Running An Archive Fever
In other words, now that so many of the early practitioners and critical allies of this emergent field have successfully landed tenured or tenure-track jobs, it's time to canonize and institutionalize. The issue, as always, will be how and where to locate the value of said works and who will be playing the role of The Meta-Taggers making these value judgments.
Of course, one could say that archive fever is what the web itself is all about in the sense that the works already live on the WWW (think of the term living archive). Many of the artists and new media writers I know take it for granted that they are most likely to gain Web presence or network value by finding creative ways to attract attention to their Web sites. But perhaps this is too shortsighted and does not take into account the variable ways that media/mediums change over time. New media artists and writers are certainly not immune to the role posterity will play in their posthumous reputation. Their future network value will depend on future audiences having access to their work. Where their work is located and how it gets contextualized (if not mythologized) will be crucial to the work's future network value. And yes, all serious Web artists and writers and aware of this. But there is a contradiction that institutional archiving presents to most Web-based practitioners since many of the early net artists and e-lit writers have always been keen on challenging the normative measures of success as well as actively resisting being framed in institutional contexts (these challenges and postures are, as always, riddled with contradictions, but I'll have to leave that for another entry).
How D-I-Y new media artists and writers attract attention to their Web sites during their lifetimes is something I continuously wrote about in my Amerika Online columns between 1996-2001 (published in both German and English). In addition to tackling some of the theoretical instances of electronic literature's place in museum and academic culture, the online work Hypertextual Consciousness 1.0 (1995) also addressed issues of author function, bandwidth, creative exhibitionism, and D-I-Y publishing and archiving. Without thinking about it as a strategic methodology, I also watched HTC unfold as a kind of meditation on the blurring lines of distinction between fiction, memoir, theory, poetics, and manifesto. The work is still on the Web and is also part of the computerfinearts collection as well as part of the Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art at the Cornell University Library. In this case, Doron Golan, an entrepreneurial net art collector, who is also an artist himself, was the arbitrator of what got collected (archived). Golan then partnered with a visionary curator (in this case Cornell's Professor of English and Comparative Literature Timothy Murray) and the rest, as we in the biz like to say, is history. (Quick plug: these Amerika Online columns and a print translation of HTC will be republished as the final section in my forthcoming book with The MIT Press).
This leads me to reiterate the most important question surrounding the issue of archiving online literary documents (and/or net art sites for that matter): that is, who will do it and what criteria will they use? And then, in a whisper: how much of electronic literature / net art preservation is really about self-preservation and how much of it is about preserving the common cause of keeping the spirit of art and literature alive within the Network? The former may be inexcusable but the latter may be all but impossible.
My colleague Joe Tabbi has just written a draft of a paper dealing with these same issues, particularly in relation to the above mentioned ELO project. One line in his paper stands out to me:
Precisely because works are designed to "contradict and bypass" the traditional values and practices, their documentation needs to accommodate the emergence of new values and practices.The bit in quotes ("contradict and bypass") comes from Richard Rinehart's Archiving the Avant-Garde: Documenting and Preserving Digital / Variable Media Art which Tabbi samples from and puts to good use in his working document. This important study by Rinehart has as its mission to "to develop, document, and disseminate strategies for describing and preserving non-traditional, intermedia, and variable media art forms, such as performance, installation, conceptual, and digital art."
Works of digital and Internet art, performance, installation, conceptual, and other variable media art represent some of the most compelling and significant artistic creations of our time. These works constitute a history of alternative artistic practice, but because of their ephemeral, technical, or otherwise variable natures, they also present significant obstacles to accurate documentation, access, and preservation. Without strategies for preservation many of these vital works— and possibly whole genres such as early Internet art— will be lost to future generations. Long term strategies must closely examine the nature of ephemeral art and identify core aspects of these works to preserve. Will the future experience these works as physical traces and documentation? Emulated media artifacts? Dynamic cultural events re-performed? All of these?Back in the day, we just let the hits speak for themselves. If your online story was averaging 10,000-20,000 visitors a day, then you may have said:
This means we, as 'hactivist' net artists, must not only become energized cultural producers who create interventionist digital art, but that we must also use all of the lingo and jingo at our disposal to further attract attention (eyeballs) to our collaborative networked environments.But this issue of self-preservation and posterity continues to raise its (ugly?) head, again.
There is another issue that arises from the current dialogue both at ELO and the Archiving the Avant-Garde site. Why is the movement toward early net art and electronic lit's archive fever only about the so-called works themselves? The exciting thing about being part of the early net art / Web-based hyper / text / theory / media scene was the way it was contradicting and bypassing conventional publishing, museological, and archival practices. Genres were blurring. Disciplines were just in-bred marriages of economic convenience. Would a work like GRAMMATRON be better archived (and contextualized) at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, ELO, the Whitney Museum, limited editions with private collectors, or (as it was first promoted in 1997) as a "public domain narrative environment" available on the Internet at grammatron.com for free? And who is to say that the performances of GRAMMATRON, the various documents generated around its international presentations, and the zillions of emails and group email list postings that came from Boulder and wherever else I happened to find an Internet connection between 1993-2000 are not somehow part of the art work?
Tabbi anticipates these questions in his draft document (entitled "Setting A Direction for the Directory: Toward A Semantic Literary Web") when he writes:
Programmatically, such convergence is in the interest of our project and areas of agreement among literature and the arts should be acknowledged, even while our respective efforts at funding Avant Garde Arts and literary projects are carefully articulated with respect to one another. We don't want to be working at cross-purposes, not at this moment in literary history when the audience for "literature" could well be merging with, or emerging out of, the audience for visual and new media art. At the same time, the consistency of our aims with the aims presented in the Archiving the Avant Garde project, should also give us pause: for if literature is defined along the same lines as the arts, with many of the same terms made available through similar channels and portals, can literature as such be said to exist at all in the new electronic environments?A dialogue that Tabbi and I had for his insightful catalogue essay included in my PHON:E:ME exhibition at the Walker Arts Center (1999) also touched on many of these issues in a more formally innovative way. Tabbi wrote:
In all, I have perhaps 500 saved messages to and from Mark. There's a part of me that must have imagined, all along, that some future historian of electronic writing would come along seeking insight into the early Indie Web scene in the Amerika/Tabbi correspondence dating from the winter of 1995-1996. I don't think I ever considered that the historian would be me, however.And what about this blog entry? Is this a further indication of the nomadic migration of net art and e-lit eluding the traditional values and practices of literature per se?
Amerika's the same way about email:
"Sometime early on in my email life, I realized that I would never really have enough material for a "collected letters" and that, although email is sometimes frivolous or so off-the-cuff as to be inconsequential, there are indeed hi-stories being produced in the telecommunicative environment enabled by the network technology and one of those hi-stories, now marked with some degree of network-value, is ours."
While traveling, all of Amerika's banking is done online. Easy money. He was in Boulder, Colorado, as much if not more than Providence, Rhode Island, during the two years "at" Brown when he was working on GRAMMATRON. What saved him from having to be in one place all of the time was email, and the record of his whereabouts over the past five to six years is in turn "saved" on Zip disks.
Amerika: "My recent trip to Australia is a good case in point. I was online 2 or 3 times a day, just like here in Boulder. 95% of my network-conduction continued smoothly--could have been on Mars as long as I had a local ISP provider. Invitations to festivals/conferences, Alt-X updates, regular reports to the company I was consulting with in Berkeley, etc., all of it went on as usual and my hi-story, being left in the email dust, was accumulating in the in/out boxes.
When I first got back, the first thing I did was archive all of the email "work" I had produced in the previous 3 months. At one point, in jet-lag speak, I started a new mantra, "Save - Save - Save - Save - Save" as I saved each email. What are we afraid of losing and how is that connected to "literary" history?"
Everyday life as an ongoing online fiction that can be kept and gone back to, held in mind and thus shareable with others. This is where our culture is migrating, is where the economy is migrating, is where the most interesting "conceptual" experiments, mostly corporate, are beginning to take place ("nothing will have taken place but the place itself"--Mallarme).