More of my talk from DOCAM:
START OF PART 2
Emulating the emulators
It's time for archivists, conservators, and others in the preservation profession to admit that we are behind and try to emulate the frontrunners in the race to save digital culture.
We've already got loads of resources. Scholars have created several excellent resources for finding information on artists, artworks, and art movements. These online databases include the archives of the Langlois Foundation for Art, Technology, and Science, coordinated by Alain Depocas; Media Art Net (MediaKunstNet), coordinated by Dieter Daniels and Rudolf Frieling with the ZKM/Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe; and the Database of Virtual Art, coordinated by Oliver Grau and the Danube University Krems. All three are well researched, multilingual, relational databases packed with texts, images, and sometimes video documenting the fast-paced evolution of art and technology over the past fifty years. The accumulated knowledge accessible via their innovative interfaces represents many thousands of hours of research by archivists, interns, and software designers.
And yet a researcher who wants to learn more about, say, Shigeko Kubota, has to consult each of these important resources separately; there is currently no technical means to search all three at the same time. Search engines like Google are good at spidering pages that contain explicit links to each other, but as of this writing are currently unable to dig up any Web pages accessed by a form, such as by typing "Shigeko Kubota" into a search field.
The technical challenge is formidable, which is one reason a solution has so far evaded the designers of online archives, not to mention Google's engineers. Yet there is another reason that speaks more to the ingrained habits of institutions than the structure of PHP or MySQL: today's collecting institutions, no matter how digitized, remain hamstrung by their own history as centralized repositories.
To correct this will require institutions to make their data more accessible--not just technically, but politically. That means stepping away from an authoritative role to accept the input of amateurs, whether or not they are associated with an institution.
Every fact is someone's opinion
Let's look at an illustration of some ways to encourage both social and technical access. Preservers of new media art have a variety of potentially confusing strategies to choose from, like storage, emulation, migration, and reinterpretation. The Variable Media Questionnaire is designed to make their job easier by recording opinions about how to preserve creative works when their current medium becomes obsolete. Originally the Questionnaire, which I contributed to as part of the Variable Media Network (now Forging the Future), was a standalone database template. My collaborators at the Langlois Foundation and I tried to make this template as accessible as possible by giving it away freely to any institution that requested it.
Originally the Questionnaire polled only the opinions of a single source: the artist. Over time, however, we realized that there are many cooks at work in the development of a creative work, and so we added the ability to distinguish between different opinions on the same work. For example, most databases record measurements ("This installation is 36 inches wide"), as though the registrar were Saint Paul writing down the words God spoke in his ear. The Variable Media Questionnaire, by contrast, records interpretations ("This installation should fill the room").
Some have suggested that this approach is limited to artworks that are somehow "conceptual." But it is in fact conventional databases that are based on a platonic ideal. They presume to record unchanging "facts," even though they actually vary by source and by version of the work. ("How do you know the current dimensions are correct? Or that they weren't different the last time it was installed?") The Variable Media Questionnaire, on the other hand, records opinions voiced in interviews. And it is those interviews, rather than some supposedly constant title, date, medium, or dimensions, that are the epistemological building blocks of the Questionnaire.
Of course, those interviews are only as inclusive as access to the Questionnaire allows. That's why the most recent version is no longer a standalone database, but has been rebuilt by Still Water Senior Researcher John Bell from the ground up as a Web service. Which means anyone can add their opinions about a work: the artist, a conservator, the artist's mother, even a random gallerygoer who happened to see the work installed somewhere. The philosophy of crowdsourcing doesn't presume all these motley opinions will be equally valuable to the future--but it does presume that we can't be sure which will be, and therefore should cast the net as wide as possible.
Leave room for change
The Variable Media Questionnaire has always been built with flexibility in mind: respondents can choose more than one answer to a question, and weight them according to their preferences. The latest Variable Media Questionnaire now enables users to add and customize components of works, questions that go with those components, and the answers that go with each question. And, unlike the vast majority of open-source projects, these modifications are easy to make by non-programmers: John Bell has built an interface that knows how to alter itself.
For example, let's say you wanted to add an interview about one of Daniel Spoerri's leftover meal installations to the Questionnaire. You would start by adding all the functional parts of the work, including some that are not so much physical components so much as essential aspects of the work to preserve. You might add types of material ("Custom Inert Material," a table to show it on), environment (a "Gallery" to put the table in), and interaction (a "Viewer" to look at it).
Unfortunately, Spoerri's work also contains remains of actual food--a critical component that doesn't seem to match any of the parts available in the Questionnaire. A typical database would leave a registrar in this position with three unsatisfactory choices: write the info on a post-it and throw it in a physical file, shoehorn the information into an improper field, or call up the vendor and ask for a new field (good luck with that).
Not to worry! The Variable Media Questionnaire actually lets ordinary users add new components. So create a new part called Food, and add some appropriate questions ("What should be done with decaying food?") and answers ("Let it rot" or "Replace it with simulated food").
"Whoa," say the professional database developers, "you're delusional if you think the Questionnaire will be intelligible after you let every Tom, Dick, and Harry add their own crazy fields." Well, here's where we add some editorial oversight to the crowdsourcing project. No one can stop you from adding a custom part to *your* interview, but administrators must approve that new part before it shows up as an option for everyone else who adds interviews. (We've also applied this bottom-up approach to vocabulary, as we'll see later.)
END OF PART 2