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The Digital Mind

Challenges and Possibilities of Digital Archives and the “” Project

With the new challenges and possibilities of the digital age the questions of methods of archiving and preservation as well as the presentation of art consistently arise. How can media-based art be preserved in such a technologically fast-moving time as today? How can art be found in the huge vastness of digital space? To what extent does the omnipresent spreading of information, media and art through the Internet correspond to judicial and ideal barriers? And finally, how can institutions handle production and archiving as well as evaluating these issues? The following text attempts to indicate strategies based on the experience with the <> project.

The <> Project

The <> project, which is supported through KUR — Programme for the Conservation of Moveable Cultural Assets, itself funded by the German Federal Cultural Foundation, brings together the institutions ZKM | Institute for Music and Acoustics, the documenta Archive in Kassel, the European Media Art Festival and the Kassel Documentary Film and Video Festival in order to deal fairly with the time-dependent demands for their specific media art collections. The collaboration of four institutions with different contents and distinctions in regards to their roles as distributors, producers, or institutional archives can be seen as an additional challenge to the project.

Up to now, the systematic collection and description in media art archives has always occurred under consideration of individual interests and has not followed a generally accepted model. Even though a variety of accessible media art archives exists at the present time, their interlinking has been quite complicated (Blome 2009).

The aim of the virtual amalgamation of the different resources is to create an exemplarily modular database system which will be completed in the Spring of 2011. One of the integral ideas of the project is to use open source archiving software to enable other interested (media art) archives to later connect to <>.

Three database levels enable archiving, internet presentation as well as presentation in media centres, while at the same time taking account of legal criteria. Furthermore, the database is a chance for artists to present their works in a contextualized system and provides users with the possibility to find art in a media-historical context. Therefore, one of the most important steps, as in other digitization projects, was to think about scenarios for access while also keeping the technical implementation in mind. In this context we cannot underestimate the complexity of the digitization process itself. 1[1. Digitization projects are among the new tasks of archives. Problems and mistakes seem to be unavoidable. The development of a feasible and universal solution is a work-in-progress. Hartmut Weber, “Langzeitspeicherung und Langzeitverfügbarkeit digitaler Konversionsformen,” Digitale Archive und Bibliotheken, pp. 103ff.]

The activities of the ZKM | Institute for Music and Acoustics within the <> project involve the development of a database system capable of providing the specific and complex requirements of electroacoustic music while placing equal emphasis on the incorporation of facilities for long-term archival / storage. This makes it possible for the artworks to be reproduced and performed at any time.

Regarding its changed role, with the option of unlimited digital publication and the subsequent release of its physical space, the archive may advance to a direct object of public communication. An archival operation cannot only be defined with the setting up of a new database. It should transform things into material objects in a world which is still to be made (Ernst 2002, 12). Even if an “order of things” remains utopian, a digital archive cannot only imply merely a new configuration of data, but rather has to be intended as a cybernetic system.

Practical Approaches

Figure 1
Figure 1. Service structure for the <> project. Image © Ludger Brümmer. [Click image to enlarge]
Figure 2
Figure 2. Server and back-up structure for the <> project. Image © Ludger Brümmer. [Click image to enlarge]
Figure 3
Figure 3. Collection system for the <> project. Image © Ludger Brümmer. [Click image to enlarge]
Figure 4
Figure 4. Metadata fields for the <> project. Image © Ludger Brümmer. [Click image to enlarge]

Before discussing the theoretical approaches the following listing and images point out the results of the database developments.

Theoretical Approaches: The “access_un_limited. Visions of a Digital Archive Culture” Symposium

As the project progressed, several symposia took place which dealt with crucial questions of archiving, conservation and presentation. The following chapters summarize the lectures which were held at the “access_un_limited. Visions of a Digital Archive Culture” symposium on 9 October 2009 at ZKM | Karlsruhe. The symposium’s aim was to analyze theoretical approaches, legal aspects and examples of practical implementations. For this article, the lectures of Ludger Brümmer, Daniel Teruggi, Rupert Vogel and Jürgen Keiper are especially relevant, since they address topics with which the ZKM | Institute for Music and Acoustics is confronted. 2[2. Live recordings of the talks (in German) are available on the website for all except Teruggi. [Last accessed 25 January 2011]]

The Opening of Art — <> on Its Way to a Public Archive

Ludger Brümmer presented the project in his lecture and described the general change of archives, which no longer represent potential that is stowed away; on the contrary, archives have become an instrument of art reception themselves in the digital age.

While the initial object of communication between archives consisted only of small sets of metadata, such as title and author, later developments intended to communicate the objects themselves. In addition to the Internet’s open access, the new functions of archives go far beyond their original purpose of collecting and preserving. The line between original and copy blurs. To Brümmer, these developments constitute the basis for the new role taken on by archives. Archives are now supposed to distribute their contents on a larger scale through the use of networks and thus break through spatial limitations. Their aim is to create access, both to the information on a given object, as well as to the object itself, in the hope that their “treasures” will directly influence research and creativity.

Moreover, the loss of traditional storage locations leaves the archive as the final refuge for many works. Therefore, the aim of the <> project is the creation of a dynamic network of archives which is intended to be globally accessible.

Preserving the Complexity of Music

In his lecture “Preserving the Complexity of Music,” Daniel Teruggi (Head of Le Groupe de Recherches Musicales / Institut national de l’audiovisuel) presented concepts of archiving electroacoustic music which is strongly connected to strict conditions if it is preserved not only for documentation but for reproduction in the distant future.

Based on the question of how music can be preserved for future use, Teruggi outlined developments of the past and present, the understanding of which is essential for those developments for the future. Three historical recording systems indicate the developments of musical transfer:

In this line of development, also a technical evolution can be found, the parameters of which definitely have to be preserved. Finally, these changes introduced new problems for the preservation of music. In a subsequent development, Teruggi defined a social system that constitutes the relationship between composer, performer / interpreter and the public. While the composer and the performer share the same language, the audience and the performer also use the same language codes. However, composers of electronic music develop their own codes, so that shared information no longer exists to the same degree as before. Furthermore, the audience is confronted with new sounds that require a new form of listening. Information and sound are henceforth merged together. With a deliberate interaction involving preparation and conditioning, sounds can be brought closer to the listener.

How can all these heterogeneous elements such as computers, machines, codes and documents be preserved? How can systems be organized to archive complex information? The answer is connected to methodological questions of a new kind of science: archive studies.

The questions of the music’s contents derive again from this complex. In the traditional model, score and sound can immediately be defined: music arises through the synthesis or combination of both. In electronic music, however, all information is closely connected with the sound itself: there is no score respectively, the score is the music itself. Sound itself is connected with complex technologies and hence tied up with different questions: how can music be preserved and what concepts can be used? An important answer lies in the preservation of objects, functions, as well as relations, and in the preservation of music and its language. The problem is neither the preservation nor conservation, but rather the aim of reproduction. As a crucial problem, Teruggi talks about a “preservation barrier”: contents and objects need a person who is able to preserve contents. Archivists must deal with the contents to understand the object.

The question of what should be preserved needs to be considered from a philosophical point of view. While the preservation in museums is strongly focused on objects, this method is no longer effective in the musical field. Besides objects it is necessary to preserve the data or technical equipment for reconstruction: the utmost goal is to save the integrity of the objects. One strategy lies in the oral transfer of information. The archivist and composer need to communicate on a direct level. A “digital curator” must answer a lot of questions, or in other words, he has to practice music archæology before he can really preserve an artwork for the future. At the moment, the INA/GRM is developing a “self-describing software” that is able to generate the documentation by the system itself.

Archiving is based on the durability of objects — that’s the general point of view. However, we are working with unstable objects that change and lead to a new paradigm of archiving: open systems take the place of closed systems and you never know where the open systems end.

Legal Aspects of Archiving Digital Art

Rupert Vogel introduced the complex issue of copyright law. His lecture is divided into the questions of what can be archived and what the archival documents and objects can be used for. Problems of copyright also largely concern archiving. From the perspective of preserving digital art, different questions arise: If and to what extent non-digital art may be digitized and thereafter archived, or whether digital art may be archived in general.

From a metaphysical point of view, copyright is connected with the question of cultural memory: how may intellectual contents be archived in a society? Vogel refers to an approach that is not monolithic but more like a mosaic: Who are the rights holders? Is there more than one author? Are there different segments with different authors, etc.? Different kinds of utilization of public access generally deal with two kinds of publication: internet and duplication. An artwork as well as databases and its structures are automatically protected if they have a certain authorship.

The author owns two general rights: first, personal rights, that is, the right of protection against the alteration of the works; and second, exploitation rights, such as physical exploitation including copies and non-physical exploitation in electronic networks, for example. From an archival point of view, this involves the problem of digitization of analog media, which could bring about a distortion of the original. Hence, the question is if this emulation or conversion of data can already be seen as a form of duplication. From a legal standpoint, the boundaries are permeable in this case.

In favour of the public, archiving allows for several so-called “anticipated barriers.” A first barrier concerns the use of an archive that allows its operation in general. But on the other side, contents of more than one institution must either not be connected or exchanged. 3[3. The ZKM | Institute for Music and Acoustics tries to counter these serious limitations. We have developed a contract which applies the wishes of the authors themselves. The author decides if contents may be shown in <>. The aim is to create a global archive of electroacoustic music.]

Non-profit and public institutions may archive artworks digitally. Hence, they are allowed to copy works and use them digitally, but they must not reproduce them for the public. Nevertheless, the contents may be used if the author gives his consent. The objects may be made accessible for research purposes within in-house electronic workstations provided that the number of shown works corresponds to the number of archived works. It is also permitted to make contents visible for research purposes via remote access.

The problem of reproducing digital art has not been solved yet. The summarization and indexing of content is permitted, although the recording of an abstract is more complex. A detailed abstract represents a forbidden duplication, if it could replace the work itself. In that case it could be defined as a copy or forbidden act of editing. Altogether we must consider to what extent today’s copyright laws still suit the requirements of the 21st century.

The right to quote is also subject to the anticipated barriers: quotations may be used if they have a clear context, the author is mentioned and the text is not too long. Compressed contents such as thumbnails are actually protected but mostly allowed as common law. The screening of archival goods is permitted in-house, for example, at the ZKM or at media libraries.

Network Concepts of the Future: Creative Commons

With his presentation, Jürgen Keiper (Deutsche Kinemathek, Berlin) introduced the endeavour Wir waren so frei (We were so free) as an exemplary Internet project which made media-based contents visible through Creative Commons (CC) licenses. 4[4. Creative Commons (CC) is a non-profit organization to expand the range of creative works available for others to build upon legally and to share. The organization has released several copyright licenses — known as Creative Commons licenses — free of charge to the public. These licenses allow creators to communicate which rights they reserve and which rights they waive for the benefit of recipients or other creators. An easy to understand one-page explanation of rights with associated visual symbols explains the specifics of each Creative Commons license. This simplicity distinguishes Creative Commons from an all-rights reserved copyright. Creative Commons was invented to create a more flexible copyright model, replacing “all rights reserved” with “some rights reserved.” Wikipedia is one of the notable web-based projects using a Creative Commons license. Cf. “Creative Commons ,” Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia (Wikimedia Foundation Inc.). [Last accessed 25 January 2011]]

The following is not especially tailored to the project but rather serves as general information about the different perspectives of Creative Commons licenses, which are more relevant at this point.

Keiper stated two important things concerning the history of the Internet: the strong autonomous claim of the Internet with the development of its own ethics and the high degree of participation as well as its global support. Keiper refers to so-called “mash-up structures” that refer to the junction of heterogeneous sources. Hence, he poses the question, if a useful structure can be developed today at all, or whether it is generally necessary under the condition that already many user scenarios have become independent. Two other central questions are associated with the subject of “access”: How do I find a page and how do I find the information I am looking for there? On the basis of these questions, the future subjects concern content-oriented networks, semantic webs, legal management and higher bandwidth.

Creative Commons licenses can solve only one part of the present problems, but they can counteract against the decay in smaller units and serve as a generic structuralization system. According to Keiper, the causal reason for the work with Creative Commons licenses was the tiresome, often unsuccessful confrontation with copyrights and the ideal foundation which was developed by Lawrence Lessig in his freely available book Free Culture5[5. Lawrence Lessig, Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity (New York: Penguin Press, 2004). Available (PDF) online here [Last accessed 25 January 2011]] According to Lessig, cultural creativity develops only if the barriers for terms of use are very low. To Keiper, the potential of Creative Commons is not restricted to giving a legal form to objects; however, this model can be used for linking up structures. One of the biggest objections against the use of Creative Commons licenses concerns the possible abuse of released contents that could be easily integrated and multiplied into new surroundings. For that reason, Keiper pleads in favour of smaller, thematically condensed systems that describe contents, such as experimental films.


All these heterogeneous topics are direct or indirect issues of <>. All the lectures, as well as the introduction and the presentation of the database make clear that various questions are connected with archiving and its countless demands, whether it might be the preservation and systematization of objects or rights. None of these problems would probably have been solved were it not for the fact that a newly refreshed discussion about archiving and conservation of digital art forms causes an exchange that can bring the archival practice of even smaller institutions forward.

The background of the development of the database service lies in the specific problems of long-term archiving, which, of course, cannot be solved by a database alone. Moreover, <> can store all kinds of documents besides metadata in the form of PDF/A standards (for example, questionnaires, manuals, photos, or audio and video files) but it cannot provide methods for preservation.

The preservation of media is connected to a mixture of standardizations and an individual editing that consider the question of how the work can be preserved for the future without losing the contents’ integrity. The Institute for Music and Acoustics works with a detailed standard form for the authors and individual agreements with the authors. The controversial debate on emulation will be an important topic even in the following years. While works of the early 1990s have to be reprocessed for reproduction, archiving is henceforth a more or less imminent aspect of production. The artists’ willingness to participate and generously contribute their time and energy has been critical to the success of this undertaking (Hanhardt 2004, 3).

Especially the documentation of time-based arts offers in principle the chance to archive the objects after consulting the artist. Together with new technologies and the awareness of cultural heritage, this is a huge advantage, especially as far as the preservation of complex electroacoustic music or digital art is concerned. Legal and archival approaches both concern the individual artists, who can partially decide about the transfer of their objects.

A nine-page model contract was developed during the project’s progression by all partners upon consultation with a lawyer. The contract tries to counter these serious limitations and considers the requests of the artists. The author decides if objects may be shown in <>. Thus, the aim to offer a global archive is lawful depending on the decision of the artist.

Conclusion and Perspectives: History and Future of a Digital Archive

Before giving an outlook on the future of digital archiving, I would like to briefly consider a few theoretical approaches to archiving. According to the well-known art historian and media scientist Boris Groys, the archive is the prerequisite for producing something like history at all: “The archive is a machine for the production of memory — a machine which fabricates history out of the material of an undeclared reality.” 6[6. “Das Archiv ist eine Maschine zur Produktion von Erinnerungen — eine Maschine, die aus dem Material der ungesammelten Wirklichkeit Geschichte fabriziert.”] (Groys 2000, 9) The responsibility of completeness forces the archive to search for reality more and more; this means searching for perishable, current and insignificant moments. Even though Groys continues these thoughts very extensively, the above quote shows that especially the archiving of electroacoustic music must lead to a very time-intensive coverage of all components and relationships (cf. Teruggi’s lecture, above). 7[7. The lack of literature indicates the complexity and exceptional position of the archiving of electroacoustic music.] In this context, Michael Thompson’s book Rubbish Theory. The Creation and Destruction of Value (1979) gives comfort at this point: cultural artifacts can only be rediscovered as historical objects if they have passed through a phase of confusion.

Michel Foucault describes the archive as a law of possibilities of what can be stated and as an appearance of statements which can affect the statements of single events. But the archive can also see to it that those said things will not endlessly cumulate in an amorphous plurality, also that they do not diffuse into a seamless linearity or disappear incidentally with external circumstances, but rather that they are arranged in distinctive figures and connect to manifold networks under specific regularities (Engelmann 1999, 81). The archive is not free of paradoxes. The procedure of archiving always implies the exclusion of something, the production of “white spots” and the disappearance of details. On the other side, archives primarily have the task of a principal watchdog (Derrida 1998).

All these approaches comprise the integral meaning of archives. They show that archives should depart from the status of a “mausoleum” and that archival work must not be merely looked upon as a necessary evil (Warnke 2002, 200–205).

Undoubtedly, the <> project has at times struggled with conflicts that seemed to be unsolvable. Although all contents and objects are connected with media art, the problems also affect other heterogeneous objects. But they can at the very least be brought together with the so-called lowest common denominator. All contents are searchable with a common search and all contents use the same vocabulary as far as possible. For the Institute for Music and Acoustics the enterprise represents a huge step for further developments such as that of the semantic web (cf. Keiper, above). For the project partners in general, the project implies a grouping and structuring of their archived media art, that otherwise probably would not find its way into the consciousness of the digital public in such an organized and quick matter.

The project is an attempt to bring art contents together within a historical context considering ideal, legal and archival aspects. In the hope of further consolidation, the wish for semantic art networks — united through a common key word search — as well as for a network of artistic production and scientific publication and easier access to contents remain the pre-eminent visions of this endeavour.


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