When I was in high school, I took an AP Biology class, and somewhere in there (I believe after the AP exam), our teacher had us build kaleidoscopes.
The end result was a bit like this:
It’s so beautiful, but in making one, I learned that the process requires throwing a bunch of random things into one end: beads, bits of glass, glitter, etc. I remember my teacher telling me to put a spring in the kaleidoscope, that it would look cool, and I doubted him, but I put it in anyway, and of course the little waves created by the spring were as interesting as he described. I remember trying to show my friends particularly beautiful arrangements I got by turning the ‘scope, but in passing it, a bead would inevitably shift and my friend would see something entirely different.
Kaleidoscopes remind me a lot of the digital; while there are objects that are real and material involved in making them, the images you make with them are so ephemeral. They also remind me a lot of this class, in that, as you look through the eyepiece, every person who looks sees something different… and I think that’s a key lesson when approaching curation of the digital world (or anything, for that matter).
So Many… Things
Both in considering my final project and going through the games, images, music, videos, and other art pieces for this class, I realized just how many different components there are to consider: hardware, software, platforms, files types, social behavior, all these things in regards to how it was made, how it was used in its time, how it can be used in the future… just when I feel like I have considered all facets of a digital object, more seem to appear. While I’ve always been vaguely aware of screen essentialism in a general sense, this class highlighted the number of things being represented by a piece of digital art, and it exceeded what I had been considering, particularly when it came to hardware.
Of course choices have to be made about what components to save, and how best to save them. But I think my takeaway was that digital objects require an extra layer of considerations, because their place in the physical world is so different than non-digital objects. “The thing itself” has weirder and fuzzier boundaries– I can hold a painting, I can hold a record, and these items are bound by the materials that make them, whereas digital objects are not held in the same way, really. And so, curators have to create these boundaries themselves at a certain level, or at least explore where others have labeled them, and see how the objects they define interact and live on the digital world around them.
From Pixels to People
Perhaps my greatest takeaway from the class is that people bring such different perspectives to the world of digital art. In our readings, different curators, researchers, scholars, and users all took digital art and considered it in different ways… and in our class, we would occasionally disagree and often see objects/issues/values in different lights (see any discussion of authenticity). As an ethnographer and a researcher, I kind of love these disputes; they force us to look at ourselves and consider the biases we bring to the table when looking at digital objects. I generally feel I have a good grasp of my academic biases (theoretical areas of interest/knowledge, particular methodologies I’m familiar with), but something I hadn’t considered was how my own digital behaviors affect how I see the digital world: my participation in Twitch Plays Pokemon, viewing of Let’s Plays, and knowledge of Weebl and Bob all give me a unique perspective on related digital art pieces, and that has a bearing on how I go about dealing with such objects.
To Infinity and Beyond
While I feel many of my questions about digital art have been answered, my mind still dwells in those edges, where the digital and . A friend of mine posted a video about virtual reality painting applications that might be coming in the future.
I think new hardware and software like virtual reality provide new challenges, where the lines between the digital and the physical become less clear, and I wonder how we might deal with these issues in the coming years.
As an ethnomusicologist, I like to hope that somewhere in any given project, I can give something back to the people I research, as they give me their support, time, and energy. I would like to pursue some digital ethnography projects in the future, and I hope that the tools provided to me by this class will help me in giving assistance to creators of digital art pieces. I do wonder, though, about that boundary between being a fly on the wall, just taking what my interlocutors give me, and making suggestions or letting them know more about my end (or the archivist’s end) of the process, when it comes to issues of preservation. Perhaps some of these questions are better raised on a case-by-case basis, but they will stick with me as I talk with my colleagues about how we might best serve the communities, digital or otherwise, with which we work.