Date Materiality

The expanded presence and impact of data, and arrival of so-called Big Data, has become an accepted, background feature of contemporary life. But while data clearly matters, the question arising now is: just how does data come to ‘matter’? What are the sometimes unseen material infrastructures that bring data into being, into circulation and into action? What are the social and political structures, policies and institutions through which data comes to have effects? And what might it mean to think about data – as suggested by Sarah Pink and others – as ‘broken’: as always already implicated in ordinary processes of maintenance and repair?

Data Materiality – a three-year collaborative project co-sponsored by the Birkbeck Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Media and Culture, and the Vasari Centre for Art and Technology – seeks to address these questions. By data ‘materiality’ we mean not only the ways in which data crystallises into physical forms and depends on material technical and social infrastructures, but also the related ways in which data comes to matter, in and through practical action, collective imaginaries, or biological conditions. So we are interested in questioning the proliferating network of data centres, fibre-optic cables and server farms that underpin our data usage, but we also wish to explore perhaps less tangible or apparent infrastructures of data – materialities that might include, for instance, digital objects and artefacts, from network protocols to markup languages, as well as the labour and organizational structures putting data to work. 

Our key aim in exploring data materiality is to get beyond the idea of data as a raw or unprocessed and, as Lisa Gitelman has suggested, understand the ordinary material conditions under which data is induced and deduced. We wish to ask, in other words, how does data leave its traces on the world? And how does the world leave its traces on data?


2018 -2019

16 November : Public Lecture by Professor Paula Bialskifrom Leuphana University of Lüneburg, Germany. Prof. Bialski has undertaken significant ethnographic work in the Berlin software industry and her talk is entitled ‘Slow Software: an alternative story of how our digital infrastructure gets made and maintained.’

This event is free, but booking is required

8 June 2018 : inaugural event is a public seminar by Vicki Mayer with a talk, ‘Jobs in the Data Industrial Complex: Four Stories from the Field’ 


Looking around, there is an undeniable fascination with ruins, as actual remains or as follies, as physical environments or as parts of fictional worlds.

For some ruins epitomise the ‘endtimes’ (Slavoj Žižek) in which we supposedly live, for others they speak predominantly of the past. They allow us to see the historical dimension in both culture and nature and have an apocalyptic as well as a utopian potential. It seems to me that ruins hold despair and hope in a curious balance: they speak of disaster and destruction as much as of endurance and rebirth, especially as nature, i.e. new life, takes over the crumbling remains. Ruin/s in all their various guises allow us to question fraud dichotomies and all to rigid distinctions between nature and culture, aesthetics and politics, memory and history.

Our contemporary fascination with ruin/s can be traced back to the eighteenth century and we will ask how it relates to other historical periods and how it is  distinct from these earlier cases of ‘ruinophilia’. What makes ruin/s so appealing and at the same time so uncanny? Why do we preserve them? Why do we build them? And why do we seek them out, even when they are inhospitable and foreboding?

Silke Arnold-de Simine will be curating our explorations of ‘ruin/s’ in the first year of our three years cycle. She is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies and the – at times – labyrinthine ways her research on cultural memory and museums, Gothic literature/film and the Uncanny has taken have somehow always led her back to the topic of ‘ruins’.

Image credit: Jonathan Kemp, Ryan Jordan and Martin Howse, from the Crystal World Open Laboratory Exhibition (2012)

Curating Sound for Difficult Histories

Curating Sound for Difficult Histories

held as part of Arts Week 2018 and in collaboration with Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, University of Hertfordshire and BIRMAC (Birkbeck Interdisciplinary Research in Media and Culture

Tuesday 15 May 2018, 14: 00-21: 00

Birkbeck Cinema, 43 Gordon Square


Organising Committee  :

Kim Akass, Univeristy of Hertfordshire

Silke Arnold-de Simine,Birkbeck, University of London

Janet McCabe, Birkbeck, University of London

Diana Popecsu, Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism (Birkbeck, University of London)


The aim of this event deals with sound and silence and how soundscapes – music, noise, voices, speech and silence– make visible difficult histories, in particular the Holocaust. What the event will do is connect questions of representation, memory/remembering, authenticity/affect, around the theme of curating sound for difficulty histories.


Music and composition : Prof. Stephen Frosh, with an illustrated talk on Steve Reich’s composition “Different Trains” (1988)

Installation art and soundscapes : Esther Shalev, with an illustrated talk on Holocaust, testimony, the human voice and its silences. Works which could contribute to the day :

The Berlin Inquiry

Does your image reflect me?

Inseparable Angels: Imaginary House for Walter Benjamin 

Between Listening and Telling: Last Witnesses, Auschwitz


Sounds and museum installation : Jascha Dormann – Idee und Klang

Sound and exhibition, considering the sounds / voices of survivors and perpetrators (overlapping voices / contested testimony and the sound of bearing witness / question of silence / listening and speaking, linked to ways of remembering and memory cultures). This session considers sound design in the exhibition / museum space.

18: 00

Holocaust, film and sound editing : Val Kuklowsky, Hollywood sound designer/editor, with an illustrated lecture on the use of sound in Son of Saul. This session could be chaired by Adele Fletcher (Herts)

Val’s illustrated lecture will be followed by a screening of Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015)