Note: Scanography as experimental community hardware
In this blogpost I want to describe experiments of digital image production with a mobile scanner. I am talking about rather cheap technology (under 50 Euros) of handheld book scanners. Over the years I developed an experimental practice of using such book scanners to scan various surfaces (windows, dancefloors, walls, streets, etc.). In the beginning this was a way to document small forms of graffiti such as glass tagging, and it evolved into an experimental hardware for artistic research and community projects.
Scanography is a name for an image technology without a photographic lense. Some artists like to experiment with this, because the high level of detail together with a lack of depth give items put on a scanner a special visual quality. A more extensive description from Wikipedia:
The process of creating art with a scanner can be as simple as arranging objects on the scanner and capturing the resulting image; in fact, some early artists in the field worked with photocopiers to capture and print in a single step, resulting in the field of Xerox art. Artist Sonia Landy Sheridan, artist in residence at 3M and founder of the Generative Systems program at the Art Institute of Chicago was one of the first to exploit this ability in 1968, altering the variables of the photocopying process to produce artwork rather than mere copies. Though the physical process of arranging objects on a glass platen to capture a photogram is shared by both “Xerox” artists and “scanographers”, regarding image quality- scanner photography has more in common with large format photography. The process records extremely fine detail with a rather shallow depth of field and produces a digital file (or “digital negative”) for printmaking.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scanography
In the image economies of social media, scanography has a certain revival due to the eye-catching special quality of the images. See for example https://www.instagram.com/everything.can.be.scanned/ which is an account scanning all kinds of objects from daily life.
The beginning of scanography as an experimental documentation practice for me was buying a mobile book scanner. I tried to use it for digitizing printed sources in library depots where no scanners was available. That didn’t work so well, as exactly tabular information proved a challenge for the shaky mobile tool. But at that time I was also interested in finding new ways to document small traces of urban culture. One particular challenge was to document glass tagging, graffiti done to the trains of subway windows. While around 2010 there were various Berlin based platforms like streetfiles.org, ueberdose.de and reclaimyourcity.net which documented tags, slogans, pieces and figure painting on the streets, there was not much documentation of glass scratching. I started to scan them directly from the glass:
For a conference on graffiti tagging at FU Berlin in 2017, I took a look back and presented this documentation approach to an audience of graffiti scholars and artists: https://www.jfki.fu-berlin.de/graduateschool/events/other/tag/index.html An essay collection from this conference will be published this year with Possible Books (update: it’s out!). The reactions at the conference encouraged me to share the technology more with others.
In a cooperation with Kadir ‘Amigo’ Memiş, for his project “Opferschicht” 2021 at HAU Berlin, we gave the documentation technique a more political twist. Our angle here was invisible labor. The parents of Kadir were so called “guest workers”, who came to Germany as a migrant workforce. The integration discourse in Germany continually sees them as migrants and excludes them from the main narrative of who generates value in society. With the scanner we thought of making symbolically visible the invisible labor in the city, reflected in “microscopic” traces in urban space, for example in Berlin Kreuzberg.
We called the urban dancers tracing the surfaces of the city “SCRATCHA”, with “SCRATCHARCH” scanners as their tools. You can read my text that accompanied the film and stage project by Kadir here: https://www.hebbel-am-ufer.de/fileadmin/Hau/website_material/pdfs/Amigo_Opferschicht_4_.pdf
In another project again more related to graffiti, I used the WorkAdventure interface to exhibit urban layers online. The idea was a museum without walls, where you walk directly on (and under) scanned surfaces: for a documentation and link see https://nullmuseum.hypotheses.org/36
In the cooArchi software development project in 2021 (http://www.cooarchi.net), the collective played with the idea to use scanning as a community tool, in our demo-video you can see the scanners used at the very end, when it is about future features:
cooArchi was an open source software development for community archiving projects, but we also thought about how this interface should function in workshop settings. On hardware we wrote in the documentation:
“Both for input and output we also envision more experimental ways of hardware use in the future. For example, to directly contribute to a cooArchi with capture tools like cameras, scanners, microphones. Also, mobile phone or web protocols for text, like SMS or AcitivityPub could be used to directly receive text.”https://cooarchi.github.io/documentation/interface/hardware/
In the software development we were inspired by raves:
“The initial cooArchi prototype was inspired by the alternative club and festival scene, or by raves in general. The events and spaces in this context often are temporary and performative, this implies immaterial and ephemeral heritage. Another challenge is the diversity of media, as raves are a great example of decentered culture, for various participants different aspects might be important, therefore, a photograph of the crowd, a flyer, a recording are each very limited ways of capturing this culture.”https://cooarchi.github.io/documentation/foundations/immaterial-ephemeral/
What we did in related archiving experiments, is to work with the idea that raves leave “microscopic” traces that can be made visible with a scanner. Just think of a dancefloor that has been used by thousands of people, or the walls of a club with lots of traces of touch, sweat, dust and tagging.
I understand scanography in its mobile form as a technology and aesthetic that accentuates the social: to look at surfaces closely, to share a view of a detail, to look at traces by others. As the tools are quite affordable, a side-effect from these collaborative projects with artists and software developers has been that several people now own these scanners and use them for art and archiving.