[-empyre-] from Jon Ippolito: Archives that trespass

Timothy Murray tcm1 at cornell.edu
Wed Sep 29 15:16:28 EST 2010

>Hi, everyone,

Please apologize for any cross-posting, but Jon sent along this post 
earlier tonight which arrived in my mailbox, but without the normal 
-empyre- header.  I thought I just cleared it through our admin. 
server (which will hold suspicous headers) but it doesn't seem to 
have materialized on my screen.  So I'm forwarding Jon's post. 
Again, Jon please accept our apologies for the many mishaps we have 
had getting you online this week.


>From: Jon Ippolito <jon.ippolito at gmail.com>
>To: soft_skinned_space <empyre at gamera.cofa.unsw.edu.au>
>Date: Tue, 28 Sep 2010 20:10:14 -0400

>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 
>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 
>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 
>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.

Timothy Murray
Director, Society for the Humanities
Curator, The Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art, Cornell Library
Professor of Comparative Literature and English
A. D. White House
27 East Avenue
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York 14853

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