to ‘counter what large institutions are telling citizens to think about their past.’

The particular project I want to show you is from a larger series called The Museum of Found Objects, which are kind of these crowdsourced collections of everyday mundane objects. But this particular Museum of Found Objects was an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Toronto and was a reaction to an exhibition happening in the room next door entitled Maharaja: The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts. I want to read a few quotes the curatorial essay for the exhibition because I think it eloquently illustrates the reason for this collection of everyday objects as a response to and also a critique of the Maharaja exhibition:

the narrative of the “maharaja…” exhibition celebrated the opulence of india’s rulers, describing art as a product of royal patronage but also showing how aesthetic power or value was determined by the structures of imperialism… the exhibition as a format for the presentation of this kind of history aestheticises a violent, despotic and traumatic period. moreover, it presents an elite and anglocentric narrative that prompts us to consider how this history is as much Britain’s history as it is india’s.

additionally, presenting the “maharaja…” exhibition in canada in turn makes assumptions about canadian – and specifically indo-canadian – audiences and their relationship to this colonial history. second generation and diasporic indians are often estranged from a critical understanding of this history of india…their relationship to these types of exhibitions, like that of non-south asian visitors, is largely voyeuristic.

… How do museums engage communities in constructing the narratives of history that represent them? How can museum exhibitions exhibit the contingencies of history?”

So the idea for The Museum of Found Objects: Toronto was, as Farooq puts it, ‘to update the colonial exhibition with contemporary, everyday objects from South Asian communities across Toronto.”

Through creating an exhibition of contemporary objects from South Asian communities across Toronto, Farooq is playfully highlighting the irony of the Maharaja exhibition’s failure to address indian and indo-canadian audiences. He’s creating visibility around this disconnect that South Asians and the South Asian diaspora feel towards the representation of their culture and history via the lens of these western institutions. Also it’s important to note that in including everyday mundane objects from these communities, he’s also critiquing the Maharaja exhibition’s centering of royal and imperialistic narratives as an anglocentric practice.

I also just think it’s great that they were able to literally exhibit next to the exhibition they were trying to challenge.

Another artist I want to talk about is Maryam Jafri. She’s a Pakistani artist that I think is now based in New York. But her work is really interesting in that it deals with photographic archives but also touches on contemporary themes around digitization and ownership. I’ll walk you through two of her works.

This particular ongoing piece is called Independence Day 1934-1975. It’s a collection of over 60 photographs from former European colonies across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. And the photographs were all taken on the first Independence Day of the country. The kind of twilight period that marks the transition from colony to nation state. So these are photographs that she specifically pulled from archives in their respective countries, not from archives in the West. And she arranged them according to semantic themes like  Celebrations, and swearing-in ceremonies. In arranging the photographs across these semantic themes, she makes visible the repetition and almost homogeny of these independence rituals. Which is quite interesting considering these are photographs are from very different places right? Like to see such visual similarity in the independence rituals across different places in Asia and Africa I think actually highlights the idea that the Nation State in the post-colonial context is very much a European model and these are simply iterations of this European model around the world. She’s viewing these rituals as not only significant of the transition from colony to country but as an initiation of these places into the Western definition of what it is to be a nation state.

Another project of Jafri’s is Getty vs Ghana. And so basically in doing research for the previous project Maryam became really familiar with a lot of the independence day photographs that were from these national archives in different places. And so she was shocked to find a lot of the same images online licensed under big companies like Getty and Corbis. In this work she presents two photographs, one from the national archive and another from Getty or Corbis. What’s interesting in the presentation of the two photographs is that it creates a strong sense of duality. You could look at it as “Global South” vs Privatized and Corporate West, or offline vs online. But another interesting thing to note is that the digitized photos are often cropped or changed in some way. You can’t really see it well in this example. But in some other photographs from the exhibit you can see that the crowds in the background are often cropped out, or cropped so that the center of the image is on a European figure like the Dutchess of Kent rather than the figures from the actual country. It’s also funny because she had purchased rights to a lot of the archival photographs from the previous project, but found that she still had to buy the same images from Getty and Corbis. I feel like that acquisition process also speaks to the theme of the project in itself.

The last artist I want to talk about is I suppose an emerging artist named Avani Tanya. She’s from India and did a joint residency with the Delfina Foundation and The Victoria & Albert Museum, which I mentioned earlier with Sameer’s work. The theme of the residency was Collecting as Practice, and as part of the residency she had access to a lot of materials from the archives at the museum. I’m going to play a video of an interview with her that I think sets up a good context for the work that I’ll show after.   3:17

I wanted to play that not only to set up a premise for the work i’m going to show you now, which is the result of the residency, but also because I think she makes a nice draw between the more contemporary artifact of the primark jeans and the jammu kashmir shawl. So, she’s thinking about how the value of artifacts in an archive and the relationships that exist between artifacts changes over time. The work that came out of the residency was a publication entitled A Selective Guide to the V&A’s South Asia Collection. So the book features artifacts from the South Asia collection, but instead of looking to the museum for information about acquisition and other meta data around the objects, she invited her peers from the UK, India and Pakistan to share their own interpretations of and responses to the objects. She elevates that subjective response and also in a way gives agency to contemporary south asian and diasporic communities in allowing them to (re)present south asian cultural artifacts from the colonial context.

Sivanesan, Haema. “Annotations to The Museum of Found Objects: Toronto (Maharaja and-).”
“Vimeo.” Vimeo, 13 Nov. 2018,

ambiguity and classification

I am interested in the seemingly contradictory ideas of ambiguity and classification. Many of the readings this week (particularly Emily Drabinski’s piece) highlighted the idea of fluidity, or the ability for items in the archive to transcend the organizational system within they are placed, as critical in overcoming the inherent inability for a classification system to adapt well to different contexts, viewers, time periods, etc at a satisfactory level/pace. How do we design fluidity into a system that operates on the exact opposite? Although I feel Drabinski’s piece addressed the question, I don’t feel like it offered any actionable alternatives. Another idea that I see brought up throughout the readings and in the structure of both the Prelinger Library and the Cybernetics Library, is this idea of designing for serendipity. I view it as tangentially related to this question of fluidity in that they both embrace a sense of subjectivity instead of seeking unattainable objectivity. Although the Prelinger Library is technically organized by geography, I feel that the novelty of this organization principle warrants a more subjective categorization of the items in the library (in comparison to some other well-established and perhaps more granular system). But the cybernetics library is very much related to this idea of ambiguity/fluidity in that it is literally configured to change over time, and through both the actions of the librarians and the patrons.( I am still a bit unclear on the virtual component of the cybernetics library so I will leave that out of the discussion for now)

I also, had a thought about Kate Crawford’s talk when she mentions that the majority of the Faces in the Wild dataset is male and white. As someone who is neither white nor male, I’m not sure if this is a context in which I necessarily feel bad about lack of representation! My face can stay obscure haha.


Across these readings, I’ve pulled a few different threads of thought. One being, the idea of the bookshelf or ‘open/public’ intellectual furnishing as an antithesis to the black box of digital algorithms. The very structure of the shelf can be seen as a display of the classification system at large, both out of functional need and also out of a kind of moral principle. Another thread of thought is the idea that everything can be a document. How do we ‘document-ize’ or ‘shelf’ vastly different objects/data-types? The xylotheque is an amusing example because it literally ‘book-ifies’ the tree as document. And the final thread, and perhaps of most interest to me right now, the importance of ambiguity within a system, or the ability for artifacts and information to transcend the classification system within which they are placed. (“People have a limitless capacity to shake off established categories and forge previously overlooked connections between ideas.” Springfield).