Saturday, August 9, 2014

Reading Re-Collection

Re-Collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory by Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito, MIT Press, 2014.

I have realized, over time that the topic I am most interested in is preservation. This might seem an odd realization given the declarative name of this blog, and all the preservation related posts I've written. What I mean is that I am interested in the idea of preservation. My interests are less in the particulars of digital preservation or analog preservation or lighthouse preservation than in the very concept of preserving. It helps me to feed this interest when I encounter ideas of preservation that are beyond the realm of typical library talk. This is all an unnecessarily long-winded preface to me saying I stretched my mind and read this book about preserving art and stuff.

I don't typically read books about art, but mention of this volume on my twitter feed caught my eye, and a little research increased by interest. The table of contents listed three chapters with "death" in the title which is a good way to capture my attention. (After researching the book on Amazon I ordered it through my local independent bookstore.)

I found the book very engaging, accessible, insightful, and enjoyable. I really like what the authors did, or attempted to do, and appreciate their endeavors to broaden the conversation about preservation. I also found the book to be occasionally frustrating and I argued with it a lot. (The fact that I found it occasionally frustrating, but eagerly read on to the end is in fact a strong affirmation. I can easily drop a book mid-read if it annoys me.)

On its most up-front level, this book is about preserving new media, particularly digital media art. How do you preserve art that was created using computer technology that is now nearly obsolete? These new creations do pose significant technical challenges, but the technical challenges of digital preservation are not the real heart of this book. The heart of this book is really an exploration of new (or not so new) ways of conceptualizing what preservation might look like. I think the authors do an admirable job of stretching traditional understandings of both how to preserve and what we are preserving.

One of my frustrations with this book is the author's use of caricatures to argue their points, and caricatures make for weak arguments. The authors liked to contrast traditional, institution-bound, conservators, with libertarian, free-wheeling, amateurs. Using their language: "The amateur has no white gloves, [the authors HATE white gloves] lab, or a cadre of assistants" but these amazing amateurs are "acned kids on laptops in bedrooms." Even their portrayal of analog media as compared to digital media relies too heavily on glib characterizations. Some might find this makes the reading more amusing. I didn't. But this is tempered, because in other places in the book, the authors demonstrated much more nuanced understandings of roles and media.

One of my challenges/learning points with reading this book is it comes out of the art context which places a great deal of emphasis on an artifact's creator and the creator's intent.  Galleries - and archives - tend to be much more concerned about facilitating "appropriate" interpretations by providing "context" than is the library world’s tradition. I tend toward the idea that the creator/writer is part of the community of interpreters and not necessarily possessing a more privileged understanding. Having such a high view of the creator, however, will naturally shape how one approaches preservation.

There is so much stuff in this book - my copy has notes written in it all over the place - that it is hard to write a response. This book really has a lot of engaging points and ideas. It's the kind of book I would be glad to do as a chapter by chapter study in a group. [Perhaps I should learn from the archives reading group and organize such a group for this book.]

A little aside about the presence of death in this book – as it is a bit of a hobby topic of mine. As I mentioned above, the word death appearing in chapter titles caught my interest, but upon reading I quickly realized they were regarding death as a bad thing. But then they threw me a curve ball and in the chapter “Unreliable Archivists” had an engaging and nuanced discussion of death, including K├╝bler-Ross’s stages of grief. The book is also dedicated “To everyone that’d dead.”

I think the key take away from this book is the things we want to preserve – whether new media art, or old-fashioned books – are variable, and preserving them requires solutions that are equally variable. Both their "object" as performance and their ecological models are valuable additions to the conversation.

I conclude reiterating that as much as I argued with and complained about this book, it is a really valuable read and the most engaging thing I've read in a while.

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