Close Enough for Jazz: A Statement of Preservation Intent

Kutiman’s Off Grid (2016) is a work that uniquely captures a particular moment—a very volatile and exciting moment, at that—in the development of participatory internet culture. This is a period in which artists are experimenting with innovative new ways to create and distribute their digital works to an audience that is able to provide immediate feedback. Of course, saying that Off Grid is the ultimate work that defines all of participatory internet culture is silly; trying to sum up the movement with one piece would ignore how various works cross-reference one another, as well as the blurred line between audience and creator. My goal is to use Off Grid as a window into this online culture and I plan on eventually collecting similar works to show the various paths along which the culture developed.

In order to best capture a snapshot of this scene, the core materials to be gathered are:

  • Web pages: Kutiman’s homepage, Off Grid’s YouTube page, the YouTube pages of the videos used by Kutiman
  • The individual videos (Off Grid and the videos that compose it)
  • Web pages that embed the video or provide write-ups

There are also a few things that I will attempt to gather, though I can’t be sure I will succeed:

  • Interviews with Kutiman and the other video creators
  • Kutiman’s working files

Now that I’ve laid out the broad plan, I will go into detail regarding the different materials.

Web pages

off grid annotations
Off Grid’s embedded annotations make it easy (and fun) to get lost

As Kutiman says of his work, “It’s all going to be on the internet. It’s from the internet, and that’s where it belongs. You can link, you can dig in it and see the other musicians, read comments or something.” He makes a good point that resonates with the spirit of this preservation effort: capturing the look and feel of www.kutiman.com and the various YouTube videos is a very high priority. For instance, a future user will benefit from being able to click on the annotations embedded in the Off Grid video on YouTube. Similarly, the experience of sifting through the collage of annotations on Kutiman’s web site should be preserved. Half the fun is utilizing these discovery-facilitating features! A user may also be interested in checking out the comments, Related Videos, or the counts for thumbs up/down for context.

Archive-It is a well supported web archiving service with a good amount of customizability via its curator controls. Recently it has received a good amount of support in regards to crawl configurations for archiving YouTube content. The YouTube pages for Off Grid and its component videos will be crawled every few months in order to capture updates. (Once this project broadens, the amount of crawls may be reduced or perhaps limited to one capture.) I should note that Kutiman’s homepage will only need to be captured once, as Off Grid is currently the entirety of the page and it will be removed once it is time to show off his newest creation. I am sort of pretending that I work at an institution that already has Archive It, but I should note that there are alternative tools that can be obtained for free, such as youtube-dl.

Grabbing the YouTube pages for the component videos is important because it will provide a glimpse into the online presence of their creators. Who are these people throwing up videos of themselves playing the sitar/saxophone/hurdy-gurdy, etc.? What are the Related Videos on their pages? Did their pages explode with views thanks to Kutiman? Have people visited via Off Grid and left comments? Many of these questions can be answered partially by viewing the Video Statistics feature in YouTube.

Obtaining web pages that embed Off Grid or provide write-ups is also important in regards to getting context, understanding how the work was received and spread throughout the internet. These sites will identified the old fashioned way: browsing the web for a representative sampling.

Videos

So, if I am already grabbing all the individual web pages, why do I also want the raw videos? The videos will function in a sense as access copies. Not every user will need to view the entire web page, as they may be more interested in just studying the individual videos. Furthermore, Archive It isn’t perfect and I have found claims that it occasionally has trouble with videos. If necessary, the videos can be inserted into a mock up of the web page, similar to how Rhizome inserted PNGs into the source code of Legendary Account pages due to improperly functioning Flash-based visuals. This would sacrifice some of the interactivity in regards to clicking on the annotations, but at least the look of the site and the ability to read comments and such would remain.

In order to get the raw videos from YouTube, a free YouTube downloader and converter will be used. ClipGrab is a reliable and easy-to-use tool that will work perfectly for this project. Thankfully, Kutiman has provided the links to all 96 videos, so there won’t be any resources spent divining the origins of his raw materials; one simply needs to paste the video’s address in ClipGrab and then select the format and quality. All videos will be saved as MPEG4s, as the format is the standard for streaming media and looks to remain well supported. ClipGrab also allows one to obtain a video in its original form (MPEG4, FLV, or WebM), bypassing any conversion. The original form of the video will be documented in its metadata. Videos will be saved at the highest level of quality available.

I should note that I am not interested in contacting the various creators in the hopes of obtaining uncompressed copies of the original videos. The YouTube videos seen by the public—and the inspiration of Kutiman—were compressed, so it is important to preserve that aspect.

Interviews and Working Files

I am, however, interested in obtaining interviews with Kutiman and the various uploaders so that we can have a record of their impressions. I have been unable to find any so far, but Off Grid was only released this February so I will maintain a lookout.

My statement of significance for Off Grid does minimize the importance of the creator’s intent, giving more focus to how the work embodies participatory internet culture, but there is undeniable value in being able to understand the tools used by artists. After all, each and every video that gets uploaded to YouTube gets tinkered with in some sort of video editor software (well, maybe not all of them…), so knowing the affordances of these platforms helps one achieve a deeper understanding of the culture—from the creator’s side of things, that is. It is difficult to know what software Kutiman used because there aren’t too many interviews regarding Off Grid—especially those that want to delve into the nuts and bolts of its construction. I believe that Kutiman used Sony Vegas Pro for Thru You (thanks to Eric for the tip), but I can’t be sure that he stuck with it for Off Grid. He also hasn’t responded to contact attempts, so no luck there.

Ultimately, I feel that getting hold of the working files is within the scope of this preservation effort, but it is a lower priority and will need to be explored further in the future. Even if Kutiman gave us copies of all his working files, shelling out the money for Sony Vegas Pro is a bit too much considering that it will (currently) only be used to view one set of files and access will be limited. Besides, there are several videos on YouTube itself that discuss how to make YouTube videos; why not corral a bunch of those together for another preservation project? I think that a suitable alternative for this project is a brief documentary style video in which Kutiman explains how he worked within the software. But this requires him to respond to my inquiries and be willing to participate. (He did make such a video for Thru You, so I suppose it can pull double duty until a “Making of” video for Off Grid is created.)

6 Replies to “Close Enough for Jazz: A Statement of Preservation Intent”

  1. Pedro, this is a resourceful approach and clearly lays out the decisions and compromises involved. Making decisions about video quality based on user experience, and drawing a line at preservation via specific software are two debatable decisions for which I think you give especially convincing reasons.

    What if Kutiman ends up being opposed to a preservation effort? That would be interesting ethical territory to get into. Any initial thoughts on how you or another collecting institution might respond?

    1. Hmm, I’m not 100% sure how I would handle that situation. I admit that I essentially assumed that this wouldn’t happen as Kutiman didn’t ask for anyone’s permission either and he is a big creative commons advocate. My initial thought is that it could depend on why he wants it removed. If he feels that preserving the work in this form is doing it a disservice (making it become static or whatever) we could try to negotiate with him. Maybe he could help us realize a better way to preserve it. But, if he is adamant on us not preserving it… I suppose we could quite easily look for other works that can represent this phase in participatory internet culture. Am I being too chicken regarding going against an artist’s wishes?

  2. This looks like a very solid plan. I would ditto Amy’s points on this too, you do a nice job laying out why it would make sense to not try and chase down high quality copies of originals for components of the pieces. I also like how you’ve started thinking of what a broader collection might be that this project would participate in. Ultimately, this kind of collecting is best done when it becomes part of a broader collection development plan. That is, working on any individual project becomes far more useful when it becomes part of a broader personal or institutional mission as curating a broader collection increasingly establishes a network of works managed and preserved along similar approaches and techniques which is much more valuable than the individual parts of the collection.

  3. A musicologist doing interviews! I’m shocked!

    All prodding aside, I like the idea of having some interviews here, particularly because this seems to be such a maelstrom of different videos; knowing a bit more about Kutiman’s process would be valuable to understanding the collection.

    To get back to your initial thought from the statement of significance, have you considered conducting some sort of standardized “interview” with the other video creators? It might be worth considering drafting up an email form you could send them, with a set of 6 or so questions, about their own work, hardware/software used, and their thoughts on their inclusion in Kutiman’s project. It wouldn’t be so hard to gather data more centered around the collaborative element in that way.

    1. I like your idea for the interview format. I didn’t go into that level of detail here because I resigned myself to only turning in a “pretend project.” Still, if I ever get this thing off the ground, I will definitely use that idea.

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