Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Digital Damages: The Future's Pixelated!

Imagine a future where our historical archives are prone to unexpected deterioration and sudden, severe changes in appearance. Sounds more like the plot for a dystopian science fiction story than a worrying and imminent reality. Nevertheless, this is the situation that digital preservation professionals are increasingly met with. Towards the end of last year, the point was raised by Barbara Sierman in a blog post when she asked 'Where is our Atlas of Digital Damages?' In other words, how do we document evidence of corrupted files, colour damage and pixel loss in digital images and objects? In response, an Atlas of Digital Damages was launched via Flickr, a crowdsourced group where people can upload examples of their dodgy digitalia (see example below). 

An example from the Atlas of Digital Damages
 This issue seems especially relevant at a time when the digitisation of rare and fragile materials is being promoted as a method for preserving and providing access to collections. Being interested in collections myself, particularly (for the purposes of this blog) in science fiction collections, I've viewed digitisation in a similar light when photographing rapidly disintegrating SF periodicals from the 1920s and 1930s. Although digitisation seems to offer preservation options, it's perhaps not yet well established enough to offer permanent solutions, which is why many digital preservation projects are currently underway to develop better preservation standards.

And in fact the idea of finding permanent solutions to preservation problems, digital or otherwise, is somewhat misguided anyway. As David Lowenthal writes in The Past is a Foreign Country:

Preservation itself reveals that permanence is an illusion. The more we save, the more aware we become that such remains are continually altered and reinterpreted. We suspend their erosion only to transform them in other ways.

If we can only slow, rather than halt the passage of time, what would be deemed an acceptable stage of deterioration? With books and manuscripts, their manifest age lends them a sort of authenticity or authority. Conversely, damaged computer files more often highlight the perceived ephemerality of digital information. Lowenthal's notion of transformation also re-focuses the question of digital preservation back onto the object and identifying the important aspects of the object in the digital realm. How do we define the authentic look of the digital object? How do we distinguish the original and what would be the effect of losing it? And does the concept of an original digital object even make sense? The Atlas of Digital Damages presents the opportunity to begin thinking about some of these concerns, and how we might address them in the future.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Employment of Time (excerpt)

I recall one weekend, aged 8 or 9, going with my father to his place of work. An occurrence not necessarily out of the ordinary - I have a series of recollections of my mother refusing to leave the car, constantly complaining of the smell (my dad worked in sewage) and generally not looking very pleased at all to have her weekend imposed upon her husband’s work ethic. Anyway, she wasn’t present on this occasion. I think my brother was, but he has no part to play in this story so might as well be left out.

On this particular trip, in one of the offices my father set up some apparatus: a television, VHS player and a home video camera (VHS) mounted on a tripod. He played a video on the television, checked the sound levels, and started recording on the camera.  We left the room and occupied ourselves for the next hour or so - For me this usually involved riding down a hill on my skateboard.  I never stood up on this hill as at the time it seemed very steep.  Instead I would lie down on my chest, much like a surfer or a skeleton-bobsledder might lie, or perhaps, in later years when I’d become too large for the skateboard, in the way a Vietnam war veteran who has lost the use of his legs might sit on a skateboard - calves folded under thighs, using my hands to paddle along. I should also mention here, that this hill was excellent for sledging, and was, due to it’s location on a sewage works, a private ski-slope of sorts. After the recording was complete we returned to the office, dismantled the equipment and went home. I remember the film being Short Circuit 2.

Over the intervening years, on several occasions I’ve spoken to my dad about this trip. He says he doesn’t remember ever having made a copy of a film, and has no recollection of the specific event outlined above [Though almost any of this may be a false memory -  from the recording of the film through to my memory of my father failing to recall having done so, the skateboard (which had a ninja printed on it’s underside) and that hill were both most definitely REAL and TRUE].

The lack of corroboration from my father doesn’t really concern me, the memory seems such a strong one for me because it was a little out of the ordinary while for my dad it was just a typical weekend trip to work (there were a lot). Recently while I was thinking about this memory, it struck me that this may have had an impact on my later interests,  my own (art) practice, my writing things such as this thing you’re reading now, and even my job (I photograph and scan things in a library), but the idea of somehow condensing the seed of all future developments into this one event on a weekend from childhood is too simplistic to bear any interest or to glean any real meaning from.  What I do find interesting in this memory is the real-time-ness of the experience, the scale of the passage of time  in the undertaking of this analogue recording, the 1:1 ratio of it all, the fact that the recording of something will take the time it will take to occur - you know, like in real-life.

[A few years after this Short Circuit 2 incident, I recall my brother bringing home a copy of Predator 2. Upon further questioning it was revealed to me that this copy was created not by the screen/camera setup outlined above but in a Double-Decker video recorder (made by Amstrad?) which still took an analogue real-time duration to record, but provided the operator the opportunity to watch something else while the copying was being done. A development in technology which blew my mind at the time.]

It’s interesting to think of the 1:1 ratio now, these days, when it’s possible to digitally copy time based media very quickly indeed. It would seem that the transition from analogue to digital in these media has affected the very nature of our relationship to them.  The shift in the user experience of these digital media has precipitated the erosion of it’s relationship to our attention: that because things are so readily available, abundant, and free, they become somewhat more diffuse or disposable, providing the user the opportunity to graze or browse rather than immerse. Instantaneity means experiences can be cherry picked for immediate gratification. I’m uncomfortable with this kind of relationship as I’m sure a lot of other people are too, but I tend not to answer my phone (and subsequently don’t call people back), and I take a long time to reply to text messages or emails.  Why should this be the case when everything is so readily available? 

Perhaps it is precisely because of this abundance and availability that postponement becomes a seemingly reasonable manner in which to communicate.  I have several draft responses to emails where the intent to respond is most certainly there, but the actual response, the part that matters, isn’t. I’ve been sent emails from friends with links to youtube videos that I don’t get around to watching in their entirety, or .mp3s that I download then never listen to. Recently I received a .pdf copy of Notes on Cinematography by Robert Bresson. I know because I download it, it’s on my desktop, though I have never had a look inside [However, in the course of writing this, I’ve since had a brief look, so you’d best discount that last sentence]. I’d like to argue that this is a matter of technology, that if I owned an iPad or Kindle, that I’d of course read it straight away, and this would be precisely because of the availability and malleability of the media, but I’m not so sure. Likewise, if I had a comfortable room where I could listen to these mp3’s on a good stereo, of course I’d listen to them. But perhaps it’s just that I never seem to find the time, because, to do so I'd have to care enough about these ephemeral items, and because they don’t have any weight - they don’t exist through time expended (on my part) in accessing them - I don’t give them any intellectual weight.  Maybe this is a side effect of having grown up alongside these technological developments - I still have hundreds of CDs, untouched in years, at my parents house - I wonder whether I’ll ever listen to them again - DVDs that I meant to get round to watch but just never-managed-to-find-the-time. Maybe the cause of this is an internal confusion of what exists and what doesn’t, that because these are here in an instant I can get them anytime, however much I know that anytime roughly translates to never.

This text is an excerpt from the piece Employment of Time written for the exhibition of the same name curated by my friend Pernille Leggat Ramfelt. It has been (very minimally) adapted. The full text can be found here.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Brontës Forerunners of SF Fan Fiction?

In honour of the Stanley & Audrey Burton's current Brontë exhibition, 'Visions of Angria' (7 January - 23 February 2013) and the recent conference, 'Re-Visioning the Brontës', I thought I'd attempt to explore the (admittedly tenuous) link between the Brontës and science fiction. The possibility first suggested itself to me after a visit to the British Library's 2011 exhibition, 'Out of this World: Science Fiction but not as you know it'. The show featured Brontë juvenalia, including Emily's Gondal Poems, Charlotte's The Foundling and Branwell's map of Glass Town. Of the decision to include these items in the exhibition, curator Andy Sawyer wrote:

The Brontës are well known authors with no apparent association with science fiction but their tiny manuscript books, held at the British Library, are one of the first examples of fan fiction, using favourite characters and settings in the same way as science fiction and fantasy fans now play in the detailed imaginary 'universes' of Star Trek or Harry Potter [...] I hope the exhibition at the British Library will challenge what people think of as science fiction and show that it is not a narrow genre.
The idea that the Brontës' early writing could be viewed as a form of fan fiction is an interesting one. Many of the stories did feature their childhood heroes, including the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon (Bony), later reincarnated by Branwell as Rogue or Northangerland. The present of a box of toy soldiers to Branwell in 1826 is often cited as the initial source of inspiration for the Angrian sagas. Each sibling selected a soldier and named him after someone featured in Blackwood’s Magazine, an early literary influence on the children. The fact that these characters and environments featured so prominently in the imaginative worlds of the Brontës could be equated with a form of fandom, and perhaps also with a sort of escapism, usually more associated with fantasy than science fiction.

Autograph manuscript, 1835
by Patrick Branwell Brontë
Special Collections (Uni of Leeds) 
In the context of the exhibition, a strong connection was made between science fiction and other literary genres, indicative of a desire to make broader claims for a form that has historically fallen prey to marginalisation. Therefore, the decision to include well known literary figures such as the Brontës presents a challenge to common preconceptions about science fiction. The link to fan fiction is an acknowledgement that the genre has always had a symbiotic relationship with its readers, both shaping and being shaped by popular culture. Moreover, in the case of the Brontës, there is a cyclical aspect to the the fan fiction phenomenon, since the sisters' novels have gone on to influence many popular fan stories and re-writes, the most famous recent example being the Twilight trilogy.

However, questions remain about the potential dilution of the science fiction genre in an attempt to broaden its scope; there are unique characteristics in SF which, contrary to the escapist drive latent in some fantasy fictions, can bring societal and political issues into sharper focus. As Fredric Jameson writes: 'SF (thus) enacts and enables a structurally unique "method" for apprehending the present as history', offering us a glimpse of how our current situation arises from a particular set of cultural or historical circumstances.

The 'Visions of Angria' exhibition highlights rarely seen manuscript material written by Branwell Brontë from the Brotherton Library Special Collections. The rich and complex world of landscapes, characters and events written whilst Branwell was still a teenager, has been ‘brought to life’ by illustration students from Leeds College of Art’s Visual Communications course.