A conversation with Lukas Fuchsgruber and Anna Schäffler about their project Art Doc Archive
Bianca Ludewig, December 2022, Berlin
I would like to begin with a question to both of you: How did you arrive at the topic of digital archiving, what are your disciplinary and biographical backgrounds, and what interests led you there?
AS: I am an art historian and curator and work a lot with artists, also in the field of estate planning. In the last few years, I have had a lot to do with databases. There are massive database projects to create catalogues of works, also many public projects that are supposed to showcase the artistic output of a region, for example. I didn’t think that was the right way to go about it, because on the one hand, a lot of contemporary art can’t be squeezed into these boxes where you can just enter a picture, a title and a short description. It’s often much more ephemeral and multi-layered, more complex than the systematics we so often see. On the other hand, an insane amount of time and many hours of lifetime go into it. And in the end, as an art historian, I prefer not work with it anyway, because this form of database makes it difficult to get started. At the same time, I have noticed more and more that artists’ websites nowadays often function as archives. It’s true that not all of their work is included, but at least a selection is in there, and I find it far more exciting that artists have created this themselves and that this is already a form of how they want to be perceived in public and what their work represents. The big problem, however, is that these sources are often not secured on the long-term basis. As soon as, for example, the costs for the web service are no longer paid, then they may cease to be available. And this leads to a situation whereby very important sources for art historical research simply disappear. That was what initially gave me the idea for this project.
LF: I am also an art historian and currently working on a project at the TU Berlin on the question of the politics of data around museums. So, how are objects described, who describes them and where is the information made accessible, but also who is allowed and able to work with this? I’m interested in these political aspects of data, websites and databases. In addition to the aspects that Anna has already described, I’m also concerned with where does this information remain? Who takes care of it, runs these websites? One thing I often encounter in my work is that I find a critical and very interesting-sounding project that is already ten years old in a publication and the website and all the information about it is now offline, and thus gone. That motivated me – realizing that this role of preserving information doesn’t really exist, that there is nobody taking care of preserving the information beyond the life of a project and making it visible. The second thing I deal with a lot is the economic aspects, because many people have gotten used to placing their information on a platform with as much reach as possible, but please, it should be free of charge. When Facebook was no longer in fashion most people switched to Instagram and everything became even faster – the event announcements, exhibitions and work views. And because I’ve been observing this for a while, I know it will be lost as well. Just like before with Myspace, Orkut, or Google plus: all these portals where data was previously fed into. And this is where our approaches come together, because I’m very interested in the platforms and the question of how this data is created and can be preserved collaboratively and sustainably.
AS: We’re also working on two important things in this project where there are significant gaps: On the one hand, publications of art projects on websites or social media, which are often the only documentation of a process, apart from a few flyers under the sofa perhaps. And on the other hand, the fact that public money goes into exhibition, process and project funding, but there are no budgets for archiving and documentation, let alone preservation. What happens to the results in the long term is a blank space in the usual project logic, and this is something we also want to address in our prototype phase. Also in consideration of the fact that public funding policy must be readjusted here.
The next question is directly to you Anna Schäffler, in 2021 you co-organized the event and publication Networks of Care – Politiken des Erhaltens und Entsorgens within the framework of the nGbK. This project can be understood as a kind of precursor project of Art Doc Archive, it was about “strategies for dealing with artistic estates, private and public archives, or idle documentation volumes”. Please explain how the nGbK project came about and how the two projects are connected?
AS: I think Art Doc Archive is quite an evolution in terms of the questions we raised there. The original idea of Networks of Care came from the observation that very many artists are now taking care of their archiving themselves, and also have to take care of it. The keyword is a flood of material, because in the society we live in there is simply far too much material and no institution will be able to even begin to collect it. This also changes the view of institutions and their role in the preservation of art and cultural assets, namely that processes and practices are becoming more important than the previous focus on the state of the material. And from this arises the question: who actually cares now? And how does that change the landscape of memory? What we are observing is that, in the memory institutions, i.e., museums, archives, and libraries, the necessary expertise for this is not necessarily available, e.g. when the knowledge of performative practices or processual installations lies with estate employees or former assistants. And this means a de-linking of institutions and private network structures that realigns our entire memory landscape. The term Networks of Care was first used in a conservation discourse by Annet Dekker in the context of shifting conservation tasks in net art to extra-institutional actors. This in turn bears the potential for institutions to open up here as well. But the urgent question is how such rather informal networks can be strengthened so that this knowledge is also passed on. This was the background to Networks of Care, where we invited Lukas Fuchsgruber and Dušan Barok, who are now also part of Art Doc Archive, as well as artists and curators who reported on their many years of archival practice. The question was what are the challenges, insights, errors or voids from the experience of dealing with analogue and digital archives. In the digital in particular, for example, with many projects on archives, all that usually remains is a hard disk without backup, and at some point, it is often becomes unclear where it is located at all. And then the management of the location or project changes and soon hardly anyone remembers the project. That’s what we’re interested in at Art Doc Archive, how can this data be preserved, analysed and made accessible, but also embedded in a larger context?
For me, the question now is who creates this context, how does it come about?
LF: That’s more of an art-theory question. Regarding the politics of data, on the one hand there is this mass of digital data – that’s the quantity, and the quality of the data would be, for example, how much context is taken into account. And with museum data, that’s often very, very little. There I see the title of the work, the technique applied, the dimensions, and who made it. And in the digital space, specific access would theoretically be possible for each work. What is the historical background, how was this work created? Does it respond to an event or another work? These would then simply be links. Linkages and interconnections are so exciting as a digital principle, especially when it comes to context, to political and social backgrounds. In relation to your question: the contexts are always different from work to work. If we understand art as very much being influenced by social processes, then that’s the context. In this regard, I’m interested in open platforms like Wikipedia or Wikidata, where there is potentially room for many different kinds of descriptions. Instead, there’s quite a lot of data on Instagram. But who’s going to preserve it?
How will Art Doc Archive be implemented in concrete terms?
AS: Art Doc Archive is about storing and securing digital data – from websites, blogs and social media feeds. This is now being tested in a prototype phase on how to access and edit these sources. We are working with three teams of programmers, each with different approaches, from securing data to analysing sources to visualizing that data. The prototype phase will also explore what the challenges are, e.g., where legal boundaries arise. We want to try to build and strengthen a network of artists who are already active in a form of self-archiving through their publications. We want to be as open as possible in this phase and then bring the different strands together. And in a next step, we will see what direction we want to go in.
LF: Take the example of an artist who is no longer active or has died. The page stays online for a while, but then it usually disappears at some point. We are interested in these very specific ways in which artists archive their work, and in what individual solutions are found. For a while, for example, pop ups were a trend, all these ideas…. And this is where it gets complicated, because the websites can be up to 25 years old and technically outdated, so the technical standards are constantly changing and are quite different. The first thing to do is to map out the problem space. There is web.archive.org or other projects that mirror websites, but you quickly reach the limits when it comes to artistic presentations, because many functions can no longer be displayed. Archiving would be a first strand. Let’s look at the second strand. If we archive 100 or 1,000 such websites, how can we then find anything again in them? That would be the next step, the processing of this data, so to speak. Can we use automated methods to search for works, or for people? For that, we work with a parser that takes this information and tries to identify it. If we assume there are certain scenes or a cultural landscape in Berlin, what are the connections, what data can be found about that? This means having trained algorithms that show patterns, for instance, who has exhibited with whom and where and so on. That’s a third experimental strand, where we also work with data visualizations, and the question is what might a mapping for this inventory look like? These three strands complement one another but are also important on their own. Accordingly, the prototype runs in different directions.
To clarify these terms – what exactly do you imagine when you talk about mapping and data visualization? What is going to be visualized?
LF: In a graph there are points and connections, a classic network, so to speak. People, works and exhibition venues could be points between which there are connections. If we do this with 100 places, people and 1,000 works, a structure would emerge that has relationships and connections.
AS: From the experimental visualizations and the work with artificial intelligence, we also expect to gain insights into questions that we have not yet asked in this way. For example, through named-entity recognition, where completely new relationships become apparent from the data, which may reveal a different perspective on a particular context or time period. It’s a different way of dealing with data than taking two works and comparing them.
Specifically, you want to use html-based websites, WordPress and Instagram feeds in the prototype phase. Why did you decide on these three types? It could have been three others…
LF: WordPress is important because it has become a standard solution for websites. These three examples also represent three decades for me: the 1990s, the 2000s – the boom period for blogs, which have, after all, been partially destroyed by commercial social media platforms. And Instagram as a fitting medium for the image flow of the 2010s, where images and videos are constantly consumed globally. Work and exhibition views fit into that very well. Instagram is definitely influential for the Berlin art scene. Many today only link to Instagram on their websites and don’t do anything on their websites anymore. Contrast that with the fast pace and ephemeral nature of social media. What does that mean for us as art historians? The exciting thing is to observe and monitor such changes.
AS: The three are currently used intensively by artists as means of publication. Of course, all of them are undergoing a rapid boom, and that alone is interesting from a media archaeological point of view. Facebook is now being used less, and Instagram is also being replaced by new offerings, or the use of a medium itself is changing. We’ve noticed, for example, that fewer and fewer fixed posts are appearing on Instagram, and they are being replaced a lot by posts in Stories, which we didn’t focus on at all in the beginning. Instagram is suitable for our prototype because it works a lot with hashtags and is very visual. And another aspect seems relevant to me: for an html website, artists already needed some prior knowledge, but in return they had more freedom. WordPress can be customized as well, but it’s already an easier entry point, and the responsibilities are mostly up to you. Focusing on a private platform like Instagram is also linked to the attitude of our Art Doc Archive project, which is to create awareness of who you give your data to and what happens to it there. So it becomes clear that, if that is the main source for publishing and archiving, then there are small-print conditions attached to it, which can also lead to everything being gone at some point.
LF: For me, the most interesting thing about social media is that, due to EU legislation, people now have more rights to their data; EU citizens can now request their archives on social media platforms. There is also a function on Instagram where data can be requested, but I think this has not been taken into account very much so far. We also want to encourage artists to download their archive from Instagram. Then you also see that certain data formats that can also be shared. The law is one thing, but taking the time to deal with it – i.e., What are my options? is quite another.
So, it’s about raising awareness?
LF: Yes, and I also see potential in raising awareness. Requesting the data also means securing it. In our project, we have an interest in preserving these archives and hope to share an interest in data with projects like ours, and to make it processable for art historical questions. I see potential in that as well. It’s a suggestion for how to secure the archives. We’re still in the prototype phase, but a very clear goal of the project is to enter into a research exchange. To do something like community workshops that address ways to use these media. What do these platforms mean to you? Do you use social media as an archive? And if so, how can you arrive at a shared practice?
There is not only an abundance of material culture, but also of digital information. In science, there has been a flood of digitization projects for many years, many of them under the heading of “digital humanities,” so that one gets the impression that digitization is more important than actual research on pressing social problems. How do you position yourselves in this context, or what do you distance yourselves from?
LF: There are a lot of urgent social problems, but Art Doc Archive is also related to social problems. On the one hand, I’m thinking of questions about surveillance capitalist platforms – Instagram as a data model to spy on users or bombard them with manipulative ads. Instagram has become the leading platform for documenting and sharing art. Even museums are getting into that game. You can only join if you have an account. These monopolies reveal a social problem. You can also try to become more independent. It’s about these digital ways of self-archiving. You said that so much is being digitized, I think it’s already digitized anyway, the photos are online, but for us it’s about taking this knowledge seriously. We also want to make it clear that it constitutes a specific knowledge that the art scene spreads about itself and this should be taken seriously, maintained and safeguarded. What the software industry is doing right now is a highly political issue. The images that are put online by creative artists are automatically scanned, then algorithms are trained with them and, finally, the extracted content or algorithms are offered to customers, e.g., through an app that creates artworks just as the artist XY does. This is how these companies deal with the world of images and art on the Internet. You are not asked whether it is okay to use the images, it is simply done. This is a social conflict right now, and it also concerns artists. We answer to this problem with a completely different approach. We want artists to have a say in how their data is used. This digital economy affects all of us.
AS: We distance ourselves from projects that deal with Net Art, where there is also a community that has already done very fundamental work on how digital art can be preserved. Instead, we focus on the aspect of self-publishing with its respective structures and aesthetics, which allow conclusions to be drawn about artistic practices. We’re not interested in preserving images of oil paintings, for example, we’re interested in the entire complex of websites or profiles. There are performative, installational and ephemeral practices that function strongly through documentation, more than through objects that are in storage somewhere. Publishing in this context is an activity in its own right. I think of it in the tradition of artists’ publications and artists’ books. I’m particularly interested in distribution, so moving away from the original fetish and instead letting those who are interested participate, being able to look at something without having to pay for it and so on. What used to be the galleries that took care of such collections and mediated them doesn’t work that way anymore, because there are hardly any galleries left that represent artists in this way. Today, individual works are sold on an occasional basis and therefore not only the storage but also the documentation and archiving of their work ends up being left more and more often to the artists themselves. Apart from that, of course, there are many positions that have no market and therefore no gallery and have therefore always been located in informal networks of care.
Because many museums, universities and institutions have completely slept through digitization, everything now has to be done particularly quickly and uncritically. You also want to counteract this. Larger institutions have the means to create their own independent structures…
AS: One question we ask is, what is actually the task of the state in view of this development? Two years ago, we had an event on the topic of archiving and documenting performative events. Many people use YouTube for publishing – you only have to click twice and are welcomed with open arms. And it’s also very convenient in the sense that you are networked right away. You don’t have to invent or set up something of your own every time, you do what is least time-consuming. We also ask what the task of the public sector is, whether it is not also about creating its own infrastructure, with open-source platforms. How would it be if all artists whose projects are funded by the city of Berlin were given the same budget for archiving and documentation granting them a project website, which would then be stored directly in a public infrastructure for a long period of time where the data is preserved and taken care of?
It makes sense to me that artists should free their data from Instagram, but what should I free myself from if all I have is my own homepage?
LF: For me, the exciting thing is bringing things together so that networked knowledge emerges. What used to be done on websites that are accessible to everyone, creating image galleries for example, then happened on blogs and now just on closed feeds. Taking all that in its own way and bringing it together as a common archive is the focus for me.
What do Berlin artists gain from making their data available to you?
AS: Ideally, a platform should be created where artists can save their archives. Because there is also an uneasiness about being alone with the data. With the prototype, we’re looking at how we can make it possible for artists to save their data in a public place without hesitation.
LF: The hashtag #ReclaimYourArchive is the basic understanding. We invite Berlin artists to become an active part of it, for example, by donating their data.
Is this also about analysing the data, for example in the visualizations? And can the artists also analyse, or is this only done by archive workers?
LF: If you donate your data, for example, your Instagram feed from the last few years, then in return you get visualizations that put your data in context with others. I did that with my old social media accounts, downloaded my data, it’s like a map of old projects… I think a lot will happen once people experience that in a more tangible way. This can also offer spaces or communities that just want to try out this technology. These are open-source technologies that we work with, which users can adapt to their own purposes. That’s where we want to go, this is just the prototype phase. We are not Google, and we don’t analyse everything, because you can analyse it yourself. We want to do workshops and surveys. After all, artistic practice is constantly changing. What are the ideas, what is artistic practice today?
AS: That was also a decision we made at the beginning, that we weren’t going to scan the Internet for websites, but that it should be community-based, through an open call spread over networks. We are already planning this as a collaborative activity, to see what artists want. Maybe it will go in a direction that we can’t even imagine yet.
What are the differences to let’s say the Way Back Machine or ArtWiki, what are the projects that are already working in a similar direction to you?
LF: There is already a history of archiving the Internet, often grassroots initiatives like the Internet Archive, so there are NGOs that are already doing this kind of archiving work, Rhizome is another example. And as Anna already pointed out, we want to enter into an exchange and not just mine everything. The great potential of our project in the prototype phase is that we are trying out different things, with different professionals who know and have already tried out many precursor models, who are increasingly using the open-source approach, so that limits and possibilities are also explored. It is a process of searching and trying things out, which we record in lists. We’ve looked at Rhizom ArtBase and HTTrack, or Webrecorder, which tries to capture and track the complex scripts and movements that are almost impossible to record. With the parsers, which are simply different ways to use software, read text and search for structures, there are also countless open-source approaches. The adaptation to a specific problem is the exciting part.
You talk a lot about grazing (abgrasen in German), I think it’s good to use a German term here and not always just the English ones like scraping, mining or extraction. There is also a debate about which term is the most appropriate and the tendency is going towards extraction, because it also shows the connections to resource exploitation and other processes that are related to digitization. Grazing, like a sheep, would then be comparatively trivializing… So, my question, is to what extent do such terms play a role in the context of archiving and in Art Doc Archive, what terms do you consider suitable?
LF: There are projects by Google Arts & Culture or Microsoft in this area of digital preservation of cultural heritage. But there are also strong dependencies, because only these companies have the tools to save everything. Terms like scraping describe the process of a program saving everything it finds, because potentially everything can be useful. For example, everything about a business, so that all current information about it is available on Google Maps, which is then sold as a paid service, so everything is integrated into an economy. An important term for us is open data, so that we can produce something that others can continue to work with. And open access is very important to us, something that is not the case with economized, commercialized projects. The question is always what you use a software for, what is the goal?
AS: That was also a discussion we had about the title of the project. Do we want to use the term archive? After all, you could also talk about library or museum. We have the existing terms in our repertoire as well, but we are trying to expand them or give them new connotations through our research. It is also about developing the institutions we already have as a society and thinking further. That’s why it makes sense to continue using certain terms, even if they are not in vogue at the moment. For me, the concept of conservation and rethinking it is especially important, much more so than the idea of preservation which always somehow infers a claim to the truth. Preservation also includes attitude, which also refers to values. This also makes it clear that there is no objective preservation, but rather value concepts that shape it. Which also makes it a political question.
Interesting, because I had asked for terms with a negative connotation and Lukas contrasted this with the positive terms such as open source or open data, and Anna with that of preservation. It’s also interesting to see the genesis or hermeneutics of terms, that many come from colonial or military history and these terms are rarely questioned anymore because they are already so normalized. So, a final question about representation and power structures: what is being archived, who is being archived and by whom, and how… How do you want to counteract hegemonic power structures and biases? Do you also have feminist or anti-racist perspectives in mind?
AS: This is also connected to the attitude with which our programmers carry out their work, what is being searched for and how? And to bring a sensitivity into this process. We are constantly talking about this. And that’s why we also invite experts who have been dealing with bias and prejudice in the digital world. Our attitude is to always reflect on ourselves and to address this again and again.
LF: Your question is about bias and exclusion, which canon do we follow or reproduce, where have racist or patriarchal power structures in history ensured that certain people have no voice, that they therefore remain invisible and are not researched. You can’t resolve something like that technically; there is no magic solution where you simply change an algorithm and racism is automatically impossible. Something like that has to happen in the conceptualisation and in the exchange with a multi-voiced art scene.
AS: The prototype of Art Doc Archive can already give a little sensitized guidance, and when artists participate here, they are in a different context than, for example, a museum collection, which is now often closely linked to the market or private collectors. If artists don’t have a market, the chance of them appearing in public collections is lower than if they have a gallery representing them. And that’s something we’re already seeing with our memorial institutions, and that we’re trying to counteract. We are trying to create a much more broadly structured platform in which a kind of self-empowerment of the actors is also possible, where they can become active themselves. It’s not about either/or, high/low culture or inside/outside. The last 30 years of Berlin’s cultural scenes, which are often so hyped in narratives, have developed in a more grassroots way, from many positions that are today often hardly known or marginalized, which also became clear in the Networks of Care project. But if I now want to do research on this as an art historian, then I already have to know that these people and positions existed, otherwise I won’t find them, because there is no historiography on this at all. The whole methodology of research also changes as a result; for example, I have to build up trust with protagonists so that I can obtain information. The so-called underground is the humus that makes up Berlin’s radiance but is hardly reflected in the institutions that have the task of preserving and collecting the cityscape and its complex fabric. From this also derives a mission – to see what could correspond to these alternative structures.
You pursue an interdisciplinary approach. What exactly do you mean by art, because the art I deal with is transmedial, so besides image, sound also plays a role, as does performance, dance, etc. The image doesn’t really appear alone, but always in various combinations with other arts and media. How do you delineate your field? What belongs to it and what doesn’t?
LF: Of course, we also discussed that, especially in relation to art as social praxis. The most important thing is to just get started. We have a very short project period and a very large team. If I understand your question correctly, you’re asking about what happens when you raise the question of transmediality, or the question of how our images sound? It’s simply not possible to answer that at this point. Right now, we are still mapping out what we can try with our means in such a short time. Luna Nane, for example, who does the visualizations, also has an artistic praxis. Visualizing something can also be a poetic praxis. So, there are already approaches to deal with networks as an aesthetic praxis, but it would also take a longer project to sufficiently address such questions. These kinds of questions often come up and it would be interesting to be able to ask such questions of an Instagram feed or dataset in the future.
AS: First of all, we deal with very structured data. WordPress or Instagram allows certain representations or not. A strong form is always given. Our starting point is, first of all, what data emerge and what can you find out from that data? What data do artists provide, how do they build their archives, and what access do they provide to their work? These are our initial questions in this first phase.
A few final words, perhaps?
LF: Social media in its current form is simply not sustainable, which is why we are calling out for people to: #ReclaimYourArchive!