Minding Individuality

What comes to your mind when you hear the term born digital artwork? To me, it is an image of website on my Mac laptop. It is not hard to see how limited and historically situated my imagination is. Though such first impression may be trivial, the unquestioned assumptions that surround the born digital artworks inform the way we approach them in hope of preservation for the future generations.

Two of the born-digital artworks Matt Kirschenbaum introduces in his Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (2008) suggest how our assumptions about the digital art need to be challenged. One such example is Agrippa, a work of William Gibson originally published in 1992. The text was said to be encrypted with the then state of the art method in order to facilitate a single reading experience of 20 minutes. Contrary to the notion of digital artwork being fluid, Agrippa’s electronic text becomes unaccessible over a short period of time. The book in which the disk was embedded, too, was designed to dissolve by its exposure to the light. Such material characteristics of Agrippa suggest a marriage between the form and the theme of Gibson’s work–fading autobiographical recollection. Suffice it to say that Agrippa is a nicely executed artist book project. Within a day of release, however, Agrippa, started to venture into the new realm, challenging the notion of fixed art. That is, Agrippa’s text, what was said to be unhackable, was miraculously reproduced and posted online. What is more interesting, this text, as Gibson himself acknowledges, keeps changing over the years. Additionally, these textual reproductions and a few reminiscences of original media of Agrippa are now the only access points that allow us to learn about the work. This complicates the assumption of digital artworks being ephemeral.

Second example Kirschenbaum provides is Mystery House, a game written by Roberta and Ken Williams in 1980. As Kirschenbaum offers the tour of its disk image (floppy disk) composed of 40-kilobyte electronic file, it becomes apparent how the construction of the game itself is the main attraction. Recalling his childhood, Kirschenbaum writes: “normative play is perhaps the least interesting level on which to engage [Mystery House]” (129). The disk image, as Kirschenbaum walks us through, exposes the game players how both machine-level instructions and screen-level text are at work simultaneously, blurring the distinction of what is stored and what we see on the screen, the distinction Kirschenbaum calls “forensic materiality” and “formal materiality.” In addition, Kirschenbaum sheds light on how a storage system like this complicates the idea of digital files’ fungibility. According to Kirschenbaum, the disk image retains traces of past activities. For instance, such action as “deletion” does not remove the data but prepares the data to be overwritten, should that happen in the future. While each disk image carries the trace of its unique activities, little attention has been paid to this idiosyncrasy, writes Kirschenbaum. He speculates this overlook has to do with “screen essentialism” (27). In other words, we tend to emphasize the look of any Mystery House–just about what the emulator aims to achieve–rather than attending to the unique constitution of a Mystery House. The different emphasis, should you know, can be described with such terms as “allographic” and “autobiographic.”

Throughout the book, Kirschenbaum illustrates how particular digital artworks can be. It seems to me being conscious about digital artworks’ individuality would better equip us when thinking about what to preserve, how to preserve, and why. The anecdote Cory Arcangel offers in his “The Warhol Files” demonstrates how the assumption may hinder us from the sound preservative practice. The Andy Warhol Museum’s acquisition and the consequent assessment of the painter’s Amiga computer, tells Arcangel, were based on the assumption that the machine should retain files “presumably labeled along the lines of ANDY’s STUFF, ANDY’S DRAWINGS, etc.” Only, those files were not to be found, writes Arcangel. It was later found out, according to Arcangel, that Warhol used an application called GraphiCraft, in order to produce his bitmap drawing, and that this software did not allow files to be saved on other than GraphiCraft disks. Had curators not known the idiosyncratic condition under which Warhol labored, those commercial disks–and the drawings stored on them–might have been overlooked and lost to history.

Doug Reside in his “‘No Day But Today’: A Look at Jonathan Larson’s Word Files” also describes how every software is historically situated. It is easy to say this than to do it, I must add, especially a software in question is as familiar to as Microsoft Word. Concerning the text’s variants among the digital records of Larson’s musical RENT, Reside demonstratively entertains possible interpretations of such variation. It turns out that, according to Reside, Microsoft Word 5.1 (the version Larson used to compose) had a function called “fast save.” This unfamiliar feature to our contemporary ears does as strange things as appending revisions to the end of a file instead of overwriting. Reside concludes that such records would “provide scholars and artists a fascinating glimpse into [Larson’s] creative process.” Such an inquiry is only made possible only when we learn to read such record within the historical context of the medium and its affordance, among other things. Needless to say, such historical awareness is crucial to archiving practice.

Granted, we need to take into consideration the particular native environment within which the digital artwork was, and continues to be, shaped, in order to preserve the work’s significance in as comprehensive manners as possible for the future generations. I can imagine subject specialists would have an important role to play when paying due respect to the individuality of digital artworks. For instance, Kirschenbaum’s walk-through of a digital artwork is undoubtedly invaluable contextual records. But I wonder how we can make this a feasible practice? Kirschenbaum’s description of “Agrippa” concerns its changing environment including the significance of the link to “404 File Not Found” and the variants of typeface rendering its ASCII transcriptions. How much attendance would do justice to the digital artwork’s individuality?

5 Replies to “Minding Individuality”

  1. Setsuko, in terms of particularity and subject expertise, in some ways video game preservation could mean a guaranteed population of experts in the idiosyncrasies and affordances of the material to preserve. The ability to document collective knowledge as part of a preservation effort could be limited only by the population’s powers of recall — and the archivist’s ability to find them. It’s exciting to think of users as allies in both creation and preservation, and I think your second example (Mystery House) highlights how they’re as integral to the context and shaping of a digital object as Andy Warhol’s choice of software or Jonathan Larson’s writing/editing process. If only there was some scalable, manageable way to gather user histories as part of the preservation process… and the other shoe drops. The task of representing a multitude of perspectives and experiences only amplifies the already labor-intensive specificity of preserving digital art.

    1. Notwithstanding the poor searchability, could we get at this through web archives of online user forums? There probably wouldn’t be pages for every particular artwork but in the case of video games and other software I imagine there would be some robust information about how people use the software, teach others, solve issues, and overcome “the resistance of the materials.” But if you were thinking of documenting particular users or the creator’s knowledge then that seems much more difficult to capture.

      1. Crawling (or whatever) user forums is a great idea! I was just reading in Archive-It documentation that web archives managed there are full-text searchable, but haven’t really tried it out. If we wanted to save user forums and be able to search them, maybe indexing them with a separate search engine would work better than trying to configure a crawler to capture a working version of the forum’s original search. Not sure which is more doable and/or usable. But yeah, really liking this idea.

  2. Great discussion and synthesis of the the readings. I’m thrilled to see you deploy some of the significant amount of vocabulary that Kirschenbaum gives us. The impact of Kirschenbaum’s work on the forensic and material nature of digital objects has had a huge impact and I think it ends up sparking some compelling points of dialog with Ippolito and Reinhart’s take on fluidity and social memory. Looking forward to our discussion in class!

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