Affordances of the future

The thing I appreciate about this class the most is the fact that it gave me a chance to work with art again, and investigate how that medium works vis a vis the information sciences. And the best tool it gave me to do that is introducing me to the concept of affordances.

What I like so much about affordances is the way that they’re a sort of double-edged sword: they help you identify the limitations of the hardware or software behind a particular item, but they also help you identify how to exploit it, how to wring every last drop of utility out of it, either during the creation and use of the item, or later while attempting to preserve or restore it. They can be physical affordances, as we learned about through Kirschenbaum and Montfort and Bogost, or more theoretical, as discussed in Rinehart and Ippolito.

Dan Flavin's works come to mind as an example of affordance.
Dan Flavin’s works come to mind as an example of affordance.

For analog materials, the affordances are pretty simple: a book is bound and only readable in one direction, it’s not searchable, and if printed in quires has certain page requirements. But on the other hand, if you take an early print book apart, you might find the remnants of earlier pre-print manuscripts in the binding. Or if you digitize one using certain image techniques, you might discover it’s actually reused parchment, a palimpsest. But these things are considered to be a bonus when found, whereas for a digital work taking the affordances into account is pretty much a necessity.

The biggest affordance to consider, and again I feel it’s one that is also in play with analog works, but not as strongly, is creator’s intent. Is a certain unexpected expression of the program code a bug or an Easter egg? Should it be preserved as a cheat or removed to preserve authenticity? Is recreating a font exactly important, in order to reproduce imagery and emotional atmosphere, or will any font do? This term has fallen out of favor — should it be replaced? When can we throw artistic intent out the window entirely, and truly kill the author? The reinforcement of the idea that knowledge of the situation in which a work was created is key is one that seems critical to me.

One affordance that I wish we had been able to discuss more, in one of the few classes I’ve taken that isn’t pure theory, is budgetary. It got touched on a few times, but financial restrictions play a large part in not only the creation of an item, but how well it can be maintained and how it can be preserved. Is there a fan community who can or has done a portion of the work, as with creating emulators for ROM-based video games? Does your institution have a donor (or potential donor) who is deeply involved with your intended subject? Or are you already over budget and facing more cuts?

We’re still exploring what the digital world is and how it works, coming up with new ways to exploit it all the time. So far we’ve done a lot of applying techniques from traditional art forms to this new medium, and we’ve even exploited the new media types to help us make the most of our analog media. But we still often fall into the trap of considering new media in the same vein as traditional media, and missing opportunities inherent in its nature. As more digital natives make their way into the preservation and curation fields, I hope that they will help create a new way of thinking about these media types that will be truly mold-breaking.

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.








I was going to give this post a much more serious and important name (I also wasn’t going to illustrate it with only homestarrunner images, but oh well), but I was thinking about the things that got me riled up this semester and I came back to Dappert and Farquhar bagging on significant properties with a vengeance. While I have made my peace with their point of view and the context in which they wrote their article – the phrase and its connotations were becoming cumbersome and antiquated – I still see a value in preserving the idea of stating clearly why something is important and what about that object must be maintained in order to show that it is rendering successfully. For my field study at the Smithsonian Libraries, I’ve been curating digital images and one of the new metadata fields is the “Short Description.” Having the Short Description ensures that no matter how many times the image is migrated, through how many file types, the most significant property is that it displays this particular image. What makes the digital object valuable is that it performs it’s functions; so without proof that it is in fact doing that thing, what good is it? A dead file is for most people less useful that the description of what it was when it was working.


What’s been really engaging has been the swirling vortex of how things grow from here. While the images I worked with at the SIL were very simple digital objects, more complex digital objects respond to unique preservation needs in a sort of three dimensional space where their needs are relationally defined as sometimes being very similar to simple objects and easy to meet and sometimes extraordinarily complicated and as the preservation expert you’re kind of left guessing and going “let’s screen-cap it and make a hard copy.” And while I could definitely see this as being an argument against the original model of the significant property, I see it as making the process of writing out those properties even more important. Complexity isn’t a bad thing, but as conservation moves out of the super-specialized labs and into the everyday service centers, being able to talk about what it is that makes a work unique and what it was supposed to do when the platform that ran it has been surpassed is important.


What I didn’t know at the start of the course was how expansive the definition of digital art could be. The myriad topics we’ve covered have been eye-opening and have illuminated to me just how narrow my experience of the digital world has been so far. But it makes me wonder if everyone has the same experience of digital culture: we all have our little slice of the internet and it undulates as it is acted upon by recommendations and as time allows, but with a finite amount of time and a potentially infinite amount of digital content, there is no way anyone can know the whole internet – hence sites like Know Your Meme.


One of the big questions still remaining to me is, when the large institutions – aside from Library of Congress which is having massive digital collections thrust on it because it is the last resort for many things no one else can handle – are only just beginning to deal with digital art and only in very small quantities, how can we encourage small institutions to engage? Not colleges, which are more likely to push boundaries and not digitize current collections, but how do we encourage small, single-staff services toward these endeavors and how do we best support them? I feel like if my Homestar Runner project proved anything it’s that if you love a thing, there are going to be other people on the internet who love it too and surely, if we’re curating digital content, we should be able to better leverage the amazing resources of the internet, the NYPL menu and the Old Weather transcription projects and Citizen Science.HRA4

It’s Illusions I Recall; I Don’t Really Know the Digital at All

When I was in high school, I took an AP Biology class, and somewhere in there (I believe after the AP exam), our teacher had us build kaleidoscopes.RPK Tramplin

The end result was a bit like this:

It’s so beautiful, but in making one, I learned that the process requires throwing a bunch of random things into one end: beads, bits of glass, glitter, etc. I remember my teacher telling me to put a spring in the kaleidoscope, that it would look cool, and I doubted him, but I put it in anyway, and of course the little waves created by the spring were as interesting as he described. I remember trying to show my friends particularly beautiful arrangements I got by turning the ‘scope, but in passing it, a bead would inevitably shift and my friend would see something entirely different.

Kaleidoscopes remind me a lot of the digital; while there are objects that are real and material involved in making them, the images you make with them are so ephemeral. They also remind me a lot of this class, in that, as you look through the eyepiece, every person who looks sees something different… and I think that’s a key lesson when approaching curation of the digital world (or anything, for that matter).

So Many… Things

Both in considering my final project and going through the games, images, music, videos, and other art pieces for this class, I realized just how many different components there are to consider: hardware, software, platforms, files types, social behavior, all these things in regards to how it was made, how it was used in its time, how it can be used in the future… just when I feel like I have considered all facets of a digital object, more seem to appear. While I’ve always been vaguely aware of screen essentialism in a general sense, this class highlighted the number of things being represented by a piece of digital art, and it exceeded what I had been considering, particularly when it came to hardware.

Of course choices have to be made about what components to save, and how best to save them. But I think my takeaway was that digital objects require an extra layer of considerations, because their place in the physical world is so different than non-digital objects. “The thing itself” has weirder and fuzzier boundaries– I can hold a painting, I can hold a record, and these items are bound by the materials that make them, whereas digital objects are not held in the same way, really. And so, curators have to create these boundaries themselves at a certain level, or at least explore where others have labeled them, and see how the objects they define interact and live on the digital world around them.

From Pixels to People

Perhaps my greatest takeaway from the class is that people bring such different perspectives to the world of digital art. In our readings, different curators, researchers, scholars, and users all took digital art and considered it in different ways… and in our class, we would occasionally disagree and often see objects/issues/values in different lights (see any discussion of authenticity). As an ethnographer and a researcher, I kind of love these disputes; they force us to look at ourselves and consider the biases we bring to the table when looking at digital objects. I generally feel I have a good grasp of my academic biases (theoretical areas of interest/knowledge, particular methodologies I’m familiar with), but something I hadn’t considered was how my own digital behaviors affect how I see the digital world: my participation in Twitch Plays Pokemon, viewing of Let’s Plays, and knowledge of Weebl and Bob all give me a unique perspective on related digital art pieces, and that has a bearing on how I go about dealing with such objects.

To Infinity and Beyond

While I feel many of my questions about digital art have been answered, my mind still dwells in those edges, where the digital and . A friend of mine posted a video about virtual reality painting applications that might be coming in the future.


I think new hardware and software like virtual reality provide new challenges, where the lines between the digital and the physical become less clear, and I wonder how we might deal with these issues in the coming years.

As an ethnomusicologist, I like to hope that somewhere in any given project, I can give something back to the people I research, as they give me their support, time, and energy. I would like to pursue some digital ethnography projects in the future, and I hope that the tools provided to me by this class will help me in giving assistance to creators of digital art pieces. I do wonder, though, about that boundary between being a fly on the wall, just taking what my interlocutors give me, and making suggestions or letting them know more about my end (or the archivist’s end) of the process, when it comes to issues of preservation. Perhaps some of these questions are better raised on a case-by-case basis, but they will stick with me as I talk with my colleagues about how we might best serve the communities, digital or otherwise, with which we work.