Archive for January, 2007

New Media and Social Memory

Friday, January 19th, 2007 by Günter

bampfa variable media
While nobody I talked to had heard of this event until about one week before it happened, “New Media and Social Memory” at the UC Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive (my former employer) drew an impressive crowd into BAM/PFA’s museum theater. Small wonder – Richard Rinehart had assembled a star-studded cast to muse about variable media art and its puzzling ramifications for digital preservation. While traditional conversations about digital preservation focus on viability (an intact and readable bitstream, renderability (the capacity of humans / computers to view / process the bitstream) and understandability (the capacity of intended users to interpret the rendered bitstream), the variable media art conundrum adds some interesting dimensions to the discourse about what precisely needs to be preserved.

During the first panel of the day, Jon Ippolito (U of Maine exclusively now – he left the Guggenheim) argued that there was something to be learned from how the arguably oldest artworks on earth have been passed down: through oral tradition, dance and song, from one generation to the next, not until fairly recently having been recorded in any “fixed media” at all. Jon concluded that an important mechanism of keeping the impact of artwork alive is and can be recreation – not a fixation on the original object and its upkeep, but an authentic restaging of the work informed by a detailed record of the artist’s intent. During the last panel of the day, Rick Rinehart provided an example of a formalized notation system which could capture all the variability of the artwork – those traits the artist deems crucial to the work’s success, and those traits which may be altered in a future recreation. His proposed Media Art Notation System [pdf] is an instantiation of MPEG’s Digital Item Declaration Language (DIDL). (Incidentally, I am serving as a thesis advisor to a U of San Jose graduate who is writing about the applicability of this system to the collections of New Langton Arts in San Francisco, so I expect to learn much more about the practical implications of the specification over the next couple of months.)

Of course, if there isn’t any way to keep the artwork itself alive, then there’s always documentation of the artwork to make sure some measure of its qualities and impact survive. Marisa Olsen from Rhizome.Org and Michael Katchen of the Franklin Furnace discussed how their respective organizations capture information about works of variable media art.

There were many, many other interesting strands of discussion during this event. Rather than make this post even longer, here are some of the provocative and insightful bon mots and stories I jotted down (hopefully correctly), which may stand in for the plethora of ideas invoked:

“Art doesn’t mind being ephemeral” (Steward Brand, Long Now)

“When we intentionally preserve something, do we always grab the wrong stuff?” (Kevin Kelly, Wired Magazine)

“Art is a way of asking questions. In a world where Google has all the answers, asking the right question becomes much more valuable than answers.” (Kevin Kelly again)

“The unwashed masses are going to be the primary preservationists. How are we going to engage the world in digital archiving? They’ll do it anyway, and with our help, we can make sure they don’t do it badly.” (Kurt Bollacker, Long Now)

When an audience member asked Alexander Rose (Long Now) to imagine the reaction of the people who might eventually find the Long Now’s 10,000 Year Clock in a Nevada Mountain, he said: “I don’t know how they’ll react. I hope that when we dig up that mountain, we’ll find that the clock is already there.”

In closing the day, Bruce Sterling (Author and Founder of the Dead Media Project) reminded us that most of Sappho’s poetry got handed down to us not by stewardship through the ages, but because papyrus containing her work had been used to wrap mummies in Egypt.

As Kevin Kelly quibbed earlier in the day, the local dump may be our best bet for preserving an imprint of our civilization yet!

P.S.: Perian Sully wrote up a neat summary of this event on musematic as well – check it out!
P.P.S.: The snapshot is of the 2nd panel of the day, Alexander Rose and Kurt Bollacker (both Long Now).

Five minutes to midnight …

Friday, January 19th, 2007 by Brian

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was founded by a group of Manhattan Project scientists who subsequently became concerned about the danger of nuclear war. The Bulletin’s iconic Doomsday Clock is a graphical representation of how close mankind is to extinguishing itself – at least in the opinion of The Bulletin. The end of civilization is symbolized by midnight on the Clock. When the Clock was launched in 1947, the hands stood at 7 minutes to midnight. Since that time, the clock hands have been moved 18 times. The closest to midnight the Clock has ever reached is two minutes in 1953, shortly after the US and Soviet hydrogen bomb tests. The furthest from midnight the Clock has ever stood was 17 minutes in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and deep nuclear arms cuts by the US and Russia.

This week, The Bulletin moved the hands of the Clock from seven minutes to midnight to five, citing continued US and Russian possession of nuclear weapons, North Korean and Iranian attempts to obtain nuclear weapons, and environmental damage through climate change. This is the closest the Clock has been to midnight since 1984.

Reading about this inspired me to spend some time pondering the fate of humanity, but afterwards, it also made me think about predictions in the not-too-distant past that the emergence of companies like Google, Yahoo!, and Amazon had made the library obsolete – in other words, the library Doomsday Clock was about to strike midnight. Since that time, a number of things have happened which seem to belie that prediction: libraries working with Google on mass digitization projects; the inclusion of WorldCat records in several major search engine databases; innovative efforts to redesign the library catalog to better meet the needs of students and researchers; growth in virtual reference services; the“Find It In A Library” global discovery service; and more.

Suppose we take 1998 – the year Google was founded – as a starting point for the library Doomsday Clock, and assume that, at that time, the hands were set at five minutes to midnight. Where would you set the hands today? In my opinion, the hands should be moved back: after some initial panic, libraries have taken important steps toward adapting themselves to the new information landscape and the emerging workflows of their users. In doing so, they have stepped back from the edge. Shall we say it’s eight minutes to midnight?

IMLS WebWise

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2007 by Günter

I’d like to make sure that I tout IMLS WebWise 2007 on the blog before I leave on vacation (be back mid January) – I’d be remiss if I didn’t, especially (full disclosure) since I was on the planning committee this year. I think once you’ve had a glance at the agenda, you’ll agree that there’s much to like: free pre-conference workshops on digital preservation, collection sharing in museums (including a spotlight on the efforts of an RLG Working Group) and broadcast video production; keynote speakers covering the “M” (Elizabeth Broun, Director, Smithsonian American Art Museum) and the “L” (Deanna Marcum, Associate Librarian for Library Services, Library of Congress) of “IMLS”; the conference agenda itself with sessions which should be appealing to museum professionals and librarians from the rank-and-file to management, including a presentation of my colleague Robin Dale on Auditing and Certification. Register soon – the workshops have a limited number of spaces available! I hope I’ll see you in DC end of February!