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.
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.
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.