This text was written for Timo Demollin’s solo exhibition ‘Constant Continuity’ at Punt WG Amsterdam 2017.
Before writing the mark up for the museum’s website, the developer drew up a grid with boxes inside of it. Each box is a container again, for placeholder images and “Lorum Ipsum” paragraphs. Later on, they will be replaced by the actual content retrieved from the database. The grid exemplifies the mise en abyme of HO2006/1-169, a segment of the museum’s collection consisting of 168 boxed artefacts, stored on shelves inside the museum depot. His grid helped the developer to lay the foundation for a code that frames HO2006/1-169 in a digital display. His code becomes a distribution system that covers the space in between the database and the public.
The developer needs to decide what names to give to the boxes in his grid. This is important, as some elements in code language are more semantic than others. A <header> element for example, differs from a <div> in the way that both the browser and the developer know what the <header> might be, and where it goes on the page. A <div> can be anything. If the developer would only use non-semantic elements, the Internet would become an exclusive encounter of hypertext documents interpreted by browsers. They would only be displaying arbitrary content to the user, beyond the developer’s control. The reusable and general <div> — short for division — doesn’t seem like an attractive choice. A <header> mimics the top of a page, whereas a <div> is self-referential and difficult to control. It makes the <header> more likely to appear on a museum’s website than a <div>. Should the developer go with the semantic option, it would reflect the bureaucratic systems of the institution, and enhance the authorship that the museum has tried to avoid. In digital and physical realms of the museum, semantic or meaningful distribution systems became prejudiced devices that broadcast the argument that cultural objects are important enough to maintain.
The <div> on the other hand, has a voice of its own, communicating all kinds of potential meanings, going around the institution’s preferred frame. But even the <div> doesn’t leave the object untouched. Whether the developer choses the specific arrangement of the museum or an unspecified one, every distribution of HO2006/1-169 exposes it to a reckless moment that challenges its current condition: when a museum’s data is siphoned off little by little, the experience is always transformative.
Our relationships with objects are built displacement upon displacement, until the illusion of some sort of coherent trajectory rises in our minds. In the case of HO2006/1-169, the object travelled between exhibition spaces in wooden frames that divide the imagery into pragmatic segments, matching the dimensions of the truck for efficient transportation. Upon their arrival, the pieces were carefully re-edited onto the museum walls before showing them to an audience. This process of singling out and joining back together reminds of the tray in which the objects from the database are collected and delivered at the front office. The tray is part of an automated storage and retrieval system, commonly used in warehousing logistics but a relative novelty in museums. It’s easy to see why its use is appealing for museums, as it maximizes storage space and cleverly replaces the human hand. But as a consequence of reducing personal involvement, this system doesn’t raise self-critical questions, nor does it reflect on its raison d’être. Instead, it preserves the storage room as much as it fails to carry it over into the future. It’s a high-tech futuristic system, used for an ancient principle of preservation. This discord between preservation and neglect is further amplified by the very nature of the inventory itself: HO2006/1-169 is a set of woodblocks — now muted objects, once turning every printed copy into a representation of the referents. In prints, the narrative is cut from the object and travels in unexpected ways, without supervision of the institution.
This confronts the developer with a difficult task. If he starts to feel like he is losing control, the museum will fear that things might disappear, which is exactly what can happen to H02006/1-169. It can withdraw from the public after boxing up on itself. Its audience will be redirected to representations, mediated by tangible and digital containers within the museum’s infrastructure.
It is in moments of temporal meaninglessness, like the developer’s grid, that the question emerges whether we should spend so much time defending the value of semantic, meaningful elements, at the cost of the non-semantic, meaningless ones. Why do we assume that title cards stick closer to the meaning of the object than inventory numbers, when all language, coded or not, is a trace of a calculated move? Every conversion from one domain into another can have a transformative effect on the narrative of an object. And if that is the case, it becomes impossible to store and retrieve without acknowledging the possibility of deception and recovery; of meaning lost and gained in every kind of transfer.