Building Community Archives in the Digital Age

In the post “Confronting Our Failed Care Around the Legacies of Marginalized People in the Archives,” Bergis Jules brought up a brilliant critique that sounds Macluhan-esque and yet also sharp and foreboding: “Because for digital collections, who gets represented is closely tied to who writes the software, who builds the tools, who produces the technical standards, and who provides the funding or other resources for that work.”

Building an archive often involves (or even requires) the bureaucratic backing of an established institution via funds and resources granted for such projects. As we have learned from our visit to the Morgan Library and to the New York City Public Library, for example, many library and archival collections were once part of the private possessions of the wealthiest and most influential families during the Gilded Age. The heads of those families were instrumental in obtaining precious items from archaeological expeditions and rare books that they strongly believed were important to preserve for posterity, thus creating and leaving behind their own legacy while lifting up their own social status. Much of what was selected for preservation relied heavily upon those patriarchs’ tastes, interests, and inclinations. And to be frank, their inclinations mostly arose from a desire to appear authoritative, prosperous, classically educated, and “cultured” among their immediate social circles. Oddly enough in trying to appear “cultured,” the history and legacy of other cultures faded into the background or got pushed to the margins.

We can’t really blame JP Morgan or John Jacob Astor for this, as they did value enriching and educating the public by donating their collections of books and artifacts. But we are still missing out on the stories and histories that aren’t there on the shelves, or which still need further research to refine our knowledge of those marginalized cultures. Even typing the word “marginalized” makes me feel uncomfortable and political in acknowledging that ethnic cultures such as my own and that of countless others either didn’t make it or just barely made it to the center of the page, thanks to colonialism and imperialist systems that were in place to stamp out and suppress that which seems native or not part of Eurocentric Judeo-Christian standards.

Even today as we develop and enhance our preservation practices to create, manage, and maintain digital archives, I would argue that there is a priority list of topics and cultures that are already well-researched and well-funded, and the order of priority is based on how many grants were given, from most to least. But instead of relying so heavily upon the government and established institutions to get marginalized groups’ cultural histories on the record and finally to the forefront, Jules provides us with a solution that is practical and also fosters growth: community archiving. “The evidence is abundant that people other than white men contributed to building this country,” Jules stated. “There is a lesson here for archivists about making sure our collections are about confronting truth and being comfortable about acknowledging the complexity of our history.”

Why wait for “the man” when we can build these archives ourselves by pooling our own resources, collections, oral histories, and cultural knowledge? Who better to fill in the gaps of history than us? We have the tools and the technical standards. There is bound to be someone who is well-versed in code who can develop the software, and someone trained in archiving. We can devise a series of social media and marketing campaigns to not only fundraise, but more importantly raise awareness about the issues that we find significant, pressing, and relevant to marginalized cultures. As Jules proposed, it’s time to move away from the practices of “institutionalized dehumanization” and place people of color at the forefront of telling their own ancestral and cultural histories.

The Problem with Provenance

(I realize that I had skipped ahead to next week’s readings in my previous processing post “Building Community Archives in the Digital Age,” so here’s my processing post for today’s class, which also addresses similar topics.)

In his talk “RadTech Meets RadArch: Towards A New Principle for Archives and Archival Description,” Jarrett Drake focused on the colonial history and the implications of what provenance means in archival practice, especially when it comes to preserving digital material and records. Much like the concept of respect des fonds, provenance denotes conserving the original order of things. That is, maintaining and having the record of ownership of a work of art or an antique, used as a guide to authenticity or quality.

Drake explains: “[A]t its most basic level, provenance thrives with the presence of a clear creator or ownership of records and with a hierarchical relationship between entities, both of which reflect the bureaucratic and corporate needs of the Western colonial, capitalist, and imperialist regimes in which archivists have most adhered to the principle. This principle, again, is the central organizing unit for description in most archival repositories and archivists must comes to terms with the ways in which we incorporate the privilege, power, and patriarchy of provenance into our everyday practices.”

I think Drake worded it best when he comprehensively and succinctly stated: “It bears mentioning that provenance emerged as a concept in the West at a time when most people were structurally if not legally excluded from ownership; ownership of their own bodies, minds, labor, property, and records. Its application in archives, which is close to 200 years old, reflects the limitation of state regimes in the West to recognize fully the human rights of indigenous Americans, black people, women, and gender non-conforming people.”

It’s easy to build something and write history according to one’s terms when the resources and the “right” to access those resources are well within one’s disposal. Drake terms these as (1) the legal privilege to create and own, and (2) the legal protection of that privilege. Skin color, ethnicity, and gender, for instance, were often used as walls that blocked privilege for those who were not typically white, male, cisgendered, straight, and wealthy. These arbitrary social indicators often defined one’s provenance and were used to justify the means of ownership, access to resources, and entry into particular social circles.

One example of archival information containing provenance, as Drake states, is the biographical note: “[A]rchivists often write massive memorials and monuments to wealthy, white, cisgendered and heterosexual men, including selective details about the creator that have minimal bearing on the records, and instead serve to valorize and venerate white western masculinity.”

By “valorizing” and “venerating” only a select few who represent a miniscule scale on the spectrum of humanity, we will never get the full picture of the history of the world. If we don’t try to make improvements in the patriarchal path of archival practice now and make efforts to create other types of archives that incorporate more diversity, then we run the risk of ignoring and even erasing entire populations’ stories, accomplishments, social contributions, traditions, and cultural diversity. It doesn’t matter how vast the collection; in the end we would all lose and miss out on untold stories and unshared cultural treasures simply because provenance dictates that we adhere to a patriarchal status quo.

Stranger than Science Fiction: DNA Storage for Film Clips & Shakespeare’s Sonnets?!

I read through the articles about ice as a medium for storage, the frozen zoos, and other types of “Arks of the Apocalypse” to archive and preserve our planet’s ecological biodiversity for posterity. But it was the New York Times article, “Who Needs Hard Drives? Scientists Store Film Clip in DNA” that struck me as the most intriguing among this week’s selection of readings. Since I had majored in psychology as an undergraduate student and spent a lot of time reading about Rene Descartes and the notion of mind-body dualism in my philosophy classes, I needed to wrap my head around what it meant that we can now use DNA as storage spaces for various types of information after coming across this fairly recent article.

DNA itself is codified organic material made up primarily out of four types of nucleotide protein bases—adenine (A), guanine (G), thymine (T), and cytocine (C). DNA, our biology, is physical matter, whereas our minds are on the metaphysical cognitive level. From a classical Cartesian mind-body dualism perspective the brain (as an organ in the body) is separate from the mind, which is simultaneously a generator, processor, and repository of information, knowledge, beliefs, desires, and dreams. Mental events are side effects of complex physiological systems becoming activated (e.g. neurons firing to send signals to the rest of the brain when processing external environmental stimuli or reacting to an internal physiological reaction). Mental events (thoughts/feelings/mental images) are not exactly the brain activity itself. So if DNA is part of the physiological structure, how can visual media data containing mental images be encoded into DNA?

CAT scans and MRIs can show us the structural lobe areas of the brain, and EEGs can highlight the neurological activation in process in relation to their location in the brain, but these tests don’t really tell us much about what the person is actually thinking and/or feeling at the moment that these data are captured, unless the person being examined tells the evaluator. You can screen a person to see that they’re probably hungry if their hypothalamus is active, but unless the person explicitly states it, you cannot really know what specific kind of food they might be craving in that exact moment (e.g. a cheeseburger with fries from Wendy’s as opposed to a fruit salad).

So what does all of this mean now when scientists claim that we can now store visual media data, such as clips from a motion picture or snippets of Shakespeare’s sonnets, into strips of DNA as an alternative/new place to store our media archaeology? DNA holds organic information, so how does one translate and transcribe visual media data (e.g. pixels) into codified protein base instructions into bacterial cells for film archival preservation?

It sounds like crazy science fiction, but it amazes me how geneticists and other scientists have come up with ways to execute this idea of storing data in bacterial DNA. I think this could possibly revolutionize heath care industry in terms of accurately monitoring, diagnosing, and treating patients on a longitudinal scale (e.g. cancer patients). As quoted from the article: “The idea is to have bacteria engineered as recording devices drift up to the brain in the blood and take notes for a while. Scientists would then extract the bacteria and examine their DNA to see what they had observed in the brain neurons.”

Sure, “DNA bacterial data storage”—as I’m going to call it (that sounds so odd!)—could be a sustainable organic solution to the problem we have of trying to minimize wasteful media materials (e.g. discarded discs, decayed magnetic tapes, etc.). I can accept and believe Dr. George Church when he asserts that “Storing information in DNA is this side of science fiction.”

However, I’m still left wondering about the ethical implications of all of this in terms of just how we are going to use these methods to address social issues if geneticists expand beyond bacterial DNA and move to human DNA to store media data. While it would be edgy to say at a party that I literally have Shakespeare’s sonnets embedded in my DNA (as opposed to joking that poetry’s in my soul), I have to question what other practical purposes this kind of data codification, storage, and archival preservation would serve in the broader auspices of institutional infrastructures.

What would the government do if they knew I had classified information encoded in my body? Am I a piece of property if I am the only individual (literally) carrying DNA with sensitive secrets (such as the instructions to a medical cure, the whole coding language for digital and analog media files to DNA storage, or the geographical location of a nuclear weapon) on my person? Where would my human rights begin and my ownership of this data end?

Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Maybe I’m missing something here and need to do more research on the topic. But what I do know is that truth is stranger than science fiction. It’s epistemologically mind-blowing.

Preserving Sound + Image While Keeping Sustainability In Mind

One of the challenges of capturing and archiving sound and image from the past is preserving the material of the mediums on which the data was recorded. Prelinger was innovative in having the foresight to preserve old discarded educational film reels dating since the WWII era, and it’s great to see that people still find his film archive to be useful for research and other kinds of media production. I’m curious about how the Library of Congress is preserving each delicate film reel from the collection they had acquired from Prelinger. It’s one thing to have a temperature-controlled vault within a building to store them. However, I would imagine that the actual handling of the material, many of which are probably at least over seventy years old, would still have to go through some kind of preservation and/or restoration process.

Even when it comes to recording and archiving performance art, such as spoken word poetry, we still face the same issue of trying to preserve an ephemeral experience in a more permanent medium that could withstand time. “The Politics of Film Archival Practice” touches on these same issues of exploring the processes of preservation and restoration of materials. As old and current media formats get outdated and replaced by newer technological advances, we still have to consider which sets of materials are worth saving and ensure that data is not lost and that the quality of the materials is not sacrificed in the process. In her piece “Chemistry is Restoring our Audio History from Melting,” Katherine Gammon wrote about the gradual degeneration of tapes, discs, and film recording materials, and she also addressed the ways in which they are being restored and preserved through high-resolution digitization. This reminded me of our previous reading from Zack Lischer-Katz, “Studying the Materiality of Media Archives in the Age of Digitization: Forensics, Infrastructures, and Ecologies.” As we replace old film reels with data servers, but we also need to keep in mind the effects that our media waste in archival practices have on our ecological environments.

Collecting Photographs: The more our mediums change, the more our archival tendencies remain the same.

After taking a series of photos during an event or even throughout my vacation, I often feel overwhelmed and vexed thinking about how to organize and caption each photo. The initial excitement is still there — that feeling of “I’ve caught something unique and different that the world has yet to see through my lens,” both in the figurative and literal sense. However, developing a system in which to order, caption, tag, and file away these photos can become a daunting effort if you’ve taken hundreds of photos throughout the course of your travels.

With that said, I can only imagine how archivists at the New York Public Library must feel when combing through boxes and entire stacks of photos and other kinds of visual images in the attempt to make sense of how to properly organize the media for the public’s research uses. Paintings in a museum took time to create, but photographs are often created in a snap. As John Sarzowski, director of MoMA’s department of photography stated: “The invention of photography provided a radically new picture-making process — a process based not on synthesis but on selection. The difference was a basic one. Paintings were made… but photographs, as the man on the street puts it, were taken” (Crimp).

It doesn’t really matter whether an artist chooses a blank canvas or a camera. The photograph is just another medium, a conduit to convey the theoretical aspects of an artist’s subjectivity. I can only imagine the series of archival planning involved in curating these photographs and creating entirely new collections out of previous ones by consolidating them into sections such as “Art, Prints, and Photographs.”

The reclassification process, according to Crimp, is based on each photograph’s “newly acquired value, the value that is now attached to the ‘artists’ who made the photographs.” In a way, it’s like organizing paintings by subject (19th Century Art), topic/technique (Impressionism), and then by the artist (Monet, Manet, etc.). I personally don’t find it to be that revolutionary to designate a librarian with the new job of reorganizing and curating entirely new photo collections by “artist.” Who else is going to sift through these materials and help us make sense of it? However, what I do find noteworthy in the endeavors to do so is the subject matters that each photographic material captures — images that document particular events and which otherwise cannot be reproduced instantaneously by painting them.

As a graduate student looking back on the history of archiving and retrieving photographs, I thought that John Tagg’s articleThe Archiving Machine; or, the Camera and the Filing Cabinet, was a little amusing. “[T]he photograph’s mechanism of capture could not operate so irresistibly if not embedded in the entirely nonmimetic machinery of the catalogue and the file.”

Although Tagg is referring to a file cabinet in that quote, I also can’t help but think of the way in which I plug in my camera into my computer to upload the newly captured images. My MacBook Air still detects a certain ordering system in my Nikon DSLR camera’s memory card. Like the file cabinet, I have a medium with which I have “the possibility of storing and cross-referencing bits of information and collating them through the particular grid of a system of knowledge.”

Paintings are to photographs and JPG screenshots, as filing cabinets are to memory cards and Instagram pages, as index cards are to meta tags and hashtags. Of course, the methods of archiving are going to differ based on the type of medium (e.g. the paper that photo was printed on if printed, the type of camera used to capture the images). The mediums of art and documentation may have changed over the last century, but the overarching concepts of retrieving, ordering, and storing these visual media in specific epistemological receptacles remain the same.

Epistemological Aesthetics: Grappling with Anarchives

Click here to view my presentation. 

A few images come to mind when most people think of what an “archive” looks like. Books stacked upon miles of shelves in a library, some neatly stacked alphabetically and/or organized by decimal system, others piled on carts waiting to be wheeled back into circulation or scanned and re-cataloged into the institution’s database. Sometimes people think of old artifacts carefully preserved and encased behind glass at museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Smithsonian. Occasionally they’ll probably think of digital databases from public libraries or universities that one would have to click through in order to find the most relevant literature to lend academic authority and background context for a research project.

People don’t always think of post-its on a wall that accumulated to reflect a city’s collective consciousness right after an election as a kind of archive in and of itself. They also don’t always wonder about the ways in which street art enthusiasts have taken care to photograph and document a finished piece (or even if it’s work-in-progress) so that they can publish it on their website. They don’t always ponder about how certain museum institutions have exhibits consisting of encased displayed items that were acquired and archived without the permission of certain cultures as a result of colonialism and imperialism. These items are often kept out of reach from the general public — and kept even further away from people who may not be able to afford the cost of an admission ticket — but they are nonetheless catalogued and told from an out of touch and outdated hegemonic viewpoint.

Foucault wrote about the archive as a “totality of the formulations of the conditions of our existence, as the ultimate happiness on earth, the archive serves to organize mental and enforced orders in the shape of appropriate structures and to preserve, with a tremendous amount of effort, the memory of past orders” (Zielinski). Based on the etymology of the word archive as derived from ancient Greek, it means both commencement and commandment. Linguistically and metaphorically, the word itself brought order to a world of chaos as humans throughout time have tried to organize the stimuli and phenomena around them in order to tell stories as a way of survival.

While going through week’s selection of readings, I kept thinking, “What about the anarchive? What is it?” Was it a kind of academic protest movement against the archive as an authority of knowledge? And, as Siegfried Zielinski asks, why do we need “anarchaeology for anarchives” especially for the arts? I stumbled through these terminologies, trying to figure out what they mean and why these words exist to describe two diametrically opposed concepts of what collected knowledge can look like. What is all this anarchy about archives?

According to Zielinski, anarchives do not lay claim to any authoritative entity of leadership. Anarchives do not claim to know from where things originated, nor do they claim to predict or know the direction in which the discourse about any particular topic may be headed toward. Instead, anarchives arise and exist to challenge and provoke the archive. Anarchives are always in an active mode; once they go live, they become an ongoing project that may continue to grow in its significance and/or magnitude. Anarchives also tend to “celebrate the past as a regained present.” This creates a participatory atmosphere in which audiences can also partake in the rediscovery or the revisiting of previously collected items or epistemological works and view them through a different storytelling perspective or narration of history.

A few examples come to mind when I think of anarchives in more recent contexts—whether they’re conceptualized by artists, artist collectives, or individuals connecting across different social media platforms. 

The first example is Subway Therapy by Brooklyn-based artist Matthew “Levee” Chavez. Although he isn’t a licensed therapist, Chavez wanted to create an experience and a space where people can sit with him and tell him what’s on their mind. He would have a table with two chairs laid out on a subway platform and invite commuters to sit down and chat with him, and he would also have Post-Its and markers on the table for anyone who preferred to express their thoughts in this method. Chavez started Subway Therapy during the 2016 U.S. presidential election season, and when the results came in on November 9th, he invited people to write or draw their thoughts and feelings on the post-its, which he then hung up on the wall of the 14th Street station. Chavez would collect each post it and store them in folders, though it’s not clear whether he organized them in any particular order or separated the negative messages from the uplifting, positive memos. Currently, the New York Historical Society is partnering with Chavez to digitally archive the post-its and preserve them as part of a museum collection for future generations to see. 

Another example that reminded me of an anarchive is the artist coalition movement called Decolonize This Place, which strives to provide a more honest and accurate depiction of history than museum curators and historians would traditionally convey to the public. Decolonize This Place arose from the Occupy Wall Street movement and is comprised of artists and academics across different disciplines. On Columbus Day in 2016, the group had decided to “occupy” the American Museum of Natural History and demanded that the statue of Theodore Roosevelt be taken down because of his imperialist policies. They held free educational tours for the public to “challenge and provoke” the museum, making the case that most, if not all, of the artifacts in the museum’s vast collections were obtained from a hegemonic system of colonization and imperialism. 

The attitudes and the language of this imperialist hegemony still permeate the ways in which the exhibits are displayed; the museum curators and historians responsible for collecting and cataloging the artifacts behind the glass cases used language that is considered today to be culturally ignorant and insensitive to human diversity. The layout of the museum itself, if one is to think of the institution itself as an archive, remains largely unchanged—the exhibit on the third floor featuring “Primates” for instance, is right across the hall from where the “Eastern Woodlands Indians,” the “Plains Indians,” and the “Hall of Pacific Peoples” are located.

As someone who identifies as a minority and ethnically identifies herself as Filipino, I felt that this was an offensive and frankly terrible way of organizing the logistics of a museum’s floors. I’m not even going to gripe about the fact that the artifacts from the Philippines should have been grouped with the Hall of Asian Peoples, even though the archipelago is located in the Pacific Ocean. By their logic, then, Japan should have been grouped with the Hall of Pacific Peoples. Alas, it’s not. It just felt odd that artifacts from my ethnic culture were on display, but the labels were written from the vantage point of people who are outsiders to my heritage. In light of these kinds of issues, Decolonize This Place continues to re-educate the public about the other side of history’s coin and remind them of the forgotten and sideswept cultures by staging these sit-ins and tours, thereby disrupting the hegemonic ordering of history and presenting itself as an artist coalition in support of anarchival efforts.

The last example I kept thinking about was the hashtag’s dynamic use in social media platforms, especially on Twitter, to sort, aggregate, and archive user’s posts and status updates. Hashtags such as #BlackLivesMatter and #YesSheCan have been used for various social movements since the moment it was introduced to the public as a useful function in social media.

More recently the hashtag #MeToo on Twitter and across other platforms highlights the widespread occurrence of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape that happens each day not just to women, but also to men and to members of the trans community. These endeavors highlight the depth of complexity surrounding the prevalence of these problems in society. These social movement hashtags can be considered as on-going, live examples of the anarchive because they disrupt and challenge our conventional everyday discourse about patriarchal values and toxic masculinity in society.

Rectifications, Re-orderings, and Renditions

Reading through Foucault’s Preface on “The Order of Things” and Perec’s piece “Think/Classify” led me to think about classification systems that we use in other disciplines to order information and understand complex environmental ecosystems, especially in the sciences. The readings also brought to mind the concept of the “rectification of names” in Confucianism—that if our language is not correct and accurate in the naming of an object or of an idea, then language would fail to reflect the accuracy of reality. So much of epistemology depends on the proper ordering, classifying, sectioning, defining, hierarchy, and enumeration of things that at times we may have to also alter and revise our man-made classification systems to accommodate new knowledge or to rectify previously known facts, truths, or observations. In doing so, we are not only reordering and renaming the logistics of our collections and archives of knowledge, but we are also rearranging the ways in which we think about the world and how we relate to it.

Foucault gives us an example of this: “What transgresses the boundaries of all imagination, of all possible thought, is simply that alphabetical series (a, b, c, d) which links each of these categories to all the others.” He even goes on to state that “The central category of animals ‘included in the present classification’, with its explicit reference to paradoxes we are familiar with, is indication enough that we shall never succeed in defining a stable relation of contained to container between each of these categories and that which includes them all…”

Naming the five (or is it six?) kingdoms in elementary school is one thing, but having to delineate between phyla, families, species, etc. is another challenge that is never ending as we accumulate and accommodate new knowledge of every biological organism that exists in the various types of ecological systems that already exist in our world.

As we process the information that we already have about particular academic disciplines and topics, we simultaneously struggle with rearranging the logistics of how we want to order, classify, enumerate, define, and compartmentalize our knowledge so that we can easily access the information for later use… just in case we may need to go back, rethink, and reorder our lists again.