Perishable Practices: Preserving New Documentary Forms in a Post-Archival Moment
Preserving New Documentary Forms
in a Post-Archival Moment
UC Santa Cruz / Internet Archive
Update or Die
PHI Centre, Montréal
5 May 2017
1Friday, May 5, 17
Let me begin by thanking the organizers and all of the people at PHI Centre whose labor have made this conference possible. It's
a great privilege to be addressing a conference in Québec and in Canada, where for years so much important interactive and
participatory work has been made.
Abandoned "Druid Heights" commune, Marin County, Calif., 2015
2Friday, May 5, 17
The world is littered with the remains of unpreserved works. And archives are full of works preserved poorly, preserved only in part, preserved without
context, preserved without nuance or ﬂavor. Can we save interactive digital documentaries from what seems to be the inevitable destiny of difficult
How many people come into this conference with tending in an optimistic direction? A pessimistic direction? Undecided?
3Friday, May 5, 17
Who am I? I feel as if I've walked into a luncheonette populated by diners who have been eating there for years. But I make
participatory ﬁlms during which the audience talks while the ﬁlm rolls. These are different every time they screen and effectively
unpreservable. For years I've also collected difficult cinema (and now I collect home movies, the works that confound archivists,
the most difficult of all to preserve, catalog, contextualize), but I'm not a technical preservationist. While we're here to expand our
understanding of preservation, I'm also going to suggest that we need to expand our sense of what archives are and what they
could be. This is because new works don't always ﬁt into old archives, and archives aren't always the prime motivators of
4Friday, May 5, 17
So I'm here to provoke, to suggest a few different (and sometimes contradictory) ways to consider not just preservation, but also
archives. I have come to realize that some of the answers to our preservation conundrums may lie in rethinking, reengineering and
monkeywrenching the places where preservation happens.
I-5 Northbound, Grapevine, California
5Friday, May 5, 17
There will no doubt be talk today about developing common practices and coming to common understandings of what and
how to preserve. This is both essential and wise. But is that all we need to do? Those of us who make idocs hope to break
new ground with each ﬁlm we make or with each practice we introduce. We want to fuse traditional understandings of
narrativity with those yet to be discovered; we resist formulaic traps. This tells me that while we are keen to ﬁnd archival
solutions, we should certainly also resist archival formulas.
Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest,
Inyo County, California
6Friday, May 5, 17
So I've clustered my thoughts under three umbrellas:
Seaside, Oregon, 2016
7Friday, May 5, 17
In the city I live artists are greatly fascinated with glitch, breaks in the transmission chain, ﬂawed renderings, mutilated picture
and distorted sound, ghosts in the machine. Glitch replays a 20th-century litany: mimesis is futile, beauty resides in its own
destruction, violence is inherent in the birth and movement of images. But to me glitch art fails to comprehend something about
itself: all media art is glitch art. It doesn't last. Obsolescence and extinction are the default digital conditions, to paraphrase
Howard Besser. Preservation is the greatest aberration, the greatest glitch of all. Works are enclosed by their ephemerality.
8Friday, May 5, 17
Digitality is funny because while it introduces many new affordances, it shares many characteristics with much older media
forms. And one of the most striking characteristics of moving image works, both old and new, is that most of them (aside from
the fraction in longterm distribution) tend to suffer from enclosure. They ﬁnd their way into archives and most don't ﬁnd their
way out again. Archival enclosure literally means that the archival record is sequestered from viewing and from use. It could be
enclosed by copyright, because it is unpreserved and therefore delicate, by inaccessibility or lack of cataloging, or by archivists
who are unwilling to assume even slight risks. Another kind of enclosure applies to interactive works: you can put them in
solitary conﬁnement, protecting them from touch and use, keeping them from interaction. This ages the works prematurely and
prevents them from adapting, or being adapted, to new users and uses, and to new platforms and code. I don't think you can
keep them alive sequestered in a sandbox.
9Friday, May 5, 17
You don't need law, locks or restrictions to enclose a work. You just have to make it inconvenient to touch, inconvenient to use.
And that's often a characteristic of an aging interactive work. Its affordances are like temporary abilities that over time evolve into
10Friday, May 5, 17
There are different modalities of accessing "difficult" material, enclosed by aging or unduplicatable frameworks. One, of course,
has been to just "take a picture" of it. This is what art books do. And they serve a purpose, even if they fall far short of recreating
artists' intentions. Google Books "took pictures" of millions of books. And in fact "taking pictures" of objects is quite often the
way we understand digitizing today. Digitization has evolved from slow scanning to more rapid photography to 3-D scanning to
LIDAR (think of those Google Street View and Uber cars topped with rapidly rotating panoptic eyes) and scanning nonvisible
spectra or looking into solid objects (think MRIs). We are getting better at representing a certain exactitude, and each new kind
of capture convinces us that it is what digitization should be, convinces us that it is corralling in some elusive truth of objects
11Friday, May 5, 17
All by itself the moving image archival community will not build a technological infrastructure for digital preservation. The
problems are spread across too many domains. Even the studios are trapped in less-than-perfect solutions. Preservation is like
borrowing at a variable interest rate; there is no certainty. And the technical issues won't be the hardest to solve. The cultural and
curatorial issues will be much harder.
12Friday, May 5, 17
On a broader level co-creation resists enclosure. It is by its very nature unruly. It resists being crammed into archival containers.
As I'll get into shortly, it may be sensitive. It is increasingly distributed across platforms and services. As makers we may choose
to serve our viewers by tactical collaborations with archival-unfriendly services. This issue may be increasingly more difficult to
Very Large Array, Plains of San Agustin, New Mexico, Fall 2014
13Friday, May 5, 17
We will likely hear today about emulation; about browser-based and platform-agnostic playback; about robust and sustainable
containers for interactive assets; about preserving technical infrastructure and documentation; about policy and sustainability;
and other sensible ideas. But I am curious: could we jump up a few levels and ask some even more basic questions?
14Friday, May 5, 17
A parallel. I've collected many kinds of things in my career, but these days I focus on home movies and amateur ﬁlm. And one
thing that's become clear is that we can't really re-present these materials with an eye toward recreating the conditions or the
situation under which they were originally seen. The living-room home-movie evening is subject to the distortions of memory
and nostalgia. We may drink in the hyperreality of Kodachrome, but the trains and cars and families are lost in a barely examined
past. The technical infrastructure that enabled home movies is gone. Few of us have the perspective to even imagine how they
may have been seen in their own time. I think of this situation as a preﬁguration of what happens with idocs. Preservation of the
work itself falls far short of preserving the experience of the work.
15Friday, May 5, 17
I want to say that loss can be formative. The histories we investigate most eagerly today are often histories of losses that we want
to remediate, erasures that we hope to repair. The crime of erasure and the experience of loss can powerfully stimulate the work
of artists and historians. While we should never make peace with erasure, we might get better at coming to terms with the
inevitability of digital loss. This might not mean welcoming it, but it could mean accepting its inevitability.
north of Traverse City, Michigan, 2016
16Friday, May 5, 17
As I said, I make participatory ﬁlms for audiences who talk while they are playing. Each screening mixes a mostly silent movie on
the screen with hundreds, sometimes thousands of spontaneous comments and conversations arising in the room. I'm always
asked, "why don't you record the audience talking?" and I answer that beside it being very difficult, I don't want to. Each event
happens at a different time and place with different people, and the soundtrack they make uniquely deﬁnes what the ﬁlm will be
for them. It is theirs, not mine. It's not to be repeated; it is not to be made canonical. People come to be a part of a unique event
that owes little to anyone else. These works can never be preserved in full.
All-woman crew, WBKB-TV (Chicago), 1942-≈1948
17Friday, May 5, 17
And the biggest difficulty is preserving the record of interactivity itself. When authorship is shared between makers and audiences
(whom we need to start calling something else, like navigators) it's hard to imagine just preserving one vector of a
multidirectional work. We are, after all, producing works that were made to be navigated by particular individuals at a particular
stage of human development. Humans are not static. Preserving the particularity of the experience might suggest we preserve
audiences at the same time we preserve idocs.
Vapor trail after launch of STS-135, Cape Canaveral, Florida, 2011-07-08
18Friday, May 5, 17
Since that can't happen, we might at least record and preserve their behavior. It seems key to preserve not only aggregate usage
data and records of beaten paths, but to record individual usage trails in the sense that they constitute alternative narratives. This
will be especially true as works get more complicated internally and as they call on external assets outside the work’s own
BBC London offices
19Friday, May 5, 17
But this throws us into complicated territory. Media preservation bleeds over into the preservation of personal records, which is a
huge can of worms. The courageous archivists working with personal digital archives are wrangling records of complex character,
records that can potentially put their creators and custodians in jeopardy. This issue moved into the foreground in 2013 with the
#BlackLivesMatter movement, but we'd seen similar situations in the analog past. There is no question that the records of BLM are
critically important to save. But should they be saved by archives controlled by or responsive to the communities that generated
them, or in less culturally-sensitive repositories that may enable hostile interpretations? And how can the creators and subjects of
these records be protected from official retribution?
San Francisco Chronicle,
20Friday, May 5, 17
Some of you may think that this is far-fetched. But imagine an idoc about, let's say, consent or microaggressions. Its facets
might include collecting, comparing, associationally linking and selectively replaying people's experiences. This could be
sensitive territory, where not only identities needed to be protected, but the substance of their experiences as well. Or imagine
VR worlds where extremely personal narratives are generated. Perhaps we should simply preserve the ability to generate
interactive experiences, rather than the experiences themselves?
21Friday, May 5, 17
The Mukurtu (MOOK-oo-too) scheme addresses similar situations by labeling content that's not intended to be universally
accessible. For example, certain knowledge generated by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders peoples in the territory now called
Australia can be labeled so as to be sensitive to "men's business" or "women's business." The labeling isn't unlike Creative
Commons, but it's about respect for cultural traditions and privacy, which is ultimately a much longer-lasting issue than
copyright. The anthropologist Mary Murrell has suggested that concerns about disseminating traditional knowledge and
traditional cultural expression may migrate outward from culturally disenfranchised populations to society as a whole. If we all
became more cautious about sharing our cultural expressions, this could overturn the Internet. But today we still tend to give up
our privacy when we touch a screen. As the web evolves -- as browsers phase out in favor of newer interfaces, we may see
narrative or game platforms become primary navigational and social interfaces for many people. So perhaps today’s idoc is a
precursor of something more systemic and much more sensitive.
"In this diary are only facts, not opinions!"
(Ernst Prelinger, "war diary," ca. June 1944)
22Friday, May 5, 17
But I've hardly begun to provoke. What if we step away from the thought of preservation? What if it was commonly understood
that memory of an event could be equally as valuable as reconstructing the event itself? Borrowing the terms used by Boleslas
Matuszewski, who may have been the ﬁrst to suggest building moving image archives, what if we opted for anecdote rather than
Lithia Park, Ashland, Oregon, 2006Burrowing Owl, Imperial County, California, March 2017
23Friday, May 5, 17
Our brains don't preserve literal continuities. They practice a kind of compression -- dare I say, curation. They select and
abstract textures, patterns, and sensations so that we don't remember 24 hours out of the day. Could we ﬂush the detail, and
recall interactivity in similar ways, perhaps a kind of edited picture of usage patterns, or events triggered by an idoc? Do we look
to the mechanisms of human memory as the template for another kind of archives?
Nathaniel Hawthorne, "Earth's Holocaust" (1844), Lilly Library, Indiana University
24Friday, May 5, 17
Or might we instead ﬁght the assumption of longevity that we hold, quixotically, for our creations? Could we propose a kind of
radical expendability? Could we emphasize non-repeatability, intense but limited runs? Could idocs build timeouts into their
longterm histories? Could we turn the ﬁelds over every few years?
25Friday, May 5, 17
Or might we turn 180 degrees and insist that idocs be kept alive, be maintained on perpetual life-support? That no interactive or
participatory work succumb to the fate of the passenger pigeon, whose last example died in a zoo in 1914? That just as we keep
a conventional movie alive for long-term viewing, that we keep idocs alive for long-term participation? This would mean, of
course, continual navigation and eternal debugging.
Richmond District, San Francisco, 2015
26Friday, May 5, 17
Steve Polta, archivist, working at Internet Archive, Richmond, California, fall 2016
27Friday, May 5, 17
New works don't always ﬁt into old archives. And old archives are part of an ecosystem that often hangs on past failures rather
than future possibilities. I could cite enclosure, inability to keep up with the digital ﬁrehose, over-collecting, and more.
28Friday, May 5, 17
Jarrett Drake, one of a number of Black activist archivists, says the "traditional way of doing archives" is "beyond salvage."
Comparing old-school archives to the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, he describes three characteristics: silence,
solitude and surveillance. While he describes these in terms of the limits they impose on the use of physical archives, I stretch
them into online space: silence means gagged users prevented from remix and interaction; solitude means no sharing, no
redistribution, no collective experiences; and surveillance means observation of archival users' habits and usage trails. These are
archives whose practice is carceral, where rituals fence off holdings from users and the historical record from the public. And too
often these attributes describe the terms of service of the new digital archives we are creating.
29Friday, May 5, 17
Whose archives? While a growing number of established archives maintain a preservation infrastructure, anyone can buy hard
drives, and even if they are not doing it perfectly, lots of people are going to be practicing their own versions of digital
preservation. Lots of people already do. And this is going to be a feature rather than a ﬂaw. Many idocs will be horizontalist
productions, or stem from horizontalist activities, rather than the top-down structure we are familiar with from conventional
production. And many emerging archives are likely to follow a similar model. I think we are going to ﬁnd that the archives ﬁeld
splinters into a kind of kaleidoscopic version of what we’re now familiar with.
I think the covert function of an archive
is to make things more complex, to
complicate, to serve as a
counterbalance to the reductive and
endlessly repeated sound-bites that
constitute much of what we are told is
"history." (Lisa Darms, 2015)
30Friday, May 5, 17
It might help if we could acknowledge that we have broadly expanded our sense of what we thought of as “archives.” We imagine
archives to be clean, sparse spaces with deep stacks, or we imagine them in the classical style with columns and marble steps.
But on the other we speak of “the archive” in the loosest way imaginable: for ﬁlmmakers, our “archive’ is our closet, or perhaps
our account at Iron Mountain or elsewhere; for artists, our “archive” is the name for just about any collection of papers, things,
ideas or feelings. The word "archive" is striking for the peculiar absence of archival labor. But all of these senses of “archives” fall
short of what we need now. We need actionable repositories that are also labs, that will experiment with the new kinds of archival
workﬂows and philosophies we urgently need.
31Friday, May 5, 17
We cannot yet know how they might manifest. Jarrett Drake insists that "archives are not things so much as they are processes."
And archival scholar Michelle Caswell suggests that community-based archival work "is an ongoing process of conceptualizing
what we want the future to look like.”" What we want the future to look like. Above and beyond business reasons, we need to
make the process of preservation goal-driven.
32Friday, May 5, 17
Digital librarian Bethany Nowviskie says: "We’re building our digital libraries to be received by audiences as lenses for retrospect,
rather than as stages to be leapt upon by performers, by co-creators. In other words, they’re not the improv platforms they
should be: spaces for projection, planning, performance, speculation. Whether we’re talking about born-digital records or those
historical documents and artifacts that have undergone the phase-change of digitization — once they’re online, I don’t want
special collections, anymore; I want speculative ones."
At stake...are not the worlds these collections claim to
represent, but...the worlds they invite us to imagine & even
realize #ArchiveFail (@bspalmieri, 2014-11-10)
33Friday, May 5, 17
"Spaces for projection, planning, performance, speculation." Not warehouses for works and data. Speculative collections. She
"Are we designing libraries that activate imaginations — both their users’ imaginations and those of the expert practitioners who
craft and maintain them?...How can we design digital libraries that admit alternate futures — that recognize that people require
the freedom to construct their own, independent philosophical infrastructure, to escape time’s arrow and subvert, if they wish,
the unidirectional and neoliberal temporal constructs that have so often been tools of injustice?"
This sounds completely like the kind of documentaries we make, or would hope to make.
Afrofuturism and archives: www.blackquantumfuturism.com
archival liveness: http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/
generous interfaces: http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/
34Friday, May 5, 17
A growing number of people are working in this area, and I would urge custodians of difficult materials like idocs to investigate
discourses and projects like Afrofuturism, "archival liveness," and "generous interfaces. In these sometimes embryonic efforts
may lie the future of media archives.
Permaculture diagram, after Bill Mollison, David Holmgren and their associates
35Friday, May 5, 17
Let me wind up with this excellent diagram, the permaculture diagram developed by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in
Tasmania. If you travel around the clock you'll see some interesting parallels to archiving and preservation, and to the process of
producing media as well.
[enumerate some of the stops along the clock]
Permaculture encourages using the outputs of one system as the inputs to another, which of course is the perfect paradigm for
archival work. Ultimately it's comparable to rejecting the cycle of mediamaking that goes produce, exploit, forget. Instead it
helps us consider integrating archival concerns into the production and post-production processes; to modulate authorship and
production with archiving. Both authorship and archival activity constitute creative acts. And both need to be recognized as
necessary labor; the labor of making should not be seen separately from the labor of maintaining. Integrating production with
preservation recognizes that makers cannot always throw the burden of preservation onto third parties. We can't create complex
and expensive problems for archivists to ﬁx ex post facto, but we could bring them into the production workﬂow to advise on
36Friday, May 5, 17
I know many of these thoughts are contradictory. But I hope we can come to terms with a expansive range of preservation
practices and a spectrum of archival activity as broad as the works archives contain. If archives are to ride the oncoming waves, it
won't be as arks fully caulked to repel leaks, but as permeable wetlands capable of assimilating ebbs and ﬂows — venues where
past, present and future interchange and transform one another.
Red-Tailed Hawk nesting, Great Highway & Taraval St., San Francisco, June 2015
37Friday, May 5, 17