[iDC] shelf life

Richard Rinehart rinehart at berkeley.edu
Thu Nov 22 00:04:48 UTC 2007


Great counter-arguments and thoughts. One never knows when to drop a 
thread on a list like this, so I'll just keep plunging along til I'm 
told to shut up :)

I probably wasn't writing clearly, but I didn't mean to suggest that 
western musical notation and practice was symmetrical with oral 
traditions; I rather wanted to suggest that those are both examples 
of traditions that are still more fluid than traditional museological 
fixation on a single, authentic, primary, and 
unchanging/inviolate/continuous physical object, and that digital art 
preservation needs to head further in the general direction of both 
music and stories; more fluid.

Western music is of course one of the more fixed traditions, 
certainly true, but still with room for interpretation in terms of 
approach, attack, fingering, etc., and there are scores that include 
places explicitly for improv to happen and many jazz pieces are 
scored too. So still more open than uber-fixed museum preservation. 
But yet another example of art forms that seem to survive with more 
fluidity might be theater. For instance, I'm thinking the original 
Hamlet production transforming into the 2000 film version with Ethan 

So, whatever ratio of fixity to fluidity each of the examples above 
exhibit, they nonetheless must strike that balance ; none of them is 
completely open, nor completely fixed. Completely open and the work 
dissolves; there is no continuity at all and what you have is a 
completely new work each time with no relation to past works. 
Completely fixed and the parameters for (re)performing or presenting 
are so strict that only the original moment will ever fit the bill, 
cancelling out any chance at longevity. So, I guess I don't see it as 
a binary dilemma; that fluidity and fixity are mutually exclusive, 
rather they exist at either end of a continuum and the preservation 
of all art/cultural forms land somewhere in between.

Digital art preservation is nowhere on that continuum yet; it's too 
new, but I would strongly urge that it resist the intertia of history 
and NOT be placed at the same point as traditional museum 
preservation of objects, and instead land somewhere a little toward 
music, stories or theater - perhaps somewhere between western music 
and oral tradition. Of course where digital art ends up will 
determine, for instance, whether we can call the work by the same 
name when re-creating it a century from now, or whether we need to 
append a "2.0" or some such mechanism.

And alas, poor museums, always suffer in these discussions; I guess 
it's natural and necessary. But I'd ask everyone to consider that the 
notion of the museum as exclusively the temple of the unchanging and 
fixed is a very 19th century notion. 20th and 21st century museums 
are already engaging with much more fluid forms; site-specific and 
temporary installation art, performance art, etc. Even my own latest 
exhibition, at a museum, was a hybrid between works that remain on 
view in the gallery for months, to performances that were 
improvisational and gone in one night, to digital works that are 
open-sourced on the Internet for anyone to download and re-mix into 
new versions of the work. (see 

(you actually raise an interesting point about museums in comparison 
to libraries though; it's libraries that promise more or less 
"continual access" to their collections; museums rotate their 
exhibitions and thus access all the time; very fluid, sometimes 
frustratingly so)

I guess we all agree here on certain basics; that the formal 
institution cannot do this in it's current configuration, we only 
differ on the amount of optimism (blind?) that we have regarding the 
ability of the institution to upgrade in time to remain relevant :)

Richard Rinehart
Digital Media Director & Adjunct Curator
Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive
University of California, Berkeley
2625 Durant Ave.
Berkeley, CA, 94720-2250

At 8:36 AM -0500 11/21/07, john sobol wrote:
>Hi Richard,
>lots of excellent food for thought... but there are two points I'd 
>make in response to your latest post:
>You say, in relation to the Variable Media Project:
>>  some degree of re-interpretation is certainly required, the same 
>>as it's required of a conductor when leading a symphony in the 
>>(re)performance of a piece by Beethoven, or when a story is re-told 
>>again and again.
>The problem I see here is precisely that the two examples you give 
>are not compatible, not of a kind. In fact, they represent fixity 
>and fluidity at their most divergent. A symphonic score, despite the 
>reverence afforded the conductor-as-interpreter, is an extremely 
>fixed musical form. Not just because every one of the thousands of 
>notes in a Beethoven symphony is played in identical sequence every 
>time the work is performed, and has been for two hundred years, but 
>also because of the extreme homogeneity within European classical 
>music instrumental sound culture. The fact is that the range of 
>sounds heard between, say, 100 classical trumpet players playing 
>Beethoven is less than that you'd find between any two jazz trumpet 
>players performing Body and Soul. Or, for that matter two 
>storytellers reciting Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, or the Iliad. 
>Which brings us to what happens when a story is re-told again and 
>The seminal work of Millman Parry and Alfred Lord in the early 20th 
>century, which laid the groundwork for a wide range of studies of 
>oral cultures, notably by Walter J Ong and his colleague Marshall 
>McLuhan, demonstrated conclusively that the widely credited feats of 
>memory by oral poets performing day-long epic poems were an 
>illusion. Their field recordings in Serbia and Croatia over decades 
>showed that despite the sworn assurances of poets and their 
>audiences that they were reciting their poems with 'word-for-word' 
>precision year after year, their poetic recitations were in fact 
>'woven', or improvised, from a vast array of poetic stock phrases, 
>also known in contemporary oral cultures as 'riffs' or 'samples'. 
>They were not at all 'word for word' or anything remotely like it, 
>any more than any two recordings of Greensleeves by John Coltrane 
>are identical.
>The oral poet cannot possibly hope to compete with the symphonic 
>orchestra for narrative fidelity. Nor would he or she wish to. The 
>two forms of recitation are profoundly dissimilar. They engage 
>different neurons, different relationships, different dialogues. One 
>would be lost - void - without the written page, whose fixed 
>directives the musicians enact, and whose output provides listeners 
>with an immersive refuge in transcribed canonized genius. The other 
>relies on a form of creative expression that mashes up the 
>intangible past freely, easily and highly contingently in pursuit of 
>a collectively renegotiated present. One is literate, and fixity is 
>its defining characteristic. (Just see how long it takes to get 
>thrown out a great orchestra for getting any ONE of those thousands 
>of notes wrong!) The other is oral and has no fixed past, only the 
>need to recreate one again and again in its own shifting image, 
>always new, always true.
>But they are not in any way interchangeable. Nor can they be lumped 
>together. They are antagonists. They do not and cannot coexist 
>within the same cultural framework.
>You also make some very valid points in defense of museums, while 
>recognizing their need to change, but in response to my point...
>>>Museums are about art products not art processes, whereas 
>>>folkloric traditions are experiential and interpersonal by nature.
>you say
>>to say museums are not experiential is perhaps a bit much. After 
>>all, one experiences artworks, objects, installations, and the 
>>like, right? This is the whole idea behind a museum...
>Well yes, we do. But as with the example above, the kind of 
>experience in each is very different. Knowing that one can come back 
>tomorrow or next year and see the same artwork in the same place, or 
>buy a book or postcard of it, knowing that knowledge is available 
>'on the shelf',  is not the same thing as events experienced as 
>unique, dependent upon a social context that can never be precisely 
>Anyway, I'll cut my rant short here, fearing that I'm getting too 
>preachy (wouldn't be the first time) and again conclude with a 
>strong sense of doubt that older museums can abandon their 
>historical mandate to preserve authenticity in order to  become 
>fluidly responsive to context. And I say this though I know some 
>excellent people working passionately from within museums to make 
>this happen. But it would be like a bassoon player in a famous 
>philharmonic deciding to improvise during a performance of Ode to 
>Joy, and being applauded by the conductor fro doing so! It's just 
>not going to happen. The two cultures - fluidity and fixity - are 
>very, very, very tough to reconcile.
>So I remain a skeptic, tho I will definitely check out some of your 
>documentation, when I am not spending so much of my precious free 
>time writing long posts on this list!


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