This past Sunday my Archives, Libraries + Databases class (along with a bunch of their friends and a few other students from our graduate program) visited the Reanimation Library and Interference Archives in Gowanus, Brooklyn. We’ve visited Andrew at the R.L. for each of the past three years I’ve taught this course, but this year I decided to make a “Gowanus Radical Collections” tour of the afternoon, so we added the I.A. to our itinerary …And, to round out the afternoon, we managed to squeeze in a final stop at Four & Twenty Blackbirds for a slice of pie.
Last weekend, after experiencing the amazing Massive Attack v Adam Curtis gesamtkunstwerk at the Park Avenue Armory and a lovely Jean Tinguely / Rauchenberg “Nouveau Réalisme” “assemblage” show at Sperone Westwater, a friend and I visited Lisa Cooley on the LES to see Cynthia Daignault’s “Which is the Sun and Which is the Shadow?” I was particularly taken by her “I love you more than one more day,” an installation consisting of 365 oil paintings of the sky, which was given its own back room in the gallery.
What follows is the talk I’ll be giving at the Digital/Pedagogy/Material/Archives conference at the Bard Graduate Center on Friday, April 5.
When I first arrived at The New School, in 2004, one of my service responsibilities was to [SLIDE 2] coordinate our student thesis projects. At the time, we had about 500 Masters students in the program, roughly 10% of which complete theses. Even as our program has grown, that proportion has stayed relatively consistent. Because the Masters Program in Media Studies was founded as a praxis program, one combining theory and practice, we’ve always had students producing work in a wide variety of formats. Finally, in the late 1990s, we extended that format-inclusivity to our thesis projects. In my eight years there, I’ve seen plenty of traditional 80-page thesis documents, as well as a graphic novel; [SLIDE 3] a few interactive audio maps; lots of film and video; a research podcast series; a couple installations; an artists’ book; a multimedia performance; and, perhaps among the most ambitious, a live chamber orchestra performance. [SLIDE 4] The latter was by a student, a composer, who was interested in film music. She took the infamous shower scene from Psycho, rescored it 13 times, rented out Judson Church, and had a chamber orchestra perform her 13 variations alongside the projected film.
And there are plenty more where those came from.
[SLIDE 5] My first office was on our building’s “secret” 13th floor, [CLICK] which is kind of like the 7 ½-th floor in Being John Malkovich, except we can actually stand up. To find us, you have to take the elevator up to the 12th floor, then find the one set of stairs that will take you up to 13. Some of the guards don’t even know we’re up there. [SLIDE 6] Anyway, beside my desk was a wall of floor-to-ceiling filing cabinets that contained department files, reams of copy paper, cables for faculty computers…and all student theses for the past decade or more. Probably more, since some senior colleagues confirmed that we’ve been collecting and diligently cataloguing theses locally since Media Studies’ inception in the 70s.
[SLIDE 7] Wondering why the library wasn’t storing these projects, I eventually found myself in a meeting with the University Librarian, the Director of Digital Library and Technical Services, and a faculty member from another PhD-granting division of the university [SLIDE 8] We talked about what we’d like to see in a digital repository and addressed the possibilities of using d-space.
And then, despite a few attempts to follow up, it never got off the ground. This might be in part because we had some shifts in our library leadership, or because The New School is regularly negotiating its relationship to NYU’s libraries, which serve us, too. Faculty who’d made similar appeals to the library before my arrival indicated that lack of storage space – [SLIDE 9] and the variety of formats our theses come in – have presented perennial challenges.
Despite the lack of institutional movement on the thesis front, we did decide to make some changes in-house. Within two years, we began asking students to submit everything digitally: no paper copies of anything – unless the student had created an artifact for which the material form was an integral part of the project, as with an artist’s book. We started storing everything on a dedicated hard drive, which was regularly backed-up. And we developed guidelines for submitting projects in different formats – audio, video, film, websites, etc. Perhaps our guidelines didn’t reflect best archival practices, but they reflected what we – a bunch of non-archivists – could reasonably be expected to handle on our own.
[SLIDE 10] Handling it on our own. DIY – a term that, nowadays, we tend to romanticize, but which is often simply a euphemism for getting by in the absence of institutional support that probably should be there. Yet for years we’ve been doing it our way – [SLIDE 11] Laverne & Shirley-style. When it came to my teaching it seemed to make sense to me that I’d be the one responsible for collecting and storing student works, particularly since I chose to forego the course management resources our university provided for us. [SLIDE 12] [SLIDE 13]
For projects that served the entire program or university, however, I aimed to work with our central Communication and External Affairs office. [SLIDE 14] When a colleague and I received funding for “Project Media Space | Public Space,” a year of events and courses exploring the ways that various media technologies transformed how we understand and experience public space, we created a robust website listing not only our own events – which included cross-divisional classes, [SLIDE 15] guest speakers, student showcases, screenings, [SLIDE 16] master classes with visiting artists and scholars, [SLIDE 17] an audio show, [CLICK] and a major exhibition – but also relevant events and resources all across the city. It was really a fabulous resource and a chronicle of an exciting set of programs.
And then, once the year ended and the university undertook one of its regular summer “refreshings” of the website, our Media Space sites [SLIDE 18] disappeared. I’ve come to realize over the years that sites like ours – those that serve primarily current students – aren’t really the communication team’s top priority. They’ve increasingly come to regard the University’s website as a marketing tool. [SLIDE 19] Their concern is creating a public face to attract prospective students and funders, and their assumption seems to be that faculty profiles, lists of classes, and factual info about innovative programs and resources are what appeals to outsiders. They don’t seem to see the “marketing value” in highlighting student productions or research projects, which, if you ask me, would have tremendous value in showing the vibrant work taking place at The New School.
I also have to acknowledge that the folks in our Communications department are lovely and talented people, and they’re terribly understaffed. And it’s completely understandable that they can’t make archiving their concern.
[SLIDE 20] The upshot of all of this is that the only remaining traces of Project Media Space | Public Space are on my own website. The same can be said of a multimedia student journal I advised in 2006. [SLIDE 21] I taught a class in which a team of students learned a bit about editorial theory and explored the past, present, and future of the journal landscape – and they applied those lessons in theming; soliciting submissions for; editing; and publishing a issue. Various faculty advisors over the years had hosted issues on their own New School webspace. So, we had no consistent site architecture – and when the university phased out the dedicated personal webspace a few years ago, some older issues of the journal failed to make the transition. Our issue was among the lost. [SLIDE 22] It lives on only in this screen shot on my own webpage – [CLICK] where you can see the dead link at the bottom – and in the syllabus that documents the process of its creation.
I’ve had my own domain and shared hosting since 2003, and I’ve been creating websites for most of my classes since 2005. [SLIDE 23] The early sites were basic html sites that functioned primarily as repositories of syllabi and relevant links. I tried building some bulletin boards, to make the sites more interactive, back in 2006, but these platforms proved a little too clunky for students. [SLIDE 24] But for the past four years or so, each of my courses has had a blog, or, in the case of a large lecture course I occasionally teach, [SLIDE 25] its own rather extensive Ning site, which contains all the course material, all the readings and supplemental material, videos of all the lectures, and all the online student discussions. This site is reused each semester, so I’ve chosen to create my own archive of each semester’s work.
These websites have become rather comprehensive “archives” of not only the classes themselves, but also of student learning. I should say that I’m one of those folks who bristles at the colloquial use of the term “archives” – as in, [SLIDE 26] I’ve archived these “women laughing alone with salad” photos on my hard drive – because such usage tends to trivialize or ignore the specialized knowledge and specific values that “real” archivists embody. [SLIDE 27] But it is true that our course sites do manage to chronicle, or “archive,” the richness of student learning: it’s the class architecture, the learning materials, the students’ learning processes, the interaction among students and with the instructor, and the students’ projects. In regard to the latter, [SLIDE 28] at the end of each semester, I create a summary blog post for each class, in which I document what we’ve done, highlight some of our greatest accomplishments, address what we might do differently next time, and describe – and link to – each of the students’ final projects.
[SLIDE 29] But I don’t consider myself the class archivist; honestly, I’m a little too busy trying to be an effective teacher. I don’t ask my students to submit their work “for archiving.” And although I do what I can to fix broken links, there’s not much I can do when the material we’re linking to disappears. Because students usually have the freedom to choose their own platforms, which is an integral part of the design process; because they sometimes make use of platforms that fold or evolve in ways that compromise their designs; and because students sometimes elect to host their projects on their own webspace in order to add them to their personal portfolios – I have little control over what happens to them after the semester’s over.
I’ll offer a couple examples from my [SLIDE 30] Media and Materiality course in which we examine “media as material objects, as things, as symbolically charged artifacts, as physical supports for communication.” The students create online exhibitions of material media – an endeavor we approach as a form of “multimodal scholarship.” The particular formats of the students’ projects offer them an opportunity to think through the central concepts of our class: what does it mean to mediate the materiality of media objects, and to create a virtual exhibition that addresses their material natures?
[SLIDE 31] While we explore a variety of platforms, most students have chosen to make WordPress blogs or Tumblrs, and some have created Pinterest collections, designed e-books-as-exhibitions, [SLIDE 32] or custom-designed their own sites. [SLIDE 33] One fashion student re-purposed the Facebook page – detourning the real estate of the profile page, using it in a way it wasn’t meant to be used – to create an exhibition about fashion and mediated identity. This project no longer lives on Facebook; I have to assume that the student deleted it. Its only trace is in a screenshot on my end-of-semester summary post.
[SLIDE 34] A few other 2010 students elected to use a platform called Vuvox to create “multimedia collages.” [SLIDE 35] Vuvox, it so happens, is owned by ebay, which also owns PayPal – and PayPal’s servers were attacked in early December 2010, right before finals, in retaliation for the company’s decision to cut funding to WikiLeaks. Hence, no VuVox, and no work on final projects, for nearly a week. Thus, while my students probably weren’t the hackers’ intended targets, they felt the wrath. [SLIDE 36] And the students learned a difficult, although valuable, lesson about Internet infrastructure. These projects are (currently) still alive online – but they certainly wouldn’t be if Vuvox permanently folded. Or if my students elected to use any of the myriad platforms simply evaporates each year.
[SLIDE 37] In another of my courses, Urban Media Archaeology, we investigate historical urban media infrastructures – from newspaper delivery to the use of carrier pigeons, from telephone switching stations to independent bookstores, from video game arcades to the evolution of New York’s street signs. [SLIDE 38] The students conduct archival research and produce their own primary documents: oral histories, ethnographic videos, field recordings, etc. [SLIDE 39] And these materials are woven into arguments they make on a map – a map we’ve been collaboratively developing with programmers and designers at Parsons the New School for Design for the past five years.
[SLIDE 40] Our map is hosted on Parsons servers – and the developers have chosen to host locally as much media as possible, rather than linking out to it. But students using video still typically choose to embed codes from YouTube or Vimeo – or, if they’ve created their own video or audio, they post to YouTube or Soundcloud and embed the content. Thus, while we can be relatively assured that the map will always be there as long as we want it to be, we have no such assurances that the media on the map, particularly those resources stored externally, will always be around. I’m sure we’re not consistently using best archival practices – but if we’re successful in securing funding for further development of the tool, this would be a priority.
There are some other promising developments, too. [SLIDE 41] Media Studies’ new Technical Director has been working with a former student to develop a searchable archive of student thesis projects. It’s still a work on progress, as is evidenced by the fact that I haven’t been able to get access to it for the past few days in order to capture a screen shot. But it’s a vast improvement over the days when most students didn’t even know there was a collection of theses up on the Malkovich floor – and if they did, they’d have to review a print-out of our catalogue, sign out a project – and maybe return it later on.
[SLIDE 42] We also have Wendy Sheir, recently promoted from director of the Kellen Archives – that’s Parsons’ archives – to Director of the University Archives and Special Collection – who, with her fantastic staff, has made tremendous strides in gathering up our less-than-tidy institutional archives and digitizing some fabulous material. And they’re committed to working with faculty and administrators to archive student work, too. [SLIDE 43] Some of their recent digitization projects – including work with The New School’s publicity scrapbooks – have been supported by grants attached to classes; those materials were integral to the work taking place in a recent lecture course on the New School’s history.
They’ll be working with my students next year, too. [SLIDE 44] I regularly teach a seminar on
Archives, Libraries, and Databases, in which we look at the past, present, and future, and the politics and aesthetics, of the institutions we’ve created to organize, index, preserve, make sense of, and facilitate or control access to our stores of knowledge and collections of information. [SLIDE 45] Next year, as a follow-up to this class, I’ll be collaborating with The New School’s Libraries and Archives to create a “Digital Archives and Institutional Memory” studio, a chance for students to put into practice some of the theories we address in the seminar. The New School’s digital archiving efforts are relatively recent, so it’ll give students a chance to shape the direction of future archival work – perhaps the archiving of their own student work – and create new opportunities for future pedagogical uses of the archives. And maybe we’ll even create a few aspiring archivists in the process.
* * * * *
During the afternoon session, each presenter will be asked to share an ideal scenario or a provocation so that everyone in attendance can perhaps identify concrete steps we can take together to develop new archival strategies. What follows are my (not terribly provocative) provocations:
- What if we sought to archive artifacts of the learning process – including the drafts and detritus – rather than focusing primarily on “finished works,” which provide proof of “having learned”? What if we archived not only finished projects, but also student-generated data, component pieces, drafts, etc. – and what if this material was then made available for reuse and repurposing in other student and faculty projects?
- What if students could post their research and production material to a university archive and indicate, Creative Commons style, if – and if so, how – they’re allow it to be used by others?
- What if we linked our archives to fair use advocacy groups like Critical Commons, which supports the “transformative reuse of media in scholarly and creative contexts” – and extended that advocacy to incorporate other copyrighted cultural forms?
- What would it mean to embrace the basic principles of Alan Liu’s RoSE (research-oriented social environment) project and to “treat individual works of media as proto or micro networks” – networks of people, of texts, of learning practices, etc. – and then to trace the “macro-networks” that emerge from these micro-networks? How might this allow us to use the archive to map research communities and collaborations and shared resources?
- What if we allowed students to “opt-in” to archive their final course projects, which would then obligate them to format their work according to specified criteria, but would also ensure that their work would be preserved by the university? And what if instructors could then generate a list of all officially-archived course projects, which they could then format into a summary document or “exhibition” of student work.
- [Disingenuously phrased as a “what if”] What if we also recognized the right of students to opt out of the archive – to allow their work to remain private, un-networked; to destroy their work or to allow it simply to fade away? What if we honored the value of erasure and forgetting?
“French tanks were closing in on this storied caravan city on the night of Jan. 23, when the al Qaeda-backed militants who had governed Timbuktu since April left a departing blow. They broke into one of the world’s most valuable libraries, ripping centuries-old manuscripts from shelves. Then they torched these priceless artifacts, in a scene of destruction that horrified scholars around the world,” the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday. This, after months of ruination, including the demolition of many sites central to Mali’s cultural heritage.
But thanks to a mix of old- and new-school preservation tools and strategies — donkey, the old “hide ‘em under the floorboards” trick, and digitization — most of the 30 to 40,000 manuscripts survived. Prof. Abdoulaye Cissé and security guard Abba Alhadi told the Journal that “an estimated 28,000 of the library’s artifacts were smuggled out of town by donkey cart.” “[T]he people of Timbuktu have a centuries-old tradition of protecting and preserving their manuscripts,” the BBC reported. As South African researcher Mohamed Mathee explained to reporters, Malians “think on their feet when faced with these challenges… They take the documents to family homes and store them safely.” Plus, since the Ahmed Baba Institute was founded in 1973, Timbuktu has grown a network of official places of refuge — both physical and virtual — for its manuscripts, where the documents are preserved and digitized.
Last year Chris Bentley, a student in my Archives, Libraries & Databases graduate seminar, wrote a fantastic paper on Timbuktu’s Mamma Haïdara Commemorative Library. While we certainly celebrate the role that these preservation and digitization efforts have played in averting recent disaster, we also can’t ignore the complicated politics of such internationally-funded efforts. Chris, who served for two years in the Peace Corps in Mali, writes:
I found it difficult to balance the potential value the manuscripts may yield to scholarship with the internationally funded institutional practice of swooping in, building tangible monuments to donors’ generosity and skipping town – a tactic foreign aid and development organizations have mastered… While this is an improvement over the colonial practice of removing cultural artifacts from occupied regions, it is still a display of power and wealth that removes the manuscripts from their previous associations (with the descendents of the historian who started the collection) and places them in a sterile, secure, new environment that greater resembles Western methods of organization than Malian.
You can read the full paper here.
Last weekend I made my (almost) monthly trip to Chelsea with a long list of shows to see. I started off with two sound-related exhibitions:
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Voice Array and Last Breath were at bitforms (where, I just discovered, one of my fantastic students works). From the press release:
Voice Array is a construction for vocal improvisation that uses blinking LEDs and a customized intercom system of audio playback and recording. Capturing hundreds of voices and translating each one into a series of light flashes, the piece stores a unique pattern as a loop in the first light of the array, until the next participant speaks into the intercom. Each new recording is pushed along its long horizontal band of LEDs, as sounds of the voices gradually accumulate. When the first voice reaches the other side of the piece, the participant’s phrase is once again released as sound, punctuated by the staggering pulsation of all the lights in tandem. The ever-changing voices stored by the piece play back through a directional speaker, during moments of less activity.
Last Breath is a robotic installation that stores and circulates the breath of a person forever, between a bellows and a brown paper bag. The apparatus is automatically activated 10,000 times per day, the typical respiratory frequency for an adult at rest. With each breath the piece generates quiet sounds from the bellows, the motor and the crackling of the paper bag. The piece also sighs 158 times a day. For the exhibition in New York, the piece is a biometric portrait of Cuban singer Omara Portuondo.
Then I was off to Susan Philipsz’s The Distant Sound at Tanya Bonakdar. From the press release:
The exhibition takes its title from the 1910 opera, Der ferne Klang, or The Distant Sound, by the Austrian composer Franz Schreker. In Schreker’s work, a composer is haunted by an ethereal noise that he tries all his life to capture. It is only on his deathbed that he realizes the sound has been around him all the time, in the rhythmic textures of modern life. In Philipsz’s installation, bits of the score for the horns, strings, and chimes from Schreker’s opera are disassembled and transcribed so that each note comes from its own speaker. Abstracting the individual notes from the composition as a whole transforms the music into sound and creates an open-endedness that allows the ambient noises of the space to intermingle with the work… A set of photographs that document the journey from Glasgow to Dundee, taken while Philipsz was still in college, create a stark visual landscape along the back wall of the main space. The atmospheric diptych, capturing cables in transit, speaks of the dynamic of movement and separation.
Oddly, I can’t remember a thing about this work — but ArtFagCity has a good write-up, which might help to explain why the show didn’t gel for me or plant itself in my memory.
The forensic-archeological term palimpsest, defined as “something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form” can be seen as the operative metaphor for Michelle Stuart’s entire body of work, from the pioneering Land Art pieces of the late 1960s and 1970s to the paintings, drawings, sculpture and mixed-media objects that have followed to date.
And in regard to her subject matter:
Since the 1960s, Michelle Stuart’s ardent curiosity about the natural world, fascination with the cosmos, and lifelong commitment to social justice have emerged in works of art that transcend geographical, philosophical, and aesthetic boundaries.
And continuing with the visual palimpsests, I then saw Barry Le Va‘s The Italian Project: Monica in Grey at Sonnabend (which, for some reason, always seems to have a Bernd + Hilla Becher show going on!). Le Va’s 49 collages feature images of Monica Vitti (from Antonioni’s films) and lots of graphical references to optics.
Le Va’s work had an archival quality that continued through in Dennis Adams‘s Malraux’s Shoes and Tagging the Archive at Kent Fine Art. I’ll quote at length from the press release, given the relevance of this piece to next week’s discussion — on the “archival impulse” — in my Archives Libraries Databases class:
In his new video work, Malraux’s Shoes, Dennis Adams masquerades as André Malraux (1901–1976), the French writer, adventurer, Resistance fighter, cultural provocateur, art theorist, orator, statesman, and passionate archivist of the world history of art. Malraux’s arrest at age twenty-one by French colonial authorities in Cambodia for stealing bas-reliefs from a Khmer temple is an early testament to what would become his obsessive sampling of visual art from diverse cultures. For Malraux, this sampling was a means of laying claim to the very possibility of art’s transcendent value. Over the last forty years of his life, Malraux would assemble, disassemble, and reassemble montages of photographic reproductions to create Le Musée imaginaire, which ranks as one the twentieth century’s seminal manifestations of the archive along with Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, Hanne Darboven’s Cultural History 1980–1983, and Gerhard Richter’s ongoing Atlas project. Malraux’s idea of an imaginary museum, a “museum without walls” (which he first announced in 1947), is a prescient manifesto of the digital age that enacts the displacement of the physical art object and the museum by photographic reproduction. And Malraux’s privileging of curatorial over artistic production is a first instance of explicitly locating the creative act in the process of assembling, grouping, and displaying works of work.
The set for Malraux’s Shoes is a reconstruction of the iconic photograph of Malraux standing in his study with the plates of his book The Imaginary Museum of World Sculpture laid out on the floor before him. The entire video is shot on this single set. With the camera positioned overhead, the plates on the floor become the backdrop for every shot; no walls are ever visible. As the camera moves between fixed shot and slow pans, details of the images on the floor create a visual landscape that runs through the work.
Finally, I loved that my afternoon ended with the contrast between the restraint of Richard Tuttle‘s Systems, VIII – XII at Pace, and the abandon of Thomas Hirschhorn’s Concordia, Concordia at Gladstone.
Hirschhorn’s work was “inspired by the sinking of the cruise ship Costa Concordia, which ran aground off the coast of Italy in January 2012.” I love his explanation of how this event was emblematic of so many contemporary conflicts:
I was struck by this apocalyptic upside down vision of the banal and cheap “nice, fake, and cozy” interior of the overturned ship. This pictures the uncertainty and precariousness of the past, of the present moment, and of the future. I saw it as an amusing and disturbing but nevertheless logical and convincing form. This must be the form of our contemporary disaster… I want to do a Big work to show that the saying “Too Big to Fail” no longer makes any sense. On the contrary, when something is Too Big, it must Fail – this is what I want to give Form to. I want to understand this as a logic and this is the Form!
At the end of every semester for the past few years I’ve tried to write a recap post for each of my classes. I share highlights from the students’ projects and reflect on what we accomplished, and what we might do differently next time. However, back in Spring 2011, when I first taught my Archives, Libraries & Databases class, I neglected to write a summary post — probably because I was freaking out about the tenure dossier that was due in two months.
So, for the benefit of students in my current section of ALD, who might like to see what their predecessors have done — and for my own enjoyment, since I get to revisit some fantastic work and remember some fabulous students from the past — I’ll briefly summarize the Spring 2011 projects here:
- Grace examined soil painting, dance, and song as archival practices among the Talaandig tribe in Bukidnon Province, the Philippines — which is where Grace is from.
- Lily examined the influence of Belle Da Costa Greene, Pierpont Morgan’s personal librarian, in shaping not only the Morgan Library, but also the field of librarianship.
- Sue studied various cases in which photography has been used to archive urban redevelopment.
- Chris offered a fabulous psychoanalytic reading — using the work of Derrida and Carolyn Steedman — of the Mormon Archive.
- Allison, who worked for the New York City Ballet, discussed historical and recent attempts to archive live dance performance, and her discussion included various approaches to dance notation.
- Christo explored the spatiality of databases: the space occupied by databases’ technical infrastructure; the departmental spaces linked together by an institution’s (e.g., police or immigration) databases; and the geographic spaces from which data is drawn, and which are housed together on a database.
- Chris, who worked for UNICEF, critically assessed his own team’s efforts to introduce digital kiosks and SMS-based systems to increase access to information and “mirror the work of public libraries” in Africa.
- Danielle examined the evolving material form of the book, and how that morphing object necessitates changes within the institutions charged with selling, storing, and cataloging it.
- Maria, a native of Bogotá, examined her city’s network of public libraries — comprised of dozens of architecturally significant buildings constructed within the past 15 years — and the vital role they play in civic life.
- Stephen, who maintains his own extensive database of videogame artwork, considered the notion of “fidelity” in regard to the archived, born-digital image.
- Kelly conducted fieldwork in public libraries in and around Crown Heights, Brooklyn, to see how teenagers were being served, if at all.
- Ran examined the archival practices (including how various media formats are processed) and politics of the Lesbian Herstory Archives.
- Darrell studied the creation of the Fugazi Live Series by consulting with the band and participating archivists.
- Nick questioned the notion of the “document” in the work of Walid Raad and The Atlas Group.
- Steve dug into the Stasi archive, focusing in particular on the epistemic shift – the intellectual “renovation” of the archives – that accompanies a regime change, as well as the political, cultural and affective consequences of that shift.
- And Rory speculated on ways that libraries might make more material and transparent their systems for classifying and storing knowledge, particularly those forms of digital knowledge that seem to have no material body.
I’m teaching my Archives, Libraries & Databases class again this coming fall (here’s last year’s course website). And once again, I’m a bit concerned that students might think it’s a research skills class. As I pointed out last year,
I’m not going to teach people how to use a library or build a database. Instead, we’re going to talk about the politics and aesthetics and ethics of organizing information…or media…or data…or knowledge — these four terms are not interchangeable, and we’re going to talk about that, too — through these different intellectual architectures. And given my interests, we’ll of course talk about some physical architectures as well.
The course title‘s a bit different this year. Last spring it was Libraries, Archives + Databases – but only because the timing of our various field trips dictated that we start with the libraries section and put archives in the middle. This year, I’m not going to allow field trips to dictate our schedule; I think it’s important for the conceptual integrity of the class to start with archives, then move along historically (although not teleologically!) as we go through the semester.
Anyway, here’s the course description:
“There has been more information produced in the last 30 years than during the previous 5000.” We’ve all heard some variation on this maxim. As U.S. publishers add 250,000 printed books and close to 300,000 print-on-demand books to our libraries each year; as we find ourselves wading through over 200 million websites; as we continue to add new media – from Tweets to Apps to geo-tagged maps – to our everyday media repertoires, we continually search for new ways to navigate this ever more treacherous sea of information. Throughout human history we have relied on various institutions and politico-intellectual architectures to organize, index, preserve, make sense of, and facilitate or control access to our stores of knowledge, our assemblages of media, our collections of information. This seminar looks at the past, present, and future of the library, the archive, and the database, and considers what logics, priorities, politics, audiences, contents, aesthetics, physical forms, etc., ally and differentiate these institutions. We will examine what roles the library, archive, and the database play in democracy, in education, in everyday life, and in art. Throughout the semester we’ll examine myriad analog and digital artworks that make use of library/archival material, or take the library, archive, or database as their subject. Some classes will involve field trips and guest speakers. Students will have the option of completing at least one theoretically-informed creative/production project for the class.”
As we did last spring, we’ll probably go on field trips to the Reanimation Library, the Morgan Library, and the Municipal Archives. I’ll try to find a couple other sites, too. And I’ll bring in some interesting guest speakers.
Here’s a rough outline of what we’ll do throughout the semester:
- Historicizing Information Overload: we’ll read some Clay Shirky, Ann Blair, and Borges.
- Ordering Media’s “Innumerable Species”: We’ll read some Georges Perec (ah, my favorite!), David Weinberger, and some classification and ontological theory.
- Exploring the Archives: We’ll read some Foucault and Derrida and some archive theory from Terry Cook. We’ll also visit the Municipal Archives this day.
- What’s in the Archive: For this week we’ll read Wolfgang Ernst and some other stuff TBD.
- Who’s in the Archive: We’ll read some Ann Stoler and Diana Taylor, and we’ll examine the work of Raqs Media Collective and the Atlas Group.
- Archival Aesthetics: We’ll read Hal Foster on the “archival impulse” and Susan Stewart on the Wunderkammer, we’ll listen to ta Tate Modern conference on “The Archival Impulse,” and we’ll study the work of some archive-minded artists like Ann Hamilton, who happens to be my hero.
- Plug-In: We’ll save a week or two in the middle of the semester where we can talk about things, or visit sites, or talk with people, that reflect students’ interests.
- Libraries: From Mesopotamia to Madison Avenue: This day we’ll visit the Morgan Library, and we’ll read both about that specific library and about the general history of libraries in Matthew Battles’ excellent Library: An Unquiet History.
- Idiosyncratic and Unorthodox Libraries: We’ll read more Perec, and we’ll examine the Warburg and Prelinger libraries.
- The Future Library: Because there’s always new material being written on this topic, our specific readings will probably be drawn from current media. It’s likely we’ll talk about the Digital Public Library of America and a couple recently constructed library buildings — and we might read the article I’m currently writing on pop-up libraries.
- Tabula of Relationships, Orders of Things: Here we’ll read more Foucault and Manuel DeLanda (not my favorite), and we’ll introduce ourselves to Paul Otlet and Vannevar Bush.
- A Database Episteme: We’ll read some theoretical and practical stuff on databases — including Ted Byfield’s intellectual history of “information,” Alan Liu’s work on “transcendental data,” Eugene Thacker’s work on bioinformation, and some basic histories of databases.
- A Database Aesthetic: We’ll read Lev Manovich and Christiane Paul, and we’ll examine the work of a few database artists.
- Final Presentations: We’ll save the final two weeks for students to present their semester projects.
America’s public libraries, as the dominant narrative goes, afforded all people “the means of acquiring knowledge, self-education, [and] culture” (Oscar Bluemner, 1898). Libraries, in their dual – and often precariously balanced – commitments to cultural uplift and cultural outreach, have long been, at least in theory, places of self-directed, DIY learning. As materials once available only in the stacks have become ever more accessible in people’s homes and in their pockets, libraries’ strategies for cultural outreach, and for supporting patrons’ self-education, have evolved. Libraries are developing new ways for patrons to access their collections; drawing attention to underutilized collections; and helping users filter and contextualize material. Meanwhile, international organizations are using technology to bring libraries to regions of the world where they’d been scarce. And many of these initiatives are creating new opportunities for patrons to do things with or contribute to material in libraries’ collections.
Recent library-led technology development projects have attracted attention. As Alexis Madrigal wrote on The Atlantic’s website in June 2011, the New York Public Library “has reevaluated its role within the Internet information ecosystem and found a set of new identities” – as a “social network with three million active users” and as a “media outfit,” a “beacon in the carcass-strewn content landscape.” This panel examines how three different institutions – two public libraries and an academic library research unit – are helping to reshape the information ecosystem and creating new roles for themselves within it.
Kim Dulin from the Harvard Library Innovation Lab will discuss their work in developing a front-end web application, a “virtual front door,” for the proposed Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). As Dulin notes, this interface will allow the DPLA to become more than “just a collection”; it will be “a place users can go to discover works, engage with them, engage with one another, and share what they learn, know, and care about.” Deanna Lee, of the New York Public Library, will address several recent digital initiatives – the Biblion application, a John Cage “living archive,” a crowdsourced historical menu transcription project, and a new, more interactive library catalogue – that likewise change the ways and places in which patrons can access, experience, organize, and contribute to the collections. Linda E. Johnson will address the Brooklyn Public Library’s Broadband Technology and Opportunities Program and other of the library’s digital literacy initiatives. Finally, Shannon Mattern will identify common threads in the panelists’ presentations and offer prompts for discussion, which will address (1) how these projects provide opportunities for self-directed learning in new contexts; (2) how they evidence new thinking about pedagogy and epistemology; and (3) what the challenges and limitations of these projects might be, particularly as we attempt to implement them among traditionally underserviced populations and in the developing world.
I managed to squeeze all of the following into a two-hour between-meeting window last Friday afternoon. I don’t recommend breezing through as I did; but when two hours is all you got, you make the most of it!
And Another Thing @ the James Gallery, CUNY Grad Center
“A paradigm shift away from subject-object relations towards the consideration of humans as no more or less important than any other object is taking place. So posits “And Another Thing,” the James Gallery exhibition that takes its inspiration from the philosophy of speculative realism and object-oriented ontology. Here objects are given their own place. As opposed to deriving their meaning from a proximity to humans, this exhibition presents them as specific, self-contained and non-reducible.”
My favorite pieces involved sound and movement:
Ruslan Trusewych’s this is the way the world is: oscillating fans aimed at a cluster of nightlights. Had I been permitted to take photos, I would’ve shot the ceiling, where the lights’ electrical cords heap upon one another in a seemingly desperate attempt to reach the power supply.
Zimoun’s 25 woodworms, wood, microphone, sound system: the auditory index of internal processes we can’t see — invisible worms consuming wood.
Tom Kotik’s Rational Impulse: two nested sound-proofed boxes encasing — and silencing — a blaring stereo; lifting the lid releases the cacophony.
What Matters Now? Proposals for a New Front Page @ Aperture Foundation
There is no longer a “front page” to act as a societal filter through which, we can learn about important events and trends. Even the role that the physical café once played in our communities—the place we went to discuss and digest what’s going on around us — has become fragmented across a myriad of virtual spaces. Where should we turn for our information? How can we function as a society with so few common reference points? How can we intelligently sort through all the images and information available to us?….
The exhibition What Matters Now? Proposals for a New Front Page will combine the crowd sourcing of images and ideas with the curatorial engagement of six experienced individuals, each hosting a table and a conversation within the space, where on corresponding walls each group will present its proposals for the contents of a ‘New Front Page’. Hosts include a variety of visual image specialists: Wafaa Bilal, Melissa Harris, Stephen Mayes, Joel Meyerowitz, Fred Ritchin (who conceptualized this project) and Deborah Willis. As the exhibition opens, each of the hosts will have a designated space, but the walls will be empty. Progressively throughout the first two weeks of the “exhibition,” the walls will be filled in whatever manner each table decides.
Tris Vonna-Michell @ Metro Pictures
I saw Vonna-Michell a the X-Initiative two years ago and loved his work. The new show continues to investigate materialities of memory. Via Metro Pictures:
…Tris Vonna-Michell exhibits a new sound edit combining hahn/huhn (2003-ongoing) and Leipzig Calendar Works (2005-ongoing), which recalls the peaceful 1989 demonstration of East German citizens at the Ministry for State Security, or Stasi, district headquarters in Leipzig. Merging this with descriptions of a feverish initiative to destroy incriminating documents before citizens stormed the agency’s Berlin headquarters, Vonna-Michell’s chronicle becomes a patchwork account of the months leading up to German reunification. Here, signals and pulses, repetition and overlay are edited in the recording to correspond to the slide sequences he displays on anachronistic projectors. As Vonna-Michell seems to earnestly meander through his monologue he alludes to the crafted structure of the very story he is telling, and suddenly the credibility of the words he speaks and the images he presents are cast into fiction. Vonna-Michell develops his narratives over extended periods of time, altering and adding to them to make each of their iterations unique.
Jennie C. Jones’s Absorb/Diffuse @ The Kitchen
Via The Kitchen:
Jennie C. Jones re-contextualizes the material output of sound recording in order to explore how we listen and how sound operates physically and metaphorically. This new show centers on a sound score in three movements, titled From the Low, which is a digital “re-composition” from appropriated samples that operate in the psychological and emotional territory of ‘dark notes’, ‘deep chords’, and low frequency. Accompanying this sound score is a new series of ”Acoustic Paintings” made with soundproofing materials (also known as absorbers and diffusers) typically used in audio engineering and studio recording. In transforming the resources and products connected to both the industry and act of listening, Jones’s work layers the formal languages of Modernism — abstraction and minimalism — over the conceptual and technical strategies of avant-garde jazz to extend and complicate these parallel legacies of experimentation.
Tonight at The New School, as part of the 9/11 Forum on Memory, Trauma, and the Media (which is in honor of the 10th anniversary of 9/11), I’ll be saying a few words about the material memory of dust, scraps of paper, and other ephemeral media:
It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night. He was walking north through rubble and mud and there were people running past holding towels to their faces or jackets over their heads. They had handkerchiefs pressed to their mouths. They had shoes in their hands, a woman with a shoe in each hand, running past him. They ran and fell, some of them, confused and ungainly, with debris coming down around them, and there were people taking shelter under cars.
The roar was still in the air, the buckling rumble of the fall. This was the world now. Smoke and ash came rolling down streets and turning corners, busting around corners, seismic tides of smoke, with office paper flashing past, standard sheets with cutting edge, skimming, whipping past, otherworldly things in the morning pall. (DeLillo)
At the beginning of his novel Falling Man Don DeLillo describes a scene that looks and feels and smells familiar to many of us. Even if we weren’t here on September 11, we’ve seen it in the videos: the South Tower falls apart around the floors where the plane impacted, its crown topples, and the building cascades to the ground. In some videos, when other structures stand between our videographer and the World Trade Center, it takes a few seconds until we can see the cloud of debris rising above the rooftops – and, sometimes, a few seconds more before it becomes apparent just how massive that cloud is, and how rapidly it’s approaching. [See first 35 seconds of the below]
[See 1:58 – 2:26 of the above.]
A few videographers, perhaps unable to run fast or far enough, or perhaps willing to put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of capturing these scenes for posterity, plant their feet and allow the cloud to envelop them. As we watch and prepare for the wave to hit, perhaps you, like I, draw in a breath and hold it. But then we’re taken aback to see flecks of luminescence preceding the grey. Paper.
They ran and then they stopped, some of them, standing there swaying, trying to draw breath out of the burning air, and the fitful cries of disbelief, curses and lost shouts, and the paper massed in the air, contracts, resumés blowing by, intact snatches of business, quick in the wind. (DeLillo)
The wind prevailed toward Brooklyn that morning, carrying many of these documents into and even well across the harbor. Writing in the New York Times just three days later, Jane Frisch and David Rohde described how what seemed like a “sweet and peaceful snowstorm” of paper [see Figure 7, below] “floated past the windows of the old P.S. 142 building on Henry Street, metallic pieces catching the glisten of the sun. Some blew into the open classroom windows, where, one administrator said, teachers and students examined it ‘in wonder.’”
That “wonder,” I imagine, emerges in part from the realization that, until 8:45 on Tuesday morning, those very same sheets of paper represented the most pressing reality of the thousands of folks already at work in Lower Manhattan. And within minutes they had been made uncanny; they had become records of a bureaucratic normalcy, an existence, since lost. Yet in contrast to the amorphousness and inscrutability of the dust clouds and “the pile” at Ground Zero, these documents retained their form and legibility. Their status as “records” was clear. The students at P.S. 142 knew the value of what they had; Frisch and Rohde report that the teachers and students decided that the documents they intercepted “should be given to the police.”
Meanwhile, the “cloud of dust” elicited not wonder, but terror – in part because of its inscrutable composition. Writing in a recent commemorative double issue of New York magazine, Steve Fishman says of the dust cloud:
It was one of the indelible images of 9/11: a dark cloud chasing people up Broadway as they fled the collapsing Towers. The cloud turned out to be an aerosolized mix of poisons, thousands of them: silicon, Freon, PCBs, asbestos, lead, pulverized concrete, and on and on. It covered panicked survivors, coated buildings, seeped into ventilation systems, and hinted at the larger problem to come. The acres of rubble quickly became, as one CDC official on site at the time recently explained, ‘a hazmat situation.’” (125)
Indeed, many workers were afflicted with “WTC cough” or diagnosed with RADS, reactive airways dysfunction syndrome, or even cancer linked to prolonged exposure to the toxins on-site.
Dealing with the dust was an ethically charged issue. Workers on the pile were required to wear respirators, but, as Fishman reports, “many resisted. Some felt guilty: After brother firefighters gave their lives, worrying about one’s own health seemed disloyal” (128). These choices determined how one would materially remember what had happened there. Firefighter Adrienne Walsh reported that, amidst the rubble, “I didn’t see victims. They were dust. And I was inhaling them” (58). The material memory of the lost was thus literally internalized by the Ground Zero workers, “archived” in their bodies.
Archival work has long involved the internalization of material records, according to historian Carolyn Steedman. In Dust: The Archive and Cultural History she writes of Jules Michelet’s conviction that he was reviving records in the National Archives of Paris by breathing them in: “these papers and parchments, so long deserted, desired no better than to be restored to the light of day… [A]s I breathed in their dust, I saw them rise up” (quoted on 1171). As a consequence, Michelet, much like those who later breathed in the lives lost at Ground Zero, contracted what Steedman calls “Archive Fever Proper,” sickness brought on by exposure to the dust of organic matter – animals skins, byproducts of human labor – that is an integral part of the archive.
Neither Michelet nor those working on “the pile” in the days after September 11 could have known what they were breathing in. The pile in particular resisted attempts to identify its components. This heap of…what was it? rubbish, detritus, ruins? had collapsed into a pile of indistinguishable materiality. “The towers of the World Trade Center were made of steel, concrete, asbestos, wood, plastic, and glass,” Marita Sturken writes; “they were filled with desks, computers, tables, and paper, and, yet, they crumbled into dust.” They were of course filled with people, too. And as Patricia Yaeger says, “…to think of the bodies of the dead mingling with this debris, to think of the results of the 9/11 explosions as detritus, gives one pause” (187; emphasis added).
We cannot count on the formal integrity of the objects that once occupied this site. The boundaries between one object and another – and their very material constitution – are called into question. We don’t know how to name them, sort them, classify them, where to store them away in our memories. How do we sift the ashes from the dust, the remains from the rubble? Folklorist Kay Turner writes of Ground Zero as a “frozen zone” where “sudden annihilation had transformed the seemingly permanent into the definitively ephemeral: buildings became dust; work became millions of tiny scraps of paper floating in the air; and people, a total of 2603 of them, became bits and pieces of body parts, traces of DNA, or disappeared altogether, incinerated” (163).
Yet in order to process our grief, to remember, we often need some material trace or some symbol to hold on to. I’m going to quote Turner at length here:
[Ground Zero’s] harrowing ephemeralities of dust, bone, and smoke – ephemeralities of disaster and death – were in stark contrast to a different version of the ephemeral that then prevailed at Union Square. If, as Camille Paglia and Ingrid Sischy suggest, in an instant two of the primary symbols of 20th century modernity – the airplane and the skyscraper – were used as weapons against each other, our first response to that catastrophic collision was a return to the usefulness of ephemeral, and hence incorruptible, symbols. The fragile beginnings of recovery from annihilation – an experience of stopped time, a feeling of the end of time – was initially felt in the human impulse to store time and memory in mundane material objects and simple yet universal symbolic images that could be seen, experienced, and interpreted by all. (Turner 163)
We see evidence of such an impulse in the “missing” posters that blanketed the city for weeks after September 11; in the flowers and candles marking spontaneous shrines, particularly at Union Square; in the presentation of urns filled with Ground Zero dust to families who had lost loved ones; in the marking, each year, of the Towers’ voided footprints by beams of light. Through these acts we masked the odor of death and destruction emanating from Ground Zero; we reintroduced “flashes of luminescence” into a gray landscape; we gave form to the missing, the dematerialized.
These acts were in part attempts to sort through and make sense of those inscrutable piles of rubbish and clouds of dust. What we might not have realized at the time was that the dust, toxic and uncanny though it was, may have been an ideal representation of, or medium for, how we would remember the tragedy. As Sturken and Steedman remind us, dust is not “about refuse or rubble so much as it is about a cyclical materiality. It is a reminder of continuity, a vestige of what was that continues to exist” (Sturken 314).
“9/11: One Day, Ten Years” New York Magazine Special Double Issue (September 5-12, 2011).
Eichhorn, Kate, “Archival Genres: Gathering Texts and Reading Spaces” Invisible Culture 12 (2008):
Fritsch, Jane & David Rohde, “After the Attacks: Relics; Trace Center’s Past in a Sad Paper Trail” New York Times (September 14, 2001).
Steedman, Carolyn, Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002).
Steedman, Carolyn, “Something She Called a Fever: Michelet, Derrida, and Dust” The American Historical Review 106:4 (October 2001): 1159-1180.
Sturken, Marita, “The Aesthetics of Absence: Rebuilding Ground Zero” American Ethnologist 31:3 (2004): 311-25.
Turner, Kay. “September 11: The Burden of the Ephemeral” Western Folklore 68:2-3 (Spring 2009): 155-208.
Yaeger, Patricia, “Rubble as Archive, or 9/11 as Dust, Debris, and Bodily Vanishing” In Judith Greenberg, Ed., Trauma at Home: After 9/11 (Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 2003): 187 – 94.