An Intent to Document

Taking an idea of preserving a born-digital set of artworks into practice presented a number of challenges and served as a way to examine the themes in this course. My project of preserving the “Transforming” series of digital paintings ultimately focused on documenting how they were made and the public reaction to them.

This decision came out of ideas about documentation of performance and also about social memory. Rob and Nick Carter’s stewardship of the digital objects and their history of creating  time-based installation art made me think that focusing on the works themselves was less necessary. Yet, for all the intentions of the creators to reward a sustained engagement by their audience, no one has really taken the time to understand if it worked.

The Viewer’s Perspective Unfulfilled

In my project, I never reached that point either as I did not get to interview the people who posted about the art from their social media accounts. While lacking the time to do so, it is a necessary step if one truly wanted to understand the cultural impact of these works. Neglecting the public viewpoint and just focusing on the art demonstrated to me the inadequacy of non-active collecting and the failure to create diverse and often contradictory perspectives in the historical record.

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Some viewer reaction I did capture, demonstrating a different viewpoint than the loving art critics

This realization helped better define in my mind that digital art is more than just a conceptual work but is made up of the sum total of the platforms, intentions, mechanisms, properties, and personal experiences which all create the challenge of adequate representation. I had to make compromises to realize just a portion of this totality.

Good Intentions

I think one of the most useful parts of this project was the creation of statements of preservation intent. Really understanding what you wanted to do and the “why” behind it was essential once problems arose and compromises needed to be made. They lay bare our biases and continually provide a point to return, reflect, and revise (if necessary) the goals for projects. Doing this project reinforced that reality and that I had to rely on the preservation intent statements to determine where I could make trade-offs.

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Everyone’s friend: the three-legged digital preservation stool

The biggest challenge was not having enough time to do everything that I planned the way I wanted to do them. In my project, I planned on using a number of command line tools like youtube-dl and ffmpeg to work with born-digital video, in part because they come recommended by digital preservation practitioners and in part because I wanted to get more experience with using the command line. However, I just didn’t have the time to read the documentation well enough to use these tools and get most of the deliverables of my project done at the same time.

We (archivists, preservationists, etc.) like to opine on the value of open source software but in low resource institutions (whether in time, money, or staff) they are often impossible to implement.  Just as there are trade-offs in regard to authenticity and access, the same goes for resources and digital preservation standards. Perhaps in the future there will be time to return to make additions and create a more robust AIP.

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Ultimately, I ended up using a number of tools like ClipGrab and Flash Video Downloader which were not always entirely clear about the quality of the videos downloaded, but at least allowed me to get them all and save them in a standard MPEG4 format. In my preservation intent statements I wanted to save the VFX breakdowns of the videos in the highest video quality so there would be good visual detail for users in the future. Without as much control over this, I had to save things realizing that something was better than nothing. Hopefully through my work someone will understand the “score” of the work and can recreate them later if necessary.

Conclusion

Documentation is essential for understanding more than a surface level of what an artwork is and can be accomplished at varying levels of digital preservation. Digital art preservation (and digital preservation in general) is often not hard because we don’t know what to do at some level, it’s hard because there are not enough resources or support for which to do it. This requires that our intentions be transparent but not so brittle that we cannot adequately adapt to the needs of the situation. Through understanding this reality, I was able to complete my project in a somewhat satisfactory manner, realizing that there is always more work to do and that preservation is not a one-time event.

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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?

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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.