[-empyre-] Archives that trespass

Jon Ippolito jon.ippolito at gmail.com
Wed Sep 29 10:10:14 EST 2010

Thanks to Tim and Renate for inviting me and to everyone who's contributed to this discussion so far. My background in the subject comes from working with the Variable Media Network, first under the auspices of the Guggenheim and then now under Still Water in its new incarnation as the Forging the Future alliance.

I'm intrigued by the two seemingly conflicting ideals for an archive I've seen emerge from empyre this past week. Claudia Kozak proposed that a "weak archive" could be a good thing, while Lynn Hershman wrote that "trespassing  geographies  is very much what this is about, on every level." 

Isn't the problem now facing preservationists of all sorts--but especially those distant from capitals of colonial culture--that our archives are too weak to trespass boundaries? Our precious magnetic tape is too fragile, our financial backing is too flimsy, our archivists are too exhausted by the monumental task in front of them. 

Yet we have come to expect more of archivists than simply filing negatives in solander boxes. We expect them to transcend the bounds of time and medium, safeguarding flammable film canisters and precarious video codecs from the ravages of climate and fashion, translating them when necessary into new formats to survive the onslaught of obsolescence. To judge from this discussion, we also expect them to cross boundaries of culture and prejudice, attracting deserved recognition to the works they painstakingly preserve, not just from their own backyards but from New York, Linz, Beijing, and everywhere art history books are written.

Don't get me wrong: I think these undertakings are more valuable than filing negatives in solander boxes, and I'm glad folks on this list seem to agree. But I think anyone running a small archive or museum needs a boost, and this is where some of the networking tools Still Water's Craig Dietrich and John Bell built for Forging the Future can help.

Because a lot of small things can network more effectively than a few big things. And as Cildo Meireles said, the further you are from the center the faster you move.

Sure, the big museums and archives in North America and Europe have databases that can be searched via their Web sites. So a curator who wants to search for "television" can consult the comprehensive databases of the Langlois Foundation, MedienKunstNetz, or the Database of Virtual Art.

What a researcher currently cannot do, however, is to search for the theme "television" across all, or even a handful, of such databases. For efficiency, such online databases are typically accessed via server-side scripts that take the form "index.php?theme=television," a formula that Google et al. cannot spider. As a result, millions of dollars and countless hours of staff time and expertise are spent squirreling data away in private silos inaccessible to a broader public, in idiosyncratic formats that can't and don't talk to each other.

Enter the weak archive. What if instead of trying to jam every culturally distinct artifact from across the globe into a single union database, we set ourselves the goal of making weak ties between disparate archives that respected their differences? Then a researcher could take the minimum required information to specify an artist--Cildo Meireles, say--and find every record in other archives (no matter what size or location) holding another work by that artist.

This approach describes the Metaserver, a sort of ISBN for art devised by John Bell to generate unique, portable ids for people, works, and vocabulary. Any database with access to the Internet--even a desktop application like Filemaker--can hook into the Metaserver through an open API, at which point a registrar adding records to that database could simultaneously view or add to related data from every other database on the system.

As co-developer Craig Dietrich likes to say, the Metaserver isn't an archive, but rather an "inverse archive," that archives pointers to records in other folk's archives. Of course, the Semantic Web has promised this for some time, but there are plenty of doubts about when, and whether, it will ever arrive. The good news is that registries like the Metaserver are lightweight and easy to build with practical techniques we have right now.

So far the Metaserver team has prototyped the API and is working on testbed implementations with external databases like the Rhizome's Artbase, Franklin Furnace's VocabWiki, The Pool, and the 3rd-generation Variable Media Questionnaire (an independent Forging the Future project). If you're interested in hooking up your archive to the Metaserver or just learning more, give me a shout on- or off-list.

In the meantime, you can learn more about Forging the Future at http://forging-the-future.net. There's a presentation with a section on the Metaserver at http://forging-the-future.net/presentation/.

Looking forward to a stimulating discussion!

Still Water--what networks need to thrive.

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