Data Ecologies: A Green New Deal for Climate and Tech Reform (2020)

Invited Lecture, “Programming Care: Social Infrastructures in the Green New Deal,” McHarg Center, University of Pennsylvania, January 23, 2020

Keynote, “Data Ecologies: A Green New Deal for Climate and Tech Reform,” “Cultured Data Symposium,” University of California, San Diego, February 8, 2020

The McHarg Center at the Weitzman School Presents Shannon Mattern from Weitzman School of Design on Vimeo.


Data Archive Infrastructure

Elective graduate seminar course, The New School

“There has been more information produced in the last 30 years than during the previous 5000.”

We’ve all heard some variation on this maxim. As we find ourselves wading through a billion websites; as publishers supply over two million books to the world’s libraries each year; as we continue to add new media – from apps to geo-tagged maps – to our everyday media repertoires, we continually search for new ways to navigate this ever more treacherous sea of information. Meanwhile, our analog audio-visual archives are deteriorating, and our ever-volatile digital media and data sets present their own preservation challenges. Throughout human history we have relied on various institutions and politico-intellectual architectures to organize, index, preserve, make sense of, and facilitate or control access to our stores of knowledge, our assemblages of media, our collections of information. This seminar looks at the past, present, and future of our archives, libraries, and data repositories, and considers what logics, politics, audiences, contents, aesthetics, physical forms, etc., define them. We will examine what roles these collections play in a variety of contexts: in democracy, in education, in science, in socio-cultural heritage, in everyday life, and in art. Throughout the semester we’ll examine myriad analog and digital artworks that make use of archival/library material, or take the archive, library, or data repository as their subject. Some classes will involve field trips and guest speakers. Students will have the option of completing a substantial traditional research project, or a research-based, theoretically-informed creative/production project for the class.

Fall 2018 Website
Fall 2017 Website

See also Archived Class: Bookshelves to Big Data


Extract and Preserve: Underground Repositories for a Posthuman Future

Extract and Preserve: Underground Repositories for a Posthuman Future,” New Geographies 09: Posthuman (Harvard University Press, 2018)


Archived: Bookshelves to Big Data: Archaeologies of Knowledge

Graduate elective

“There has been more information produced in the last 30 years than during the previous 5000.”

We’ve all heard some variation on this maxim. As we find ourselves wading through a billion websites; as publishers supply over two million books to the world’s libraries each year; as we continue to add new media – from apps to geo-tagged maps – to our everyday media repertoires, we continually search for new ways to navigate this ever more treacherous sea of information. Meanwhile, our analog audio-visual archives are deteriorating, and our ever-volatile digital media and data sets present their own preservation challenges. Throughout human history we have relied on various institutions and politico-intellectual architectures to organize, index, preserve, make sense of, and facilitate or control access to our stores of knowledge, our assemblages of media, our collections of information. This seminar looks at the past, present, and future of our archives, libraries, and data repositories, and considers what logics, politics, audiences, contents, aesthetics, physical forms, etc., define them. We will examine what roles these collections play in a variety of contexts: in democracy, in education, in socio-cultural heritage, in everyday life, and in art. Throughout the semester we’ll examine myriad analog and digital artworks that make use of archival/library material, or take the archive, library, or data repository as their subject. Some classes will involve field trips and guest speakers. Students will have the option of completing a substantial traditional research project, or a research-based, theoretically-informed creative/production project for the class.

Fall 2016 Website
See also Archives, Libraries & Databases (previous version of the course: 2011-2014)


Preservation Aesthetics

Preservation Aesthetics: An Interview with Shannon Mattern” (interviewed by Trevor Owens) The Signal: Digital Preservation – A Library of Congress Blog (June 9, 2014).


Preservation Aesthetics @ Library of Congress (2014)

I was honored to join Matthew Kirschenbaum, Cole Crawford, George Oates, and Dragan Espenschied as one of the plenary speakers at the Library of Congress/NDIIPP “Digital Preservation 2014” conference in Washington D.C. Only July 23, I presented “Preservation Aesthetics”; you can find my slides and talk here, and watch a video of my talk here (I strongly advise against it).


Preservation Aesthetics: My Talk for the LoC’s Digital Preservation Conference


I’m honored to be giving one of the opening plenary talks — alongside the fantastic Matt Kirschenbaum — at the Library of Congress/NDIIPP “Digital Preservation 2014” conference next week. When Trevor Owens invited me, I wasn’t sure what I could contribute — given that most attendees are likely to be technological geniuses, and I’m, well, not. But Trevor assured me that my “schtick” would be — or at least could be — of interest to all the techno-savants in attendance. So I decided to talk about aesthetics and “preservation art.” I’ve been addressing the aesthetics of archives, libraries, databases, etc., in my “Archives + Libraries” class the past several years. And I’ve been drooling over archive art and the aesthetics of organization for as long as I can remember.

Trevor and I talked about “teaching with art” on the Library of Congress’s Signal blog last month. Since then, I’ve thought more about what art — both analog and digital — might have to say about preservation, specifically digital preservation. I’ve finished a draft of my talk. It’s a bit too long, so I won’t be able to deliver it in its entirety at the conference, but I figured I’d post the full text, with all the footnotes, here. With the slides, too.

Mattern PreservationAesthetics by shannonmattern


Archives and libraries are intensely aesthetic environments. [S2] Libraries, in particular, have historically been among our grandest buildings. And today, with an increasingly diverse program and patron base, it’s the source of many sounds and textures… and smells. Information reaches us in various forms and materialities. [S3] We store that information on bookshelves and server racks, and we access it on tabletops and laptops and through interfaces. Our engagement with these “furnishings,” both physical and virtual, is a multisensory experience. [S4] Aesthetics are particularly germane to the work of preservation that takes place within these archives and libraries. As you well know, one of preservation’s central concerns is determining whether something has “intrinsic value” based on its “uniqueness…of informational content, age, physical format, artistic or aesthetic qualities, and scarcity” – and if so, then safeguarding the original item.[1]

[S5:Blank] These aesthetic variables have huge epistemological significance. Acknowledging archives and libraries as aesthetic entities not only helps patrons to better understand how they think and learn; but it also, ideally, helps practitioners recognize that the physical and digital environments they create aren’t neutral containers of information: they give shape to data, information, knowledge, and history; condition how patrons access and process them – and, in the process, constitute what those intellectual constructs are.

[S6] At The New School in New York I regularly teach a graduate seminar that explores the history, values, politics, and aesthetics of archives, libraries, and databases. We focus not only on the aesthetics of the institutions themselves – the library’s rows of books, the archive’s “dusty boxes,” the database’s interfaces – [S7but also on the flood of archive-related and data-driven art that’s been generated in recent years. In this presentation, I’ll examine a group of artists who take up issues pertinent to digital preservation – [S8] file formats, versioning, migration, the lifespan of storage devices, metadata, digital decay, etc., as well as their pre-digital precursors. By pushing certain protocols to their extreme, or highlighting snafus and “limit cases,” these artists’ work often brings into stark relief the conventions of preservation practice, and poses potential creative new directions for that work. As I hope to show, practicing archivists, librarians, and database managers – and the patrons who use those resources – have much to learn about the nature of their enterprise from artists.


[S9] I’d like to distinguish between the “preservation of the aesthetic” and “the aesthetics of preservation.” The former, let’s say, refers to practices of preserving the “intrinsic value” of original objects. One application in which these practices have been given careful consideration, and which is especially pertinent to this group, is the preservation of digital art. We have plenty of folks here today who know a lot more about this than I do, so I won’t say too much about it. Yet I do want to quickly address how the rubrics and “best practices” developed by organizations committed to the preservation of new media art offer frameworks and vocabularies that can help us to better appreciate the aesthetics of preservation, my second category. And by that I mean the sensory contemplation of preservation itself – and particularly, for my purposes here, art that takes as its subject matter the practices, values, poetics, politics, ethics, and especially the limitations of preservation.

But first, returning quickly to the “preservation of the aesthetic”: [S10] Various consortia of scholars, artists, and archivists have been concerned with the preservation of new media art in light of the inevitable obsolescence of digital platforms. One such group, the Variable Media Network (whose purview extends beyond the digital to encompass any work on potentially unstable platforms), is dedicated to understanding a work’s “behavioral characteristics and intrinsic effects” – there’s that word again: intrinsic – independent of the medium in which that work is created and displayed.[2] [S11] Forging the Future’s Variable Media Questionnaire captures information about artworks’ various behaviors and medium-specific aspects, including how the work is contained, installed, performed, how it’s made interactive, how it’s reproduced, encoded, and networked.[3]  [S12] There are then four main strategies storage, emulation, migration, and reinterpretation – for preserving “variable” media so as to responsibly address these behavioral characteristics.[4] Of course you know this already.

[Update: 7/21: Jon Ippolito wrote to tell me about a relevant — and tremendously exciting — book he recently published with Richard Rinehart. See Re-Collection: Art, New Media & Social Memory (MIT Press, June 2014).]

[S13] But what about the aesthetics of these preservation practices themselves? What if we considered not only how the aesthetics qualities of, say, a Nam June Paik installation are “preserved” in a reconstruction of the original work, but also how the practice of reconstruction – or emulation, or migration, or even storage – has its own aesthetics (and attendant politics, poetics, etc.)? [S14:Blank] Upon beginning this project I knew of a few artworks and exhibitions that grappled with these issues, but I asked my New School colleague Christiane Paul for other recommendations. She’s a curator of new media art at the Whitney Museum, and she’s long been a central figure in discussions regarding the preservation of net art. There isn’t much digital art that explores preservation-related issues, she said, because “most artists understandably would consider it too boring.”

They would be wrong, of course. I want to thank Christiane for directing my attention to several illuminating examples, particularly of works that highlight preservation by defying it, or highlighting its limitations. I’ll only briefly explore a few of these examples because, once again, there are folks in the room who know this work much better than I do. Hell, some of this work is yours (I’m lookin’ at you, Dragan!).

[S15] To start, we have examples of the self-erasing disk, the self-destructing file, the self-deteriorating page – for example, William Gibson and Dennis Ashbaugh’s Agrippa, about which Kirschenbaum has written beautifully). [S16] We also have digital artists who highlight the volatility of data models, net architecture and storage media by building intentionally irreverent, idiosyncratic, unstable archives, or by constructing hypertext narratives meant to disintegrate with advancing link rot (e.g.,‘s [Jon Ippolito / Janet Cohen / Keith Frank], “The Unreliable Archivist“; Olia Lialina’s “Anna Kerenin Goes to Paradise”).[5]  [S17] We have artists aestheticizing the hard drive and other storage technology, reminding us of the materiality of the digital object and of memory (e.g., Manuel Palou’s “5 Million Dollars 1 Terabyte” and Jason Loebs’s “Anthropomemoria”). [S18] We have artists highlighting the questionable veracity of emulation, using as their primary source material their own memories of the “spirit” – hardly a reliable “record” – of historical technology (e.g., Olia Lialina & Dragan Espenschied’s “Once Upon”). [S19] We have artists transforming the processes of digital preservation and emulation into performances, and framing the documentation of those processes as aesthetic objects (e.g., JODI’s ”Jet Set Willy Variations”; The New Museum’s XFR STN).[6] And there are artists who take up other issues pertinent to digital preservation – file formats, versioning, migration, metadata, digital decay, etc. In aestheticizing the failures and limitations of digital tools and techniques, they make manifest, perceptible – aesthetically experiential – the underlying values, tacit politics, and invisible “structuring structures” of preservation.


I imagine that the territory I’ve covered thus far is familiar for some, if not most, of you. What I ultimately want to argue – and this next section, “The Aesthetics of Creative Destruction,” is where I think I might finally be able to share with you something you don’t already know! – is that there are plenty of analog precedents and contemporary analog counterparts to these digital works. And there’s much to be learned by historically contextualizing the aesthetic concerns central to digital preservation, and examining how core preservation principles extend across materialities and media. [S21] Agrippa is actually a great example of the latter point: not only did the floppy disk storing Gibson’s electronic poem encrypt itself after a single use; but the pages of Ashbaugh’s artist’s book, in which that disk was embedded, were also treated with photosensitive chemicals and erased themselves over a period of time. We thus see here two different material processes, two different timeframes, two different aesthetic experiences of preservation and decay, of memory and forgetting. In addition, surrounding the work we find different paratexts and “pirate” practices that aim to subvert the logics and aesthetics built into these “original” embedded objects.

There’s been a long history of artwork that “eats itself,” that defies its own preservation. [S22] Gustav Metzger first wrote about “auto-destructive art” in 1959. But well before we had the term to label the practice, we had plenty of self-destructive precedent, much of it rooted in Dada and Futurism and motivated by iconoclastic desire to demolish the hegemonic museum, the aesthetic canon, and “good taste.”[7] [S23:Blank] The 1920s brought Max Ernst’s sculpture with attached ax and Francis Picabia’s erased blackboard drawings – [S24] and 30 years later we had Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing. [S25] Meanwhile in Japan, the Gutai Art Association, whose name translates to “embodiment,” shot at and tore through their artworks, celebrating the creative potential of destruction. [S26] Rauschenberg then collaborated with Jean Tinguely on Homage to New York[8], a kinetic sculpture that worked itself into a fiery fervor in the Museum of Modern Art’s sculpture garden in 1960.[9] [S27] MoMA has preserved a fragment in its collection (which of course raises questions about what, exactly, is being preserved).

[S28] Just a few years after Tinguely’s pyrotechnics, Yoko Ono sat on a stage and invited guests to come up and cut away her clothes. Art history scholar Kristine Stiles suggests that projects like Ono’s “Cut Piece” are like much destruction art in that they “take the body as the principle site of destruction,” but this work also exemplifies women’s specific stake in destruction because it explores the “obliteration of identity,” too. Stiles thus reminds us that much of this work is rooted not only in the rejection of the authoritarian institution, but also in artists’ frustration over their own “otherness” or “statelessness,” and their “profound disgust and rejection of the patriarchal models of discipline, punishment, violence, and authoritarianism.”[10] We should consider how these forces are grappled with in the act of preservation, too – and perhaps where preservation falls short, inciting such drives to destruct and delete.

[S29] Ono’s London performance – which, tellingly, elicited such aggressive responses from visitors that a security force was engaged – was part of Metzger’s 1966 “Destruction in Art Symposium,” where visitors found …

Tony West running classic books through a crank meat grinder, Schreib artfully burning large photos of Willy Brandt… Al Hansen exploded a big motorscooter… Ralph Ortiz demolished a piano with a sledgehammer… Pro-Diaz exploded pyrotechnic powders and fuse cords on three large painted surfaces… John Latham burned several Skoob Towers of Encyclopedia Britannicas… Wolf Vostell of Germany destroyed TV images with paint, food and manual controls.[11]

[S30] Many of these historical examples remind us that some art, much like digital archival material, requires enactment. These works aren’t simply there “to be looked at”; they have to be “turned on,” replayed, refreshed, reenacted, migrated to new platforms. This history also reminds us of the centrality of embodiment, a quality critical to emulation-based preservation, and of the variation inherent in reinterpretation. [S31] Gustav Metzger’s own work – paintings made of acid on nylon screens, metal monuments that corrode in the atmosphere – reminds us further of just how many material means and temporalities there are to deconstruction, analog or digital. “[F]orms implode. Matter is carbonized or pulverized… Most of these transformations are visible,” Metzger wrote; yet in “auto-destructive art a great deal of activity takes place on the microscopic level and is not seen.”[12] Corrosion by acid or atmosphere, burning up from overwork or arson, implosion by explosives or longue duree decay – all things conservators aim to prevent, and all processes that unfold at variable speeds – thus become “intrinsic parts of the artwork.”[13] Metzger’s various pieces could take anywhere from 20 seconds to 20 years to die. We see this variation in material process, scale, and temporality copied in Agrippa, too.

[S32:Blank] And ultimately we are made aware of the many fronts on which the larger preservation battle is so often waged. Destruction art defies preservation, although many cultural institutions devise solutions to transform the ephemeral and processural into something collectible. In his fantastic Masters thesis for the Museum Studies program at the University of Leicester John D. Powell notes that these institutions often take into account the artist’s intention in making decisions regarding preservation. [S33] Some institutions preserve the material residue from ruinous performances, as MoMA has done with some remains of Tinguely’s Homage to New York (notably, much of this preserved detritus is then classified as painting or sculpture); [S34] others consider strategies of documenting the performance of destruction, yet doing so presumes to make reproducible a destructive act that was never meant to be so.

[S35:Blank] While many of the digital art projects I mentioned earlier seem to embody similarly destructive – or, on the lighter end of the spectrum, parodic – values, and to highlight the futility of preservation, it’s important to remember that there’s a creative dimension of destruction, too. Projects like Ono’s “Cut Piece” and JODI’s “Jet Set Willy,” in their “making strange” or “making problematic,” also make us question our choices to destroy or preserve, and the aesthetic and epistemological and political consequences of those choices. They create an awareness of the aesthetics and politics of destruction and preservation – acts that today become so radically casualized with “click to save” and “drag to delete.” What’s more, Stiles argues that destruction art, in its refusal to be collected and circulated, has the potential to “recover the social force of art from instrumental reason and the economies of late capitalism.” It also reinforces “the survivability of the body, the very materiality of existence.”


Now, many of these “destruction” works aren’t explicitly about preservation, in that they’re not overtly critiquing the practice and aesthetics of preservation itself, outside of highlighting their own un-preservability. Yet there are a host of others, inspired by the “archival” and “museological” turns in contemporary art, and by the rise of “institutional critique,” who take the aesthetics and politics of preservation as central (even if implicit) themes in their work. [S37] Take Theaster Gates, whose Dorchester Projects, a group of reclaimed buildings in Chicago that have been refashioned into a local arts-and-culture center that includes a slide lantern library acquired from the University of Chicago; book and LP collections acquired from the now-defunct Prairie Avenue Bookshop and Dr. Wax Records; and the library of John H. Johnson, founder of Ebony and Jet magazines. [S38] The assemblage of media and architecture inspires its immediate South Side Chicago community, and the global audience that studies Gates’s work, to consider the significance of preserving others’ cast-off media, and of integrating these collections into a vibrant, multi-purpose community space. It also prompts us to consider the roles those specific materials (architecture books, “ethnic” publications) played in constructing Chicago’s — particularly Black Chicago’s — history, a history that other institutions had to “deaccession” in order for Gates to step in as its conservator.[14]

[S39] Consider also Mark Dion, whose work frequently involves combing and dredging river beds and flea markets and existing museum collections, then staging his finds in displays that detourn traditional museological conventions. He’s asking how preservation and classification and display structure our cultural representations of, and our relationships to, nature. With all its vitrines and labels and dioramas, Dion’s work is ostensibly about preservation – but it, too, has a destructive element. [S40] As critic Martha Schwendener argues, Dion is “dedicated to highlighting and undermining Enlightenment values through the use of his own formal vocabulary. Just the act of looking at Dion’s work – all those books, photos, drawings, specimens, and [found objects] – can be fatiguing.”[15] [S41] And in one of his early works, “Artful History: A Restoration Comedy” (1988), Dion and Jason Simon offer a mock public television documentary on the work of a commercial restoration studio, where they hear tragi-comic tales of aesthetic forgery in preservation: historic paintings cut in two to increase resale value, damaged sculptures with limbs sutured on from other pieces, forgeries passed off as authentic. [S42] In the gallery, Dion accompanies the film with strips of paintings cut from works whose restoration was deemed too expensive or cumbersome. According to the curators of the 1988 Whitney Independent Study show, “The Desire of the Museum,” which included Dion’s film, “Artful History” demonstrates that restoration “respond[s] to the prompts of art dealers and museum curators as they alter paintings to suit format requirements and marketplace pressures.”[16] “Preservation” is thus driven by an aesthetic informed by display and commercial values, not by ensuring “intrinsic value.”[17]

[S43]Yet as with much auto-destructive art, the aesthetic exhaustion of Dion’s installations, and the aesthetic deception in his film, are also epistemologically generative. Schwendener makes the case quite poignantly:

[W]hat he re-creates in his art simulates the fatigue of Western history: the headlong rush to conquer, acquire, accumulate, consume, collect, classify, arrange, display, reconfigure, reconstruct, restore, preserve, and represent. Art for Dion is both academic – evoking a history lesson or a science project – and highly social; working in idiosyncratic ways, he reminds us how effective art can be when it collapses these varieties of experience.

Camille Henrot “Grosse Fatigue” from Collectif Combo on Vimeo.

[S44] We see many of the same themes echoed – through a similarly exhausting aesthetic of preservation and classification – in the work of Camille Henrot, particularly in her Grosse Fatigue, a video based on her 2013 artist’s residency at the Smithsonian. [S45] Within the aesthetics of the interface, she contrasts different materialities and aesthetics of preservation: a fish in a preservative bath, tagged bird carcasses in a drawer, proliferating browser windows and books and magazines and hard drives stuffed with gifs – and even technicians working in a natural history museum’s preservation lab. [S46] The “windows within windows within windows” layering of these analog and digital preservation systems, suggests Pamela Lee in Artforum, shows the “digital windows and screens” to be “just as flattened out and drained of life as all those sorry animals carcasses accumulating in cold storage.”[18] (I can’t tell you how much I love this video, and I wish I could say more – but we must move on…)

[S47] For artist Ann Hamilton, however, preservation is fully embodied and vital and social. Much of Hamilton’s work engages with the materiality and sociality of communication and historical artifacts, and how that materiality determines what constitutes a culture’s “archive.” [S48] I think that, through the material abundance of her work, and through its lack of familiarity to typical “archival architectures,” Hamilton’s work allows its inhabitants to create new, unfamiliar, affective connections to history. It calls attention to the limitations of the official historical record and suggests means of refreshing the archive’s architectures and materials with alternative sources that don’t always readily lend themselves to preservation.

Hamilton uses quotidian materials – from bread to blue jeans to pink Pearl erasers – and a variety of media formats, to form inhabitable, multisensory “archival” landscapes. [S49] At her 2012 the event of a thread at the Park Avenue Armory, we find newspaper, 8 x 11″ lined paper covered with handwriting, scrolls covered with typewritten text, pigeons (which once, like the horse, served as a vital means of transmission), vinyl-record-engravers, erasers, bells, bellows, [S50] radios, the voice. In these installations, which commonly engage the histories of their sites, she creates palimpsestic landscapes by layering sight, sound, smell, taste, and texture, then activating the scene with simple, repeated movements, or what Clark Lunberry calls “accretions of gesture.”[19] [S51] Her indigo blue and tropos, for instance, involved someone sitting at a table, [S52] “unmaking” a book through erasure, by burning away the text, line by line. Rather than an act of destruction, however, this unmaking represented a means of “clearing the field,” making room, according to Hamilton, for another “material kind of telling.”[20] She reminds us (as did many of the female destruction artists) of the body itself as the site or means of preservation and/or destruction.[S53] I took my graduate Archives + Libraries class to see the event of a thread, where several students commented on the various kinds of labor, or performance, represented in the installation. We had “official” participants, [S54] including the artist herself, reading and writing and erasing and singing and recording. And we, the visitors, gleefully labored on our swings to move a giant curtain strung across the center of the Armory. Hamilton’s work addresses, in her words, “the way the body through physical labor leaves a transparent presence in material and how labor is a way of knowing.”[21]

[S55] How do we preserve these transparent presences? How do we ensure those quotidian gestures, that invisible labor, those unheard voices are registered in the historical record? What defies recording and preservation? These are among the questions Hamilton’s work raises for me. She proposes that a history rooted not only in extraordinary events, but also in the everyday – its artifacts, sensations, labor, simple gestures – requires an archive that is embodied, material, and living.

[S56:Blank]Then again, what if there are aspects of the everyday that we simply don’t want to be recordable and preservable? [S57] This is where my final (anti-)preservation aesthete, Hito Steyerl, comes in. Her films and writing focus on the ubiquity and global distribution of images – including images that reduce identity to data. “Identity goes far beyond a relationship with images,” she says; [S58] “[I]t entails a set of private keys, passwords, etc., that can be expropriated and detourned. More generally, identity is the name of the battlefield over your code – be it genetic, informational, pictorial.”[22] One of the battles being waged is the right to exempt or extract oneself from “Leviathan’s” database, to regain some control over how one’s identity is constructed. [S59] Her 2013 “How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File” – she specifies the file format! – offers several strategies for “disappearing” oneself from the database, for rendering oneself “un-preservable” (my term). [S60] Possible approaches: camouflage yourself, hide in plain sight, shrink yourself down smaller than a pixel, live in a gated community, wear a full-body cloak, or become a female over 50.

[S61]Steyerl also acknowledges the entwined virtuality of the image and the materiality of the infrastructures that make their capture and circulation possible. In order to thwart the preservation and distribution of our identities as datasets, we sometimes simply have to rage against the machine, kill the drones, pull a 1984 and smash the screen. [S62] In Strike, which is currently on exhibit in Chelsea, she strikes an LCD screen to make visible the structures structuring our viewing, to show that “images also have a physical existence.”[23] The implication is that we need to understand the physical infrastructure of surveillance and data mining in order to undermine it.

And thus we’re back to destruction – but, again, epistemologically generative destruction. These are destructive practices that strive to reassert, as Stiles puts it, the “very materiality of existence,” to recover the archive and the human subjectivities it documents from “instrumental reason and the economies of late capitalism.” [S63] By aestheticizing the intellectual and technical and social infrastructures that undergird choices regarding what gets preserved, and how, and why; by playing out speculative “limit cases” of what our museums and archives and databases can do; by making sense-able the cracks and leaks in the system; by demonstrating what’s lost and gained in storing and migrating and reinterpreting our cultural productions, these artists – working in media of myriad materialities – demonstrate how aesthetics can pose powerful questions about the ethics and politics of what you do as archivists. And they can ideally inspire creative ways for thinking about destructive preservation, for approaches to conservation that are anything but conservative. [S64]



[1] See Kimberly J. Barata, “Questioning Aesthetics: Are Archivists Qualified To Make Appraisal or Reappraisal Decisions Based on Aesthetic Judgments?” Provenance, Journal Of The Society Of Georgia Archivists 12:1/2 (1994)

[2] Alain Depocas, “The Variable Media Network, “ Daniel Langlois Foundation (2003):

[3] “Behaviors” Variable Media Network:

[4]Storage, the “most conservative collecting strategy,” is “to store a work physically, whether that means mothballing dedicated equipment or archiving digital files on disk.” The “major disadvantage of storing obsolescent materials is that the work will expire once these ephemeral materials cease to function” (“Strategies” Variable Media Network:

Emulation involves devising “a way of imitating the original look of the piece by completely different means.” Its possible disadvantages include “prohibitive expense sic) and inconsistency with the artist’s intent.” Matthew Kirchenbaum further explains that emulation “entails the literal, formal reproduction of the logic instantiated in the hardware or software of some now-vanished platform…. Importantly, an emulator is actually executing the original machine instructions in the reproduced logical context of the absent program.” The gaming community, he says, is the largest constituency for this approach – and for them, emulation can result in the “experience of the original game or program” being altered “by such environmental variables as screen quality, processor speeds, sound cards, controllers or peripherals, and so forth” (Matthew Kirschenbaum, “Preservation” In Marie-Laure Ryan, Lori Emerson, Benjamin J. Robertson, The Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014). The Guggenheim’s 2004 Seeing Double: Emulation in Theory and Practice exhibition examined the aesthetics of emulation, typically a behind-the-scenes practice, by presenting computer-based works – Cory Arcangel’s “I Shot Andy Warhol,” Mary Flanagan’s [phage], JODI’s “JET SET WILLY Variations,” etc. – in various emulated systems and hardware configurations (; see also Lisa Adang, “Untitled Project: A Cross-Disciplinary Investigation of Jodi’s Untitled Game” Ver. 2 (May 2014): 4).

Migration involves “upgrading equipment and source material”, or, as Kirschenbaum explains, moving bits from one physical medium to another, as well as (sometimes) updating their format and logical (symbolic) context… Such migrations of format and logical context always introduce changes to the appearance and behavior of digital objects, necessitating trade-offs in terms of fidelity to its original manifestation as a digital artifact.”

Finally, reinterpretation, or reconstruction of the work each time it’s recreated, is the “most radical” strategy – on that’s labor intensive and may result, as Kirschenbaum says, in, at best, an approximation of the original experience.” It involves asking “what contemporary medium would have the metaphoric value of” the original medium. Answering that question, Kirschenbaum explains, draws on “documentation (usually some combination of source code, screenshots and still images, video, design notes, artist’s statements, fan products, reviews, and published scholarship) to remake the original digital artifact with contemporary tools, techniques, and materials.”

Christiane Paul argues that the work of preserving variable media, and the “living,” archives of “mutable ‘records’” it generates, requires diligent attention to documentation. “This type of archive would need to document the different versions of a work that develops through user contributions—for example, by keeping copies of the project in its different states; and it could potentially document aspects of the ‘environment’ in which the work existed at different points in time, such as discussions of the piece on blogs, mailing lists etc. The contextualization and archiving of net art require new models and criteria for documenting and preserving the process and instability of works that are often created by multiple authors and constantly develop over time” (Christiane Paul, “Context and Archive: Presenting and Preserving Net-based Art” In Dieter Daniels & Gunther Reisinger, Eds., Netpioneers 1.0: Contextualizing Early Net-Based Art (Sternberg Press: Berlin, New York, 2010)).

[5]“The Unreliable Archivist reorganizes the renowned adaweb by means of the categories of “language,” “image,” “style,” and “layout.” In each category the visitor can also choose between four tunings. Texts, videos, and sound from the recorded artistic projects are pieced together in a new combination. This form of systematization raises the question as to the motives and aims of archiving” (; Olia Lialina’s early net art piece Anna Karenina Goes to Paradise, for example, sets up three “Acts” – “Anna Looking for Love,” “Anna Looking for Train,” “Anna Looking for Paradise.” The content for each act is provided by pages that list the results that search engines returned for the words love, train, and paradise at the time of the work’s creation. Lialina’s piece (obviously referencing Tolstoy) was meant to point to constant shifts of context, which ultimately are the focus and content of the artwork. If one visits the work today, most of the links will be “dead” – the piece has been reduced to its concept while the implementation is inaccessible. Even if one would rewrite the piece so that it allows returns “live” search results, the previous versions of the piece will be lost unless their documentation – for example, through screenshots of all the sites that are linked to – is “programmed” into the piece itself (Christiane Paul, “The Myth of Immateriality – Presenting & Preserving New Media” In Oliver Grau, Ed., Media Art Histories (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006)).

[6] The original 1984 Jet Set Willy, programmed in BASIC, was one of the first non-linear narrative games. According to Lisa Adang, Jet Set Willy Variations ca. 1984 [2002] was “developed in an emulator, which JODI used to recreate the ‘proto-computer’ environment of the ZX Spectrum, a very early home computer produced from 1982 to 1987” (“Untitled Project: A Cross-Disciplinary Investigation of Jodi’s Untitled Game” Ver. 2 (May 2014): 4). In a forthcoming chapter in a collection edited by Christiane Paul, Annet Dekker explains that

…over the years Jet Set Willy ©1984has been exhibited in various ways. The first time it was shown on a table, with a 1980s television (CRT) monitor, the audiocassette with the tape, and the ZX Spectrum displayed on it. At other times JODI showed Jet Set Willy Variations (2002), a DVD containing multiple videos of modifications of the game, alongside the game itself. Almost ten years after the launch of the project, Jet Set Willy ©1984transformed into Jet Set Willy FOREVER (2010) when it was presented during the exhibition Funware at MU in Eindhoven. This time the artists decided to add documentation of the work as part of the presentation, thus making documentation part of the “final work.” Jet Set Willy FOREVER included the game on a ZX Spectrum; the DVD; video documentation of the artists demonstrating how the game can be played during a previous presentation of the work; a set of written instructions on how to play the game, and sixty prints showing the interior of the game — a cross-section of the house” (Annet Dekker, “Enabling the Future, or How to Survive FOREVER” (forthcoming)).

Notably, “the website for Jet Set Willy Variations ©1984 [also a game modification like Untitled Game] contains a direct link to a list of downloads for various emulators needed to create a playable environment for the work:” As Lisa Adang argues, “The artists are explicitly engaged here in archival strategies and documentation. They also provide a link on this site to images of Jet Set Willy ephemera, a ZX Spectrum keyboard, and a short list of key commands for the original game [].” (Lisa Adang, “Untitled Project: A Cross-Disciplinary Investigation of Jodi’s Untitled Game” Ver. 2 (May 2014): n. 29, p. 43)

[7]These historical precedents to “auto-destructive” art are smartly chronicled in John D. Powell’s “Preserving the Unpreservable,” his Masters thesis for the Museum Studies program at the University of Leicester.

[8] D.A. Pennebaker, “Breaking It Up at the Museum” [film]

[9] Homage to New York was constructed from materials collected from dumps in New Jersey. Its components included roughly 100 wheels, 15 motors, a piano, and addressograph machine, a baby’s bath tub, klaxons, chemicals, metal drums, bell, child’s cart, piece of the American flag, bottles, fire extinguisher, radio, oil cans, hammers, saws, etc.

[10]Kristine Stiles, “Thresholds of Control: Deconstruction Art and Terminal Culture” Ars Electronic Archive:

[11] Al Hansen, quoted in Powell: 13. Kristine Stiles’s work focuses on the Destruction in Art Symposium.

[12]Gustav Metzger, Damaged Nature, Auto-Destructive Art (London: Coracle, 1996), p. 43-53; quoted in Powell 53.

[13] Powell 53. Destruction need not be incited or accelerated by the artist; see also ephemeral art like the work of Andy Goldsworthy, Robert Smithson, or Dieter Roth.

[14] See Huey Copeland’s wonderful “Dark Mirrors: Theaster Gates and EbonyArtforum 52:2 (October 2013): 222-229.

[15]Martha Schwendener, “Mark Dion: American Fine Arts / Aldrich Museum” Artforum 41:10(June 2003).

[16] Whitney Museum of American Art, The Desire of the Museum (New York: Whitney Museum, 1998).

[17]We might also consider how techniques of preservation shape, and are shaped by, the aesthetics of other disciplines, including architectural preservation. In the CFP for a “Photography and Preservation” special issue of Future Anterior, the editors write:

By the 1840s, John Ruskin was urging preservationists to seize ‘every opportunity afforded by scaffolding to approach [art and architecture] closely, and putting the camera in any position that will command’ it…. [The] now standard practice of systematically photographing all phases of a restoration, and archiving the pictures for future reference and to insure the reversibility of treatments…

The institutionalization and professionalization of preservation in the mid-nineteenth century was spurred in part by national and colonial photographic surveys, which not only inventoried heritage efficiently but also helped to shape public perception, concentrating attention on, and therefore changing the cultural value of, a select group of buildings and objects. It is well known that the first photographic surveys mapped only earlier established travel routes such as the European Grand Tour… Photography was arguably the most effective mass media instrument to construct and disseminate visual knowledge and appreciation of buildings and immovable objects that were distant both in time and in place, and as such it also formed the necessary evidentiary basis for the internationalization of preservation movements.”

…[C]ould the obsession of preservationists with building facades be traced to Denis Baldus’s (1813-82) and Gustave Le Gray’s (1820-82) development of the standards for the elevation photograph? What were the aesthetic touch points of preservation photography, and how have they changed as the field has evolved?… How did…the sudden availability of hand-held cameras in the postwar era figure in the expansion of preservation from a restricted focus on canonical monuments to include popular and vernacular buildings? How has the popularity of so-called Ruin Porn photography influenced notions of post-industrial heritage and debates about its authenticity, and conversely, how do preservation aesthetics figure in the subtle framing of patinas, decaying timbers, and flaking paints that Ruin Porn stereotypically catalogues?…

What is the role of photography in the nascent field of architectural forensics?… In extreme cases, photography also sometimes figures as a substitute for preservation, a measure of last resort when the material object is certain to be lost. How did the photographic image come to be conceptualized in discourse as an extension of preservation?…

What role did photography play in shaping the practice of comparing, contrasting and categorizing heritage in typological and stylistic terms? What was the role and influence of architectural photographic archives in the teaching and practice of preservation? Photography figures in preservation both as a lingua franca, and as the undecipherable visual language of specialization, such as in thin section petrography or thermal photography. (CFP: Future Anterior Journal: Photography and Preservation. In: H-ArtHist (March 16, 2013):

[18] Pamela M. Lee, “The Whole Earth is Heavy” Artforum (September 2013). See also Andrea Picard, “Camille Henrot: A Hunter-Gatherer During a Time of Collective ‘Grosse Fatigue’” Cinema Scope 56:

[19] Clark Lunberry, “Theatre as Installation: Ann Hamilton and the Accretions of Gesture” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 37:1 (March 2004).

[20] Amei Wallach, “A Conversation with Ann Hamilton in Ohio” American Art 22:1 (Spring 2008): 55.

[21] Wallach 74.

[22] Hito Steyerl, with Marvin Jordan, “Politics of Post-Representation” dis magazine (n.d.):

[23] Andrew Kreps, “How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational Installation, July 2 – August 15, 2014” [press release]:



In Rare Fashion: My RBMS Plenary Presentation

"Archive Wall" from the 2013 “Nam June Paik: Global Visionary” exhibition @ the Smithsonian American Art Museum
“Archive Wall” from the 2013 “Nam June Paik: Global Visionary” exhibition @ the Smithsonian American Art Museum

I was delighted to be invited to deliver one of the closing plenary talks at the 2014 preconference for the American Library Association’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Section, on the theme of “Retrofit,” in Las Vegas. I was joined on the plenary panel by Jim Reilly, Founder and Director of the Image Permanence Institute, and Emily Gore, Content Director of the Digital Public Library of America, both of whom gave fantastic presentations. Unfortunately, we had far too little time for discussion.

What follows are my slides and the text of my talk:

In Rare Fashion: Special Collections Infrastructural Aesthetics

In Rare Fashion: Special Collections’ Infrastructural Aesthetics

I come from Brooklyn, the land of archival aesthetics. I realize this is kind of old news, but those of us who live the antiquarian lifestyle are quite happy to be behind the curve. [S2] We’re committed to canning, [S3] letterpress, [CLICK] suspenders, [CLICK] and classic cocktails. [S4] We mix our vinyl with taxidermy. [S5] This coming weekend we’re opening a new museum, Morbid Anatomy, that’s dedicated to spirit photography, embalming, and 19th-century medical and mourning practices. [S6: Blank] We’re into performing our preservation, too; we can make anything “heritage” or artisanal – [S7] including our faces. (I should note that recent research has shown that [S8] we may recently have reached “peak beard.”)

[S9]Rare book and manuscript libraries certainly have their own aesthetic of “rarity” – but it’s not often manifested in the same way that we Brooklynites do it, [S10] with reclaimed wood and Edison bulbs. In a 2007 article in RBM, Gerald Beasley described what one might see if one approached the archive as an aesthetic place:

[S11]rows and rows of acid-free boxes and acid-free folders on inert gray metal shelving in climate-controlled storage… – not what you call ‘eye candy.’ …[W]hat goes on inside those boxes is often a far more riotous mix of material culture than anything a row of books or periodicals can provide. But in marketing terms, archives in storage suffer from an image problem.[1]

In my comments here I’m not going to focus on the [S12] riotous content of those boxes and books– on the woodcuts and gold leaf embellishments and marginalia on their enclosed pages; or on the stories and arguments and information conveyed through their words and images. Andrew Stauffer’s beautiful plenary talk from Wednesday acknowledged much that can be gained from the textual and material-aesthetic dimensions of archival artifacts.

[S13]Instead, I’m going to focus on the boxes themselves, and that inert gray metal shelving – and the study tables and the conservation labs and vitrines and online catalogues and drably lit rooms – all the architectural and technological infrastructures that enable archives and rare book and manuscript libraries to do what they do. For the sake of brevity, I’ll heretofore lump these spaces together and call them “special collections.” I’ll argue that even the seemingly anti-aesthetic aspects of the special collection actually do – or can – embody an aesthetic, an experience, that enhances the various programmatic functions the institution serves; and can even serve as a means of advocacy for those functions. These aesthetics can, as John Overholt argued in last spring’s issue of RBM, serve to “demystify special collections, to convey the message: ‘Please touch. This is here for you” – and, I would add, this is how we made it possible for this to be here for you, to touch and read and listen to and learn from.[2]

[S14]By “aesthetics,” I don’t mean beauty or sublimity, or a taste-based assessment of “look and feel.” I mean sensory contemplation, which is not separate from or opposed to the realm of the intellectual. Rather, aesthetics are an integral part of the teaching and research – as well as the processing and preservation, cataloguing and curating – that take place in special collections. We need to acknowledge these aesthetics of experience, for both patrons and staff – as well as both on-site and online communities, both the local and distributed.

There are cases in which intellectual labor and aesthetic experience are balkanized. [S15] This was made especially clear to me several years ago, when I was working on an essay about the 2006 renovation – a controversial retrofitting – of Alvar Aalto’s Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard’s Lamont Library. [Warning: this account will involve an embarrassing number of “air quotes.”] The room was founded with a gift from Harry Harkness Flager in honor of his friend and former Columbia professor George E. Woodberry, who aimed to afford undergraduates an opportunity to experience the “delight and entertainment” of poetry outside the “chore of the curriculum,” where, under the influence of new approaches to criticism, poetry was increasingly analyzed with a “rigorous empiricism” and mined for “facts.” [S16] My study examined how Aalto’s forward-thinking and fluid design – a humanistic variation on Modern design – accommodated and symbolized the myriad material forms of poetry represented in the collection: manuscripts, little magazines, records, printed books, even poetry-inspired artwork. One of the reviewers of my article, however, claimed that my focus on “delight” and “entertainment” precluded poetry’s “significance”; to highlight aesthetic experience was to suggest that poetry is devoid of “intellectual or political engagement,” and to fail to acknowledge that “poets even think rationally.”

Of course in my revision I took great pains to demonstrate that feeling – even, heaven forbid, pleasure and delight – is not inimical to rational thought. [S17] I also had to spend some time explaining, contra many preservationists’ claims, why computers weren’t superfluous technologies that could be moved off-site to as to preserve the room’s classic aesthetic. At just over 1000 square feet the Poetry Room was the smallest media space I’ve ever worked with, and its focus on poetry made its mission and audience particularly delimited. But even this small case study illustrates what I’ve tried to do with all of my research on media architectures: [S18] that is, to demonstrate how entwined infrastructures – architectural, technological, social, etc. – embody certain politics and epistemologies. And this embodiment happens in large part through their aesthetics.You see here a related piece I published a couple weeks ago.

[S19]Francois Blouin acknowledges in a 2010 issue of RBM that many notable special collections are often sited in privileged places, apart from more pedestrian collections, and housed in monumental spaces, which connect contemporary researchers to the “enduring scholarly values” and research traditions they embody. Yet he claims “the importance of these settings to scholarship has seldom been cause for much reflection.”[3]

[S20]I noticed that what seems to be a key text in the design of archival and special collections, Michele Pacifico and Thomas Wilsted’s 2009 Archival and Special Collections Facilities, frames the special collection as an architecture primarily for objects. There are chapters on the building site, environmental control, fire protection, security, materials and finishes, storage equipment, prohibited materials, etc.[4] A paper presented at the 2012 IFLA conference acknowledged that the 2009 study needed to expanded – but the proposed areas of development included sustainable design; environmental standards for storage, including design for buildings in extreme climates; planning for disasters; and the design implications of electronic records and digitization.[5]  Aside from considering accessibility issues, once again very little attention seems to be paid to the aesthetics of experience, both for patrons and staff. [S21]The recent translation of Arlette Farge’s The Allure of the Archives has attracted a great deal of attention precisely because she addresses both the delights and miseries of people’s embodied, multisensory interaction with collection materials and the collection’s physical space.[6]

[S22]In the time that remains, I’ll discuss the aesthetics of five intertwined infrastructures that compose the special collection, and many of which have undergone recent retrofits in light of technological and curricular and pedagogical change. I’ll offer some brief comments regarding their political and epistemological significance, as well as their potential to serve as tools for pedagogy or advocacy for the importance of special collections. There are certainly more than five infrastructures I could talk about, but, in the interest of time, I’ll need to limit my focus. This means, unfortunately, that much is left out, including perhaps the one area of special collections whose aesthetics are most commonly recognized — namely, the reading room. You could turn to Farge’s text for a discussion of reading-room aesthetics.

[S23] I’ll start with the aesthetics of storage infrastructures. Collection storage has long been a central design feature – there never seems to enough of it – and it’s often an aesthetic focus for libraries. [S24]Storage spaces played a central role in the controversy of the planned renovation of the NYPL’s Schwartzman Library. I’ve written about a few other designs, [S25]including the 40-anniversary retrofit of Louis Kahn’s library for Philips Exeter Academy and [S26]Rem Koolhaas’s 2004 Seattle Public Library, with its book spiral, that prioritize storage of the collection. More recently, [S27]TAX arquitectura’s 2006 Biblioteca Jose Vasconcelos in Mexico City and [S28]MRVDV’s Book Mountain, which opened just two years ago in a town in the Netherlands, continue to fetishize the stacks. We see similar focus on the aesthetics of storage in some special collections, including [S29]Dartmouth’s Rauner Special Collections, a project completed in 2000; and of course its formal predecessor, the [S30]Beinecke at Yale. The epistemological implications of this aesthetic are obvious: these architectures put on display, and make empirical, if not navigable, the wealth of knowledge that the collection represents.

[S31]Even behind-the-scenes storage spaces – those acid-free boxes grey shelves – have aesthetic appeal. Many conceptual artists have worked with what art historian Hal Foster calls the “aesthetics of administration.” [S32]There’s also been a lot of fantastic recent scholarship on the history of paperwork and filing – [S33]I wrote something last year, too – that attests to the deeper social and cultural implications of back-stage storage systems. [S34]And in my classes on archives and mapping, I often organize field trips in which we take these media studies and design students behind the scenes at various museums and archives and special collections. Amidst the beige and grey, the students not only begin to grasp the scope of an institution’s collection and the breadth of formats it contains, but they also begin to appreciate how value is attached to those materials – and just how much of it lives only in material form, and will likely not be digitized any time soon.

Even as collections move off-site, I’ve noticed continuing fascination with the aesthetics of storage. There are several recent videos, including some expertly produced documentaries – featuring the Bodleian, [S35]the Harvard Depository, North Carolina State’s new Hunt Library, the University of Chicago’s new Mansueto Library, [S36]and the Corbis Image Vault inside Iron Mountain, a former limestone mine in Western Pennsylvania – that aestheticize remote storage and automated retrieval. I situate these projects in relation to growing interest in the materiality of information and media archaeology. We can also position these “storage stories” within within a larger body of work that attempts to make material, empirical, phenomenological – and thereby comprehensible – a lot of behind-the-scenes informational experiences. [S37]It’s part of the trend toward “making visible the invisible,” calling attention to the distribution of information, which has tended to be eclipsed by interest in production and consumption.

[S38] Second, the aesthetics of conservation, also typically behind-the-scenes. But, again, when I’ve taken my students to various institutions, they’ve been fascinated by the intricate, embodied labor involved in conservation. [S39] At the New York City Municipal Archives, we watched a photography conservator peel apart 80-year-old homicide scene photos from the NYPD; we watched a print conservator “float” a 400-year-old Dutch document in a tub of wood pulp; we [S40] we observed a staff member custom-build an acid-free box for a rusty switchblade found amongst the police department’s records. The organic materiality of media is quite a revelation to many of these supposed “digital natives.” [S41] And even the material work of preserving the digital – of practicing digital forensics, making sure to regularly spin the back-up hard drives, or reformatting video archives to keep pace with evolving best practices – is illuminating for students to observe. These backstage activities have such great pedagogical potential – and there’s demonstrated interest. What’s more, making this activity visible has the potential to manifest, and thereby advocate for, the critical, specialized work that takes place in special collections. [S42] Not all institutions have beautiful conservation facilities like the Morgan Library’s Thaw Conservation Center, but there have to be ways to allow different publics to experience the aesthetics, and thus the politics, of the work of conservation.

[S43] Third, the aesthetics of exhibition. This may be the most obvious example: the curation of special collections’ materials is intended primarily to create an aesthetic frame for those materials, and to render them experiential. In recent renovation projects several institutions have added exhibition space or upgraded their exhibition areas. [S44] The Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library at Yale repositioned its exhibition spaces outside the special collections “security perimeter,” so as to potentially draw in visitors who wouldn’t otherwise be compelled to enter.[7] Such exhibitions not only highlight collection materials, but they also have the potential to model scholarly methodology and intellectual frameworks; they can show students how to put objects in conversation with one another and make inferences or draw conclusions from historical texts and primary resources.

Of course putting those special collections materials in a vitrine or display case typically emphasizes the visual at the expense of the other senses, and thereby limits the pedagogical “channels” that we can use to teach with or through these materials. [S45] There are other special collections infrastructures – classrooms and programing spaces, for instance – that allow for different aesthetic and epistemological experiences. These spaces – which constitute our fourth aesthetic infrastructure – [S46] create opportunities for the handling and activation of materials, and offer the ability to bring those materials alive in group settings, via a variety of pedagogical techniques, or perhaps through performances. Ideally, careful attention is paid to furnishings and lighting and display technology that lend themselves to flexible use. In some cases, however, as we see here, teachers simply commandeer whatever space they have for communal use.

Yale’s Arts Library, as part of their renovation, also integrated a classroom, which grew their instruction program over 900 percent. Years earlier, the Beinecke Library underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation, which involved converting conventional shelving into compact storage, and transforming some storage space into classrooms and a [S47] Digital Studio. As Ellen Cordes wrote, “This choice to build classrooms in preference to both storage space and a conservation studio is a very concrete demonstration of the library’s commitment to access, and not just to the preservation of collections.”[8] The library hosted a record number of classes in 2004-5 and [S48]launched a bunch of extra-curricular programs, including non-credit classes, lectures, musical performances, and poetry events inspired by the collections.

Making space in the special collection for greater public access – both for a greater variety of publics, and a greater variety of aesthetic experiences – opens up the collection to innovative uses and unanticipated applications. This is in keeping with John Overholt’s proposal that the future of special collections will encompass both “disintermediation” – the collections’ “unmooring” from librarians’ “organizational and interpretive contexts – as well as their creative “transformation.”[9] [S49] The Woodberry Poetry Room, for instance, has become home to a variety of programs in which the collection is activated. When poet Christina Davis became curator of the room in 2008, she introduced group listening sessions and a works-in-progress series, among other events. When these open events are not in session, the uses of the room range from “quiet study, perusal of literary magazines, the research of rare material (broadsides, manuscripts, chapbooks), listening to archival recordings,… and (yes) writing poems.”[10] “The latter is, to my mind,” Davis told me, “the surest sign of the success of the room: It means that scholarship and the art-form it hopes to perpetuate have come full circle.

[S50]And over the past few days at this conference we’ve seen myriad other creative uses to which special collections materials have been put – everything from Burrough’s Reality Studio to Booktraces to Tumblrs and student Omeka exhibitions and Neatline timelines to physical, on-site exhibitions. These transformations might take shape within the physical confines of the special collections space, or without. And the fact that, increasingly, interactions with special collections do happen outside the facilities themselves highlights the centrality of a [S51]fifth aesthetic infrastructure: the digital interface. The aesthetics of the special collections interface – in the form of online catalogues, finding aids, and digital exhibitions – has received continued attention, particularly from institutions like the University of Michigan, the NYPL, Princeton, and Brigham Young. [S52] Interface aesthetics, and how we critique them, were our chief concerns in a Digital Archives graduate studio I taught this past spring at The New School [S53].

Given the centrality of place to this panel, we might wonder what distinctive conceptions of place these intertwined physical and virtual infrastructures represent.[11] We’ve seen some attempts to [S54] recreate our physical infrastructures online – to simulate stack views and virtual shelves; or to digitally “mirror” our on-site exhibitions – but this might not make sense when patrons won’t likely ever encounter special collections materials on those insert grey shelves, and some might not encounter those materials in-person at all. Why adopt these skeuomorphic tropes, why adhere to the “each book (or box) its place on the shelf” structure, when the physical and virtual are separate, if intertwined, places, with distinctive, if mutually informing, aesthetics?

[S55]Perhaps one way to reconceive “place” in the special collections interface would be to acknowledge the object’s provenance, which has been a recurring theme in our discussions over the past few days. Or, in the case of distributed, federated collections, like the DPLA, place might refer, as Blouin recommends, to an object’s institutional home. Highlighting these distributed institutional responsibilities again serves to advocate for the integral and complementary roles that different institutions play in maintaining our seemingly seamless, placeless web of content.

[S56]We need to acknowledge these myriad, intertwined interfaces and their aesthetics, because we inevitably need to negotiate among them. Those negotiations are driven by space and budget limitations, and stakeholders’ diverse interests. Prioritizing one – as Beinecke did with spaces of instruction, for example – usually means compromising on others, like storage or conservation. Yet it’s important to recognize that we needn’t undertake expensive architectural renovations or massive technological overhauls in order to retrofit our institutions’ functionality. [S57]A retrofit can involve new, creative, resourceful, economic ways of framing aesthetic experience – physical and/or virtual; small interventions, kits of parts – to accommodate new pedagogies, new approaches to scholarship, and new politics of knowledge.[12]

[1] Gerald Beasley, “Curatorial Crossover: Building Library, Archives, and Museum Collections” RBM 8:1 (Spring 2007): 23.

[2] John Overholt, “Five Theses on the Future of Special Collections” RBM 14:1 (Spring 2013): 15-20.

[3] Francis X. Blouin, Jr., “Thoughts on Special Collections and Our Research Communities” RBM 11:1 (Spring 2010): 25. The 2014 World Library and Information Congress promises to feature a session focusing on “innovative design solutions for the use, presentation, teaching and exhibition of special collections as well as address appropriate security issues and storage facilities”; see “Call for Papers: Session Title: Special Places for Special Collections: for 80th World Library and Information Congress, Lyon France, August 16-22, 2014”:

[4] Michele F. Pacifico & Thomas P. Wilsted, Eds., Archival and Special Collections Facilities: Guidelines for Archivists, Librarians, Architects, and Engineers (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2009).

[5] Diane Vogt-O’Connor, “Archival and Special Collections Facilities: Guidelines for Archivists, Librarians, Architects, and Engineers,” Helsinkis: IFLA – International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, 2012:

[6] Arlette Farge, The Allure of the Archives, Trans. Thomas Scott-Railton (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

[7] Jae Jennifer Rossman “Build It and S/He Will Come: A Reflection on Five Years in a Purpose-Built Special Collections Space” RBM 14:2 (Fall 2013): 111-120.

[8] Ellen R. Cordes, “A Response to Traister” RBM 7:2 (Fall 2006): 107.

[9] Overholt: 17-18.

[10] C. Davis, personal communication, October 1, 2009.

[11] Beasley acknowledges that, while these distributed digital resources do enhance access, there are certain aesthetic experiences that they preclude, including the object’s “provenance, its design, its weight, its size, its color under different light, its smell, its texture, its material, its watermarks, its structure, its binding, its evidence of age, its evidence of use, its evidence of misuse.” Sure, you could create metadata for all these variables – but why not also consider the distinctive affordances and limitations of this digital infrastructure, and allow the digital surrogate to drive patrons to the physical object for the fully embodied aesthetic experience?

[12] This year I’m partnering with the Architectural League of New York and the Center for an Urban Future to organize a design study of New York’s three public library systems’ branch libraries; we’re encouraging our competing design teams to consider modular “kits of parts” that can transform the aesthetics and functionality of branches without requiring major renovations and budgets that the libraries simply don’t have.


Recover Lost File: I Wrote About Ben Fino-Radin and Lori Emerson on Preserving Obsolete Media for Nautilus Magazine

Cover Image: “XFR STN” Test Pattern, created by DuArt. Courtesy DuArt Restoration
Cover Image: “XFR STN” Test Pattern, created by DuArt. Courtesy DuArt Restoration

Last Friday Ben Fino-Radin, digital repository manager at the Museum of Modern Art; and Lori Emerson, assistant professor of English and director of the Media Archaeology Lab at the University of Colorado at Boulder, convened at NYU ostensibly to discuss “New | Media Archives.” I was invited to write about their discussion for the lovely and exciting Nautilus, a new-ish science magazine, which I highly recommend. You can read my post, which was assigned the rather prolix headline, “Preserving Yesterday’s Tech to Get a Better Gasp on Today’s,” here.


Preserving Yesterday’s Tech to Get a Better Grasp on Today’s

Preserving Yesterday’s Tech to Get a Better Grasp on Today’s,” Nautilus (November 22, 2013)