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Uncertain Archives – University of Copenhagen

Uncertain Archives

Adapting Cultural Theories of the Archive to Understand the Risks and Potentials of Big Data

PURPOSE: The discourse of big data often presents large data archives as neutral and reassuring management and securitization systems that relieve the archive of the risk of human slip-ups by ‘letting the data speak for itself’. The research project Uncertain Archives, by contrast, lends an ear to what we term archival uncertainties. By focusing on the notions of the unknown, error and vulnerability, respectively, we tune in on three types of uncertainty that overlap and intertwine, yet also reveal different configurations of archival uncertainty. The project is part of the emerging field of ‘critical big data’ studies. 

METHOD: The project regards big data archives not as demarcated, stable spheres, but rather as assemblages that morph and merge as we try to approach them. The uncertainties that arise within and between these archives are thus equally unstable, each of them carrying productive as well as disruptive potentials. Methodologically, being receptive to these uncertainties requires an aesthetic frequency which asks not only what is included in the archive, who controls it and for what purpose, but also how it configures and functions through signs, flows and bodies. This aesthetic approach is not confined to the disciplinary realm of art history, but constitutes a critical methodology that is responsive to archival movements and affects illegible to mathematical and political science – two disciplines that currently dominate big data theorization. 

PARTICIPANTS: The University of Copenhagen. 

FUNDING: the project is funded by the Danish Research Council under the YDUN program. 

CONTACT: Associate Professor Kristin Veel,, tel. +45 35329314 or Postdoc Nanna Bonde Thylstrup,, tel. +45 26818153. 

FURTHER READING: for more information on the Uncertain Archives project, check out the project website.