Curating texts and contexts

I was originally interested in this course for its focus on both arts materials and digital curation, both of which I’m hoping to work with in the future. Many of the concepts and issues we’ve been discussing over the last few months have stayed with me, coming to mind both in the course of my other archival coursework and beyond. As I’ve mentioned before, platform theory and format theory kept reemerging for me throughout our discussions. They provide useful frameworks for thinking about how a work’s context affects its creation and reception in powerful but not-always-obvious ways. These effects mean the various formats or platforms involved need to be considered not just for technical preservation purposes, but also for understanding the meaning and significance of the work. 

I was also interested in the focus on the interface between digital and physical in Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms, Montfort and Bogost’s Raising the Beam, and our readings about IRENE and other digitization projects. Digital and physical materials are so often talked about separately, as very different universes, both in general and in an archival context, so discussing how they are often intertwined was enlightening. It seems like this aspect will become increasingly important as digitization of physical objects becomes ever more prevalent and as early digital objects become more and more antique.

Both of these issues are basically different ways of thinking about the impact of context. This has been a common theme in my archives courses, but it was useful to investigate it from some different angles here, both in the readings and in practice through the course project. Digital objects in particular raise lots of questions and challenges in this area, since they can be so easily subjected to recontextualization, and their visual contexts can vary hugely even for different viewers viewing the original work. Many digital works are designed specifically to interact with their social or technical context, to the extent that in some cases preserving the context might be just as valuable (or more valuable!) than preserving the core work itself. All this makes digital art an interesting space in which to discuss these issues.

Creating and executing a preservation plan for ThruYou provided practical experience in applying these ideas to a real-world situation. The YouTube platform, and the context it provides, are central to the creation and meaning of Kutiman’s work, so these same issues proved very relevant in considering questions of significance and preservation strategy.

As far as open questions, one thing I’ll continue thinking about is the role of scale: how will these concepts and techniques scale to much vaster collections of digital materials? The ThruYou project was useful to think through a digital preservation project on a detailed level, but many or most real-world projects will be on significantly larger scales. Time and resource pressures are likely to limit the amount of research and analysis an archivist is able to devote to a specific item or collection regardless of size. How can we hash out and share best practices and guidelines so that we can effectively handle exponentially larger collections, while still keeping an eye on the complex issues around digital curation?

Another open question, prompted by reading about the IRENE project: what are other ways we can use digitization to enhance or access new value in physical collections (or in digital collections, for that matter)? And how can we build the technical skills or relationships needed to facilitate this?

Overall, in addition to their relevance to digital arts materials, I think many of the concepts we’ve explored can be applied usefully to archival materials more broadly, including physical materials. I’ve found delving into these issues fascinating and enlightening, and I’m looking forward to continuing to engage with them in the future.

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