Michael Takeo Magruder
Independent Practitioner
Artist and Researcher

Imaginary Cities: an artistic exploration seeking to create provocative fictional cityscapes for the Information Age from the British Library’s digital collection of historic urban maps


Imaginary Cities is an arts-humanities research project that considers how large digital repositories of historic cultural materials can be used to create new born-digital artworks and real-time experiences which are relevant and exciting to 21st century audiences. The project will take images and associated metadata of pre-20th century urban maps drawn from the British Library’s (BL’s) online “1 Million Images from Scanned Books” digital collection and transform this material into provocative fictional cityscapes for the Information Age.
The project will exemplify collaborative and truly interdisciplinary research as it will bring together contemporary arts practice, digital humanities scholarship and advanced visualisation technology. The project’s outcomes will encompass both artistic and scholarly outputs, most important of which will be a set of three prototype digital artworks that will exist as physical installations constructed with leading-edge processes including generative systems, real-time virtual environments and 3D printing. Blending the historical and the contemporary, the informative and the aesthetic, these artworks will not only draw from and feed into the BL’s digital scholarship and curatorial programmes, but more significantly, will engender new ways for members of the general public to discover and access the Library’s important digital collections and research initiatives.


Assessment Criteria
The research question / problem you are trying to answer

The Imaginary Cities project will explore the following research questions:

• How can today’s large collections of digitised historic cultural materials not only conceptually inspire, but more importantly, be used as fundamental source materials in the generation of new born-digital artworks and real-time experiences that are relevant and exciting to 21st century audiences?
• How can contemporary digital arts practice both draw inspiration from and reciprocally contribute to humanities digital scholarship in areas related to digital archives and collections?
• How can artistic creations born from such arts-humanities collaborations be employed as interfaces to engage members of the general public in ways that entice them to discover and access important digital collections and repositories?

Please explain the ways your idea will showcase British Library digital collections

The Imaginary Cities project will exclusively use images and associated metadata of historic urban maps that have been drawn from the BL’s online “1 Million Images from Scanned Books” digital collection since it contains over 50,000 items which have been identified as a map. This data will be digitally transformed into a series of prototype artworks in which the provenance of the source materials will be explicitly retained and thus provide a conceptual framing for the artistic creations. This transparency of process and fundamental connection to the BL’s Flickr Commons digital repository will raise awareness of the collection itself and offer a new avenue for both researchers and members of the general public alike to think about and engage with these cultural materials.
Furthermore, the data mining and visualisation methodologies developed over the course of the project will have the potential to creatively inform digital humanities scholarship within the BL and the wider academic community. Just as contemporary arts practice can draw from leading humanities research, emerging forms of digital art can inspire and provoke digital scholarship, especially in the areas of data visualisation, cultural contextualisation and public engagement. With this in mind, the project’s outputs will be developed in close dialogue with BL curators and researchers in ways that such cross-fertilisation and exchange can arise and flourish.
Please detail the approach(es) / method(s) you are going to use to implement your idea, detailing clearly the research methods / techniques / processes involved.

The Imaginary Cities project will be subdivided into four sequential research phases.

Phase 1: Source Material Identification and Assessment

The initial stage of the project will entail working with BL Labs (and partners like Wikimedia Commons) to refine the process of data mining the BL’s “1 Million Images from Scanned Books” digital collection via the Flickr API and associated BL and Wikimedia Commons data. The objective will be to ensure that relevant images of historic (pre-20th century) urban maps and their associated metadata (such as tags, publication date, map scale, geo-location, etc.) can be reliably parsed in real time and converted into structured source material for subsequent processes of visualisation and aesthetic transformation.

Phase 2: Data Visualisation and Transformation

The project’s second research phase will involve integrating the parsed and processed map images/metadata into algorithmic systems that will aesthetically reconstitute the data into new generative visual forms. Particular emphasis will be placed on creating 3D constructs, both static models (through software like 3DS Max and Meshmixer) and interactive environments (like Unity3D and WebGL). Furthermore, these work-in-progress visualisations will be output to both physical forms (via laser engraving and 3D printing technologies) and real-time virtual experiences (via multi-screen video systems and head mounted displays like Oculus Rift). These experiments and the resulting artistic-technical infrastructure will provide the creative building blocks for the development of the final prototype artworks.

Phase 3: Prototype Artwork Design and Production

The third stage of the project will concern the design and production of three prototype artworks that are based upon the results of the first two research phases. It is anticipated that the set of generative artworks will be comprised of: 1) a physical 2D digital print or laser etched work; 2) a real-time virtual environment experienced through multiple screens and/or a head mounted display; and 3) a physical 3D-printed sculpture possibly augmented with data projection overlays. This production phase will be undertaken in partnership with my collaborators and BL Labs, and in consultation with BL curators who have been identified as having overlapping research interests with the project.

Phase 4: Prototype Artwork Exhibition and Evaluation
In the project’s final phase, I will collaborate with BL Labs and curators to explore ways in which the prototype artworks can be used as a novel means to frame the BL’s digital scholarship initiatives (especially narratives concerning maps) and highlight the Library’s “1 Million Images from Scanned Books” digital collection. This work will focus on engaging not only academics and researchers, but more importantly, members of the general public using methodologies drawn from arts practice, technology design and exhibition curation. As such, this process will be a dialogue between myself (as artist), technologists (from BL Labs and my collaborators) and BL curators. The aim will be to position the realised artwork prototypes as interfaces which engender different ways for people to discover and access the BL’s digital scholarship and collections.

Please provide evidence of how you / your team have the skills, knowledge and expertise to successfully carry out the project by working with the Labs team

I am a visual artist and researcher who works with new media including real-time data, digital archives, immersive environments, mobile devices and virtual worlds. My practice explores concepts ranging from media criticism and aesthetic journalism to digital formalism and computational aesthetics, deploying Information Age technologies and systems to examine our networked, media-rich world.

In the last 15 years, my projects have been showcased in over 250 exhibitions in 34 countries. My art has been funded by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts; Arts Council England; the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation; the EU Culture Programme; the Leverhulme Trust; the National Endowment for the Arts, US; and the National Lottery, UK. I have been commissioned by numerous public galleries in the UK and abroad and by the leading Internet Art portal Turbulence.org. In 2010, I was selected to represent the UK at Manifesta 8: the European Biennial of Contemporary Art and several of my most well-known digital artworks were added to the Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art at Cornell University.

More recently, I was a Leverhulme Trust artist-in-residence (2013-14) collaborating with Professor Ben Quash (Theology, King’s College London) and Alfredo Cramerotti (Director, Mostyn) to research and develop a new solo exhibition - entitled De/coding the Apocalypse - exploring contemporary creative visions inspired by and based on the Book of Revelation. In 2014, I was commissioned by the UK-based theatre company Headlong to create two new artworks - PRISM (a new media installation reflecting on Headlong’s production of George Orwell’s 1984) and The Nether Realm (a living virtual world inspired by Jennifer Haley’s play The Nether). Last year, I was awarded the 2015 Immersive Environments Lumen Prize for my virtual reality installation A New Jerusalem.

My research focuses on the intersections between contemporary art, emerging technology and interdisciplinary practice.
My writings have been widely published, with contributions appearing in books and journals such as: Art Libraries Journal (2016, Cambridge University Press, UK); NJP Reader #5 (2014, Nam June Paik Art Center, KR); Preserving Complex Digital Objects (2014, Facet, UK); the International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media (2011, Intellect, UK); Theatre without Vanishing Points (2010, Alexander Verlag, DE); Performing Technology: User Content and the New Digital Media (2009, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, UK); Virtual/Physical Bodies (2008, Centre des Arts, FR) and Die Welt als virtuelles Environment (2007, TMA Hellerau, DE). In addition, I have published a monograph - entitled (re)mediation_s 2000-2010, (2012, Peterborough Museum & Art Gallery, UK) - that outlines the last decade of my work within the areas of news media, mobile devices and virtual worlds.

Further information about my practice and examples of my work are available at www.takeo.org, and my full CV can be downloaded here: www.takeo.org/takeo-cv.pdf.

For the Imaginary Cities project I will draw upon the expertise of two close colleagues who have agreed to assist me in the development and creation of the proposed artwork prototypes.

Drew Baker [real-time 3D modelling and visualisation] is a Senior Research Fellow within the Office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), at The Australian Catholic University in Sydney. Working in the field of 3D visualisation and interpretation of archaeology and history since 1997, he specialises in the use of 3D systems, employing technologies ranging from interactive web-based platforms like VRML and Unity3D to shared virtual environments such as Second Life and OpenSimulator. His primary research areas are developing real-time 3D environments that transform traditional users into active participants engaging with the underling scholarship and issues surrounding the long-term preservation of digital cultural heritage.

Ben Jastram [3D printing and fabrication] is the Deputy Head of the 3D Laboratory at the University of Technology in Berlin, directed by Prof. Dr. rer. nat. Schwandt. He studied in the fields of 3D architectural visualisation, construction and model making and has worked with generative technologies in the 3D Laboratory since 2006. After graduating from university in 2009 as Dipl.-Ing., he was appointed Research Associate and Lecturer in the field of rapid manufacturing technologies, 3D measuring techniques, data reconstruction and visualisation. In 2010 he became Deputy Head of the 3D Laboratory and became responsible for managing various interdisciplinary research projects in a wide range of subjects including palaeontology, archaeology, veterinary medicine and biomedical science. His current personal research, in partnership with the German Heart Center Berlin, concerns the development of a 3D printed, biodegradable heart valve scaffold made with selective laser sintering processes.

A video review of my recent solo exhibition De/coding the Apocalypse – in which both Baker and Jastram were creative-technical collaborators – can be viewed here: http://crane.tv/apocalypse-now/.

Please provide evidence of how you think your idea is achievable on a technical, curatorial and legal basis
My collaborators and I have all of the necessary technical skills and expertise in data mining, 2D/3D visualisation, digital fabrication processes (such as 3D printing, laser engraving, etc.) and installation design required to effectively undertake the Imaginary Cities project. Extensive technical research and proof-of-concept studies using live data (images plus map scale and geo-location information) from the BL Flickr Commons stream were completed in advance of drafting this proposal. This was done to mitigate risk and ensure the project’s planned outcomes are achievable within the competition’s scope and timeframe. Additionally, this will enable the collaboration with the BL Labs technical lead to focus on refining the data mining methodologies and producing actual prototypes, rather than scoping technical possibilities. Of course unexpected technical challenges can surface during these types of experimental projects. However, as I have successfully delivered many projects of this nature, I am confident that the outlined research will be completed on time and to specification even if such issues arise.
The BL’s “1 Million Images from Scanned Books” digital collection that will form the basis of the Imaginary Cities project is freely available via Flickr Commons and is structured in a way that perfectly suits the proposed research and artistic outputs. This has been confirmed through conversations with Mahendra Mahey (BL Labs Project Manager) and Stella Wisdom (BL Digital Curator, Contemporary British Collections). For this reason, no additional curatorial work or agreements will need to be arranged in order to undertake the project. Moreover, as the project’s programme of work and envisioned outcomes align to key areas of interest within the BL – in particular, narratives surrounding maps, generation and use of metadata, and public engagement with digital collections – it is highly likely that the project will both draw from and feed into other curatorial and research initiatives within the Library. Such links will be established through inter-departmental conversations brokered by BL Labs and staff dissemination events highlighting the project.
The Imaginary Cities project will use digital source materials (images and their associated metadata) that are already freely accessible in the public domain via the BL’s Flickr Commons stream, have no copyright restrictions, and are under the complete control of the Library. As such, there should be no legal obstacles to the successful realisation of the project and the creation of the proposed artwork prototypes. Furthermore, all of the project’s artistic and research outputs will be non-commercial in nature and will be made freely available to the wider public, most likely under Creative Commons licenses.

Please provide a brief plan of how you will implement your project idea by working with the Labs team
June 2016

• undertake preliminary planning and fine-tuning of the project’s proposed work programme (with BL Labs)

• prepare technical overviews of the various project work phases and identify possible areas for creative-technical refinements (with BL Labs and critical inputs from Baker/Jastram)

• initiate conversations (via BL Labs) with BL curators and researchers working in areas related to digital collections, metadata, maps and public engagement.

July 2016

• create work-in-progress artistic studies that generate aesthetic forms from digitised maps parsed from the BL’s “1 Million Images from Scanned Books” digital collection (with BL Labs and in consultation with Baker/Jastram).

August 2016

• revise and refine the work-in-progress artistic studies (with BL Labs and in consultation with Baker/Jastram)

• outline and begin developing the project’s final prototype artworks (with BL Labs/Baker/Jastram and in consultation with BL curators as appropriate).

September 2016

• undertake production of the prototype artworks (with BL Labs/Baker/Jastram and in consultation with BL curators as appropriate)

• explore how the prototype artworks could provide a means to highlight BL digital scholarship initiatives and engage with the BL’s digital collections (with BL Labs and BL curators as appropriate).

October 2016

• arrange public showings/exhibitions of the finished prototype artworks at the BL, perhaps including a display as part of the BL Labs November Symposium (with BL Labs and BL curators as appropriate)

• document project outputs and outcomes

• publish a project website and prepare materials for possible submission to peer-reviewed journals as appropriate

• undertake project evaluation with emphasis on possibilities for further development of the project (in collaboration with BL Labs and researchers)