VIDEO CACHE+SAW Video’s New Website Launch

Video Cache

Curated by Penny McCann, Video Cache is a digital video screening comprised of ten works from the original SAW Video Mediatheque launched in 2004. Video Cache was presented in November, 2010 at Montreal’s Groupe Intervention Vidéo as part of Wayward, a collaborative project by Mél Hogan and Nikki Forrest. Wayward is Hogan’s doctoral research creation play space, and Forrest’s experimental playground for situating art in relation to the web.

Go to SAW Video Mediatheque, VIDEO CACHE curated program.

 

Download the VIDEO CACHE catalogue here.

no images were found

Vague Terrain, Activating the Archive (again)

VIDEO CACHE – ACTIVATING THE ARCHIVE: AN INTERVIEW WITH MÉL HOGAN

Submitted by Corina MacDonald on Mon, 07/04/2011 – 09:43

 Video Cache

 

This interview takes as a starting point the VIDEO CACHE project. Mél’s research into defunct video art repositories online raises many questions about the ephemeral nature of digital culture, and the social/cultural parameters that frame the preservation of and access to such materials.

VIDEO CACHE is a research creation project emerging from Mél Hogan’s doctoral research (wayward.ca), in collaboration with Penny McCann, director of SAW Video in Ottawa, and Groupe intervention video (GIV) in Montreal.

VIDEO CACHE took place on November 24, 2010 at GIV. It was a public screening of ten works selected by McCann from the SAW Video Mediatheque collection, for which artists’ fees were paid by GIV. The Mediatheque is Canada’s first large-scale attempt to use the web as a ‘living archive’ –its server crashed in 2009 and the project has been offline since. VIDEO CACHE was also a month-long online exhibit (http://www.wayward.ca/videocache/) showcasing these ten works, carefully documented and recontextualised for the web. The documentation for VIDEO CACHE remains online, and the event catalogue is available via print-on-demand (http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/video-cache/13585058).

On the one hand, VIDEO CACHE served to document the Mediatheque project by updating the context and addressing in a practical way what it means to ‘activate’ the online archive. On the other hand, it was and remains an entity onto itself. VIDEO CACHE has become an opportunity for Hogan to bring a creative dimension to documentation and to address loss: while it is the ‘cache’ that makes the Mediatheque’s traces visible and re-visit-able, it is the ‘crash’ that signals its ongoing (archival) value.

Mél Hogan is completing her PhD in the Joint Doctorate in Communication at Concordia University, Montreal. web: www.melhogan.com email: info@melhogan.com twitter:@mel_hogan

 

You’ve talked about there being a paradox in the way digital culture is created and shared and the way it is preserved. How do you think preservation, creation, and use should be interrelated in the digital realm?

I don’t know that the paradox needs to be resolved so much as it needs to be acknowledged and understood within digital preservation debates. In my work what stands out is that more attention needs to be paid to digital flows, to circulation, and to the interface and database that facilitate and mask distribution online. Preservation, as an idea and as an ideal, is transformed online, though for some reason, stating this is always a bit controversial.

In archives (traditionally) the emphasis has been on long-term preservation, which more often than not has meant rendering ‘originals’ inaccessible in the present as a means to protect or safeguard them for the future. Because archival discourse and practice have come a long way in the last decade to adapt to the continually changing technoscape, I don’t want to make it sound like the tension is between the traditional, as material/offline, and the new, as digital/online. I concentrate on the digital online as a complex realm when I study the archive, but obviously the discourses and ideas are shared with, if not borrowed from, years of traditional archival theory. I think it is almost impossible not to rely on these established ideas and systems, but at the same time, I think it is important to move beyond them and beyond comparisons between material/digital, offline/online, mainly because the foundational archival concepts—the original, the authentic, and the integral—are conceived of differently in the digital realm. So there is a need for a new basis, a point of analysis that is of the web. We need to start talking about iteration, versions, repetition, and flow…

I think preservation, creation, and use are already interrelated in the digital realm—and that the archival conundrum actually lies in the fact that these elements are difficult to distinguish from each other. I think, if anything, the digital realm will keep moving in the direction of embedding the archive into technologies of creation, dissemination, and display. So maybe the question is how do we conceive of preservation, creation, and use as distinct entities in the digital online realm—rather than interrelated—and if a distinction is no longer possible, what the implications are of that interrelatedness.

 

You said that in your work ‘more attention needs to be paid to digital flows, to circulation itself, and to the interface and database that facilitate and mask distribution online’. Can you talk a bit more about this and how you think the interrelation between the ‘front end’ and ‘back end’ of online systems informs our perception and use of the archive?

When I say digital flows need to be addressed, I’m talking about community as much as I’m taking about trajectory. It’s an idea I’ve been stuck on for a while but also have a hard time articulating. From reading Ann Cvetkovich, Wendy HK Chun, Josephine Bosma, Anjali Arondekar, Tess Takahashi and others, I’m reminded of the underlying communities—online and offline—the people with a need and compulsion to collect, so that later, something can be made sense of, revealed. The archive ultimately makes possible connections that are sometimes dangerous or undesirable within a particular time and place. My hunch is that while the web has the potential to highlight the connections between people and their documented pasts, and with unprecedented reach, it also risks amalgamating everything into a large undifferentiated database that completely overlooks and overwrites the affective and the unarchivable.

We pay a lot of attention to digital content as objects, albeit virtual, when really an important part of what distinguishes the digital from its material counterparts is, I think, its movement, circulation, flow… the way people share the digital as a space, and travel through that space. Digital stuff is easy to copy—much of what we do on the computer is a form of duplication—and as many artists, theorists, and archivists have pointed out, these copies can be identical to ‘originals.’ Copies are also non-rival in consumption, which has forced us to seriously reconsider value and to come up with alternative economies, which so far seem most successful when thought of as network-creation itself. The mapping out of content, including links between digital nodes, constitutes digital trajectories, and this leads me to question the potential for archival theories that could emerge out of focusing on digital flows and online circulation, rather than the content-centric view imposed onto the digital. I’d like to expand my current project into theories of the web as a mobile archive, or a transient archive—something that highlights the passage of content, but also the movement of creators. And in turn, this means thinking about localization in contrast to the shifting place and space of the virtual archive…

As for the relationship between the front end and the back end, I think that we literally interact with an interface without knowing much of what generates our experiences online beyond that top layer. This isn’t new or limited to the web—this is basically our relationship to most technologies—but in the last few years, separating content from style and function (or form), has been pushed by developers. This has been mainly because browsers display content differently, and the separation made accessibility standards possible, making it easy to quickly and efficiently change the look of the interface without affecting content. Ultimately, the idea was to have form follow function, that is, to have use determine the appearance. So if we can take that kind of approach into account for the online archive, we begin to see what ideals shape the possibilities of the web for preservation.

 

 

Video Cache

What role do you think video artists or other digital content creators should play in the preservation of their own work?

I think this a really hard question to answer, but I’m going to respond from a personal point of view, as someone who makes video… and I am fully aware that I might make archivists and distributors shudder. I’m really for online access in principle, though I understand that in practice, it takes time, know-how, money, resources, etc. I haven’t even bothered to upload most of my videos online, so this is an ideal, a philosophical position. But it’s an ideal by which Canadian video distributors have not yet been seduced, and probably will not adopt anytime soon. And I get this—I get that making decisions about large valuable collections is something to think about carefully because once work is posted online, it simultaneously belongs to nobody and everybody.

Part of what inspires me to launch works into cyberspace is the politics of community-based activism that were about getting stuff out, sharing, exchanging ideas. There was an urgency and purpose. And as the tools became increasingly accessible, video art was about countering the mainstream in terms of both representation and means of sharing. But now it seems like the web has taken access to another level, and this is again shifting the politics of video art.

A lot of the politics that came out of video are similar to what we hear now about the web—in terms of its democratizing potential—and yet, the more video becomes common, the more precious the distinctions between art and the vernacular seem to become.

I think that there has to be some sort of middle ground—I prefer to upload videos to my own server than to YouTube for example, whose terms of use aren’t OK with me, unless I make a project with social networks in mind at the onset. But more and more artists use YouTube because it is so ubiquitous and saves on bandwidth and space. I think that online has to be thought of as many things—many contexts. So for example, if a video is shown online because someone has reviewed it, interviewed the artist, or curated an event for the work, this should make distributors and artists very eager to upload video online as part of this context. I don’t really understand the tight hold on video in these cases.

The fact that a video can be posted and embedded in numerous online contexts does not generally appeal to video distributors in Canada, who would rather see works maintained and presented in controlled environments where issues of resolution, duration, format, storage, and so on, are all carefully calculated to maintain the scarcity model on which they rest. The idea is to keep video art out of the ‘clutter’ of vernacular video—away from YouTube or on a distinct channel within it—so as to retain a curatorial sensibility.

For the archivists reading this, I have to refer to Josephine Bosma’s idea about rethinking loss as the antithesis to preservation because it gives elegance to these ideas. She writes, “We may have a lot to gain from losing control over digital objects. We should consider the ability of some artists to embrace an inherent loss of control over their work less as a challenge to conservation, and more as an inspiration to a solution. […] Both openness to a vital context and openness in terms of physical, material and technological accessibility may well be the best way forward in the strategy of conserving art in the environment of new, networked media.” [1]

My personal idea of what role artists and content creators should play in the preservation of their own work or collections is aligned with Bosma, and others who believe that setting work free allows for unpredictable modes of fan-based archiving tactics to happen. If we think of preservation as a process to keep work ‘alive,’ I can’t think of a better system—even if it is highly unpredictable—than the web. Except, as pointed out by Lucas Hilderbrand, the trend towards online distribution may mean that collection habits change, making it more difficult to keep works than with VHS or DVD, for example. [2]

So for content creators, I think that the idea of preservation has to be disentangled from marketing strategies, which isn’t easy by any means. In fact, the question of how to monetize content on the web may be the question nobody can answer; this demands an unprecedented level of innovation from video distributors whose best move may in fact be to opt out of the online realm altogether or wait for the hype train to pass… if it ever does.

Video Cache

The VIDEO CACHE collaboration with SAW Video activated the archive by screening some of the works from the crashed Mediatheque repository. Re-presentation through emulation or other means is a preservation strategy often undertaken with technological art of many kinds. Did you see VIDEO CACHE in this light at all, as simultaneously documenting and preserving the works?

Yes, I see VIDEO CACHE as a documentation project, but perhaps more importantly as a means of highlighting the ways in which the politics of the archive—any archive—are a reflection of the social movement(s) from which they emerge, including art movement(s). Video art history is imbued with politics and counter-movements, and these shape the discourses surrounding the video art archive on the web.

I see it less as an attempt to preserve the work within a long-term strategy where the material objects (DVDs for example) are central to the project’s history, and more in terms of preservation-as-conversation, keeping the project ‘alive’ by way of continued dialogue. Rooted in a feminist methodology, I frame VIDEO CACHE as way of bringing to the forefront the people involved in the Mediatheque—as artists or web developers or both—and their understandings of the process and labour involved, along with how their memories shape the ideals of video art and of the archive. It’s important to remember that this all started in the early 2000s, long before YouTube and broadband internet. It’s also important to mention that this project was funded as an online archive—that concept made sense very early on somehow, in that the promise of the web for preservation was something to invest in seriously, backed by hundreds of thousands of dollars of government money.

In some ways, activating the archive through a collaboratively curated event serves to document it better than written documentation would on its own; this is research-creation. The VIDEO CACHE screening and the online exhibit preserve and regenerate the Mediatheque, but very differently.

Curating a programme for a screening makes sense when you are talking about video, but it also raises a slew of questions about this assumption, given that as an online archive the Mediatheque didn’t prioritize high quality copies for screening—it was about showcasing video art online. This is a point in video art’s history that demands a look inward rather than forward. It demands a reflection on the trajectory of video art from its activist roots and from is dissident voices against mainstream representation—by women, queers, people of colour, community activists, etc.—to the current place and value of these scarce collections in an art market.

The Mediatheque is a prime case study for an archive that functioned for and through the web and privileged wide access over long-term material preservation of the files. Whether flawed or visionary as an archival approach, VIDEO CACHE preserves this idea, the Mediatheque’s aura, and the conceptual history of the project. VIDEO CACHE was about extending what I have learned from analyzing grant reports and other administrative documents made available to me by SAW Video into a case study, by highlighting preservation issues from 2003 to the present and showcasing the collection as two different modalities.

VIDEO CACHE featured only 10 works of the 486 pieces in the Mediatheque, and this sample was anything but random. So I think it’s worth noting that selection is a subjective part of this preservation process. As the current SAW Video Director, Penny McCann was the best person to make a selection based on the videos’ connections to SAW Video’s institutional history and in relation to those involved in the development of the Mediatheque from the early 2000s on. (McCann’s curatorial statement:http://www.wayward.ca/videocache/documentation/curatorial/)

Mediatheque

Eight artists who had work in the original Mediatheque were present for the VIDEO CACHE screening at GIV, on November 24, 2010. As a result, the act of curating, on and offline, along with the discussion that followed the screening, are directly linked to the process of documentation—this event is possibly the most complete piece of documentation that exists about the Mediatheque by the people involved in the project. (http://www.wayward.ca/wayward/exhibits/video-cache/)

We also discovered quirky and confusing things in the process of organizing VIDEO CACHE, that again speak volumes about the archive’s politics. From November 24, 2010 to December 24, 2010, 9 of the 10 videos screened at GIV were showcased online athttp://www.wayward.ca/videocache. Despite being remunerated $200 as part of the Mediatheque in 2003, the distributor, VTape, opted out of letting us show Gunilla Josephson’s Hello Ingmar (2000) for the month-long online exhibit of VIDEO CACHE. VTape continues its research into fees for streaming in order to develop a standard. This apparently applies to works already online and, as is the case for Josephson’s video, works for which the Mediatheque retains online showcasing rights in perpetuity. I don’t think this is VTape’s prerogative alone—the control over video art distribution, its value, and its position within art worlds and markets continues to be debated, with a prevailing Canadian bias towards the ‘web-means-dead’ credo for video art distribution.

Through the process of curating VIDEO CACHE, we unraveled many things about the Mediatheque archival method itself that feed back into the research on documenting the initiative. This is the ideal intervention for me: collaboration that emerges from research and that also uncovers and generates new threads, new concepts, and new problems. It is a highly self-reflexive approach and one that situates the archive as object and source of study.

More recently at the May 2011 Database Narrative Archive conference in Montreal (http://www.dnasymposium.com/), Adrian Miles (http://vogmae.net.au/vlog/) asked me why I thought it was necessary to activate or revive the Mediatheque project. I think that collectively we can decide whether there is value to a particular collection—after all, appraisal has always been a crucial step for archivists. Nevertheless, a digital loss or a server crash shouldn’t determine what we keep or discard. Until the Mediatheque is revived, VIDEO CACHE and the trail of documents that have come out of it (like this interview) constitute its main preservation efforts.

 

In your study of defunct or crashed video repositories, what issues would you highlight related to the sustainability of these types of projects? Are there any specific pitfalls you have identified?

Sustainability, by definition, is the capacity to endure. Endurance is built in to the idea of the archive, and online, as Wendy Chun argues, it’s the ephemeral itself that endures: “Memory, with its constant degeneration, does not equal storage; although artificial memory has historically combined the transitory with the permanent, the passing with the stable, digital media complicates this relationship by making the permanent into an enduring ephemeral, creating unforeseen degenerative links between humans and machines.” [3]

I think identifying pitfalls is a really important step in research that deals with emergent technology and social media. There is a lot of hype and a lot of excitement about the potential of the web to make things happen, and happen differently. That said, I think it’s important to be able to talk about failure in a generative way, even if highlighting issues related to sustainability is sometimes difficult. In this case, for instance, I am dealing with incredible, invaluable, long-established collections, but am addressing only their host organization’s relationship to the web—how they have resisted it, adapted to it, appropriated it, and so on. So I guess I want to start by saying that I recognize the value of the projects—even if they have ‘failed’—and that identifying pitfalls is in line with, rather than against, this kind of recognition.

Generally, what is most striking is that a lot of the pitfalls are relegated, and often mysteriously and suddenly, to technological failures, when in fact much of what happens to archives on and offline can be tracked back to human error and social/cultural parameters. This is what I was able to confirm in my doctoral research, and this is what makes it so complicated; it becomes impossible to make a bullet point list of pitfalls that we can all avoid and build from for future projects. I think engaging with and through technology requires a lot of knowledge on different levels (even with the democratization of media tools), including the upkeep of skills and tracking the constant developments. And this is often downplayed if not made invisible by the interface itself, which in a way becomes another pitfall.

Technology facilitates a lot of things, but ultimately it relies on human decisions and energy, and goals within a specific social, cultural, and legal context. This context also largely determines funding possibilities, the handling of copyright issues, the framing of the relationship between art and ownership, and so on, which then get coded into specific projects online. The process is iterative, and technology certainly influences choices in terms of format, access, and layout, but, as almost everyone I spoke with in this research makes clear, without (human) motivation and energy, online projects die. This probably goes without saying, but there seems to be lot more energy and money going into creating websites than into maintaining them. This is perhaps a pitfall too in the sense that the trend toward constantly creating new projects (though often duplicating entire systems) rather than centralizing or bringing content form disparate sources into one content management system might make upkeep more feasible. I believe this is something that Videographe plans to test out; there has been mention of offering up the viTheque repository as a template and/or platform for other institutions.

In my study of defunct and crashed online video art repositories in a Canadian context, I found that these philosophies of use differ greatly for each project, but most shared a common discourse about the role, place, and importance of the artist. There is a layer of each of the projects—and some more superficially than others—that reflects the history and trajectory of the artists as a category in Canada, as the first country to pay exhibition fees to artists (in the mid 70s). This is, of course, not the case in most countries, and so it explains some of the particular pitfalls that Canadian repositories fall into in terms of maintaining this professionalization of art into the digital realm, and under conditions that differ greatly from similar initiatives elsewhere. So copyright—or the way it is loosely interpreted and applied—is a major element, and I would say pitfall, in most cases of Canadian online video art repositories.

Another pitfall, I think, is the way copyright is being interpreted and, in turn, how technologies are being used to put into measure some of these ideas that, from an archival point of view, seem to pose additional problems rather than provide viable solutions. Technological protection measures, like files that self-erase/destruct after a period of time (chronodégradable), locks based on password protection, locks that limit the number of copies a user can make, and so on, are all ‘solutions’ justified by the desire to protect works from illegal copying (and which by default block fair and legitimate copying). To impart technology with these roles—rather than engaging with these issues as a social process that accounts for fair dealing—is to misconceive of the function of copyright and to throw off its intended balance. Also, with increasingly long terms of copyright (across the globe), this kind of copyright rhetoric becomes commonplace, and access online somehow becomes in itself conceived as an assault to artists’ rights.

Copyright is a major issue, if only because it is conflated with other issues, and as a result, those underlying issues aren’t directly addressed. Copyright—and Creative Commons for that matter—are not systems of remuneration for artists, they simply inform the parameters for using other people’s stuff without asking, beyond fair dealing.

The initiative to create an online repository requires a huge amount of time, resources, knowledge, and money. This is a point I will keep repeating because being for or against copyright isn’t at the crux of the matter. And, while I think that for the most part an open and free exchange of materials circulating via the web is positive for creativity, I do think copyright and Creative Commons alternatives demand that we continue to question ownership in the face of large user-generated content sites that have at their disposal untapped media content.

So this brings me to the issue of funding and financial sustainability. In the projects I have looked at, it seems that funders (often government funding bodies) are eager to fund the creation and development of online repositories for about two years, after which it remains a bit unclear what is expected or how the project is meant to maintain itself. For the most part, these projects are not self-sustaining, and bring in very little in terms of revenues, at least in comparison to the costs incurred maintaining the site.

I try to always think of these pitfalls and failures as generative, but I also think that we have many (too many) examples of how trying to contain and control digital flows backfires in terms of preservation strategies.

 

Notes

1. http://www.naipublishers.nl/art/nettitudes_e.html; “The Gap between Now and Then: On the Conservation of Memory” in Nettitudes
, Let’s Talk Net Art NAi Publishers (2011).

2. http://henryjenkins.org/2011/04/from_the_vcr_to_youtube_an_int.html

3. http://video.dma.ucla.edu/video/wendy-chun-the-enduring-ephemeral-or-the… Wendy Hui Kyong Chun (2008) The Enduring Ephemeral, or the Future Is a Memory In: Critical Inquiry 35 (Autumn) The University of Chicago: 148.

 

 

Artengine Blog: Video Cache – Activating the Archive

This interview takes as a starting point the VIDEO CACHE project. Hogan’s research into defunct video art repositories online raises many questions about the ephemeral nature of digital culture, and the social/cultural parameters that frame the preservation of and access to such materials.
Video Cache

VIDEO CACHE is a research creation project emerging from Mél Hogan’s doctoral research (wayward.ca), in collaboration with Penny McCann, director of SAW Video in Ottawa, and Groupe intervention video (GIV) in Montreal.

VIDEO CACHE took place on November 24, 2010 at GIV. It was a public screening of ten works selected by McCann from the SAW Video Mediatheque collection, for which artists’ fees were paid by GIV. The Mediatheque is Canada’s first large-scale attempt to use the web as a ‘living archive’ –its server crashed in 2009 and the project has been offline since. VIDEO CACHE was also a month-long online exhibit (http://www.wayward.ca/videocache/) showcasing these ten works, carefully documented and recontextualised for the web. The documentation for VIDEO CACHE remains online, and the event catalogue is available via print-on-demand (http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/video-cache/13585058).

On the one hand, VIDEO CACHE served to document the Mediatheque project by updating the context and addressing in a practical way what it means to ‘activate’ the online archive. On the other hand, it was and remains an entity onto itself. VIDEO CACHE has become an opportunity for Hogan to bring a creative dimension to documentation and to address loss: while it is the ‘cache’ that makes the Mediatheque’s traces visible and re-visit-able, it is the ‘crash’ that signals its ongoing (archival) value.

Mél Hogan is completing her PhD in the Joint Doctorate in Communication at Concordia University, Montreal. web: www.melhogan.com email: info@melhogan.com twitter: @mel_hogan

You’ve talked about there being a paradox in the way digital culture is created and shared and the way it is preserved. How do you think preservation, creation, and use should be interrelated in the digital realm?

I don’t know that the paradox needs to be resolved so much as it needs to be acknowledged and understood within digital preservation debates. In my work what stands out is that more attention needs to be paid to digital flows, to circulation, and to the interface and database that facilitate and mask distribution online. Preservation, as an idea and as an ideal, is transformed online, though for some reason, stating this is always a bit controversial.

In archives (traditionally) the emphasis has been on long-term preservation, which more often than not has meant rendering ‘originals’ inaccessible in the present as a means to protect or safeguard them for the future. Because archival discourse and practice have come a long way in the last decade to adapt to the continually changing technoscape, I don’t want to make it sound like the tension is between the traditional, as material/offline, and the new, as digital/online. I concentrate on the digital online as a complex realm when I study the archive, but obviously the discourses and ideas are shared with, if not borrowed from, years of traditional archival theory. I think it is almost impossible not to rely on these established ideas and systems, but at the same time, I think it is important to move beyond them and beyond comparisons between material/digital, offline/online, mainly because the foundational archival concepts—the original, the authentic, and the integral—are conceived of differently in the digital realm. So there is a need for a new basis, a point of analysis that is of the web. We need to start talking about iteration, versions, repetition, and flow…

I think preservation, creation, and use are already interrelated in the digital realm—and that the archival conundrum actually lies in the fact that these elements are difficult to distinguish from each other. I think, if anything, the digital realm will keep moving in the direction of embedding the archive into technologies of creation, dissemination, and display. So maybe the question is how do we conceive of preservation, creation, and use as distinct entities in the digital online realm—rather than interrelated—and if a distinction is no longer possible, what the implications are of that interrelatedness.

You said that in your work ‘more attention needs to be paid to digital flows, to circulation itself, and to the interface and database that facilitate and mask distribution online’. Can you talk a bit more about this and how you think the interrelation between the ‘front end’ and ‘back end’ of online systems informs our perception and use of the archive?

When I say digital flows need to be addressed, I’m talking about community as much as I’m taking about trajectory. It’s an idea I’ve been stuck on for a while but also have a hard time articulating. From reading Ann Cvetkovich, Wendy HK Chun, Josephine Bosma, Anjali Arondekar, Tess Takahashi and others, I’m reminded of the underlying communities—online and offline—the people with a need and compulsion to collect, so that later, something can be made sense of, revealed. The archive ultimately makes possible connections that are sometimes dangerous or undesirable within a particular time and place. My hunch is that while the web has the potential to highlight the connections between people and their documented pasts, and with unprecedented reach, it also risks amalgamating everything into a large undifferentiated database that completely overlooks and overwrites the affective and the unarchivable.

We pay a lot of attention to digital content as objects, albeit virtual, when really an important part of what distinguishes the digital from its material counterparts is, I think, its movement, circulation, flow… the way people share the digital as a space, and travel through that space. Digital stuff is easy to copy—much of what we do on the computer is a form of duplication—and as many artists, theorists, and archivists have pointed out, these copies can be identical to ‘originals.’ Copies are also non-rival in consumption, which has forced us to seriously reconsider value and to come up with alternative economies, which so far seem most successful when thought of as network-creation itself. The mapping out of content, including links between digital nodes, constitutes digital trajectories, and this leads me to question the potential for archival theories that could emerge out of focusing on digital flows and online circulation, rather than the content-centric view imposed onto the digital. I’d like to expand my current project into theories of the web as a mobile archive, or a transient archive—something that highlights the passage of content, but also the movement of creators. And in turn, this means thinking about localization in contrast to the shifting place and space of the virtual archive…

As for the relationship between the front end and the back end, I think that we literally interact with an interface without knowing much of what generates our experiences online beyond that top layer. This isn’t new or limited to the web—this is basically our relationship to most technologies—but in the last few years, separating content from style and function (or form), has been pushed by developers. This has been mainly because browsers display content differently, and the separation made accessibility standards possible, making it easy to quickly and efficiently change the look of the interface without affecting content. Ultimately, the idea was to have form follow function, that is, to have use determine the appearance. So if we can take that kind of approach into account for the online archive, we begin to see what ideals shape the possibilities of the web for preservation.

Video Cache

What role do you think video artists or other digital content creators should play in the preservation of their own work?

I think this a really hard question to answer, but I’m going to respond from a personal point of view, as someone who makes video… and I am fully aware that I might make archivists and distributors shudder. I’m really for online access in principle, though I understand that in practice, it takes time, know-how, money, resources, etc. I haven’t even bothered to upload most of my videos online, so this is an ideal, a philosophical position. But it’s an ideal by which Canadian video distributors have not yet been seduced, and probably will not adopt anytime soon. And I get this—I get that making decisions about large valuable collections is something to think about carefully because once work is posted online, it simultaneously belongs to nobody and everybody.

Part of what inspires me to launch works into cyberspace is the politics of community-based activism that were about getting stuff out, sharing, exchanging ideas. There was an urgency and purpose. And as the tools became increasingly accessible, video art was about countering the mainstream in terms of both representation and means of sharing. But now it seems like the web has taken access to another level, and this is again shifting the politics of video art.

A lot of the politics that came out of video are similar to what we hear now about the web—in terms of its democratizing potential—and yet, the more video becomes common, the more precious the distinctions between art and the vernacular seem to become.

I think that there has to be some sort of middle ground—I prefer to upload videos to my own server than to YouTube for example, whose terms of use aren’t OK with me, unless I make a project with social networks in mind at the onset. But more and more artists use YouTube because it is so ubiquitous and saves on bandwidth and space. I think that online has to be thought of as many things—many contexts. So for example, if a video is shown online because someone has reviewed it, interviewed the artist, or curated an event for the work, this should make distributors and artists very eager to upload video online as part of this context. I don’t really understand the tight hold on video in these cases.

The fact that a video can be posted and embedded in numerous online contexts does not generally appeal to video distributors in Canada, who would rather see works maintained and presented in controlled environments where issues of resolution, duration, format, storage, and so on, are all carefully calculated to maintain the scarcity model on which they rest. The idea is to keep video art out of the ‘clutter’ of vernacular video—away from YouTube or on a distinct channel within it—so as to retain a curatorial sensibility.

For the archivists reading this, I have to refer to Josephine Bosma’s idea about rethinking loss as the antithesis to preservation because it gives elegance to these ideas. She writes, “We may have a lot to gain from losing control over digital objects. We should consider the ability of some artists to embrace an inherent loss of control over their work less as a challenge to conservation, and more as an inspiration to a solution. […] Both openness to a vital context and openness in terms of physical, material and technological accessibility may well be the best way forward in the strategy of conserving art in the environment of new, networked media.” [1]

My personal idea of what role artists and content creators should play in the preservation of their own work or collections is aligned with Bosma, and others who believe that setting work free allows for unpredictable modes of fan-based archiving tactics to happen. If we think of preservation as a process to keep work ‘alive,’ I can’t think of a better system—even if it is highly unpredictable—than the web. Except, as pointed out by Lucas Hilderbrand, the trend towards online distribution may mean that collection habits change, making it more difficult to keep works than with VHS or DVD, for example. [2]

So for content creators, I think that the idea of preservation has to be disentangled from marketing strategies, which isn’t easy by any means. In fact, the question of how to monetize content on the web may be the question nobody can answer; this demands an unprecedented level of innovation from video distributors whose best move may in fact be to opt out of the online realm altogether or wait for the hype train to pass… if it ever does.

Video Cache

The VIDEO CACHE collaboration with SAW Video activated the archive by screening some of the works from the crashed Mediatheque repository. Re-presentation through emulation or other means is a preservation strategy often undertaken with technological art of many kinds. Did you see VIDEO CACHE in this light at all, as simultaneously documenting and preserving the works?

Yes, I see VIDEO CACHE as a documentation project, but perhaps more importantly as a means of highlighting the ways in which the politics of the archive—any archive—are a reflection of the social movement(s) from which they emerge, including art movement(s). Video art history is imbued with politics and counter-movements, and these shape the discourses surrounding the video art archive on the web.

I see it less as an attempt to preserve the work within a long-term strategy where the material objects (DVDs for example) are central to the project’s history, and more in terms of preservation-as-conversation, keeping the project ‘alive’ by way of continued dialogue. Rooted in a feminist methodology, I frame VIDEO CACHE as way of bringing to the forefront the people involved in the Mediatheque—as artists or web developers or both—and their understandings of the process and labour involved, along with how their memories shape the ideals of video art and of the archive. It’s important to remember that this all started in the early 2000s, long before YouTube and broadband internet. It’s also important to mention that this project was funded as an online archive—that concept made sense very early on somehow, in that the promise of the web for preservation was something to invest in seriously, backed by hundreds of thousands of dollars of government money.

Mediatheque

In some ways, activating the archive through a collaboratively curated event serves to document it better than written documentation would on its own; this is research-creation. The VIDEO CACHE screening and the online exhibit preserve and regenerate the Mediatheque, but very differently.

Curating a programme for a screening makes sense when you are talking about video, but it also raises a slew of questions about this assumption, given that as an online archive the Mediatheque didn’t prioritize high quality copies for screening—it was about showcasing video art online. This is a point in video art’s history that demands a look inward rather than forward. It demands a reflection on the trajectory of video art from its activist roots and from is dissident voices against mainstream representation—by women, queers, people of colour, community activists, etc.—to the current place and value of these scarce collections in an art market.

The Mediatheque is a prime case study for an archive that functioned for and through the web and privileged wide access over long-term material preservation of the files. Whether flawed or visionary as an archival approach, VIDEO CACHE preserves this idea, the Mediatheque’s aura, and the conceptual history of the project. VIDEO CACHE was about extending what I have learned from analyzing grant reports and other administrative documents made available to me by SAW Video into a case study, by highlighting preservation issues from 2003 to the present and showcasing the collection as two different modalities.

VIDEO CACHE featured only 10 works of the 486 pieces in the Mediatheque, and this sample was anything but random. So I think it’s worth noting that selection is a subjective part of this preservation process. As the current SAW Video Director, Penny McCann was the best person to make a selection based on the videos’ connections to SAW Video’s institutional history and in relation to those involved in the development of the Mediatheque from the early 2000s on.  (McCann’s curatorial statement: http://www.wayward.ca/videocache/documentation/curatorial/)

Eight artists who had work in the original Mediatheque were present for the VIDEO CACHE screening at GIV, on November 24, 2010. As a result, the act of curating, on and offline, along with the discussion that followed the screening, are directly linked to the process of documentation—this event is possibly the most complete piece of documentation that exists about the Mediatheque by the people involved in the project. (http://www.wayward.ca/wayward/exhibits/video-cache/)

We also discovered quirky and confusing things in the process of organizing VIDEO CACHE, that again speak volumes about the archive’s politics. From November 24, 2010 to December 24, 2010, 9 of the 10 videos screened at GIV were showcased online at http://www.wayward.ca/videocache. Despite being remunerated $200 as part of the Mediatheque in 2003, the distributor, VTape, opted out of letting us show Gunilla Josephson’s Hello Ingmar (2000) for the month-long online exhibit of VIDEO CACHE. VTape continues its research into fees for streaming in order to develop a standard. This apparently applies to works already online and, as is the case for Josephson’s video, works for which the Mediatheque retains online showcasing rights in perpetuity. I don’t think this is VTape’s prerogative alone—the control over video art distribution, its value, and its position within art worlds and markets continues to be debated, with a prevailing Canadian bias towards the ‘web-means-dead’ credo for video art distribution.

Through the process of curating VIDEO CACHE, we unraveled many things about the Mediatheque archival method itself that feed back into the research on documenting the initiative. This is the ideal intervention for me: collaboration that emerges from research and that also uncovers and generates new threads, new concepts, and new problems. It is a highly self-reflexive approach and one that situates the archive as object and source of study.

More recently at the May 2011 Database Narrative Archive conference in Montreal (http://www.dnasymposium.com/), Adrian Miles (http://vogmae.net.au/vlog/) asked me why I thought it was necessary to activate or revive the Mediatheque project. I think that collectively we can decide whether there is value to a particular collection—after all, appraisal has always been a crucial step for archivists. Nevertheless, a digital loss or a server crash shouldn’t determine what we keep or discard. Until the Mediatheque is revived, VIDEO CACHE and the trail of documents that have come out of it (like this interview) constitute its main preservation efforts.

In your study of defunct or crashed video repositories, what issues would you highlight related to the sustainability of these types of projects? Are there any specific pitfalls you have identified?

Sustainability, by definition, is the capacity to endure. Endurance is built in to the idea of the archive, and online, as Wendy Chun argues, it’s the ephemeral itself that endures: “Memory, with its constant degeneration, does not equal storage; although artificial memory has historically combined the transitory with the permanent, the passing with the stable, digital media complicates this relationship by making the permanent into an enduring ephemeral, creating unforeseen degenerative links between humans and machines.” [3]

I think identifying pitfalls is a really important step in research that deals with emergent technology and social media. There is a lot of hype and a lot of excitement about the potential of the web to make things happen, and happen differently. That said, I think it’s important to be able to talk about failure in a generative way, even if highlighting issues related to sustainability is sometimes difficult. In this case, for instance, I am dealing with incredible, invaluable, long-established collections, but am addressing only their host organization’s relationship to the web—how they have resisted it, adapted to it, appropriated it, and so on. So I guess I want to start by saying that I recognize the value of the projects—even if they have ‘failed’—and that identifying pitfalls is in line with, rather than against, this kind of recognition.

Generally, what is most striking is that a lot of the pitfalls are relegated, and often mysteriously and suddenly, to technological failures, when in fact much of what happens to archives on and offline can be tracked back to human error and social/cultural parameters. This is what I was able to confirm in my doctoral research, and this is what makes it so complicated; it becomes impossible to make a bullet point list of pitfalls that we can all avoid and build from for future projects. I think engaging with and through technology requires a lot of knowledge on different levels (even with the democratization of media tools), including the upkeep of skills and tracking the constant developments. And this is often downplayed if not made invisible by the interface itself, which in a way becomes another pitfall.

Technology facilitates a lot of things, but ultimately it relies on human decisions and energy, and goals within a specific social, cultural, and legal context. This context also largely determines funding possibilities, the handling of copyright issues, the framing of the relationship between art and ownership, and so on, which then get coded into specific projects online. The process is iterative, and technology certainly influences choices in terms of format, access, and layout, but, as almost everyone I spoke with in this research makes clear, without (human) motivation and energy, online projects die. This probably goes without saying, but there seems to be lot more energy and money going into creating websites than into maintaining them. This is perhaps a pitfall too in the sense that the trend toward constantly creating new projects (though often duplicating entire systems) rather than centralizing or bringing content form disparate sources into one content management system might make upkeep more feasible. I believe this is something that Videographe plans to test out; there has been mention of offering up the viTheque repository as a template and/or platform for other institutions.

In my study of defunct and crashed online video art repositories in a Canadian context, I found that these philosophies of use differ greatly for each project, but most shared a common discourse about the role, place, and importance of the artist. There is a layer of each of the projects—and some more superficially than others—that reflects the history and trajectory of the artists as a category in Canada, as the first country to pay exhibition fees to artists (in the mid 70s). This is, of course, not the case in most countries, and so it explains some of the particular pitfalls that Canadian repositories fall into in terms of maintaining this professionalization of art into the digital realm, and under conditions that differ greatly from similar initiatives elsewhere. So copyright—or the way it is loosely interpreted and applied—is a major element, and I would say pitfall, in most cases of Canadian online video art repositories.

Another pitfall, I think, is the way copyright is being interpreted and, in turn, how technologies are being used to put into measure some of these ideas that, from an archival point of view, seem to pose additional problems rather than provide viable solutions. Technological protection measures, like files that self-erase/destruct after a period of time (chronodégradable), locks based on password protection, locks that limit the number of copies a user can make, and so on, are all ‘solutions’ justified by the desire to protect works from illegal copying (and which by default block fair and legitimate copying). To impart technology with these roles—rather than engaging with these issues as a social process that accounts for fair dealing—is to misconceive of the function of copyright and to throw off its intended balance. Also, with increasingly long terms of copyright (across the globe), this kind of copyright rhetoric becomes commonplace, and access online somehow becomes in itself conceived as an assault to artists’ rights.

Copyright is a major issue, if only because it is conflated with other issues, and as a result, those underlying issues aren’t directly addressed. Copyright—and Creative Commons for that matter—are not systems of remuneration for artists, they simply inform the parameters for using other people’s stuff without asking, beyond fair dealing.

The initiative to create an online repository requires a huge amount of time, resources, knowledge, and money. This is a point I will keep repeating because being for or against copyright isn’t at the crux of the matter. And, while I think that for the most part an open and free exchange of materials circulating via the web is positive for creativity, I do think copyright and Creative Commons alternatives demand that we continue to question ownership in the face of large user-generated content sites that have at their disposal untapped media content.

So this brings me to the issue of funding and financial sustainability. In the projects I have looked at, it seems that funders (often government funding bodies) are eager to fund the creation and development of online repositories for about two years, after which it remains a bit unclear what is expected or how the project is meant to maintain itself. For the most part, these projects are not self-sustaining, and bring in very little in terms of revenues, at least in comparison to the costs incurred maintaining the site.

I try to always think of these pitfalls and failures as generative, but I also think that we have many (too many) examples of how trying to contain and control digital flows backfires in terms of preservation strategies.

Notes

1. http://www.naipublishers.nl/art/nettitudes_e.html; “The Gap between Now and Then: On the Conservation of Memory” in Nettitudes
, Let’s Talk Net Art NAi Publishers (2011).

2. http://henryjenkins.org/2011/04/from_the_vcr_to_youtube_an_int.html

3. http://video.dma.ucla.edu/video/wendy-chun-the-enduring-ephemeral-or-the-future-is-a-memory/19; Wendy Hui Kyong Chun (2008) The Enduring Ephemeral, or the Future Is a Memory In: Critical Inquiry 35 (Autumn) The University of Chicago: 148.

Tags: 

 

SOURCE: http://artengine.ca/blog/?p=2365

e-Artexte: An Interview with Corina MacDonald

What follows is part of a conversation that was started through email in March, when Corina was settling into her new job as the e-Artexte Project Manager. e-Artexte is an Open Access (OA) repository for visual arts publishing in Canada, and I think it is safe to say that nothing quite compares to it in terms of its objectives and scope. The repository will offer publishers and authors the option to make their publications available in electronic form, with all the benefits that come from Open Access: metadata harvesting, access through Google Scholar, and so on. Corina is an information specialist, but her job, along with the e-Artexte team, is also in advocacy and outreach to convince Canadian publishers and authors of the benefits of the project and of Open Access. The e-Artexte project is expected to launch in the fall of 2011.

 

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Mél Hogan: Who initiated the OA movement – where did it grow out of? Has there been resistance to the idea of Open Access?

CM: Basically the OA movement is founded on the idea that publicly funded scholarship and research should be freely available for unrestricted use. There are philosophical similarities to parallel movements in free software and culture, although OA really gained momentum in the early 90s as a response to what is known in academic libraries as the ‘serials crisis’.

Unfortunately this crisis has not since been resolved – the term refers to an ongoing situation where large journal publishers exert a monopolistic stranglehold over academic libraries and unreasonably escalate the costs of subscriptions. This has had serious repercussions for scholarly publishing. The rising costs of journal subscriptions are not matched by increases to library budgets, and so libraries have been left scrambling to provide access to the journals that their faculty need, often at the expense of other acquisitions. Faculty are still mostly unaware that the articles they publish in proprietary journals must be bought back by their libraries at increasingly high rates. Practical alternatives have emerged from this situation in the form of ‘Green OA’ (self-archiving) and ‘Gold OA’ (OA journals).

Many of the large journal publishing companies have adapted to Open Access, and have allowed authors to self-archive articles in institutional repositories under varying conditions. Ironically I think some resistance comes from within the academic milieu itself, where there is a lack of awareness of the situation and prestige is still the overwhelming factor in publication and tenure. This varies by discipline; in the sciences, there has been greater involvement in OA and many groundbreaking projects have emerged from that community, such as the Public Library of Science (plos.org). But overall there remains a real need for greater education about these issues for authors in academia.

I’m not an expert on all the historical details of the OA movement, so here are some links for further information:

Open Access Overview Peter Suber

Open Access Archivangelism Stevan Harnad (blog)

The Access Principle John Willinsky (e-book)

MH: What does self-archiving mean? How important is the idea of self-archiving in and for digital collections online?

CM: Self-archiving is a term that is quite specific to the Open Access (OA) community. It refers to the process whereby authors, usually from within a university context, deposit digital copies or pre-print versions of their published journal articles in an institutional or thematic OA repository. Many of these repositories offer support for the long-term preservation of the digital content they hold, but I would argue that access is an important impetus for self-archiving and so the term archiving can be somewhat ambiguous here. Self-archiving is an important strategy for Open Access, and many universities are considering making it a mandatory step in publishing by faculty.

Personally, I think that the concept of self-archiving can be relevant to many kinds of digital content creation. For example, I think that artists should be much more proactive about explicitly licensing and making available images of their work online for non-commercial use. Many artists would be happy to allow writers and bloggers to reuse images in their posts and articles online, but by not explicitly defining this reuse, they are essentially contributing to a large grey area of online activity. This is a backwards way of dealing with the situation in which we find ourselves.

So I guess that, for me, the concept of self-archiving can be broadened into the open culture context as a responsibility to explicitly make at least some of your content openly accessible for reuse. There are many tools available to do so – Creative Commons licenses, the Wikimedia Commons and projects like One for the Commons.

MH: If e-Artexte positions itself as an online archive, then how does it define or imagine dealing with the long-term care of its collection? What is its main priority as an archive: use or preservation?

CM: e-Artexte will extend Artexte’s mandate to provide reliable information sources for research in the visual arts. Artexte as a library does not have a mandate to preserve the documents in their collection – they make these documents available for consultation and do their best to ensure their longevity, but do not have the resources or capacity for long-term preservation.

The same approach will apply in principal to e-Artexte – provisions will be put in place to try to ensure the longevity of the digital content, but increased access to research material is the primary goal of the repository.

MH: Can you talk about licensing tools (presumably Creative Commons) and explain what interoperable standards are? What does ‘interoperable standards’ mean?

CM: OA repositories do not normally hold any copyright over their contents. Usually there is a agreement with depositors stating that they hold the rights for any content they upload. By default, material is freely available for unrestricted use, as per the definition of OA, but in some cases rights holders may choose to use Creative Commons licenses to make some restrictions on the use of their content (i.e. no commercial use).

Interoperability is really the backbone of networked culture. In this specific context, when we talk about using interoperable standards what we mean is that one repository stores and can export data in the same (or compatible) format as another repository. One of the important functions of a repository is to provide metadata for ‘harvesting’ by search services which can aggregate and search across multiple repositories at once. For example if you visit the OAIster website, you can use a single search box to cross search data from over 1,100 different contributors. Repository content is also harvested by Google Scholar. There are specific metadata and protocol standards that enable this interoperability.

MH: Can you expand on the idea of the ‘content provider’?

CM: We are in a networked culture where data is constantly moving around, being selected and recombined along the way by different types of services. As a result, the way we think about providing access to content is also changing. It is one thing to develop your own website where users can come to discover your content – but there is now an opportunity to make content available more broadly and in new contexts through federated search services or content aggregators, OAIster being one example.

To extend this idea we could also consider the city as a content provider, for example cities like Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa that have adopted Open Data policies. In doing so they have been able to benefit from the experimentation and work of their citizens. There are communities of developers eager to get their hands on municipal data so they can build applications that tell people when the next bus is coming, or allows them to report on needed repairs in their neighbourhoods, etc. (there are many, many more examples). By making city data open, it suddenly spawns multiple contexts that city councillors may never have envisaged, and that the city may never have had the expertise or resources to develop on their own.

Cultural institutions like libraries, archives and museums have very rich content that they can make available in a similar way, allowing them to benefit from the imagination and innovation of their communities. Not every museum will be able to develop their own augmented reality app that provides contextual collection information based on GPS coordinates for example, but they can take the steps necessary to make sure that their content isn’t inaccessible when those developers come knocking. The Brooklyn Museum and The Powerhouse in Australia are two museums leading the way in this regard, having created open APIs for information about their collections.

So I see this role of content providers as an important shift in how institutions can imagine themselves contributing to a larger landscape of networked resources, allowing their content to live in new and possibly unforeseen contexts. Open Access repositories are one component of this landscape.

P.S. A group called Montreal Ouvert is working on convincing the city of Montreal to adopt an Open Data policy.

MH: What other models or projects out there have you referenced or used to build e-Artexte?

CM: We are using Eprints as the basis for the repository, which is an open source repository software developed and maintained at the University of Southampton. However, this software is configured ‘out of the box’ for an academic publishing context. So we are adapting this system to a visual arts context, and specifically to the context of Artexte’s existing cataloguing practices as an organization that has been collecting arts documentation and publications for 30 years. I am not aware of any other thematic OA repositories dedicated to critical art writing, so this is a pioneering project in many ways. It also leverages OA outside of the academic milieu which has not been done extensively.

MH: What are some of the obstacles you have faced? Are there worries when launching a project of this scale in terms of backups, and the ephemeral nature of digital media? If so, what kinds of precautions are put in place to ensure the long life of the project? What kinds of human labour and investments are required to keep this project going after you have created the site?

CM: This is definitely an ambitious project for a small organization to undertake. We are fortunate to be working with university colleagues who have experience in OA, and there is also a large and active Eprints community that we can look to for guidance.

There are certainly some obstacles in terms of the ongoing resources required to maintain the repository, but some of the decisions we make now will help to minimize future costs or problems. I think because we are using well established and actively maintained open source software, we can feel fairly certain that it will be sustained for some time into the future. Interoperable open standards are also an important foundation of digital preservation and sustainability. Of course the project will still be vulnerable to the vagaries of hardware failures, server crashes and other unforeseen disasters. Backups will need to be made regularly, and in keeping with the library mantra of LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe), we can keep multiple copies of backups in different locations.

I think what will be most crucial to the ongoing sustainability of the project is really the engagement of authors and publishers. There is education and outreach to do in the visual arts milieu about Open Access and the benefits of depositing work in an OA repository. e-Artexte has the potential to become an important research resource, but it must be cultivated over time with the collaboration and participation of the community. So in a sense, building the repository itself is only the first phase of this project.



Corina MacDonald is an independent information specialist and web developer specializing in digital cultural collections management. While a student in Information Studies at McGill (MLIS, 2006-2008) she worked as a research assistant with the DOCAM research alliance (docam.ca), where she learned about issues surrounding the documentation of digital and technology-driven art. After graduation she worked at the Canadian Heritage Information Network on the Artefacts Canada database, an aggregation of data from over 400 Canadian museums. In 2010 she began doing freelance software and web development work, and is currently the project manager for e-Artexte – an Open Access repository for Canadian visual arts documentation initiated by Artexte. When she isn’t crunching metadata she is djing and hosting modular_systems, a radio show on CKUT 90.3FM where she has been involved as a volunteer since 1996. She is also a member of the editorial team of Vague Terrain, an online digital arts publication and blog.

DNA Symposium: Lightning Talk on Failure

I’m going to tell you a story about an archive.

Canada has one of the oldest online video art archives, if not the oldest, on the web. Few people know about it.

Launched in 2003 after a year as a pilot project, SAW Video in Ottawa was responsible for creating a repository of 486 independently-produced videos accessible for free online, in full length. This project was called the Mediatheque. Its web infrastructure was custom-built, and the archival process relied heavily on trial and error as no precedent existed for this kind of endeavour.

The funding for the Mediatheque was allocated specifically as an archival grant under the Canadian Culture Online Funding Programs from the Department of Canadian Heritage. Preceding YouTube by two years and reaching a terabyte (over a 1000 GB) of content , the Mediatheque placed an open call for video artists and paid 200 dollars per submission for the rights to showcase works for 3 years online.

The Mediatheque lived long enough to see this contract with artists expire, though most artists agreed to renew the rights, this time without payment. In this second phase, starting in 2006, the Mediatheque continued to add new works, and featured more than 300 videos from the original pool.

In 2009, the Mediatheque’s server crashed and the project has been offline since. There was no database backup at SAW Video, nor with their corporate sponsor who was hosting the project. Neither had assumed it their responsibility. Saw Video reassembled its website using Google Cache but never attempted to piece together the Mediatheque via the Wayback Machine or other means. For SAW Video, the crash represented an opportunity if not a cry for change. It was time for reflecting on the project in relationship to emergent social media that now largely constitute the web. After more than 6 years online, had the needs for this archive changed? Had the context for video art expanded in ways to render the project obsolete? Revived, would the Mediatheque be a relic, or does it remain a failure of the very concept of online archiving by virtue of its ephemeral nature? Is failure embedded into the concept of the online archive?

Apart from the grant application and few reports to the government, little documentation exists about the Mediatheque, and nothing at all exists that attempts to answer these questions or to situate the Mediatheque within the framework of media studies, archival theory, or video art’s art history.  (Besides my doctoral work, that is).

Today, SAW Video plans to rebuild an archive containing many of these videos, however no longer under the name Mediatheque and with no necessary attachment to the 2003 version. In this sense, the new repository is neither a straightforward continuation nor an attempt to replace the defunct project. The new version was originally intended for December 2010, but continued delays suggest that the conundrums of the online archive remain, for which pragmatic and philosophical questions alike are difficult to answer of in the long-term thinking demanded of the archive by very definition.

So the burning question is: is failure embedded?

Web Archeology

Documenting my ‘digs’ of video art online repositories from a Canadian cultural context here:

http://www.wayward.ca/wayward/webarcheology/archeology/

And for the Mediatheque, here.

Over the course of the next few months, I will post video clips at wayward.ca that explain the history of these now mostly defunct websites.

Because it is a) difficult to describe a trajectory back in through the wayback machine (internet archive) that include numerous iterations of a same project and because b) it is almost impossible to do the same ‘search’ twice, I am recording my findings and posting them here.

These digs are totally unrehearsed and unchoreographed, which means that I often get lost in the regenerated loops of the wayback archival process, and take you with me. These digs are meant to record the research process as much as they are intended to document the portals I explore.

VIDEO VORETX READER 2 Crashing the Archive/Archiving the Crash (2011)

Hogan, Mél. “Archiving the Crash/Crashing the Archive” Video Vortex Reader II: Moving Images Beyond Youtube Amsterdam – Institute of Network Cultures. 2011

Video Vortex Reader II: moving images beyond YouTube

About the book: Video Vortex Reader II is the Institute of Network Cultures’ second collection of texts that critically explore the rapidly changing landscape of online video and its use. With the success of YouTube (’2 billion views per day’) and the rise of other online video sharing platforms, the moving image has become expansively more popular on the Web, significantly contributing to the culture and ecology of the internet and our everyday lives. In response, the Video Vortex project continues to examine critical issues that are emerging around the production and distribution of online video content.

Following the success of the mailing list, the website and first Video Vortex Reader in 2008, recent Video Vortex conferences in Ankara (October 2008), Split (May 2009) and Brussels (November 2009) have sparked a number of new insights, debates and conversations regarding the politics, aesthetics, and artistic possibilities of online video. Through contributions from scholars, artists, activists and many more, Video Vortex Reader II asks what is occurring within and beyond the bounds of Google’s YouTube? How are the possibilities of online video, from the accessibility of reusable content to the internet as a distribution channel, being distinctly shaped by the increasing diversity of users taking part in creating and sharing moving images over the web?

Contributors: Perry Bard, Natalie Bookchin, Vito Campanelli, Andrew Clay, Alexandra Crosby, Alejandro Duque, Sandra Fauconnier, Albert Figurt, Sam Gregory, Cecilia Guida, Stefan Heidenreich, Larissa Hjorth, Mél Hogan, Nuraini Juliastuti, Sarah Késenne, Elizabeth Losh, Geert Lovink, Andrew Lowenthal, Rosa Menkman, Gabriel Menotti, Rachel Somers Miles, Andrew Gryf Paterson, Teague Schneiter, Jan Simons, Evelin Stermitz, Blake Stimson, David Teh, Ferdiansyah Thajib, Andreas Treske, Robrecht Vanderbeeken, Linda Wallace, Brian Willems, Matthew Williamson, Tara Zepel.

Colophon: Editors: Geert Lovink and Rachel Somers Miles. Copy Editor: Nicole Heber. Design: Katja vay Stiphout. Cover Image: Team Thursday. Priner: Ten Klei, Amsterdam. Publisher: Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam. Supported by: the School for Communication and Design at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (Hogeschool van Amsterdam DMCI). The Video Vortex Reader is produced as part of the Culture Vortex research program, which is supported by Foundation Innovation Alliance (SIA – Stichting Innovatie Alliantie).

pdf

To order a hard copy of Video Vortex Reader II email: books@networkcultures.org

Geert Lovink and Rachel Somers Miles (eds), Video Vortex Reader II: moving images beyond YouTube, Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2011. ISBN: 978-90-78146-12-4, paperback, 378 pages.

It’s not a Dynamic Database… It’s a Dead Collection?

Photo by Anne Helmond.

It’s Not a Dead Collection, it’s a Dynamic Database

Now that museums, distributors and TV channels have put their collections online, what is the next phase for these digitalized archives? How can ‘the audience’ be involved in order to avoid a dead online collection with zero comments? Moreover, what forms of social dynamism can be critically forged in the default rush towards greater participation? How to jump through the hoops of copyright legislation, format compatibility and the spatial culture of consumption and production? Who controls the database, and what are the different ethics involved in putting up content from artist collections to indigenous material? Once collaboration comes into play, what impact do conflicting skill sets, different modes of knowledge production and varying social desires have?

Moderator: Rachel Somers Miles (CA/NL)
Speakers:

Arjon Dunnewind (NL)
Impakt Channel: Content with Context
YouTube might be an incredible tool when it comes to reaching worldwide audiences, but when it comes to creating context it’s performing poorly to say the least. Information on basic facts is often lacking and background information, curatorial statements and critics’ interpretations are a rarity. Can YouTube be used as a tool that not only gives visibility but also insight and reflection? Or is it better to move away from this hype-dominated environment and establish new platforms that are dedicated to quality? And how to generate traffic to these platforms? With the Impakt Channel, the Impakt Festival Utrecht is researching these questions and is experimenting with formats to find the best way to make high quality video content available to viewers around the globe.

Sandra Fauconnier (NL/BE)
Mediating Video Art Online
The Netherlands Media Art Institute (NIMk) in Amsterdam is a distributor of a large collection of video and media art. The changing landscape of online video and of internet culture in general challenges NIMk to redefine its video distribution activities and the way it represents and mediates video art online. In the course of 2010 NIMk has researched the user communities of its collection, in the context of the research project Culture Vortex. Next, NIMk’s online catalogue will be redesigned in 2011, aiming to make the collection more lively and participatory, and of opening up more video art to a wider audience. What will be NIMk’s issues and strategies in this area, taking into account the diverse perspectives that video artists take towards video art online, and the role of curators and professionals?

Mél Hogan (CA)
It’s not a Dynamic Database… It’s a Dead Collection?
This presentation surveys Canada’s three largest online video art repositories, all of which encountered severe setbacks in defining, creating, and maintaining an online presence. Of the three, two remain indefinitely defunct, traceable only through the Internet Archive Wayback Machine and local files stored at the various organisations. These examples serve as a case study and springboard into discussions about the larger issues that surround the context of online video art archives, nationally and beyond. Reversing the conference theme “It’s not a Dead Collection, it’s a Dynamic Database” this paper is intended as a provocation about the potential and limitations—dynamism or death—of the web within an archival framework.

Teague Schneiter (US/CA)
Digital ≠ Accessible: Improving Access and Facilitating Use of Indigenous Content with IsumaTV’s Hi-speed MediaPlayers
Historically there has been a problematic relationship between heritage institutions and indigenous cultural heritage, because indigenous people have not been afforded ownership and management rights of their own materials. By adapting existing technologies and acting as a middleman between heritage institutions and communities that desire content to be digitally repatriated, indigenous multimedia platform IsumaTV attempts to provide the technological infrastructure, such as their network of MediaPlayers (server networks) that allow low-bandwidth indigenous communities an equal opportunity to participate, to improve access and usability to Inuit content. Video archives can be uploaded and online for teaching, learning, sharing and strengthening language and culture. IsumaTV seeks to encourage (and build relationships with) indigenous communities and cultural heritage museums and repositories, indigenous language-speakers and participatory media organizations, to embrace more open and participatory paradigms, whilst enabling those that ‘own’ the content to be able to call the shots.

Catrien Schreuder (NL)
ArtTube: Museum Boijmans van Beuningen
In October 2009 Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen launched ArtTube, an online video channel broadcasting videos about art, design and exhibitions at the museum. From the beginning it grew quickly, and at present, contains about one hundred videos produced by the museum, and visited by about 14,000 viewers each month. Initiated as an educational platform, ArtTube is intended to translate, in an accessible way, specialist information present in the museum’s organization, and through the highly popular medium of online video disseminate more of what’s happening at the museum. In her talk Catrien Schreuder will present the website and discuss its aims and possibilities. She will evaluate the experiences with this new educational tool in its first year of existence, offering a look behind the scenes, but also giving insight in the main questions and challenges arising for the near future.

Annelies Termeer (NL)
Presentation title
Presentation abstract

Blogged here:
http://networkcultures.org/wpmu/videovortex/archives/1778

Notes:

Providing Context
– system of notes within videos
– short video documentaries about collections
– short ‘behind-the-scenes’ videos about organizations
– introductory texts for video
– artist biography/videography
– links to personal artists sites
– central repository for video art or organization-based repositories
– using multiple platforms simultaneously (having a channel on YouTube for reach + own website for context)
– link to offline/’real’ public events
– digitizing old works, showcased alongside new works on website

Facilitating Participation
– encouraging established artist to upload full length videos on the web
– artist-driven profile (where they can manage their own ‘accounts’)
– share/embed functions, including twitter, facebook, personal websites, etc.
– develop API to export collection to other sites
– open/public tagging
– permit the creation of ‘playlists’ for public curation (that can be saved)
– moderated or open commenting
– invite model for contribution (like gmail invites) / artist as curator
– open call for submissions vs. curated/selected calls
– moderation and expert respondents/guest commenters
– creating a CSM as template for other organizations to use independently or collaboratively
– video remix as critical responses to video
– showcasing web-based portal into public events and festivals
– addressing different audiences – researchers, specialist, artists, curators, general public
– thinking about deployment for mobile/potable devices (apps?)
– institutional Tweets
– geotagging

Other Questions
– video as clips or full length art videos?
– should video online be free, but be paid for (if) in a curated context?
– what constitute a curated context online?
– funding (online) via donations or pay system? other options?
– licensing – copyright as default or creative commons options?
– focus on quality over # of hits?
– maintain close relationship to artist in order to share ‘ownership’ of collection
– metadata (if and how?)
– collaboration and partners (corporate, art-based, academic, etc?)
– creating layers of access (something different for curators, artists, general public, educators, etc)?
– scarcity as a business model, is this only possible if limited edition videos (remain offline?)
– video formats and codecs (open vs. proprietary / html5 vs. Flash)
– creating ‘archives’ template for organisations to use/share-using open source CMS (Drupal, WordPress, Cargo Collective) vs. custom made sites
– sustainability

Wayward: Splinter

Splinter is a video art chain-letter. All artists participating have received an invitation by mail, and invited an other artist to participate.

The idea is to track (and lose track of) the circulation of video, as circulated by artists to artists, outside of any predictable distribution channel.

An artist adapts and responds to the video she or he receives by mail. Each video is then sent back to wayward and posted on the site. The artist sends a copy another artist to continue the process. As implied by the title, the work splinters off in many (wayward) directions…

The wayward.ca splinter project falls under a creative commons license, which basically legally grants invited artists the permission to use the video of other participants to remix and respond, and by doing are agreeing to the same license to whatever you create. All the works should be attributed to the artist and linked back to the source. Videos will remain online for a period of time at wayward.ca.

Expect some sort of compilation to come out in 2011.

Questions? info [at] wayward.ca

Caching and Crashing the Médiathèque

Hogan, Mél “Caching and Crashing the Mediatheque” on FLOWtv.org Special Issue: The Archive.

Cache (kash) A place for concealment and safekeeping of valuables. A fast storage buffer in the central processing unit of a computer; cache memory.
Crash (krash) A breakdown, hardware failure, or software problem that renders a computer system inoperative.1

Between December 2009 and May 2010, I met with and interviewed the co-founder of the Mediatheque, Kevin Morris; the project’s digital archivist Anatoly Ignatiev; and the current director of SAW Video (Sussex Annex Works) in Ottawa, Canada, Penny McCann. I also had the opportunity to have many technical questions answered by Douglas Smalley, a technical assistant of the Mediatheque, currently a video preservationist at Library Archives Canada.

With a budget of $385,960 (including $100,000 in artist fees) stemming in large part from Heritage Canada, the Mediatheque was a massive undertaking built in record time: on paper, three months was all that was allotted for the project’s creation. In this astoundingly short time, which became just over one year in practice, a database had to be created, partnerships solidified, an interface designed, works collected, contracts signed, works digitized, etc. With an open call, SAW Video collected works directly from artists and from video co-ops across the country. Described as a “mad dash” for artists’ fees, the Mediatheque promised artists a sum of 200 dollars regardless of the length of video,2 exhibited for a three-year period through the Mediatheque portal. Artists were limited to 12 works on the original Mediatheque project. Completed, it featured 486 works by 238 artists. The master copies were retained by the artist, while the digital file for streaming became part and partial of the Mediatheque. The Mediatheque existed as a repository of video art for seven years, streaming full video pieces on the web (rather than samplers/clips), with no master/original material archive as counterpart. In this sense, the Mediatheque project was one that saw the online repository as an entity onto itself, and not a mirror, complement, or addition to any material version of the collection presiding over it.

Interviews with those invested in the Mediatheque, past and present, introduce various aspects of SAW Video’s Mediatheque project, focusing here on the eventual server crash that made the project vanish. Nothing of the backend database was backed up.

Looking at funding, copyright, and sponsorship (among others issues in the context of the “cache and crash” of the Mediatheque) serves as a springboard into a larger conversation about the intricate if not paradoxical nature of the online Archive. More precisely, these issues inform how the technical is always mitigated to some extent by and through the interplay of legal and archival parameters, and vice-versa.
Tracking the Mediatheque from its launch in 2003 to its database crash in May 2009 means following the digital paper trail to link stories, ideals, and absences into the history of Canada’s first large-scale and long standing independent video art repository on the web. The case of the Mediatheque is rare and important for understanding the manifold locus of the online archive: it is past, present, and predictive.3 Reconstructing the Mediatheque’s story from cached memory and interviews, the fragments serve to document the project—what it was, what it has become, and what future potential it holds. An approach that accounts for the importance of the “crash” as symbolic of and essential to the online repository as Archive is key to understanding the Mediatheque, past and potential. While it is the cache that makes the Mediatheque’s traces visible and re-visit-able, it is the crash that signals its ongoing archival value, and perhaps, that signals the conceptual if not practical limits of the online repository as Archive. The crash becomes a point of departure, the site of inquiry.

In June 2009, SAW Video’s summer intern sent out a letter to video artists regarding the Mediatheque project and more specifically to communicate the “going down” of the site—including the SAW Video website and the Mediatheque. The letter was written to explain the server crash but also, already, anticipating the Mediatheque’s rebuilding. However, since this outreach effort, a notice on the SAW Video website diverts users: “Due to circumstances beyond our control, the Mediatheque will be down until further notice. We apologize for any inconvenience.”4 Currently, in 2010, plans are underway reconsidering the project, without any move to hastily reconstruct it based on fragments of what it once was. As Smalley puts it, “The Mediatheque web engine (front end layout and backend database) will never be resurrected. It is gone forever. This raises the larger question of how we can go about archiving dynamic web based content that contains dynamic links and content, even executable code.”5 Perhaps, almost a decade later, the Mediatheque cannot exist as it did, and/or its re/creation would pose a different series of tribulations. The crash, then, becomes a moment to pause and reflect on the direction, if not progress, of video art distribution on the web.

Crash page screen shot

The story of the crash is at once complicated and simple. Limited funding, complicated corporate affiliations, human error, and legal parameters inform the crash—often reduced or relegated to a mere technical failure—for the Mediatheque, as well as for many if not all similar initiatives in Canada. Because so little documentation exists about the obstacles faced by various online video art repositories in Canada since (and including) the Mediatheque—such as the Video Art component of the Virtual Museum of Canada, VTape’s VTape Digital Bitcasters, and Vidéographe’s viThèque project, as examples (screen grabs below)—not much can be done to argue for a new approach to video preservation and distribution online. But the propensity to crash, by whatever definition, is undeniable for many of the attempts to generate widespread Canadian access of video art online. When the server at iSi Global crashed the Mediatheque, a recent copy of the database could not be found and relinked. While a crash can occur at level of hardware, application, or operating system, little documentation exists at SAW Video beyond an email thread about the May 12 2009 Mediatheque crash that outlined the failures.

To this day, video files from the Mediatheque remain housed on a hard drive at SAW Video, duplicate files exist on the iSi Global server in Texas, and the database with all the content (except for some translations) was backed up according to McCann. However, the interface design has all but vanished save for the efforts of the Way Back Machine Internet Archive6, Google Cache, and possibly, older personal back-up files from SAW Video staff and hired designers over the years. Aside from the project’s institutional memory, which is limited in large part to the dozen or so people who worked on the project, promotional materials and a few grant reports, nothing of a coherent collection or context remains. There is also no formal documentation about this project, save for two or three local papers announcing the 2003 launch. Finally, because the Mediatheque is no longer online, it risks generating little interest despite its symbolic and cultural significance for (Canadian) video art history.

The Mediatheque lived long enough to experiment with one important thing that is hotly debated today, which would put them at the forefront of online video art in Canada: the legitimacy of ‘free’ distribution of video art online. The longevity of the project meant that the repository would outlive the streaming contracts, which in turn meant that artists were to opt in or out of continuing to showcase their work–this time for free. Canada was the first country (in 1975) to pay exhibition fees to artists, after successful lobbying by Canadian Artists’ Representation / Le Front des artistes canadiens (CARFAC). CARFAC’s lobbying also resulted in the federal Copyright Act Amendment. The Act recognizes artists as the ‘primary producers of culture’, and gives artists legal entitlement to exhibition and other fees.7 Despite this, the Mediatheque tested the idea of fees for a duration, after which the works would become ‘loss leaders’, as defined by Morris.

Few artists decided to pull their works from the site upon termination of their original contracts. Of the 486 works on the website, 300 remained, which, according to McCann, provides “a substantial foundation upon which to build a permanent digital archive.”8 Because there is generally a two-year window for video works to be featured in festivals and circulated by distributors, the value of the works was undoubtedly a factor in the artists’ decision to continue to showcase their work for free, streamed in low resolution. Low resolution is often presented or conceived as “protecting” artists’ copyright because it is contrasted against a far superior original/master screening quality.9 Whatever the motive, the link between format/compression/quality and copyright is a significant component of the current discourse, and it represents one hint at how the technical is informed by an explicitly legal and archival framework. Out of the 500,000 dollars budgeted for the project, nearly half was dedicated to the acquisition of rights for showcasing the videos. Today, the issue of monetizing content on the web remains hotly debated. Highlighting instead the value of a wide reach and promotional tools at little to no cost, especially in user-generated hubs like YouTube and Vimeo, the idea of value has arguably shifted to cultural and social capital as the major gains. However, as McCann explains, the Mediatheque is not seriously considering Vimeo or YouTube as a replacement or model because of copyright issues. More specifically, the strict terms of service of these major repositories—while similar in writing to the Mediatheque’s10 —are increasingly enforced.11 As such, a significant part of what comprises the Mediatheque would be in question, since an important part of what constitutes video art in Canada is a conversation about culture writ large, often intentionally pilfering from mainstream media to re/present and challenge cultural ideals. Appropriation, critique and parody are an important if not determining part of video art history—and if anything—is further enhanced by the ease of copying and unfettered access to media online. So while participating artists had to claim ownership over the works they submitted to the Mediatheque, there was no policing from Saw Video of copyrighted content within those works, because as McCann explains “artists have a right to be part of the global conversation”. The flipside is, of course, that artists may not agree to the terms of use of YouTube, such as to grant them “a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicenseable and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform…”12 but may very well see an advantage to releasing partial or older works as a trade off for the incredible social network built into the repository. The copyright issue, then, becomes about the tradeoffs between so-called legitimated Archives that comply to copyright demands at all costs, with initiatives that inherently challenge the inflexibility of the current system in the digital distribution era13.

A second hint at the interdependence between legal and archival practice made evident after the crash is the corporate sponsorship between the Mediatheque and iSi Global14 —a local (Ottawa, Canada) internet start-up that would provide server management and free bandwidth for the project. Smalley notes their important contribution:

bandwidth costs in 2003, especially for the capacity to deliver video streaming to multiple concurrent viewers online, was very expensive. ISI offered this service and their expertise at a substantial discount for a period of 3 years. It was a fantastic arrangement, as even when the original agreement had run out in 2006, they agreed to keep the archive online at no cost.

While the project would have been impossible without iSi Global, the condition was that the Mediatheque would stream video using the Real Player plug-in, since iSi Global was the local representative for the software. 15 While in 2003 this may have seemed as viable an option as the ubiquitous Adobe Flash player/HTML 5 does today, it did emphasize the Mediatheque’s role as an access portal rather than a preservation project per se. According to Smalley, the Mediatheque,
violated many rules when it comes to preservation: compressed master files, proprietary codecs, insufficient metadata and provenance records, highly volatile storage mediums (i.e. consumer grade DVD-R discs). If the primary goal was preservation, we would have needed to approach things very differently.

Furthermore, SAW Video could not afford the streaming costs—the site was visited by over 5000 people a month, and at its height, the demand for the works exceeded 116 00016 —this meant that a corporate partnership facilitated the project which would have otherwise been impossible within the funding budget of Mediatheque. Despite the crash—for which no blame is laid—SAW Video and iSi Global remain on good terms and are considering a future partnership.

Mediatheque screen shot

As demonstrated by the Mediatheque documentation, piecing together fragments of a lost digital repository is an exercise of our era—the web has now existed long enough to have large-scale projects come to life and come to crash. In this strict sense, there is no better time to explore the web’s potential for defining and redefining the role of online repositories as Archive, and more specifically their capacity and limitations for preservation and access.

For the time being, the Mediatheque collection remains unavailable, save for its digital traces left in cached memory. Along with a stack of DVDs in McCann’s office, these traces are what remain of Canada’s first large-scale video art archive on the web: the cached and crashed Mediatheque.

Image Credits:

All images are author’s own screen shots.

Please feel free to comment.

NOTES

  1. Pieced from: http://www.answers.com/topic/cache and http://www.answers.com/topic/crash (Accessed March 30, 2010). []
  2. The length of videos determined their worth based on television broadcast rates – the internet is transforming this and with it, notions of value. []
  3. See: Rick Prelinger’s 14 point Manifesto online http://subjectobject.net/2008/11/09/on-the-virtues-of-preexisting-material-a-manifesto-by-rick-prelinger/. Prelinger also discussed the “predictive” archive in a presentation/Master Class at Daziboa Gallery in Montreal http://www.dazibao-photo.org/en. []
  4. http://sawvideo.com/ (Accessed March 24, 2010). []
  5. Personal correspondence with Douglas Smalley (May 14, 2010). []
  6. http://web.archive.org/web/*sa_/http://sawvideo.com (Accessed March 20, 2010). []
  7. http://www.carfac.ca/ (Accessed April 12, 2009). []
  8. (New Directions for the Médiathèque in 2006–2007). Personal correspondence with Penny McCann (2010). []
  9. The origins of this claim is unclear and perhaps one worth reconsidering in the age of small screen mobile devices. []
  10. Terms of Use and Copyright for Mediatheque (2007) via Archive Way Back Machine http://web.archive.org/web/20070128054058/www.sawvideo.com/cinema4/index2.php?lang=undefined (Accessed March 15, 2010). []
  11. See: “Google quizzed over YouTube plans BBC News (UK) (2006) “http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/6087976.stm and Egelko, Bob (2008) “Serious YouTube test of copyright law” SFGate San Francisco Chronicle http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/07/19/BUDH11RKQ9.DTL&feed=rss.business. []
  12. continued: “…the User Submissions in connection with the YouTube Website and YouTube’s (and its successors’ and affiliates’) business, including without limitation for promoting and redistributing part or all of the YouTube Website (and derivative works thereof) in any media formats and through any media channels.” From YouTube Terms of Service: http://www.youtube.com/t/terms?hl=en (Accessed May 10, 2010). []
  13. See: Felix Stalder (2008) copyright dungeons and grey zones> http://www.mail-archive.com/nettime-l@kein.org/msg00613.html (Accessed May 13, 2010). []
  14. http://www.isiglobal.ca/ (Accessed March 30, 2010). []
  15. http://www.real.com/ (Accessed March 30, 2010). []
  16. Untitled (no date) Statistics document from SAW Video 2003–2005. []

FLOW TV Caching and Crashing the Médiathèque (2010)

“Caching and Crashing the Mediatheque” on FLOWtv.org Special Issue: The Archive. May 21, 2010

 

Caching and Crashing the Médiathèque
Mél Hogan / Concordia University

 

 

homepage screen shot
 

 

Mediatheque homepage
 

 

Cache (kash) A place for concealment and safekeeping of valuables. A fast storage buffer in the central processing unit of a computer; cache memory.
Crash (krash) A breakdown, hardware failure, or software problem that renders a computer system inoperative.1

Between December 2009 and May 2010, I met with and interviewed the co-founder of the Mediatheque, Kevin Morris; the project’s digital archivist Anatoly Ignatiev; and the current director of SAW Video (Sussex Annex Works) in Ottawa, Canada, Penny McCann. I also had the opportunity to have many technical questions answered by Douglas Smalley, a technical assistant of the Mediatheque, currently a video preservationist at Library Archives Canada.

With a budget of $385,960 (including $100,000 in artist fees) stemming in large part from Heritage Canada, the Mediatheque was a massive undertaking built in record time: on paper, three months was all that was allotted for the project’s creation. In this astoundingly short time, which became just over one year in practice, a database had to be created, partnerships solidified, an interface designed, works collected, contracts signed, works digitized, etc. With an open call, SAW Video collected works directly from artists and from video co-ops across the country. Described as a “mad dash” for artists’ fees, the Mediatheque promised artists a sum of 200 dollars regardless of the length of video,2 exhibited for a three-year period through the Mediatheque portal. Artists were limited to 12 works on the original Mediatheque project. Completed, it featured 486 works by 238 artists. The master copies were retained by the artist, while the digital file for streaming became part and partial of the Mediatheque. The Mediatheque existed as a repository of video art for seven years, streaming full video pieces on the web (rather than samplers/clips), with no master/original material archive as counterpart. In this sense, the Mediatheque project was one that saw the online repository as an entity onto itself, and not a mirror, complement, or addition to any material version of the collection presiding over it.

Interviews with those invested in the Mediatheque, past and present, introduce various aspects of SAW Video’s Mediatheque project, focusing here on the eventual server crash that made the project vanish. Nothing of the backend database was backed up.

Looking at funding, copyright, and sponsorship (among others issues in the context of the “cache and crash” of the Mediatheque) serves as a springboard into a larger conversation about the intricate if not paradoxical nature of the online Archive. More precisely, these issues inform how the technical is always mitigated to some extent by and through the interplay of legal and archival parameters, and vice-versa.
Tracking the Mediatheque from its launch in 2003 to its database crash in May 2009 means following the digital paper trail to link stories, ideals, and absences into the history of Canada’s first large-scale and long standing independent video art repository on the web. The case of the Mediatheque is rare and important for understanding the manifold locus of the online archive: it is past, present, and predictive.3Reconstructing the Mediatheque’s story from cached memory and interviews, the fragments serve to document the project—what it was, what it has become, and what future potential it holds. An approach that accounts for the importance of the “crash” as symbolic of and essential to the online repository as Archive is key to understanding the Mediatheque, past and potential. While it is the cache that makes the Mediatheque’s traces visible and re-visit-able, it is the crash that signals its ongoing archival value, and perhaps, that signals the conceptual if not practical limits of the online repository as Archive. The crash becomes a point of departure, the site of inquiry.

In June 2009, SAW Video’s summer intern sent out a letter to video artists regarding the Mediatheque project and more specifically to communicate the “going down” of the site—including the SAW Video website and the Mediatheque. The letter was written to explain the server crash but also, already, anticipating the Mediatheque’s rebuilding. However, since this outreach effort, a notice on the SAW Video website diverts users: “Due to circumstances beyond our control, the Mediatheque will be down until further notice. We apologize for any inconvenience.”4 Currently, in 2010, plans are underway reconsidering the project, without any move to hastily reconstruct it based on fragments of what it once was. As Smalley puts it, “The Mediatheque web engine (front end layout and backend database) will never be resurrected. It is gone forever. This raises the larger question of how we can go about archiving dynamic web based content that contains dynamic links and content, even executable code.”5 Perhaps, almost a decade later, the Mediatheque cannot exist as it did, and/or its re/creation would pose a different series of tribulations. The crash, then, becomes a moment to pause and reflect on the direction, if not progress, of video art distribution on the web.

 

Crash page screen shot
 

The story of the crash is at once complicated and simple. Limited funding, complicated corporate affiliations, human error, and legal parameters inform the crash—often reduced or relegated to a mere technical failure—for the Mediatheque, as well as for many if not all similar initiatives in Canada. Because so little documentation exists about the obstacles faced by various online video art repositories in Canada since (and including) the Mediatheque—such as the Video Art component of the Virtual Museum of Canada, VTape’s VTape Digital Bitcasters, and Vidéographe’s viThèque project, as examples (screen grabs below)—not much can be done to argue for a new approach to video preservation and distribution online. But the propensity to crash, by whatever definition, is undeniable for many of the attempts to generate widespread Canadian access of video art online. When the server at iSi Global crashed the Mediatheque, a recent copy of the database could not be found and relinked. While a crash can occur at level of hardware, application, or operating system, little documentation exists at SAW Video beyond an email thread about the May 12 2009 Mediatheque crash that outlined the failures.
To this day, video files from the Mediatheque remain housed on a hard drive at SAW Video, duplicate files exist on the iSi Global server in Texas, and the database with all the content (except for some translations) was backed up according to McCann. However, the interface design has all but vanished save for the efforts of the Way Back Machine Internet Archive6, Google Cache, and possibly, older personal back-up files from SAW Video staff and hired designers over the years. Aside from the project’s institutional memory, which is limited in large part to the dozen or so people who worked on the project, promotional materials and a few grant reports, nothing of a coherent collection or context remains. There is also no formal documentation about this project, save for two or three local papers announcing the 2003 launch. Finally, because the Mediatheque is no longer online, it risks generating little interest despite its symbolic and cultural significance for (Canadian) video art history.

The Mediatheque lived long enough to experiment with one important thing that is hotly debated today, which would put them at the forefront of online video art in Canada: the legitimacy of ‘free’ distribution of video art online. The longevity of the project meant that the repository would outlive the streaming contracts, which in turn meant that artists were to opt in or out of continuing to showcase their work–this time for free. Canada was the first country (in 1975) to pay exhibition fees to artists, after successful lobbying by Canadian Artists’ Representation / Le Front des artistes canadiens (CARFAC). CARFAC’s lobbying also resulted in the federal Copyright Act Amendment. The Act recognizes artists as the ‘primary producers of culture’, and gives artists legal entitlement to exhibition and other fees.7 Despite this, the Mediatheque tested the idea of fees for a duration, after which the works would become ‘loss leaders’, as defined by Morris.

Few artists decided to pull their works from the site upon termination of their original contracts. Of the 486 works on the website, 300 remained, which, according to McCann, provides “a substantial foundation upon which to build a permanent digital archive.”8 Because there is generally a two-year window for video works to be featured in festivals and circulated by distributors, the value of the works was undoubtedly a factor in the artists’ decision to continue to showcase their work for free, streamed in low resolution. Low resolution is often presented or conceived as “protecting” artists’ copyright because it is contrasted against a far superior original/master screening quality.9 Whatever the motive, the link between format/compression/quality and copyright is a significant component of the current discourse, and it represents one hint at how the technical is informed by an explicitly legal and archival framework. Out of the 500,000 dollars budgeted for the project, nearly half was dedicated to the acquisition of rights for showcasing the videos. Today, the issue of monetizing content on the web remains hotly debated. Highlighting instead the value of a wide reach and promotional tools at little to no cost, especially in user-generated hubs like YouTube and Vimeo, the idea of value has arguably shifted to cultural and social capital as the major gains. However, as McCann explains, the Mediatheque is not seriously considering Vimeo or YouTube as a replacement or model because of copyright issues. More specifically, the strict terms of service of these major repositories—while similar in writing to the Mediatheque’s10 —are increasingly enforced.11 As such, a significant part of what comprises the Mediatheque would be in question, since an important part of what constitutes video art in Canada is a conversation about culture writ large, often intentionally pilfering from mainstream media to re/present and challenge cultural ideals. Appropriation, critique and parody are an important if not determining part of video art history—and if anything—is further enhanced by the ease of copying and unfettered access to media online. So while participating artists had to claim ownership over the works they submitted to the Mediatheque, there was no policing from Saw Video of copyrighted content within those works, because as McCann explains “artists have a right to be part of the global conversation”. The flipside is, of course, that artists may not agree to the terms of use of YouTube, such as to grant them “a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicenseable and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform…”12 but may very well see an advantage to releasing partial or older works as a trade off for the incredible social network built into the repository. The copyright issue, then, becomes about the tradeoffs between so-called legitimated Archives that comply to copyright demands at all costs, with initiatives that inherently challenge the inflexibility of the current system in the digital distribution era13.

A second hint at the interdependence between legal and archival practice made evident after the crash is the corporate sponsorship between the Mediatheque and iSi Global14 —a local (Ottawa, Canada) internet start-up that would provide server management and free bandwidth for the project. Smalley notes their important contribution:

bandwidth costs in 2003, especially for the capacity to deliver video streaming to multiple concurrent viewers online, was very expensive. ISI offered this service and their expertise at a substantial discount for a period of 3 years. It was a fantastic arrangement, as even when the original agreement had run out in 2006, they agreed to keep the archive online at no cost.

While the project would have been impossible without iSi Global, the condition was that the Mediatheque would stream video using the Real Player plug-in, since iSi Global was the local representative for the software. 15 While in 2003 this may have seemed as viable an option as the ubiquitous Adobe Flash player/HTML 5 does today, it did emphasize the Mediatheque’s role as an access portal rather than a preservation project per se. According to Smalley, the Mediatheque,
violated many rules when it comes to preservation: compressed master files, proprietary codecs, insufficient metadata and provenance records, highly volatile storage mediums (i.e. consumer grade DVD-R discs). If the primary goal was preservation, we would have needed to approach things very differently.

Furthermore, SAW Video could not afford the streaming costs—the site was visited by over 5000 people a month, and at its height, the demand for the works exceeded 116 00016 —this meant that a corporate partnership facilitated the project which would have otherwise been impossible within the funding budget of Mediatheque. Despite the crash—for which no blame is laid—SAW Video and iSi Global remain on good terms and are considering a future partnership.

 

Mediatheque screen shot
 

As demonstrated by the Mediatheque documentation, piecing together fragments of a lost digital repository is an exercise of our era—the web has now existed long enough to have large-scale projects come to life and come to crash. In this strict sense, there is no better time to explore the web’s potential for defining and redefining the role of online repositories as Archive, and more specifically their capacity and limitations for preservation and access.

For the time being, the Mediatheque collection remains unavailable, save for its digital traces left in cached memory. Along with a stack of DVDs in McCann’s office, these traces are what remain of Canada’s first large-scale video art archive on the web: the cached and crashed Mediatheque.

Image Credits:

All images are author’s own screen shots.

Please feel free to comment.

NOTES

  1. Pieced from: http://www.answers.com/topic/cache and http://www.answers.com/topic/crash (Accessed March 30, 2010). []
  2. The length of videos determined their worth based on television broadcast rates – the internet is transforming this and with it, notions of value. []
  3. See: Rick Prelinger’s 14 point Manifesto online http://subjectobject.net/2008/11/09/on-the-virtues-of-preexisting-material-a-manifesto-by-rick-prelinger/. Prelinger also discussed the “predictive” archive in a presentation/Master Class at Daziboa Gallery in Montreal http://www.dazibao-photo.org/en. []
  4. http://sawvideo.com/ (Accessed March 24, 2010). []
  5. Personal correspondence with Douglas Smalley (May 14, 2010). []
  6. http://web.archive.org/web/*sa_/http://sawvideo.com (Accessed March 20, 2010). []
  7. http://www.carfac.ca/ (Accessed April 12, 2009). []
  8. (New Directions for the Médiathèque in 2006–2007). Personal correspondence with Penny McCann (2010). []
  9. The origins of this claim is unclear and perhaps one worth reconsidering in the age of small screen mobile devices. []
  10. Terms of Use and Copyright for Mediatheque (2007) via Archive Way Back Machine http://web.archive.org/web/20070128054058/www.sawvideo.com/cinema4/index2.php?lang=undefined (Accessed March 15, 2010). []
  11. See: “Google quizzed over YouTube plans BBC News (UK) (2006) “http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/6087976.stm and Egelko, Bob (2008) “Serious YouTube test of copyright law” SFGate San Francisco Chronicle http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/07/19/BUDH11RKQ9.DTL&feed=rss.business. []
  12. continued: “…the User Submissions in connection with the YouTube Website and YouTube’s (and its successors’ and affiliates’) business, including without limitation for promoting and redistributing part or all of the YouTube Website (and derivative works thereof) in any media formats and through any media channels.” From YouTube Terms of Service: http://www.youtube.com/t/terms?hl=en (Accessed May 10, 2010). []
  13. See: Felix Stalder (2008) copyright dungeons and grey zones> http://www.mail-archive.com/nettime-l@kein.org/msg00613.html (Accessed May 13, 2010). []
  14. http://www.isiglobal.ca/ (Accessed March 30, 2010). []
  15. http://www.real.com/ (Accessed March 30, 2010). []
  16. Untitled (no date) Statistics document from SAW Video 2003–2005. []