How can we archive lived experiences? The recent workshop Preserving Experience, with Eric Kluitenberg (Tactical Media Files), Susanne Neugebauer (Atria), and Zack Lischer-Katz (University of Arizona), presented many insights. Participant Linda Köke reports.
How do we go about preserving lived experiences, whether virtual or real? New media is making this question increasingly evident and relevant. In the recent Preserving Experience workshop, three professionals shared strategies for preserving living memory, with examples from their own practice. Eric Kluitenberg (co-founder of Tactical Media Files) elaborated on the concept of living memory. He discussed approaches to, and the challenges of, archiving it in practice. Susanne Neugebauer (Atria) talked about the methodological steps and concerns of oral history projects. Finally, Zack Lischer-Katz (University of Arizona) shared some of his research on archiving VR, focusing on the ways in which immersive media requires archivists and conservators to rethink preservation.
The concept of archiving living memory is to capture information that is situated in an event and connected to the people who experienced it. According to Kluitenberg, there are two main problems with this:
- Living memory is by definition subjective and temporal. The archive suspends that temporality and direct experience. By archiving it, we lose most of the original context.
- Living memory is totally unreliable. Memories start to fade or change over time; new experiences feed into how people remember something.
Kluitenberg discussed the following cases as examples of projects that are actively engaged in developing approaches to preserving living memory:
Case 1: The Living Archive (Sept 2004 - August 2007: De Balie Amsterdam)
In this project, the team researched how to document living processes. The Living Archive project aimed to create a model in which the documentation of living cultural processes, archive materials, ephemera and discursive practices are interwoven as seamlessly as possible. This resource was not to be mute, but actively involved in the discussions that were ongoing.
Three prerequisites for capturing living memory emerge from this project:
1. Archiving as a dynamic and open-ended process, with room for reinterpretation.
2. Archiving as a discursive principle.
3. Open, shared and collaborative policies.
Case 2: Tactical Media Files (ongoing documentation platform)
“Tactical Media Files never represent events, they always participate.”
- Tactical Media Manifesto, 1997
This project grew from a series of festivals in Amsterdam between 1993 and 2003 (four editions), that brought together people who were exploring how to break into the media system. This happened at a moment when the media system was still very much controlled by professionals. These festivals slowly helped the media world open up to other voices.
Almost every year since 2008, Atria has produced oral history interviews to give a voice to women and stories rarely heard in the media and academia. These series of interviews are not based on actual events, but are often called ‘rememberings of former times’ and are subjective.
In the realisation of every project, Atria uses the following systematic oral history methodology:
- Prepare the interviews. Ensuring multiple perspectives by having a range of people of different ages and from different locations in the Netherlands.
- Search groups of interviewees. These women often have their own archives at home, or things they collected from former times. If they look at these objects, they remember stories from those times. Atria collects these objects too, next to the stories of the oral histories.
- Conducting the interviews. The interviewees can tell their story from their own perspectives, but each one also gets their own topic list and questions to answer. Every interviewed woman is also informed about the context of the project and can give permission regarding the use of the footage, which is outlined in a contract. There is also a lot of social work: after the interviews, the camera documents the women’s first emotional impressions and their stories around them.
- Processing the interviews. Every interview has its own registration number, project number, required metadata, and states the names of interviewer and interviewee. With every interview, transcripts are also produced.
- Communicating the data. Every oral history project has to be communicated so that the world is aware that these interviews exist and that researchers and media specialist can use then.
Erik Kluitenberg also mentioned the ACTUP oral history project, a collection of interviews with surviving members of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, New York. The project has been active for over 17 years and has almost 200 openly accessible interviews with people affiliated with AIDS activism.
Preserving VR: Challenges and Possibilities
Virtual reality (VR) has the following set of properties:
- An immersive and interactive user experience;
- A combination of 3D images and sound;
- It can be multisensory by combining touch and smell;
- A technical combination of hardware (headsets) vs. software (models and programs).
These different aspects present new questions and difficulties when it comes to preserving VR for the future.
Examples of using VR to access cultural heritage
• Virtual Harlem: what did Harlem in New York look like during the Harlem Renaissance/Jazz Age?
• Beyond 2022 Project: creating a lost archival space. The goal is to rebuild the space.
• Virtual Interiors Project (Amsterdam): an attempt to combine historical data so as to understand how these spaces from the 17th-century Dutch Golden Age were used.
• Virtual Bethel: preserving something that we might use in the moment. The oldest African American church in Minneapolis is, now being redeveloped into a hotel. Lasers capture very accurate information about the interior.
• Medieval manuscripts of the St Chad Gospels (8th century), using VR as a research and preservation tool.
What are the challenges of preserving VR?
The main challenges of preserving virtual reality lie in preserving the software and the hardware. Both present their own obstacles for future preservation. The two are connected: the software cannot run without the hardware, and without the software the hardware doesn’t have any data to show.
- Appraisal and selection criteria.
- Finding sustainable file formats that will be accessible years from now.
- Metadata (tech, admin, descriptive).
- Paradata (data about processing and creating) and documentation.
- Digital repositories are still being developed for 3D data.
- Maintaining provenance.
- Intellectual property: if you make 3D scans of objects, who does the scan belong to?
- The equipment itself requires maintenance.
- It becomes obsolete, also the lack of interoperability between platforms.
- Proprietary software can be difficult to preserve.
- Server and network dependencies.
- Migrations to new platforms.
- Focus on how people are using them today, and preserve from there.
- Preserving the ‘smallest preservable units’, such as 3D data and other VR assets.
- Looking at museum documentation strategies to learn more about documenting time-based media and software-based media.
- It might not always be possible to preserve VR systems due to complexity and proprietary issues.
Living memory, oral history and VR all have their own complexities when it comes to preserving them for future generations, because of their unique properties and their temporality. They all focus on preserving an individual and time-based experience, which is by definition subjective.
Through the examples demonstrated in the workshop, we can see the possibilities of archiving experiences by, for example, adding meta-data, focusing on smaller units or by systematically documenting the acquired data. By grounding the acquired data in historical events, we are not just storing the individual experiences, but the larger contexts too, making them more useful and accessible for future generations.