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Archiving with Attitude: The Unreliable Archivist and äda'web

Steve Dietz, January 1999
The year is 2020. You've just woken from a fitful night of sleep and you decide to check out something you can't quite get out of your head. It's an early "site"--that's what they called them back in the 1990s--named äda'web or something. Still a bit groggy, you plump up one of your pillows, prop yourself up on your elbow, and instruct your computerized personal assistant--we'll call it cohenfrankippolito--to turn off the Cosic and display äda'web. Cohenfrankippolito immediately begins to lecture. "Named after the Lady Ada," it says, "daughter of the Romantic poet Lord Byron, who is best known for..." Spare me, you think. With a sharp gesture across your throat, you signal the assistant to stop, wondering for the umpteenth time what you should upgrade next, its speech synthesis or its personality module.

"I have previewed äda'web, the entire Alexa library for 1998, and several court cases," cohenfrankippolito continues. "In the context of the times, there are four viewing parameters: language, images, style, and layout. Each parameter has four settings: plain, enigmatic, loaded, and preposterous. This allows for four to the fourth power, or 256, possible access combinations. How would you like to begin?"

This is strange, you think. No beat. No smell. You decide not to bite on the court thing. "Thanks. Just give me some way to do it myself," you tell the assistant. "I'll let you know if I need anything else."

What it means to archive new media is of increasing concern to many institutions and artists--right after they figure out what new media are. However, as Dolly the cloned sheep made clear--as if there was any question--events do not always wait for understanding or closure, and so the Walker Art Center is in the position of archiving one of the most significant artist projects on the early Web, äda'web, co-founded and curated by Benjamin Weil from 1995 to 1998.

Part of Gallery 9's mission is to follow the artists. With this in mind, we commissioned the artist collaborative of Janet Cohen, Keith Frank, and Jon Ippolito to create The Unreliable Archivist, with äda'web as its host.

The Unreliable Archivist is part of a net art genre that is often described as "parasite art." Far from being a derogatory term in the ecology of the network, parasite art simply refers to work that relies on its host. The relationship between parasite and host generally must be a healthy one in order to keep going, and in this way a parasite is different from a virus. To some degree, most net art is parasitic, relying on its host for much of its meaning, be it apparently random (for example, Read Me, by Heath Bunting) or self-reflexive (see Homework, by Natalie Bookchin et al.). Other projects, like John Simon's Alter Stats or Lisa Jevbratt's Stillman Project in Gallery 9, have algorithmic relationships between the maps they create and the host systems they are mapping. The Unreliable Archivist, by mapping certain metadata about äda'web, explores the relationship between host and parasite, database and content, and point of view and user in illuminating and unexpected ways.

One of the critical ways in which The Unreliable Archivist is not like other systematic, parasitic works is that all of the relationships to the host--to äda'web--have been carefully selected by the artists. This is not a random mutation. It is not even an objective algorithmic relationship. In this sense, Cohen, Frank, and Ippolito, like many net artists, belie the utopian rhetoric of interactivity. By allowing the viewer to manipulate the category sliders, they give the illusion of choice; the choices are, however, highly circumscribed.

The archivist's job is complex, with many variables, but the process can be broken down into two fundamental tasks: preservation/conservation and access. Access can be further divided into physical access and intellectual access. Intellectual access can be further divided into metadata and data. Whether the collection includes a letter to so-and-so is described with metadata--an index, for instance. What the letter says is the data and can be represented by a handwritten transcript (copy) or a high-resolution image file. The letter itself is the object in the archive. With physical objects, the difference between an image of a letter and a letter--between intellectual access and physical access--often is clear. In order to provide intellectual access, one has to create a metadata system. An archivist wouldn't take a shoebox full of letters, for example, make photographs of the letters, and throw them randomly into another shoebox; rather, he or she would file them based on the information in the index, the metadata. With äda'web and digital originals in general, however, the difference between physical access and intellectual access is less clear. In short, what's the difference between äda'web and a copy of äda'web?

When considering what the role of a new-media archivist might be, two disparities come to mind. First, intellectual access might be different from the access offered by äda'web. In fact, The Unreliable Archivist's access system differs greatly from äda'web's, though both point users to the same content in the end. Second, while there may be a conservation issue with the letter to so-and-so, the "paper standard" is pretty well established. If we know how to access a letter now (generally, by placing it face up on a surface in sufficient light for reading), we will know how to access it in 100 years--provided it has been conserved properly. With digital media, "conservation" may mean something else. If we want to continue to access that media, it could mean preserving the necessary viewing systems, or it could mean pro-serving (proactive conservation; that is, upgrading) the viewing data--for example, äda'web itself--so that it can be accessed on current (future) systems.

The Unreliable Archivist, like any good archivist, creates metadata about äda'web. In this case it just happens to be a little, shall we say, idiosyncratic. According to standards such as the Categories for the Description of Works of Art, there are basic metadata categories, such as creator, title, date created, and medium. But Cohen, Frank, and Ippolito have chosen language, image, style, and layout. Furthermore, they have applied a standard set of values--plain, enigmatic, loaded, and preposterous--to each category.

The value of a standard like the Categories for the Description of Works of Art is its precision--at least for experts. It allows one to make minute differentiations between objects. It allows for the discovery of specific known objects from vast databases. What it is not so good at is making connections or finding things one doesn't know about. Think of the difference between searching for a 20th-century portrait made of wood and searching for something that has ambiguous language, enigmatic images, and preposterous style.

When I first saw The Unreliable Archivist, I took it to be an homage to the wonderful,breathtaking excesses of äda'web and those who created it. I also took it to be a parody, a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the butchery that archiving--mothballing--such a dynamic institution as the Walker could entail. I still think these conclusions are true, but my concern has changed. Rather than worrying about how unreliable the archivist is, perhaps we should map the whole Walker collection according to these categories and values. What would happen?

It is possible to imagine a future in which everything is archived--from our credit data to our memories, from world events to passionate encounters. How then do we create systems that allow each of us to be an unreliable archivist? To create the preposterous, the enigmatic? No matter how intelligent archiving agents are in 2020, they will be poor substitutes if they can't represent an individual point of view.

First published by Gallery 9/Walker Art Center, January 1999.