On the cover of the catalog for Raid the Icebox 1 with Andy Warhol is a photograph Warhol took in 1969 in the storage area of the RISD Museum. The image presents a member of the facilities staff, half-flanked by the painting he is holding. The painting is dimly lit and the man looks unaware that he is a part of the photograph. Though you do not see his hand touching the object it looks as though he is holding it from behind, possibly even propping it on his face. This difficult-to-read interaction comprises this strange and fascinating photograph. This image and others I found in the database are what drew me to ask the question at the basis for my work on Raid the Database 1 with Natalja Kent: What touches the art collections at the RISD Museum?
Through exploring the publically unseen layers of the RISD Museum’s digital repository, I uncovered many fascinating files: photographs of the construction of a room-sized moon or the bathing of an ancient Greek statue, Male Figure in the Guise of Hermes, in a claw-foot tub, for example, or an intimate sound recording of a curator describing a Greek statue they have studied for decades. I noticed that by “peeking behind the curtain” of the Museum’s collections, I was able to find images that described the unseen lives of artworks and aspects of their context within the collection. By focusing on touch, I found a break from the most common ways of interacting with art—viewing it, on guarded display, from a distance. In these files, objects of cultural heritage literally come off of their pedestals, out of their cases, and into human hands. They are housed, moved, supported, and repaired. Viewing the image of the Greek statue being bathed, I suddenly recognized the ephemerality of the works. Touching signifies that every object in the collection has its own arc of life or timeline and is not impervious to decay, as with all material forms.
Then I began to consider the arc of the database as its own form of materiality. I imagined the digital repository as a Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, with many drawers to open and layers to dig through. However, the objects in the “layers” seemed out of reach to me—these bits of information could never be held. The screen on the computer represented the locked glass cabinet door.
It was then that I began to shift my thinking of what touching an object in the collection could mean. Not only was I finding images of artworks themselves being touched by Museum staff, tools, or other objects, I began to experiment with blending files/data themselves, visualizing data “touching.” This could be a possible outcome of time, corruption, or intended manifestation of the materiality of the database. I worked with a series of complicated digital-image manipulation tools and processes to engage with the images of the RISD Museum collection and behind-the-scenes processes I found in the database. I processed a flawed image in an automated photograph stacking program. I tried to imagine bit rot (the process of data degradation over time) through random image-information loss. I mimicked various color and image palettes I often use in Photoshop for my work, in this case to describe the unseen layers of image manipulation. I also worked to echo these tools and processes themselves through direct object representation in the collection, by inserting references to them. My variable and serpentine process looped in and around its own manifestation as I used archived materials and concurrently pulled images directly from the RISD Museum website to combine the two back into what appear to be original archived files. Through these processes, touching became a sphere of possibility rather than being limited to the linear representation in the images I sourced.
Digitization in museum culture is a newly forming terrain teeming with materials, systems, and problems. A century ago, archivists were hand-drawing likenesses of objects in the collection or writing flourishing descriptions of the works for documentation purposes.
Today, digital museum photography can be zoomed-in to reveal the fiber of a paper or each strand of a brushstroke in a painting. The repositories are growing and the data is monstrous. What are we going to do with this data? Answers to this question are as vast. Similarly, the interpretations of the work I have done on Raid the Database are infinitely open. Appropriation, curation, and manipulation are all aspects of this project, though they do not limit the potential discourse. This writing serves as a vehicle for describing process and perspective, though it is the role of the viewer to consider what questions arise in their own reading of the material.