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Left: the Rosetta Stone. Right: a dancer from the First Nation Kehewin Native Dance Theater.

This talk focuses on "unofficial" uses of new media, especially by the young, and why they are sometimes more effective than professional enterprises. It was originally given as a keynote for The Fifth National Symposium of the Brazilian Association of Cyberculture Researchers, Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, Brazil, 16 November 2011.

The material is drawn from a chapter of New Media and Social Memory, a forthcoming MIT Press book co-written with Richard Rinehart, called "Unreliable Archivists." The choice of subject was also inspired by this quote from Yara Guasque's introduction in the conference program:

O ciberespaco seja plural, modos multiplos de fazer que desestabilizam as logicas anteriores arraigadas nas competencias do espaco fisico, queremos entende-lo como um lugar que reinventou o modo de...trabalharmos em colaboracao.


Which of these is the oldest human record?



The Rosetta Stone


The story of the Mapinguary


The Dead Sea Scrolls


The Gudea Cylinders

This is the oldest human record I have found: the story of the mapinguary, passed down from generation to generation among the Indians of the Brazilian rainforest. Twenty feet tall, as strong as a dozen gorillas, covered with matted hair covering a bony carapace--the giant ground sloth made such an impression on the tribes of the Amazon that nearly every one has a word for this creature, which most call the mapinquary.

The native accounts are detailed enough that scientists have been able to identify their protagonist as the giant ground sloth, Megatherium. In fact, when a native of Peru's Machiguenga people matter-of-factly described seeing a mapinguary at the natural history museum in Lima, ethnobiologist Glenn Shepard was able to corroborate the mapinguary's pedigree: the museum has a diorama with a model of the Megatherium.

How do I know these stories are older than the pyramids or Machu Picchu? Because the diorama in Lima depicted prehistoric mammals. The Megatherium is a creature that died out tens of thousands of years ago, yet survives in the stories of Indians of the Brazilian rainforest.

The legend of the mapinguary isn't just some stone tool or potshard from which we can infer a story about an experience long past. It is the story itself. Or rather, it is the persistence of key elements in the story, as retold over at least two thousand generations, that has kept alive accounts of human encounters with this prehistoric animal. Indigenous storytellers even "remember" features of the mapinguary that paleontologists cannot read from the bones, like how the Megatherium smelled: the name mapinquary means fetid beast.

Paleontologists have begun to accept other indigenous stories as genuine memories, including a giant, man-eating bird known to science as Haast's eagle, extinct for 500 years but alive in Maori legend.

All of this is hard to understand from the perspective of museums and archives, which depend on the dedication of a staff of experts in a centralized institution to safeguard cultural memory. The proliferation of recorded media in the last century would seem to underscore the necessity of media specialists and climate-controlled warehouses to look after all those silver gelatin prints and reels of celluloid. Even performance theorists such as Peggy Phelan imply that performance cannot be stored.

Perhaps not. But storage isn't the only mode of safeguarding culture, and in this age of rapid obsolescence, storage is turning out to be the least reliable of them.

During the Conquest, imperial centers in Spain and Portugal controlled indigenous populations by prohibiting performative practices such as dance and ritual in favor of archival practices such as writing. But while books can be burned and temples destroyed, stories such as the mapinguary survived even the conquistadors' deliberate attempt to obliterate them.

Relying on preservation vigilantes may sound unprofessional, but they served culture well for tens of thousands of years before priests and preparators came along. In the battle of the proprietary versus the prolific, the historic record may be debatable, but the pre-historic is not. Euro-ethnic preservationists fool themselves into thinking that stone tablets and figurines in museums are the oldest artifacts on record. But the oldest cultural knowledge survives not in durable formats, but in social ones.

I'm going to make a radical claim: that the future of new media lurks in the Amazon rainforest. Well, not only in the Amazon, but really anywhere that oral and performative cultures trump fixed culture, because it is only by their paradigm of "proliferative preservation" that we will keep the rich technological culture of the present alive.

I've already talked about how well proliferative preservation works in indigenous practices. For the rest of this talk, I'll try to explain why it works so well in digital practices, with particular attention to emulation and crowdsourcing, and the preservation paradigm known as "variable media." I'll end with some of the challenges to proliferative preservation, and the reasons I'm confident we can overcome them.

Emulation is the poster child for unofficial solutions to new media problems. To see why, let's first look at a professional solution to the problem of media survival.

We are falling behind in the race to save digital culture. Our best efforts to preserve the rich outpouring of the last few decades known as media art are being buried underneath an avalanche of obsolete floppy disks, restrictive End User License Agreements, and antisocial archival practices. Even when aware of promising strategies such as emulation, museums and other cultural institutions are having trouble adapting to them.

Let me illustrate this by starting with one of the few triumphs of the art world's preservation efforts: the renewal of Grahame Weinbren and Roberta Friedman's Erl King, one of the first examples of interactive video from 1982. This piece was on its last legs when the Variable Media Network chose it as a poster child for the exhibition Seeing Double, resulting in an emulated version that a survey of visitors showed was practically indistinguishable from the original. The technique of emulation, whereby a newer computer impersonates an older one, enabled preservationists to salvage the source code and user experience of the Erl King while replacing its body with up-to-date guts.

The successful emulation of the Erl King was only possible because of a "perfect storm" consisting of talented technicians, an eager and forthcoming artist, access to the original software and hardware, and organizations willing to fund. It's hard to imagine spending two years and tens of thousands of dollars to re-create every interactive video installation from the 1980s, much less every endangered example of media art.

So our shining example of a successful emulation is shining all the brighter because it's pretty much standing alone, surrounded by less fortunate works that are all going dark.


FCEUX emulator running Super Mario Brothers

If we professionals are falling behind, who's keeping up? Super Mario Brothers, that's who. When it comes to preservation, the Olympians of new media art are getting their butts kicked by an Italian plumber.

While professional conservators have only managed to future-proof a tiny sliver of new media artworks created since 1980 in any systematic and extensible way, a global community of dispersed amateurs has safeguarded the lion's share of a different genre of early computational media: video games.

Take, for example, the FCEUX emulator, at the time of this writing the top-ranked emulator on the prominent site Emulator Zone for the enormously popular Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). FCEUX can trace its genealogy back to an early emulator called Family Computer Emulator, or FCE, so called because Nintendo released the NES in Asia as "Family Computer." In the manner of many open source projects, no company controlled the source code for this emulator; instead the programmer, known by the name Bero, released his abashedly titled "dirty code" online for other gaming fans to tinker with and extend. One such fan, known as Xodnizel, released an improvement called FCE Ultra that became so popular in the early 2000s that it spawned a half-dozen "forks," or versions modified by other users. By the late 2000s, NES fans merged four of the forks to produce FCEUX, a cross-platform and cross-standard emulator released under the GPL open-source license.

I cannot think of a single instance of software created by the professional preservation community in this supple way, passed from hand to hand over decades, diverging, re-converging, and constantly improving without a single institution or copyright holder at the wheel.


Photosynth applied to Notre Dame

The amateur preservationists responsible for the FCE emulator stream aren't laboring away in some government-funded thinktank or corporate software lab. They're banging out code in their underwear in a room in the basement of their mother's house. But some clever organizations have realized that in proliferative preservation, the benefits of crowdsourcing can easily offset the range of quality of amateur contributions.

Photosynth, a project by Microsoft and the University of Washington, can marry a pre-existing CAD model of Paris's Notre Dame cathedral--showing just the geometry, without any visual texture--together with the hundreds of photographs tagged "Notre Dame" by amateurs who uploaded them to the photo-sharing site Flickr. By automatically mapping each photo onto the correct vantage point and angle using a computer vision algorithm, Photosynth lets viewers explore a virtual Notre Dame at virtually any range of detail, from distant views of its skyline to detailed closeups of its fašade.

Photosynth video (3:57-6:05)


Photofly captures a historical artifact.

Rather than map crowdsourced images onto a shape, some applications perform the reverse reconstruction by deriving a shape from crowdsourced images of its surface. Like the replicators featured in Star Trek, Photofly compiles multiple photos of a physical object taken with a smartphone into a virtual model that can be printed out using a 3d printer. It isn't hard to imagine an architectural historian using Photosynth to reconstruct, say, how Times Square has changed over the decades, or imagining a conservator using Photofly to preserve replicas of endangered three-dimensional objects, whether at risk of theft (such as the solid gold Mask of Agamemnon) or of degradation (such as artist Matthew Barney's vaseline dumbbells). As hybrid examples of proliferative preservation, these applications employ software written by experts to collocate images taken by lay photographers.

Photofly video (start at 0:44)

Of course there are downsides to trusting amateur preservationists to do the job of professionals. I'm going to focus on two of them today.


Picasso's Trois Femmes

The most common complaint is the loss of artistic integrity through deviation from a work's original intent. Here are three examples:

* Art investors tried to cut up Picasso's Trois Femmes into one-inch squares to sell as "original Picassos."

* Ted Turner tried to make older movies more palatable to contemporary audiences by colorizing them or editing smoking scenes out of classic cartoons.

* George Lucas added updated special effects to the first three Star Wars movies of the 1970s so they would stand up technically alongside the prequels from the 2000s, as well as seemingly minor alterations that changed important aspects of character development. Most infamously, Lucas added a blast effect behind the head of actor Harrison Ford, to show that his character only shot the space villain Greedo in self defense; in the eyes of hard-core Star Wars fans, this whitewashing of the formerly unsavory Han Solo diminished his return to grace at the end of the film, and they responded with a vigorous online campaign to protest that "Han Shot First."

These examples are all pretty clearly deviations from the spirit of the original, even when perpetrated by the original creator (as in the case of George Lucas). That said, there is only a problem if we assume the "either/or" logic of analog media: either you have the original Picasso or you have a bunch of fragments in its place; either television shows the black-and-white Asphalt Jungle or the colorized version.


Marilyn Monroe (colorized)

Marilyn Monroe in Asphalt Jungle (original).

But digital artifacts operate not by a logic of either/orbut one of both/and. As most digital files can be cloned without loss, a preservator can migrate a work without affecting its original version. Conservators bent on rescuing an equine sculpture from Athen's smoggy skies might move it to the British Museum, but this has the unfortunate side effect of leaving a gaping hole in the Parthenon. Migrating an audio file from WAV to MP3 or Ogg Vorbis, by contrast, doesn't require removing the original file.

(Removing analog artifacts can hurt the artifacts as well as the context. In the 1600s, Venetians keen on "rescuing" the chariot horses of Athena and Poseidon from the Turk-controlled Parthenon succeeded only in shattering them when the pulleys slipped. In the 1800s, Lord Elgin's ship carrying his first shipment of marbles sank off the island of Cythera.)

If the effect of analog preserving is often fragmentation, the effect of digital preservation can be proliferation: the act of preserving becomes a palimpsest, writing new versions into the cultural niche formerly occupied only by a single version. The original lingers, but is joined in the same space by other renditions.

In fact, most digital artists inadvertently generate multiple versions of their works in the very act of creating them, simply because that's how new media work. Indeed, one of the main complaints that Star Wars fans have with George Lucas is his attempt to squelch access to the original versions of the movies--a completely artificial erasure of history that isn't necessary given the both/and logic of digital video.

The opinions of artists as to how their work should be preserved form the kernel of the Variable Media Questionnaire, a project begun at the Guggenheim in 1998 and currently maintained by the Forging the Future alliance, which tracks opinions about how artworks may change in the future when their current media expire. While the artist's own opinion formed the core of the first version of this questionnaire, subsequent versions were revised to gather feedback from many sources, from experts such as the artist's technicians or curators to members of the lay public, so as leave a broader historical record as the basis for future decisions about the best way to preserve a work.


Marjetica Potrc, Caracas favela

Marjetica Potrc, Kagiso (Skeleton House), South Africa
Another common criticism leveled at emulation, migration, and other "variable media" preservation strategies is their detachment of a work from its original hardware; this detachment is all the more likely once you let amateurs in on the job of reinterpreting works in new media.

It's true that certain works, such as Nam June Paik's TV Crown or Cory Arcangel's Hogan's Alley resist translation into new mediums because their artistic meaning is bound up with a specific apparatus such as a cathode-ray tube or light gun. Some art historians and conservators would claim that this is true of the majority of cultural artifacts, leaving the variable media paradigm a viable strategy only for Conceptual art and its descendants.

This subtle critique is important, but misguided. For the variable media paradigm claims not that an artwork is divorceable from its material substrate, but that it already has many material substrates. A single-channel video by Pipilotti Rist employs a new projector every time it travels to a new museum. The bricks purchased for a favela installed by Marjetica Potrc are different for a New York installation than for one in Johannesberg. Mark Morris's Nutcracker looks completely different from Mikhail Baryshnikov's, which looks different from George Balanchine's. A Java applet by John Simon looks larger or smaller, brighter or duller, and runs faster or slower depending upon whether its viewer has a 1998 Powerbook or a 2008 MacBook.

With this multiplicity in mind, the variable media paradigm starts not from an assumption of universality but of differentiation. From this perspective, an artwork consists not of the Platonic essence to which every physical instance aspires, but the accumulation of attempts to achieve the artist's intent as rendered in different browsers, resolutions, durations, and publics.

I hope I've shown that some of the bugaboos of proliferative preservation seem a lot less scary once you realize that digital media are inherently multiple and variable. One bugaboo that won't be going away any time soon is the fact that proliferative preservation loosens the control of culture's traditional custodians over the future of the culture they are tasked with preserving.

Yet, as threatening as they may seem, the cultural elite would do well to find a way to live symbiotically with these amateurs, because the creativity they bring to the job of cultural perseverance can inject a much-needed vitality into the professional archive and its dusty shelves. Much as professional conservators might fear an army of amateurs, such "unreliable archivists" have kept their culture alive by retelling and rescripting while highbrow electronic artworks decay into inert assemblages of wire and plastic in their climate-controlled crates. The 21st century may never know the remarkable luminescence of Hesse's sculptures, but the future of the mapinguary and Mario is assured.

If the custodians of culture want to add artists like Nam June Paik and Camille Utterback to that future, they'll need to fund more than conservation labs and climate-controlled vaults. Artists' studios, online forums, and remote villages are where culture is birthed and resurrected by its indigenous producers. Permanent exhibitions nourish art less than temporary exhibitions, where works are upgraded and displayed before being routed to their next venue. Conservators need to understand strategies such as emulation, migration, and reinterpretation and make sure the artists they work with understand them too. And museums need to allocate less of their budgets to renting storage space and more to funding the process of creating, and re-creating, art.