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?