The ubiquitous museum. An interview with James Burke

Jame Burke at work in the Volkskrantgebouw, Amsterdam

Jame Burke at work in the Volkskrantgebouw, Amsterdam

Juha van ‘t Zelfde > Who are you and what do you do?

James Burke > Presently, Narb consists of Tijs Teulings and James Burke. I’m a former chef who became an interaction designer across a number of different fields. I’m mainly known as one of the guys behind the Roomware project and separately also a founding member of the P2P Foundation where i’m still an editor. Recently i’ve been involved with the push here in the Netherlands to open up government data, working with then Ministry of Internal Affairs. My daily freelance work is interaction design for web and physical spaces which is often for events. Tijs works as a freelance web developer and architect, founded portfolio service and is co-founder of the Roomware project which he and I started together with Robert Gaal. Tijs also runs his office as a co-working space under the moniker of Nomadz.

What is Narb?

If you Google “Narb”, you’ll find a description which says “Narb – People Filtered Art. Discover, discuss and collect art online”. We’re essentially an art discovery site with social features. We list exhibitions that are currently showing, much like any magazine or art listing site, but add tools for filtering and discussion to help people find new art that’s exciting and makes them want to get up off their ass and visit a gallery or museum. After they have found what they want to see, we give them a way to interact via comments, ratings and by letting them gather art pieces as virtual goods to form a collection. We also created an iPhone app, and a mobile website to allow for these kinds of interactions right in front of art itself at any gallery or museum. Leaving an exhibition, people can keep track of where they went, what they said and find out what other insightful people have also written about art works. Aside from what’s been mentioned, people can also submit venues and exhibitions for coverage, and take photographs via the iPhone app, which then get added to the exhibition they are in. But NARB is not just for visitors, it also offers some interesting new things for galleries and museums.

A big part of our mission is to make art more accessible. We built an API which helps cultural institutions to reuse and republish the information about the exhibitions they are hosting and the art they are presenting. We want to enable mashups of art (data), both useful and useless. One way we use the API ourselves is for helping create room-based interactions on screens inside art venues. The screens show live feedback as people add comments, upload images, add art pieces to their collections or rate art objects. Theoretically you could put a screen in each room of a museum or gallery and show feedback for only the works showing there. While tools like an API might not be for everyone, curators get a new toolset to tinker with, in respect to experimenting with public participation. For the less adventurous, or technically inclined curator or museum educator, we simply offer new insights into the experience of their visitors through direct feedback and nice colorful stats.

How was Narb received on the Rotterdam Museum Night?

Mixed. Significant downloads for the iPhone app and site visits, but commenting on art and collections was light. Less than we had hoped at least. Especially in relation to the visitor numbers. We have a lot of work ahead of us still.

What did you learn: what went well, what went wrong?

What went well for us was finally launching after working for the last 5 months building the prototype. It was really important to just get going in a big way. So we got quite a lot of new users and lots of great reactions from people who love the concept. Downsides were that commenting, rating and collecting got light usage. Here are a few theories as to why this might be so.

The user experience
Our user experience was probably not good enough. Perhaps people could not find how to comment or rate art easily enough. Equally they might not have understood what the service was about at all.

The environment
15,000 people showed up, tickets were all pre-sold out, which means all venues were full to capacity. What does that do to your art experience? Perhaps the human density factor squashed out use of social media. People were clumped together, so, where in small gallery you would usually see one or two people it was like an art opening but with double the crowd. Not sure if there is a statistic that can be applied to crowd density but this should be a consideration. Noise. The atmosphere was often like a party rather than the quiet reflective space needed for opinion forming, although it should be stated, not everywhere.

We were presented as part of an art piece called RE:ID . We’re mates with the artist and helped him with his set-up for museum night. Our service was mentioned always in combination with RE:ID which might have been confusing to visitors. The same on the website. On the mobile page, the museum night staff placed a mobile version of their website next to our applications. We were never hidden, so these are all small things. We also did not set up any public screens at the event so visitors maybe had less motivation to comment as they would not immediately see their feedback as a form of public presentation or performance amongst a group of friends.

All the things that failed to work as we had expected did also offer hints as to how to solve them though, so that’s what we’re trying to do in upcoming releases of the iPhone app and website.

What is your next step with Narb?

We’re in talks with several museums to cover their entire shown collection, so visitors will see more gentle reminders to add feedback at the venues themselves. We’re working on some new ways to get users off their seats and into galleries and museums. We also want to refine how to improve our experience for festivals as they are a different type of event where we think we only just dipped our feet in the water. At the same time the website and iPhone app need continued improvement. Follow the @narbme twitter stream which is where we officially declare new features and updates to our services.

Could you tell me something about Roomware?

Sure. Roomware was an idea that became something practical, a framework for interactive spaces. We wanted to bring the best of the web into physical spaces but we found it was hopelessly complicated to do back in 2006, so we built a simple server that handles the hard stuff of creating cool apps using wireless protocols like bluetooth, RFID and Wifi. You tell the roomware server what you want to use, for instance, add a bluetooth module. What it does then is detect all bluetooth devices in a space and publish these as an XML feed. This makes it easy for developers building an application that uses bluetooth to re-use the XML feed. You can find a few examples on the Roomware Project blog.

The server is totally open source and can be downloaded from our code repository. It’s a modular structure which presently is in need of some care and developers. At this time of writing we support Bluetooth and RFID. We also support zoning, meaning you can run multiple Roomware servers across multiple locations which lets you get really specific with what’s going on where.

The seeds for doing something with Roomware were probably sown when I used to be a chef at the original Supperclub in Amsterdam where you were a chef but also a kind of artist or active participant. It was 1998-2000 which was the period when mobile phones started appearing. While crazily and passionately cooking there , I started thinking about what kind of participative experiences could be made if the phones of people we all connected in some way and able to control shit in general or form something in a theatrical storyline. I was playing around with microphones at that time, recording what people were saying, as I had a computer in the kitchen and then replaying overhead conversations back through the main speakers. This proved lame mainly as I was too busy cooking to really dig into creating something worthwhile. It ended with me more or less only cooking, while friends asked into kitchen were playing music and recording dumb samples of the cooking instruments and integrating these into the performance.

What can be the role of new media in physical space?

Err.. thanks for asking that annoying question as it’s one of those massive wide open ones that can fill a whole book. There are a couple of them already well written that address this question with withering insight, for instance, Everyware by Adam Greenfield and Shaping Things by Bruce Sterling. Recommended reading for those of you with passing knowledge of this space; or better, required reading.

Just apply what ubiquitous computing can mean to every area of life. To the home, to work, to museum spaces. If it’s the latter, in line with this interview, then think about what you can do with augmented realitycustom electronics and Roomware-like services bringing objects with all their magical spimeyness at microscopic and global view into play. Think about what’s possible if you were to use some of these tools to power new forms of participatory art and cultural expression. It’s about new ways of interacting with computers, not beige box computers but all-knowing hidden-in-the-wall led-light-studded computing modules that can be scary and dangerous but exciting too.

The role of these new-fangled media if you will is to make our lives a bit easier without being annoying or scary.

Thank you James.

This interview was conducted via e-mail on 23 March 2009. Disclaimer: the interviewer is a member of the advisory board of Roomware project and Narb. Both Roomware project and Narb will be deployed in De Verdieping.