Minding Individuality

What comes to your mind when you hear the term born digital artwork? To me, it is an image of website on my Mac laptop. It is not hard to see how limited and historically situated my imagination is. Though such first impression may be trivial, the unquestioned assumptions that surround the born digital artworks inform the way we approach them in hope of preservation for the future generations.

Two of the born-digital artworks Matt Kirschenbaum introduces in his Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (2008) suggest how our assumptions about the digital art need to be challenged. One such example is Agrippa, a work of William Gibson originally published in 1992. The text was said to be encrypted with the then state of the art method in order to facilitate a single reading experience of 20 minutes. Contrary to the notion of digital artwork being fluid, Agrippa’s electronic text becomes unaccessible over a short period of time. The book in which the disk was embedded, too, was designed to dissolve by its exposure to the light. Such material characteristics of Agrippa suggest a marriage between the form and the theme of Gibson’s work–fading autobiographical recollection. Suffice it to say that Agrippa is a nicely executed artist book project. Within a day of release, however, Agrippa, started to venture into the new realm, challenging the notion of fixed art. That is, Agrippa’s text, what was said to be unhackable, was miraculously reproduced and posted online. What is more interesting, this text, as Gibson himself acknowledges, keeps changing over the years. Additionally, these textual reproductions and a few reminiscences of original media of Agrippa are now the only access points that allow us to learn about the work. This complicates the assumption of digital artworks being ephemeral.

Second example Kirschenbaum provides is Mystery House, a game written by Roberta and Ken Williams in 1980. As Kirschenbaum offers the tour of its disk image (floppy disk) composed of 40-kilobyte electronic file, it becomes apparent how the construction of the game itself is the main attraction. Recalling his childhood, Kirschenbaum writes: “normative play is perhaps the least interesting level on which to engage [Mystery House]” (129). The disk image, as Kirschenbaum walks us through, exposes the game players how both machine-level instructions and screen-level text are at work simultaneously, blurring the distinction of what is stored and what we see on the screen, the distinction Kirschenbaum calls “forensic materiality” and “formal materiality.” In addition, Kirschenbaum sheds light on how a storage system like this complicates the idea of digital files’ fungibility. According to Kirschenbaum, the disk image retains traces of past activities. For instance, such action as “deletion” does not remove the data but prepares the data to be overwritten, should that happen in the future. While each disk image carries the trace of its unique activities, little attention has been paid to this idiosyncrasy, writes Kirschenbaum. He speculates this overlook has to do with “screen essentialism” (27). In other words, we tend to emphasize the look of any Mystery House–just about what the emulator aims to achieve–rather than attending to the unique constitution of a Mystery House. The different emphasis, should you know, can be described with such terms as “allographic” and “autobiographic.”

Throughout the book, Kirschenbaum illustrates how particular digital artworks can be. It seems to me being conscious about digital artworks’ individuality would better equip us when thinking about what to preserve, how to preserve, and why. The anecdote Cory Arcangel offers in his “The Warhol Files” demonstrates how the assumption may hinder us from the sound preservative practice. The Andy Warhol Museum’s acquisition and the consequent assessment of the painter’s Amiga computer, tells Arcangel, were based on the assumption that the machine should retain files “presumably labeled along the lines of ANDY’s STUFF, ANDY’S DRAWINGS, etc.” Only, those files were not to be found, writes Arcangel. It was later found out, according to Arcangel, that Warhol used an application called GraphiCraft, in order to produce his bitmap drawing, and that this software did not allow files to be saved on other than GraphiCraft disks. Had curators not known the idiosyncratic condition under which Warhol labored, those commercial disks–and the drawings stored on them–might have been overlooked and lost to history.

Doug Reside in his “‘No Day But Today’: A Look at Jonathan Larson’s Word Files” also describes how every software is historically situated. It is easy to say this than to do it, I must add, especially a software in question is as familiar to as Microsoft Word. Concerning the text’s variants among the digital records of Larson’s musical RENT, Reside demonstratively entertains possible interpretations of such variation. It turns out that, according to Reside, Microsoft Word 5.1 (the version Larson used to compose) had a function called “fast save.” This unfamiliar feature to our contemporary ears does as strange things as appending revisions to the end of a file instead of overwriting. Reside concludes that such records would “provide scholars and artists a fascinating glimpse into [Larson’s] creative process.” Such an inquiry is only made possible only when we learn to read such record within the historical context of the medium and its affordance, among other things. Needless to say, such historical awareness is crucial to archiving practice.

Granted, we need to take into consideration the particular native environment within which the digital artwork was, and continues to be, shaped, in order to preserve the work’s significance in as comprehensive manners as possible for the future generations. I can imagine subject specialists would have an important role to play when paying due respect to the individuality of digital artworks. For instance, Kirschenbaum’s walk-through of a digital artwork is undoubtedly invaluable contextual records. But I wonder how we can make this a feasible practice? Kirschenbaum’s description of “Agrippa” concerns its changing environment including the significance of the link to “404 File Not Found” and the variants of typeface rendering its ASCII transcriptions. How much attendance would do justice to the digital artwork’s individuality?

Changing Authorities

My name is Setsuko Yokoyama, a first year PhD student at the Department of English. Prior to coming to Maryland, I completed a master’s program at the University of Michigan School of Information. (Yes, I seem to be chasing block Ms.) My research interest lies in American poetry, contemporary editorial theories and practices, and digital humanities. As a part of my dissertational project, I am planning on developing a digital platform for an American Modernist poet. The idea is to make primary resources readily available online for students and scholars in order for them to make their own judgment when navigating through the poet’s literary legacy. This is why I’ve decided to join the course, hoping to equip myself with the best practices for born-digital project and to be familiar with the debates in the field. I am also interested in getting to know my colleagues at iSchool, hoping we might be able to collaborate in the future.

I was particularly thrilled as I went through the somewhat idealistic description of “The Open Museum” chapter. Richard Rinehart writes: “Can we imagine museums whose authority is used to facilitate & engage a community rather than treat its members as passive cultural consumers?” (106) My marginalia reads: YES! Rinehart, of course, has in mind the new media art and that is different from my “digitized art”, i.e. digitized tape audio records. However, examples Rinehart provides concerning the generative nature of open source code make me realize that the metadata aspect of my work would be considered “digital art.” I seek relevance because, not surprisingly, Rinehart’s illustration of the historical shift among the cultural institutions’ role is also mirrored in the gradual change in Anglo-Saxon academia, concerning the notion of what scholarly edition of literature ought to be. It used to be the case that “authoritative” or “definitive” editions were considered desirable. This status quo of scholarly edition was further enhanced by the limitation of print media. Editors at times need to make scholarly judgment when met with variants, illegibility, and/or uncertainty of the manuscripts as they labor to transcribe the writer’s hand. The problem was that once transcription was presented in a manner divorced from the manuscript’s empirical evidence, those scholarly interventions became close to invisible to the readers’ eyes. Digital publication platform now allows editors to display the variants of manuscript and invite readers to the dialogue of what constitutes a literary text.

Though digital editions have challenged the authoritative notion, I think we have yet to leverage the power of the digital. That is to say, to the best of my knowledge, there hasn’t been a participatory edition that allows the readers to “play with” metadata scholars produce. As Rinehart describes, codes can be downloaded, studied, used, and remixed. Imagine what we can do with major digital editions such as The Walt Whitman Archive, Willa Cather Archive, and Emily Dickinson’s Correspondences should they allow users to download a big set of carefully prepared metadata? They are there, but their potential is yet to be fully appreciated, in my opinion. It seems like the book technology and/or archival and library exhibition model are deeply engrained in scholarly editors when designing the user experience—relevant to what Rinehart and Ippolito described concerning the “fixation on fixity” mentality of conventional cultural institutions.

I wonder how I can best address the need to reconsider the expansive possibility of literary metadata. Should editors be wary about the derivable projects? Rinehart and Ippolito provide examples about the weeding process of ArtBase. Granted we are forgoing the elitist and colonial approach, what do you think is the healthy relationship between professionals and amateurs concerning the Open Museum model? I ask because I think there will always be an agenda from the professionals’ side (including literary editors) in wanting to facilitate, say, reinterpretation of resources.