[iDC] shelf life

john sobol john at johnsobol.com
Tue Nov 20 04:48:27 UTC 2007

On 19-Nov-07, at 4:05 PM, Richard Rinehart wrote:

> The Variable Media Project of which I'm a parnter has already been  
> cited, so please also see the "Archiving the Avant-Garde" project site  
> for video of a 1-day symposium we had on this very topic at Berkeley  
> (Bruce was among our speakers), as well as papers, etc:  
> http://bampfa.berkeley.edu/ciao

Hi Richard,

Your constructive and provocative suggestions for a hybrid preservation  
strategy is definitely worth considering. Here are a few thoughts, in  

The Variable Media Project has disappointed me because the originals  
seemed so distant from the  re(presentation) as to seem entirely  
distinct, thereby eliminating the very continuity that it ostensibly  
sought to maintain. Now, if I catch your drift, I see that this degree  
of re-invention may be intentional.

> But I think one can have a hybrid model where digital culture is  
> preserved both by stable institutions and simultaneously by unstable  
> folkloric traditions.

What we need is here is examples of creative cultures that have been  
'preserved' by stable institutions while simultaneously remaining  
relevant and vital within 'unstable folkloric traditions'.  
Unfortunately these can be hard to find. What is Outsider Art at the  
MOMA? Jazz at Lincoln Centre? What does Keith Haring's work represent  
now that his designs adorn bedroom walls instead of subways halls?

What we do find successfully institutionalized in museums is  
avant-garde visual art, tho I'd argue that its presentation is anything  
but unstable. Because its meaning changes once it is authorized by  
cultural authority. And I love museums, don't get me wrong, but they  
are what they are and they aren't what they aren't. Museums are about  
art products not art processes, whereas folkloric traditions are  
experiential and interpersonal by nature. That is to say that 'folk'  
(read: non-literate, i.e. uncatalogued, unauthorized, almost always  
oral) artists navigate ephemerality as an embodied tension. Museums do  
not. But what then does this mean for digital art, whose existence  
apparently transcends the embodied experience? Does it mean they are  
better suited to the museum collection than hiphop or happenings?

I don't think so, because the degree to which data transcends physical  
limitations is such that the very notion of fixity, and history, as  
many of us have noted, is undermined, and on some level even eradicated  
in the virtual sphere. Age is very tenuous in the virtual sphere. What  
is the half-life of data? Can it age at all? Or is it always,  
inevitably 'made new' every time it is entered into the mashup that is  
the human-computer interface? Just as oral cultures were excluded from  
the literate cultural canon by marginalizing them as 'folk', (and oral  
religions are 'myths', oral natural history is 'superstition' or  
'anecdotal evidence', etc.) digitalists of the future, working in a far  
more aggressively post-literate universe than our own, may willingly  
choose to ignore and diminish - no wait - hide and forget - no -  
intentionally erase! our cherished 'shelf life', as they embrace their  
own post-historicity, whatever the hell form that will take.

> Kurt Bollacker of the Long Now Foundation refers to this as "moveage"  
> a form of storage that requires keeping the data moving around, in  
> circulation, OPEN. So, while Axiom 3 is true from a certain  
> perspective, the fluidity of things like language and indeed digital  
> media that can aid it it's longevity if we recognize the fluid nature  
> and don't fixate on fixity.

Exactly. Here we have the hybridity posited as a possibility. The  
question is, to what extent are fixity and fluidity compatible. If we  
look in the world around us, I think we see that to some extent they  
are compatible. We see that compatibility - that biculturality - in  
ourselves, living as many of us do, for example, on a day to day basis,  
in the realms of ephemeral orality and literate shelf life, aware  
occasionally of the conflicts they engender within us as we make  
choices between speaking and reading, experience and artifact, fixity  
and fluidity. But as I study how that biculturality plays out in social  
dynamics, it seems to me that one side always has the upper hand. It is  
not a true blend, but a shifting paradigm, sliding from one value  
system to another, but never truly merging the two, or even coming  
close, especially in terms of the privileges of power.

> For instance, instead of fighting the variability of the media as an  
> obstacle to preservation, I think we need to embrace it; turn that  
> obstacle into a strategy. I propose thinking of media works  
> analogously to musical works; the hardware/instrumentation can change  
> as long as the essential score is the same (see a full explication in
> a paper I published in Leonardo recently:  
> http://rinehart.bampfa.berkeley.edu/~rick/refresh/ 
> rinehart_leonardo.pdf)

And this seems to me to bring us back to the Variable Media Project,  
and just where one draws the line between the old 'original' and the  
new 'sampled' or 'mashed-up' or re-presented work. But the very notion  
of a 'score' being the essence of the music is a highly literate  
concept, one that, for example, bears no relation to Black music, in  
its infinite diversity. Because in hiphop, in jazz, in African  
drumming, it is the improvisatory performance in the moment that is the  
essential statement of a work, inevitably linked to embodiment and  
experience and not to an abstracted fixed literate statement of first  
principles sitting on a shelf.

> But the bottom line is that museums need to create recipies for  
> re-creating the work rather than preserving the machine
> or even fixating on the "one, true, original" machine, code, etc. Such  
> recipies can be created upon collecting a work and in
> conversation with the artist if possible, since as someone mentioned,  
> intentionality is important,  if not all-defining, in a work of art.  
> With proper "scores" for media art, it can be re-performed into the  
> future.

I guess, having somewhat meanderingly tried to grapple with this idea  
above, that in the end I disagree. Not just that this is really  
fruitfully and integrally possible, but that it makes sense in the  
digital context, where cutting and pasting and mashing and sampling and  
updating - without reference to author or origin - is simply what  
people do. Period. Pushing against that wave in the interest of  
preservation of an original is, I believe, however valuable from our  
archival literate perspective, destined to be a marginal activity,  
relegated to the unappreciated fringe of post-literate artistic  

And this isn't a manifesto. I'm not for or against this process. It's  
just what I see happening. I'm less scared by it than most people  
because i've devoted much of my life to learning oral practices and I  
know what we have to gain, as well what we have to lose, in the  
post-literate world.

John Sobol


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