Distraction Free Reading

Notes from Art of the Archive: Rethinking Archival Practices in a Digital Era

This post describes a workshop on archival practices in the digital era that took place on May 21, 2015, at the University of California, Davis. The essay is co-authored by Alessandro Delfanti, Allison Fish, and Alexandra Lippman. Delfanti, Fish, and Lippman are postdocs with UC Davis’ Innovating Communication in Scholarship (ICIS) project.

On May 21, 2015, the Innovating Communication in Scholarship project at the University of California, Davis held a one-day workshop on Art of the Archive. Papers given by the fifteen invited speakers explored the changing nature of the archive given the emergence of new information and communication technologies. These presentations largely focused on how these new digital archives are not merely technical creations, but are also constructed through social processes, have social impacts, and are not seamlessly implemented in everyday life. Instead, these digital storehouses are vibrant spaces for curating, organizing and publishing cultural heritage and expressive culture in new ways. In taking up this discussion three primary topics emerged and are described below: questions about access, circulation, and research design.

Specimen Tray of Hans Sloane

Image: Specimen Tray of Hans Sloane (1660-1753). Source: The Natural History Museum, London.

The question of access

A key theme for the workshop addressed the question of access, specifically how access is mediated through intellectual and cultural property rights. Techno-utopian discourses surrounding digital archives emphasize the promise for increased and democratized access to knowledge for all. In critically examining this theme several workshop participants addressed the social, political, historical, and regulatory dimensions through which “access” is variously interpreted.

Presentations by Rick Prelinger (UC Santa Cruz) and Alexis Rossi (Internet Archive) set the stage by discussing the increased possibility for open access that digital archives might afford using the Internet Archive as an example. Mary Murrell (UW Madison) proposed an interesting dimension suggesting that open access to online materials has led to increased attention to the “orphan work.” For Murrell the “orphan work” is a legal category subject to redefinition as different actors engage in power struggles over the ability to regulate important creative materials whose authorship is uncertain.

Several other papers added to Murrell’s discussion that struggles over access to valuable digitized materials has led to the emergence of novel intellectual property mechanisms. In some cases troubling patterns emerge, with less powerful groups employing proprietary logics in an effort to maintain control over knowledge they deem valuable. Ilana Gershon (IU Bloomington) spoke of the pressure on employment-seekers in a precarious economic environment to develop and maintain a personal “brand.” Erica Farmer (Smithsonian Institution) and Allison Fish (UC Davis) addressed efforts to protect and preserve intangible cultural heritage through digitization efforts. In the latter, digitization efforts were not a smooth process and significantly transformed the heritage in question. Moreover, digitization resulted in large-scale institutions, the Smithsonian and the Indian central government, asserting guardianship rights over valuable heritage on behalf of local communities they purport to represent.

In contrast, other papers by Jane Anderson (NYU) and Kim Christen (Washington State) document how, for Australian Aboriginal communities, there are cultural works such as photographs of deceased relatives that are sensitive and whose circulation should be limited. In working with these communities, Anderson and Christen have crafted an experimental licensing scheme, Local Contexts, and an online archive, Mukurtu CMS, with a technological infrastructure that limits users’ access to content in culturally appropriate ways. Through this blending of technology and law both Anderson and Christen are attempting to offer decolonial alternatives to mainstream differentiations between the public domain, private property, and commons.

What emerged from the day’s discussions is that the promise of increased access inherent to the digitized archive cannot be achieved in a simple or straightforward manner. Moreover, these digitized archives do not mesh seamlessly with the cultural systems that they document and this disjuncture can have real effects on the ways knowledge practices, especially those that are sacred or sensitive, will be channeled in the future. If the digital archive is to be constructed as a liberatory tool of positive social and cultural transformation, then perhaps the question of access should be viewed as an ongoing process of engagement and negotiation between the multiple stakeholders involved, rather than as an endpoint at which to arrive.

Circulation, spatiality, temporality

The archive is not an immutable collection of dead objects. It breathes according to different temporalities and spatialities (that is, shared experiences of time and space) as different objects move through it. Several speakers discussed archives as being in flux, in motion, and in constant change.

Millennium Seed Bank

Image: Archiving for the Future: Millennium Seed Bank, -20°C. Source: Kew Gardens. Photographer: Wolfgang Stuppy.

Ramesh Srinivasan (UCLA) addressed network technologies that archive and accumulate knowledge, such as the cloud or databases, in order to re-think Deleuze’s notion of “assemblage.” By presenting cases spanning from Tahrir Square to Native Americans political activists, he discussed the spatial and ontological re-shaping (in the sense of how archives are distributed spatially and understood to exist) of archiving technologies as used by digital cultures of resistance.

Alessandro Delfanti (UC Davis) analyzed how high-energy physicists use pre-print archives to affirm their position within their scientific community. Rather than just storing articles, archives seem to be the place where physicists cyclically need to make their existence visible and thus detected within a continuous flux. Also, different objects, such as articles and conference proceedings, are published according to different temporalities or rhythms and for different purposes.

Nathalie Casemajor  (Université du Québec en Outaouais) asked us to consider archives in movement—documenting how digital artifacts are appropriated, circulate, and generate novel social uses. To meet the challenge of tracing archives in movement, Casemajor uses methods like tracking digital watermarks and fingerprinting.

In their joint presentation, Xan Chacko and May Ee Wong (UC Davis) spoke on what they call “archives of risk.” By discussing cases as diverse as seed banks and city projects, they hinted at ways in which archives are performed through the construction and storage of risky futures. The temporal dimensions of these archives of risk are manifold, as they are related to the growth of plants and cities, as well as to their imagined future value.

Experimental Research Design and Scholarly Production

Engaging with archives can open up experimental forms of research and scholarship beyond the “traditional” forms of written text. These scholars discussed archives as a site of curation, as a studio, and as an opportunity to re-imagine ways to address both access and secrecy.

Selection of Local Contexts' TK Licenses and Labels

Image: Selection of Local Contexts’ TK Licenses and Labels. Source: Local Contexts.

Rick Prelinger  (UC Santa Cruz) posited that “while the archive is overtheorized, ‘archives’ are undertheorized” (emphasis added). If archives are justified by use, what is use? What if we were to treat archives as a studio and invite artists to conduct residencies there? Accessible archives are transactional space of inward and outward flow. Love is not enough to keep archives from deteriorating; continued engagement is critical.

Tarek Elhaik (San Francisco State University) also asked about possible collaborations between art, curation, and anthropology. Tracing the ethnographic turn in contemporary art—with artist-as-ethnographer, curator-as-ethnographer—Elhaik wonders what might art and anthropology share. How can the ethnographer be a curator through curation of concepts and images—putting things together to derive poetry and generate thought?

Alexandra Lippman (UC Davis) considered how her collaborative research endeavor, the Sound Ethnography Project, cultivates a mode of listening. She urged her colleagues to collaborate and produce their own takes on what a “sound ethnography” might be—from recording an electronic voice phenomena session during an American ghost hunt, to mapping the sounds and sights of a street market in Quito, to the silence of Google mapping in the Brazilian Amazon. In the process, she reflected on creating an “accidental archive” with the accretion of an open-ended collection of ethnographies.

Addressing colonial histories of archiving, Kim Christen Withey (Washington State University) considered ways to re-create archives as safe keeping places. She spoke about the ethics of archiving and co-developing Mukurtu CMS, a platform for indigenous community archives. Jane Anderson (New York University) spoke about the challenges of de-colonizing ethnographic collections. With property—material and intellectual—serving as the lynchpin for the archive, communities must legally own their materials to license them. Since communities do not own most of their materials, Local Contexts combines traditional knowledge licenses with labels to provide nuanced metadata describing proper access and use.

Throughout the day, talks illustrated the ways in which the archive is in flux. The presentations showed how born-digital objects and digitized materials are opening up new modes of curation, circulation, and communication.

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