Not really directly related to my paper, but certainly tied to the topic. The device in question is a literal black box (not even the fun kind) that compresses its contents using the protagonist’s algorithm and is placed in a secure data farm to be accessed later, sort of a digital safe-deposit box. The protagonist suggests the idea out of frustration as exactly what their software company should NOT be doing, and the marketing people think he’s serious. This is the resulting scene. A bit of database humor to lighten the load. Enjoy!
Tactical Media as a practice seems funny to me, but is also clearly a vital practice. On the one hand, we have people operating within a framework, in the case of the Glass Room it is the framework of the marketing/surveillance state, that is, by dint of its very existence, hegemonic, or at least problematic, and on the other we have a unit that is operating within in to resist it. The tactical media philosophy, near as I can tell from an assortment of readings I found via “googling around” and from a piece by Felix Guattari that I remembered from a previous class, thinks of a possible location in which people can resist a hegemonic power by using the very space that the power operates in.
Looking to the world of advertising and targeted ads based on data gathered about us, I can’t help but be skeptical of, not so much the methods of those in the TM world, but of the end results of their endeavors. It was cool to see everything laid out in the case of the Mozilla room, and I know Mozilla to be a company that at least tries to operate in a more ethical space than others; that said, the resulting room itself seemed a bit of a wash, more of a thing to look at and think about that something that could be read as resistant. They may have the best of intentions, and they clearly want to draw attention to the multitude of ways that others are taking our data and using it for nefarious purposes, or at least questionable or troubling purposes, but Mozilla’s display just didn’t do it for me on the physical front.
But I am also just skeptical of efforts to “resist from within” generally. It’s not that I think that there is any such possibility to be “outside” at all. On the contrary, the nature of resistance necessitates being within, and one needs to just acknowledge the fact that it is a nearly impossible task to carry out. Maybe I just read something akin to naiveté in their display. Maybe I’m just a cynic.
And we need your help! We are looking for two ultra-talented and fearless media spelunkers to dive into the collection and surface all of the computer, product design, and interaction design history within. We want you to help research and invigorate this part of the collection so that we can share it with the world. It’s a noble cause, and one that will help give museum visitors an even better experience of design at Cooper Hewitt.
We are hiring for two contract positions: Media Preservation Specialist and Time-Based Media Curatorial Assistant. The contractors will work together on the first phase of the Digital Collection Materials Project to survey and document collection items. Check out the official project announcement below to understand the full scope of the project.
For my subject I decided to look at an interesting historical example of what is referred to popularly as an “archive” and is widely cited and referred to as such; this case is the Mitrokhin Archive, a collection of documents and hand-written notes taken out of Russia (exfiltrated in the parlance of Spy-craft), in 1992 by the British Secret Service (MI6). This whole collection is, as the story goes, the sole work of a man who was at one point the head archivist of the First Chief Directorate, the office responsible for all foreign intelligence operations during the Cold War (subsequently renamed/reformed into the SVR).
What struck me to consider this artifact, or collection-as-artifact, was the particularities of what exactly it represents; on the one hand, this is “the most complete and extensive intelligence ever received from any source” (FBI Statement, cited in numerous texts about this collection, not easy to find original attribution, which I think should serve my point here); on the other hand, this is a curated collection carried out by a singular voice, determining the units of information, topics, time-periods, and all the possible means of classifying state secrets of the sort kept by the KGB, that are most necessary for the historical record. Vasili Mitrokhin, with his powerful position in the archives, had the privileged status of someone who could make such determinations, and in doing so sort of abstracted the idea of a state archive as some monolithic force, or a center around which knowledge was kept and known.
I will note that the material has been repeatedly demonstrated to be verifiable, so what I’m asking doesn’t necessarily seek a “truth” or any kind of (life-long by necessity) mission to verify the archive. I just find it fascinating to see what could maybe be a form of “counter-archiving”. The obvious comparison to contemporary times here is of course Edward Snowden and his curated collections. Historical circumstances being of course quite different, but the general notion of a conduit in the form of an “insider” providing an archive of the relevant documents that were originally located in a larger secret archive. I’m thinking maybe of a comparison to counter-mapping or perhaps metaphorically referring to it as “reverse-engineering” the archive, turning the large and impenetrable form of the state archive against itself in the form of a cherry-picked mini-archive. The mini-archive is of course a testament to the existence of the larger archive, and is therefore “speaking for it” while simultaneously undermining its authority, providing a counter-narrative to the various fictions produced in the state archive. (Stoler, 107)
Then of course, as I mentioned briefly, comes the question of this singular figure, and the archivist-as-curator. Mitrokhin has been vindicated over the years and little suspicion remains regarding whether his stealing of and release of this archive was serving a purpose other than simply showing the dark secrets of an oppressive regime. Regardless of his intent, the matter of an archive of this size, with subject matter of this secretive nature, makes the whole enterprise a bit uncertain and hard to tangle with theoretically. On the one hand, we have a dissident renegade seeking to undermine the corruption of the Soviet State, and on the other we have someone who was actively involved in that very state and whose activities may themselves be suspect or be omitted from the documents. Regardless, this archive is the vision of one person, interpreting and organizing a larger whole into a “key points” Powerpoint slide (consisting of 25,000 slides).
So, to the larger theoretical implications, it would seem that pieces of what Foucault said concerning “who can speak” and when “statements [become] unique events,” are applicable to the question of an almost “subjective archive” (just a working term, worthy of further interrogation). (Foucault, 129) After all, his working theory of the archive not just as a location or a body of texts or a particular collection, but of a discursive category in itself, something that is informing our very ability to function in society and to feel “naturally” imbued with knowledge of our nation, territory, personhood, as defined by the state. And, as is the case with so many of Foucault’s propositions, there is no “escaping” this formation, as it were:
… it is not possible for us to describe our own archive, since it is from within these rules that we speak, since it is that which gives to what we can say – and to itself, the object of our discourse – its modes of appearance, its forms of existence and coexistence, its system of accumulation, historicity, and disappearance. (Foucault, 130)
So for Mitrokhin, and perhaps by extension other whistle-blowers, truth-tellers, and those seeking to undermine the power of the secret state by releasing selections of the magnum corpus, there requires a certain humility in the face of not a totality, but an infinitely complex web of voices and discourses. This hopefully works to speak to the very idea of the leaker, or in particular the Julian Assange-type, to whom secrecy is the enemy and absolute freedom of information is the goal. Naturally someone with as naive of a contention as this has not given thought to how power functions and how the very notion of “all information” being “public” is a logical impossibility caught up in so many intersecting, overlapping, and contrarian, influences that the idea of one man, the noble savior, taking this burden upon himself, is ludicrous. This selection I think speaks to what I am attempting to illuminate about leaking from a classified and confidential “vaults” and archives:
“…authors who know or do not know one another, criticize one another, invalidate one another, pillage one another, meet without knowing it and obstinately intersect their unique discourses in a web of which they are not the masters, of which they cannot see the whole, and of whose breadth they have a very inadequate idea…” (Foucault, 126)
This is of course referring to operators in terms of their contributions to webs of discourses, intersecting in the archive, their words becoming more on the scale of “the whole” (just for the sake of discussion, obviously not meaning a totality) than each of their contributions individually. I take it as an example of where discourse (or a discourse) takes on a life of its own, as it were, and becomes an operative component of society. So in the case of Mitrokhin, maybe a case can be made that, in the discourse of KGB secrecy and Soviet History, his contributions had a great effect, and aided in other historians’ attempts to seek out hidden knowledge, but they also became part of a discourse that was beyond his control and that formed part of a larger archive of thought concerning Soviet History. It’s as though from a large unknowable archive a man took a small, selected archive, so as to contribute it to a larger, public, but still complex and unknowable archive. Or maybe I am just wanting it to be this way; maybe I too am trapped in my own archive.
Foucault, Michel. The Archeology of Knowledge. London: Routledge, 1989.
Ann Laura Stoler, “Colonial Archives and the Acts of Governance,” Archival Science 2:1-2 (2002): 87-109.
Andrew, Christopher Maurice, and Vassili Nikititch Mitrokhine. The Mitrokhin Archive. London: Allen Lane The Penguin, 2005.
Persico, Joseph E. “Secrets From the Lubyanka.” Rev. of The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB. New York Times 31 Oct. 1999: n. pag. Print.
Two main points are seemingly brought forth by today’s reading: a call for re-directing archival studies towards the archives themselves rather than the material that they house, moving from archives-as-source to archives-as-subject, as Anna Laura Stoler puts it, and a call for valuing different forms of knowledge in embodied practices.
Both point to an epistemological question – scepticism about accepted and valued forms of knowledge and knowledge production such as the written document or record, and a belief that studying the ways in which documents are made and archived broadens our understanding of how to read these documents. As our society’s seats of knowledge production and preservation, the archives’ decisions and methods represent important sites of ethnographic study. Stoler’s research in particular focuses on the colonial archives. In this case, the archive is seen as a site of affirming power and self-representation. Meanwhile, Diane Taylor’s essay “The Archive and the Repertoire,” points to embodied memory (in ritual, movement, dance) as valid practices in transmitting knowledge, identity and memory. Like Stoler, Taylor deconstructs what she calls certain archive “myths.” Mainly, that our study of archival objects is unmediated and unchanging.
I recall in Zaatari’s film 28 Nights and a Poem, his emphasis on the internet, especially YouTube, presented as a site of self-representation, a site of performing and creating identities. Juxtaposed with the archival practice that he is himself performing in preserving the portrait photography shot in Madani’s studio, a question arises of the changing role that social media sites such as YouTube, or Facebook, instagram, etc., represent for thinking of identity and memory production and preservation.
It occurs to me that these digital platform come somewhere in between the written document and the performative embodied memory of Taylor’s “repertoire” – a written or representational platform, a language created and fixed with repetition (we recall Foucault’s “archive” in Archeology of Knowledge), yet unstable, changing, and somewhat insubstantial objects that pose obstacles to preservation.
“In short, document were classified as ‘sensitive’ and ‘secret’ sometimes because of the magnitude of a problem–other times because officials could not agree on what the problems were.”
This whole section of the her piece was fascinating, particularly for the application of a variety of theoretical approaches to the notion of archiving in terms of how Colonial Archives became so powerful.
But what I especially liked was the mundanity of the found documents in the archives being mentioned in the above quote. Obviously I mean mundane only in that the subjects discussed were often things that anyone anywhere in the colony could see plainly, but the discussion of it was what had to be kept classified. I feel like this speaks to a lot of classified documents in general, and is often confirmed in large document leaks.
The one that comes to mind especially, at least in comparison to this quote, is the State Department leaks from Wikileaks, wherein we got a first-hand look at the day-to-day gossip and low-level intrigue of working in certain parts of the diplomatic core. One might think about the many conspiracies being woven in places like the State Department (particularly with the Benghazi issues of the last few years), but one supposes that in many cases “conspiracies” are simply a multitude of different opinions and political maneuvers, largely internal, to get certain agendas put forward, resulting in unforeseen consequences (such as the attack on Benghazi). Large systems like huge bureaucracies, at least to my mind, seem to operate by means of assemblages and flows, comprised of individuals operating with varying degrees of deliberate political interest, ideological concern, or simple self-promotion. The effect can seem more organized than it actually is, and the secrecy at play is often a large part of why that perception proliferates.
“Performance belongs to the strong as well as the weak”
In 2009, at the Havana Biennale, artist and activist, Tania Bruguera staged a performance of a piece called “Tatlin’s Whisper #6”. The piece (part of a larger series) “intend[ed] to activate images, well-known because of having been repeatedly seen in the press,” but [in Tania’s performances] are decontextualized from the original event,” offering an opening to diverge or scrutinize the mechanisms behind (Cuba’s) history making.
The piece can compositionally be broken down as such: there is a public stage, a curtain backdrop, a podium, two men dressed in military attire guard the podium; there is an audience, the audience is invited to come to the podium and speak freely for a minute, a dove is placed on the speakers shoulder as they address the crowd, when the minute is up the guards escort the person off the stage, the person returns to the crowd. 200 disposable cameras are distributed amongst the crowd to give them “the responsibility, authorship and ownership of documentation” (http://www.taniabruguera.com/cms/112-0-Tatlins+Whisper+6+Havana+version.htm).
The framework of the piece (described above) is an allusion to the iconic photo of Fidel Castro that was taken as he delivered his first speech post-revolution. Tania’s performative tactic plays off the idea that “scenarios may consciously reference each other by the way they frame the situation and quote words and gestures (31 Taylor)” By re-staging an image that has been widely circulated and appropriated for different political and historical narratives globally- and framing it as a performance, a temporary (artistic) space of exception forms (in Cuba’s otherwise rigidly, controlled public forum). The embodied performance thus allows those who speak at the podium to assume the position (but not necessarily the character) of Fidel Castro post-revolution. Their words offer up a more nuanced take on a political climate that has been highly refined by Cuba’s rigorous media and surveillance state (which notoriously imprisons dissident voices as anti-revolutionary).
Localized Performance in a Hyper-Connected World
Upon the announcement of a renewed relationship between the US and Cuba in 2015, Bruguera contacted both presidents as well as the pope to request a re-staging of the performance once again, this time at the Plaza of the Revolution. Her request was denied by the government (as was expected), yet even so she announced she’d go ahead with the performance. But it never happened; she was arrested as soon as her plane landed in Cuba.
Tania’s imprisonment resulted in outrage from the global art world, members of which penned petitions and think pieces urging the Cuban government to release the controversial artist. Amidst the expected condemnation from the global art elite of Cuba’s oppression of free speech, surfaced an unlikely critique of Bruguera from fellow Cuban artist, Coco Fusco- who effectively questioned the (ironic/ inevitable) performative nature of the current situation (the imprisonment and subsequent commentating).
In a piece published in E-flux, Coco speaks of the limitations of Tania’s piece “Tatlin’s Whisper #6” and how her intervention functions off a logic that may be more effective in a place like the US, where communication infrastructure is relatively strong and open, as opposed to the limited access available in Cuba. To Coco’s point, Cuba has the lowest level of connectivity in the Western hemisphere- internet is sparse and highly controlled by the state apparatus, and cell phones and land lines are still relatively uncommon. In order for Tania’s piece to be effective in engaging actual Cubans (as a critical mass) it would require that production and consumption (and participation) of Tania’s performance be with and for them— instead of for the global art community, which Coco Fusco suggests the piece actually speaks to.
Whether purposefully or not Coco brings to light another important question: what does writing about Tania say about our (as Americans) relationship to information and history production in regards to Cuba? How has the example of Tania been absorbed as a type of affirmation of a specific historical narrative that has also been heavily mediated by the US government (and other governments) – that which dismisses the Cuban Revolutionary project as valueless in that it is antithetical to our own?
What is meant by this is that in the globally connected world, the simultaneous existence of competing histories forces constant circulation of media that affirm political positions. We see this now in the wake of Fidel’s death as a body of people mourn his loss while others celebrate. Often times the same image is used both in the context of mourning and celebration. In this way “the modes of storing and transmitting knowledge […] often contribute to the maintenance of (a) repressive social order” (22 Taylor); as certain ideologies are celebrated and or scolded, the exposure to complexity of a collective archive/history is superseded by nation-wide identity-making that calls for consensus around the legacies of historical figures (but is this changing now with the internet?).
“there is no political power without control of the archive”
Nonetheless, whether effective or not, Tania’s performative practice can be seen as an attempt to subvert the oppressive nature of state propaganda with the nuance of the repertoire. As a strategy for political engagement the performative re-staging “grants social actors the opportunity to rearrange characters in a parodic and subversive way” (Taylor 31). To some degree, one could suggest that contemporary politics is packed full of this type of performance. As Taylor writes, “scenarios [that encapsulate] both the setup and the action, are formulaic structures that predispose certain outcomes and yet allow for reversal, parody and change.” (Hellooo, Saturday Night Live presidential debates & projects by the Yes Men.)
What these performances attempt to do is draw attention to the often overlooked performative/structural components that shape the way we receive information — or as Stoler puts it, “how people imagine they know what they know and which institutes validate that knowledge” (95). The success of things like the Daily Show, Colbert Report, and Last Week Tonight with Jon Oliver, function by revealing the performative nature of “the real” news. The lights, talking points, and characters that we have come to accept as authoritative sources of information are in fact products of a large scale performance. The transparency of the parodic element on satirical news programs allows us to recognize the uneasy nearness of fiction and truth as well as the relentless power of performance and performative frameworks.
Welcome to the Glass Room! A pop-up ‘tech space with a twist’.
Walk by the storefront window of the Glass Room and it looks like a slick, clean-lined tech and lifestyle store. At first glance, it offers the latest in shiny digital consumer products, such as the newest tablet or fitness tracker. But go inside, you will find there’s nothing for sale.
Instead, as you look closer at the ‘products’ on display, you are presented with works of art that take a look behind the screens and into the hidden world of what happens to your data.
Instead of corporate staff, you are met by a team of tech advisors with a different focus; ‘inGenious’ experts that are on hand to answer the questions raised by the exhibit, engage you in conversation and help you with alternatives, and privacy tips and tricks.
Despite first appearances, the Glass Room provides a very different consumer experience, one that allows visitors to re-evaluate how we use technology and how much we reveal about ourselves when we use it.
Through the work of artists, technologists and activists, you will find projects, products and stories that invite you to look into your online life from different perspectives.
‘Something to Hide’ looks at what happens when you exchange your data in return for free services.
‘Normal is Boring’ explores what the different sides of the Silicon Valley bubble are.
‘Big Mother’ asks if corporations and states are using surveillance not to watch us, but to take care of us.
‘Open the Box’ shows you what your data looks like from the other side of your screen and how is it used by others.
Finally, at ‘The Data Detox Bar’ meet our team of ‘inGeniousworkers’, explore your own data traces and learn how to use a selection of free, alternative apps, as well as take away our ‘7 day Data Detox’.
ABOUT THE GLASS ROOM
The Glass Room is presented by Mozilla and curated by Tactical Tech
The Glass Room opens at 201 Mulberry Street, Manhattan on November 29th, 2016. It will open seven days a week at the peak of the holiday shopping season until December 14th, 2016.
Please join us for presentations by Anjuli Raza Kolb, Jaffer Kolb, and Kameelah Janan Rasheed, recipients of Triple Canopy’s sixth annual call for proposals, this year held in partnership with the New York Public Library. Over the course of twelve months, the Kolbs and Rasheed have engaged with materials in the NYPL’s holdings both critically and imaginatively, and used them as the basis for new creative work. The Kolbs will share their research into the social and architectural history of the Central Park Ramble, a site of wilding, softening, and derationalization, as well as a crucial site of New York’s gay history. Rasheed will discuss the self-anointed black prophets who created and sustained unconventional post-slavery communities. Following the presentations, they will be joined by Triple Canopy editorial director Molly Kleiman to discuss their forthcoming magazine projects and new modes of reading and writing history.
Anjuli Raza Kolb and Jaffer Kolb are siblings working at the intersection of visual and scholarly practice. Anjuli is a professor of English and comparative literature at Williams College and Jaffer is a designer and lecturer at Princeton University’s School of Architecture. For their Triple Canopy commission, the Kolbs explore the social and architectural history of the Central Park Ramble. Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, along with master gardener Ignaz Anton Pilát, designed the thirty-eight-acre Ramble to bring the “mysterious illusion of lush, tropical vegetation” into an otherwise highly rational park. The perfect combination of wildness and density, invisibility, and navigability, the Ramble has served as one of the city’s most significant wilds, a space for orgiastic reverie, for community and solidarity, and for refuge and love during the darkest days of the AIDS crisis. The Kolbs’s research draws upon the library’s Pilát papers and the Gay Activists Alliance records.
Kameelah Janan Rasheed is an artist-archivist whose work has been exhibited at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Queens Museum, the Bronx Museum, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and the Weeksville Heritage Center, among other venues. Rasheed’s project focuses on printed matter, sermons, and religious iconography produced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries within black religious movements in the United States. She will explore how self-anointed black prophets created and sustained post-slavery communities, inspiring a sense of belonging on the part of followers. Her research involves sermons, song lyrics, proselytizing materials, photographs, FBI investigation files, and ephemera related to the Moorish Science Temple of America, which are housed at the New York Public Library’s Schomberg Center. For her forthcoming publication in Triple Canopy, Rasheed is drawing on these documents, especially sermons, to narrate the history and possible future of such movements and their adherents.
The 2015 Triple Canopy commission recipients have received twelve months of access to one of the research study rooms at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building; access to reference librarians and the NYPL digital team for one-on-one consultations; and an honorarium of $2,000 from Triple Canopy. Their resulting projects will be published in Triple Canopy’s online magazine.
Anjuli Raza Kolb is Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Williams College, where she teaches courses on colonial and postcolonial literature and theory. Her current book project, “Epidemics of Terror,” reconstructs the long-standing relationship between narratives and epistemologies of public health and the literature and discourse of anticolonial insurgency and terror from the late nineteenth century to the present.
Jaffer Kolb is a New York-based designer and lecturer at Princeton University’s School of Architecture. His work is dedicated to finding new sites for architecture in political and material economies through experiments in preservation and form. Most recently, he was the 2015 Muschenheim Fellow at the University of Michigan, and before that worked as a designer in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. His work has appeared in exhibitions internationally, and published in Wired, Blueprint, and Abitare, among others. In the past, he worked as a curator as well as a critic for a range of international publications.
Kameelah Janan Rasheed is an artist-archivist from East Palo Alto, California; she currently lives in Brooklyn. She creates immersive installations, photographs, audio mixes, publications, and public programming. Her work has been exhibited at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Queens Museum, the Bronx Museum, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Weeksville Heritage Center, among other venues. She is a contributing editor at the New Inquiry and arts editor at Spook magazine.
“This was the heavy-lifting, moon-shot phase of digital humanism, when the purpose of digital objects was still being sorted out and arguably less important than getting them digitized, period.” (The Slate piece)
I dropped this at the top because I just thought it was a good way of articulating that period of the internet, a frantic “get everything digitized” period that we are still very much in, despite our desperation to seem like we’ve moved beyond it.
In reading through the pieces for this week, I was struck by a few recurring themes, among many. One was the issue of libraries, and collections generally, are, necessarily in some ways, singular in their nature. They sit in a certain geographical location and are largely accessible/utilized by a specialized group of people which operate the mechanisms of storage, curation, and restoration. This problem is nothing new, as Battles and Schnapp point out in several very thorough historical examples. The one that stuck out among those was the hidden mountain, wherein certain documents were kept only by a select few, studied, and really truly kept hidden. This is a useful example because it appears to be the most extreme version of the “vaunted monument to knowledge” version of a library. In this example, not only is it a specific location, inaccessible to most, but that is actually quite deliberate, as this knowledge, and access to its core documents, is not intended for everyone, and certainly not intended to have hands laid upon by just anyone. To me, this raises an interesting question: to what extent is our seeming requirement in the Humanities, and extending out into a certain climate of Free Speech and open society in general, that all knowledge be made available to everyone, actually something of a distraction from a more local politics, as enunciated by Battles and Schnapp in their critique of the whole Book-Mobile thing. I didn’t quite imagine what they were referring to, as my mind of course just leapt to the basic notion of a traveling “wired” book-mobile, computers available to communities lacking resources etc. I think that’s sort of a more basic service that should exist anyway, not so much reflective of the more speculative utopianism they were shooting for (or maybe they’re more grounded than they appear, maybe I just have a more drab view of the world). In any case, my point is something like a question of whether our ambitions to catalogue everything AND make it accessible to EVERYONE seem a bit unscalable and might overrun more local concerns (suitably vague as that is).
Another interesting thing from the reading, at least for me, was the discussion they (Battles/Schnapp) had concerning Databases. Of course they started with the go-to person for anything database, Lev Manovich, and extended some of his thoughts to make what I thought were some pretty on-point observations. In particular I thought about the question of Google Maps as database; given that the Maps are essentially something more akin to a Facebook feed than to a stable un-changing database, one does wonder how distributed and complex the data going into that program really are. At any given moment, where is that information (assuming I even know what that means) really being stored? Is it somewhere? Does it need to be? Personally, in that case, it would seem that Google had better be utilizing some old “Deep Time” storage techniques to save some of their more valuable and/or socially important data, because simply storing it in data-farms and temporary could storage could prove complicating.
And just quickly, the whole inclusion of Deep Time in this discussion was really quite welcome. We had certainly brought it up before, but having people spell it out a bit clearer in relation to notions of storage and archiving was interesting. I’m still working my way through Zielinski’s book (and that Carl Sagan prediction of never reading more than 2000 books was a depressing thing to see given that).
“It’s tempting to look at new technologies like 3-D printing, virtual reality, or robotics—products that have a loud and obvious “this is the future” appeal—and match them up with libraries in a kind of word association game” (Carmody). I’d argue that among these flashier or more interesting, potentially paradigmatic “toys” (the Wellcome’s term” many of these fascinating new ideas seem to lose sight of their infrastructure in one crucial way: the cloistering aspect. Even Battles and Schrapp, who devote a number of pages to tracing a brief history of the monastic tradition of retreat + contemplation, neglect this (I believe crucial) function of the library in favor of splashier epistemological architectures. In going so far to restore the active dimension of the library so popularly considered in a largely passive mode they almost overshoot their goal. Take, for example, their accumulibrary with its warehouse-like brutalist design (which I acknowledge is perhaps more thought-experiment than blueprint). At no point in their sketching the speculative architecture of the place do they address seating or human furnishing. Perhaps a great deal of this shift is due to the shift away from the library-as-monument (also prevalent in their book) toward becoming more like a service, begun with the bookmobile and continued on with any of the either vaguely or explicitly utopian visions of the digital book collectives. Browsing the Library Innovation Lab’s projects gives a similar impression. But in all the redefining and reconceptualizing, I wonder if people lose sight of the most basic interface there is internal to the library’s physical structure, the seating and the reading space. How will a giant, constantly shifting library housed in an echoing warehouse provide a useful space for research or contemplation? In this way I found myself most taken with what is probably the least striking project here: OWL’s “The Oasis,” a profoundly humble endeavor that was as endearing as it was unsexy: “The Oasis is a space in the lower level of the library that offers an area for rest away from the hectic and fast paced Olin environment. It attempts to evoke a sense of tranquility. The aesthetic and feel were designed to distinctly contrast the larger library, much like an actual oasis would in the desert. After being tasked with creating a five minute library experience, in two weeks the team transformed a previously underutilized nook into the Oasis.”
Dutch painter Rembrandt Harmenszoon Van Rijn is lauded as one of the greatest and most skilled artists in the Western Art History, especially in Dutch Art History. Through his prolific contributions to art, he gave rise to many new genres and forms of painting. Some of his notable collections are housed at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. In the United States, Rembrandt’s collections can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Frick Collection in New York City, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
‘The Next Rembrandt’ project is a Rembrandt artwork created nearly four centuries after the death of Rembrandt Van Rijn. Or at least it aims to be. The project was created by analyzing over 300 paintings and works of Rembrandt and subjecting data gathered in the process to extreme facial recognition and deep learning algorithms. It was eventually 3D printed to give it the same materiality as an oil painting. The initiative was a collaboration between the ING Bank, the advertising agency J. Walter Thompson Amsterdam, supporting partner Microsoft, and advisors from TU Delft, the Mauritshuis and the Rembrandt House Museum. The 18 month project was realized by a wide group of data scientists, developers, art historians and Rembrandt experts. The final artwork consisted of more than 148 million pixels based on 168,263 Rembrandt painting fragments.
The idea behind the Next Rembrandt project was to blur the boundaries between art and technology and to find out if the artist can be “brought back to life”. The concerned partners wanted to use the acute computer algorithm to evade the traditional commercial applications and create an object that encompasses human emotion. David De Witt, Chief Curator Museum Het Rembrandthuis quotes, “One of Rembrandt’s great achievements was to portray human emotions in a much more convincing way than artists had before him and, in many ways, for all time.”. The immense data collection gathered from the archived paintings serves to be an integral part of the project. According to Joris Dik, a professor at Technical University Delft, “There’s a lot of Rembrandt data available — you have this enormous amount of technical data from all these paintings from various collections. And can we actually create something out of it that looks like Rembrandt? That’s an appealing question.” After the thorough analysis, the algorithms produced the final result – The painting should be of a portrait of a Caucasian male of age 30-40 with facial hair, dark clothing, a collar, wearing a hat and facing to the right.
But can an artist’s work be reduced to a mere few parameters or variables? There are so many niche qualities that ascribe value to a particular artwork – the artist and his eccentricities and ideologies, the time period, the surrounding environment, the social and political world around him. With that said, an artwork is often an artist’s response to a subject and it’s interesting to ponder on what happens if the artwork is viewed in isolation, devoid of all it’s other intricacies. Peter Schjeldahl from the New Yorker ridicules the project by saying, “There’s a handy word for the mingled passion and haplessness of the ginned-up painting: fan fiction. Like its literary equivalents, it mimics the effect of a particular creator’s art. Working backward from that point, it passes the creator’s intention—intelligence, emotion, soul—coming the other way.”
At this point, I wonder if such a project is a creation of a new piece of art based on critical analysis of certain data sets or whether it is giving rise to an entirely new form of materiality of storage. Over the course of history, several artists have fiddled with the idea of an artwork being an archive through various angles. Much of Jackson Pollock’s work has been archiving the surrounding of it’s creation by the means of rugged elements like cigarette butts, ash etc which becomes an essential part of the artwork itself and provides an immense amount of data about the artist, his ideas, his surroundings and more. Similarly, Robert Rauschenberg’s work contains banal objects collected from the streets of New York City, thus, becoming an archive of the objects used by the people of New York and their interactions and behaviors. A lot of paintings have been used as climate archives giving crucial data regarding the environment at that point. The GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences has been engaged in analyzing and interpreting data obtained from archived paintings such as Adriaen van der Venne’s Winter Scene and Isack van Ostade’s Icy landscape with sleigh and frozen boats and using it to predict the climate and how it has changed.
What’s interesting here is not merely the archiving practices and archival media of classical paintings, but the digitization of such an archive. As we are transitioning towards radical storage techniques like data storage on DNA fragments, it is important to question how these new storage techniques are preserving the various materialities of the archived work. Is it possible that our fetishization with technology making our sense of preservation more reductive? In the future, can pieces or “paintings” like the Next Rembrandt be considered a new medium of archiving where, given the information overload, all similar work just coalesces into one, making that one object the epitome of the collection? Are these storage techniques leaving behind the human essence of what is archived? And with the onset of these new materialities, would the idea of the archive itself would change?
Reading through the Ernst piece, I was drawn in a dozen different directions as to what his primary assertions were; I have found this typical of German Media Theorists, or maybe just conflate that school with Kittler, who I find similarly difficult to nail down. This is not a criticism, just an observation. In any case, Ernst’s claims seem to settle on the revolutionary potential for the Internet being a sort of new form of Archive, “an-archive” as seems to be the hip lingo, curated from around the globe and largely fleeting, that is always-already constituting itself anew, in the manner of websites, which I understand to operate by a kind of assemblage logic, different parts of the site refreshing as needed, while others stay calcified until someone adjusts them or updates them. But toward the end Ernst seems to undermine this suggestion, stating, “…the authoritative archive of protocols is more rigid than any traditional archive has even been.” (120)
This isn’t an inconsistency or anything, as far as I can tell; it is more reflective of this style of theoretical inquiry, suggesting then undermining/complicating. As to the general question of the Internet as archive and the new materialities that digital archivization engenders, I find myself of two minds (typically my stance on most things, although I am of two minds on that as well). On the one hand, yes, I see the disjointed/discontinuous (dis- is such a fad word) nature of the Internet being an obvious example of how it differs from the solid-state archive of papers and readable media materials (film, photo, discs, etc.) This creates a new set of questions, especially in light of the other readings we did about the relative deteriorating quality of digital files. But it also can just be fed through some of the questions we have always asked about Media and about New Media. This doesn’t need to be some NEW thing, like we need to totally reimagine WHAT the archive is, WHAT the internet is, and DO THEY COEXIST. Yes, of course they do, and all the verbiage in the known universe isn’t going to better articulate the problems than the cross-section of already existing theories and thoughts on the subject have to offer. This isn’t to discourage new work in the field (obviously that would be detrimental to my ambitions), but rather a desire for everyone to stop acting like they’re reinventing things when they write theoretical pieces. Most of what there is to say has already been said; we live in an age of saturation, both in terms of a statistic (we are inundated with info and images etc.), but also in terms of the machinations of Western culture and modernity having already addressed so many questions and taken the task of interrogating reality to its literal limits. Now is the time to sit back and feel the Deep Time of thought and knowledge, that is to say stop trying to reinvent the wheel and instead just make small adjustments to the already brilliant design, in the hopes that something new and practical will come of it.
That was a huge digression. Returning quickly to the material, and turning to Deep Time questions, storage for Millenia may be something we are simply ill-equipped to put into practice right now. We can wait a few years before we need to solidify some of these methods by which we can “save” the internet “forever”. My sense is that, taking the Internet in the terms explained above, in whatever sense the Internet is an archive, it is one that is constantly being adjusted, reworked, reevaluated, so as to privilege certain practices at any given time (Web..Web 2.0…Web 3.0 etc.) Therefore we need not concern ourselves with “preserving” it in the same sense that we obviously must with things like original paper copies, film negatives, seeds, etc. Also, who the hell wants to save most of the crap out there? Why is that a priority?
Nam Jun Paik’s Zen for Film is a piece that purposefully defies classic preservation practices. In doing so, I would argue that he puts a finger on something that is true for all artworks – that material, form and presentation are an essential part of what makes a piece. It is for this reason that artists like Nam Jun Paik have expressed the desire that their work not be preserved. Other artists like Tacita Dean (an archival artist that we read about in Hal Foster’s piece on archival art) refuse, if anything, to have their works digitized. Certainly, they question the digital versions’ potential to do justice to their work, but I wonder if this resistance isn’t concealing a deeper anxiety.
The paper/analog language that we apply to the digital (web page, etc.) gives us the illusion of sameness or at the very least a very close approximation, but the digital and the way in which the digital is processed and viewed makes of it an entirely different object and language than its analog counterpart. We can note an interesting process of transference here; indeed, we digitize material objects and call it conservation/preservation. We give material names to these digital artifacts, and by doing so establish a pre-supposed and misguided sense of materiality.
I was struck by this quote from Wolfgang Ernst piece “Dis/continuities”: “The Freudian unconscious… must (also) be understood as media theory whose centerpiece, the “psychical apparatus,” belongs in the same context as other storage media, such as the camera (to which Freud often compared the psyche) or cybernetics (Lacan). Significantly. the Freudian archive-unconscious is capable of storage only to the extent that it crosses out of makes illegible the signatures on other objects stored in its archive, which means that the unconscious is not a machine for remembering but, rather, a machine that continuously erases previous entries in order to replenish its storage capacity.”
Calling in Derrida’s archive fever diagnosis, the anxiety that is presented here is that preservation is also erasure – a process of valuation as objects are kept in or out. Archiving is an operation of inclusion and exclusion. I wonder then if preserving art in one form erases the previous.
Cory Arcangel’s example of the Bach pieces is striking in this regard – are we really preserving pieces or just adapting them to our own cultural forms of presentation and expression. This is not just a problem of the move to digital, but of preservation itself. As we see with the work of media archeology performed to recover the Warhol files, a work’s format is essential to what it is.
There are several art galleries and museums that archive paintings – storing their materiality, the different ideologies of their time and the very essence of the painters. Can these paintings themselves be archives? Can they store data? If yes, then what form of data can be collected and stored in these paintings? Can their materiality affect this data?
I will be talking about the above idea while focusing on ‘The Next Rembrandt’ project and how the emergent technologies are transforming not only the nature of archival storage, but the idea of “the archive” itself.
It’s too tempting in regarding the potential futures of storage to pass up a chance to make a massively overused observation: science fiction has ceased to be about the future (a la Baudrillard) and the present resembles science fiction. But how jaded would a person have to be not to be floored in the quasi-sublimity of writing our data into strands of DNA?
But the most immediately relevant piece by far was Dennis Yi Tenen’s “Free Library Congress,” given that none of these other advances seem plausible without access to publications and databases. He provides the sobering mirror to Google and the DPLA’s well-intentioned “total library” project: “The very logic of collecting and organizing human knowledge is, fundamentally, a public works project at odds with the idea of private intellectual property.” Of the many possible solutions I’ve seen (Tenen’s article was refreshing in that it not only identified problems but offered solutions!), I find myself most drawn to is either the copyleft or the creative commons movements, with a large push from many academics specifically to adopt one or the other. Especially with the cost-saving inherent to digital publishing yet antithetical to traditional print distribution of scholarly work, there is really no logistical reason these new modes of intellectual property management can’t work. Of course whether or not this leads anywhere substantial remains to be seen, as Universities and similar institutions are, despite the creativity they ostensibly foster, rather conservative, slow-moving beasts.
On a last, frustrated note: how can Ernst use the phrase “occidental phonocentrism” and “Gutenberg Galaxy” practically on the same page? Unless his intent behind the former was to highlight an occidental strain of phonocentrism, it presents a contradiction in terms. Though I am less inclined to lend him the benefit of the doubt after his repeated dissolution into empty Lacanism.
I was reminded in our readings this week of a beautiful film I had the pleasure of seeing at the Art of the Real film festival last year by young Palestinian filmmaker Jumana Manna, titled A Magical Substance Flows Into Me.
The film brings to life the recording of German Jewish ethnomusicologist Robert Lachmann. Lachmann left Germany for Israel in 1935. He founded a music archive and hosted a radio program – “Oriental Music” – in Jerusalem in which he featured music from varying regions, as well as religious and ethnic communities throughout Palestine.
The film begins with a voice-over recounting an argument that Lachmann had with a Palestinian musician on the future of Arabic music and the question of notation:
“Lachmann was against Arabic music’s adopting Western systems of notation. He thought Arabic music was too “emotional” and also that it would be difficult to notate because of the quarter-tone system. Lachmann wanted Arabic music to remain pure and free from Western influence. Jawhariyyeh was of the opposite opinion: He thought that the only way to preserve tradition was to write it down and that notation could be a tool for progress” (Artforum).
At the heart of this film are questions of musical preservation and transmission. Throughout Manna uses her iPhone to replay pieces of Lachmann’s collection to traditional musicians of the communities portrayed. She then captures their responses, either reliving the music or disagreeing with the broadcast, whether it be in the form of commentary or as their own performances of the same music.
We notice Manna’s careful attention to sound design as well. A significant part of the film and of these musical performances takes place in kitchens – along with the music, the quotidian kitchen sounds seem to play an important role as well.
From the archive to her iPhone and to the contemporary performers themselves and the quotidian places where culture is transmitted, what Manna puts forth is an interaction between the archive and a more libidinal experience – a resonating, performed historical memory.
Perhaps because I’m still somewhat preoccupied by last week’s discussion of archival aesthetics and archive-oriented art, I found myself largely wondering if there isn’t some interesting promise for artistic innovation/appropriation in this week’s essays. I was especially taken by a line of Wallace’s: “Keyword clusters, aiming to be synonymous with the image, do not occupy the realm of the semiotic, and the constitution of meaning by internal differences between signifiers, but that of the semantic, meaning and reference” (92), keywords “frame the word as a point of access, or supplement, to the image, rather than a container” (88). In a way, keyword clusters, gathered together, form a strange kind of ad hoc poetry which has always been defined as a modality that does not attempt to denote, to stab straight to the descriptive heart of the matter, so to speak, but rather addresses various objects, environments and states tangentially. As Vestberg points out, “Whether we call these levels denotation, connotation, and myth (Barthes) or pre-iconography, iconography, and iconology (Panofsky) they amount to the same thing: accounting for what a picture shows is never the same as describing what it depicts” (478). So while analog ordering systems do also present new possibilities for aesthetic consideration based on epistemological categorization, they tend to depend on rigidity and brevity – not to mention model consistency – for their usability in a way that keyword searching does not (necessarily). People have already noted a phenomenon on hiphop called “hashtag rapping,” where the artist removes the “like” or “and” etc from a typical line, cutting straight to the parallel term; the practice in sustained poetry of the keyword-inspired variety might not function too differently, though one hopes it would change more than a rhyming convention. Tagg mentions that photography “modeled the evolution of capitalist production from artisinal to entrepeneurial and then to fully corporate forms” (28) that culminate perhaps in the stock photo. Perhaps a technique developed along these lines would open up some path of resistance however small to the proliferation of the corporate image.
I’m writing to remind you about our optional-but-highly-recommended field trip to two Brooklyn studios next Friday, 10/28, from 3 to 6pm. Data students, here’s the listing on your course schedule; Maps students, here’s yours.
We’ll start off at the Office for Creative Research, at 81 Willoughby (Suite 601) at 3pm, then — via either a 20-minute walk or 10-minute ride on the F — head down to Dumbo, to 20 Jay Street (Suite 218), to visit Situ Research at 4:30.
These two award-winning research/design studios are engaging in work that explores issues pertinent to both classes: archival research, data analysis, mapping, etc. They can show us what’s possible in the worlds of maps and archives — particularly when we think *across* these fields. And I’m hoping their work will prove generative for your own practice, or even inspire possible career paths.
The Office for Creative Research (founded by Jer Thorp, former data artist at the NY Times), works “at the intersection of technology, culture and education.” They’ve created an atlas for the Great Elephant Census in Africa, “performed” the metadata in MoMA’s collections database, created a tool to reverse-engineer ad targeting, mapped meetings across Microsoft, helped St. Louis residents explore the lived-geographies of their city, and considered what we can learn from listening from glaciers.