Documenting the ephemeral

So far we’ve discussed the multiplicity of formats and technical issues that make preserving a digital work and accurately recreating it tricky, as well as the difficulties involved in determining what is significant about a work of digital art. This question becomes even more complex when we consider the interactive, socially constructed, performative, and ephemeral nature of much digital art. While this aspect is present in a lot of digital and web art, video games and similar virtual spaces invite users to get particularly involved in creating the story, history, and meaning of the work.

As a result, the meaning the work holds for its user community and for society at large is likely to vary widely; indeed, many games are designed specifically to allow for this diversity of experience. Ben DeVane and Kurt D. Squire’s research (PDF) explores this by interviewing three groups of teenagers about their experiences playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. They focus in particular on the participants’ views on the portrayal of race and violence within the game. The variety of views here, even within just a few focus groups, points to the huge multiplicity of possible meanings users can draw from an interactive work. The broader media discussion about the game represents yet another viewpoint on the work and its impact. What makes this complicated from a preservation standpoint is that these meanings are created largely outside the game’s code or other technical details–they emerge through player actions and interactions in the course of gameplay. How can we preserve what’s important about a work when meaning is generated on the fly, by each user or group of users?

Lessons from other fields

While digital art is a relatively new field, these types of preservation questions are not entirely novel. Other fields, such as music, theatre, dance, and performance art, all face challenges in dealing with the necessarily ephemeral quality of a performed work, and the ways in which that aspect can nonetheless be crucial to the meaning of the work for its creators, performers, and viewers. Libby Smigel’s Documenting Dance (PDF) and Christina Manzella and Alex Watkins’ “Performance Anxiety” (PDF) present overviews of how these challenges can be confronted in dance and performance art respectively.

Both articles stress the need for the flexible use of a wide range of approaches to the works. In Documenting Dance, the authors survey several different documentary techniques, then show how these can be adapted or combined to suit the needs of different types of documenters, documented works, and cultural situations. In “Performance Anxiety”, likewise, a documenter is encouraged to be flexible and creative in applying a range of potential documentary solutions to the individual project. This flexibility is presented as important both for accurate and useful preservation, as well as for accomplishing that preservation with sometimes limited resources.

Tools and techniques

How does this performative and interactive aspect manifest itself in digital art? David R. Hussey’s article on Twitch Plays Pokemon and Josh Howard’s piece about Oral History and MMOs provide more examples of how differing meanings emerge from interactive game worlds, and begin to suggest some possible techniques that could preserve these meanings. Hussey suggests message board posts, news articles, and fan art collections as sources of evidence for community culture, while Howard goes into detail about the potential usefulness of oral histories as a way of providing essential context for a preserved virtual world.

Henry Lowood pulls together many of these ideas and applies them to real-world preservation projects in his article “Are Virtual Worlds History?” He considers virtual worlds such as Second Life or Everquest as places whose meaning is historical in a sense, insofar as it involves the stories and events that take place inside the virtual world. This means that preservation focused on software and game data misses critical information for understanding a virtual world’s impact and history. As he notes, “Installing Everquest in 2050 will not reveal much about the virtual world that emerged from the software, even if future writers and historians have access to everything needed to run a fully functioning version of the game” (p. 124). Lowood, like Hussey and Howard, stresses the importance of collecting digital information about the virtual world’s history from outside the game world itself, in sites like wikis and message boards, as well as through game data such as videos and “demo” files (which allow a user to view a replay of a previous game from within the game engine).

Virtual preservation in the real world

How do all these ideas work in practice though? Lowood discusses research on these issues through the Preserving Virtual Worlds project (the project’s main website is, ironically, a dead link, but the project’s final report is available here) and the Sirikata project, which explored using an open-source virtual world platform to preserve and provide access to 3-D objects and environments (while this project is still available to download, it appears that active development ended a few years ago). Both projects suggest useful paths for future exploration, but also reveal that there’s a lot of work yet to be done.

A big takeaway that emerges from for me this conversation is the need to be open to a full range of preservation tactics, and to be creative and flexible in combining and adapting them to the materials and context at hand. However, while this seems promising, and has been effective in other fields, it’s also potentially very time- and resource-intensive. How well will this approach scale as we deal with a growing and diverse range of digital art materials? Is it possible to automate any part of the process? Or will this scaling issue sort itself out as we grow more familiar with digital art preservation techniques?

8 Replies to “Documenting the ephemeral”

  1. I was especially interested in Larwood’s discussion of virtual relationships, specifically the circumstance of Karyn, Koster, and Spaight. We’ve come to have this idea of ‘ephemera’ as thing’s that don’t matter because we can’t touch them, but insubstantial also means incorporeal – ghostly – the perfect metaphor for the online worlds described. But what Koster is playing with, I think in an artistic way (though not without a dash of cruelty), is the line between fiction and real life. He’s engaging in a virtual world where through fictionalized representations of themselves, real people are having real interactions. Into this, he inserts an additional avatar to build and then manipulate emotions. He’s correct in his defense of himself to Spaight; real feelings were hurt, but were they his? And how does that affect the reading and artistic integrity of the situation?

  2. Your post really made me think. I wonder if in the future, archivists are going to have to worry about defending analog/physical art vs digital art? Also by having a community base, with ephemera, help or hinder the ability to preserve the main subject? Personally, I agree with with Hussey and Lowood. By having additional materials, message boards, fan art, etc, it can only enhance the experience and having a long lasting cultural effect. In response to what you were saying about dance and performance art, more technology needs to be created to accurately preserve the experience of it; not just a record of it happening. A company called “E-Traces” has developed a device that can be attached to ballet shoes and translates the dance steps into doodles. This way the actual dance can be preserved and later experienced in a whole new way.

    I don’t think that digital preservation can wholly be automated. This is due to there being so many different types of digital art and each one requires a unique type of preservation strategies.

    1. Thanks for the dance shoes link… fascinating! I agree that complete automation probably isn’t possible, but do think techniques might need to be developed to speed up some aspects of the work, especially with larger collections. Interesting questions… I agree that having community based around a work does help in preserving the meaningful aspects of the work; both because people in the community create important information about their experiences, and because they often take the first steps towards preserving that information (as with the emulator community, for example). It is also interesting to consider how these developments in digital art might affect analog art preservation in turn. Maybe preservation of the community around a work will become increasingly important in that field too? This is already reflected in broader trends in the archival field towards participatory and community archiving.

  3. I found this subject to be very interesting . The fact that there is a debate about how to preserve the meaning of a work sheds light on the very real issue on how perspective affects both the work and the user. It is why concepts like ‘the death of the author’ exist and is major issue (or feature) of all human work that are open to interpretation. The challenge this posses to archives and preservation management is quite the real one, and unfortunately one that i think that archivest’s can never truly win. The reality is that interpretation and perspective are near infinite in number and it is not possible to preserve all of them. Perhaps some combination of preserving the core work and some perspectives that have been deemed valuable?

    1. I agree that either part–the core work or the perspectives of the community—would likely be insufficient on its own. When a game has so many participants, with such varying experiences, determining which perspectives we should preserve is a crucial question. This issue comes up with analog materials too, but seems especially complex in the case of a virtual world, where the perspectives of participants often are the work in an important sense. I think archival appraisal theory could be useful here again. Concepts like documentation strategies, community archiving, and participatory archiving, all focus on centering a collection’s community context, and learning how to involve the community and document the broader context as much as possible.

  4. Your post made me think of another MMORPG incident studied for real-world reasons, that I didn’t get to talk about in my own post: Warcraft’s Corrupted Blood incident (Wikipedia link, since it has the best link roundup of all aspects). Basically a glitch caused a spell attack to be spreadable beyond the originally intended parameters, and reactions to the incident in-game had many parallels to pandemics in real life. This kind of thing is definitely something that can’t be studied based on the environment alone, because it was a temporal incident, and eventually patches were deployed and servers reset, so after the fact there was literally no trace of the incident in the code.

    As for preserving it, I think with things like MMORPGs we actually have a good chance of capturing a good representative sample of gameplay experience, due to what those two M’s stand for: ‘massively multiplayer.’ This is not a work encountered only by a select handful who can afford tickets to an opera at the Met, or a failed play by a famous author, left hidden in their personal ephemera. This is millions of people playing the same game and interacting with the same environment. Finding ways to engage with the gameplayer community, as well as the games creator, which also involves more and more people these days, sounds like a good starting place to me, and in some ways, especially with older games like those on the Internet Archive, this is the angle we’re already working from.

  5. Thanks for a great overview of this week’s readings, Eric. I’m starting to think that preserving digital art and other digital objects involves getting a better handle on just how ephemeral they really are. When artists make use of web-based content, tools, and platforms (including social media), aren’t they sort of leaving an exhaust trail of data that could theoretically or actually be tied to a specific artist and a specific work, or even a specific act within the creation of a work? Does capturing an artist’s data ‘exhaust’ constitute a viable form of documentation? There’s research out there about participatory personal data and mobile device data as personal records, so I wonder if in future we’ll see documentation of digital begin to include these kinds of data as well.

    1. What specifically made me think of it, within the context of discussing performance this week, was this line from Documenting Dance: “Often, dance preservation and documentation are not the primary objectives within these situations; in fact, sometimes the records that result are casual, even accidental, byproducts.” I like but am also wary of the idea of accidental documentation.

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