We All Digress with Digital Artworks

Imagine holding an exhibition of digital artworks that we have carefully collected, say, in five years? What would you put down on the artworks’ label?


I ask because these questions help me reflect on some of the points we collectively mused on during our class meetings this semester, as we digressed from our readings. My reflection covers these points precisely because they remain formative, and I would like to hear your thoughts on them.

Cultural Institutions 2.0

First point has to do with three types of cultural institutions and their conventional and altering practices. Museums, libraries, and archives—institutions most likely to be in charge of curating digital artworks—have traditionally valued their collections differently. As Rinehart and Ippolito explain in their Re-Collection, the difference can be generalized as follows. Museums were mostly in charge of unique objects and took care of conservations, as needed. Libraries and archives were traditionally in charge of documents. Generally, libraries held the mass produced resources and circulated them accordingly. Archives, in addition to the published works, held unpublished resources and rare items, often in association with the published authors. Archives rarely circulated their items.

To a certain extent, the distinction among three types of cultural institutions seems to be reflected to some of the theoretical frameworks we have encountered. For instance, museum and archival tradition of valuing the uniqueness of an object can be seen among the approaches of Kirschenbaum (media archeology), Arcangel (Warhol files), and Reside (Jonathan Larson’s Word files). How libraries circulate copies of the published work can be seen in Rinehart and Ippolito’s approach (dissemination/reinterpretation).

But here is the rub: the Library of Congress now has a Flickr collection. Because, let’s face it, technically speaking, uploading pictures on the Internet is a form of publishing and mass production? No doubt such image corpus would be helpful. In the short run, people can learn about the usage of an online publishing platform. In the long run, the corpus can be a window to the 21st-century way of lives.


Other readings further suggest how the conventional cultural institutions’ delegation model would be blurred. Historical research of hardware, software, and file formats—such as that of Montfort & Bogost (platform studies), Ball (CAD), Manoich (Photoshop), and Eppink (GIF)—demonstrate how artworks that utilize a digital device at any stage of their production is essentially codependent on the nature of such devices.

To be fair, material conditions of artwork have always had an influence long before the digital age. What is new, perhaps, is that we are now aware of 1) how the digital production devices are historically located and that 2) the pace of their obsolescence is fast and furious. That means, without a preservative effort, we would lose the access to the digital artwork. By access, I mean, the access to the digital artwork itself and the access to its historical significance.

An interesting mash-up approach, perhaps, is MITH’s classic computer collection which showcases six classic computers: KAYPRO 4, Apple IIe, Macintosh SE, Vectrex, Amiga, and Macintosh IIci. What is unique is how on the Vectrex (a standalone video game console with a vector-based image interface) sit instructions and books that can help us understand how the machine works and how sensational Vectrex was when it first appeared. When we play Vectrex’ cartridge games on the machine, moreover, we are reminded of the invincible score of its former owner (as we inadvertently add our marks to the machine’s storage device, altering the object). It is such an assemblage of library items and archival/museum objects that enables me to interact with and appreciate a classic computer.

Yes, the alteration of the object may make archivists and museum folks wince and squirm, but, hey, there is an emulation method to save the rare object from the deterioration. Yes, the question of scope is always there, but can we think big for a moment to envision what the best practice may look like?

The biggest takeaway for me out of this musing is this: don’t get our thinking limited by the conventional institutional practices, and seek cross-institutional collaboration as necessary, for the best curatorial approach of digital artworks. Collaboration may come in forms of human resources and/or modes of operation.

Cultivating Digerati via Digital Artworks

The second point is the educational roles cultural institutions can play as they curate digital artworks. I am particularly interested in the idea of curatorial show and tell exhibition of digital artworks. Going back to my prompt of artwork label, I think the kinds of information we assembled for archival information package should go into the label.

Why? My answer is two-folds: 1) to showcase what kind of documentation is needed for preserving digital artworks, and 2) to make the artworks’ invisible technological aspects visible.

The former would be an investment for the future collaboration with the artists, making them take into consideration how to compile documentations for the longevity of their work (should sustainability of the work be agreeable to the artists). The latter has to do with the promotion of information literacy among the audiences via digital artworks. Times and time again, we’ve been reminded that the most successful technology is invisible. But as the media studies scholars such as Elizabeth Losh strive to show, such invisibility can lend a hand to an abuse. Sharing archival information package with the audience can be an antidote. Moreover, public education, as Rinehart and Ippolito show, is in harmony with the traditional role of cultural institutions. Besides, I trust a hard work of archivists can be beneficial when exposed to the public eyes.

What do you all think?

Reflection: Philosophy, Preservation, and Polandball

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started out in this class.  Most of what I’d dealt with before in the digital preservation world revolved around the digitization and preservation of historical assets, and much of that work dealt primarily with the mechanics of preservation rather than the theory and philosophy behind the field.  I’m not sure I even realized there was so much depth to digital preservation, though that seems silly to say now. I’ve been truly engaged and excited about the conversations that took place both in class and on our blog. The course has pushed me to rethink how I perceive not just our field, but also evolving digital culture.


Perhaps the most surprising element of this course was discovering the flexible, evolutionary quality of digital art and mediums.  It is exceptionally common for archival students to approach digital curation with a traditional mindset.  That attitude can be useful at times.  However, it impairs the way that we conceptualize born digital files, and I learned that is especially true about digital art. Unwittingly, I’d become accustomed to the idea that file integrity was everything and, while not always perfectly ‘static,’ the goal was to maintain the file as closely to the original as possible. While we’ve certainly looked at that issue inside and out, I’ve also taken away the idea that preservation of these born digital materials is much less rigid than I’d believed.  Instead, files can be manipulated to create beautiful new masterpieces.  These same files can transcend their own platforms to live on in other formats using new mediums for their evolution.  Perhaps the greatest question we pondered was- what is the preservation copy, and do we really care about it anyways?  Is the original file so important to begin with?  Sure; if we can save everything.  But if we can’t (and won’t), what is more important: the origin of a piece or the final product?  I don’t know about you, but it’s a very liberating way to view digital curation.  Instead of obsessing about the purity or authenticity of an item, its meaning and context becomes paramount.  

Preservation Polandball Poster
Preservation Polandball Poster

As others have already mentioned here, context is everything.  Early on, when I read articles on preserving gaming worlds and communities, I had a really difficult time understanding the importance.  It didn’t seem like art to me, and it felt silly…juvenile even.  So, naturally I went on to preserving Polandball (insert a giant, hardy LOL here).  What I found was that digital art is assigned meaning by its community.  It’s in the conversations that blossom from the catalyst of the art.  If one seeks to preserve digital art, they would be amiss to pass over the community behind that art.  


Preservation without context is meaningless.


Another reassuring and helpful tidbit I took from the class was the art of capturing representative samples.  The AIP assignment pushed us to recognize the practical limits of digital curation. We can’t save everything.  If you’re like me, you’ve heard that a thousand times while in our program.  We know it intellectually, but it’s an entirely different thing in practice.  When dealing with physical objects, it’s fairly apparent when you don’t have enough storage to accommodate a collection or when an item is severely damaged past the point of reasonable preservation.  Yet, I think we often don’t “see” the same kinds of limitations in digital curation despite the fact that we talk about it on a regular basis.  I know I frequently fell into the kind of assumption that because we can grab so much more with digital preservation that selection and acquisition is not as difficult a task. Not so true after all.  While we can certainly push the limits of preservation to new places, we are still not capable of saving everything (I’ll keep repeating it to myself for retention).  Instead, the AIP forced me to make educated decisions about what was realistic to keep and how I should go about doing so – both tasks equally challenging. I had to balance grabbing enough of the art to demonstrate the reason behind a community’s existence and enough of the community to demonstrate the importance of the art.  Furthermore, I had to choose tools which were capable of sufficiently grabbing the material, preserving context, and guessing as to how well those tools could survive long term preservation and future conversion.  What a great challenge!


As far as things that I now question after having taken the course, I’d like to better understand the technical aspects of digital preservation.  There were moments where I felt my “techie” skills were not deep enough to make educated decisions independently.  While we’ve talked about the importance of collaboration with information technology professionals, I think it’s important for digital curators to have a strong grasp on what’s technologically possible.  Furthermore, I would really enjoy delving into public surveying in order to better evaluate and serve a user community.  This could be an extremely useful tool in our field which I haven’t seen discussed much before this class.
All in all, I’m delighted I took this course!  I am confident I’m a better information professional for it, and I know way more about inappropriate national stereotypes than I did before!



The Three C’s of Digital Preservation: Contact, Context, Collaboration

Three big themes I will take from learning about digital preservation: every contact leaves a trace, context is crucial, and collaboration is the key.

“Every Contact leaves a trace”

Matt Kirschenbaum and an optical disk cartridge in 2013.
Matt Kirschenbaum and an optical disk cartridge in 2013.

Matt Kirschenbaum’s words (or at least his interpretation of Locard’s words) will stick with me for a long while.  That when we will look at a digital object for preservation, we need to consider what it is we are looking at, and know that what we see is not necessarily all that there is.  Behind the screen there is a hard drive, and on that hard drive are physical traces of that digital object.  There is a forensic and formal materiality to digital objects – what is actually going on in the mechanical/physical sense versus what we see and interpret from those mechanical processes as they are converted to digital outputs.  We cannot fall into the trap of screen essentialism – of only focusing on the digital object as it is shown on our screens, without taking into consideration the hardware, software, code, etc. that runs underneath it.  

Which leads into my next point, about platform studies.  I am really intrigued by this idea that as digital media progresses we are seeing layers and layers of platforms on top of platforms for any given digital object.  The google doc that I wrote this blog draft in is written using Google Drive (a platform), which is running on my Chrome browser (a platform), which is running on Windows 7 (a platform).  These platforms can be essential to run a particular digital object, and yet with platforms constantly obsolescing or upgrading or changing, these platforms cannot be relied upon to preserve all digital objects.  Especially since most platforms are proprietary and able to disappear in an instant.  For example, my Pottermore project was spurred by the fact that the original website (hosted on the Windows Azure platform as well as the Playstation Home) had vanished and was replaced with a newer version.  If I had more time I would have liked to further develop the project by exploring the natures of the different platforms used by Pottermore, like Windows Azure and Playstation Home, and how those platforms influenced the experience of the game.

Context is Crucial

If content is king, context is queen!
If content is king, context is queen!

There’s no use in saving everything about a digital object if we don’t have any context to go with it.  Future researchers who have access to the Pottermore website files can examine them thoroughly and still have no idea why Pottermore was so important.  For this reason it is important to capture the human experience with digital objects.  Whether using oral history techniques or dance performance preservation strategies, there need to be records that try to capture the experience of using the digital work.  This can include interviews with the creators, stories from the users, Let’s Play videos, the annotated “musical score” approach so that a work can be re-run in a different setting.

This is really what the Pottermore project was about: providing context to the website that is all but lost to us.  In case the game does reappear, there will not be materials like the Pottermore Wiki and the Let’s Play videos that can explain how the game was played.  Furthermore, it can help future researchers realize the sense of community of the Pottermore users, and why they reacted so negatively when the old website was replaced.

Collaboration is the Key

Pottermore was a collaboration of many different entities, including JKR, Sony, and Microsoft.
Pottermore was a collaboration of many different entities, including JKR, Sony, and Microsoft.

There are a number of roles played by different people in digital preservation, and these roles are conflating and overlapping.  The preservationist may be the user who is nostalgic for an old game and so creates an emulation program for it.  The artist may use feedback from the users and incorporate it into their next work.  The technological expertise of IT folk may need to be ascertained in order to understand how to best save some works – in what formats, in which storage devices, etc.  Archivists and librarians may be the fans themselves, contributing to the fanfiction community that they are trying to preserve.  With funding only getting tighter and tighter and the digital world growing more complex, collaboration is going to become essential for a lot of digital preservation projects.    

What next?

Best practices, next exit sign
We’ll get here eventually… right?

Of course this leaves us with many unanswered questions.  How do we balance out the roles of different experts? How do we match the large scale of digital works on a limited budget? How much context do we need to give a certain work? In almost all cases the answer is going to be “it depends.” But these are questions that I am excited to figure out as I go on in the field.  

some drawing strategies

At some point during the semester, it started to seem strange to me that digital art curation didn’t also mean a trail of audio / visual / moving-image process documents. I used GIFs and video as shorthand on the blog, trying to illustrate or punctuate a point here and there, but didn’t synthesize anything through visual production.

Backing slowly away from Plan A — a “lessons learned” post composed entirely of Hamilton GIFs and lyrics — I’m instead taking some space here to speculate: What are some alternative ways to represent the products and processes involved in digital art curation? Here’s a look at some of the drawings I made while grappling with @mothgenerator.

1_Authenticity-access grid
With thanks and apologies to Dragan Espenschied.

Authenticity-Access Grid for preserving @mothgenerator. Inspired by <a href="http://blog.geocities.institute/archives/3214">Geocities</a>
Authenticity-Access Grid for preserving @mothgenerator. Inspired by Geocities

I used this diagram as a working tool while writing my statement of significance for Moth Generator. It was a useful way to start looking ahead to the kinds of experiences and characteristics different stakeholder groups might value and expect. Because the grid was designed to express authenticity and access from the users’ (not creators’) perspective(s), mapping my project to it was a natural fit for an overall shift towards a more user-centered preservation strategy. It’s also a sneaky example of how techniques for visualization can shape the content, purpose, and management of information. So, nice work, Dragan — your nefarious grid convinced me!

2_Distributions of significance

Plotting the concept-to-AIP transformation.
Plotting the concept-to-AIP transformation.

As a way to trace the evolution of this project from conceptual (identifying significance) to somewhat-less conceptual (declaring preservation intent, assembling a dummy AIP), I mocked up this rainbow circle mapping Moth Generator’s components, stakeholders, and significant characteristics to the contents of the eventual AIP. It’s interesting to see how conceptual elements converge around certain parts of the AIP, but I wouldn’t drawn any conclusions from that about priorities or complexity. It’s not as though more connecting lines means more value (maybe mo’ problems). I mocked this up without much of an agenda beyond, “Let’s draw some lines and see what happens,” and am at least pleased with how it represents the project’s trajectory.

3_Tool-lifecycle grid

Digital curation tools and the digital art curation lifecycle.
Digital curation tools and the digital art curation lifecycle.

This grid diagrams the range of tools considered, tested, and ultimately used to capture, describe, and package material into an AIP. I tried to represent the overlapping functions of many of these tools, where they address the digital art curation lifecycle, and the degree of success I had with each. In choosing shades and ordering the vertical axis, I tried to avoid designating things as “failures” or “bad tools,” since success or failure in digital curation is often a matter of mismatch (right tool / wrong purpose, or vice versa) rather than of quality. One early idea for the vertical axis was to sort tools on a spectrum from ideal to contingency to NO, but in the end I chose to list them by earliest point of intersection with the lifecycle. Interestingly, making this diagram called my attention to how actually useful DataAccessioner (one of the “contingency” tools) really was.

There is so much digital preservation software out there — check COPTR or the POWRR tool grid if you doubt it. With this little drawing, I mostly want to convey the value of diversifying and experimenting. The grid has been a useful way for me to track what I’ve done and what to try next. Rhetorically, it says, “Keep trying!”

UPDATE (5/5/16): Images now give the actual course number. Sleep-deprived regrets.