composer-lyricist-librettist-rapper-actor-user-creator

Among the major preservation strategies raised in Rinehart & Ippolito’s Re-Collection, re-use and reinterpretation are the most tantalizing, and seemingly most radical. The fear of somehow being untrue to the spirit of a work, or to an artist’s intent, make these approaches look riskier than others. A few writings on digital sound and moving image hint at what it means to de-center the artist in preservation and looking to users for cues.

In Jason Eppink’s history of and interview with The Signal about GIFs, we see work consistently distanced from its creators. This is in part because the origins of images aren’t so easy to trace on the internet and in part because, as Eppink says in the interview, “There’s still very little to gain from making GIFs.” He goes on to say, “We expect the image to have an author because of the fundamental relationship of authorship to the economics of producing cultural artifacts. But today images are as cheap and prolific as the air that we utter our words with.” GIFs, to Eppink, manifest the near erasure of authorship by use and reuse. He offers an extreme vision of looking beyond artists for the primary stakeholders in preserving digital art. It makes me wonder if the gain in GIFs might lie in distribution: like how one of the interviewees in this Off Book video about YouTube describes people sharing funny internet things as “wanting them associated with their identity.” And sometimes social capital morphs into something higher-risk, as with feuds over meme-sharing and -stealing on Instagram.

INTERNET FIGHT

Here’s a bit from Jonathan Sterne’s chapter “Format Theory” that I took as further reason not to focus too narrowly on creators and intention: “Because these kinds of codes [underlying formats] are not publicly discussed or even apparent to end-users, they often take on a sheen of ontology when they are more precisely the product of contingency” (p. 8). In other words, things aren’t necessarily made a certain way out of values- or meaning-based reasons. What contingency kludges together, specific use can improve or infuse with meaning. I was also struck by the contrast Sterne draws between the “ubiquitous,” “banal,” and “pedestrian” presence of MP3s and the passage he quotes from Lisa Gitelman ending, “Specificity is the key.” Pervasive technology might mean shared experiences, but not identical ones. Maybe format theory is best served by comparative studies or format / use genealogies, highlighting divergence as well as trends. There are local and individual variations, and variations on those variations — GIFs on GIFS on GIFs.

The pieces mentioned here intersect, in my mind, with a talk Jarrett Drake gave this week about archival description. He argues that archival practice is due to stop privileging provenance and move towards a new organizing principle (or principles). Provenance is about creatorship; valuing it above everything else results in archival description that centers records creators and the relationships between them. Archivists might propose to “collect more broadly,” but inviting the oppressed and underrepresented to participate in oppressive systems does little to effect change. How, instead, to open participation in rebuilding and reworking archival principles? His answer, deliberately not providing an answer:

“The truly transformative principle that is needed for archival practice and archival description cannot come from one person or from one invite-only forum, but such a principle necessarily must develop organically, slowly, and anti-oppressively with a radical cross-section of academic, disciplinary, racial, ethnic, gender, cultural and class backgrounds represented. In this sense, a new foundational archival principle, should it be worth anything, must be developed beyond the bounds of the archival profession.”

In other words, it’s not about being in the room where it happens, but about opening up the room and the process.

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Reading this while thinking about sound and moving image distributed via browsers and apps, the collapse of user and creator categories is a major factor that could shape new kinds of archival description. YouTube is celebrated not only as a “wild west” of user-uploaded video, but also as fertile ground for new brands and businesses. How users relate to digital objects, user-creators, YouTube production companies, and each other seem to be the most important aspects to capture. It also seems worth exploring how digital objects relate to one another with or without the intervention of people. None of these phenomena can be adequately reflected in provenance-focused archival description, making digital art curation a more valuable site than ever for experimentation and enrichment.

Project Reflection: stereomap

Instead of boring you with every inane detail of my project, this post will weave a narrative of the most important trials, tribulations, and things I learned from constructing my project: stereomap, a site devoted to geocoding animated stereographs.

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Trial 1: Overcoming a Dead End

Many (or should I say the few?) of you who read this blog outside of the students in the class might be thinking “hey, isn’t that the guy that was doing that project of mapping unbuilt spaces in Washington, D.C.?” Yes, you are right, it was me but shortly into starting the project I discovered a number of distressing details that made me switch my topic. First, it turns out the Histories of the National Mall site is in the process of doing a number of explorations on my very subject and will be releasing them sometime soon. To make matters worse, I learned the National Building Museum did an exhibit called “Unbuilt Washington” in 2011 and created an online map for it detailing the unbuilt spaces. My exact project idea! This was my lowest point in this process, I had no clue where to go from here.

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Enter: the Stereograminator

Having attended a MITH digital dialogue earlier this year, I learned about the Stereogranimator, a tool from NYPL labs for animating stereographs and it came back to me when I was racking my brain for a new project idea. In an “MTV Cops” moment I thought, “wouldn’t it be cool if you could take these animated stereograms and map them in the style of HistoryPin?” These images typically feature a distinct location and could benefit from the context of geographic space. I chose NYC for the ease of using the over 3,000 stereographs focused on the city and held by the NYPL. With my crisis averted by deciding to create a map and website to fulfill this project idea, I started figuring out the logistics of its implementation.

Trial 2: You Can Map GIFs, Right?

While there is a glut of mapping software out there, few handle animated GIFs well in their information boxes, often cutting off images, making them static again, or not displaying the images at all. Finding a tool that overcame these challenges became my top priority in making this project feasible. Along with my main goal, I hoped to find an easy-to-use, mobile friendly, free, and still decently attractive interface. Looking through many map options (Google My Maps, Mapbox, OpenStreetMap, CartoDB, WorldMap, Scribble Maps, and on and on), I finally found one that actually would work: ZeeMaps. While not gaining full points on the attractive interface scale, this site fulfilled the rest of my requirements mentioned above. In finding the right mapping service, I learned a lot about evaluation of digital tools, compromise, and to understand practical limitations. With this crucial element decided, I started building the map and the website to host it.

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stereomap in action, GIFception!
Trial 3: Building Diversity

As I began constructing my site and its elements, I started to learn more about the collections themselves. It was difficult to create a diverse mix of selected points due to the biases towards certain subjects and areas. If historians were to look at the collection as a documentary example of the late 19th to early 20th century, then it could summed up as a white man wearing a bowler hat in lower Manhattan.

While lower Manhattan was a cultural center then as it is today, the collection overlooks important segments of the Black population in Harlem and other parts of the city. Even in stereographs focused outside of New York City where Blacks are subjects, they are depicted in racist ways as minstrel characters. Women and the lower classes were also seldom depicted other than to emphasize their need of saving from destitution. These characteristics made it difficult for me to create a wide ranging selection of subjects, however, it drove home the point of the photographers’ biases and the frequent inadequacy of the documentary record.

Trial 4: Becoming a Bot

As I was building, I also was promoting the site at the same time. Taking an idea from the Trevor Owens, I decided to “curate in the open” and publicly share each image I made and considered using as I went. This was both to generate interest and to aggregate all the links to use in the project. I chose Twitter as my main sharing platform because I already had an account (although not too many followers) and all my tweets were open to the public. Overall, judging from my Twitter analytics, my tweets were mainly seen by my followers but some of them did seem interested. Some of them seemed disturbed:

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He’s normally a nice guy.

I realized that Twitter may not have been the best platform for this part of my project. In sending out multiple tweets in rapid succession, it seemed to my followers that I was becoming a bot, taking over their timelines like the bots of conviction we read about earlier this semester. Certainly some were alright with this, but I’m sure many did not appreciate having these images forced upon them. Perhaps a more image focused site like tumblr would have served this purpose better. Whether or not I chose the right social media platform, I do believe the effort was worthwhile and drew more attention to my project than simply keeping it behind closed doors until a big reveal in the end.

Conclusion

From all my trials I learned how to weigh options, choose between resources, and create a deliverable product. In the end, I overcame my trials and created a usable website that met the goals I set when beginning this journey. Thank you, dear reader, for following along with me throughout the semester and in this post. I hope you take a look at the site and send me your thoughts.