Artist Tim Schwartz’s recent exhibition at Agitprop, Inside the Digital Scriptorium: New Works by Tim Schwartz, featured a series of works derived from information lost when archives go digital. This information was gathered through Schwartz’s long-term project call STAT-US, which is comprised of a refurbished Air-Stream Trailer turned into a mobile research unit. Schwartz spent five months touring the country and visiting archives. The work in Inside the Digital Scriptorium: New Works by Tim Schwartz is derived from this excursion. The following interview was conducted via email exchanges between the dates of May 7th 2011 and June 10th 2011.
David White: Can you give a brief summary of the overall ideas and strategies behind your work? Can you also describe the concepts and history of your current show at Agitprop?
Tim Schwartz: My intention with this work is to engage with the space of the archive, specifically the archive’s transition into digital. Digital is different. The form is something that is quite new in terms of human history, and yet it has been adopted incredibly fast. It is clear that everything will one day be digital, including our collective history and the artifacts that document that history. It is this shift into a digital history that I am interested in. Each of the pieces at Agitprop investigate this shift in a slightly different manner, but each tries to play with the current lost space in-between physical artifacts and their new digital surrogates.
DW: In your investigation of different archives, what typically happens to the originals, and/or what do you think will happen to the originals in the long term?
TS: So let me be clear that archivists are a good lot; they’re trying to save artifacts for the future. Of the places I visited, none of them were throwing out or physically destroying objects because they had been digitized. In general I would say that it is too early to trust digital archiving and most of the archivists realize this. Of course, there are some “famous” instances or perceived instances of libraries deaccessioning newspapers after the first wave of microfilming. This was all discussed in the book “Double Fold” by Nicholson Baker. His book is quite one sided and unfair, but hey, it’s a good read. There are reactions to the book published by various archivists, the main one can be found here (http://www.archivists.org/news/doublefold.asp) on the Society of American Archivist’s web page. This is a really fantastic battle, fighting tooth and nail, and its archivists and writers, so it’s even better. In general, the longevity of archives worries me, from the basic case that everyone thinks digital solves everything. Money that goes towards hot new digital tools will continue and the money that goes to physical archiving and conservation will dry up. This doesn’t stand well for physical archives.
DW: It seems that once all of these archived materials become digitized, it creates a problem in terms of software obsolescence, and the rapid pace in which this takes place. Will we be able to read all of these archives in 15 years?
TS: Sustainability right? It’s scary. How long do you think Microsoft will support the Word Document version 1.0, not too much longer I assume. So this in general brings up the idea that we must all be shepards of our own digital archives. Let me compare the amount of work and time associated with being able to see photos from your great-grandfather. He had to basically put a shoebox of the photos in the attic and as long as the attic didn’t burn down, you would get them and be able to see them. Now, for you to make sure your great-grandchild gets your images is another story. You need to save them in formats that will be readable when he gets them, or every five years convert them to a new format. They can be saved on a DVD or some sort of offline system, but they must be checked and copied every few years, because we don’t have a long-term digital storage medium. You can put the images into the “cloud”, but then you are entrusting the longevity of your archive to one company, particularly a company that has not been around for over20 years! So the bottom line is, it’s really hard, scary and confusing to keep digital archives, especially personal ones. I would say who the hell knows and make it a priority to not loose your data. Sorry to be a skeptic of digital technologies, but this is really complicated stuff, and no one knows what should really be done, everyone is just trying out different things. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just put it in a shoebox?
DW: Does this change the role of the Archivist as a distributor of information? If so, how?
TS: I think this is the perfect moment of archivists to reexamine their role in society and how they are going to fix these new problems. But I don’t have any answers.
DW: A large portion of your work is about data visualization and/or the transference of digital information into physical representations of that information. Why is this important to you? Why is this a necessary thing to translate into a work of art, as opposed to, say, just turning that information into good graphic representations?
TS: We are constantly engaging with digital information (or information in general), and currently it is almost all delivered or consumed through a digital device (think screens!). I am trying to remove that mediating device and let people experience the content through other older forms (holding a book in your hand or watching a needle tick off). Hopefully by pushing what could be digital information back into older forms, it not only enables a deeper understanding of the information, but enables reflection of the digital.
DW: What is it about “holding a book in your hand” that is significant in terms of communicating information? How does touching the object, in this example, enable a deeper understanding of that material that is contained within it? I’m typing this on a Mac and, to a certain degree, it’s a pleasurable experience.
TS: I think in this case I’m talking about levels of mediation. We as humans started with language, then signs, then the written word. The written, or shall I say printed word, lasted for thousands of years. This was the technology and mode of communicating information that moved the world forward. Knowledge could be shared, stored, and saved over generations. So about twenty years ago we get a new mode for communicating knowledge, digital information. Very quickly, many layers of mediation were added between an individual and the knowledge they were trying to understand. So at this point in history the physical written word has a huge history and a lot of implications built into the physicality of its presence. We know how to engage with this type of information and now these older forms hold a nostalgic value for us, because they have physicality. As an artist I can use this melancholic feeling for the lost artifact as a way to encourage contemplation.
DW: Within the context of the relationship between Science and Art, there is a lot of current talk about artists being potential “interpreters” of highly specialized scientific information for the public. One criticism of this stance is that Art itself is a highly specialized field in its own right and that it should not be viewed as simply a mediary field. How do you see your work in relation to these differing points of view?
TS: Art is it’s own field, but it allows for many different forms and research under its umbrella. My work is conceptual and research based, but because my ideas take the form of objects or representations, not journal articles or formal scientific studies, I consider my work closer to the Art world, but my research practice comes out of a scientific practice. I should be clear here that I believe there is much to be gained by Art that adopts scientific techniques and actually produces scientific research, rather than just works that visualize or artistically represent scientific techniques. In the last ten years “collaboration” has become a huge buzz-word for the science and art communities. Instead of pushing individuals from different backgrounds together, I think it is more important to place inspired individuals that have excelled in one area in another discipline to build upon their knowledge in new ways. Collaboration must develop naturally, not be forced.
DW: “Collaboration” does get thrown around very readily these days. How would you define the extent of your collaborations, if any? Would you consider one of the Archivists or Librarians you encountered on your travels around the country a “collaborator”? This a question that I frequently think about: How do you define the boundary between collaborator, participant, and assistant?
TS: I think my own definition of collaborator is pretty liberal, but that’s why I’m not writing a grant. I would definitely consider everyone that I engaged in conversation during my trip and presently you (David White) to be a collaborator. Now would I put you on a grant, I’m not sure:)