DEAF00 Digital Dive workshop report

Report written by Eric Kluitenberg about the DEAF_00 Digital Dive workshop on online archives.

In this short report I wish to summarise the main arguments that were put forward during the DEAF_00 Digital Dive workshop on online archives, and the main issues of debate. In general the two days produced a productive discussion about the sate of affairs in the area of on-line databases, and how these can be applied and developed within a cultural context. The discussion shows clearly that a lot of people expect an important part of future uses of the internet will revolve around or be supported by database driven on-line media.

In the first day of discussion, Wednesday November 15 the group (see list of participants) tried to define some main areas of debate, and create a somewhat more visionary perspective than normally expected from the crafty archivist.

Christian Hübler and Alexander Tuchacek of Knowbotic Research had introduced their prototype for an evolving on-line database system based on the Flüsser Archive, recently donated to the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne.

One of the main issues they are concerned with in the creation of this system, which is still in a relatively early developmental phase, is the potential of on-line databases to challenge the unified perspective on a database set. Instead the on-line version of the Flüsser archive should allow for multiple viewpoints ("poly-perspectivity") on the same set of data, multiple selections of information from that data set, and novel user contributions to this set.

This is an ambitious program if the on-line archive is not to succumb to arbitrariness. The solution to prevent this problem is a rather surprising one. Instead of choosing a very complex and elaborate technical architecture, Hübler and Tuchacek propose to work with a social model, by creating an "invitation-network". The idea is that researchers and other professionally involved users of the database create decentrally stored subsets of the data-set that act as local branches of a logical tree in the overall system. Once invited to the network these users can in turn invite other people to join and thus create new sub-branches within their own branch in the overall system.

The crux of this approach is the social factor, which has to ensure that only people with a real and viable interest in the subject matter are invited to contribute to the architecture and content of the overall system. This approach would allow for a relatively simple technical architecture, which is open to new users / contributors and addition of new materials, while the dedication of the participants should prevent meaningless extensions of the system. Furthermore, the local sub-branching structure will allow for outside users to recognise the origin of certain local additions to the overall system and data-set. Each local branch then represents a local or personal viewpoint on the archive and its data set.

The notion of seeing database practice primarily as a social practice is even stronger in the example of Orang Orang, the on-line database for real-audio music and sound art works, and its related systems the Open Video Archive (OVA) and the Open Meta Archive. All these systems have been developed by Thomax Kaullman, who was formerly involved with the creation of the community network Internationale Stadt Berlin and the net.radio group Radio Internationale Stadt, also in Berlin.

In the case of Orang Orang the database is contributed to and maintained by a large group of users (app. 200), who are part of a rather closely knit community of musicians, sound artists, DJs, organisers, experimental radio makers. The database resides on several servers simultaneously that automatically update each other via the smtp-protocol (e-mail).

The system relies entirely on a local constituency, both in terms of the involvement of this local constituency to create and maintain the database, but also to validate the objects contained within it. During the discussion it was asserted that many organisations and initiatives active in the field of connective networks now discover that a dedicated user base is an invaluable resource.

In the case of "everything.com", mentioned by Paul Perry, an on-line archive of *everything* is created. The users of the archive rate the individual contributions, so it is easy to see which entries are particularly popular or unpopular. A similar example of a user rating system are the reviews of books contributed by individual users at amazon.com.

Important to note here is also that Orang Orang is not a dead-archive, or an archive of dead art objects. Instead it is created and continuously extended by a very alive community of (sound-) artists who use the database as a tool for living culture, and contemporary cultural production, rather than an archive for preserving cultural heritage. The social dynamic of how the Orang Orang system is used sharply distinguishes itself from the system mainly in view at the large scale multimedia access cultural heritage programs that the EU promotes, such as the within the MEDICI framework.

An important recurring question for everyone involved with on-line archives, and especially the archiving of on-line materials, or indeed on-line art works, is that of changing technical standards. The rightful lamentations of computer users and new media arts that they feel they have become slaves of updating already testifies to this. In the on-line world this problem is even more severe.

During the discussion of Rhizome's ArtBase project, an online archive of internet art projects, Jennifer Crowe raised the crucial question of what should actually be archived and preserved? Is it the works as a whole, as accurately as possible? Or rather just the description of it, which seems a more appropriate solution when the actual work involves real-life and immediate social interaction? Or should a technical copy be stored as an accurate simulation within a more up-to date technical standard? What counts as a faithful reproduction?

Should the objects themselves be archived or the meta-data? - in Rhizome's case the answer is: both!

In some cases, for instance with the infamous jodi.org net.art duo, works are produced for a specific software standard. One work of jodi.org actually exploits an error in the 2.0 version of the Netscape web browser. What is archived in such cases? The work itself along with the viewing software, the work and the appropriate plug-ins? What about the hardware?

The question of what to archive in a technical sense leads over to the more general issue of selection. In much of the traditional arts and culture field the identity of cultural institutions and initiatives is not defined by their inclusiveness, but instead by their careful and critical selection. In the on-line world everything, however, seems to fall prone to the ideology of connectivity. It begs the question in how far the seamless connection of on-line archives and databases is desirable at all in terms of definition of identity, meaning and context.

Obviously the idea of interconnection of archives and databases raises important technical questions. First of all the question of shared standards that would allow for "interoperability". The next, even more complex question is that of categorisation and standardised key-words for database indexes. The same term might mean different thing in different contexts:

* In the library world several projects have been on-going, and with some degree of success, to create such technical and semantic standards, and they are also applied there.
* In the museum world, especially when art museums are concerned, there is much more resistance against these seamlessly connected on-line archiving systems. Even when the willingness is there for it, an appropriate descriptive systems that would allow for a meaningful cross-connection of on-line archives is not as yet available or widely adopted.
* The next problem is that of the development of a meta language that can create interchangeable descriptions of information objects across different media types.

An important point raised in this discussion was that 'local' standards of meaning, within certain interest communities or geographies, should not be automatically rejected. There is in the end no universally correct description of an object and the fact that a specific description only communicates within a specific local context still does not disqualify the value of this description.
("Local" here, obviously, can also relate to dispersed special interest communities.)

Some discussion was spent on the use of intelligent agents as intermediary for complex information systems and complex user requests. An example discussed was the proxy system (http://arts.uci.edu/agents & http://arts.uci.edu/tutorial). Research in this direction seems to have died down a bit. The NIA (Naturally Intelligent Agent) approach, the user as producer, instead seemed more popular or promising to the workshop participants.

A final issue that should be mentioned is the personalisation of data. By filing user behaviour data within the database, a tailored service to users can be developed for recurring visitors to an on-line archive. This profiling of regular users is, however, not without privacy risks. The system amasses sensitive and highly specific personal information about the profiled users, which is valuable in marketing terms and has important privacy aspects. Therefore, a clear privacy policy, combined with a clear preference for anonymous systems above systems that identify individual users should be a common concern here.

Some important on-line resources:

Open-Source Software Projects:

Open Meta Archive (.de):
Mmbase (.nl):
Zope (.uk):
Code Zebra (.ca):

Cultural networks involved in on-line archiving:

Encart Network:
Concept Intermedia Arts Online:
European Cultural Backbone:
Netzspannung / CAT:

Library & museum related networks:

International Council of Archives:
International Federation of Library Associations:
EU methodology web site:

List of participants:

Steve Dietz (US) - Walker Art Center
Eric Kluitenberg (NL) - de Balie
Thomax Kaulmann (DE) - OVA/OMA/ORANG
Jennifer Crowe(US) - Rhizome
Alexander Tuchacek (DE) & Christian Huebler (Knowbotic Research) (DE) - Flusser Archiv
Sandra Fauconnier (BE/NL) & Boudewijn Ridder (NL) - V2_Organisation
Bart Rutten (NL) & Robert de Geus (NL) - Montevideo
Jan Baeke (NL) - Filmmuseum
Johan van de Walle (NL) - Maastricht McLuhan Institute
Claudia Gehrig (DE) - ZKM
Martijn van den Broek (NL) - NFA
Hans Zonnevijlle (NL) - NFI
Rik Hoekstra (NL) - Instituut voor Nederlandse Geschiedenis
Miklos Peternak (HU) - C3
Paul Perry and Rogério Lira
Gabriele Blome (DE)
Veronica Hekking (NL) - Voorzieningsfonds Voor Kunstenaars
Vincent de Keijzer (NL) - Gemeentemuseum Den Haag
Robert Nideffer (US)
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