Digital Project Proposal: Streamlining Crowdsourced Oral Histories

Josh Zampetti

There are many crowdsourced oral histories out there, the most recognized being the Story Corps project. As popular as it may be, I think there are other methods that could be used that might provide more content along with a streamlined process.  Mind you, I’m not proposing that these methods are better, but perhaps simply alternative; something worth trying out to play with potential outcomes.

First, it might be nice if there was a way for people to contribute their stories without the need of an interviewer.  As of now, the process requires two participants, the interviewer and the interviewee, and though the interviewer does not need to be an experienced professional, the process does require a willingness to interview that may not always be present.  What if the interviewer was always experienced, but also always available?  A project that only requires entries from interviewees, while the interviewer is provided by the site itself could streamline the process, in that the only needed participants are people who are willing to talk about themselves through a submitted audio file, answering questions also provided by the site, designed by experienced interviewers with training in history.

Second, in this format, it would be possible for interviewed subjects to add on to existing submitted files, creating an entire archive for only themselves.  This may seem unnecessary, until you consider the crowdsourcing of numerous subjects, each representing their own regions and communities, which would allow for multiple layers of data and a wealthy source of interpretive information.

Additionally, providing the subjects the opportunity to create their own tags in a questionnaire or survey, and allowing them to submit multiple audio files with each entry, the data could be neatly placed into a database.  Essentially, we’re talking about a crowdsourced transcription, tagging, and oral history tool, that allows for multiple entries that build on each other.  Not only would the metadata be provided, the audio files would serve as interpretive elements broken into small pieces for easier consumption and categorization.

A proof of concept is already in the works, but the idea behind this project was formulated during discussions of what could be considered a “history-making process” that involves memory, post-memory, and identity construction.  It is not driven by events, but rather individuals and the mechanisms they use for dealing with their social environment.  The goal is to document this process by designing questions, monthly, that utilize psychoanalytical methods in drawing out formative memory and experience regarding identity construction, to understand the role these mechanisms play in the history-making process.

The design currently in the works involves a website that introduces concepts monthly, usually involving concepts that back the mission of the site: memory, post-memory, region, and identity.  Questions driven by psychoanalytical methods are to be unveiled in a form which will be filled out by the participant, along with audio upload options that accompany each segment of the questionnaire.  The form then pushes the input into tags constructed in the database.  The goal is to have a one-stop procedure in which multiple audio files are uploaded accompanied by all the necessary metadata without any work from the researcher. The data can then be used for interpretive uses, either for mapping, or anything else the researcher might choose.

Database Makes Theory

A New Digital Turn on the Horizon

In late July of last year, Facebook shut down its artificial intelligence robots after they appeared to be developing language in which to speak to each other.  One of the robots had uttered: ‘i can i i everything else… you i i i everything else…’[1] bizarrely echoing an excerpt from Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury: ‘i i will never do that nobody knows what i know and he i think youd better go…’

Moving past the awkward shift into some existential state mirroring Quentin Compson’s neurotic self-awareness, we come to the more practical matter of this new digital turn.  It is worth discussing since the last digital turn, the one we still seem to be wrapping our heads around, shook up the world of history so profoundly. What changes are in store this time around?

All our talk thus far has been centered on the fact that computers cannot interpret the data, and that it is still up to us to continue to play with it and make conclusions of our own.  With the introduction of artificial intelligence, however, the new charge that ‘the database is the theory’ may evolve further into ‘the database makes the theories.’

Seem too much like science fiction?  Need I remind you that AI itself was once considered science fiction? If AI can diagnose a medical problem, why not a social upheaval, given its light-speed analysis of all primary (once digitized) and secondary source content? AI can now make music and art, forms of expression that were once considered unique to the human condition, and what does this say of the interpretive abilities of artificial intelligence?

The Proposal

The print project I propose is to investigate this matter. AI is already being programmed to recognize objects and events, and before you ask, “how can it be considered AI if it has to be programmed?” consider that children too must be programmed to recognize their environment to some degree. Once recognition is hard-wired the real learning can take place, and at some point, we should address the fact that this will lead to interpretive, actionable reasoning on the part of the computer.  Whether or not this can be carried over into the abstract is a matter of opinion, or perhaps ‘administrator permission.’ Either way, should any of this become a reality, what then does it mean for the discipline?

There is plenty of room to speculate.  What would it even mean if AI could produce interpretive work?  Doesn’t the nature of interpretation mean that it is always up for debate? Perhaps, but suppose AI presents some airtight logistical analysis of human behavior and tendencies, and can think up data based evidence that no human being could even consider formulating. A computer might know how to manipulate the data in ways humans could never dream of, and it is on this point that AI could process new applications for not just history but any field.  It is likely that once the machine learns to learn, it will far surpass human intellect, but what role does emotion play in the interpretive process? Will AI ever be able to acquire that human capacity? And would it even want to?



The heart and soul of an archive


As we’ve already discovered this semester, the performing arts have a long history of documentation, so in this sense my project will be nothing new. But the readings we’ve had thus far have mostly covered how the performing arts deals with archiving works anchored in the temporal, not how it deals with the digital aspects of those temporal works.

My project this semester is going to focus on exploring avenues for archiving all the different production and design elements, the paperwork and properties that go into creating and running a theatre show. I am going to use a specific musical I worked on a few years ago as a case study. I picked this show because I was more involved in the design process than I usually am as a master electrician, since the load-in was especially complicated and I also ended up assisting by programming the show for the lighting designer, but I also recently discovered that the theatre company in question actually lost a good amount of their archival material on the musical while they were in the process of archiving their own copies, so it also serves as a good object lesson in what can be lost.

The production in question is a bit of an adaptation of an adaptation: the 1988 movie Big was adapted into a musical for Broadway in 1996, and this is the Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) version. Yeah, this wouldn’t be my first choice for a TYA production either, but there’s also a TYA version of Avenue Q, so here we are. And the libretto isn’t really why we’re here, though we’ll archive that too. I’m interested in the more technical aspects.

Big was a bit of a game-changer for Adventure Theatre, since they had recently acquired a new lighting product, to be implemented on this show, and used in subsequent shows: flexible LED tape, that had red, blue, and green LEDs on it, allowing for near-infinite color mixing. This low-profile ‘tape’ could be attached directly to set pieces, so there was a high amount of coordination between the scenic designer and the lighting designer, and in fact reviewers often attributed the LED tape more to the scenic designer than the lighting designer. It also had the unintended consequence of making the lighting programming so complicated that we actually ran out of internal memory on the lighting console before we could finish building the show. The lighting console which was several generations out of date, ran on DOS, and only took floppy drives as external memory.

This was compounded (compounded!) by timeline issues: IMG_0187we had to find a board that would read the existing show file and execute it in the same manner as we didn’t have time to rewrite the whole thing, and the show was so fast-moving that there was no pause in the cue sequence long enough to swap disks during the run (the load process was estimated at 2 minutes, there wasn’t a single page on the script that didn’t have cues). The LED tape was being controlled by programming boxes made from scratch by the (amazing) technical director, so documentation was minimal and fixes were only accomplishable by that one individual, and I believe that to still be the case to this day (especially in terms of documentation). Other digital elements include the projections, the basic CAD files for the set and the ‘regular’ part of the lighting, and the sound cues, which were run entirely through a digital program. The sound designer and the lighting designer often worked together to time lighting cues or adjust the length of sound effects so they would complete together.

These are essential elements that were born digital and must stay digital in order to maintain their essential qualities. Focusing on the preservation of these elements and exploring what resources are out there to support them that are aimed at or affordable for the non-profit community would allow not only for better archiving of cultural history, but for sharing innovation as well — the digital equivalent of reaching over someone’s shoulder and typing in code from memory.

The stakeholders obviously include the theatre company, the designers and actors, but also potentially those interested in studying theatre on a variety of levels: the work, the design, or the designers. It also includes the general public.

The theatre company: Theatre companies will use items from past productions for many reasons: moving or still images can be used in advertisements for the theatre as a whole or in promotional or fund-seeking material for the company; the company may need the design elements if they want to stage a revival; certain set or props pieces may need to be re-worked for another show, or a tricky effect or certain board pre-sets may be re-used by a designer from an earlier show they worked on. Good records of a show and how it works are also important during the run — for example, if an actor is injured or the stage manager needs to be replaced (an actual emergency that happened mid-tech on this show).

Designers and actors: Portfolios are an integral part of a designer’s self-promotional arsenal, they act as visual supplements to a resume or CV. Photography is generally discourage during live theatre, both to prevent the actors from being distracted, and to ensure the design integrity. Promotional photography will usually be taken during one of the last few dress rehearsals, with set specific moments if called for afterwards. This guarantees that production stills will be of the best quality, and designers and actors alike can get professional images of their craft, to promote it to other talent-seekers. Designers will have their copy of the paperwork submitted to the company, but may also receive (if they desire) the plot work for the finished pieces, which account for any differences or adjustments that may have happened between basically the first draft and the finished product.

Researchers: Theatre research tends to be either script-based (studying a playwright’s oeuvre), or methodology-based (Stanislavski method, Alexander technique), but the history of the physical craft of theatre has its investigators as well. Available materials, techniques, and design influences can all be read longitudinally through a theatre company’s collective archive.

General Public: Some theatre archives, like the TOFT archive at the NYPL, require users to prove that they are in the industry, but not all film and tape archives have that requirement, and even then, if you are in the performance industry, or a student of it, you can still watch something just for entertainment. Also, having these archives available for designers to work from helps build a better production for audiences in the future to enjoy.

Brendan DeBonis as Billy and Greg Maheu as Josh in Big, The Musical TYA. Photos by Bruce DouglasThe ‘magic of theatre’ is, most of the time, just endless hours of manual labor and seat-of-your-pants improvisation to get the show up and running, and to keep it that way, especially amongst smaller theatres that don’t have the same budget as Broadway or the Kennedy Center or Disney World. But they still want to put on a good show. Big is about finding out you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, and discovering what’s great about what you are. Discovering things you didn’t know you had the capacity to do is exactly the kind of goal theatre archives are here to serve.

Moving Still Art: Rob and Nick Carter’s “Transforming”

A traditional painting is static to the human eye, despite the imperceptable movements of the atoms or the refresh rate of the screen if it displayed or created digitally. The husband and wife duo, Rob and Nick Carter, artist collaborators, looked to challenge the notion of how static these pieces need to be as part of their series called “Transforming.” Delving into a new venture between 2009 and 2013, they worked with the English visual effects firm, Motion Picture Company (MPC), to create a series of computer based digital paintings in a reimagining of still paintings from the Golden Age of Dutch art, Renaissance, and 18th century Germany.

Four of these works are presented as films on Mac screens or iPads with traditional portrait frames, each ranging from approximately two to three hours in length that loop and repeat again. Each piece, slowly and often imperceptibly, changes over the course of the playback, employing databases of insect movements and plant life cycles, algorithms, and traditional computer animation. The intentions of their pieces are to promote sustained engagement with the paintings in contrast to the six seconds on average that a museum goer looks at an artwork.

Transforming Vanitas Painting

Transforming Still Life Painting

Transforming Diptych

Transforming Nude Painting

Significance and Communities

Groups interested in the survival of these works are art scholars across various concentrations. To those studying the original works of inspiration, these new pieces serve as a vital link to understanding the impact and tracing their influence over time. Rob and Nick Carter’s work is also an important example of remixing or reuse and serve as important pieces to document the influence of the original artwork along with the new work itself. Ultimately, preservation of the digital paintings also means allowing for further transformation as the digital files and code are much easier to transform than their analog counterpart. Thus, these works are part of the social memory creation surrounding both the original works and the genres they represent.

Another group that would want these art pieces preserved are those studying new media art and its history. Kate Bryant of the Fine Art Society of London claims that these are the world’s first digitally rendered paintings (old paintings entirely recreated with a computer), making it an important to preserve as documentation of the establishment of a new genre or technique. While the approach of a modern day homage to earlier forms of art was innovative, I believe the work of Rob and Nick Carter is conservative compared to some new media art which can be quite jarring from traditional paintings.

The conventional elements may have made the work palatable to more traditional galleries such as The Frick Collection and The Mauritshuis which exhibited some of these works alongside centuries old still life paintings (in fact it is apparently the first digital work exhibited at The Frick). The works of “Transforming” are therefore important to understanding how the genre of still life is being adapted to contemporary society due to changes in technology and how new media is making its way into older traditions. I think the intersection of old and new is important to document and will be interesting to users in the future.


At the same time, their work is using cutting edge technology in animation, coding, and display, which will interest computer art and design historians. Additionally, since Rob and Nick Carter worked with a visual effects firm, the works also will interest those who want to understand how corporate entities are involved with art, especially those facilitating digital art for those who may not have the technical skills to realize their vision.

Finally, these pieces are part of the contemporary attempts of creators and producers to foster user engagement with media content. With the ever growing amount of exposure to media on a daily level, the public often devote only a small amount of time to the images that pass before their eyes. These artworks represent a response to this moment, a clear commentary on the need to focus, and how undivided attention can be rewarded. Therefore, documenting “Transforming” means documenting the cultural conversation around media consumption in the early 21st century.

bot-y of work: a statement of significance

Moth Generator (@mothgenerator) is an interactive, multi-faceted, collaborative digital artwork by Katie Rose Pipkin and Loren Schmidt. The following statements illustrate its complexity and set the stage for an eventual preservation plan for this work:

Moth Generator is:

  • A Javascript drawing program that creates images of imaginary moths by translating text into numbers
  • A Twitter feed where moths are regularly published and @replies are used as moth-generating text
  • A collection of computer-generated moth images and names, including looping animations created from generated moths and reused for other purposes
  • An element of a complex virtual world project
  • A collaboration between a game designer and an artist whose work deals in large part with code and bots
  • A relatively well-known example of a Twitter bot
2 moths by @mothgenerator
“middle lacuna moth ortricidia ietivorella” via @mothgenerator

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