[-empyre-] Culturally specific archives

Jon Ippolito jippolito at maine.edu
Sat Oct 9 23:29:23 EST 2010

Hi Johannes,

Thanks for the provocative questions--forgive me if it takes more ink to answer than to ask them!

On Oct 7, 2010, at 5:52 PM, Johannes Birringer wrote:
> am I correct I reading you as making a direct analogy between embodied cultural practices/techniques and digital media practices/machining architectures?
Yep. Of course, analogies are never true--they are only useful for what they reveal or inspire us to do. And it's a stretch to say that machines are bodies, because they aren't organic, don't evolve, or have feelings (at least most don't yet). But the important part of the analogy for me is that digital media endure by execution rather than storage.

Much as we'd like to believe, conditioned by concepts like the Universal Turing Machine, that a digital file will run the same way on every computer, anyone who's actually tried to "write once run everywhere" knows how much execution varies with context. (Mention the phrase "Internet Explorer" to a Web designer and watch her grimace in pain.)

Of course, it's daunting to think that typing Command-S doesn't really save a file--that we have to keep it alive by migration, emulation, sometimes even apprenticeship. It's also unnerving to imagine entrusting preservation to people from the future who will remake it, many of whom are even not part of traditional collecting institutions. Yet much as professional conservators might fear an army of amateurs, such "unreliable archivists" have kept cultures alive over decades (by rescripting Nintendo emulators) or millennia (by retelling Aboriginal Dreamings). Meanwhile our wonderfully highbrow electronic artworks are decaying into inert assemblages of wire and plastic in their climate-controlled crates.

My analogy is meant to remind the custodians of culture of a truth that many find hard to stomach: we need to fund more than conservation labs and climate-controlled vaults. Artists' studios, Usenet groups, and remote villages are where culture is birthed and resurrected by its indigenous producers. Permanent exhibitions nourish art less than temporary exhibitions, where works are upgraded and displayed before being routed to their next venue. Conservators need to understand strategies such as emulation, migration, and reinterpretation and make sure the artists they work with understand them too. And museums need to allocate less of their budgets to renting storage space and more to funding the process of creating, and re-creating, art. Thankfully, several have begun to do just that.

> could you please expand on this idea of recombinatorial "digital repertoire" ?
Though all media change over time, some are more unstable than others. Take online culture. In the late 1990s the San Francisco Museum of Art's design department "acquired" a handful of artsy Web sites in a procedure that amounted to burning screenshots to a CD. To me, that's the equivalent of Merce Cunningham taking a few stills of a dance in his repertoire and then saying, There, the work is preserved for posterity. 

A typical Web page consists of separate snippets of text, code, and images that get chopped up into minuscule packets, cloned into multiple copies, and then routed through Duluth and Des Moines and wherever only to be reassembled in a "page" rendered on your home browser. To make matters worse, this page can look and act completely different depending on the browser, scale, resolution, processor speed...for me, this variable activity, not a screenshot of one of its temporary guises, is what the work *is*.

In 1998 curator Steve Dietz invited Janet Cohen, Keith Frank, and me to create a work on the occasion of the archiving of the well known artist site ada'web at the Walker. We decided to take the (re)combinatorial dynamic of Web pages to an extreme by creating an interface that made no presumptions about a single way the components should be put together. Instead this "Unreliable Archivist" offered viewers an array of sliders that let them reassemble its aspects according to criteria that range from "plain" to "preposterous." Depending on their choices, images from one artwork might be promiscuously recombined with texts from a second, styles from a third, layouts from a fourth, and so on.

The most notorious aspect of the Unreliable Archivist, however, was not how it worked but how it failed. Like a number of 20th-century works that pushed the boundaries of net art, the Unreliable Archivist died a few years after its launch, the victim of a moribund Web format called the "layer" tag. This irony was not lost on commentators like Long Now co-founder Stewart Brand, for whom The Unreliable Archivist became a symbol of the very obsolescence implied by its title.

Until now. The Walker never actually acquired the files necessary to run the work, because as artists we wanted to keep tinkering with it and petitioned to leave the work on our server for "just a short while after the launch." A short while became indefinite, and as the original file was part of a frameset no one noticed for over a decade. That fact enabled us secretly to Frankenstein the work back together according to Web standards that work on 21st-century browsers. And while it took us a while, the Unreliable Archivist--or rather, an up-to-date doppelganger for it--will soon take its place back in the Walker's online collection thanks to a bunch of script kiddies such as ourselves.

> when you say it can dispersively (randomly?) propagate and then becomes beautifully un-controllable, are you not mixing too many metaphors now that distract or distance us from the values that were mentioned earlier when Craig tried to speak of located, localizable cultural values and protocols to preserve them? (I am also thinking of Craig's mentioning of dignity, and  Digital Rights Management (DRM).
Great point! You're absolutely right that the global reach intended (and often achieved) by net artists, Nintendo fans, and others who've participated in "proliferative preservation" is at odds with the mandate for many indigenous groups for culturally specific archiving.

That said, I think both hyperglobal (net art) and hyperlocal (indigenous) subcultures share an important underlying motivation: to leverage access to culture for the purpose of connecting people. As I understand the Mukurtu archive, a boy from a village might have to sit down with his grandmother to see certain images of his relatives, and the occasioning of this bond that is ultimately more important than the photographs viewed. The fact that this bond is social rather than financial is one of the many things that distinguishes indigenous protocols from DRM.

Similarly, in the early days of net art, artists would hop trains to out-of-the-way Eastern European towns only to find most of the installation budget got blown on wine to power late-night conversations. Net artists who've gone mainstream since then have lamented to me the degree to which meaningful social contact has shrunk in proportion to their success in the art world. Sure, they get an installation budget and a night in a fancy hotel, but the only social contact is a handshake from the curator at the opening.

The Connected Knowledge working group (http://connected-knowledge.net/) pairs indigenous and Internet activists to invent hybrid global / local protocols. One example is the Distant Neighbor Protocol (http://jolineblais.net/rfc/#travel-distant-neighbor).

> Or is the argument you take from Taylor, and carry into the "digital culture"  a cynical one, implying that there can be no stable archives, no authentic bones, no dignity anyway, nothing to rely on, since the repertoires are always already debunking the myth that we are anything but posturing, hopelessly autistically self-referential, 
Nah, I don't buy that. A legend from Arrernte people about a falling star recently showed an astrophysicist where to find a meteor crater in the Australian outback--something that would have been impossible had their oral histories been hopelessly self-referential.

> the us  archive generation (Yann suggests this  -- am i misunderstanding? is document documenting itself a generative process?, a perversely creative loop?)
Dunno--maybe Yann can clarify this?


Forging the Future:
New tools for variable media preservation

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