Quality and Cultural Artifacts in the Digital Stream

On: December 23, 2009
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About Morgan Currie
I’m an American with eight years of experience in video production, but today I'm a student in Amsterdam, thinking a lot about mediums, the Media, technology, and humans & machines communicating in their specific, special ways. I'm finding methods to give these thoughts a space of their own.

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You Me and Everyone We Know is a Curator was a one-day conference on December 19 about curatorial standards in the digital age. The clunky title, a nod to Miranda July’s similarly named feature film, gets to the core questions of the day: if bloggers are archivists, journalists are designers, and everyone’s a photographer – in short everyone’s already a curator (a purposefully debatable statement), then who is gatekeeping our heritage? How do we sift through all the online debris? Should we redefine the roles of museums and curators altogether?

The conference was aptly held in Paradiso, a Gothic cathedral restored (repurposed?) as a rock venue, and was organized by the Graphic Design Museum, which explains why many of the guests oriented their lectures around design. The Museum’s director, Mieke Gerritzen, introduced the day’s events with some historical perspective: graphic design, the culturally productive synthesis of text and image, is a relatively young disciplined that bloomed in post WWI Europe with Surrealism and the Bauhaus and matured alongside advanced printing techniques. For a long time it was a relatively small, craft profession. Then the 90’s dropped the bomb of ubiquitous, free software templates, and we now have a democratizing design revolution: from design-by-hand tradespeople to consumers choosing between templates with a click of a button, adding to the ever engorging heap of visual heritage.

With this scenario as context, Gerritzen rolled out a string of provocative questions: does intrinsic quality exist? Is there some free ranging image out there that was developed over a long time, produced by someone with knowledge of a heritage, that can be processed by well-trained image workers? If so, how will we recognized such an image? And if mass, globally produced design is no longer associated with any kind of cultural elite or cabal of skilled workers – or even by a single author – what relevant role does today’s museum or curator play?

Julia Noordegraaf, a professor at UvA and the day’s third speaker (after Bruce Sterling’s provocative, prophetic speech), discussed the problematic promiscuousness of the analogue-to-digital object. When the analogue is digitized, the object is severed from an original context, tossed up for reuse and repurposing in infinite configurations, each time with new layers of meaning. How does the cultural historian keep track? Noordegraaf referenced Rick Prelinger’s point that today’s cultural archives are moving to a youtube standard: a hybrid structure of digital objects (audio, visual, text) and user participation. The ‘performing archive’ can keep traces of user dialogue around its objects.  But as archives become historically and semantically layered, we require new hierarchies of intepretation.

For Noordegraaf, that means curators and archivists are no longer cultural gatekeepers, selecting work to install in a limited amount of shelf or gallery space. They’re editors, gleaners, “someone who separates sense from nonsense.” Curatorial work will mean “managing various information streams, validating sources, editing input by various parties, and designing interfaces that facilitate interaction between collections and users” – actions that address the changing role of the digital object as a variable artifact that paradoxically endures over time, “a succession of linked events like a stream of water.”

Another word for today’s curators, suggested by speaker Sarah Cook, is filter feeders, those who historicize, collect, and preserve online culture. The people who do this are no longer necessarily a part of an institution. They can be dispersed freelancers, they’re interested in non-canonical ephemera, they subvert the binary of offline and online, cleverly presenting digital works in physical space.

The conference’s overall sentiment was that quality and curatorial authority won’t – and shouldn’t – go away (a standard the smartly curated conference itself met) – but they do need to be critically reassessed. We still need to value coherent critical views, deep knowledge and expertise, and carve spaces for this online. According to guest Rick Poyner, writer and founding editor of Eye Magazine, we should question blogs’ endless stream of images that give no context; we need to uphold and fund high standards of rigorously researched writing. We need to question and resist the default template.

And we need to slow down. Sophie Krier, the festival’s co-organizer, used the imagery of a fish-catching festival in Japan, where participants observe the fish’s behavior for half an hour before snatching them out of the water by hand. Pointing to Bruce Sterling’s book Shaping Things, Krier calls for design, as well as curating, to be ontological (in the mold of Heidegger), built from thoughtful process and selection, from prototyping, with the freedom to make as many mistakes as possible so that we can record and learn from them. Resist the easy click of a button, take nothing for granted. Use our experience of defining quality online to inspire our offline lives and (re)valorize the physical object. And finally, value the role of the curator and the designer – their time spent gazing at fish in the water – so that we can fund them. Though the urgent question of how to fund such fish-gazing goes unanswered.

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