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Stop Making Sense

Dec - 4 - 2007
Nicole C. Engard

Last night I attended a talk at Princeton title Stop Making Sense: On Collecting, Sorting and Presenting Data presented by Rudolf Frieling, Curator of Media Arts at SFMOMA, San Francisco. I have to start by saying that the artsy parts lost me! Frieling would show and art piece and say – of course you’ve seen this or – you know this – and I’d be thinkin “huh? should I?”

Other than that – this was an interesting talk about how we organize our data and how technology is changing so fast and so much that our delivery methods and storage methods are not going to be the delivery methods and storage methods of the future – so how does one successfully archive media materials? When Frieling was introduced, the professor mentioned a few stories that were a bit funny – but also very sad if you think about it. The first was that when presenting in a newly built theater, he found that he could not play his VHS tape because the people who designed the theater had decided that VHS was no longer a valid storage format. The other was about a store here in town that actually sold its entire collection of VHS tapes to an artist so that he could make a sculpture out of them – this store no longer sells VHS tapes. The final story was about the library at the university no longer storing VHS tapes. He had approached them to ask for a space in the the high density storage unit for his tapes and the library said they were no longer keeping tapes and that anyone who had provided to the VHS collection at the library could come pick up their items or they would be given away first come first serve.

Along those lines, my husband and I donated all of our VHS tapes to the local public library a couple of years ago – the plan being to replace them with DVDs – a media type that takes up less space on our shelves and that we found ourselves using more than VHS.

Frieling provided some keywords for his talk (I didn’t catch them all): collecting, linking, presenting all in terms of data. The fact of the matter is (and we librarians know this already) not everything is available online and if it is – it’s possible that it’s not accessible because of hardware, software, or firewall reasons. He spoke of a tool that he and others had developed for CD-ROM that no longer worked on current systems due to hardware and software changes in these systems. He spoke of websites developed at the beginning of the web that no longer work as they were intended because they were developed with system limitations in mind. The long and short of it is that systems change and as archivers and curators how are we going to preserve information for future generations?

Freiling mentioned a TV show collector by the name of (excuse mis-spellings – the font was small and I was in the back of the room) Pentti Pajukallio. This man has spent most of his life recording TV shows and collecting these VHS tapes. He only stopped to have open heart surgery and even then his wife recorded what she could for him. The question is that what value does this collection have to anyone but Pentti? And if it does have value for others how will we access it?

One of the best slides (for me) was the one of a pile of 3×5 index cards that Frieling had put together as his first database. These cards contained bibliographic references that were of use to him. He keeps this “database” today because it has nostalgic value for him – but most of the references are probably inaccessible or unavailable – or even out-dated. This collection only has value to him or those studying him. Another great point that he brought up in reference to his note cards – information like technology is always changing so databases like this are not always going to be valuable – so are they worth archiving and making accessible? I don’t know – that was the question of the night.

One great quote was when Frieling mentioned that now that we have search engines and the world wide web it’s even harder to find the “pearl among the rubbish” when we’re browsing through collections. Books are a strong model to provide content. They can be browsed, you can jump back and forth, or you can read cover to cover. This 2D model (sounds a bit like Weinberger’s first order of order) allows the user to read the text as is or randomly, but it’s physical – it’s the pearl and it’s easy (in theory) to find because it’s not (in theory) surrounded by rubbish.

When it comes to webpages we may think of the “home” page as the entry point into our site but in reality people are entering our sites from every which way because search engines are indexing all (one again – in theory) of our pages and providing them in piecemeal to searchers. Frieling described this as users coming at our sites diagonally instead of straight on like they do with books. This means they only get parts of the information we’re providing and not getting the whole picture.

One way to look at information or media is that each item has two stories. One story is that of the artist or the collector and is usually personal in nature. The other story is that of the viewer. This story gives us the perspective of the outsider. This is the perspective that we’re giving in our catalogs – the perspective of the cataloger when viewing the item – so why not let the other “viewers” (our patrons) add their perspectives as well? This isn’t something that Frieling said exactly – just something I thought when he started talking about the two stories. What he did show us was Steve and how allowing others to add tags to art gave the piece a whole new perspective and a whole new value.

He ended by showing us the Way Maker (if you have a link please share it with me). This program is downloaded to your phone and then you attach your phone to your body and you record your life through your eyes. Does this hold value for anyone but you? Maybe not – but it allows you to see your life from another perspective. It shows you things that you maybe weren’t paying attention to throughout the day – and maybe even makes you more aware of your surroundings. Would a series of videos like this be worth archiving? Who knows – maybe it would be educational for future generations or other cultures to see what a day in the life of Nicole is like. Would I do it? Nope! I don’t need to go to that level of sharing my life – I have this blog and my personal networks – that’s enough for me :)

It was a great talk, while the art aspects were over my head, I’m glad I attended – I just wish that there were more links provided or that the slides were available as I’d like to link you to more information and I don’t have the time just now to do the research on Pentti or the Way Maker.

10 Responses so far.

  1. Sounds like a fascinating talk! I wish everything was podcasted…

  2. Nicole says:

    They were recording it – I saw the equipment – I’m going to keep an eye out.

  3. Sounds like a fascinating talk! I wish everything was podcasted…

  4. Nicole says:

    They were recording it – I saw the equipment – I’m going to keep an eye out.

  5. Cliff says:

    Thanks for sharing! As an archivoholic, these are questions that bug me all the time. Am I saving this stuff for me? My family? Future archaeologists? Am I indexing too little? Too much? Is this all a waste of time? And yet I keep on saving every scrap of paper and record conversations of family members telling stories…

  6. Cliff says:

    Thanks for sharing! As an archivoholic, these are questions that bug me all the time. Am I saving this stuff for me? My family? Future archaeologists? Am I indexing too little? Too much? Is this all a waste of time? And yet I keep on saving every scrap of paper and record conversations of family members telling stories…

  7. Nicole says:

    An anonymous email conversation I had regarding this post:

    Student:

    I was going to ask you what you thought of the talk, but obviously you had a much more charitable response than I did! I thought it was one of the worst talks I’ve ever been to at Princeton.

    I wanted to know what exactly he is doing about the digital art “platform problem”. The generalizations about the problems of managing a collection I’ve heard many times before, and they’re not in any way particular to the art world–any established business ends up having platform problems with data.

    What I wanted to know was what he as a curator was proposing as a solution or at least a compromise, and he never gave us an answer! And that is the one thing, besides art interpretation, he is (or should be) really qualified to talk about.

    Me:

    I did find it a bit disorganized, and there were certainly parts that left me confused – but I didn’t go to hear about the art stuff – or the curator stuff :) I was confused about the website he kept mentioning – I’m not sure how that answers the digital preservation problem.

    I had a chat with my husband last night about this all and I don’t think there is an answer – how do we know what tools there will be in 100 years from now? How can we know what people will want us to collect or how they’ll be able to access it? I like talks that make me think – if there are answers that’s great – but if not – at least it gets people thinking about what possible answers there are …

    You were not the only one that was displeased – the person next to me was playing tetris and someone in front of me was checking her netflix account :)

    Student:

    Part of what I found so disappointing was his attitude that he could just “raise questions” in the areas of digital arts presentation, collection, preservation, etc. but not have to offer any answers, even possible ones. That’s an early 90′s style of “must leave everything open ended because offering any answers does violence to the total world of possibilities out there” scholarship which was annoying when it was in vogue, but is now really out of date.

    Every graduate student here in every department that I know of has been trained to believe that the most important part of a talk is the speaker’s expert opinion and conclusion, however tentative, because it’s also the hardest part to come up with after assessing a multitude of facts. Although I did find his examples interesting since I don’t know much about digital art, I couldn’t help feeling like none of us would be permitted to give a talk like his in public: it would be considered works-in-progress for presentation at a sub-departmental seminar, certainly not suitable for an invited lecture. (With the caveat: for emeritus professors, nobel laureates, and billionaires, anything goes…)

    The people in front of me seemed to be playing some kind of two player game and passing a laptop back and forth. I was fidgeting because I was really cold in that lecture hall!

    Me:

    That all makes perfect sense! I don’t think he should be able to come in and ask us questions with no answers – it would have been nice to hear some answers to get linked to some answers ….

    Student:

    PS:

    The one “answer” he gave us was his big website database, which I guess is his answer to the presentation and accountability problems: making access to these works more widely available to the public in some form, and making it easier for people (funding organizations) to understand that his museum must care for a vast number of art-ifacts of which only a few are physically on display at any given time. I’m guessing that “number of virtual visitors” on a website could also help augment the “number of local visitors” criterion when staff come up for evaluation.

    But then he told us about the issue with people googling in and then leaving, and again, he offered no solution. Even that section could have used more elaboration: were people leaving because they had found what they were looking for? because they hadn’t found what they were looking for? did he have any plans to poll his user base to find out? was he planning to change the layout of his pages to encourage page-to-page browsing in some way rather than browsing from the homepage?

    I looked at his site and found it rather difficult to browse (reminded me of the library off-site storage problem: how do you let patrons browse the shelves?). You either have to follow their links for what’s related or go back to the main page for another glimpse at something random. It seemed like showing a thumbnail on each page to another art piece chosen at random might be reasonable, and fairly close to the modern art museum-going experience where you’re usually within sight of some other piece that is totally unrelated.

    http://www.mediaartnet.org/mediaartnet/

  8. Nicole says:

    An anonymous email conversation I had regarding this post:

    Student:

    I was going to ask you what you thought of the talk, but obviously you had a much more charitable response than I did! I thought it was one of the worst talks I’ve ever been to at Princeton.

    I wanted to know what exactly he is doing about the digital art “platform problem”. The generalizations about the problems of managing a collection I’ve heard many times before, and they’re not in any way particular to the art world–any established business ends up having platform problems with data.

    What I wanted to know was what he as a curator was proposing as a solution or at least a compromise, and he never gave us an answer! And that is the one thing, besides art interpretation, he is (or should be) really qualified to talk about.

    Me:

    I did find it a bit disorganized, and there were certainly parts that left me confused – but I didn’t go to hear about the art stuff – or the curator stuff :) I was confused about the website he kept mentioning – I’m not sure how that answers the digital preservation problem.

    I had a chat with my husband last night about this all and I don’t think there is an answer – how do we know what tools there will be in 100 years from now? How can we know what people will want us to collect or how they’ll be able to access it? I like talks that make me think – if there are answers that’s great – but if not – at least it gets people thinking about what possible answers there are …

    You were not the only one that was displeased – the person next to me was playing tetris and someone in front of me was checking her netflix account :)

    Student:

    Part of what I found so disappointing was his attitude that he could just “raise questions” in the areas of digital arts presentation, collection, preservation, etc. but not have to offer any answers, even possible ones. That’s an early 90′s style of “must leave everything open ended because offering any answers does violence to the total world of possibilities out there” scholarship which was annoying when it was in vogue, but is now really out of date.

    Every graduate student here in every department that I know of has been trained to believe that the most important part of a talk is the speaker’s expert opinion and conclusion, however tentative, because it’s also the hardest part to come up with after assessing a multitude of facts. Although I did find his examples interesting since I don’t know much about digital art, I couldn’t help feeling like none of us would be permitted to give a talk like his in public: it would be considered works-in-progress for presentation at a sub-departmental seminar, certainly not suitable for an invited lecture. (With the caveat: for emeritus professors, nobel laureates, and billionaires, anything goes…)

    The people in front of me seemed to be playing some kind of two player game and passing a laptop back and forth. I was fidgeting because I was really cold in that lecture hall!

    Me:

    That all makes perfect sense! I don’t think he should be able to come in and ask us questions with no answers – it would have been nice to hear some answers to get linked to some answers ….

    Student:

    PS:

    The one “answer” he gave us was his big website database, which I guess is his answer to the presentation and accountability problems: making access to these works more widely available to the public in some form, and making it easier for people (funding organizations) to understand that his museum must care for a vast number of art-ifacts of which only a few are physically on display at any given time. I’m guessing that “number of virtual visitors” on a website could also help augment the “number of local visitors” criterion when staff come up for evaluation.

    But then he told us about the issue with people googling in and then leaving, and again, he offered no solution. Even that section could have used more elaboration: were people leaving because they had found what they were looking for? because they hadn’t found what they were looking for? did he have any plans to poll his user base to find out? was he planning to change the layout of his pages to encourage page-to-page browsing in some way rather than browsing from the homepage?

    I looked at his site and found it rather difficult to browse (reminded me of the library off-site storage problem: how do you let patrons browse the shelves?). You either have to follow their links for what’s related or go back to the main page for another glimpse at something random. It seemed like showing a thumbnail on each page to another art piece chosen at random might be reasonable, and fairly close to the modern art museum-going experience where you’re usually within sight of some other piece that is totally unrelated.

    http://www.mediaartnet.org/mediaartnet/

  9. Rudolf Frieling says:

    Hi everybody,

    thanks to a colleague of mine at the museum (whom I actually mentioned in my talk) I was made aware of your comments here. I’m glad that you shared these thoughts in your blog, and the interesting as well as the obviously disappointing aspects are part of the problem. Let me say upfront that this was not meant to be a lecture on preservation issues, although I have worked extensively in this field, but Tom Levin’s introduction asked for a kind of response to that. I have tried to give some answers besides raising questions but maybe I didn’t communicate them well enough. Here is some important aspects in terms of archiving and migration:

    a) migrating from one carrier to another is a neverending process, unfortunately without ever coming to a final solution, i.e. a lasting carrier. At least that is the lesson of the last 40 years. So it is important to think about the media art work in terms of information that gets reperformed again and again in different configurations. The research, academic as well as curatorial, would need to keep track of the effects this has on the perception and experience of a work. (if you are interested in issues related to video art, see http://www.40yearsvideoart.de where you can access some information on a related symposium)

    b) platforms like Media Art Net are not archival since they don’t preserve the works themselves. They are informational (whether successful or not is another issue) in that they try to inform about relations, contexts, histories. The use of these platforms is not academic but rather driven by very specific needs, searches, interests. This is a lesson to learn for curators and academics. We still think very much in terms of providing a context via a lecture or text.

    c) the amount of information we are dealing with is one problem, another is the amount that we are producing ourselves. And we can see a clear shift to the production side (see WayMarker.com). So we are asked to actively contribute. This leads then to a shift away from the jobs of sorting, filtering, digesting and editing information. Maybe we are still bookmarking web sites but we do not actually process that information any more. We are storing it for future use – without actually ever going back (I’m obviously exaggerating but that is an implicit structure).

    I’m happy to discuss some more of these issues if you wish. Please feel free to send me an email at rfrieling@sfmoma.org.

    And thanks for your extensive feedbacks (even if not always positive).

  10. Rudolf Frieling says:

    Hi everybody,

    thanks to a colleague of mine at the museum (whom I actually mentioned in my talk) I was made aware of your comments here. I’m glad that you shared these thoughts in your blog, and the interesting as well as the obviously disappointing aspects are part of the problem. Let me say upfront that this was not meant to be a lecture on preservation issues, although I have worked extensively in this field, but Tom Levin’s introduction asked for a kind of response to that. I have tried to give some answers besides raising questions but maybe I didn’t communicate them well enough. Here is some important aspects in terms of archiving and migration:

    a) migrating from one carrier to another is a neverending process, unfortunately without ever coming to a final solution, i.e. a lasting carrier. At least that is the lesson of the last 40 years. So it is important to think about the media art work in terms of information that gets reperformed again and again in different configurations. The research, academic as well as curatorial, would need to keep track of the effects this has on the perception and experience of a work. (if you are interested in issues related to video art, see http://www.40yearsvideoart.de where you can access some information on a related symposium)

    b) platforms like Media Art Net are not archival since they don’t preserve the works themselves. They are informational (whether successful or not is another issue) in that they try to inform about relations, contexts, histories. The use of these platforms is not academic but rather driven by very specific needs, searches, interests. This is a lesson to learn for curators and academics. We still think very much in terms of providing a context via a lecture or text.

    c) the amount of information we are dealing with is one problem, another is the amount that we are producing ourselves. And we can see a clear shift to the production side (see WayMarker.com). So we are asked to actively contribute. This leads then to a shift away from the jobs of sorting, filtering, digesting and editing information. Maybe we are still bookmarking web sites but we do not actually process that information any more. We are storing it for future use – without actually ever going back (I’m obviously exaggerating but that is an implicit structure).

    I’m happy to discuss some more of these issues if you wish. Please feel free to send me an email at rfrieling@sfmoma.org.

    And thanks for your extensive feedbacks (even if not always positive).


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