Pre-Envisioning the Meta-data Archive

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Digital media definitely require new framings for our concepts of storage, archiving, vaulting, and retrieval. The Archive, its Foucauldian legacy in film and media history, and the Digital mutually affected the way we frame memory and history as well as the way we conceptualize our excavations into memory and (media) history. The archive took a major role in the clash between teleological and archaeological models of history, between narration of the past and the counting of the past – as the media-archaeological debate has been stressing for a long time. The Digital world, hardwares and softwares, stunningly increased the archival effect of what Thomas Elsaesser has called an “astonished turn towards the past” (Film History as Media Archaeology, AUP 2016): the emergence of digital media and their impressive and quick converging movement called for a plausible and intuitive backward jump towards the past, in order to rethink temporality in the search of a logic for such a massive and sudden transformation of the media sphere.

Early modernity – the obsessive quest for the origins – offered a simultaneous field of investigation and excavation of the present. The digital turn made urgent a random and stochastic access to the past, by fragmenting and exploding the linearity of its narration: according to this paradigm, something was missing for the scheme of continuity and cause-effect logic in history. Materiality and new media technology made patent an epistemological crisis.

Archive versus History

Accessing the past from the archive, it soon recalled the operative models of databases, networks, nodes: a way to count the past into diagrams, rather than to narrate histories. Media theorist Bernhard Siegert recurred to the compound “cultural techniques” in order to frame models of genealogical and archaeological access to the past. The grid – one of the models discussed in his book (Cultural Techniques: Grids, Filters, Doors, and Other Articulations of the Real, FUP 2015) – brilliantly epitomizes such a trend: locating the data into the grid, according to space and time coordinates, lets the historian access it through a code or random connection rather than causality. This crucial debate I’ve just recounted tells us the huge impact the digital turn had and still has on the humanities, concerning the way we access data of the past, how we locate data, how we excavate data, and where we excavate data. This “astonished turn towards the past” made data mining an imperative, and the circular re-activation and presentation of data through time(s) a symptom. Media preservation and presentation hold and will increasingly hold a major role in this frame. Media obsolescence and creative re-animation, media hacking, reverse engineering of past media technologies, media art, and media mining assumed the character of an active way to re-write history through the archive and the materiality of media—and a specific and active way to practice media-archaeology as Jussi Parikka and Wanda Strauven have proven.

Let us think on the work of Tom Jennings' The Story Teller, where the reuses of “ideas and obsolete material from media history, including a teletype machine, a papertape reader, and a speech-phoneme processing system” (Jussi Parikka, What is Media Archaeology, Polity 2012) are characterized by a recurring mode that presents itself as a “process,” and active intervention into obsolescence and disrupted and fragmented temporality where the work of art or the medium are only points of immanence in transit: a time machine that is also repeated and subject to variations.

Media art becomes media history or archaeology: Jenning’s gesture is an archaeological (and genealogical: The Story Teller is about Alan Turing) excavation into the archive. How could/would the digital affect this process, and how could digital media preserve it? How to preserve this archaeological gesture?

Data and Meta-data

As a scholar who works in a film and media preservation Lab at the University of Udine, I would further discuss a crucial issue that is still largely missing from the debate. Media Preservation in fact raises similar issues. Re-visiting the data of the past, re-activating them, re-presenting and re-framing would be further enlightened by understanding the huge amount of information that digital media dramatically engenders and endangers: Meta-data, or How we’ve done it. Our archaeological or genealogical excavations into the past – in a way that could certainly be a media or moving image preserving operation as well as a media art intervention into the archive – deserve to be identified and re-counted also by the traces of the operation that brought past data/items to a new life; by the waste from the mining or reverse engineering operation it was subjected to; by the gesture of the preserver or the artist or the historian who played the role of operator or excavator.

How do we locate this information (into the grid)? And again, what kind of information is missing from this picture? How much information are we missing by excavating the past? Thus, how to preserve and present the “preserving gesture”? How to excavate and store the “hacking procedures” or the “reverse engineering procedures” (a sort of counter-instructions for de-construction)?

A first crucial step would be the “conversion” procedures of non-digital artworks or procedures or gestures into digital objects (or “information objects”). This conversion can only represent the complexity of the meta-data in the form of a documentary trace. Media artworks as well as Moving image preservation operations belong to a project (or “chain” of projects) and prove to be “archivable” only from a documentary standpoint, given their multidimensionality and material, conceptual, and progressive complexity (Cosetta Saba in Preserving and Exhibiting Media Art, AUP 2014): we are basically expanding and pairing the meta-data concept to the gestural and procedural operation of the media artist and the media preserver and archaeologist.

However, the methods we are currently recurring to in the digital archive documentation show structural limitations (as a matter of fact, just in the field of moving images preservation, the FIAF’s or AMIA’s forums are actively debating this issue). Meta-data is the discourse network we are actually feeding as media scholars, as media preservers, as media artists: it is the shadow-trace that still deserves to be fossilized, and the paradigm that is missing.