Cast a Wide Net

As I approached finishing my MLS degree (only two required courses to take this summer!), I wanted to choose my last elective wisely. Though my background is in photography, I had not taken a single course directly related to art or visual material, so Introduction to Digital Arts Curation sounded like a good course to end on.

Preserving digital art means casting a wide net, but maybe do a better job of it than this guy.
Preserving digital art means casting a wide net, but maybe do a better job of it than this guy.

First, I thought I was clear on what “digital arts” meant. This was probably the first lesson learned in the class – just how wide this net could be cast. Class readings and discussions on things like glitch art, webcomics and crowdsourced games like Twitch Plays Pokémon were unfamiliar territory for me. Classmates’ posts on Twitterbots and YouTube projects introduced other work to me, and even my final project on the multimedia online journalism piece Snow Fall was not something I would have initially thought of working on as part of the class.

Besides the variety of artworks we discussed, all the possible ways of thinking about preservation of a work were eye opening. Whether it was looking at the individual bits and bytes that make up a digital work, how it functions on different platforms, or the cultural and historical context surrounding the work – there’s no one right way of preserving digital materials. Viewing preservation through these different frameworks really opened up the possibilities for working through our final projects.

The initial research for my project on Snow Fall laid the groundwork for the historical and cultural context, but also highlighted some of the forensic aspects of the website. Getting my thoughts down on paper (actually an online post) while writing the statement of significance helped to shape what eventually became some of the final pieces of the Archival Information Package. The act of describing the various features to the project and continuing to build on it before actually collecting all the pieces was an extremely useful exercise – and a valuable activity in relation to appraisal.

Another issue that came up repeatedly over the semester was the importance of collaboration. Involving stakeholders, whether that means archivists, conservators, the artist, technical specialists, fellow classmates and users, is critical in preserving digital works. We must gather all viewpoints to determine the most important aspects to save, as well as use the collaboration to discover new possibilities in preservation. This idea was reiterated during the film screening and discussion of Andy van Dam’s project on hypertext at Brown University. The NEH-funded work was only possible through cooperative work between computer scientists and humanities scholars, which was mutually beneficial.

Tying in lessons from other classes with this one, we were able to focus our efforts on one particular project to preserve. My selection was The New York Times’ online story, Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek, which is summarized on this poster. Though this class was specific to digital arts, the theories and frameworks through which we viewed the artworks could really be applied to any type of work or collection.

Despite the focus on a single project for the semester, I think everyone also learned lessons about making some compromises. There is never enough time to do everything an archivist would like to do – perhaps we would have liked to do more background research, or there were technical difficulties, licensing issues, or the input from artists wasn’t possible. So, we make decisions and compromise. I attended the recent MARAC conference in Pittsburgh and Francine Snyder, the Director of Archives and Scholarship at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, described valuable advice she received from a mentor – in the future, there will always be a person looking at your work from the past, asking “ Who was the jackass that did this?” So, you accept this and do the best you can do – attempt to find a scalable solution, and work with what you have.







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