Digitisation of Knowledge? Joanna Vestey’s Conditions of Knowledge Exhibition

Features

Image Credit: Kimberly Glassman

What are the conditions that allow us to use and store knowledge? What supports (both physical and otherwise) do we use to access this knowledge? Moreover, how has this narrative changed in our age of new media digitisation? Joanna Vestey’s Conditions of Knowledge (2018) exhibition at the North Wall Arts Centre addressed these questions and more in her photographic exploration into the digitisation of knowledge. The exhibition was divided into three sections showcasing three ‘conditions’ or ‘supports’ of knowledge access and acquisition: the book support (originally designed by Christopher Clarkson for the Bodleian), the lecture, and the Encyclopaedia of Diderot (first published in 18th century France right before the revolution – made digital through the Artfl project). 

When you first walk into the North Wall Arts Centre you are guided to the start of the exhibition where you encounter the book support.The white backgrounds showcasing the support structures devoid of any content, i.e. the actual books, emphasises its function as facilitator to the knowledge whose absence reminds us of its physical presence in the library. Speaking about her curatorial decision to include this photographic series as the first section, Vestey explains how “the support structure was really key” to demonstrate the contemporary detachment from physical support systems and the move to the digital. Vestey saw this as more than just a move from the physical to the digital, but also from the social aid of the librarian to the isolation and anonymity of the internet.

While academics, artists, and researchers like Vestey look at this shift or rift in knowledge acquisition as a part of the reality of technological and societal movements, some attributed a moral inflection into the narrative: “Some people felt very sad by the work in a way that they had to sort of realise that time was passing and those methods were shifting,” Vestey explains, “but for me it was not so much about lamenting a loss but it was definitely about acknowledging a passing and an emergence.” This shift is mirrored, or rather reflected and paralleled in the history of photography itself, echoing the evolution and development of photography as an artistic medium. Using new media technologies such as analogue photography, digital photography, drum scanning, archival pigment prints, and more, Vestey added layers of meaning to the shift of knowledge acquisition with the implications of society’s technological advancements. Within this narrative, Vestey reflects how there is a generational divide that paints a moral quality on the ‘old’ versus ‘new’ ways. 

Commenting on her work with both analogue and digital photography in the exhibition, Vestey reflects: “I do slightly wonder looking at my own children who immediately walk into a gallery space and are drawn to the screens or anything that’s moving, and that’s what they grew up on, they are not drawn to the vintage print or the physical in the same way. So I sort of feel like I am part of that old school with one foot in each camp.” The exhibition very explicitly aimed to talk about the conditions of knowledge, to document, record, and pose questions about the manner in which this is carried out. 

Speaking of the images, she said: “In previous works, I had turned my lens on those tangible parts of academia where knowledge is produced and stored, such as the libraries and lecture theatres, the repositories and cabinets. Conditions of Knowledge stands, in contrast, as an enquiry into how knowledge is handled today, given the ephemeral nature of electronic media.” 

Commenting on her use of the encyclopedia, which showcases showing cycles of knowledge, “images of trade next to images of  monarchs,” Vestey claims there is “a very democratising approach there, which was a really interesting point and stood as a monument to that time and using it references how there have been these breaks before.” However, Vestey also acknowledges how the recent break caused by the process of digitisation is different because it is an “invisible rupture.” This is reflected in every aspect of her practice. You can hear the artist’s words echoed throughout the gallery space – “I don’t think there are traditional binaries between digital and analog and I think categorising it is problematic” – as she continuously questions the place of knowledge and how it is acquired and accessed. This is exquisitely shown in her interest in digitised (as opposed to simply physical) traces. 

“Conditions of Knowledge stands, in contrast, as an enquiry into how knowledge is handled today, given the ephemeral nature of electronic media.”

What is truly incredible about Vestey’s exhibition is the blend of artistic and scientific processes directed at the inquiry of knowledge acquisition in our technological age. Vestey studied art at the Surrey Institute of Art and Design and at Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem and has an MA in Social Anthropology and Development from the School of Oriental Studies, as well as an MA in Photography from the Newport School of Documentary Photography. Currently working on a practice-led PhD at the European Centre for Photographic Research in Oxford, her dissertation provides a historical and contextual framework in which to understand hew work. “Creating the two simultaneously allowed me to make work that responded to theoretical ideas in a way that I had not previously,” reflects Vestey, “I oscillated between the studio and the library and actually it has been a really rewarding way of making work.”

Conditions of Knowledge will travel as a whole group to Antwerp to be shown there in a new design store that is opening. After that, it will be broken down into individual series; the Support Series work will go to a group show in London which is looking at the digitising of books, and – Vestey hopes, it will then go on to the Bodleian.