> Any good examples of crowdsourced preservation or documentation?
I'm hoping others on this list can suggest examples from their experience, but first I can't resist your cue for another snippet of Rick's and my forthcoming book. This excerpt, from the draft of a chapter called "Unreliable Archivists," happens to cite a post by Domenico Quaranta on the CRUMB list from last June:
Relying on preservation vigilantes may sound unprofessional, but they served culture well for tens of thousands of years before priests and preparators came along. In the battle of the proprietary versus the prolific, the historic record may be debatable, but the pre-historic is not. Euro-ethnic preservationists fool themselves into thinking that stone tablets and figurines in museums are the oldest artifacts on record. But the oldest cultural knowledge survives not in durable formats, but in social ones. Witness the Megatherium, a beast that died out tens of thousands of years ago but survives in the stories of Indians of the Brazilian rainforest.
Twenty feet tall, as strong as a dozen gorillas, covered with matted hair covering a bony carapace--the giant ground sloth made such an impression on the tribes of the Amazon that nearly every one has a word for this creature, which most call the mapinquary. Repeated storytelling has kept alive stories of human encounters with this prehistoric animal. Indigenous storytellers "remember" features of the mapinguary that paleontologists cannot read from the bones, like how the Megatherium smelled: the name mapinquary means fetid beast. When an Amazon native matter-of-factly related seeing a mapinguary at the natural history museum in Lima, a researcher was able to corroborate the mapinguary's prehistoric pedigree: the museum has a diorama with a model of the Megatherium.
Paleontologists have begun to accept other indigenous stories as genuine memories, including a giant, man-eating bird known to science as Haast's eagle, extinct for 500 years but alive in Maori legend. The performative model of preservation dates back even longer than birds and beasts, however. All life is based on regeneration, as confirmed by a recent study concluding that 98 percent of the atoms in a human body are replaced by other atoms taken in by the body *each year*.
All of this is hard to understand from the perspective of museums and archives, which depend on the dedication of a staff of experts in a centralized institution to safeguard cultural memory. The proliferation of recorded media in the last century would seem to underscore the necessity of media specialists and climate-controlled warehouses to look after all those silver gelatin prints and reels of celluloid. Even performance theorists such as Peggy Phelan write that "Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representation."
Yet this refusal to accept the preservative power of performance has political costs. As Diana Taylor notes, friars who arrived in the New World in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries claimed that the indigenous peoples had no past because they had no writing. During the Conquest, imperial centers in Spain and Portugal controlled indigenous populations by prohibiting performative practices such as dance and ritual in favor of archival practices such as writing....Taylor also notes that sacred dancing, mask carving, and other indigenous methods of preservation survived the attempts by Conquistadors and the Church to stamp them out. Books can be burned, the many testaments ramrodded into a single King John edition, but the performative traditions of indigenous people from Oaxaca to Okinawa live on....
If the custodians of culture want to add Nam June Paik and Camille Utterbach to that future, they'll need to fund more than conservation labs and climate-controlled vaults. Artists' studios, Usenet groups, and remote villages are where culture is birthed and resurrected by its indigenous producers. Permanent exhibitions nourish new media art less than temporary exhibitions, where works are upgraded and displayed before being routed to their next venue. Conservators need to understand strategies such as emulation, migration, and reinterpretation and make sure the artists they work with understand them too. And museums need to allocate less of their budgets to renting storage space and more to funding the process of creating, and re-creating, art.
[After this section, the chapter goes on to talk about several challenges of such proliferative preservation, including the loss of artistic integrity and value, as well as the loss of cultural context, material context, and authorial context--and what to do about them.]
To an archivist intent on policing deviations from the original, artists who remix the context as well as the art itself are even more worrisome. However, it's worth remembering that traditional conservation practices are really bad at preserving context. Mounted in a glass vitrine against a white wall, a Maori canoe prow in the Oceania wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art becomes a Modernist sculpture rather than an emblem designed to scare the bejesus out of Maori enemies. And so, in the spirit of bargaining, sometimes it may be preferable to preserve a transformed (or transformable) context than no context at all. Thanks to the Internet, an entire community of unreliable archivists can (unwittingly) preserve the context for a work of art even when the work itself disappears, as curator Domenico Quaranta notes:
'Some time ago I was looking for an old piece of net.art, FuckU- FuckMe by Alexei Shulgin. The link from http://www.easylife.org/ doesn't work anymore; in other words, the work is not available anymore at its original location (http://www.fu-fme.com/). Luckily, a web user was brave enough to make the original website available at the URL http://www.welookdoyou.com/fufme/. Cool: reproduction means survival. But I was even happier when I googled "FuckU- FuckMe", and I found out a plenty of interesting responses to the project: magazines describing it as the "gift of the week", people asking in forums how they can buy it....This is in my opinion the best way for this project to survive; and this should be preserved on a first level.'
This potential for crowdsourcing the preservation of context is one reason that the Variable Media Questionnaire now encourages input on an artwork's essence not just from the creators and curators close to a project, but from those with no more claim to authority than the average gallerygoer. Sometimes this might lead to revelations that are often left out of history books, such as the fact that many of the collaborations in Maurice Tuchman's landmark 1971 show Art and Technology at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art didn't actually work at the opening. [There's a footnote to Lizzie and Caitlin's work here.] Crowdsourcing accounts of art from the past may crack some of history's precious veneer, but it may also reveal truths--or at least different perspectives--that are obscured when only curators and critics write the history books.