New Media and Social Memory

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).

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