What counts as preservation?/Who decides?

The readings this week introduce a variety of ways of thinking about preservation. They demonstrate that the goals and possibilities of preservation depend on the specific contexts in which objects are being created and used. In The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation, Trevor describes three frames for preservation. The artifactual framework is probably the one that is most familiar to archivists and librarians, or at least it is the framework that is most relevant to my experiences thus far. This framework emphasizes the “historical contiguity of a tangible physical object” (p. 15). Preserving the physical form of a work of art or a historic site is important for authenticity in this context. The informational frame focuses on the sameness of the informational content. Copies created through procedures that produce informationally identical versions are considered valid. Finally, the folkloric frame asks us to consider the essential qualities of objects that are not quite as “fixed” and to understand that the variability of narratives and other cultural expressions is worth documenting.

Individual vantage points affect our ideas about what is worth preserving and what counts as authentic preservation. For example, consider Rinehart and Ippolito’s explanation of the difference between formal and informal social memory. Formal social memory is shaped by institutions like libraries, archives, and museums that decide what to canonize. Informal social memory is more distributed across society and involves collaborative efforts by individuals to preserve content that is important to them. The rogue archivists mentioned in class last week fit in this category. Rinehart and Ippolito argue that formal social memory emphasizes the need to preserve original form of the object “as a way of of maintaining its historical accuracy and authorial integrity” (p. 15). This corresponds with the artifactual framework. Informal social memory communities are more open to updating the object through techniques like migration, emulation, and reinterpretation in order to preserve the essence of the item. That is to say, they find informational and folkloric qualities to be the most essential. It’s worth considering how these different groups make decisions about value and whether they have the resources to execute their vision for preservation. What happens if the rogue archivists don’t have the time, money, or expertise to continuously preserve something and how does this affect social memory? What happens when one definition of preservation is privileged over another?

It’s also interesting to consider the role that creators play in determining what preservation of their work should look like. Sol LeWitt created universal instructions for his wall drawings so that they could adapt to different spaces and continue to exist after his death. Other artists, like Eva Hesse, were either less explicit about their wishes or used materials that were more difficult to preserve. The Documenting Dance guide encourages dancers and choreographers to be proactive to prevent the loss of their work while admitting that some useful methods of documentation, like dance notation and motion capture, will not be accessible to everyone. In addition to a lack of resources or specialized knowledge, there can be emotional obstacles to overcome. Sometimes asking people to think about preservation means asking them to confront their own mortality. I’d be curious to know if we have any performers or artists in the class who have experienced preservation challenges with their own work. Should we privilege the artist’s original intentions when developing a preservation strategy or could this approach potentially ignore the needs of future users and audiences?

Sometimes preservation is less intentional. The Documenting Dance guide acknowledges that documentation can be conscious or unconscious. Dance events produce records beyond the actual performance in the form of publicity materials, the memories of the audience, and any written responses created by the audience. It is particularly interesting to consider the act of remembering as an act of preservation, but humans aren’t perfect and sometimes our memories are faulty. Our ability to capture these memories also depends on the technology we have available to us. With his comparison of the phonograph to the human brain, Guyau demonstrates that new advances in technology can help people to store and reproduce impressions. However, the device itself lacks the self-consciousness to truly remember anything and it can’t fully capture the ephemeral. Performances are experienced by each audience member differently and may also contain improvisations or other variations. A scientist can describe what she observed during a rare weather event, but reading an account or looking at photos is not the same as actually being there to experience the event yourself. The folkloric framework suggests that variation is important and when folklore is fixed, it is “no longer living culture but something that has been pinned down dead” (Owens, p. 22). But we keep trying to create representations of ephemeral events anyway-look at the variety of methods listed in the Documenting Dance guide. At what point do you have to accept that something cannot be faithfully preserved? 

Daston’s description of scientists working together to tackle the impossible task of documenting the natural world feels relevant here. We can’t preserve everything and we probably shouldn’t try to do so. There are only so many resources to go around. But we can explore collaborations across disciplines and frameworks to develop more holistic preservation strategies for both digital and analog objects. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to only one definition of preservation. One way to avoid doing so is to look outside our professional bubbles and to listen to perspectives from records creators and users in diverse contexts.

15 Replies to “What counts as preservation?/Who decides?”

  1. “At what point do you have to accept that something cannot be faithfully preserved?”

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with that thought.

    It makes me think of a couple of movies set in a potential future where it is actually possible to record memories (Strange Days, 1995, and Rememory, 2017). While reading some of this week’s readings, particularly the guide to documenting dance, it occurred to me that the perfect technology for documenting such an event might be one of these non-existent memory recording devices. Then I caught myself and realized that, no, this just opens another whole can of worms.

    Who’s experience of the dance is the correct one to document? A member of the audience? One of the dancers? The choreographer perhaps? All of the above? What if you can’t capture all of the above, is it then considered a flawed documentation?

    I quickly realized that even some new, seemingly magical technology capable of drastically increasing the fidelity of a recording of human experience still ends up with many of the same preservation challenges. Is preserving this hypothetical recorded memory file really that much closer to the goal of preserving the dance? I tend to think probably not. Because how can memory to be objective? No, such a technology would just be the best reasonable approximation available at the time to convey the experience, much the way video probably is the best we can do with today’s technology. As you say, we may always have to accept that some things simply cannot be faithfully preserved.

    I will also offer an answer to your question addressed to any artists in the class, though as a photographer I will not claim to be an artist myself. In my opinion there are very few photographers today that use the medium to create art. Most of us are engaged in craft. That said, photography is full of existential rabbit holes that don’t seem to trouble most traditional forms of art. For example, take analog film photography… what truly is the photograph? Is it the negative, or the print? The negative is the most accurate recording of the light at a given time, however is that what the photograph is… an accurate portrayal of light?

    Ansel Adams was known for highly dramatic printing technique. Each image involved a very complex recipe of filter changes and burning and dodging. If you were to print one of his negatives without employing any of those techniques it would technically be the most accurate rendition of the light at the time he took the photo, but you would not have made an Ansel Adams photograph, because Adams didn’t just write the score he also performed the music. Yes, a print is a performance; an interpretation of the captured data. No two are exactly the same. In fact, the printing process is so full of variables that even Ansel himself would be hard pressed to make an exact duplicate of any given photograph. You can stick as close to the photographer’s printing notes as possible, but your hands will have moved slightly different every time while burning the sky in, or dodging a tree, for example.

    So, to return to your question, I would say that my preservation priorities for my own work have shifted over the years as my access to a darkroom (i.e. my ability to easily create more prints) has become more sporadic. When I still had that access the negative and my printing notes were of paramount importance. The prints I would often give away for free. Now that I no longer have a darkroom the prints I made back then have become far more important to me as a recording of my interpretation of a scene. I handle them with much more care now. Yes, it’s possible I could still scan the negative and try to digitally recreate a print, but it would be a completely new manipulation of the data.

    1. It’s interesting that you thought of the possibility of recording memories-personally, I was thinking about the possibility of a time machine while doing the readings. But I agree that going too far down the sci-fi road would result in more questions than answers. Your comment also made me think about the difference between recording a planned event like most performances and a spontaneous event. With a planned performance, we can proactively think about which experience/perspectives are most important to capture. These questions still aren’t easy to answer, of course, but at least we can confront them ahead of time and there’s less chance involved.

      Thanks for sharing your experiences with photography. It’s interesting to consider that small variations in an artist’s technique can result in two slightly different objects. It makes me wonder what the cutoff point would be for “same spelling” in this scenario.

      1. This is a complete digression but your posts remind me of the Black Mirror episode, The Entire History of You, which is essentially about how subjective recorded evidence can be.

  2. I thought it was interesting, in a recent episode of PBS’ “American Masters” series to learn (and it might have actually been LeWitt who related this story) that Eva Hesse was entirely comfortable with her art’s eventual disintegration and thought it was intrinsic to the work. I think she was ambitious for recognition but she didn’t equate that with future generations being able to experience her work as she presented it in her own lifetime.

    1. David, that’s interesting! I’ve seen art installations in the past that I really responded to emotionally that were designed to be swept away or deconstructed at the end of the show. It seems like a very bold thing to do–accept that your life’s work will not (should not?) last forever.

      1. I agree, Tricia. It is bold and goes against a certain idea of what constitutes artistic “achievement,” or for that matter, “immortality.” Not only was Hesse comfortable with her work decomposing, she held that view while she was living with a terminal disease.

        I wonder if the urge to preserve isn’t sometimes a normative conviction that all art should be preserved, even when it contradicts the creator’s intent. There’s a temptation to feel sorry for Hesse or question her choice of materials that might be misplaced in this case.

        1. David,
          That kind of also reminds me of our INST 604 discussion last year about Native American archives and how archivists have film of the tribes’ sacred dances, like the Ghost Dance, that were only meant for certain groups within the tribe and never for an outsider; therefore, the films are restricted and maybe should never have been created in the first place.

          I missed this point a bit while doing the readings, but after reading all three posts and the comments, I agree that a major point this week is making decisions about *what* it is we are preserving and if it is worth/ethical/beneficial to preserve, and that we, as archivist, should take into account the creator’s desires and intentions behind their creations. I think this will be particularly difficult within the digital realm as it seems so easy to just never delete an email or document off a hard drive, thus keeping or “preserving” everything, despite the volume that it could amass.

        2. David, I’m glad you pointed this out. Based on the reading, I made an assumption that we didn’t know what Hesse’s wishes regarding preservation were, but I didn’t consider that disintegration/decomposition could actually be part of the work. I’ll have to check out the PBS interview. On the one hand, it’s unfortunate that we can’t experience the work as it was, but perhaps we as viewers don’t have the right to expect permanence from art when it would potentially corrupt or change the meaning of the piece.

    2. (My response goes off on a total tangent of the philosophy of art and humanity– oh well!).
      I think it interesting that it is remarkable when people don’t want their work preserved, as if preserving art, manuscripts or other material is the default. I can almost think of it as the opposite of humanity — it is the default to be destroyed (through death and the decomposition that comes with that) and not the default to be preserved.

      Does Eva Hesse then reaffirm the humanity of her artwork by not wanting it to be preserved?

      1. This is an interesting relationship and question. (I don’t think it’s a tangent, really. You brought it back to the reading.) It brings up an important topic of ephemerality. By seeing your work as inherently ephemeral, are you dooming your legacy to destruction? I fall short of making the connection between ephemeral art and humanity of art, but you have given me another way to look at the digital preservation of art, so thank you.

  3. Nice write up, Emily!
    A couple things really stood out to me:
    “What happens when one definition of preservation is privileged over another?”
    “In addition to a lack of resources or specialized knowledge, there can be emotional obstacles to overcome. Sometimes asking people to think about preservation means asking them to confront their own mortality.”

    I’m reading a book called Decolonizing Methodologies for my Museum Research Seminar, and it’s hard not to shape all my thoughts about preservation through that lens. I think you’re exactly right that there is this implicit existential anxiety on behalf of preservationists, archivists, conservators, etc. Not that it’s coming from just those professionals–it’s a societal anxiety that’s kind of foisted on that field, maybe, that pushes us to want to save everything. But whose concerns should be privileged when it comes to preservation? It makes me think of how SAA finally endorsed the Protocols for Native American Materials. I can only imagine that this will affect the operations of multiple institutions (hopefully) and that some people’s ideas of “correct” preservation will be upended. In my opinion, this is a good thing, if it means that objects will be repatriated and/or managed in the way that the owning tribe wishes.

    I’ve lost my train of thought a bit on this, but let’s just say these readings and others have been making me reconsider some of my assumptions about archival and preservation work.

    1. This is a great point, and I think both your post and Jen’s comment above about the tribal dances are a good reminder that our professional actions are not neutral. We can point to standards or frameworks that justify the preservation actions that we take, but these standards weren’t created in a vacuum. Our own biases can inform our idea of “best” practices and these practices won’t suit the needs of all communities.

  4. Your question (At what point do you have to accept that something cannot be faithfully preserved? ) I think encapsulates something that we will be grappling with throughout the semester.

    I was trying to think of an antonym of “faithfully” — is it faithlessly? But that seems too harsh, for it isn’t a completely “faithless” reproduction, it’s just a biased one. In “Documenting Dance,” the section “Advice to the Individual” makes the ability to reproduce the dance the highest priority (ie. filming from multiple perspectives, filming in perfect lighting and filming a performance, with notes on the set and lighting). Is preservation in this instance similar to reinterpretation (as defined in “Re-collection”) and the folkloric frame that Trevor talks about? I think yes; it is absolutely impossible to say that we can faithfully reproduce any performance as it existed in that historical moment, but we can reproduce something similar. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it is under the informational frame that Trevor described; a physical performance can’t take on the sort of permanence of the written word, but it can be approximated.

    All of that to say that no something can’t be preserved faithfully, but it can be preserved in an imperfect and human way and providing the barest bones of an experience can help create new, similar experiences for future audiences.

    1. It had occurred to me that dance or any live performance could be considered folkloric in that one performance might affect the next. How each performance changes might be the point of interest.

      I also thought of variations in Shakespearian productions. The words are generally exactly the same but with wildly different settings that can place the words in a completely different context.

  5. When I read the piece on documenting dance, all I could think of was that preserving a live performance includes capturing the interaction between the performer and the audience. It hadn’t really occurred to me that a theater review could be a form of preservation in documenting how effective that interaction was. It used to be that theater was produced as a unique experience every night for a different audience but there’s been this recent trend of recording performance for distribution in movie theaters or through live streaming, National Theater Live for example. It makes me wonder if this has changed how live theater is produced. On the one hand, it’s ready made recorded evidence but it’s not really if it alters creative decisions to make it more marketable as a film.

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