Formatting Utopia, from Paul Otlet to the internet

A Workshop and Symposium at the Mundaneum
Location: Mundaneum, 76 rue de Nimy, Mons, BE  
Date: 17 November 2008, timing 13.00 - 20.00h.
Speakers: Stephanie Manfroid (BE),  De Geuzen (BE), Metahaven (NL), Sabine Niederer (NL), Joachim Schmid (DE)
Organisation: Annette Schemmel (DE) and Marjolijn Dijkman (NL) in collaboration with FRAC NPDC and the Mundaneum
Made possible by: the Conseil Régional Nord-Pas de Calais, the Ifa and the Mondriaan Foundation.

A workshop about the potentials and pitfalls of the internet and it's formats for knowledge organisation.The way information is organised and presented is influential for the way we perceive and understand the world. The Mundaneum is the result of the utopian project by Paul Otlet (1868-1944) to foster universal knowledge distribution and pacifism. - Our workshops will deal with the following questions:  How is the internet influenced by different ideologies, censorship etc.? What will happen with all the online image and data archival systems in a few years? To what extent is the 'world wide' internet realising past dreams of Paul Otlet? Which are current projects from the arts and design to realise the utopian potentials of the internet?

The Mundaneum:

The Mundaneum was created in 1910 out of the initiative of two Belgian lawyers. Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine aimed to gather together all the world's knowledge and classify it according to a system they developed called the Universal Decimal Classification. Otlet and La Fontaine organized an International Conference of International Associations which caused the creation of the Union of International Associations (UIA).

Otlet regarded the project as the centerpiece of a new 'world city' - a centrepiece which eventually became an archive with more than 12 million index cards and documents. Some consider it a forerunner of the internet and Otlet himself had dreams that one day, somehow, all the information he collected could be accessed by people from the comfort of their own homes. The Mundaneum was originally housed at the Palais du Cinquantenaire in Brussels (Belgium). The Mundaneum has since been relocated to a converted 1930s department store in Mons (Wallonia).

An English pamphlet published in 1914 contains this description:
The International Centre organises collections of world-wide importance. These collections are the International Museum, the International Library, the International Bibliographic Catalogue and the Universal Documentary Archives. These collections are conceived as parts of one universal body of documentation, as an encyclopedic survey of human knowledge, as an enormous intellectual warehouse of books, documents, catalogues and scientific objects. Established according to standardized methods, they are formed by assembling cooperative everything that the participating associations may gather or classify. Closely consolidated and coordinated in all of their parts and enriched by duplicates of all private works wherever undertaken, these collections will tend progressively to constitute a permanent and complete representation of the entire world. (Union of International Associations, 1914, p. 116).[1]

In 1934, Paul Otlet envisioned a new kind of scholar’s workstation: a moving desk shaped like a wheel, powered by a network of hinged spokes beneath a series of moving surfaces. The machine would let users search, read and write their way through a vast mechanical database stored on millions of 3×5 index cards. This new research environment would do more than just let users retrieve documents; it would also let them annotate the relationships between one another, “the connections each [document] has with all other [documents], forming from them what might be called the Universal Book.

Otlet imagined a day when users would access the database from great distances by means of an “electric telescope” connected through a telephone line, retrieving a facsimile image to be projected remotely on a flat screen. In Otlet’s time, this notion of networked documents was still so novel that no one had a word to describe these relationships, until he invented one: “links.” Otlet envisioned the whole endeavor as a great “réseau”—web—of human knowledge.

Tracks for additional information:
Designing Universal Knowledge by Gerlinde Schuller, Lars Müller Publishers 2008
Glut, mastering Information Through the Ages by Alex Wright, Washington DC, 2007
The Universe of Information.The work of Paul Otlet for Documentation and International Organisation, by W.Boyd Rayward, Moscow, 1975.

linksNY Times / Knowledge mapping

Drawing Paul Otlet

Everything in the universe, and everything of man, would be registered at a distance as it was produced. In this way a moving image of the world will be established, a true mirror of his memory. From a distance, everyone will be able to read text, enlarged and limited to the desired subject, projected on an individual screen. In this way, everyone from his armchair will be able to contemplate creation, as a whole or in certain of its parts.
- Paul Otlet (
published in "Monde" 1934)


Stéphanie Manfroid
Topic of talk: Paul Otlet: Network and Knowledge
Keywords: UDC/ Encyclopaedia/ Universal Knowledge/ International movement for Peace with Knowledge.

De Geuzen

Topic of Talk and Presentation: Image Tracer, Global Anxiety Monitor
Keywords: list, live browsing, query, tracing, memory, monument to the now, data archeology, narrative archiving, image ecology, public repository.
Exhibitions and workshops have come to operate as temporary framing devices and places for speculation with different publics. Characterizing what we do as research, contextualizes our practice out of the traditional object model of artmaking. It implies that our practice is durational. The multi-visual aspect refers to the fact that we don’t privilege any given medium. Depending on the nature of the project, we use different visual strategies to engage our audience in issues we’re interested in.
Installation Global Anxiety Monitor
Screenshot Image Tracer (in collaboration with Tsila Hassine)


Presentation of Exodvs: Multipolar Search (Vinca Kruk, Gon Zifroni)
Keywords: (corporate) identity, politics, history, aesthetics, resistance, cryptography, branding, iconography, heraldry, disappearance, empire, conspiracy
Metahaven (Vinca Kruk, Daniel van der Velden) is a studio for critical graphic design with a focus on visual identity. From research projects, such as the Sealand Identity Project (2004), Museum of Conflict (2006), and Quaero (2007), the group has moved into installation making and speculative design projects, such as Affiche Frontière (CAPC musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux, 2008), Stadtstaat (Künstlerhaus Stuttgart and Casco Utrecht, 2009) and Manifesta 8 (Murcia and Cartagena, 2010). Metahaven also produces commissioned work for clients, such as the Antennae paperback series for publishing house Valiz. Metahaven’s work has been included in various group exhibitions. Their book Uncorporate Identity was published in 2010 by Lars Müller.

Exodvs explores a strategy for web search tentatively called a 'research engine'. The project emerged out of a conference on search engines called the Forum on Quaero, which has taken place in Fall 2007. Search engines often simply reward the accumulation of linkage of a site by increasing its visibility in the search results, resulting in more linkage and relevance. The Exodvs search strategy attempts to expose the gaps, or 'structural holes', which exist between spheres of information (heavily linked networks separated by non-linkage, or, alternatively: held together by self-referentiality). Exodvs attempts to highlight those sites that bridge gaps by linking to multiple spheres. The present works are drafts for a visualization of this web architecture; a series of  prototypes based on different search queries. The separations and connections these lead to when combined with much more specific subqueries – which account for semantic separations or contextual value given to words – are shown here. Exodvs is the compound name for a 'research engine' into algorithms and visual strategies for searching the internet, revealing the structural properties of web content and its inherent distribution of influence. 
A first run of queries, around 'Europe', produced gaps between various definitions and values of Europe as different spheres hold them in common. This piece was produced as part of ISEA2008, International Electronic Arts Festival Singapore, August 2008. A second run of queries was run around 'Karadzic', and produced as part of a publication for the Pancevo Biennial, Serbia, September 2008.

Exodvs, Metahaven

Sabine Niederer
Topic of talk: Wikipedia and the Vigilance of Crowds
Keywords: wikipedia, technicity of content, wisdom of crowds
Sabine Niederer is the managing director of the Institute of Network Cultures. In January 2008 she has started her PhD research at the University of Amsterdam, Mediastudies, new media. Before joining the INC in 2004 she worked as a producer and curator of international events on new media, arts and digital culture, such as Hoogt 4 (2001-2004) and Level Up Games Conference (2003). In 2002 she earned her MA from Utrecht University, where she studied art history, and new media and digital culture. Sabine has taught media and design theory, is a freelance curator of art and new media projects such as Impakt Online, and publishes regularly on new media, art and popular culture. As a researcher, she is affiliated with the Amsterdam-based Digital Methods Initiative.

Joachim Schmid
Reload Currywurst, Photo Sharing: You Can Eat Your Sausage and Have It, Too
Virtually everybody is a photographer today, and it is rather obvious that the exponentially growing quantity has turned into the foremost quality of photography. The number of photographs that are taken every minute will continue increasing - and that's maybe one of the very few things we can predict with reasonable certainty. The talk is concerned with photography in the age of digital mass entertainment and online photo sharing. Photo hosting websites such as Flickr have turned into the biggest image pool that was ever accumulated in the history of mankind. For the first time, a substantial portion of the photographic production is accessible for a general audience. Photography has started to play a new multifaceted role as a social networking tool. The talk explores this ongoing change emphasizing one particular motive: Currywurst.

Joachim Schmid (* 1955) studied Visual Communication in Schwäbisch Gmuend and Berlin. He  lives in Berlin and has been working with found photographs since the early 1980s. In 1990 he founded the „Institut zur Wiederaufbereitung von Altfotos“ (The Institute for the Reprocessing of Used Photographs). His works have been shown internationally in solo and group exhibitions. His publications include „Erste allgemeine Altfotosammlung“ (1991), „Bilder von der Strasse“ ( 1994), „Very Miscellaneous“ (1997), „Sinterklaas ziet alles“ (1998), „A meeting on holiday“ (2003), „Belo Horizonte, Praça Rui Barbosa“ (2004), and „Photoworks 1982–2007" (2007). His work is included in numerous collections, including the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, Daelim Contemporary Art Museum, Seoul, Fonds National d‘Art Contemporain, Paris, Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris, Museo de arte contemporánea de Vigo, Museum Folkwang, Essen, Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.