Invisible Australians

In the early twentieth century, Australia wanted to be identified as, “the white man’s country”. This pursuit involved many racist tactics and propaganda erasing those identified as “non-white” from the country’s narrative. The Australian government incorporated large-scale oppressive policies on Non-European immigrants and Indigenous Australians that monitored their every move. The Invisible Australians project was created to give a voice to the many Australians that faced these discriminatory laws and policies that denied them the full liberties and rights of their white Australian counterparts.

The project uses the same documentation that was once used to surveillance the lives of immigrants and indigenous Australians, to share their stories. Using facial detection software, Tim Sherratt and Kate Bagnall extracted thousands of portraits from Certificates of Exemption from the Dictation Test, Certificates of Domicile and other associated forms (CEDT) all found on the National Archives of Australia’s RecordSearch database. Sherratt shares in  the real face of white australia the strenuous job of checking each portrait and removing duplicates. However, since the face detection extracted from a wide range of government documents and the Australian government kept several copies of the forms, many duplicates are still on the website. ( In my own search, I found three duplicates within ten minutes of browsing portraits)

There are a few other things I noticed while perusing the site to learn more about these amazing people. First, the site consists of predominately male portraits. There are women and children also present in the gallery, but very few compared to the plethora of male faces. Second, there is no particular order of the portraits. Not sure what was the intent of having the images randomized. Furthermore, I’m very interested in understanding why Sherratt and Bagnall chose to only focus on documents approved by Collectors of Customs? The overview of this project speaks on the discriminatory policies placed on Indigenous Australians, not just non-European immigrants. Still, the only records used for this project are from ST84/1, a series of immigration-related travel approvals. Lastly, the site may not provide user-generated contributions, but the overview does provide fun instructions on different ways to navigate through the gallery of portraits. “Reverse the order simply by adding‘?order=reverse’ to the url. You can also browse file by file by adding ‘?order=file’ I attempted both instructions and could not tell the significance of modifying my url. The order still appeared random and in no particular order.

Invisible Australians is a captivating project. Using the very documents that once restricted people of their liberties, is now the very tool to share their stories. It’s important to note that Sherratt states this project is, “ not an exhibit, it’s a finding aid.” The portraits are used to reel the user into wanting to learn more about these people. Each portrait is a small glimpse into the unnecessary monitoring many people had to endure under the Australian government’s authority.

Curation and Organization of Digital Archives

            “Big Data, Little Narration” is a transcript on digital archives and presentation by Dragan Espenschied, who defines himself as an “electronic musician and internet artist.”  

In the transcript, Espenschied discusses the differences between performance and activity, with performance being the thing that the computer does, and the activity being what the user does. However, somewhere between the two, Espenschied highlights that there can often be a disconnect. In demonstrating this, the author uses a visualization of a globe that shows users popular search terms from a certain location at a certain date (At least I think that’s what it does? There site is now down). The visualization is comparable to automated search terms or Google Maps. However, when users try to make sense of the information, such as by determining why a term was popular at a certain point in time, they are relying on pure assumption, which can lead to inaccuracies.

            To avoid this, archivists and researchers have to have a method of organization to their database. There has to be a purpose or a point to displaying information in the way that they do, rather than just posting it (not doing so would be like spreading physical artifacts on a table and telling visitors to figure it out). By doing so, users are better able to draw the lines between the “performance” and the “activity.”  

            However, it’s important to acknowledge that the internet is constantly evolving. The way that websites look, for example, are extremely different than what they looked like 10 years ago. As such, digital collections can be reorganized in order to provide users with more information. Espenschied gives the example of Artbase, which originally was a crowdsourced website where users could post their own art. Now, it is heavily curated, with introductions and categories, which provide users with more information and room for new interpretations. I assume, that this also means that someone had to go back to earlier posts and categorize them.

            However, an interesting point that the author brings up is whether updating or republishing artifacts that are native to the internet is a threat to the authenticity of the artifacts. For example, if an artist makes a graphic for Windows 5, is it right for curators or archivists to republish the graphic for Windows 10, even if Windows 5 no longer works for the art? Is it the responsibility of curators to find a Windows 5 computer to display the art properly? What if the artist does not have a say in the matter, but not doing so would risk the preservation of the graphic? What about historians or researchers republishing the artifact online for a new interpretation? Is that a threat to the artifact’s authenticity?

            Lastly, Espenschied emphasizes the importance of context in preservation. You can’t simply say “follow this link for more information,” because what if that link stops working? Something that I think is always important to consider is that you can never expect users to click on that link in the first place.

Exploring interactive storytelling with Theresa Duncan’s CD-ROMs

How well do you remember your earliest encounters with digital interactive storytelling? Rhizome, a website that preserves and celebrates born-digital art, and the New Museum have put some of the earliest examples of this art form up online as part of the exhibition First Look: New Art Online. Among these are Theresa Duncan’s 1990s CD-ROMs—per Rhizome, “three videogames that exemplified interactive storytelling at its very best.”

Thanks to the use of an embedded emulator, these three games—1995’s Chop Suey, 1996’s Smarty, and 1997’s Zero Zero—are available to play online now. Studying them reveals [something].

The webpage discusses the origins of these CD-ROMs, which began as the products of a partnership between Theresa Duncan and Monica Lynn Gesue while the pair were working at Magnet Interactive here in Georgetown. Gesue had been inspired by Richard Scarry’s Busytown, a CD-ROM game that I also played as a kid and which I personally still think about on an almost-daily basis (specifically the ship-building game that you can watch in the video I just linked, still the peak of gaming for me) to use the CD-ROM medium to create a “moving storybook.” After Chop Suey, Duncan and Gesue’s collaboration ended, but Duncan went on to work with other developers to create Smarty and Zero Zero, which are in a very similar vein as their predecessor, artistically and story-wise.

The games themselves are best studied as pieces of art, rather than as video games by modern standards. Playing Chop Suey today, you can sense a lineage between it and the narrative-heavy, aesthetically rich, and strategy-light genre pejoratively referred to as the “walking simulator.” In a typical modern game, like Skyrim, you’re completing quests and progressing on a storyline that requires you to do magic and shoot arrows and fight bears and that sort of thing. In a “walking simulator,” you’re…walking. There’s a narrative arc, but you’re not making it, you’re discovering it. Rather than playing an active and decisive role in the story, you’re exploring the world of the game and letting the developer tell you a story. “Walking simulator” isn’t a term that gets used by people who like this type of experience; make of this what you will, but many gamer-types will charge that they aren’t really games.

Looking back at video game history with games like Theresa Duncan’s establishes an important continuity for these kinds of artistic storytelling experiences in video games. A more recent entry into this lineage, 2013’s Gone Home, in which players simply explore the protagonist’s family’s home and use the things they find to piece together an understanding of what has recently gone on with the family, was denigrated by some as a “walking simulator,” because really, you’re just walking through a house and opening drawers and such. But Gone Home also sparked a critical discussion of video games as art for its rich, complex, and layered narrative. Playing Chop Suey, I came to see it as something of a forebear to Gone Home and games like it—sure, you don’t get to build a ship like you do in Busy Town, but the game offers you a storybook and the opportunity to explore it however you like, to have a subjective and nuanced aesthetic and narrative experience. Imagine if you could crawl inside a painting. It’s more like that.

Beyond their legacy in modern video game development, there’s a lot to be said about Theresa Duncan’s games. All three feature female protagonists and were made mainly for young girls—generally not the most catered-to demographic in the games industry. They’re also magnificently inventive and more than a bit bizarre. Rhizome’s writeup of the games discusses this surrealism in the games’ visuals and audio cues quite extensively, but it’s kind of hard to really get it until you give the games a try for yourself. In my playthrough of Chop Suey, the following things happened to me.

I innocently clicked on a bush and was greeted by this beatnik firefly, who recited a bug-centric parody of Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl.” There is not an option to get out of this situation once you are in it. You are just listening to the bug poem now. His audience is invisible but receptive.
I innocently clicked on a photo and was greeted by a dreamlike, cereal-centric, recursive smorgasbord of figurative language.
I innocently clicked on a house (sensing a pattern?) and was greeted by this completely non-interactive tableau of a seedy-looking witch stirring a stew of frankly unbothered child in a cauldron.

The games are just like this. You get to explore, and what you find is generally quite otherworldly and at times confusing. Of course, that’s entirely the fun of it, and that’s also part of what makes it hold up so well. We’ve found a million ways to improve on Mystery House—we have better graphics, the opportunity to tell more robust stories and the space to do it in, inventive mechanics for crafting better mystery games, and at the very least, we have capabilities for writing text adventures that recognize a greater wealth of commands and objects. If you want a better horror game or if you want a better mystery, there are now myriad options that you will find significantly less frustrating; people playing Mystery House now are more likely doing it for the novelty of it or for its historic value. But games like Chop Suey, Smarty, and Zero Zero hold up well because they can be enjoyed precisely as they once were meant to be enjoyed: as fantastical storybooks open to the player’s exploration.

Playing Theresa Duncan’s CD-ROM games today isn’t just a thought-provoking look into the history of video games or a look at the lineage of video games as art and the “walking simulator” genre. It’s also a means to a fun, aesthetically rich, and surreal interactive storytelling experience! Do give them a go. It’s wonderful that they’ve been preserved for play using the emulators on Rhizome’s site—keeping that little bit of video game history accessible is crucial for keeping it alive.

The Benefit of Bots: What they tell us about exhibitions and social protests

A bot is an automated application, usually on social media, which performs a specific, repetitive task. Doing a cursory search on the Internet provided me with some important context for Mark Sample and Steven Lubar’s blog posts. There are a lot of different bots out there, many of which give bots a bad reputation. They can be used for spamming purposes, in automated network attacks, political campaigns, or to post comments designed to deliberately inflame users. But they can also be used for more benign purposes: to order pizza from Dominos, to answer questions on commercial websites, and to find discounts on eBay.

Sample and Lubar’s posts explore two types of benign twitter bots. For those of you who are twitter-illiterate (like me), twitter bots are automated twitter accounts that can perform simple actions like tweeting, retweeting, and messaging.


In Museumbots: An Appreciation, Lubar shares his thoughts on the value of museumbots. These bots randomly select and post objects from a museum’s collection several times a day. While seeing cool historical objects on your news feed is interesting, it is not what makes these bots so illuminating. It is what these objects say about choice.

Most posts are random objects that seem odd and unlikely to represent the Metropolitan Museum.

The seemingly randomness of the objects shown by the bots are actually more representative of the museum’s collection than the objects displayed for public consumption.  Museums make choices that influence which objects in the collection the public sees. They have to consider what is appropriate to the public or dealers; what the curator and conservator expect; what is in the budget; what fits in the space. The public also engages in choice. They decide which exhibits to visit based a map of the museum; what is advertised; what catches their attention.

“[I]t does an excellent job of making clear the differences between what’s at the museum, and what I see on display.”

It is the randomness of the bots that reveal choice, something that we take for granted.  These museumbots disclose SOME of those choices. But wouldn’t it be cool if a bot existed that could reveal the choices curators make when they purchase new collections? Or reveal items that have been removed from the museum?

Protest Bots

Mark Sample explores another type of bot: the protest bot or “a computer program that reveals the injustice and inequality of the world and imagines alternatives.”

What makes a twitterbot a “bot of conviction” with a message “so specific you can’t mistake it for bullshit”? Sample lists the five characteristics shared by all bots of conviction.

  1. Topical – they speak to recent news stories and current events.
  2. Data-based – they rely on reliable research, statistics, etc.
  3. Cumulative – their true message is revealed in the aggregate.
  4. Oppositional – they take a stand.
  5. Uncanny – they reveal the hidden or hide the obvious.

What a Bot of Conviction is Not: @TwoHeadlinesand @TheHigherDead

@TwoHeadlines is topical and data-driven, but not cumulative or opposition. There is no theme inherent in the accumulated tweets and they do not reflect or take a stance on the news itself.

@TheHigherDead is oppositional, uncanny, and topical, but is not data-driven as it doesn’t use actual news of ed-tech blogs.

What does a bot of conviction look like in practice?

 @ClearCongress is a great example of a protest bot. It retweets members of Congress and redacts parts of their tweet based on their current congressional approval rating. It’s topical, gathers information from polling data and congressional accounts, and hides what should be visible. When seen together, the tweets reveal the disconnect between Congress and their constituents and the uselessness of Congress in general.

@congressedits, which has recently been suspended, and @NSA_PRISMbot are two other examples.

Sample himself created “a bot of consolation and conviction” called @NRA_Tallyin response to a 2014 shooting near the UC-Santa Barbara campus. It creates headlines for imagined mass shootings, followed by a fictional NRA response.

Each tweet contains a number between 4 and 35, victims drawn from historical record, a location based on historical sites of mass shootings, a type of firearm that has been used in mass shootings in the US, and a response from the NRA which mimics rhetorical statements made after mass shootings.

@NRA_Tally is an example of what Sample calls tactical media “that engages in a ‘micropolitics of disruption, intervention, and education.’” It strips the NRA’s of their main tactic for shutting down the gun control debate, namely accusing those who talk about it of politicizing the victim’s deaths. In this case, there are no real victims. It momentarily unsettles the gun control debate and instead focuses on the weapon itself.

For @NRA_Tally and protest bots in general, it is the persistence of the bot that makes it powerful. “[T]his is a bot that doesn’t back down and cannot cower and will tweet for as long as I let it.”  

Both Lubar and Sample demonstrate two ways that bots can be used to draw attention to certain issues: the way we collect and exhibit historical objects and they way we use can use bots in social protests. What do you think are the benefits of turning over our interpretations and exhibitions to machines? What are the downsides?  

Absences and Opportunities

Sheila Brennan’s 2012 talk “Getting to the Stuff: Digital Cultural Heritage Collections, Absence, and Memory” provides a thought-provoking look into the digital practices of history museums and makes a strong case for why history museums should be doing more to make their collections (specifically objects) accessible online. When it comes to historical research and interpretation, Brennan states, “Non-textual sources found in museums—and elsewhere—work to inform us of stories absent or obscured in textual records.” The potential to address archival and narrative silences should be motivation enough for museums to provide more open access to their collections. In Brennan’s view, however, there is also enormous potential for digitized collections to engage non-scholarly audiences in thinking critically about history. By not making their collections digitally accessible, museums not only “contribute to a perceived absence of sources” available for historical research and interpretation, they are also missing out on an opportunity to contextualize objects in a way that offers robust, educational insight into the historical process.

Brennan’s discussion of publicly addressing “the murkiness of historical interpretation,” as well as ways that museums might facilitate exploration (of different perspectives, of different lenses for interpreting evidence), immediately brought to mind an earlier course reading that laid out scholarly primitives for history. It made me wonder if there are any good models among existing online museum collections that engage users in examining the historical process (of selecting, synthesizing, arranging, and contextualizing sources to communicate an account of the past).

In analyzing the digital practices of museums, Brennan has been particularly interested in the “meaning-making” opportunities that museums provide online. For Brennan, meaning-making can happen through online access to collections, online exhibitions, resources for educators, and participatory initiatives (such as citizen history and transcription projects). What other ways, or through what other types of resources, might museum websites help users make meaning?

Ultimately, Brennan’s key question is: “Why not use the capacity of an online environment to share more objects and demonstrate the ways to answer historical questions using a variety of sources?”

Perhaps (hopefully) in 2019 we can move from questioning, “Why not…?” to “How might we…?”

On that note, I also wonder how different Brennan’s “State of History Museums” survey would look today. To what extent have institutions taken her recommendations around providing open access; promoting the importance of material culture; creating multi-layered, contextualized digital experiences around objects; and inviting outside stakeholders to contribute and participate in the process of creating and delivering historical content?

Have you seen any particularly strong examples of museum websites advancing this important work?