Discourse lost in the ether

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In the vast online universe of the new media arts, there is a narrative of crucial histories scattered across the net in this amorphous arena. In the current conversation on the CRUMB discussion list, there is an effort, led by historian and this month’s moderator Charlotte Frost, to reign in and track down the history of discussion lists for her historical research on artistic practice via the network. However, given the conversation on CRUMB thus far, my concern is that this collection of art historical artifacts appears to be vanishing, given the lack of archival techniques used for its preservation and dissemination. Of course this is a problem facing the entirety of the digital domain, so it’s certainly not an issue confined to media artists and art historians.

Thousands of historically important emails are headed for obscurity from such esteemed media arts lists as Syndicate, Nettime, The Well, etc. These email discussions are a record of artistic invention, renegade projects, and artistic mediations that have greatly impacted the history of the arts. This month on the CRUMB list, Charlotte Frost is trying to round it all up for a future publication. A noble task indeed.

The following is my contribution to the dialogue on CRUMB:

Having just taught my seminar as part of the Media Art Histories module on archiving in Riga, I thought it was relevant to bring up the issue of documenting the discussion. My seminar, Open Source Studio, was concerned with how open source techniques and current day archival systems can serve artists, historians, curators and critics in their research. I think that one of the key issues with the discussion list concerns access, storage and publication. There is a considerable body of knowledge embedded in lists, but how do we fully exploit systems of organization, tagging, and categorizing, as found in current day content management systems (CMS) such as WordPress? How do we retrieve and distribute this body of intellectual content in an effective, meaningful and compelling way? How do we index discussion lists so that they can be referenced by online publications? I would be interested in thoughts and solutions regarding how to marry current day database functionality with the extraordinary body of knowledge we have on historic lists such as CRUMB or Syndicate or Nettime.

I want to mention two archived discussion projects that might serve as examples:

The first is the Telematic Manifesto project, which I created for the Net_Condition exhibition at ZKM in 1999. I ran a listserv during the course of the show, raising millennial and other aspirational questions on topics related to network practice, with quite a number of eloquent contributors, including: Mark Amerika, David Ross, Ken Goldberg, Joel Slayton, Marc Lafia, Aaron Betsky, Lynn Hershman, Steve Dietz, Edward Shanken, among others. I took the email content of the discussion and created a Website that wove topics and themes together as a hypermedia document. Essentially, you can navigate the discourse.

The second example is the 2001 publication by Jordan Crandall, et al, entitled Interaction: Artistic Practice in the Network, which began as an online forum hosted by Eyebeam, and was subsequently organized in book form. The project concerned the discussion of cultural issues and artistic potentialities facilitated by the network. Contributors included: Critical Art Ensemble, Lev Manovich, Katherine Hayles, Margaret Morse, among others.

To summarize: as we explore the impact of online discussion on the histories of media art practice and art history, it is important to be thinking about systems and tools for preserving and disseminating this information in ways that fully exploit the mechanisms available today. Otherwise these important conversations, vital to the history of our field, will simply be lost in the ether.