The labyrinth

The labyrinth model is done in museum theory, but it offers a couple of useful ways of thinking about the digital gallery that release it from static folio or uncanny physical derivative, and that help link some art-archive-ownership-community vectors:

  • Bounded discovery: Connections in an atomised field

  • Bounded agency: Friction and personalisation in online experience

  • Mapping collective meaning and value


A labyrinth typically has one entrance and the objective is to get to the centre and then return. Unlike a maze (built to confuse, for fun, with multiple branches of dead-end paths) the traditional labyrinth is unicursal, winding and complex sure, but not trickery, built to slow down and protect. If you just keep following the thread/s you can noodle your way to the centre, and you can get back. A simplified model of the unicursal labyrinth is popular in museum design (like the Guggenheim spiral) and retail design (like IKEA) as a way to organise and control the relationship between artefacts/products and consumers.

The unicursal labyrinth and the maze
The unicursal labyrinth and the maze

In online space, the labyrinth model offers a kind of structured discovery that anchors the confusion of a tide of digital assets. Discoverability is less than useless on most NFT platforms, limited to tracking wallets or entering the name of a collection or its fake into a search bar. The worst discoverability tools will be Amazonian if you like that you’ll probably like this. The best will leverage thematic and community connections that exist in narrow knowledge segments, and layer them into a collective catalogue of projects, art, ideas, assets, things that matter to people.

The labyrinth functions as a map of things (each in its place, relational to the others, and providing directions to get there), and it functions as an on-ground experience of one-on-one immediacy, like a lantern spotlighting just a couple of feet ahead of you in a vast shadowed space. Ideally, we can hold these two scales and levels of understanding simultaneously - the big (reductive) picture of everything all at once, and one individual’s careful and subjective knowledge of that specific artefact, that one snowflake, just so.

Subjective spotlighting
Subjective spotlighting


Related to discovery, agency in the labyrinthine model is relational rather than an act of individual determination. Labyrinthine museum theory may be old, but the desire to collapse the separation between museum-goer, artefact and museum space is resonant with today’s art and collector communities (eg. NFT communities) where participant replaces audience. In the DYLABY LABYRINT exhibition in 1962, artists and curators structured environments and pathways to actively engage the audience in chance encounters, contrasts, interactions with objects and spaces. This description from the catalogue has resonance with NFT art communities:

Artists gathered from several countries
with the aim to let the public
participate in their work
to let you see, feel, and cooperate with them

they start from daily life
the sensations you get
feeling your way through a labyrinth
the surprise when you open a door
the freshness of the coloured world of plastic
the machine that moves but without practical purpose
the shooting gallery where you don’t destroy
but help to colour the objects

six artists in seven rooms
created surroundings full of variety
gay and weird – loud and silent
where you may laugh, get excited
or thoughtful

you are not outside the objects
but constantly within them
as part of a whole.

Moving through a labyrinth intentionally slows movement and narrows focus. This friction has the effect of gently gating progress from outsider to insider. You are free to move anywhere, but you can’t just go everywhere immediately. The more you engage, the more you participate, the deeper you get, the more you come to know the space, and the more you leave a mark for others, in directions, interpretations, and rearranged and found objects on the way.

Mapping value

The labyrinth experience is a kind of dark wandering, but it’s also a collective project of sense-making and value-defining. I guess the community made the labyrinth in a burst of construction, and I guess the community now maps it and describes its many pathways and the things it contains, how to get to them, and why they matter.

Online, without material or spatial limits, the labyrinth can be infinite. But it offers a contained conception of infinity - one step ahead of the next, this then that - folded like a never-ending intestine not expanded like a galaxy or maths. The unicursal form is not necessary in online space, but it’s useful for welcoming and guiding extremely-non-fractal humans who can only hold onto a couple dozen ideas at once.

Like a crunched up intestine
Like a crunched up intestine

Messy interrelational meaning-making between artifact / creator and audience/collector is human intimacy in vast internet space, distinct from a one-way archive pit made possible by bottomless servers, and distinct from traditional top-down dogma and critique. Someone/s still has to emotionally labour to define cultural value and communicate meaning beyond each intimacy, each niche. The methodology of building and mapping the labyrinth - one connected but infinite thread, a scrunched up cluster of overlapping pathways, many crevices, the ability to link everything in map and one thing in intimacy - is a useful way of thinking about curation decentralised to many participants, many owners.

[1] DYLABY (Dynamisch Labyrint), exh. cat. (Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum, 1962), discussed by Noit Banai in ‘The Labyrinth as an Exhibitionary Model: Form, Event, and Mode of Life’, Stedelijk Studies Journal, Issue 7, 2018,

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