1Thursday, May 12, 16
2Thursday, May 12, 16
I've been working as an archivist, perhaps more an outsider or meta-archivist, for some time. I work in an emergent ﬁeld I call
critical archival studies, which means I look at the different ways people are keeping evidence, information and memory. I came
of age collecting ephemeral moving images, speciﬁcally ﬁlm genres that others mostly ignored -- advertising, industrial,
educational ﬁlm. In recent years I've concentrated on the most ephemeral images of all -- amateur ﬁlm and home movies. The
digital turn, unkind to so many workers in many ﬁelds, was kind to me; I cut my teeth making multimedia ﬁlm anthologies on
CD-ROM, and partnered with Internet Archive beginning in 1999 to build a large open-access historical archival ﬁlm collection,
probably my most effectual intervention in the cultural sphere.
3Thursday, May 12, 16
Digital emergence has led to analog marginality, or at least a widespread sense that we have moved beyond the era in which
information and culture is embodied in physical objects. While I celebrate this trend up to and including the limits of its
emancipatory potential, I think digitality has converged with its representation, which is as much a creation of journalism and the
California ideology as it's a description of actual trends. It's become hard to separate what digital cultures do from what they
pretend to be. Today there are many whose compensation rests on the propagation of futurity, including librarians whose success
sometimes depends directly or indirectly on clearing shelves of little-consulted physical materials.
4Thursday, May 12, 16
But material objects never disappeared, and we have to deal with them. And we think of materiality differently, because its new
ﬂavor is principally enabled by consciousness of the digital. Today I want to talk about the persistence of materiality and its gross
inconveniences, concentrating on archives as arenas in which contending conceptions of media histories struggle for the win, and
try to look a bit into the future without predicting the end of anything.
5Thursday, May 12, 16
Physical objects can be extremely inconvenient because of their fragility. One of the most legendary examples is nitrate ﬁlm,
which is both beautiful and spectacularly combustible at the same time. While its dangers are actually somewhat overstated, ﬁre
and hazmat regulations restrict its storage, transport and disposal. It is less and less likely you will ﬁnd nitrate ﬁlm on a rear
shelf or in a basement, but I have and you could, and I cite it here as a dramatic, worst-case example.
6Thursday, May 12, 16
The base of nitrate ﬁlm, which carries the thin layer of emulsion, is made from nitrocellulose, which is chemically unstable.
Archivists recognize ﬁve stages of deterioration.
7Thursday, May 12, 16
The decomposition of the ﬁlm base affects the emulsion, the layer that carries the picture, as well.
8Thursday, May 12, 16
As I said, I am leading with a most dramatic example of deterioration. After nitrate, it gets better.
9Thursday, May 12, 16
In the end, known as Stage 5, it is barely recognizable as ﬁlm.
10Thursday, May 12, 16
Safety-base ﬁlm is actually more fragile than nitrate in many ways, because of vinegar syndrome. And there is a lot more
vulnerable safety-base ﬁlm in the world.
It is infectious; one vinegary item can "infect" others nearby. And the way to keep it from accelerating or to slow it down is to
keep ﬁlm very cool or very dry. That is expensive and, in a time of accelerating climate change, possibly unsustainable.
11Thursday, May 12, 16
But physical deterioration, while vexing, isn't in my view the greatest inconvenience. Inﬁnity and its consequences constitute a
greater problem. And when we speak of home movies, which in my view are some of the most important cultural documents of
the 20th century, we are indeed speaking of inﬁnity.
12Thursday, May 12, 16
Also, critical theorists are making it hard for those of us who work with archives and memory. Material media suffers from a
discursive gap between the way the world is imagined and some of the ways it actually works. The divide between people who
think about archives and people who work in them is striking and unproductive. This divide is manifested in language, in status
and in workﬂow.
"archives" — organizations, collectivities or
arrangements, either established or outsider,
within which collecting, preservation, access and
archival labor occur
"the archive" — an umbrella term for critical,
conceptual, philosophical, artistic, literary,
psychoanalytic constructs centered around
collections and/or archival process
13Thursday, May 12, 16
I'm fascinated by the imprecision that exists between "archives," which most archivists deﬁne as places of collecting,
preservation, access and archival labor, and "the archive," which I consider an umbrella term for critical, philosophical, artistic,
literary, historical, or analytical constructs centered around archives and/or archival process. And since words matter a great deal,
I'll take a minute to talk about this fuzziness.
14Thursday, May 12, 16
Most writers and artists have gravitated to the term "archive." Some also use "the archive" and "the archives" interchangeably
without interrogating possible differences. But the fuzziness surrounding "the archives" and "the archive" vexes archivists. An
unstable amalgam of the unconscious and quotidian, the "archive" has become an undemanding construct. It serves the critical
disciplines as they interact with history and memory without necessarily requiring sharp deﬁnition. [You might think of the
"archive" rendering as a screen onto which traces of theory ﬂash for long moments before fading.] For artists, writers and
theorists, "the archive" is terra nullius, open for unchallenged occupation.
There is little engagement with archives as working entities; reﬂection and critique is typically second-order, once-removed,
focusing on the construct rather than the workplace.
15Thursday, May 12, 16
"The archive" invites ﬂirtation; the "archives," on the other hand, could not be more demanding. They adopt, protect, preserve,
reformat, describe and publicly expose archival materials, mixing objects and labor. And though their workplaces may seem quiet
and their workﬂows pretend to appear apolitical, archives overﬂow with contention. To collect is to commit to the survival of
certain records over others; to arrange and describe is often to enclose; to preserve is to resist power, violence and constraint; to
proffer access is to invite misunderstanding and aggression. And yet "archives" yearn for praxis; even menial archival labor is
practice in search of theory.
Archival labor is often inconvenient labor for its employers: it is racialized, gendered, of a class different than those to whom
archives deliver services. The presence of archival labor can be an unsettling reminder of the overhead involved in maintaining
memory, in administering the often weighty traces of cultural and social discourse. It is tempting to imagine this labor as
anachronistic, to imagine a digitized world staffed by efficient and uncomplaining machines, even if the price of lack of
contention is ever-poorer user interfaces.
16Thursday, May 12, 16
I hope you'll excuse my rather polarized treatment of these terms, because I hope we can move towards reuniting them and the
practices to which they refer. Could we try to draw connections between academic, artistic and archival labor? And could we try
to link the conceptual umbrella we call "the archive" with the more quotidian work of "the archives"? Could we daylight archival
theory? We might listen harder to the people who perform archival labor and begin to think of it as cultural work or research
rather than simply wage labor. For years feminists have known to kick open the kitchen door, but few archival theorists have
considered the politics of archival workﬂow.
17Thursday, May 12, 16
And just as workers in the archives are made invisible, pre-digital objects like books, ﬁlms and newspapers are often seen as
anachronistic. But neither nostalgia for the physical nor the celebration of digital conquest make much sense. To transcode a
formulation from artist and writer Jen Bervin, it's becoming clear that physical and digital materials each have different jobs to
Prelinger Library, San Francisco, April 3, 2016
18Thursday, May 12, 16
And I think those of us who are no longer trying to put analog and digital into opposition are on the right track, unless you're
talking about obvious attributes like weight, physical bulk, and dependence upon electron ﬂow, or unless you need conﬂict for
yet another sensational news story. Every day in our library (if you haven't, please come visit sometime!) we realize that analog-
digital hybridity is not a transitional state, and I hope it remains a permanent one.
Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach (Straub-Huillet, 1968)
19Thursday, May 12, 16
In fact, the turn to digital revalidates the analog. I make digital ﬁlms that play before audiences who talk while the ﬁlm runs. I
thought this was radical, until I realized I was actually channeling the Elizabethan theater whose front pit was ﬁlled with loud and
boisterous groundlings. The affordances of digital media — its properties that make certain actions possible — are giving us a
new understanding about how physical media forms actually work. Ebooks have taught us much about physical books, and
weavers take inspiration from screens. [As ﬁlm curator Alex Horvath pointed out, the renaissance of Baroque-era musical
instruments is a relatively recent phenomenon.]
San Francisco Chronicle, 1915-09-14
20Thursday, May 12, 16
But while digitality may revalidate analog, it's rapidly devaluing it. Physical objects are being disposed of and destroyed at an
accelerated rate. I have to ask: do physical objects still have the right to exist? For some media, like newspapers, journals and
videotape, this has already been settled in the negative. Shelves are emptier and stacks gone in many libraries.
21Thursday, May 12, 16
This is funny, because some emerging histories of images and sound (like media archaeology) privilege apparatus and container
over content. The story of countless dead or comatose media platforms exists less in the surviving images and sounds than in or
on the containers, labels, reels, caddies, leaders, labels and postmarks. [The history of the educational and industrial ﬁlm
distribution systems lives on the cans and shipping containers that protected the reels as much as in the catalogs and trade
journals. (Recanning isn't always a good idea!)]
As an aside, this is akin to pioneer electronic publishing executive Bill Dunn's assertion that the importance of metadata exceeds
the value of data it describes.
22Thursday, May 12, 16
The crisis ecosystem of evidence-bearing physical objects has become really fascinating. The displacement and expulsion of
physical materials in favor of digital surrogates is akin to urban gentriﬁcation, and as archivists, scholars and citizens we will one
day have to answer for it. Because the attributes that distinguish the physical are exactly what we should be preserving, and they
are a pain. Physical objects, no matter how many we discard, are incredibly persistent. And their persistence is inconvenient.
They're the table scraps, the leftovers of digitization, and there aren't enough dogs around the table to gobble them down. We
are basing entire new phenomenological, philosophical and scholarly agendas on one recent technological turn (digitality), and
for some reason we ﬁnd ourselves staging a battle against physical materials in order to make room for apparent digital
23Thursday, May 12, 16
Despite its apparent victory over physical media, digitality is fragile. It requires a compliant social order, the accommodation of
governments, and the steady availability of energy. It is not a monolith; the Chinese digital world works differently than the North
American. And its corporate structures and business models are experimental. We shouldn't overreact today to a force that will
behave differently tomorrow.
East St. Louis, Illinois, 2009-11-04
24Thursday, May 12, 16
*** [COULD OMIT] The air of romantic obsolescence that surrounds a lot of historical media and communications technology
today is quite striking and entertaining, and we might actually enlist it to help build a bridge between media archaeologists, their
complex assertions, and the public, but we need to push it hard to really learn something. It's fun to touch and revive obsolete or
failed tech, but what exactly does it tell us? While the landscapes of our many deindustrialized cities are rich texts crossed by
threads of evidence that implicate many players, most visitors see only ruin porn.
A.M. Low, Wireless Possibilities, 1923
25Thursday, May 12, 16
*** [COULD OMIT] Dead media, failed kludges, speculative engineering ventures that pass neither usability nor smell tests and
express poorly integrated relationships between information and its embodiments are all deeply fascinating, but we need to
squeeze those "neglected margins" hard. And yet anything we can do to question the unreasonable faith much of the world
seems to have in the robustness and persistence of the digital is most welcome. As long, perhaps, as we are not fetishizing
digital fragility, or mourning losses not yet incurred.
26Thursday, May 12, 16
Where I come from, the fast-growing city of San Francisco, glitch is perhaps the most-used mode of appropriation. Why do we
love glitch so much? It's becoming a real 21st-century fetish. But it's nothing new. It's proudly and joyously traditional: people
have stepped on snapshots, cried over letters whose ink smeared, wondered what's on the pages missing from library books, felt
the thrill of ﬁlm burning and blossoming in the gate.
27Thursday, May 12, 16
In fact, glitches aren't only challenges to preservation — preservation itself is a glitch. The normative lifecycle of digital media is
ephemeral. As Howard Besser stated in 2001, the default condition of electronic objects is to disappear. [It's a bit like ﬁlmmaking,
where it takes an aggressive producer to make movies — to push back against resistance, to deploy and coordinate money,
properties, people — because the default condition of movies is not to be made unless they are forced to be made. Each
completed ﬁlm is a ﬂaunting of the odds.]
Similarly, preservation is the realest of glitches, especially in our age of massive media abundance. The archivists’ job is to hack
media so that it can be preserved against its will.
10/8/15 10:55 AMThe Consortium for Slower Internet
Page 1 of 3http://slowerinternet.com/principles.html
THE CONSORTIUM FOR
Slower Internet is about more than speed. The Consortium for Slower Internet pursues
projects that promote the following principles.
There is no inherent concern with information that is transmitted and distributed with
great speed, but Slower Internet suggests that information be consumed at a more
contemplative pace. If information is to be a central part of our lives, Slower Internet is
interested in finding ways to live with it on more human time scales; news, facts,
updates, etc should be absorbed slowly and given time for consideration. Systems that
10/8/15 10:55 AMThe Consortium for Slower Internet
Page 2 of 3http://slowerinternet.com/principles.html
updates, etc should be absorbed slowly and given time for consideration. Systems that
emphasize duration are central to a Slower Internet.
The information delivered by Fast Internet is the white bread of data: predictable,
lifeless, sanitized for mass appeal. Slow Internet delivers content in unexpected formats
and spaces. The practice of defamiliarization encourages users to scrutinize their role and
participation in a given system. Seamless experiences are suspect.
Fast Internet dazzles with maximum features at minimum price, but it often does so at
the expense of user autonomy. Increasingly, users are encouraged to sacrifice their rights
to own material they produce with a given system when services are rendered free of
charge. Slower Internet respects user autonomy by giving creators control and ownership
over their data. Charging reasonable fees for a service is always preferable to spying on
customers and appropriating their data to serve advertisements.
Computers have long been universal machines, able to perform any calculation regardless
of content. A Slower Internet, however, requires that dissimilar tasks occur in a diversity
of spaces on a multitude of devices. Living with information does not mean that we have
to give any type of machine a monopoly over our attention. Slower Internet is a process
of cultivating a garden of machines that fit localized, individual desires.
The Consortium for Slower Internet
Made in Minneapolis, MN
28Thursday, May 12, 16
From time to time I've felt part of a digital vanguard: making CD-ROMs with the Voyager Company in the early and mid-1990s.
Putting archival ﬁlms online. Scanning books from our library. Feeling one step ahead of those on the other side of what was then
a digital Grand Canyon. But that's changed. Digitality and privilege have been inverted. Getting the personal attention of a
bureaucrat, collecting and touching artisanal objects, writing with a nice pen, these are privileged encounters. The rest of the
world wrestles with touchtone menus, disrespectful algorithms and poorly designed websites. But if you have privilege, there are
no stray bits in your slow food. And slow media is coming back. Some friends are building an intentional community in
Mendocino County, on the northern California coast. They're installing ﬁber on their farm, but it moves bits slowly, and their
Internet service is only up between 8 am to 5 pm. Voluntary inconvenience.
From Elmer Dyer Film Library looseleaf catalog books, Hollywood, spring 1970
Angry ﬁlm librarian venting
29Thursday, May 12, 16
Inconvenience may be our best friend. Archival enclosure is a systemic problem and a bad inconvenience. But there are also
formative inconveniences, which I like to think of as good affordances. Wrangling with inconvenience is like choosing to write by
hand instead of typing or dictating. You learn more about the words you are processing. And you learn about ﬁlm by touching its
physical constituents. Inconvenience enables defamiliarization, which is what makes all art possible.
W1UX, Killingworth, Conn.
30Thursday, May 12, 16
*** [COULD OMIT] An excess of affordances could be a bad thing. Look at Bouvard and Pécuchet, lost in the 19th-century
supermarket of ideas and their homebuilt laboratory ﬁlled with once-used equipment. Or their New England equivalent, the
Peterkin family, really a satire on the Transcendentalists, I think, who spend the length of a story trying to get their son Solomon
John the paper, ink and quills he needs for the book he so much wants to write, and when he sits down at his desk surrounded by
family members he looks up and states, "But I haven't got anything to say."
U.S. President's Materials Policy Commission, Resources for Freedom,
v. 1, 1951; excerpt from preface, probably written by Eric Hodgins
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And if we can learn from the current state of archives, it will be prompted by inconvenience. As in the histories of media, the
lessons arise out of breaks in continuity, imperfect narratives and interruptions in order.
32Thursday, May 12, 16
*** [COULD OMIT] And I want to end by mentioning another inconvenient topic that's lately been interesting me. Hoarding —
surrounding the self with an excess of materiality — violates all principles we think of as "archival." Generally we see hoarding as
pathology, but I feel that it is often an attempt at re-rooting, at halting the supersonic trajectory of modern cultures, at building
a coherent and highly material nest in a windy world. Scott Herring, in his really courageous and beautifully written new book The
Hoarders, tries to depathologize hoarding in a number of ways, and it is well worth reading.
Red-Tailed Hawk nesting, Great Highway & Taraval St., San Francisco, June 2015
33Thursday, May 12, 16
Not to simulate inconvenience, but experience it productively. Not to be digital or analog, but something of both, without the
distractions of trendy futurism and nostalgic displacement. Raymond Williams talks about the coexistence of the residual and the
emergent. What appears to be old is interwoven with what appears to be new. The accumulation of physical objects with historical
signiﬁcance is a problem, but an object-free world would be a worse problem. And while slowness and inconvenience are
attractive targets for enterprising engineers, not to mention easy to gentrify, inconvenience is a great teacher. A clear-eyed view
of the future will make room for the past.