Art codePreserving Instagram's
Rhizome is ensuring that online art doesn't die on the whims of corporations. Digital Conservator Dragan Espenschied and artist Amalia Ulman discuss the tech of preserving social media performance.
How much time and energy do you put into your social media presence? Do you value the work that you’ve done on Twitter and Facebook? For a growing number of artists, social media isn’t just a way to broadcast their life, it’s a way to comment on life itself, using it as a canvas for original works, and sometimes, an immaculate, performative con.
Rhizome, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting and preserving digital art, and its latest archival efforts are aimed at ensuring that these web-based, timeline-tinkering artworks exist for future generations. If their new tools do the job correctly, a piece that was specifically made for a Facebook newsfeed or any other social media will be saved forever, exactly as it was intended to be experienced. Rhizome wants you to be able to use their software, dubbed “Colloq”, for archiving your own social media.
What Colloq is doing
Colloq, in action, is a collaborative effort. The software is being written by developer Ilya Kreymer (interviewed here) and is based on his Python WayBack toolset which implements the Wayback Machine (Internet Archive's web arching tool which currently "remembers" more than 455 billion web pages) and a few other projects. Dragan Espenschied works on adapting this software for art institutions and regular users.
Colloq preserves online media as closely as possible to its original form, with special attention given to the ways in which a user interacted with that media at the time that it was created, using "web capturing." Dragan explains:
Web capturing allows us to store the behaviors of websites to a large degree. It is possible to follow links, activate functions, resize the browser window, and so forth. These are important features.
Current social media websites are very restrictive in what they allow users to do. This makes it all the more important to conserve the details of the environment, because users and especially artists, will construct their 'content' in a way that interacts with the architecture of the social media platform itself. For instance, an artwork is not only in danger of being destroyed when a social media company goes bankrupt and takes everything users have uploaded down into the abyss; similar destruction happens for example with a re-design that will re-arrange elements, show comments in another way, orders items in new hierarchy or just changes the background color.
As Rhizome's Digital Preservation Specialist, Espenschied develops systems for preserving digital art and archiving new media formats. He is adapting the Colloq software as an accessible tool for art institutions and regular Internet users.
Musician and media artist who lives and works in New York City. A graduate of communication design at the Merz Academy in Stuttgart, Germany, he has been developing software since 1991.
To get all the details, Colloq sits in between the browser and the internet and records all requests from the browser and how the internet answers to them. In playback mode, it will serve back the recorded answers when the same action is performed in the browser. For example, if I click on a Facebook username, the browser sends a request to Facebook, and Facebook replies with some data about this user that is rendered in a tool tip or so. Later, if I click the same link while using the archived copy, I will get the same pre-recorded answer from Facebook.
I cannot add anything new to a social media site, since there is no server on the other end that would handle and store my post. But for social network activities in general it works pretty great."
↑ Dragan Espenschied's desktop screenshot, as he works with Colloq to preserve Amalia Ullman's Excellences and Perfections.
The first artwork
to be archived
Rhizome chose an Instagram-based performance/photography series by the Argentian-born, Spanish-raised artist Amalia Ulman as the first project that be preserved in the archive. For Excellences & Perfections, Ulman took on several distinct personalities on Instagram and set them on an emotional journey. It was an Island Empire-like story arc of a girl coming to Los Angeles, immersing herself in pretty swag, socializing ("date yesterday....still recoverin"), losing her way ("luv ths pic bang bang"), being very sad, and finally, being redeemed ("#thankful #grateful #healthy"). At one point in the performance, she documented her breast breast augmentation procedure, which never actually happened, though the Internet still offered its commentary anyway ("Whyy" "Wow dope").
Once the artist had finished with the story over a period of three months, she revealed that it had all been a fiction. Rhizome characterized the work as an evocation of "a consumerist fantasy lifestyle." Ulman told us how the narrative of the piece was received by her unsuspecting audience:
It was very easy for people to understand the narrative because it was based on clichés. I went for the most stereotypical story so I didn't have to explain myself too much in words so that with a series of images, the audience could map it from beginning to end … Sadly, everything worked out very well because people tend to take things for granted and love generating preconceptions about others. 'Oh, she is in luxury hotels all the time. Oh, she must be a whore.'
Amalia Ulman is an Argentinian-born, Spanish-raised artist who currently resides in Los Angeles.
She received her B.A. from Central Saint Martins in 2011.
Her C.V. describes her work as "primarily voiced in the first person, often blurring the distinction between the artist and object of study. The aesthetic is clean, minimal and translucent. The recurring imagery - pearls, butterflies, hearts, coffee art, household ornamentation, and motivational slogans evoke mundane prosaicness with an undertone of possession, seduction, anxiety and insecurity."
The volatility of social networks is even illustrated by the fact that Ulman’s process of researching the project wouldn’t be possible today. The artist explained how she went about formulating her characters:
This was easier before when there was a section in Instagram called 'discover' that wasn't filtered by ones' friends or taste. There, you could see things highlighted due to general popularity. It was really easy to find out what was trending worldwide without filters ... this feature and different Tumblrs were very useful for the research."
↑ An example of a piece by Amalia Ulman in which the Instagram comments and interface are fundamentally part of the work.
Why it was important
to include the Instagram
Espenschied elaborated on why the Instagram interface was crucial to the project rather than just the photos that were posted:
"Excellences and Perfections is a work that shows how important the context is that the photos are embedded in. If [one is only] regarding them as a series of photos, or a photo essay, it just doesn't work. I printed out some of the images for reference and archival work, which highlighted the need for them to be on Instagram. Amalia made use of Instagram's graphic design, the user comments, and all the cultural baggage that comes with it."
At the same time that Ulman's work was being posted to Instagram, the photos were also simultaneously going up on the artist's Facebook. Espenschied explained Rhizome's decision to only archive one aspect of the project:
"Rhizome chose to go with the Instagram part of the performance instead of the Facebook part because of ethical issues [rather] than technical reasons: on Facebook, most users act under their real names, while Instagram users still use pseudonymous handles. Also, to see Excellences and Perfections on Facebook, users had to become friends with Amalia, there was a certain expectation of privacy; for example if somebody would comment on a photo, this comment wouldn't be distributed everywhere. On Instagram, the image stream was available to everybody, all activities were public from the start."
↑ In one of plot points that Ulman performed, she pretended to have a breast augmentation procedure and documented her post-surgery recovery.
to the next level
After successfully saving Ulman's project for future posterity, Rhizome's team tasked themselves with archiving an entire website, the influential art blog VVORK. Founded in 2006, VVORK is considered to be an key predecessor to the image streams on Tumblr that we take for granted today. The four-person team behind the website have all gone on to be well-recognized artists in their own right, but back then, they were most concerned with using the still-new blogging format to spread contemporary art around the world.
In an interview with Rhizome, the VVORK team had this to say about the beginnings of their site:
"When we first noticed blogs or online publications, it seemed too good to be true that you can reach people from around the world, with minimal costs and flexible publishing rhythms… After a year or so, it became more common to hear about its effects away from the keyboard, mostly from artists who had received invitations to shows after being posted. This was part of what motivated us to keep at it. It functioned as a platform for others and ourselves. Our first invitations to take part in exhibitions happened through VVORK."
As self-publishing platforms became more ubiquitous, VVORK decided to call it quits. While the site remains online, many of its links and embeds have become non-functional. Rhizome decided to use Colloq to rectify this. Espenschied explained the unique challenges that embedded video presented to Hopes&Fears:
"Digital video in general and web video, in particular, are just conservation nightmares of different codecs and containers that are compatible or incompatible with different players and browsers and plugins. Looking at the same YouTube video twice can lead to different results, and when you start skipping around, the part you skipped over might be missing in the archive--but skipping is an important feature that needs to be usable in the archival copy, etc etc etc.
↑ The homepage of VVORK, a highly influential website that collected artworks from around the world. The site's content is the second to be archived using Colloq.
To circumvent all this, the web recorder pretends to YouTube that there is a user watching the video from beginning to end and the replay conditions are ideal. This creates a single copy of the video in the archive.
Ilya Kreymer managed to even get the original YouTube-branded player working in the archive, which is a great prospect for when, for example, it becomes important what nine videos YouTube will suggest after a video has finished playing. Again, online video is not only about video, but about the whole context in which it is performing."
↑A screenshot of VVORK featuring Sarah Ludy's Transom video.
Ilya Kreymer's publically-accessible webrecorder.io already allows some forms of archival recording of browseable content. A little while ago, Kreymer released an alpha version of the web archive player, a desktop application for Windows and OS X. "It is very rough still, but now you can start to record something with webrecorder.io, download the warc file and later actually look at it," Espenschied explains. "We are working on a design that will even out the differences between a desktop and a server-hosted archive, so artifacts can be easily exchanged. The goal is that, for example, artists can capture a performance on social media and keep a record of it that is actually viewable, or give it to somebody else for public hosting or desktop usage."
Both Kremyer and Espenschied hope that more people will begin archiving themselves, not just for artists. The creators hope that anyone who wants a permanent record of their life outside of meat-space can take advantage of the tools. Espenschied adds, "In the short term, I wish [for it to] give users more power over the environments they act in and give them a sense of and confidence in their own culture."
He is referring to digital culture, which is still a very young one, but also to that giant timeline of Culture with a capital C. He sees Colloq as part of a process of immediate preservation that could help us avoid historical blind spots:
"I am mainly interested in making it easy enough to preserve digital culture so society at large doesn't lose and forget most of it, most of the time--and finds another mode of writing history than 'the great men' that 'invented' awesome things. But since there is so much digital culture, the resources will never be enough, leading to a traditional model of selection and curation and preservation. Digital culture is still very ahistorical, and I hope to be able to change that at least a bit." But he's well aware that Rhizome's efforts are just the beginning: "Digital culture has no finished form and will continue to change."