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Subject:

carrying on with taxonomies

From:

Alena Williams <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Alena Williams <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 1 Oct 2004 11:39:18 +0200

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Hello everyone!

(and thanks Beryl for the opportunity to continue with the discussion!)

As a PhD candidate in Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University and
a one-time ArtBase Coordinator at Rhizome.org from 2001-03, I have been
finding quite a bit of the discussion this past month particularly relevant
in terms of my personal experience with archives, and realized that some of
this experience might be useful for the theme of taxonomy.

Recently, I was asked during an fellowship interview why I was so interested
in "chasing after a moving target." Up until that point, I hadn't  really
thought about my work as a historian of media that way, particularly since I
had spent the two years archiving works at Rhizome, which to me seemed to be
the ultimate expression of dematerialized process. But despite the
simplicity of this question, I have begun to wonder myself if it is possible
or even meaningful anymore to keep up with the constant expansion of the
technological field. Such thoughts were certainly on my mind this summer
while I pulled together my presentation for the Timeshift symposium at Ars -
a festival that makes a point of 'keeping up' with new innovations and
artistic practices. From my perspective, new media art appears to be
becoming ever more technologically determined, as is our historicization of
such work I fear. But for this reason, I really find this move toward the
so-called 'archaeology' of media particularly useful because it acknowledges
that our ambition to reconstruct the past is perhaps already pre-determined
by a kind of inevitable failure.  I am personally finding in my own research
that this notion of 'disappearance,' and the migration of terms, can at once
be a stumbling block and a tremendously productive occurrence.

One of my roles at Rhizome was to determine if the categories/metadata that
we used for cataloging the works in the archive appeared sound, and if they
didn't, make the proper adjustment for works newly added to the ArtBase. I
quickly found that there was very little room to maneuver when the terms
that were first laid down for organizing the work (a process that pre-dated
my tenure at Rhizome) became over-used, unspecific, more arbitrary as time
progressed-- like interact, interface, Internet, machine, net.art. It was a
circumstance that could not necessarily have been foreseen when the archive
was first launched, but once faced with it, I realized it was a structural
problem of the ArtBase, one that was perhaps endemic to any archive which
sought to expand itself by introducing new metadata and terms and perhaps
revising old ones. Depending on its size-- and the ArtBase had over a
thousand works (some of which were no longer viewable because the artist
chose to merely link the project rather than have it cloned), addressing
this problem would require a systematic and perhaps costly review of every
pre-existing artwork in the archive in order to determine if the new
keywords should be retroactively attached to projects, and in the troubled
economy of non-profit art organizations, such an endeavor was truly
secondary to the curtailment of artwork attrition which would arise from the
daily increase of dead links in the archive.

Not only are the definitions of terms are critical for the proper
functioning of an archive and the maintaining of an archive, but also for
the ultimate use of an archive. Gloria brought up the notion of access, and
I wanted to emphasize that the terminology we use today may actually prevent
individuals in the future from being able to confidently locate specific
materials relevant to their research in the future. I'm just now realizing
that I've worked on three very different online archive projects with very
different levels of access: the ArtBase (which I personally maintained and
of which I determined the content), the Ars archive (which I was primarily
using as a means of carrying out my own research, but this also involved a
considerable amount of backend hunting and pecking), and the Electronic Arts
Intermix Archives (which involved hands-on organization and synthesis of
original archival materials that were to be platformed onto the internet).
In the case of EAI I realized that I was seeing material that many people
would never have access to because the cost of digitizing all this
information would be prohibitively expensive and the archive at that point
was not at all fit for public consumption. With the ArtBase, I had a
personal relationship with nearly every object that was introduced to the
archive over a two year period-- so I didn't need the search engine, yet
inevitably I realized that the terms we were using (particularly keywords,
though there were also categories like type and genre) were probably more
useful for someone who knew the name of the artist or the artwork and who
was merely curious as to how the work was contextualized at the time of its
inclusion in the archive, rather than someone who didn't know the
artist/work and was hoping to find something by searching a particular
theme. In this way, the revision of antiquated terms for the sake of
situating the work within contemporary discourses becomes a very significant
process.

As for the preservation of these artworks, it is true, a very real tension
existed in the assembling, maintaining, and researching of an archive like
the ArtBase-- a tension between what Josephine described as the intellectual
contextualization of an artwork and its material preservation. Rhizome
maintains both conceptual/contextual metadata in addition to tech metadata
for "cloned artworks" (artworks which the artist wanted preserved for the
future), however, there was a significant emphasis, particularly on the part
of the artist, on the contextual metadata which at one time significantly
determined the way in which the artist would be perceived by the public. it
is a very clear case in which such works are immediately historicized and
included in a kind of 'canon' (this was increasingly not the organization's
aim for having an archive, although many people saw it that way), without
the perhaps necessary deferral period typical of most other art historical
movements- however, I can think of a number of precedents within modernism
where artists working within the historic avant-gardes were in a sense
writing their own history in the form of manifestos and the like, and in the
case of the Bauhaus, proliferating ideas through aggressive pedagogical
models. In this way, as Andreas pointed out, the production and
proliferation of terms can also be seen as being strategic in nature - not
just for the curator, but for the artist was well.

There are a couple of documents that I believe may still be online that
might be of interest to Ana and other members of the list. In 2002 I was
involved in the development in a management policy for the ArtBase which
outlines how the archive is run (http://rhizome.org/artbase/policy.htm ).
That same year, we also published a report online by Rick Rinehart which
outlined some of the initial ambitions of the ArtBase and discusses some of
the concepts that have been raised on the list, including suggestions for
crosswalking our metadata with other metadata standards including the Dublin
Core and the Getty standard for museum art cataloging
(http://rhizome.org/artbase/report.htm) . Also in terms of preservation
there is the Variable Media ( http://www.variablemedia.net/ ) publication
published by Jon at the Guggenheim... (
http://variablemedia.net/e/preserving/html/var_pub_index.html )I found his
glossary of terms to be tremendously clear and there are a number of
contributions on this theme in the volume. Also of interest (
http://variablemedia.net/e/seeingdouble )

All best,
Alena Williams

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