[ISEA2011] Paper: Simone O’Callaghan & Chris Speed – The Hidden Histories of Objects: Provenance, Storytelling and Tagging Technologies


This paper explores notions of provenance, using storytelling to follow the lives of objects from their first inception to the narratives they collect along the way. As part of TOTeM[1] a £1.39M research project based around the “Internet of Things”[2], this research opens up new ways of preserving people’s stories through linking objects to the Internet via “tagging” technologies such as QR codes.

The process of appending immaterial data such as textual, video and audio stories, offers a significant additional dimension to the material attributes of an object. Hand produced creative artefacts already transcend a material value because of their individual characteristics and their reference to social and cultural frameworks. As the emerging technology of the Internet of Things supports the tagging of more and more objects, things will begin to accrue an immaterial data shadow that will begin to out weigh its material instantiation (Bruce Sterling, Shaping Things, 2005).

By examining creative artefacts, the authors explore how artists, designers and craftspeople express how such objects came into being. Using the public facing site, www.?talesofthings.?com, built for the TOTeM project, one can “tag” objects using QR codes, with stories in any digital media form. In this context, QR codes act as “digital makers’ marks” with the potential to hold far richer data than traditional ones.

Whilst the data shadow of commercial things may be logistical: price, temperature, best for before dates etc., information provided by artists and designers has the potential to provide significantly more evocative stories that may change entirely the perception of an object.  Through analysis of such stories, collected on talesofthings.?com, the authors reveal how digital makers’ marks have the potential to carry myths and fictions as well as truths. In doing so, this paper articulates the implications of relocating memories and stories around creative artefacts to a digital platform in a way that has previously not been possible.

[1] Tales of Things and Electronic Memories. Edinburgh College of Art, Brunel University, University of Dundee, University College London (UCL), University of Salford
[2] This is tagging technologies to track physical objects in the real world. Eg: Oyster Cards in the London Underground.

  • Simone O’Callaghan is an interdisciplinary artist, combining new technologies with analogue artforms, who has exhibited in the UK, Australia, China and Canada. She is working on an art-practice based phd at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design (DJCAD), University of Dundee, Scotland, examining graphical tagging in artworks to explore the relationships between materiality, physicality and craft in contemporary digital and print-based art practices. Simone’s work in the studio focuses on ways to embed QR-codes and other graphical tags into print-based artworks in such a way that makes the technology transparent to the user and less intimidating to engage with. At the end of 2008, Simone took part in a UK Digital Economy Sandpit (EPSRC/ AHRC) and was one of the core team members responsible for securing  £1.39M funding for the TOTeM Research Project which explores attaching stories and memories to objects using tagging technologies such as QR-codes. Simone’s work on the TOTeM project focuses on working with art and craft makers using tagging technologies to act as  “digital makers’ marks”.  She is examining how telling the stories of an objects’ inception affect perceptions of the object, both from the points of views of the makers, and of the eventual owners. Prior to this, she worked as a Senior Lecturer in Creative Digital Design and Lecturer in Photography/Art & Design. Simone came to academia from industry where she was a senior designer/ art director for interactive and print projects with clients such as Novell (Australia), The Australian Tourist Commission, Teletext UK, and Young Scot.   elusivesprite.squarespace.com   newcastleuni.academia.edu/SimoneOCallaghan   talesofthings.com
  • Chris Speed is Reader in Digital Spaces at the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, University of Edinburgh, UK, where he teaches undergraduate, masters, supervises PhD student as well as leading research projects. Chris has sustained a critical enquiry into how digital technology can engage with the field of architecture and human geography through a variety of established international digital art contexts including: International Symposium on Electronic Art, Biennial of Electronic Arts Perth, Ars Electronica, Consciousness Reframed, Sonic Acts, LoveBytes, We Love Technology, Sonic Arts Festival, MELT, Less Remote, FutureSonic, and the Arts Catalyst / Leonardo symposium held alongside The International Astronautical Congress. Chris is the PI on three significant RCUK funded projects: 1. TOTeM/Talesofthing investigating social memory within the ‘Internet of Things’ funded by the Digital Economy (£1.4mill) talesofthings.com, the project has gained international attention for its unique ability to allow users to attach memories to personal objects, 2. the JISC funded iPhone app Walking Through Time that overlays contemporary Google maps with historical maps in Edinburgh allowing users to walk roads that no longer exist and inhabit spaces that have since been erased walkingthroughtime.co.uk, and 3. Community Web2.0: creative control through hacking’. This £40K feasibility study will explore the extent to which parallels between virtual society (Internet) and actual society (communities) may be extended in such a way that helps make sense of both the opportunities and risks of the Big Society for communities.

Full text (PDF) p.  1792-1797