When it comes to digital documentaries (as well as other forms of ephemeral digital culture) artists, and entire communities risk losing troves of work if the complex, ever-evolving systems that support these works (or provide access to them; or to part of them) become incompatible, inaccessible, or obsolete.
The time-ticking need to find digital documentary preservation solutions, systems and policies is the inspiration behind Update or Die: Future Proofing Emerging Digital Documentary Forms, taking place at the Phi Centre on May 5. This one-day conference is curated by the MIT Open Documentary Lab and Phi, in collaboration with IDFA DocLab and the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision. The event brings together this issue's diverse players, including artists, archivists, academics, media, museums, gaming and tech companies, for a day of talks.
Certainly, this is a topic with mass appeal. "It's as relevant as history is," say Professor William Uricchio of the MIT Open Documentary Lab, who will be speaking at the conference. "Culture is all about keeping things in conversation. When cultural artifacts disappear, the conversation falters. The documentary forms at the centre of this conference are both a disruptive and vulnerable part of our media culture... They are very complex ecosystems. If any part of that ecosystem goes out, it affects the whole. Even if you're not interested in interactive documentary, these complex ecosystems pose questions and problems that people have to face in many other sectors of our digital culture."
"This year I started to hear a lot about preservation issues, with Flash disappearing, and problems with apps and having to update constantly,” says Sarah Wolozin, director of the MIT Open Documentary Lab. “If you're an independent artist you don't always have time to do that, and also, not having set methods or the resources to do so is a problem. With technology that changes so quickly, things become obsolete much more quickly. We're talking about projects that were made two years ago that you can no longer access.”
When one considers that digital documentary is a fairly young medium (according to Wolozin, it’s been showing in the film festivals for about ten years) the timing of these issues make sense. Uricchio points out that "We're really still in the early days of this form, and we're watching people explore and experiment. We are privileged to be at the beginning of something, it's rambunctious, it's undisciplined. These are fabulous moments, generative moments."
Innovation notwithstanding, according to these scholars, the risk of loss affects not only individuals, but communities. "Interactive documentaries have a different lifespan and a different life cycle than the old film documentary," Uricchio says. "Some of these interactive projects continue to grow online with user data that is reflected in the documentary itself. So the documentary has a relationship with a living community, actually emerges as something that’s more like a living organism. So the question is, who's responsible for maintaining that life? Who's responsible for its care and feeding? Who's going to make sure everything is upgraded? In these new worlds, we don’t yet have an established answer."
Wolozin agrees. “When we talk about preservation of digital works, we are not only talking about work by artists, storytellers, and documentarians but also the self-expression of communities, whether online or geographical. In an ideal world, many of these projects could exist and be active long after the maker went away but they need a way to be maintained,” she says.
The need to establish such interdisciplinary policies is one reason why bringing together the issue's many different players is crucial, which Wolozin feels is one of Update or Die’s biggest strengths. "We're inviting people from other fields and we're saying, 'Come talk to us. Tell us how you've been thinking about this in the arts world, in the games world, so we can learn from you.' These other fields have all kinds of guidelines and initiatives. I'm really excited we have tech companies at the table because they play a huge role. What roles do different institutions play in trying to preserve these digital works? Media companies, local libraries, museums. What kind of infrastructure and partnerships to we need? How much money are we going to put into preservation for a project? What are we saving and who's deciding? How much say does an artist have?"
From an artist's point of view, it's easy to appreciate the panic that might accompany the realization that one’s oeuvres, the result of possibly years of work, inspiration and investment, could simply vanish. And anyone can understand the sense of attachment to our stories, to our culture, and to our documentation of our lives.
"We're talking about loss and that's something everything can relate to," Wolozin says. "That instinct to want to save your own heritage. Losing your culture is very disturbing. But we're also in this ephemeral culture of Snapchat, the younger generation is fine with things disappearing. Another question is, what do we save and what do we just let go?"
Uricchio concurs. "The driver here is emotional, it's cultural memory, it keeps us connected to the expression of the previous generation. We live in a culture where more and more things are ephemeral, they're here today gone tomorrow. In the old world we tried to keep as much as we could, and coming from a culture that keeps everything, it feels strange to let things go.”
But let go—at least, perhaps, of some of it—we must, as will be discussed in Update or Die. Wolozin says: “I'm hoping it will be a thought-provoking and eye opening conference to get people to think more broadly about how to go about preserving their work. I hope we come out of it with more ideas and understanding of how and what we preserve, and keep on helping each other. I think it requires a network and partnerships across institutions and disciplines to have systems in place to save work that's made on technologies that become obsolete quickly.”