This interview was originally published as part of New Archive Interpretations, a project and 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. Over a two-year period they investigated the challenges and opportunities of digital archives. The project was developed and curated by Annet Dekker.
The interview takes the form of a multiple-choice test. Annet Dekker is asking the questions, Marloes de Valk and Aymeric Mansoux are formulating four possible answers. By answering the questions yourself, you can find out what type of archivist you are.
For the commission you were asked to focus on the future of archiving. Instead you returned to the past, looking into old game systems, in particular the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). What made you go this way?
A: Given today's ecological issues and technological consumerism, we did not want to introduce or promote yet another disposable platform, but instead make the most of already produced things.
B: Because, obviously, by looking into yesterday you get a clearer view of tomorrow.
C: One should be cautious about novelty technology and its impact on conservation and distribution. Not everything has to be speculative or unstable.
D: All my old game cartridges still work, they are the best, they will last forever.
On the one hand you seem to follow a media archaeological approach, but at the same time you’re adding a new layer (or even layers) of content, expanding in various ways on the archetypical game mechanics usually found in early video games. What interest do you have in the past, especially in reconstructing and reconfiguring existing hardware and software, while at the same time making something new?
A: The topic of the game deals with our passive attitude towards global warming. That's why it's important to have as little environmental impact as possible. Re-use, repair, recycle!
B: These devices are like instruments. They are now partly liberated from their original mainstream cultural context, and have a lot to offer in terms of expression and creativity. You would not stop composing on a guitar because it was built in the 60s, why would you stop making new works on an 80s video game console?
C: The content of the game is about the distribution of information and the influence on public opinion. To reflect upon this, it was important to choose an environment in which the sharing and circulation of digital works was alive. We chose the NES because of its thriving communities, and its games that are very easily distributed, and can be emulated on myriad platforms and devices.
D: I already played all the classics; I can't wait for new releases!
How do you overcome a sense of nostalgia, rather than a focus on the content?
A: Wait. What nostalgia? This is not about reliving fond memories or fetishize about an imaginary past, it's about being tactical in our choice of medium, so as to propagate a political perspective efficiently.
B: This nostalgia emerges first from the wish to return to a time where we could have still reversed some effects of climate change. But then, there is also a more reflective side to it, which is essential to the content. We use nostalgia as a tool to underline the urgency of our situation and understand how we got to this point.
C: I'm puzzled by this question. Is the preservation of information about nostalgia?
D: Games were more interesting back in the days. For instance, game mechanics were not hidden behind lots of visual effects, impressive graphics, or gratuitous features. It was also about playing together physically in the same place. Today we rely on software and moderators to filter, mediate, shape and police our multiplayer experience, and therefore the way we communicate with each other.
What is the storyline of the game?
A: Saving the planet.
B: The incapacity to save ourselves.
C: The role of information in the way we relate to environmental issues.
D: The hero battling against evil powers set to destroy Earth.
Most of the other commissions have focused on the future, speculating about the meaning and possibilities of (online) digital archiving. You’re taking a different approach – reflecting on the (dis)closing and obfuscating of information and documents in the archives of the past, but also investigating the influence of intellectual and technical infrastructures that interface and mediate them. What is your take on the position of public institutions and more particularly how archival systems function(ed)?
A: The future of archiving does not lie with fancy new gadgets, but with smart and tactical use of existing technology. Archiving information can be one of the best ways to obfuscate information, but we choose the opposite: to keep the information alive and trigger political discussions in places where it is often absent.
B: The analysis and understanding of how information was obfuscated in the past is an important clue to get a clearer view on how such obfuscation operates today. The goal is to learn about and then recognise such patterns in order to eventually disrupt them.
C: Really, it all boils down to issues of intellectual property. There is simply no point in speculating about the future until this fact is understood. As already noted by Jacques Derrida in the mid-nineties, the rise of electronic media must necessarily be accompanied by juridical and political transformations. Yet none of these happened, and today's difficulty for archival systems to be truly useful is linked to the need to constantly work around their incapacity to make things public.
D: Since the late 90s retro gaming online communities have worked around the law to provide the most resilient and best documented archive of gaming software, as well as fostering the creation of a myriad of non profit organisations, and other types of groups, dedicated to both the preservation and the active use of so-called obsolete hardware. If we can do it from our basement with virtually no financial support, surely public institutions can do it too.
The title What Remains seems to me quite crucial, both in a literal way – what remains of information, the green environment, or even planet Earth – and also more conceptually: what does it mean when we lose things, knowledge or expertise. What would your response be to those kinds of losses?
A: Infuriated and heartbroken at the same time.
B: Nothing lasts forever.
C: We already learn little from our past, but if we can’t even access it any longer, we won’t even have the chance to try and learn.
D: Backup more.
How do you see these different institutions (retro gaming and archival institutions) developing in the near future?
A: They will develop into allies in the combat against the ills of the post-truth era. Archives and grassroots communities could prove to be the only antidote.
B: The biggest archives of the near future are from Google, Facebook, the NSA, and the like. We are all at their mercy.
C: The archives of the near future will be the gatekeepers that preserve information without too much worry about access or keeping information alive, but really simply making sure future generations will still have access to it.
D: Retro-gaming is not an institution and this is exactly why the communities surrounding it work so well at providing a safe haven for this particular part of digital culture, and will continue to do so in the future.
In reference to the research she did for the previous commission George Oates described how “Today, in our digital work, we can see in near real time how people are making things together, but we’re a fair way away from capturing that in a non-corporate archive”. Looking at your research and outcomes, community seems one of the answers for future archiving, what would be your advice for contemporary archivists? Do you think they can actually proceed/survive in their traditional modes of being the creators or gatekeepers of archival records and their management?
A: Anyone can be a gatekeeper or creator of records. It is possible to set up your own infrastructures to share books, files or objects. We do not want to mine data for advertisement, manipulate decisions, exclude people from insurances or loans, predict whether or not you are likely to wear blue tomorrow, therefore we have no need to log your every move online, all we need is a way to provide our own communities with the information that supports them in their cause.
B: On the one hand there is the role of keeping information safe long-term, archiving for the future, without too much worry about access. On the other hand there is the approach of online communities that keep the information they value hyper accessible and alive, without focussing on the longevity of the information. Once the community shrinks or loses momentum, the information is no longer maintained and could easily disappear. Perhaps archivists should embrace both approaches, first, preserving for the long-term and second, sharing freely by leaking their data to communities wanting to work with it, without having to overcome the impossibility of merging the two worlds, and all the legal and practical problems that entails.
C: In the history of computational culture there has never been a clear divide between totally independent user communities and corporately sponsored user groups. Some forms of exploitation and manipulation are unavoidable. We started using certain systems and are now dependent on them. We don't have the means to develop alternatives on such a large scale and the price to pay for that is yet to be discovered.
D: It is always better to rely on people that share your passion and enthusiasm to keep things alive than on corporations that have a very different priority list than you.
So, what’s the end of the game?
A: Everyone becomes vegan, the power of the elites crumbles, the surveillance society dies along with our hard disks.
B: Play the game already!
C: You discover a new classification system that is usable for and by all, cross platform, distributed yet universal, self-updating, merging and consolidating divergence.
D: You reach the castle but the princess already left the building.
What Kind of Archivist are You: the Outcome
If most of your answers were A you are an environmental archivist. You are deeply aware of the threat today’s techno-industrial complex poses to the planet, you are doing everything in your power to stop the further destruction of ecosystems, the impoverishment of the soil, the acidification of the oceans and the dangerous warming of the earth's atmosphere. Of course, you always use acid-free paper.
If most of your answers were B, you are an artistic archivist. Your production of perfectly useless, inconsumable and non-marketable systems is free in all senses of the word and because of this freedom, such systems provide a careful and critical reflection on the world, untempered by advertising, usability, lobby groups and corporations.
If you answered C most of the time, you are a conflicted archivist. Your passion is to make knowledge accessible to all and to preserve it for future generations. You're 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.
If you answered D most often, you are a gaming archivist. Your heart overflows with joy at the sight of 8-bit graphics and clunky but durable cartridges. You are 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.