New Archive Interpretations: Five Research Commissions

Published on May 17th, 2017

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In 2014 Het Nieuwe Instituut launched New Archive Interpretations, a series of commissions for artists, designers and researchers to examine the influence and impact of the digital archive in relation to its analogue predecessor, the paper archive. This is an overview of the project and its outcomes.

In 2014 Het Nieuwe Instituut launched New Archive Interpretations, a series of commissions for artists, designers and researchers to examine the influence and impact of the digital archive in relation to its analogue predecessor, the paper archive. This is an overview of the project and its outcomes.


'Pretty Old Pictures'. Photo: Template

Pretty Old Pictures. Photo: Template

Over a two-year period New Archive Interpretations investigated the challenges and opportunities of digital archives. By commissioning five projects, as Fellow of the Het Nieuwe Instituut and curator of the project, my goal was to probe the digital archive not merely as a physical structure of location and place but as a system of how different processes and individuals are influencing what can and cannot be seen, accessed, distributed and re-used. Thinking about the (digital) archive in such a way allowed me to question it as a place of renegotiation, in which some of the topics that are at the core of many archival practices – authority, authorship, regulation, and (copy)rights – were reassessed. Taking this particular position shifted attention from arguably the most important part of an archive, its contents, to how and who constructs the archive, for whom and for what reason(s). However, the motivation for studying digital archives came from its content.

The collections in Het Nieuwe Instituut’s archive date back to the mid-19th century, and consist of all kinds of materials, from ink drawings on paper, large plans on chalk paper, detailed miniature buildings or even complete infrastructures in foam, wood or plastic and many photos in all possible formats. It is only recently that more digital elements became part of the archive, while at the same time the institute began to digitize their analogue collections. These new materials were not easy to catalogue in the record keeping system they used or even to categorise according to existing standards. This raised many questions, such as, how to handle these new materials in a record keeping system that is based on and set up for analogue materials? As well as issues around the role, status and location of digitized material. One of the first challenges was how to identify documents that all have similar names but different extensions, or vice versa. Could conventional methods for appraisal and selection be used for digital documents, and would existing structures and record keeping systems be sufficient to categorise, document and retrieve the various materials? More generally, it beckoned the question whether digital materials required a new record keeping system, a different approach to workflows, and thus change the archival system.

At the same time we were interested in the access, accessibility, use and reuse of archival material. In particular, we wanted to investigate the influence of online presentations of the digitized and the ‘born-digital’ material that shifted from the physical location of the institute to the ‘virtual’ space of the web. For Het Nieuwe Instituut, next to their own website and online catalogue, this meant using various third-party platforms to make the material available, generate attention and attract (new) visitors. By implicitly or explicitly allowing use and re-use, the question came up of what to do with this ‘new’ material that was created by users and/or appropriated by non-human systems? Next to questioning whether or not to incorporate this documentation into the archive, there was a need to understand more about these ‘web-archiving’ strategies: influenced by invisible and unknown algorithms, what would the future of archiving be like, and what possibilities are there to take advantage of the new situation?

By commissioning different (pilot) projects some of the challenges and opportunities presented by digital archives were explored. This practice-led approach to digital archiving is vital because the characteristics of the digital demand a reconsideration of the material value of digital and digitized documents and their archives through practice and doing. In short, by experimenting we tested the limits and tried to uncover the possibilities and boundaries of digital archiving. In the process, we addressed the authoritative position of archives, the usefulness of open data and openness, and the importance of human presence. In the remainder of this text I will explore some of the outcomes. Importantly, this research, and thus its outcomes, was first and foremost an attempt to recognise the challenges and to speculate on the potential of digital archiving. It was not the aim to offer solutions or develop methods or models relating to some of the urgent and pressing practical problems when handling digital material in an archival context. However, by thinking through and trying out we wanted to open up the different layers of digital archiving to improve insight into some of the fundamental functions –and possibly dis-functions– of future archives. How it will empower some and disempower others.

Sketch, Richard Vijgen

Data Volume Explorer, Sketch, Richard Vijgen

The Archive and its Record Keeping System

The start of the project New Archive Interpretations was a commission connected to the exhibition Structuralism at Het Nieuwe Instituut. Structuralism, a movement in architecture in the late ’50s and early ’60s, in the Netherlands strived to build a new social space in which both the individual and the collective could thrive. Architects designed buildings that offered plenty of space for social interaction and inspired people to experiment and use their imagination. At the same time, the structuralists rebelled against the rational, bureaucratic building style that predominated in the 1950s. The goal was to make a clean break with traditional, hierarchical forms of building and social relations. These ideas led to complex forms in which buildings continued to be hierarchical in nature (large spaces were divided up in a very systematic way into smaller spaces) but the form was supposed to stimulate creativity and give the residents the opportunity to put their own stamp on their surroundings.

Recognising some of the practices of Structuralism within archival systems, such as the process of recombining, working according to a set of rules or game elements, and using these to make simulations and combinations, we decided to focus on the Institute’s recordkeeping system Adlib. Adlib is a software package that categorises, localises and internally links all the objects, papers, photos and other documents that Het Nieuwe Instituut houses in its collection. By taking this record keeping system as an example, Dutch designer Richard Vijgen was asked to explore the extent to which the record keeping system influenced the content and use of the archive. Obviously, any archival system influences the form of the archive and how it is used. With the pilot project the Data Volume Explorer Vijgen decided to focus on the structuring principles of the recordkeeping system and experimented with other interfaces to see what and how this would affect the understanding of the archival documents.

The huge scale in which information can now be captured is becoming increasingly important and is often referred to as ‘Big Data’. This term suggests that only the amount of data increases, but it is also the connectedness to this data that is increasing at the same pace. A great advantage of the digital age is that it is easier to present the same information in different ways and in doing so reinterpret it and give it new meaning. As Vijgen explained:

“An interesting quality of digital information is that you can continually rearrange it. A big advantage of the digital era is that it’s easier to present the same information in different ways and at the same time to reinterpret it and imbue it with meaning.”

The challenge in designing a search system or interface is always about the issue of how to build a system for something when one does not necessarily know what others will be looking for. For Vijgen it was important to design an interface that would allow those people without specific knowledge of the documents, to play with the information contained in the system. A physical carton box from the archive became the spatial metaphor and tool to play with the content in the archive. Data Volume Explorer became a set of building blocks that could be configured in every changing ways. Boxes could be turned, thrown on the ground, picked up and arranged in various ways. Instead of the rigid, analytical structure of the traditional set up of an archive, the building boxes offered a more playful approach.

Even though the content of the archive remained the same, the way people were invited to research allowed for new discoveries and additional layers of information to come up. In a sense people could access the archive in a more associative way. By giving the archival documents a new context each time they are searched and selected, they were imbued with a different or additional meaning. In other words, with the change to a digital archive, not only does visitor attention shift from a physical to a digital environment, but contact with the objects themselves changes. While a museum offers a (historical) perspective or context in which visitors are encouraged to reflect, analyse, remember or make connections, as mentioned, due to the different mechanism behind the interface unexpected connections between the individual archival documents are emphasised. This also means that certain expected findings can fail to materialise, while unexpected results can materialise.

It could be argued that this is the case in any archive, digital or analogue, however, the speed and the ease of accessing data have increased tremendously in the digital archive. The Data Volume Explorer provided a glimpse of the potential of interface design, which with the emergence of ever more sophisticated 3D visualisation and printing techniques, has the potential to make any digital ‘object’ accessible, anywhere. At the same time, it reaffirmed that the working of the database (in this case the recordkeeping system Adlib) and the interface design cannot be taken for granted. Especially once different systems are connected it becomes difficult to see how relations are made. This also means that such tools can impact the policy of an institution in various and at times unexpected ways, so that a critical attitude and understanding of their working is crucial.

'Pretty Old Pictures'. Photo: Template

Pretty Old Pictures. Photo: Template

Consequences of using Online Archival Platforms

For the next phase in the project we wanted to address some of the consequences of the increased access and accessibility to archival documents. Inspired by the influence of the user-interface we decided to focus on how this change affects the agency of users, especially in online ‘archival’ spaces. Our premise was that the archive’s traditional representational relationship to social identity, agency and memory is challenged by the distributed nature of networked media, and our aim was to seek new understandings of the link between the software with which online archives are coded and the way it produces agency for users.

In an attempt to interrogate online ‘archival’ platforms, graphic design studio Template (Marlon Harder and Lasse van den Bosch Christensen) traced the museum’s online activity and noticed that the institute has uploaded many of its digitized images on Flickr Commons. While this is not uncommon (many museums and libraries tend to do the same) there seems to be little awareness of what could potentially happen to these images. Following the mantra of accessibility, and giving little thought to the still very vague Terms and Conditions, anything can be done to the documents. Template was particularly interested in the interface of Flickr Commons; once in the website one sees a vast amount of images that is infinitely scrollable. Some museums have millions of images on the platform, which is served up visually as an extremely fragmented image collage. Rather than offering the original context of an image, the website functions primarily through visual linking, and when surfing the website new context and meaning is made instantaneously. The kind of human knowledge, found in a physical archive, is built up over time and does not transfer as easily. The knowledge the archivist possesses is unique, and this kind of contextual information is hard to replace in a digital environment. Rather than trying to translate this in a digital environment we wanted to explore other ways of using and perhaps abusing content which is void of context. As Template explained:

“We want to comprehend how institutions are dealing with their digital archives, especially when publishing the content online. In the meantime we confront them with what could potentially happen. There are many possibilities, from selling to copying and changing the images. We want to investigate the consequences of those actions and discuss the situation the organisation has created for itself.”

In the process they reflected on a changing attitude towards images online, as they put it:

“Archives are transforming from places where memories are kept to databases in which the present and near future are becoming more important. It is all about the now, presenting and sharing your, or other people’s images with friends and strangers alike”.

In other words, when images are presented as one endless flow, the archival context of an image becomes less important in favour of form and ease of distribution, emphasising relations and communication between people. This kind of relational thinking and the importance of users’ input is reflected in Flickr Commons’ usage of descriptions, categories, and keywords that are based on folksonomies. This new way of dealing with the content of the archive is no longer related to singular objects, but meaning is generated through different constellations. Perhaps similar to oral culture, events and histories are now retold in different ways. This is not to say that the value of selection is no longer important. Similar to the way an archivist makes selections, and even though they may seem random at times, the constraints of the platform (in this case Flickr Commons) generates meaning. However, this is not necessarily the same ‘original’ meaning, since each selection changes the context in which an image is interpreted. In this way, making users think in creative ways about the images as connections are constantly changing and new narratives are created with each new context.

Another important topic that came up in Template’s research was the use of commercial platforms and the consequences of ‘open’ content, not only in terms of copyright, but also for the institute and its archival tasks. Are museums following a general trend or are they idealistic about spreading information, or both, and what does that mean in relation to traditional methods? What happens when one gives away content to a commercial business, which then becomes a co-owner of the material? What are the effects of a changing image culture with regard to new ways of dealing with decontextualized content, appropriation, or even the influence on cultural – and individual – memory? To answer some of these questions Template set up their own business: Pretty Old Pictures. As a tongue-in-cheek comment, they decided to present some of the potential consequences of openness, unclear copyright and ownership legislation in a playful manner by selling and re-packaging curated selections of the uploaded images and selling them back to HNI and anyone else who was interested in nicely packaged and curated selection of images to be used as a postcard or small special print framed and hung on the wall.

As already mentioned, we were interested in understanding the relationship between the software with which online archives are coded and the ways it generates value and agency for its users by focusing on the potential ways that visitors could (re)use the material. While addressing the characteristics of many online archives – their openness (they are constantly changing and accumulating), self-referentiality (hash tags that replace traditional categorisation) and the shift from passive audiences to active users – and critically analysing Flickr Commons, Template presented potential consequences of openness, unclear copyright and ownership legislation, and loss of context in a playful manner.

Their results also emphasised how the difference in dealing with the past, and in particular with memory, relates to the working and function of the database, especially in relation to digital, or more accurately, computer memory. The way an archive or museum manages and preserves their memory, is not the same as how computer memory functions. Computer memory is the very opposite of storage, as it does not return continually to the same document. Rather, every time a document is accessed, the ‘memory’ opens a copy of the document, which can then be stored as a new document or as a replacement of the previous document. This means that one can never literally open the same document twice. Some even argue that storing – or opening an existing document – is also creating (Kirschenbaum 2008).

Connected to the transient qualities of the online archival platform, which some have described as ‘living archives’ (Passerini 2014; Lehner 2014, 77) or ‘fluid archives’ (Aasman 2014), it could be argued that these archives are not designed for long-term storage and memory, rather they encourage (re)creation. As media scientist Wolfgang Ernst explains, the emphasis in the digital archive shifts from documenting a single event to redevelopment, in which a document is (co-) produced by users (Ernst 2012, 95). Whereas the source may remain intact, as in the original archive, its existence is constantly changing and dynamic. Perhaps not completely ‘fluid’ or ‘living’, it could be argued that the memory of a digital archive is closer to reproduction than storage. Looking at memory in this way highlights a difference between a digital database and a physical archive: no longer are we guided by the past, but each time we focus on a new version, i.e. the future. Although many archival theorists argue that archiving is about the future rather than the past (archivists store information to help those in the future to understand or provide evidence of the past), by following the logic of the tool instead of the interests of those who created the content, this future might turn into a mutating present. In short, and confirming the outcome of the previous commission, since the database system is all about logic and structure in locating items quickly and easily, the difference between a digital and physical archive does not merely result from the type of the documents, but from how the structuring principles filter, provide access to, and use the data.

Erica Scourti

Erica Scourti

Personal Archives and Subjective Archiving

Expanding on some of the results of the previous projects and returning to Ernst’s assertion that digital archives are about redevelopment and (co-) production (Ernst 2012, 95), the following step was to focus in particular on the creators of archival documents and their online archival activities. It is often said, ‘we are all archivists’ (Ketelaar 2006), referring to non-specialists who are ‘archiving the everyday’ and create endless ‘personal archives’. Everyone collects, selects and stores books, objects, photographs, film, audio recordings and video. This has given rise to statements about the ‘democratisation of archival practices’, which allows a broad range of individuals, communities and organisations to document, preserve, share and promote (community) identity through collective stories and heritage (Cook 2013; Gilliland and Flinn 2013). In general, people collect either for the sake of reconstructing the past or as a way to hold on to special moments – the memorabilia functioning as small inducements to recall. Typically the act of collecting concerns physical objects, small mementos that only have significance to their owner. But what happens when someone wants to collect digital material: photos, videos, audio files, scraps of text or emails?

Every millisecond a profusion of digital documents are sent around e-mail servers or shared on social platforms. Aided by cheap data storage, easy access and distribution mechanisms these acts of blogorrhea – the excessive, compulsive or stream-of-consciousness blogging over trivial things – provide unprecedented access to private lives, but also offer opportunities to build large digital collections. What was once an expensive and to some extent privileged act of archiving has become the norm, at least for many. From the previous commissions we learned that (digital) systems influence the way archival documents are used and perceived, when archival documents are moving online and when data becomes part of often invisible computational systems it is important to understand the influence of these systems on the documents and data. For this commission we asked Greek/English artist Erica Scourti to explore the ways in which online storage vaults, such as Google Photo, YouTube or Flickr, and their auto-editing software and data-processing algorithms affect the documents and data of individual users.

Scourti was asked to look beyond institutional archives and to address the role of social platforms in creating a personal archive. Taking her own life and documents as an example she explored the (im)possibilities and effects of online archiving and how this relates to the way identities are constructed, whilst questioning the optimalisation of online production and distribution. While based on the artist’s ‘real’ archive, and intentionally collapsing temporal distinctions within it, Scourti offered up her past and present in a new and constantly updated collection of videos as a live, performed archive.

For the project, Dark Archives, Scourti used her entire fifteen-year personal media archive, consisting of daily photos, videos and screenshots, with Google photo. The collection was then parsed by auto-editing, classification and tagging software, allowing hundreds of videos, collages and animations to be automatically generated as a result, which she again shared online. The interesting thing about automated software is that one does not necessarily know what, how and why decisions are made, as Scourti acknowledges:

“Using automated software such as Google Photo creates automated videos. These videos emerge out of my particular collection videos, my photos and the system’s algorithm without me doing anything to them. Yet, someone else programmed it, but how it’s done is unknown. The chain of decision-making is instigated, but you don’t know the parameters or what the algorithm is looking for.”

Interestingly, Dark Archives draws not only on the artist’s individual archive but implicitly also on the millions of other user media that the algorithms use as deep-learning training sets.

In general, the term ‘dark archive’ is used to indicate a repository for information that can be used as a failsafe during disaster recovery – it is a type of copy of an archive that consists only of meta-data and is not for public use. However, Scourti is interested into another type of dark archive: the information in an archive that cannot be seen. For example, could be seen as a very ‘light’ archive. Their business model is based on retrievability, which means that everything can be found and is accounted for. has to battle against the forces of darkness, which threaten to make things in the archive un-findable. This could be spam or items with very similar titles, which happens more and more with algorithmically produced content. There is, then, a need to keep things retrievable, otherwise the contents of the archive can fall into darkness: they are available but you can no longer find – or sell – them.

With her project Dark Archives Scourti is particularly interested in how visibility and invisibility – or darkness – relate to online archiving. Aiming to explore the idea of what escapes classification in an era of increasingly intelligent auto-classification systems, in the second phase of the project Scourti involved elements of staging, scripting and fictionalising, by inviting a group of writers – Jessica Bunch, Christina Chalmers, Sandra Huber, Linette Voller and Joanna Walsh – to search her archive using specific keywords of their choice. They were then asked to speculate on and caption what they imagined to be the missing set of media for that search term: the photos and videos that somehow evaded classification: the false negatives, the misclassifications, the media that fell outside of Google’s definition for that search term. These captions were then matched with existing media from her archive, creating a new series of videos optimised for mobile viewing (which viewers can access online), alongside a slideshow of all the speculative archive images, screened at Het Nieuwe Instituut.

By asking the writers to imagine the way an algorithm works, the project tried to get at the core of what perhaps a non-human way of thinking or logic could be. It also relates to Scourti’s interest in identity and memory and how traces become meaningful through technology, as she explains:

“I’m particularly interested in the traces that we make all the time without being necessarily conscious about it, and how the technologies that we are entangled with are recording and archiving our lives”.

On the one hand this refers to notions of how identity and memory are constructed, but as she mentions: it also relates “to different types of control strategies in terms of implanted memories or remembering things that did not happen; having memories wiped and not being able to retrieve memories”.

It also relates to how new technologies are inscribing knowledge in different ways. As well as challenging notions of data collecting, shared authorship and individual memory, Dark Archives points to the issues that arise when image archives can be parsed, and potentially monetised, once in the hands of corporate platforms. The project shows how the significance and meaning of identity and memory derive from technical infrastructure and production. It also demonstrates that an online archive is never stable – at least when using automated editing systems or even certain platforms – the archive never stays the same, it is not static, it is always added to, depending on the search the archive changes. The archive and the potentially limitless constellations within it, always have an unfinished and semi-fictional quality. Or, in Scourti’s words:

“Perhaps every document creates (rather than describes or illustrates) the event; every search creates an archive, and every archive gives rise to a different reality. Search queries both create an archive and are potentially archival material in themselves (as the still ongoing fascination with Google’s auto-complete attests to) and, as Derrida says, the archiving itself is productive of events, historical and otherwise.”

MVRDV Archive. Photo George Oates

MVRDV Archive. Photo George Oates

Relations of Technics, Concepts and Actors in Digital Archives

A recurring topic that surfaced in the commissions was the relationship between the users of archival documents and those technologies used to archive that are central to the meaning and value of the archival documents. But what happens to the people who create the documents: how are they made visible in the archival system? We used the born-digital archive of the Dutch-based architecture and urban design practice MVRDV as an example to investigate the presence and role of ‘human hardware’: those who created, or could be linked to, the archival documents. In 2015 MVRDV approached Het Nieuwe Instituut in relation to the inclusion of their archive in the State Archive for Architecture and Urban Planning. Besides various models, more than 80% of the MVRDV archive consists of digital material: text documents, various types of images, videos, software and technical drawings. To trace the ‘human hardware’ through and inside the digital documents that constitute the archive, Australian designer, entrepreneur and digital archives expert George Oates was asked to highlight relations between documents, files, and people when thinking about methods for digital archiving.

The archival policy of Het Nieuwe Instituut is focused on collecting and preserving the creative processes in the work of the architects. MVRDV is in this sense an interesting case as they are invested in presenting their research and development process in various ways. However, their formal history is first and foremost presented through their buildings; what would happen if the company is represented through the various dynamics that are part of the creative processes, in which the people behind all the work become the central focus? In other words, what does it mean to create an archive that contains the voices of the creators describing the work and the dynamics of an organisation? This question addresses and reiterates an old archival discussion: whether one should value the end product or the process of creation. MVRDV, following the interests of Het Nieuwe Instituut, chose the latter and handed their digital archive over to Het Nieuwe Instituut as a bucket of files, as remarked by Oates, “like someone dragged a backup disk onto another backup disk, so what you’re seeing is files and folders and files and folders. There is no sense in there of who did what when and why.”

While acknowledging that these working files are interesting and contain valuable information, the file formats provide little information about “who made them, at whose request, for what stage in the project, whether project leaders were happy with it, whether it reached the client, etc.” Having paid a great deal of attention in the previous projects to the influence of technical systems, we wanted to return to the role of human intervention in an attempt to create a richer archival representation of an organisation in which the relations between people, and the projects they are connected with become visible. As remarked by Oates, “imagine if you could view corporate archives through a feeling of human activity and depth, and not just a set of static documents”.

Provenance is a fundamental principle of archiving practices. It provides information about the creator and the receiver (the custodian) of the archival document. However, since documents are evaluated based on the creator’s mandate and functions, the principle implies a top-down approach, thereby excluding the ‘powerless transactions’ that could provide useful information about a broader (social) context (Duranti 1991, 15). The value of the retrieval of provenance has been acknowledged for many years, in which ‘a detailed understanding of both the structure and processes of the organizations which created the records’ is required (Bearman and Lytle 1985, 16). When the archiving process starts at the point of creation, the value of digital archives become clear because it is possible to develop simple hooks that capture information automatically as one creates digital materials. As described by Oates:

“Digital things have myriad date stamps, or there’s EXIF data in a digital photograph, for example. It’s like an equivalent of a dated handwritten letter, but for each object. (…) Thanks to the incredible pervasiveness of cell phones, many of us are logging our lives day by day, perhaps without particularly thinking about it too hard. That volume and breadth of record is new.”

Once processes are recorded in real time, it also becomes easier to retrieve information in various ways, allowing for new information, and voices to appear (iterating the conclusion of Vijgen’s experiment). To not get lost into a ‘dark archive’, it becomes pertinent to encourage many descriptions of things, rather than merely a few words of metadata. The advantage of digital systems is that they can handle information in ways that physical archives cannot. Yet, as described by Oates, many “cultural search systems still expect you to know what you’re looking for, what it will be called in that system, and that you only want that thing”. Instead, she proposes:

“You want to give your archival documents a kind of ‘surface area’ so they don’t sink into invisibility. The more points of entry you can give people, the more surface area the objects will have.”

One of her suggestions for creating this ‘surface area’ is to produce documentation that speaks to the dynamics of a company. Next to metadata, this could be a README file, for example, a basic note that explains what the project is and how it came about. While this could be seen as a traditional archival method of description, she also emphasizes the importance of smaller archives –or archives within archives– instead of large collection management systems that hold billions of entries:

“It’s idyllic to suggest that we put our keyword in one place and look into every catalogue on the planet, but, what we’re seeing in reality, today, is that the result of that is the very definition of bland. The various linked data repositories tend towards aggregation and not linkage, so they’re just sort of carrying around each other’s big data instead of understanding it or improving it or doing a really great job of intelligent, delicate interconnection.”

While arguing for the need for human intervention that describes things in multiple ways, and for finding a way to feed this new work back to an institution, Oates also emphasises exploring the methods behind live datasets (that can be browsed and looked at on the Web) for archival practices. Since a lot of data on the Web is centred on liveness (or recentness), how could this method be translated to archival practices: what could a live or real time archive be like? What if archiving things was a moment-by-moment active task?

“Perhaps there are instant or daily uploads into it, like you’d upload to Dropbox or Google. Perhaps there’s also a daily ingest by a local institution or one you’re a member of. Perhaps it’s about drip-fed longevity instead of great globs. Perhaps a junior archivist could actually be a computer program, which computes things about your work.”

What Remains. Licence: CC0

What Remains. Licence: CC0

New Archivists

What would (the future) of such a live archive be like, in which the role and perhaps the function of an archivist are subject to change? Marloes de Valk and Aymeric Mansoux, together with Amber and Dave Griffiths, worked on a pilot project to provide an answer to this question. Rather than creating a new archival system, or even looking into the future, they developed a game: What Remains. Taking the media archaeological trend as a topic and means, the game is created from excavated parts, exclusively developed for a late 1980s popular 8-bit video game console (the Nintendo Entertainment System and Nintendo Famicom consoles), and made available as a physical cartridge as well as a public domain file download to experience on emulators. As the game progresses it turns into an increasingly confronting image of our world, questioning the value and purpose of the so-called digital culture, and what will remain of it.

The artists decided to focus on the obsession with collecting, documenting, archiving, processing and interpreting anything that can be sampled and captured by machines. The game follows the premise that digital data amplify the hoarding side of consumerism by a tech industry eager to provide the necessary apparatus to orchestrate, control, and ultimately generate profit from such digital gluttony. Uncovering the shadows and consequences of the economically driven strategies, the games shows the hidden costs of this pathway: the environmental impact of the cloud and its gazillion connected things; the new forms of labour exploitation and organisation in electronics manufacturing; reducing education to the creation of armies of uncritical computer operators; the struggle of public knowledge repositories confronted with the growing competition of profit-driven private alternatives; and the new forms of elitist denial and escapism found in all sorts of post-human utopias disconnected from reality. On a quest for a rare, unreleased game prototype that will guide the game player’s journey through different subcultures, the main protagonist progressively explores and reveals the dark side of the legacy left by the so-called digital revolution. Following this narrative, the player interacts and solve puzzles, opens up documents and reveals their content in new ways with the help of librarians, private collectors, pirates, activists, academics and independent researchers. From this perspective What Remains explores how documents acquire a new meaning in different contexts (social, legal and technical), through various relations, and can be used in different processes: or, in archival terms, how documents are part of a continuum.

In an attempt to breathe new life into archival strategies, What Remains propagates, through game play, a circular approach to archiving that embraces copying and re-use, while negotiating authority. In the process it questions what kind of archivists exist in the era of the prolific archive, distinguishing between an environmental, an artistic, a conflicted and a gaming archivist. The environmental archivist is portrayed as someone aware of the threat today’s techno-industrial complex poses to the planet, and who wants to do everything in their power to stop the further destruction of ecosystems, using traditional and proven, long-lasting and sustainable methods to archive. An artistic archivist is an anarchist whose perfectly useless, inconsumable and non-marketable systems are all free, and this freedom provides a careful and critical reflection on the world, untempered by advertising, usability, lobby groups and corporations. The conflicted archivist is determined to make knowledge accessible to all and to preserve it for future generations. In the end this archivist is caught in between the world of paper and that of silicon, the world where publishers rule content, and the one where corporations rule infrastructure, mining content ruled by no-one, generated by everyone. Finally, a gaming archivist becomes excited at the sight of 8-bit graphics and clunky but durable cartridges. This archivist is part of a lively community of enthusiasts who take care of a legacy, a part of our culture that would otherwise slowly disappear, shipped off to exotic locations as e-waste.

Speculating on the Future of Digital Archives

Some argue that the digital archive is an oxymoron (Laermans and Gielen 2007) or that it is more akin to an ‘anarchive’ (Ernst 2015, Zielinski 2014). French philosopher Jacques Derrida mentioned the word anarchive to signal that “what remains unvanquished remains associated with the anarchiv” (Ernst 2015, 71). German media archaeologist Wolfgang Ernst relates this notion to the digital archive and describes how the anarchive is something that cannot be ordered or catalogued because it is constantly re-used, circulated, expanding and dynamic, and is thus only a metaphorical archive (Ernst 2015). Similarly, art critic Hal Foster describes how the ‘anarchival’ is about obscure traces rather than absolute origins, emphasising the incomplete which may offer openings to new interpretation, projects or documents, or ‘points of departure’ as mentioned by Foster (Foster 2004, 5). These various descriptions implicate that digital archives, in particular the Internet-based archive, or as some prefer to call it the information society as archive (Brouwer and Mulder 2003), function less as a storage space and more as a recycling centre in which the material (the archival document, if one can still use this term) is dynamic. In other words, as many of these media theoreticians and critics argue, the default of the digital archive is re-use instead of storage, circulation rather than centrally organised memory, and enduring change versus stasis. This beckons the question how to capture and retrieve all this data, information and documents that are ‘archived’ on the Web?

With this project it became clear that a classic archival system is still vital to the functioning of the ‘anarchival’ (Jakobsen 2011, 140). Search engines like Google or Bing will only present websites that they previously have cached, thus showing merely results that are based on your location and browser history. Search engines, or a database for that matter, are technically and conceptually different from an archival system (i.e. a search engine reacts to input and searches for information by making the most efficient connections, while an archive is a set of documents which are saved for specific purposes). However, when the material that is produced and collected and the recordkeeping system in which it is saved are all the same, the traditional notion of the archive which implied a split between the material and its recordkeeping system may need to be rethought. More specifically, if the digital archives are different from their analogue systems, it becomes crucial to understand what digital archives can and cannot do.

Our research showed that digital archives are particularly suited to quickly and easily retrieving data. However, when using an interface, it is not always immediately clear how and why data comes up. Visualising the abstract and hidden world of many digital archives is a good method, but an interface can again shield the inner workings and power structures that are at play. This is particularly problematic when working with online platforms, where the decisions for actions are corporate secrets. While archives have often been accused of obfuscating information, the power of the archivist to retrieve information and explain the working of the system now has been replaced by a combination of various human and technical instruments that, rather than creating more transparency, tend to further limit insight into the workings of the archive. Rather than fearing a dark future, it becomes important to take control and see how to take advantage of the new possibilities. One direction is the role of users. With the growing number of online platforms and tools to create your own archive, everyone is encouraged to become a potential archivist. This may mean that the conventional roles and structures will change, shifting the authority and power of institutions and archivist to users. In this new structure and power balance, users are well equipped to experiment with new forms and tools, while the experience of archiving professionals could help users to set up sustainable ways of archiving their data, or help with intellectual property issues. Together they could confront the commercial interest of large corporate businesses to (re)master their data. By taking the ‘archivists-quiz’ you can see for yourself what kind of (future) archivist you are.


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Image credit: Pretty Old Pictures, photo: Template

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