A conversation with Commonplace Studio

Note-taking as a method of slow learning

The installation A Commonplace Book invites visitors to fill a blank notebook with selections of time-related fragments, compiled with the help of a DIY writing machine. In doing so, the installation not only questions our relationship with time, but also the fragmented way we process information.

– in conversation with Jon Stam (Commonplace Studio) 

Until the nineteenth century, students and scholars wrote down information about their favourite subjects in so-called commonplaces: notebooks used to collect, compile, and share general knowledge. The title of the installation designed by Jon Stam and co-creators Jesse Howard and Tim Knapen is a clear nod to this historical context. They based their notebook index system on the system developed by philosopher and physician John Locke.

The historical framework of commonplacing paired with knowledge-sharing and co-design are among the core values of Commonplace Studio, which was founded by Jon Stam and Simon De Bakker in 2013. They developed this installation in collaboration with Tim Knapen and Jesse Howard. ‘Tim Knapen is an artistic designer of digital technology who developed the software for this installation,’ explains Stam. ‘Designer Jesse Howard explores the aesthetics and technology of open-source and DIY design. He developed the mechanical hatch for the plotters.’

Together with Commonplace Studio, they are exploring ways to make (digital) information more accessible and more tactile and how to subtly integrate it in a museum context. To achieve this, they use design as a medium. ‘For Toegepast 15, for example, I hacked a View-Finder to create an imaginary museum that makes digital collections tangible. This familiar analogue technique allows viewers to explore digital collections in a direct, physical, and intimate way. For our new project, we’re looking for ways to make permanent museum collections digitally accessible to audiences by adding diverse and dynamic narrative layers to collection items that can often only be experienced through the static information that accompanies an object. ‘

For A Commonplace Book, the three designers looked for a way to share the collected knowledge and information by The Work of Time artists and researchers. ‘Each of the eight tables in the installation is linked to a specific time-related concept; for example deep time, which refers to deep geological time that dates back millions of years, or the idea of making time or kairos, which signifies an opportune time for action. Each table is simultaneously a writing machine that can produce quotes, notes, or drawings and a kind of mini cabinet of curiosities. For each concept we looked for an object or a curiosity object that would capture the visitors’ interest. Triggered by the object in the cabinet, the title of the table, or their own passions, visitors can have the fragments printed in a blank notebook.’

Letter by letter, the selected fragment is printed in a new notebook. ‘We wanted the slowness of the plotter technique to awaken the curiosity that underlies all forms of learning while also encouraging people to slow down and surrender themselves to something new in a museum context,’ explains Stam. ‘At the same time, we are challenging visitors and the way they perceive time. Our self-designed machines put on a kind of spectacular time performance with each fragment. Seeing how much time people spend on the installation, filling their notebooks and exploring the themes, is incredible and has exceeded our wildest expectations.’



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Elien Haentjens

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