Jacques Derrida’s “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression” expands the notion of what can be considered an archive, and assigns more power to the act of archiving. For him, the process of archiving an event leaves a trace on an exterior substrate. A mark is made on a substance; memory is made tangible. This leaving of a trace is called the “repetition” of the event. As he notes,
There is no archive without a place of consignation, without a technique of repetition, and without a certain exteriority. No archive without outside. 1
This repetition is by nature removed from the original event. The archive possesses a quality Derrida terms “spectral”: “…neither present nor absent “in the flesh,” neither visible nor invisible, a trace always referring to another whose eyes can never be met…” 2
Yet at the same time it’s spectral, the way an event is repeated/archived is deeply linked to our understanding of that event. For Derrida, the archived form of the event ends up becoming an integral, inseparable part of it:
…the technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the structure of the archivable content even in its very coming into existence and in its relationship to the future. The archivization produces as much as it records the event. This is also our political experience of the so-called news media. 3
The act of or potential for archiving ends up influencing the event itself. But what about events that resist archiving, like certain kinds of performances?
Recently, the National Gallery of Art in Washington presented an exhibition on Serge Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, and as part of their web content they produced a video on the history of the dance company. Included were a mix of photographs of the original dancers, photographs of restored costumes, and videos of later recreations of several of the dances. Some of the earlier restagings were done by the Monaco-based branch of the Ballets Russes formed shortly after Diaghilev’s death, whereas others were staged by companies like the Joffrey Ballet in the 80s.
Traditional archival records (like photographs, costumes, and drawings) were probably used to construct these restagings, but the videos of the restagings themselves can also be considered part of “The Archive” of the Ballets Russes: in the absence of a video trace produced of the first performance of a dance, these videos become the most tangible trace of the whole performance.
But should these archives of the Ballets Russes become part of the Ballets Russes? Though any kind of change of medium of reproduction (like the photographing of a painting) can be understood to enact changes on the “event”, reproductions of performances seem to be especially spectral and those changes can be jarring. In the realm of performance art, an awareness of the changes that occur when an original performance is repeated led some artists beginning in the 1970s, like Vito Acconci, to prefer not to reperform pieces—to keep out archival accumulation. Maybe the “death drive” is a concern, reperformance in a way superimposing or causing the forgetting of the original piece. As Derrida says,
If repetition is thus inscribed at the heart of the future to come, one must also import here, in the same stroke, the death drive, the violence of forgetting, superrepression (suppression and repression), the anarchive, in short, the possibility of putting to death the very thing, whatever its name, which carries the law in its tradition… 4
This has come up in the context of the performance work of Marina Abramovic—for example in 2005 when she reperformed some of her own works as well as the works of others (including Acconci). On the other end of the spectrum there are artists like Tino Seghal, an artist who vigorously prohibits any kind of archiving of his work. No photographs and very little writing about his pieces is permitted: in the catalog of the exhibition documenta (13) held in Kassel in 2012, the page describing his work was completely missing, and his name only appeared in the table of contents and index.
In some cases the resistance to archiving is a conceptual aspect of the work, but even when it’s not it can be said that in general the ephemeral nature of dance performances and performance art makes them difficult to archive. Part of this must simply stem from the fact that a performance is temporal, and doesn’t necessarily become fixed into a tangible medium: it doesn’t easily leave a trace.
Online media and websites can also be understood this way, even though a website seems fairly tangible at first glance, and for a while even looks the same upon repeated viewings. But like a performance, websites are dynamic. In his essay, “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era”, Roy Rosenzweig points out that although it feels like we are drowning in digital documents, websites actually change or disappear rapidly. In an article on web archiving at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Heather Slania also brings up this point, noting that it is difficult to capture websites built in Flash and sites that link to databases, “…meaning that the only documentation left might be a website’s mere existence.” 5
To illustrate this point, Slania includes an image of a flash website captured in a crawl done with Archive-It, which appears as a gray box. Of course, the image captured in that crawl is an archival trace, but as Slania says, it only testifies to the existence of the website. How useful is that kind of trace? In this case probably not terribly, but it brings up the point that just as the process of archiving shapes the event itself, so does the character of the archive (what kinds of traces are left) shape the kinds of questions researchers ask.
A recent effort to restore Douglas Davis’ “The World’s First Collaborative Sentence”, an early example of Internet art, could provide a model for archiving web-based materials. Even though it was created less than 20 years ago, the site was already in need of restoration, which was undertaken by the Whitney in summer 2013. Problems like “link rot” (when hyperlinks no longer function since the site linked to has disappeared) arose, as did the question of whether to alter the code so that it functioned in modern browsers. Ultimately the team decided to present multiple versions of the site: a live version that works in modern browsers, the original site (with its broken code), and screenshots of what it looked like in Netscape (an old browser). The live version satisfies researchers who want to understand the interactive aspects of the original site, while the presence of the untouched original site, along with the residual broken hyperlinks left in the live version of the site, are a testament to the fragility of web structures—and to the challenges of archiving dynamic ephemera.
In March of 2012, a heated debate ensued after Maria Popova of Brainpickings introduced the curator’s code—two Unicode characters (ᔥ, the “via”, and ↬, the “hat tip”) meant to help people credit the origins of the links they share online. The “via” indicates a direct link to a piece of content, while the “hat tip” is used to credit another person who’d previously shared the content. Though these terms had been around before the advent of the curator’s code, the code was an attempt to standardize the terms and to publicize the ethics of recording how links are shared.
The curator’s code is a piece of Popova’s broader position that arrangement and information architecture are meaningful (she uses the term “combinatorial creativity”). The core idea behind the code is that “content curation and information discovery” are valuable, creative forms of labor, and those laborers are worthy of being getting credited for that work.
Sometimes called curation or aggregation (many people on both sides of the debate don’t feel there is an adequate term), this kind of work can take on a few different forms. It might be a twitter feed comprised of links briefly commented on, or a blog post (on a site like HuffPo) featuring a longer summary and a link back to an original article. Basically, “content curation and information discovery” fall under the umbrella of the act of grouping, collecting, or listing other sources.
In the context of journalism the link back to the original source is especially important to the original creator of the content, since it can mean more page views (which is tied to revenue). Linking back also builds social capital—as David Carr said in an interview, “…often the only compensation that’s out there. That ego compensation or artistic compensation.” In that way it can also be important to an artist or social media personality. The principle of linking back (with or without a “via”) isn’t a foreign concept, since it does basically what a copyright notice does—identify the author (or owner) of a thing.
And that aspect of the curator’s code was generally accepted. Besides some aesthetic issues and practical gripes with the Unicode characters, the backlash flared when the definition of who should get credited with authorship was broadened to include the aggregator/curator, with particular issue taken with the word “curator.” “ ‘Curation’ is an act performed by people with PhDs in art history” commented Matt Langer (on Gizmodo). As Marco Arment elaborated in his post (titled “I’m not a curator”):
I completely disagree with Popova on the value of discovery.
The value of authorship is much more clear. But regardless of how much time it takes to find interesting links every day, I don’t think most intermediaries deserve credit for simply sharing a link to someone else’s work.
Reliably linking to great work is a good way to build an audience for your site. That’s your compensation.
But if another link-blogger posts a link they found from your link-blog, I don’t think they need to credit you. Discovering something doesn’t transfer any ownership to you. Therefore, I don’t think anyone needs to give you credit for showing them the way to something great, since it’s not yours. Some might as a courtesy, but it shouldn’t be considered an obligation.
… when we do this thing that so many of us like to call “curation” we’re not providing any sort of ontology or semantic continuity beyond that of our own whimsy or taste or desire. “Interesting things” or “smart things” are not rubrics that make the collection and dissemination of data that happens on the Internet anything closer to a curatorial act; these categories are ultimately still reducible to “things I find appealing,”…
Joe Lazauskas, reacting to Langer’s post, noted that for him sharing content and creating original content are not equally valuable activities, and agreed that “there’s no standard that distinguishes curation from sharing, it’s just a means of attributing artfulness and profession to the act of presenting non-original content to an audience.”
Whichever side of the curator’s code debate one goes with, its questions about the definition and cultural value of curation are important, and relevant in other contexts. For example, like web curators, librarians engage in “the act of presenting non-original content to an audience,” selecting and communicating sources they have not created to users. If not when web curators do it, can a librarian’s collection, gathering and sharing, arrangement, aggregation, selection, and curation be considered artful, valuable, creative, and/or professional? This is an important question for a field that has historically struggled with its professional identity—particularly regarding the cultural value and impact of its activities. In her book The Alienated Librarian, Marcia J. Nauratil traces thwarted professional development and public recognition to the feminization of the field, but another root might be our culture’s devaluation of the work of curation/knowledge organization—clearly seen in the reaction to the curator’s code.
How can we come to an understanding that these activities are creative, not in the sense that something original and new is created, but in the sense that meaning is created? In books like Questioning Library Neutrality, the political impact of accessions and collection development becomes clear. One core tenet that emerges is that the choice to include or not include a source in a collection is not neutral, but rather carries weight. In the library these choices of inclusion and exclusion impact the users, representing or under-representing their interests—and in that way they are creative, in that they create meaning or a message or an effect on people. Another aspect that comes up in QLN is that how a source is cataloged—for example, what subject terms are used and the specific wording chosen for them—imparts bias. A “neutral” position still communicates something—you say something by saying nothing. Maybe another way to phrase that is silent or explicit arrangement says something—it creates meaning, and in that way it is interpretive. Even though the brand of interpretation is different from what many people would traditionally accept as creative, seeing collection and organization through the lens of neutrality can lend more credibility to the idea of curation—thereby lending credibility to the project of librarians and others who gather and present information to others.
*I tried to trace where I got my links from, but it was actually harder than I expected (since my way of working is to open a bunch of tabs and look at everything at the end). I’ve been thinking about this topic since last year, so that added to the confusion–I’d bookmarked some of the following pages then, and for this post did some additional googling.
Popova’s previous writings:
In a new world of informational abundance, content curation is a new kind of authorship (6/10/11) [↬ Megan Garber]
Networked Knowledge and Combinatorial Creativity (8/1/11) [↬ Popova, Introducing the Curator’s Code]
Introductions to the curator’s code:
Maria Popova, Introducing the Curator’s Code: A Standard for Honoring Attribution of Discovery Across the Web (3/9/12)
Swiss Miss (3/9/12)
David Carr, A Code of Conduct for Content Aggregators (3/11/12) [↬ Swiss Miss]
Megan Garber, The Curator’s Guide to the Galaxy (3/11/12)
Duncan Geere on Wired, ‘Curator’s code’ proposed for web attribution (3/12/12)
Brooke Gladstone’s On the Media interview with Popova (3/23/12)
Reaction to the curator’s code:
Twitter discussion of the curator’s code
Daniel Howells’ post (3/11/12) [↬ Swiss Miss]Jennifer Daniel’s satire on Bloomberg (3/12/12) [↬ Michael Surtees]
Marco Arment, I’m not a curator (3/12/12) [↬ Daniel Howells]
Matt Langer, Stop Calling it Curation (3/12/12) [↬ Daniel Howells]
It’s Nice That post (3/13/12) [↬ Daniel Howells]
Michael Surtees’ post (sometime in March? undated) [↬ Daniel Howells]
Brad Zackarin, The Curator’s Code in the Classroom (3/14/12)
Iain Claridge, My Collector’s Code (3/14/12)
Maria Popova, Einstein on Kindness, Our Shared Existence, and Life’s Highest Ideals (3/19/12)
Glen Isip’s post (3/20/12)
Joanna June on Hack Library School, We are all curators (3/23/12)
Maria Bustillos on Buzzfeed, Why we need “Curators” (4/3/12) [↬ curatorscode.org]
Joe Lazauskas, Rethinking the Curator’s Code: The Hidden Dangers of Elevating Content Sharing (6/20/12)
Learning by Doing, The Curator’s Code: The Art of Online Attribution (8/6/13)
For more, see the press and debate section of the curator’s code website.