“XFR STN” (Transfer Station), 2013. Exhibition view: New Museum, New York. From left: Roy Minster, “XFR STN” Technician Kristin MacDonough, and Audio-Visual Conservator Walter Forsberg. Photo: Tara Hart
Over an eight-week period this summer, the New Museum hosted “XFR STN” (Transfer Station), a media archiving project that included transferring video material from the Monday/Wednesday/Friday Video Club (MWF) distribution project, founded in 1986 by Alan W. Moore and Colab (Collaborative Projects, Inc.). MWF’s early aspirations for democratic distribution led to an embrace of technologies newly available in the 1980s—what Moore called, “The twin communications innovations of home video and cable TV.”
In addition to transferring MWF material and artist-originated media submitted in response to an open call, “XFR STN” also created the occasion for the New Museum, a non-collecting contemporary art museum, to migrate inaccessible video documentation from its own rich media archive. The New Museum partnered with the Internet Archive, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the medium of the internet and other materials in digital format, to provide a stable storage and distribution platform for the terabytes of new data that were produced during the course of the project. The Internet Archive offers a refreshing sense of permanence for a vast wealth of collections that exist in digital formats at a moment when, as media historian Lisa Gitelman put it in Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture, “Change itself is a paradoxically consistent feature of the World Wide Web.”
On September 7, 2013, the New Museum Education Department and Rhizome held a daylong symposium marking the conclusion of “XFR STN,” providing an opportunity for artists and practitioners to reflect on issues and debates brought to the fore during the course of the project. The panels accounted for, and thought beyond, familiar divisions and false dichotomies such as analog versus digital, old versus new, centralized versus rhizomatic, and material versus immaterial. David J. Kim, a PhD candidate in Information Studies at UCLA who has worked as an archivist at organizations like Public Art Fund, provides a critical response to the program here.
“Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe” (LOCKSS) is a real thing, a framework for digital preservation developed by Stanford University in the Silicon Valley, the center of the information technology industry. Artist Lillian Schwartz, a pioneering figure in computer media art, is no stranger to this industry. Schwartz collaborated with industry giants such as AT&T Bell Laboratories, IBM, and Lucent in the ’60s and ’70s both independently and as a member of Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.). After many prolific decades at the forefront of this emerging art practice, which explores the expressive capacities of computer processing, Schwartz’s work has since become part of the permanent collections of major arts institutions such as MoMA and the Smithsonian. But Schwartz’s institutional prominence and the rather fortuitous afterlife of her work are an exception not a rule for audiovisual art situated at the edges of materiality. In many cases, either the medium on which the data is stored has deteriorated or the hardware to process that data is obsolete. Transfer of the old to the new is only the first part of this preservation effort; the second part is circulation, hence making “lots of copies” of these digital surrogates as a way to secure their foreseeable future.
The conference opened with the panel “Always Already Obsolete, Considering the Convergence of Analog and Digital Media,” which began with a presentation by Joanna Phillips, Conservator of Time-based Media at the Guggenheim, who offered an overview of the process of transferring platform- or hardware-specific art upon intake into a museum’s collection. The challenge in this setting is not only the conversion of data that is “trapped” in obsolete “carriers,” but also the preservation of those carriers as part of the artwork itself. They are often mass-produced hardware, but occasionally an artwork arrives at an institution in packaging designed by the artist—for example, Ho Tzu Nyen created a wood case for the external hard drive and DVD containing his film The Cloud of Unknowing (2011).
Following Phillips was Maurice Schechter, DuART Restoration’s Chief Engineer, who specializes in analog media and has worked with the Guggenheim as well as other arts organizations as a consultant on video preservation projects. With forty years of expertise drawn equally from film, entertainment, and the visual arts fields, Schechter emphasized the different standards each field has for considering visual properties during the process of migration. His insights made a convincing case for why technical decisions for media conversion are also interpretative decisions about aesthetics. For Schechter, what made “XFR STN” special as a media preservation project was that artists, alongside “operators” (“XFR STN” technicians), were intimately involved in making the decisions regarding the details of color scheme, grayscale, density and range, chrominance, luminance, etc.
Finn Brunton, a new media studies scholar from NYU, broadened the historical context of these issues by discussing computer scientist Alan Turing’s pioneering work during the mid-twentieth century. He pointed out that, contrary to the prevalence of archival metaphors in the discourse of digital technology, the primary function of computer processing has always been about performing actions, not storage. Brunton emphasized that development of information technology has always been in response to and in anticipation of past and future obsolescence, a condition to which the current digital media forms are no exception. He suggested that despite the digital form’s own condition of obsolescence, we continue to believe in the “pretense of permanence,” that the digital does not perish as matter does. 1 Collectively, the panelists reflected on how to best negotiate remediations in digital transfer, as well as digital media’s volatility, its impermanence, and its certain obsolescence.
The second panel, “Born Digital: Conservation in the Computer Age," began with Lillian Schwartz’s computer animations UFOs (1971) and Exquisite Motions (2013). They opened up a discussion that addressed similar concerns related to digital ephemerality but also focused on technology’s relationship to the artist’s creative process. From the media archaeology perspective, represented by scholars Matthew Kirschenbaum and Lori Emerson, the field’s attention to obsolete media forms is partially about recovery but partially about understanding media-specificity: An artwork’s meaning and significance is neither solely determined by, nor independent of, the medium in which it is produced. Rather, media forms matter in the discussions of process, something that Schwartz describes as the “probability of something happening” (this element of chance is why she chooses to work in her method of graph papers and punch cards). In other words, specific technology and media forms offer certain expressive or creative potentials, which Kirschenbaum also located in erstwhile and contemporary video games and various softwares. For Emerson, the genre of e-lit also deserves similar media-specific analysis and appropriate archival considerations, which can be a challenge since the earliest examples of the genre haven’t been preserved. The opportunity of media conversion is one of conservation as well as estrangement of the familiar forms—for example, during the conversion of a text from a book to an e-book, one begins to question the cultural authority and the epistemological assumptions embedded in “the book,” as the emerging field of digital humanities can attest. These activities are about interpretative enactment in addition to faithful reenactments—the illusion of the “perfect copy” becomes abundantly clear from both the technical impossibility of “loss-less” conversion (as Schechter put it) and, as Aaron Straup Cope notes, the fact that “history has always been ‘lossy.’” 2
The frequent acknowledgment of the condition of loss became the most consistent thread of the symposium, addressing the relationship of materiality to affect and “experience”: How do we document experience? How do we recreate the conditions of the work’s reception at a certain space at a certain moment in time? What tangible and intangible layers of the analog do we lose in the digital? The participants were likely all too aware of Derrida’s archive fever and Benjamin’s mechanical reproduction to suggest an answer that is not aspirational or speculative. Brunton suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that we take advantage of the lowered cost of Electroencephalogram (EEG) devices, which record electrical impulses from the nerves in the head, to document the cognitive manifestation of experience in the art viewer’s brain. To an audience member’s critique that our attachment to these archaic technologies often comes at the cost of appreciating the artwork itself, Kirschenbaum responded that we shouldn’t “dismiss people’s engagement with past hardware as nostalgia.” He continued, “Even if it is, nostalgia is a complicated thing.” In short, the diverse range of practitioners presented different perspectives on the extent to which an experience of an artwork is media-determined.
Jacques Rancière is, perhaps, the figure who would provide the most ardent criticism of the symposium’s treatment of these issues, as he questions in his essay “Are Some Things Unrepresentable?”: “Under what conditions might it be said that a certain event cannot be represented? It is motivated by a certain intolerance for an inflated use of the notion of the unrepresentable and a constellation of allied notions: the unpresentable, the unthinkable, the untreatable, the irredeemable.” 3 One might add to this list, the unarchivable. Certainly, such skepticism was represented throughout the day’s discussions, but unlike many conversations involving Rancière’s theories on aesthetics, there were no gratuitous accusations of false consciousness or vulgar championing of the agency of anti-art art. Most refreshing about the event were the discussions around experience in art and the many recollections of transferring media during “XFR STN.” For example, one participant admitted to a melancholic disposition that draws her/him to this kind of work. For others, the awareness of the impossibility of loss-less capture did not take away from the fascination with the mechanics of transfer. The uncertainty, rather than prediction, of what the future holds for these digitized newborns was one thing that attracted the panelists to the topic. To this point, the first panel’s moderator and Audio-Visual Conservator for “XFR STN” Walter Forsberg exclaimed, as a segue to the Q&A, “What have we done?!” Emphasizing this commonly held understanding that copies generated from conversions are not necessarily exact, rather, they allow for different kinds of experience or engagement with the original artwork, Forsberg suggested a different paradigm: “Lots of Expressions Keep Stuff Safe.”
This brings us to what might be the most endearing aspect of “XFR STN”—the community endeavor. The process of media transfer, as it unfolded over the eight weeks of open transfer appointments this summer, brought diverse practitioners together, creating an occasion where any artist was able to dust off that old tape, bring it into the New Museum, and the content of that tape would become the center of the technician’s attention—an attention that the artwork probably had not received in a while, if ever. By presenting archiving, along with art-making, as an experience in its own right, “XFR STN” succeeded as a simulation of the MWF distribution project that was the impetus for the project. Now the question is who has archived the individual experiences within “XFR STN”? Some of this evidence is already collecting electronic dust at the Library of Congress’s Twitter Archive.
—David J. Kim
“XFR STN” was a project by Alan W. Moore with Taylor Moore, Alexis Bhagat, and the artists of Collaborative Projects, supported by the Solo Foundation. It was organized by Johanna Burton, Keith Haring Director and Curator of Education and Public Engagement, with Ben Fino-Radin, Digital Conservator, Rhizome; Tara Hart, Digital Archivist, New Museum; and Jen Song, Associate Director of Education, New Museum.
1 Brunton’s notion of “pretense of permanence” has been similarly described by Jean-François Blanchette as the digital’s “trope of immateriality,” in regards technological infrastructure, in “Material History of Bits,” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 62, Issue 6, June 2011, 1042–57. This idea is also examined by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun as “conflation of storage and memory” in Programmed Visions (Boston: MIT Press, 2011).
2 Aaron Straup Cope, “Authority Records, Future Computers, and Other Unfinished Histories,” Museums and the Web 2011: Proceedings (Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, March 31, 2011), http://www.museumsandtheweb.com/mw2011/papers/authority_records_future_computers_and_other_u.html (accessed 3 Oct. 2013).
3 Jacques Rancière, “Are Some Things Unrepresentable?,” The Future of the Image (New York: Verso, 2009), 109.
Walter Forsberg, “Lillian Schwartz Sees in Four Dimensions,” in Incite Journal of Experimental Media →
Ben Fino-Radin, “It Takes a Village to Save a Hard Drive” →
“XFR STN” on Internet Archive →
Johanna Drucker, “Understanding Media: Craig Dworkin’s ‘No Medium,’” in Los Angeles Review of Books, 2013 →
Guggenheim Media Conservation’s time-based media conservation guides →