A Living Archive is Also a Dying Archive

In early April of 2022, a sub-group of the researchers involved in the Going Hybrid project came together for a first knowledge session, which was also the first physical gathering since the project’s kickoff in January. The session was dedicated to making sense of the term ‘living archives’, a task supported by generous input from both researcher Annet Dekker and artist Clara Bahlsen. Another related goal for the session was to hear more about each team member’s interest in the project, and what the group wishes to get out of this collective research. Our team members included Karl Moubarak from Hackers and Designers, Margarita Osipian from The Hmm, Angelique Spaninks and Fenna Wenselaar from MU, freelancer Hay Kranen, Laurence Scherz from the Institute of Network Cultures, and Sofia Boschat-Thorez from Varia and the Willem de Kooning Academy. Ahead of this session, members had been sharing thoughts with each other through the use of an Etherpad. What emerged within these preliminary notes was that, overall, the group was concerned with questions regarding archives and their workflow, design, and user engagement, as well as property, licensing, care, and maintenance.

Our first expert to join the discussion was Annet Dekker. Annet is an Assistant Professor of Archival Science at the University of Amsterdam, and Visiting Lecturer at London South Bank University. In 2014, she completed her Ph.D. in the conservation of net art at Goldsmiths University of London. For the knowledge session, her contribution took the shape of a conversation through which she provided us with several pointers. For starters, she observed that most ways of archiving today still remain extremely conventional, and noted that more interesting and less normative approaches seem to originate from artists who have developed archiving as an artistic practice, or who seek strategies to preserve artworks highly susceptible to the passing of time. These proposals, however, are rarely sustainable. She also expressed skepticism towards the usefulness of the term ‘living archives’, as even the most boring archive can be regarded as ‘alive’, as long as it can be accessed, and its content can be of use. This led the conversation more towards questions of navigation and how to think about archives from a user’s perspective. What do we want to give our audience? And since the question of user engagement was also discussed, what would the incentive be for the audience to want to contribute? Who has both time and interest in the topic? If participation is desired, then the emphasis should be on creating ideal circumstances for a conversation to happen, on an equal level.  Also, related to questions of use, orientation, and agency, we spoke about organization and classification and agreed that most institutional archives follow a very standardized approach. The most notable examples of practices currently seeking to step away from these conventions come from initiatives led by North American indigenous communities (see here: https://localcontexts.org). Lastly, another interesting point that came out of the conversation was the opacity surrounding selection criteria, seeing as institutions usually don’t make these explicit. This is a shame, for transparency would help to understand the motivations and subjectivities giving shape to various existing collections.

Shortly after, Clara Bahlsen introduced her project you say potato I say fuck you (find it here: https://yousaypotatoisayfuckyou.com/), a collection of pictures of anthropomorphic objects started in 2006. Clara is an artist with a background in design, visual communication, and photography. As Clara explained, the collection grew with external contributions from the community she gathered around it, mostly via social networks. She maintains an interest in the collection via an Instagram account, where she regularly publishes excerpts from the archive. The project has evolved very intuitively so far, and so has the organization of the images submitted, which is structured with the support of the website, via a list of tags she attributes to each item at the time of their inclusion. These tags also assist users’ navigation. Clara further mentioned that her approach to this work is determined by her capacity to assume the workload in her free time, as the project has never received any funding, and was developed completely outside the spheres of traditional archiving. So far the only task she has managed to externalize was the design of the website, and, of course, curation, since the images are submitted to her and she chooses which ones to include. It was very interesting to our team to see how this project complemented the previous conversation we had, as the method stated by Annet is very closely linked to the specific habits and intuitions of Clara, rather than reflective of current conventions in the field of archiving. 

After exchanging ideas with Annet and Clara, we had further discussions which, rather than being preoccupied with coming up with a final definition for the term ‘living archives’, revolved around the characteristics of what, in our opinion, would constitute an ideal archive. Within this post, some points from this discussion are extracted and organized under a few umbrella themes; however, these are not exhaustive. Firstly, some of our ideas were concerned with content, from its curation to its distribution, but also with its relation to documentation. Then we spoke about structure, with some interest in classification, navigation, relations, and contextualization. The last topic discussed at length was infrastructure, which includes resources, design, care, and maintenance. The common thread and central preoccupation linking all of these ideas was the question of audience involvement, and how users are to interact with the archival system and the collection.

 Structure and classification

As underlined by Annet Dekker, for users to find their way around an archive they need to be able to comprehend and make sense of the organizational logic binding the archive items together. This is why classification is a crucial aspect. According to Susan Leigh Star and Geoffrey C. Bowker, ‘a classification is a spatial, temporal or spatio-temporal segmentation of the world.’ In theory, a classification system should be consistent, composed of mutually exclusive categories, and complete. As both thinkers noted, however, a system has yet to demonstrate the capacity to contain these three simple criteria.

As aforementioned, together with Annet, we hardly managed to find an example of a classification system exempt from dominating institutional standards, apart from the ones developed by indigenous communities in North America. While standard (structuring) and classification are closely related, they do not designate exactly the same thing. According to Leigh Star and Bowker, ‘standard spans more than one community of practice (or site of activity). It has temporal reach as well in that it persists over time.‘ As beautifully put by Jens-Erik Mai, the trouble with normativity in this domain is the maintenance of the illusion that ‘the universe of knowledge exists independently of human perception and specific cultures, and that it is accessible to humans.’ (Read more here: http://jenserikmai.info/Papers/2013_Ethics.pdf.)

There doesn’t seem to exist a system that is devoid of its creator’s specific relation to the world, and the type of collection they want to classify. This is also precisely why we were interested in Clara’s approach to classifying her own content, which, contrary to what would happen in a traditional archival setting, isn’t trying to fight or dissimulate inconsistencies and gaps, and is pursued intuitively, depending on her reception of the content at the moment she describes (and thus classifies) it. 

Because the classification system forces relations, differences, and meanings, it has already been a place of intervention by some practitioners. Such approaches find a beautiful embodiment in the work, achieved for example by MayDay Rooms and 0x2620 Berlin with leftove.rs, a project that seeks to create a shared online archive of radical, anti-oppressive, and working-class movements, and the material traces they leave behind. The collection, currently containing around 18000 items, has been almost entirely OCRed, meaning that the content of the documents contained in the archive is searchable. As noted by Rosemary Grennan  ‘this might sound a minor technical point but actually is highly significant in opening up digital archives and using the actual document’s content as the basis of classification.’ (See here: https://vltk.vvvvvvaria.org/w/Somewhere_between_automation_and_the_handmade.) This system thus allows viewers to search for a word or a phrase within the system, and access every document that includes the search term. 

In some of our earlier collective exchanges, Hay Kranen mentioned that though it is unfeasible to provide context to every single object, it helps to make a ‘core collection’ of the most interesting objects in an archive and to create stories or articles around them. This suggestion seems to have found a potential answer in a commission work by one member of our group, which shows that subtly providing context to items can be also achieved via design. When Karl Moubarak was commissioned by Pia Chakraverti-Wuerthwein to build a website that archives her work (see https://piacw.com/), he decided to explore the concept of relationality, by ensuring that each item’s relations are highlighted when the user hovers over each one. This was made possible by having the list of all the content visible on the first page, meaning that it is also enabled by the scale of this archive. The system allows for some transparency in how the navigation works but also ties the material together with the project by emphasizing its partners. 

Care and maintenance

In our initial notes, Laurence Scherz mentioned the desire for an approach to design that would emphasize simplicity and minimalism over an accumulation of technologies and effects. Also desirable is a system that is open for others to contribute to, but also to develop further.

Angélique raised the question of how to facilitate collaboration from outside the walls of the institution. This calls the question of openness and licensing. In How deep is your source, Aymeric Mansoux argues that free and open licenses can be very a very powerful tool to support the reuse and preservation of digital art and that institutions and archives should look closer at different models of sharing which would allow content preservation to be globally scaled. This would prevent ‘building a business model around zombified works, exploiting their every possible permutation, and thus replicating at a different scale the exploitative cultural dead-end found in the relationship between media industries and copyright.’ The question of licensing here is of interest to us as it poses the question of content liveliness through a contract with the public that may allow scavenging and harvesting of content which can be collected or modified, but acquire a life of its own beyond the archive which doesn’t need to become a dead end (such as this one: https://archive.bleu255.com/bleu255.com-texts/how-deep-is-your-source/).

Another important aspect is how to support the transmission of a system in place. When a technician leaves behind an archive or is not available, how can someone else take become a custodian? Where do we put the guidelines to steer it? Margarita Osipian remarked upon how traditionally, archives have always been embedded within museums and government institutions, but with some digital archives, there is a certain level of ‘democratization’ of archiving and acts of preservation. But then, how do we retribute the labor it takes, or what are the financial implications of this? What responsibilities do we have towards this kind of digital heritage?

The last aspect discussed by the group was the possibility to have a system decentralized through the use of a federated format. For instance, Michelle Teran brought up the example of Memory of The World, a shadow library consisting of a distributed infrastructure for amateur librarians, whose collections are searchable from within. Searches can be operated via title, author names, and tags (as entered by each librarian). The project was developed by Marcell Mars and Tomislav Medak. (See for more info here: https://www.memoryoftheworld.org/blog/2015/05/27/repertorium_public_library/.)

Curation and content

Other—very important—topics that we discussed were curation, content, distribution, and the usage and relevance of said content. Margarita Osipian first asked the question of the type of document to be added and how selection should be operated. Central to archiving is indeed the question of who decides what gets discarded. In the ‘Power of the archive and its limits’, Achille Mbembé makes the observation that the archive isn’t a piece of data but a status, a product of judgment, as an authority decides what documents are worthy of archiving or not. On this, Victor Buchli writes that ‘what in conventional western terms might be thought of as waste is actually a resource to be cared for and nurtured.’

Regarding distribution, Margarita Osipian mentioned the project Bibliotecha, a project developed by former Piet Zwart Institute students which allows for content to be dropped into the archive and distributed with ease over a local offline network (see here: https://hackersanddesigners.nl/p/Bibliotecha).

A fine example of an archive with user’s agency comes from Karl Moubarak’s Archive of Belonging which has a feature that essentially allows a visitor to combine resources and/or artworks that are relevant to them into a ‘collection’, which they can keep in their browser or print as a reader. What makes this interesting, is that the visitors of this archive have the ability to publish their own collections back onto the website; thus making this page a resource for any other visitor that might chance upon it. There is, for example, a section on the page that presents these collections (see here: https://archiveofbelonging.org/resources/al-hasaniya-moroccan-women-s-centre-1). In this sense, the archive and its features become a sort of ‘recommendation algorithm’ that is driven by other users.

Overall this was a fruitful first knowledge session for our sub-research group on living archives, and also a clear sign that the definition of what an archive entails is complex and opens up the door for many possible experiments. It gave us a good starting point into a research trajectory towards a truly living archive that is organic, ever-growing, shapeshifting, and subsequently slowly decaying, or, as Annet puts it: every living archive is also a dying archive.