Outside Space: On Digital Wunderkammers

IMG_20190812_164112585_HDRAugust, Switzerland.

I.

Can a chamber of curiosities exist outside the confinement of its constructed walls?

What do we aim for when we try to encapsulate our wonders? What do we frame, and why?

How do digital spaces influence the way we archive our lives?

collect – curate – exhibit

IMG_20190914_192943529September, London.

II.

A part of the objective of a Wunderkammer seems to be the display of an ability to domesticise the wild world outside of it. This achievement is proudly shared with a selected audience. In earlier times these would often be displays of wealth or power, or with a scientific purpose. At the same time, away from wealth and diplomacy and public display, these are personal archives. The chamber of curiosities can function as a library of objects, meaningful for the owner of the room for many reasons. From this perspective, its function is closely linked to that of the archive and archival practices.

Anyone probably has, in some sense, an archive of their life. Our bookcase shows what we have read, or what we want to read, a box in an attic safely holds drawings made up of some coloured lines that – with squinted eyes – make up a house, proudly signed with a squiggly name. These carefully assembled collections are now silently accompanied by much larger archives, digital, both on- and offline. Robert Gehl discusses one of these in his article “Youtube as Archive.” In its subtitle, Gehl calls the website a ‘digital Wunderkammer.’ The piece discusses the internet platform in terms of the way it functions as an archive, its contents selected by the users who “upload any media object they find important.” The content that is created on the website is devoid of any specific context, surrounded by other video clips. When shared on other platforms, however, the pieces from the archive are curated and contextualised by other web users.

Where in the digital domain does the Wunderkammer exist? Is the mere fact of accessibility, of display, enough to declare a space one of curiosity? It might be that found objects only become wonders when they are presented by someone who already wonders about them, who contextualises them. On the other hand, the digital space allows anyone with access to create stories from the plethora of content that can be found there.

IMG_20191018_142431065_HDROctober, Guildford.

III.

I try to apply a practice of wonder to my own archive, probably shaped similar to that of anyone reading this: the countless folders on my hard disk, containing pictures of past lives. The original outset of this article was to create awareness of the wonders that are impossible to capture in matter, but the emergence of photography even confounds that principle. Maybe the most useful thing to do is to become aware of the Wunderkammers we have created for ourselves, that have expanded without us noticing. If our phones serve as means to collect and archive the images we deem important, a way to curate the world we live in, what do our collections say about our lives? What material do we retain and how do they influence the memories we have today? The stories we have created on social media, the published part of our archives, are probably different from those we store in our private collections. Do those, too, need reassessment?

IMG_20191027_174819226October, Lelystad.

IV.

The pictures published as part of this story are not curious at all, for me. I hope they silently represent the mundane, and my fascination with it. But the act of collecting and contextualising transform them. Mediation accumulates meaning. Perhaps it is important to evaluate our own practices of archival and display.

If you have, and want to share one of your curated collections with me (or the world, by authorising publication on this website), please send an email to paratextmag@gmail.com. There are two months left to share and muse upon our wonders, in whatever form you have archived them. I look forward to your response.

– Robin van den Brule

IMG_20191101_165710084November, Ashover.

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