Goldsen Archive of New Media
History of the Archive
INTERVIEWER: When was the archive founded, and how did it start?
CASAD: The archive was founded in 2002 by Timothy Murray, a professor of English and Comparative Literature here, and the director of Cornell Society for the Humanities. He organized a touring exhibit of CD-ROM artwork in 1999 called Contact Zone. Realizing that there was no good place on campus to house the material from this exhibit afterwards, he began working with the library. The Goldsen Archive came to be in the library; ultimately it had a lot to do with the idea that The Division of Rare and Manuscripts Collections here at Cornell has an extremely open policy about access. So anybody can come and register to be a user of Rare and Manuscripts Collections, request materials and use them on site without a lot of extensive credential checking or need for university affiliation. It also had to do with the nature of the artwork itself. CD-ROM artworks are created for single users at individual computer terminals. Small screens. So it was a user experience that was more like reading than the immersive experience you might have with a room size installation or a projection experience.
The collection expanded pretty quickly to include things like offline archiving and long-term sustaining of online resources like Ctheory Multimedia which is a net journal of critical theory about web culture and digital culture.
A lot of our new media work in particular comes in through umbrella collections of fellowships or other avenues, but a lot of it is also purchased —it was work that was originally published in some format—and some of it is just open donation. Artists would send their work to the Goldsen with no deposit agreements, no massive legal documentation, no particular discussion about how work was going to be preserved or accessible. Artists would just send it in because they liked the idea of having their work included. That means have a lot of work by artists who might not have had a huge amount of mainstream success, whose work might not be found in the galleries or museums but who were doing a lot of innovative, active work during this kind of golden age of interactive new media art of the late 90s, early 2000s.
INTERVIEWER: How large is the collection?
CASAD: That is so difficult. We get this question and it's tricky. We have more than 500 unique discs. Some of those are linear DVD works, some of them are DVD-ROMs, a lot of those are compilations that would include sometimes as many as 20, as many as 50 individual interactive titles with separate authors. So it depends somewhat on whether you're talking about material objects or you're talking about artworks, and either way we kind of end up getting these fuzzy answers. And then we also have some born-digital work that came to us on hard drives, so how you quantify that is also a different question. We're coming into one of the difficulties of curating this kind of artwork already.
INTERVIEWER: Is there a curatorial emphasis on certain types of works for the Goldsen Archive?
CASAD: There are a few gravitational focal points for collecting. Born digital interactive artwork is in some sense the first love of the Goldsen Archive, it's the founding purpose of creating the archive in the first place, so that has always been a strong part of our identity and mission. That said, the bulk of our collection right now is probably video just because of a couple of other collections that came our way that we are thrilled beyond measure to be able to house and preserve. We hold the video library of the Experimental Television Center which is a massive, massive video collection. In addition to video we have a lot of paper holdings. And then we have a very active curatorial program bringing in work from China and East Asia. We also have pretty strong holdings in sound art mostly in digital formats.
Issues of Access
INTERVIEWER: How are the born-digital collection materials used and who can access them?
CASAD: This has been a long story (laughs), and it changes so much, too. In the early days, we had library catalog entries for a lot of the individual discs or other kinds of works that were in the Goldsen. Researchers would come and check them out through our manuscripts collection, take them to a media reading room where there would be one legacy Mac computer and one legacy PC computer and they would just use them there. In the years since, we've acquired more work that's available on semi-portable hard drives, so we've been able to set up researchers, in some cases, with a "house" laptop. We don't usually let them use their own that they can just plug into the hard drives, often using a write-blocker so that there's no transfer of information from one machine to the other. Increasingly, we've been able to offer work in emulation, and this has vastly accelerated the amount of outreach and the amount of teaching that we've been able to do with this material, the amount of detail that we're able to provide in presentations and the number of people who can just casually come in and interact with things. So that's been one of the really most exciting outcomes of the work that we're doing right now.
INTERVIEWER: What is the work you're referring to?
CASAD: Oh yes, we have an NEH grant to work on a preservation and access framework, and strategies for the collections that we're talking about: the born-digital interactive new media artworks. And because of that we've been able to devote a lot of staff time and resources to developing good technical solutions and access solutions.
DIETRICH: We've made copies of all of the discs so that when researchers come in to interact with the work they're never working with the originals, just a copy. That affords more opportunity to access because it means that we don't have to safeguard the fragile CDs anymore. We can make disc images — they can actually use a disc image in an emulated system then that becomes a much more portable method of access.
ALEXANDER: Maybe you should give a quick definition of what a disk image is just because not everyone may understand.
DIETRICH: A disc image would be the file representation of the file system, of the file structure of the actual CD itself. It is a complete representation of what that object has with the exception of a couple of finicky technical details which we don't have to go into now (laughs).
Using the Collection
INTERVIEWER: Who are the primary users of the born-digital materials?
CASAD: Since we're in a research library, a lot of people who come to use the collections are researchers, faculty members, faculty send their students in to peruse things or sometimes do focused research in different parts of the collection. We always hope that artists will come and just browse. And artists who are faculty members or students in fine art classes do come in, but that's something that we'd like to see a lot more of than we currently get.
ALEXANDER: We did a survey to see what kind of users would be interested in using the materials, and it really ranged from other academic institutions to filmmakers and artists to individual scholars and academics who were interested in media arts. The responses we got also ranged from to those who thought that they wouldn't prefer to interact with an emulated environment but were more interested in actually using these works as they were intended on legacy machines. So we have to take all these things into consideration although that isn't the direction we're heading in. But it is definitely informing in how we approach this.
CASAD: Another user group would be curators at other institutions. So we've started more often collaborating with curators who are mounting exhibits and want to borrow Goldsen material.
INTERVIEWER: You have a statement on your website asking patrons "to be sensitive to the situation that many materials in the Goldsen Archive contain dated software and digital platforms that might not be compatible with available screening devices and computers. Reference room staff may not be familiar with the particulars of these materials." That's a statement truly unique to the type of collection that you have. Why was such a statement necessary?
CASAD: Well, firstly that's a statement that's kind of been a blanket disclaimer, 'disclaimer' is too strong a word, but more like a heads-up to people and it's been there for many years. It took a while for the kind of work that we were collecting to make it into the institutional consciousness. For a long time, the Goldsen existed in the library's Rare and Manuscript Collections, and were housed along things like Cuneiform tablets and Shakespeare folios and medieval manuscripts and things like that. The real focus of that kind of umbrella institution has been slightly different for a long time and I think it took a long time for the Goldsen to be more integrated into the archival processes and public services processes that already existed in RMC. But that's actually changing quite a bit and quite rapidly right now.
That disclaimer is less necessary now than it was five years ago. Will it still be necessary five years from now? Probably, because there will always be artworks that are a little bit glitchy, and no matter how extensive the user notes that you write up in the catalog might be, the person who happens to be on public services that day setting the user up with access to the material might or might not be really savvy about what needs to happen. We don't always get advance notice. If we have 24 hours notice, most of the time we can set everything up just fine so the researchers don't run into these problems.
INTERVIEWER: Are you also maintaining a hardware and software archive?
CASAD: We maintain hardware so that we can run work in some approximation to the original context. And as a control rendering to see how well the work plays in slightly changed software configurations that we might be able to provide access to. We aren't doing something like actively collecting old machines in order to provide finely nuanced rendering environments that would be specific to each and every artwork. And we're not really collecting machines older than Mac OS 8, I would say.
WORKING WITH ARTISTS
INTERVIEWER: Are you engaged directly with artists in terms of acquisition and managing collections and preservation? Can you point to examples of specific artists that you work with?
CASAD: We did not originally do things at the Goldsen like preservation questionnaires or interviews with artists, in part because so many of our direct submissions were from artists sending us their work or we would acquire the work through exhibitions. Timothy Murray, the curator, would be working with artists very closely to mount an exhibition and then we would just have the materials at the end of it. But there wouldn't be really explicit conversations about how to provide access or how to preserve or how to conserve the work when the time came. It's really only recently that it became screamingly obvious that the time has come to do that kind of work and that we really need to be working directly with artists to talk about that.
In a lot of cases we do have deposit agreements with artists that allow for kind of multi-tiered forms of access, so some of the artists in the collections would permit on-site access but not digitization or not network access that's outside of the Cornell community. So we have a lot of varieties of access that were arrived at in conversation with artists or artists checking different boxes on legal agreements with the Goldsen. That's another place where we need to kind of revisit our agreements with artists or our understanding with artists and to clarify some things for a new technological age that has emerged in the past few years in terms of the access that we can provide.
Many artists in the Goldsen Collection are still really active supporters and collaborators, and they make sure to send us new updated versions of their work as it comes out or announcements of their openings or shows that come out. And so there are quite a few artists that we're in active contact with in that way. Not necessarily in terms of working out technical details of conservation but just in terms of continued contact and friendship.
ALEXANDER: Well, as far as artists, it seems that we're all approaching this question of how do we preserve time based media, and we have been trying to sort out where the Goldsen is going to go from this point forward. We ask which version of their work would they want to provide future access for? So these are the kinds of questions that we're now realizing that we need to address. We're trying to sort them out ourselves for any future accessions what kind of questions should we be asking the artists moving forward.
INTERVIEWER: When I talked to Moriah and Ben at BAVC, it turns out one of the things that they're doing is first and foremost helping artists organize their collection. In some cases they have to go all the way back to the point of helping artists identify what they have and I'm hearing a little bit of that in what you're talking about as well, is that true?
CASAD: That's kind of a new frontier but I think it's going to be a really important one for us. We're putting together an artist interview and artist questionnaire framework right now with questions like, "What was the environment in which you created this artwork? Do you still have your working files available? What kinds of software were you using at the time? What kinds of rendering devices did you create in conjunction?"
INTERVIEWER: What are some of the bigger challenges to preserving born digital new media artwork? I'm thinking specifically of CD-ROMs and Internet art that you have.
ALEXANDER: I would say just as a very basic entry into this, computers work much more quickly than they used to so some of the things that we have to contend with while trying to sort out emulation of these works is that, although we've been very successful in making a disc image and we're able to see all the various file types (a movie file, text file, there's all these different components of these complex works) and we are able to render them, we can't do it without some glitchiness. Our current computers are running so quickly that we have to make compromises with the work.
And to tie into that that's one of the questions that we need to consider asking artists in the future, what are their feelings about it? If we have one of their works and this is the only way that we can provide access to it, is that okay with them? Do they have some certain stipulations about how their work is accessed and viewed? These are the kinds of things that we're taking note of.
DIETRICH: I think it's important to write down what the limitations are as we see them today. Therefore if someone picks this up in 10 years and things are a lot different—maybe there are really easy to use CRT emulators or something like that—we'll at least know it would be appropriate or which works could really benefit from any sort of advancement that we couldn't do. Anything that was a limitation today might not be a limitation in the future.
CASAD: Having the right media player versions and plug-ins can also be a problem. There has been at least one case where a researcher came in, and we didn't have much advance notice, and ultimately she could look at the interactive framework for a work that had a lot of media stuff happening within it, and then she could play individual audio-visual files but she couldn't have it all integrated just because the computer that she was setup on didn't have the right plugins.
We want to provide the very best rendering we possibly can, but since we're a research archive, there are a lot of people who come in and pore over photocopies with a microscope. It's an environment where a less than perfect version of a document or a text, or whatever people are working with, is acceptable. So even in this case where we had a researcher analyzing the interactive screen on its own terms and then looking at the media files separately on their own terms, that already was clearly far less than perfect, but more than she came in with.
The kinds of questions that we find ourselves needing to ask artists have to do with things like, "Okay if we're providing access to this with keyboard or mouse for navigation rather than a joystick is that okay with you? Or do you think that we should represent the original joystick along with the artwork? What would be your preferred method for doing that? What do you think about how these colors are rendering? Are there settings that you would want to insist on that we file away with our records of the artwork so that it becomes part of it?"
Just disclosing the kinds of rendering and playback apparatus that we're going to be using to artists and giving them a heads up about some of the glitches that might involve, I think that's an area of conversation that we're embarking on right now because it's very clear that we need to.
DIETRICH: We have this documentation that we're putting together where we don't have the time and effort right now to do restoration of these works in the way a museum might be able to but for the kind of broad categories that we are identifying in the collection we are making notes in to how we think someone could in the future do a possible restoration if they wanted to.
INTERVIEWER: Thinking about the people that are reading this, artists who are working with time-based media, what would you say to them, if they are thinking about preserving their work, what would you say about to encourage them to do that or to make it easier for that to happen?
CASAD: I think that a lot of artists working in this area already have a sense of what some of the technical limitations might be, or what the direction of technological advancement, to use a somewhat contentious word, I suppose might look like in terms of media players, in terms of monitors and that kind of apparatus. I think just knowing for themselves what some of the fragilities of their work might be so that they can arm themselves with something like a really clear statement if they are donating or are making a deposit somewhere. What their own priorities are, their own sense of where a work might become problematic, and what they want to have done about it.
Desiree Alexander is a Collections Analysis Assistant at Cornell University Library and has worked with the Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art since 2012, assisting with the Goldsen's experimental video and digital media preservation projects. She is also co-lead in surveying Cornell's A/V assets to locate at risk materials campus-wide in an effort to develop preservation and access strategies. She holds a MS in Information Studies and an MA in Public History from SUNY Albany, and an undergraduate degree in Art History from Ithaca College.
Madeleine Casad is Curator for Digital Scholarship at Cornell University Library. As Associate Curator of the Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art, she manages an exciting collection of media objects that present a wide range of preservation and access challenges. She coordinates many of the Library's Digital Humanities initiatives, and plays a leading role in education and outreach programs to promote the innovative use of digital collections in humanities scholarship. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Cornell University.
Dianne Dietrich was a Fellow in Digital Scholarship and Preservation Services at Cornell University Library from 2013- 2015. There, she was the Digital Forensic Analyst and Technical Lead on the library's NEH grant, Preservation and Access Framework for Digital Art Objects. She holds a library degree from the University of Michigan and an undergraduate degree in Mathematics from Wesleyan University.