Speculative Archiving && Experimental Preservation of Media Art

A spectre is haunting Media Art – the spectre of digital decay. All the powers of old school archiving have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Academics and industry, Microsoft and Free Software, pirates and copyright law enforcers.
This research explores experimental and speculative approaches to archiving and preserving Media Art. As such I define artistic and academic theory-practices that dare to think beyond the confines of traditional strategies to see if and how they can contribute new aspects of dealing with failure, decay and obsolescence – in other words the everyday challenges of archiving and preservation.

While recent years have seen the spring of numerous research initiatives for preserving and archiving Media Art, the question remains if these artworks are archive-able at all, archive-able in the traditional sense. Database archives and research initiatives have been launched and then disappeared again, without offering solid, sustainable solutions. Increasing technological decay and the loss or subsequent inaccessibility of data not only poses a threat to Digital Cultural Heritage – of which New Media Art constitutes an important part – but also show the shortcomings of traditional archival practices when applied to this field.

Speculative archiving starts by understanding a work of art as an ongoing process. It therefore qualifies artistic re/production and radical modifications as legitimate ways of contributing new aspects to the discourse of archiving Media Art. Rather than in deep storage, solutions for sustainability seem to be provided by the network, in which artistic practices of hacking, remixing and Open Culture, of versions, glitches and pirating, of sampling, appropriation and wild dissemination, are creating novel perspectives on digital originals and mutant life forms on a daily basis. The accelerating loss caused by (politically implemented) incompatibilities of different hardware, of software versions, of decay and obsolescence force us to rethink the archive and its processes. It no longer is a passive place, but has become a hyperactive non-space. By grasping the ‘currents of current culture’, speculative archiving is a critique of the standard model for particles and forces in economic, academic and cultural realities, the particles that matter in this context, the subtext of coded cultures. It departs from traditional archiving in three major points: First, that the artwork is not a product or a closed entity, but a process and open system. Second, that the scope of an archive can no longer be restrained to storage and the prolongation of the shelf life of assets, but has to embrace the circulation of copies, versions, remixes and other forms of modifications. And third, that the original – the holy cow of art history – is finally slaughtered and Walter Benjamin’s concept of the aura in his seminal text “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” has to be rethought with a different mindset.

Speculative archiving is a re/search for&about methodologies that are compatible with the complex and changing issues of Media Art. Far from seeking or resulting in a standard procedure, it is developing, testing, applying and analyzing a diverse range of fluid, modular strategies and methods. On the massively moving waves of technological development Media Art’s survival depends on how well it can adapt to these constant changes. Not anchored to one standard that might be short lived, but freely floating with the best practices available. For in the end, a moving ship is safer when on the open sea than tied to the coast.

“Know ye, now, Bulkington? Glimpses do ye seem to see of that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore?”
(H. Melville, Moby Dick, Lee Shore chapter)

5 thoughts on “Speculative Archiving && Experimental Preservation of Media Art

  1. Hi Nina,

    Maybe some examples of the “strategies and methods,” that you mention in the conclusion, would help to better frame the concept of speculative archiving.

    Also, something that could be remotely linked or relevant to your research is art.deb, a speculative mode of archiving that I have been toying with in the past with Marloes de Valk and Claude Heiland-Allen. It would rely on community maintenance, patching, branching and forking of software art within a free operating system such as Debian. It is briefly mentioned in this paper, and was also introduced in Anne Laforêt’s Net Art au musée (in French only at the moment).

    An interesting aspect that could also be developed within the distributed and decentralized aspect of speculative archiving is the idea of “survival of the fittest”, as opposed to a more top-down collection approach of archiving. I think it would be quite easy to build a parallel from torrent communities and analyze how blockbusters come and go in public trackers while smaller specialized groups attempt to counter this natural selection -like phenomena within invite-only tracker sites such as Karagarga, Secret Cinema, Cinemageddon, etc.

  2. Nina, I think we have indeed much to talk about! Here are a few thoughts, for starters:

    The concept of speculative archiving that you are proposing is very attractive to me – in particular, the call for a change in our conceptual frameworks. Like Aymeric, I, too, would be interested in a few specific cases that exemplify what speculative archiving may entail in practice for you.

    I am curious about the relation between “speculative archiving” and Derrida’s “(archiving) archive” and, in particular, Derrida’s thought regarding the production of the event simultaneously with its recording in the process of archiving. There might be some value in taking on that path of investigation.

    Looking forward to our conversation!

  3. thank you aymeric and ioana, your comments are great and really helpful!!
    i haven’t included examples for now bec of the limitation of words for this first text. so i wanted to use it more for establishing (ahhh uuuu brrrr, i dont like that term, but cant think of a better one right now) the idea of speculative archiving.

    one example would be how knowledge systems are constructed, going back to aristotelian substances where change has no reality. thus our knowledge systems (in media art represented in database archives) are so rigid and become wrong so fast when applied to a dynamic field such as media art. so one part of the speculative archiving idea would be to flip the time and substance axis and thus give change reality. this speculation is based on process philosophy. bllblpblbpl going through this too fast i guess, i’ll get back to you tomorrow, am sleepy and want to go through all your links first. thxxxx again&hugs!!!!!

  4. This is really interesting abstract. Archiving is one of the big questions of the web and it has been present since the beginning of the internet (in the form of tracing errors for example). It will be great to meet you and talk about these things!