Digital Archiving: developing a critical language for experience designers and curators

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Post by Deborah Turnbull, Assistant curator

Image Courtesy of ISEA 2012

Image © ISEA 2012

The International Symposium of Electronic Art (ISEA) will take over Sydney in June 2013.

What started out as a conference to discuss the effects of technology on traditional art practise in the late 90s has become an international symposium for electronic art held every other year in a different city. The symposium often includes exhibitions, performances, and an extensive set of public programmes.

ISEA in Istanbul

 Tina Gonsalves, Chameleon, 2012.

 ISEA in Istanbul

 Kuuki [David Sade & Priscilla Bracks], Suzumushi: the silent swarm, 2011.

Images © ISEA 2012

The Director of the ISEA Headquarters in the UK, Sue Gollifer, was recently in Sydney overseeing her global phenomenon. I had the pleasure of not only going to the same workshop [on Public Art, HCI and Evaluation], but also of having an opportunity to interview her on one of the themes that developed from that workshop: how archiving digital practice can assist in developing a language around the medium.

Many conservators, registrars and curators at the Powerhouse Museum can relate the ISEA 2013’s theme when it comes to digitising the collection: resistance is futile! Instead of frustrating us, could this practice actually assist us? Can it help administrators, as well as educators and emerging experience designers? Let’s see what one of the head administrator’s reckons…

Deborah Turnbull [DT]: Hi Sue, as you know I asked you here today to talk about digital archiving. I wanted to know about your experience with it as a practicing artist and as the ISEA administrator. Are you able to tell us about yourself, your professional practice and your interests?

Sue Gollifer [SG]: Firstly I’m an artist, even though I forget that sometimes. I’m also an academic, I run a Masters Course [in Digital Media Arts at the University of Brighton], I’m a researcher and I’m an early pioneer of digital art and how digital technologies affect art practice. That started in the early 90s, and I’ve moved on to working as a curator of digital art shows initially featuring 2D work and more recently interactive installations.

Gollifer's Untitled

Su Gollifer

Images © Sue Gollifer

I moved on through [trying to go to ISEAs where you have to do something, present something, a paper, represent your research] to working with SIGGRAPH, and that’s probably why my practice moved on quite significantly. I was employed, well not so much employed as volunteered, to be an onsite volunteer to hang the 2D work in the SIGGRAPH art gallery show and I did that for about 2 or 3 years. Then I was ask to apply to become SIGGRAPH art gallery chair in 2004. That was really great, an amazing opportunity to be involved…it took 3 years of your life and was a very powerful, very significant and very important.


Image © SIGGRAPH 2006

The gaps, in the meantime, I actually became a consultant for higher education working in a centre called CTI [Computer Teacher Initiative] in art and design. So anyone who was in art and design that was an academic in the UK could phone my centre, email me and we had a turnaround of answering questions and we did workshops and individual visits to all sorts of institutions about how to engage in new technology either in their practice or in their teaching or in their research.

DT: My next question is about how you come to be working specifically on ISEA. It’s what’s on everyone’s mind right now because it’s coming to Sydney next year. A lot of people, not just in academia, but in other educational institutions like museums, like biennales…everyone’s interested in what’s happening with ISEA. What is it about ISEA that actually appeals to you as an artist and by extension as a supporter of electronic art?

SG: The first [ISEA] I went to was in 1995 and I knew a lot of the people on the board at that time. In that period, during the 90s and [this goes back to one of the other questions you’re going to ask me about digital archiving] I was beginning to teach my students about different technologies and current practice and the only kinds of things I could show them was my ARCADE exhibition and SIGGRAPH and I knew ISEA happened because I went there; but there was no real evidence of any of it.

So I received a research award to put together all the conference proceedings towards the end of the 90s. I got in touch with all the hosts of the symposiums, got together their conference proceedings, and this was the start of getting involved outside of this in a more voluntary capacity for ISEA.

DT: You seem particularly interested in archiving, as you’ve already mentioned. When I think of archiving, I think about artists storing and reflecting on their work. How does it help you make sense of your own work and your own practice; and by extension, how does that work for/with ISEA and other artists? There’s this externality that you seem to have, you’re not just interested in helping yourself. You’re interested in supporting the field; and I know in a way it’s your job because you work in a university and you’re a researcher and are a bit like me, naturally curious about the way things work. But archiving is a very specific process, you and Matthew (Connell) were talking about it yesterday…there’s all this metadata there’s all these things that you collect around an object, so it’s actually a lot of work for you to go past your own work and help other people with theirs. Are you able to talk a little about why you do that and how it helps you?

SG: I suppose the link to digital archiving exists in a lot of facets for me. One of them was when I mentioned being a consultant. I was working outside the university at the time and my paid job then was from HEFCE [Higher Education Funding Council for England], which provided the extra layer or the infrastructure for the IT within UK universities.

There was an initiative which was called the Knowledge Gallery that I suddenly found interesting even though I knew that people using it found it was really techie and not particularly artistic at the time. I’m really not quite sure how I got into it except that I was given a sum of money {by now it’s an absolute pittance} [DT: but at the time you were thrilled!] Yes, I think it was about £60,000 to give to various different institutions to digitise their collections and the things that were lurking about in people’s plan-chest drawers. So I went around to the Royal College of the Arts, say, and said, “Would you like £10,000 and we will digitise your printmaking collection?” I became very involved with that and there were four collections, there was a call out and I went around to lots of institutions and I suddenly realised that in a way I was the only one who could do it because I was not only an artist and a curator, but I was also involved in education and I could look at the work and see if it was relevant and whether or not anyone could use it.

Other collections digitised by Sue: Central St. Martin’s | London College of Fashion

Digital archives of note: design archives at the University of Brighton

These collections could be used for scholarly activity. I mentioned the basic design collection and so as an academic I thought maybe one could go in there and there would be all copywrite-free and downloadable. Another initiative came down through JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) called the Arts & Humanities Data Service and part of that was a thing called DAM [Digital Art Museum]. They took the collection and they’re building on it so basically you can go into their collection and use their archive and their images.

Now I work for the JISC and act as a consultant in an advisory capacity on other collections like the Ghetty or BBC performance films. And so they’re building up this really large database of things that people can use.

DT: How do you think that archiving digital work will help artists and designers?

SG: Well I think we [people, artists] are very bad at recording things. Things are happening so fast, my students at the MA digital art, we talk about hardware/software, but these materials don’t come with a history. Digital practice is not like painting where there are lots of books and they wouldn’t change from year to year; past techniques would still be considered relevant. By contrast, by the day I could update my reading list. And there’s not that much history of people having a critique of digital art…do you remember we mentioned that in the [PAW] workshop?

DT: That’s right…because of a lack of language, so digital practitioners don’t have much of a critical history, really.

SG: No we don’t and this is what I just sort of suddenly realised: I’m surrounded by all these pioneers [like Ernest Edmonds and Paul Brown] and the idea struck me that we really need to recognise their work. I also worked in an advisory capacity for an initiative called CASH and it was linked with the V&A [Victoria & Albert Museum] who are building up their collection of digital prints. I also worked with the Daniel Langlois Foundation and had a conversation with Juliana and they are closing down soon. And where will their collection go? I think we mentioned clouds previous, and they’re great places to put stuff, but the physical stuff it has more significance because the technology is moving much more quickly, so what you did as a quicktime movie a few years ago might be very quick or very slow, but it’s certainly not going at the same speed as it did originally.

Paul Brown

Image © Paul Brown 2006-11

Shaping Form 

Image © Ernest Edmonds 2007

DT: Am I correct in noting that you think that all of this archiving will provide artists with a history and help them develop a critical language? What about for their curators, their role in developing themes and setting up exhibitions, you think this will contribute?

SG: Yes, exactly. At the moment, well years ago, I did a thing at a conference in Newcastle, before they were sexy, and one of topics was: if everybody could use computers to make art, who’s going to decide what’s good and what’s bad? The other one I was really interested in was copywrite in the digital age because two things we’re bad at: 1] remembering our histories; and 2] giving things away for free. And at the end of the day your intellectual property for your work is important because that’s how you’re going to make your money or your estate. It’s the same with programming, you think of Processing and things like that…people are very generous with creative commons and open source and hackers, you name it. But I think at the end of the day we should remember that we are artists and we do own the copywrite for our images [work].

DT: That’s interesting in terms of valuing your work, not evaluating, but valuing and actually thinking my time is worth this much and you’ve got that now based on my blood, sweat and tears and what does that mean in terms of the life of the project. In any of these archives, have you been able to capture the audience’s response in any way? Like in terms of archiving digital work, have you ever been able to archive the audience’s response to digital work?

SG: I had an MA student and this is part of her dissertation. She was a librarian and what I wanted her to look at were the ISEA archives in relation to all the other archives; people really want this to happen.

DT: Well I don’t think having a lot of archives is a bad thing, having choice is great, but I was particularly interested in [audience response being recorded for archival purposes]. This thought is actually as an extension of Beta_Space. Matthew mentioned Lizzie Muller, she’s very interested in the audience’s role in interactive art. Ernest was also talking at the workshop about interactivity being an attribute…so I wanted to really look at how you could store interactive art…you could have the program there and have the machinery to play it, but how do you really know what it was like to engage with it?


Image © Julien Phalip 2006


Image © Deborah Turnbull 2011

SG: I think it has to do with what people might deem public art and wonder whether it has to do with White Night or similar things that happen on the street like VIVID and whether people actually think of it as art or maybe…

DT: People think of it as entertainment.

SG: Well we’re straddling between so many –isms. To us it’s art.

DT: This came up when Matthew and I were discussing what kind of objects we should collect and we both feel we should be collecting [computer] programs, but we have no room, no facilities, and we don’t know how best to do it…and that’s why else I was very interested to talk with you because you have done a lot of digital archiving.

DT: What sort of systems have you utilised to make these archives accessible?

SG: Half the time I’m just so pleased that it’s out there. I think all the archives that I’m involved in and the artists projects as well, seriously suffer from design and navigation issues really. I think they should be accessible, as you say, you just want the stuff [the thing you’re looking for]…you don’t always want to play [be distracted]. A classic example is the Sandrone Project, and the trouble was that the developers had a lot of fun making the archive fun to use, but there was some really good stuff in there. Alas, to find it, you’d need a pickaxe of data mining. So, I think what happens is the developers have fun because they think [the content] is art, and the artists allow them to do it and don’t have enough control over saying, no, we just want the stuff there.

DT: Well that’s why I wonder if even as an artist yourself, do you see a benefit of layering engagement with the archives? I mean I don’t think that you do, is that what you’re saying? That you’d rather just sort of get the information and then go off and be the creative force to get something out…

SG: I guess for me it also goes a bit back to teaching and learning and how you would do it, with communication and the stuff that you would need to give a lecture or your would want a student to go to have a look at.

I think there’s something to what you were saying about simplicity and calculation and navigation and what you want to look at. Have a look at the VAD [Visual Arts Database] site, you have a bit of a shopping trolley where you can grab things, so they are making an effort [to modernise]. They’ve been going on for quite a few years now since the 1990s, which is quite a significant amount of time to build up something that they feel is relevant. We were talking about Daniel Langlois and as being in the UK, and everywhere in Europe and I’m sure here in Australia, we’re suffering from cutbacks. And even in the centre for Design and Humanities that I was in, they no longer exist, and yet a lot of money was put into it and it would be a pity if someone comes along and turns off the server. But I think, back to what you were saying, being in Albuquerque, as you say, the engagement with some of the work, people being around actually add to the work.


Image © Tweetris Project, OCAD 2011

DT: But, like you say it comes back to copywrite and people’s privacy and the ethics of engagement. You can’t video everybody unless you put a little sign up. I think that Dustin {Freeman} and his crew at OCAD University got around that really well by doing it [storing images] on Twitter so that all of those images become a part of the public domain. You have to let people know that you’re doing it for research and get them to sign and they say yes sure and sign the waiver; but that’s so much easier than getting 9000 people to agree to an ethics application; and what an amazing database they have now of all those human gestures.  So I think that’s the way things will go. Find us on Facebook, for example, or flickr; and that’s one way to continue our research.

But then what about the specialists? What do we do about the title of the specialist? It’s difficult because I think that digital or electronic work can exist without an audience because it is a bit like a painting or a sculpture. But then significance comes into play where that object isn’t significant unless someone’s there to provide it with significance, so audience is actually in a lot of public art and work that’s part of a festival or open exhibition. For example, if nobody went to the art gallery, would it be so esteemed? If we didn’t have histories and specialists and practice built up around it, would it be as important? It’s the audience that brings all of that. So with interactive art, they don’t just bring the feedback or the criticism, but they’re actually activating the artwork and the artwork is responding to them and I think that that adds a layer of ability in creativity that the arts have been trying to figure it out, and perhaps they’re not there yet, but I wonder if its worth archiving? That medium…

SG: Certainly something that was triggered in RCA and ISEA is coders…the art of coding…a lot of those programmers and coders are artists in their own right and a lot of that stuff wouldn’t happen without them and their different languages, and we were talking about the native American coders (DT: and the magic…) yes. I mean there’s a lot of stuff out there, it’s really very exciting, isn’t it?

They’ve got this amazing exhibition in Albuquerque that’s on at the museum until January and I went, just like I did here in Sydney, talking to people, and I went to the museum and he was choosing the work that he wanted to have . I didn’t want to put him off, but he mentioned that he was going to have it on for 4 months.  I can tell you in the back of my head, I was going, “ohhhh, is this stuff going to work for 4 months?”

DT: I think there’s an art to prototyping as well, though, regarding how you put something out there. I curated such a show for the Australia Council;  I was invited to curate a show on digital practice and digital culture.

I knew that many of the artists were only going to be sending me sketches because they were only funded earlier that year and [the Council] wanted it to be current. So what they did is they gave me a database of all the successfully funded projects across Australia, 931 of them, and I just went Ctl+F +media and Ctrl+F+digital. Luckily up came 41 works with these search parameters in their description or their titles, and of these 18 agreed to exhibit sketches. I wanted to do something that looked at the art of prototyping but that also spoke back to the people who funded it. I actually wanted to comment on them as a funding platform, that this is the way you needed to go, which of course it took a long time to get approved because it was critiquing them {laughs} but you know we nudge where we can. That’s where I think that having an archive that you can search, that was an archive, that Excel spreadsheet of all of the projects that had been approved for funding and had anything to do with digital practise, because otherwise how do you sift through all the information? genart_sys

Australia Council for the Arts window

Image © New Media Curation 2010

SG: I think you’re absolutely right and I remember the Arts and Humanities Research Centre, I remember at one point if you got an A&H research grant and included some digital you had to archive it with VAD {DT: it was part of their grant? That they had to archive it somewhere?} Yes. And that made total sense, but at some stage somebody stopped making them do it, so it just went at some point. SIGGRAPH at one point was very commercial and focused on the latest computer animation and the latest papers about stuff {DT: and it had big corporate names attached as well} but at some point, the pioneers of SIGGRAPH who demanded that there would be an art gallery were quite significant because that where things would happen. That was where you started seeing evidence of work.

DT: Well, people want to see things, it’s all well and good to say if you click this, this will happen; but if give them the thing to click and it happens, it’s a much more meaningful engagement.

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About deboraht

Deborah is a curator specialising in design, technology and new media. Her primary role at the PHM is Assistant Curator, Design & Technology. Previously, she assisted Acting FOH Manager Nathan James as a Senior Customer Services Officer for the CRD and Michael Van Tiel and Lily Katakouzinos as an AEO in FACE and Contemporary Education. She has consulted on a number of different projects at the Museum in both voluntary and paid positions, including curating Beta_Space in the Cyberworlds gallery for Principal Curator, Matthew Connell, and assisting with the integration of SABO, an online ticketing system to assist with events management and membership sales.