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Forging the Future: New Tools for Variable Media Preservation
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Forging the Future is an alliance dedicated to building tools to help rescue digital culture from oblivion.

Building on the work of the Variable Media Network, Forging the Future refines and distributes free and open-source products that boost access and aid in preservation. Our aim is to help creators, conservators, and curators understand the possible futures that can be imagined for a cultural artifact, and choose the best among them on a case-by-case basis.

Connecting all the Forging the Future tools is the Metaserver, which enables databases managed by different institutions to share standardized information about creators, works, and vocabulary.

Featured tool

Variable Media Questionnaire

Vmq Layout V0.02b ThuThe Variable Media Questionnaire records opinions about how to preserve creative works when their current medium becomes obsolete. Its users can compare these opinions as they vary by work, by interviewee, and by date. More...

Forging the Future news (from the Still Water blog)

A HASTAC scholarship, an interview published by the Smithsonian, and a cover story in ARTnews that mentions a landmark book by one of the professors. These are among the accolades received this fall by instructors teaching next term’s online courses in Metadata and Digital Preservation, for their contributions to the growing field of digital [...]...

Still Water Senior Researcher John Bell has been named a 2013 HASTAC scholar, and he’s spending his time finding new ways to knit together data and the organizations that produce them. Bell’s collaborations include the Media Ecology Project at Dartmouth, the Scalar publishing platform (USC), and numerous Still Water initiatives including The Pool, Variable Media Questionnaire, [...]...

Graduate students in the University of Maine’s Digital Curation program do more than read archival theory and study metadata standards. As their final project for DIG 550 (Digital Preservation), several students chose real-life artworks to preserve using the techniques learned in class. Kristin Segura interviewed artist Tim Tate about his work Four Seasons, a video [...]...

Sharpening your digital skills just got a lot more accessible, thanks to a huge discount in tuition pricing for the University of Maine’s Digital Curation online courses. Last January, the Digital Curation program at the University of Maine announced a special discount that would enable out-of-state students to take courses at in-state rates. We’re delighted to [...]...

A collaboration between a class taught by Still Water Co-Director Joline Blais and the Maine Folklife Center has resulted in a user-friendly way to survey the state’s rich heritage in story and song. The result shows how digital curation can make history and culture more accessible to a wide audience. The interactive map is a product [...]...

After only a year online, the University of Maine’s graduate certificate in Digital Curation is being called “a national standard for the study of digital curation.” Mystified by metadata? Perplexed by preservation? The University of Maine’s just-launched Digital Curation program has you covered, at least to judge from these reviews from student evaluations this spring: ...

Is DOOM doomed? Should we say our last words for Word? Will Mozilla be a dinosaur? These questions echoed through the Montpelier room of the Library of Congress earlier this week during Preserving.exe, a conference from 20-21 May on the challenges of keeping software alive for the long term. The National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation [...]...

It’s hard to find a collecting institution that doesn’t have a Web site these days, and you’re going to need to know MySQL and PHP to run most of them. But training as an archivist or librarian doesn’t teach you how to customize a Web site. What’s a digital curator to do? Answer: take the brand-new [...]...

Whether they manage bits for their local historical society or the Library of Congress, the digital era has placed added demands on today’s curators. The growing need for training in these new skills is one of the motivations for the University of Maine’s just-launched Digital Curation graduate program, but U-Me is not alone in recognizing [...]...

When it reopens on July 13 after a major renovation, the Colby College Museum will become the largest art museum in Maine. Front and center for the opening will be the Alfond-Lunder Family Pavilion, a monumental space that calls out for innovative programming. Colby’s Sharon Corwin and Patricia King invited Still Water to brainstorm with their [...]...

Forging the Future: New Tools for Variable Media Preservation is a consortium of museums and cultural heritage organizations dedicated to exploring, developing, and sharing new vocabularies and tools for cultural preservation.

There are three practical and complementary tools that will be developed in this project: the Franklin Furnace Database (FFDB) is designed for cataloging variable media artworks and events contained in small to midsize collections of presenting arts organizations; the Digital Asset Management Database (DAMD) manages digital metadata that is directly relational to all the tools; the Variable Media Questionnaire (VMQ) contains data and metadata necessary to migrate, re-create, and preserve cataloged variable media objects.

In addition, a number of tools have been developed to help these tools dovetail with each other and with other existing systems, including the Media Art Notation System (MANS), VocabWiki, and the Metaserver.

The need: a tool for preservation

Today's writers are blogging political events and contributing historical accounts to Wikipedia; musicians are remixing tunes using Garageband and sharing them via bitTorrent; artists are posting Photoshop images to Flickr or burning iMovie documentaries to DVD. Yet while the number of tools for making and distributing culture has exploded in the last half-century, it's hard to find a tool for preserving these ephemera. New media culture is much more fleeting than the scraps of paper and newsprint that once constituted ephemeral collections, but without some means to safeguard its future conservators, archivists, and librarians have no hope of recording this fertile moment in history.

Few of the recent practices developed for short-term preservation have any hope of lasting into the future. Storing a Word document or Photoshop image on a Windows-formatted CD-ROM only forestalls its demise, for within five years the software to read the data may become obsolete, within ten the CD will have delaminated, within fifteen it might become impossible to find a CD-ROM drive, and within twenty Windows will be dead media. Compounding the specter of technological obsolescence is a new threat that has emerged in the last decade: Digital Rights Management and other techniques for controlling copyrighted artifacts have the side effect--intended or unintended--of blocking access by future historians to a wide swathe of today's music, art, and literature. Finally, conventional documentation systems used by collecting organizations allow for little or no structured input regarding the long-term preservation of artifacts.

We need innovative tools for documenting, discovering, and defending culture born at the turn of the millennium from the ravages of obsolescence and obscurity. In order to serve a wide demographic, from individual producers to regional museums to national archives, an ideal tool would be easily accessible, non-proprietary (e.g., open source), and scalable to small or large collections. A preservation tool should also be as adaptable as the artifacts it describes. Data added to such a tool should be exportable to common interchange and discovery formats such as XML. Semantics should be easily "upgraded" by the community, using techniques such as folksonomies or distributed publication. Most importantly, this tool must take as its premise that traditional paradigms of preservation are untenable for today's manifold cultural products: that artifacts of the digital era must change to survive into future decades and centuries.

A solution: a paradigm shift in documentation tools

This consortium builds upon innovative research developed in previous years by its members as part of the Variable Media Network (VMN) and Archiving the Avant-Garde working groups. The focus of this foundation phase was research into innovative preservation standards and strategies. The focus of Forging the Future is building tools written to those standards that help organizations choose among those strategies.

Forging the Future's practical and complementary tools have been developed in either nonproprietary (free) software, or inexpensive, off-the-shelf software like FileMaker Pro. These tools may be used in combination for complex metadata, or singly for more focused implementations. Two tool formats offer adopters choice and auxiliary tools such as the Metaserver and VocabWiki bring the three tools into greater compatibility by sharing a common core element set and vocabularies.

Why "variable media"?

The variable media paradigm explores both new and proven concepts of preservation by concentrating on the behaviors, rather than solely the material, of contemporary artifacts made in ephemeral mediums.

A second approach centers on a work's creator rather than its medium. The variable media paradigm asks creators themselves, rather than just technicians and conservators, to imagine ways to outwit the obsolescence that often besets technological and other ephemeral art forms. This approach proposes that the best way to preserve works in ephemeral formats, from stick spirals to video installations to Web sites, is to encourage their creators and users to describe their own works.

To help a work's creators and users write guidelines for translating their works into new media once the original medium has expired, the Variable Media Network has explored the use of interactive questionnaires. Rhizome, one of the vocabulary partners in this grant, uses this method to assign metadata to its online archive of new media art called the ArtBase. The ArtBase contains net art projects, software, games, and web-based documentation of installations and performances. Rhizome allows artists who are submitting artworks to the ArtBase to enter metadata about their works using a modified version of the questionnaire. The artist-provided metadata is reviewed and revised before it is made public via the Rhizome.org Web site. The Variable Media Questionnaire (VMQ) operates on a similar logic.

These questionnaires are not sociological surveys, but instruments for determining creators' intent as to how their work should be categorized, seen, and (if at all) re-created in the future. They are meant to be applied in a case-by-case fashion, one creator at a time, reflecting our confidence that the ingenuity of artifact makers may supercede that of technologists. Rather than ask "media experts" to come up with a one-size-fits-all prescription for how to save an artwork, we ask artists individually which aspects of their work are most important to preserve. The VMQ even offers creators the option to preclude any variation from a work's original form. For ephemeral mediums, this choice stamps the work with an inherent expiration date. However, those creators, and institutions who accept the concept that a work can change over time may find a number of their assumptions changing along with it. They may cease to view the conservator's job of preservation as independent from the curator's job of presentation. They may begin to picture a lasting artifact not as a stony relic--for stone is brittle--but as a succession of linked events that, like a stream of water, endures by remaining variable.

Forging Present ToolsetLearn more about Forging the Future's tools by choosing an item from the menu at left.

Forging Present Toolset FfdbThe Franklin Furnace Database (FFDB) is designed to facilitate the cataloging of variable media artwork by arts organizations. It is a modular suite of relational databases that are structured around a central event database hub. The central event can be any type of variable media artwork. Certain essential fields, based on Dublin Core standards and mostly duplicated in MANS, are contained in the central event database. When records are present in the central database, the user can choose to attach any or all of ten other independent databases that are designed to enhance the description of a particular artwork record.

The other databases include: Names (contains bio info on artist); Contacts (contact info for artists and organizations); Images (still images of artwork); Movies (moving images of artwork); Terms (definitions and vocabulary used to describe artworks); Press (published reviews); Publications (printed material published by the arts organization); Calendars (event calendars created by the organization); Reference (Published books and magazines that reference the events in the organization"s collection); Audio (audio documentation or audio parts of artworks). The databases can be modified in any way to fit any organization so long as the essential Dublin Core based MANS fields remain intact. The important distinction of this tool is that it describes the actual artwork or event as an entity.

Forging Present Toolset DamdThe Digital Assets Management Database (DAMD) was developed by the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive as an organizational system for information stored digitally. It is used here to manage metadata that is created in conjunction with the other tools. DAMD records information about the digital object, the digitization process, file type, size, and other technical details. It does not record information about the original artwork or event. Instead, it links the digital object to the FFDB or the VMQ.

An example would be an image of an artwork. The digital image itself is managed and described in DAMD according to when it was digitized, file size, etc. The digital image would then be linked to the image module of the FFDB that would describe the name, date, and creator of the artwork. Additionally, DAMD enables data to be output to the EAD which allows for cross institutional searching; this aspect of the tool is utilized by Museums and the Online Archive of California (MOAC).

Forging Present Toolset VmqIf the FFDB and DAMD apply to past and present versions of a work, the Variable Media Questionnaire (VMQ) focuses on future versions of a work.

This questionnaire is unlike any protocol hitherto proposed for cataloguing or preserving artworks. It requires creators to define their work according to behaviors of functional components rather than in medium-dependent terms like film or Java.

The variable media paradigm also asks creators to choose the most appropriate strategy for dealing with the inevitable slippage that results from translating to new mediums: storage (mothballing a PC), emulation (playing Pong on your laptop), migration (putting Super-8 on DVD), or reinterpretation (Hamlet in a chat room).

You can find the Variable Media Questionnaire at VariableMediaQuestionnaire.net.

Forging Present Vmq ScreenForging Present Vmq Strategies

Forging Present Toolset MetaserverIn place of a centralized archive, the Forging the Future alliance is building a "metaserver" that points to instances of particular works as they transition from one version, medium, or context to the next.

Forging Present MetaserverRather than attempt the Herculean task of gathering all updated information about these versions in one place, the Forging metaserver leverages community projects such as VocabWiki and Wikipedia to combine the contributions of ordinary folks sitting at keyboards together with the labor professional curators and archivists.

Forging Present Toolset MansAs one of the first frameworks for investigating and documenting strategies for preserving ephemeral works, the variable media paradigm has helped inspire related initiatives, such as the V2 organization's Unstable Media project and Exit Art's recent documentation initiative. The organizers of Forging the Future realized early on how critical it is for these initiatives to be able to talk to each other, and that establishing a metadata lingua franca would enable one database's variable media information to be imported from or exported to another. As a result, Forging the Future member Richard Rinehart drew up an XML standard that's contained in the Media Art Notation System (MANS). This is designed to facilitate interchange between the three Forging the Future tools as well as the related products of third party researchers.

Learn more about additional resources by choosing an item from the menu at left.

Forging Present ToolsetThe Forging the Future team has been working on an animated presentation / slideshow to demonstrate the ideas behind the toolset. This presentation is still under construction, but you may find its current incarnation here:

Forging the Future presentation

The organizations committed to Forging the Future represent some of the most recognized innovators in media preservation. While the depth of each member's experience is critical to the success of Forging the Future, so is the breadth of the consortium as a whole. The variable media paradigm requires the creation of standards and instruments that can apply to media that don't even exist yet. While there isn't room in our Work Plan for building a time machine, we can nevertheless approach the adaptability required by future media developments if we apply our standards across the widest possible range of contemporary media formats and cultures.

Still Water at the University of Maine

Still Water, a New Media program of the University of Maine at Orono, was founded in 2002 by Joline Blais and Jon Ippolito to promote network art and culture. Although the program's title derives from the name of a river that flows alongside the physical facility, "still water" also connotes the values electronic and cultural networks need to thrive. These include transparency, open access to ideas and code; stillness, a rare quality in today's frenetic culture but one demanded by any creative endeavor; and variability, the capacity to morph into new configurations as the need arises. Clearly the last value is key to Still Water's guiding role in the Variable Media Network.

One of Still Water's more technical research foci has been to investigate open software both as a theoretical paradigm and as a practical method for building applications, from collaborative environments like The Pool to novel licenses for creative work such as the Open Art License. Still Water staff and affiliates draw on this experience in producing and distributing open systems like the Variable Media Questionnaire.

University of California. Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive

The University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA) is the visual arts center of the University of California, Berkeley. One of the largest university art museums in the United States, in both size and attendance, BAM/PFA opened the doors of its distinctive Modernist building on the south side of the UC Berkeley campus in 1970. BAM/PFA's diverse exhibition programs and its collections of more than 14,000 objects and 10,000 films and videos are characterized by themes of artistic innovation, intellectual exploration, and social commentary, and reflect the central role of education in BAM/PFA's mission.

BAM/PFA has been a national leader in the area of digital museum standards. The IMLS-funded MOAC project brings together museums, libraries and archives to develop common standards and tools for sharing collections information online. BAM/PFA is also a in digital preservation. BAM/PFA leads the NEA-funded national consortium project, Archiving the Avant-Garde, that has developed new standards and tools for preserving digital art.

Rhizome.org

Founded in 1996, Rhizome is a leading online platform for new media art. Its mission is to support contemporary art that uses new technologies in significant ways. Rhizome does this through multiple programs including exhibitions, commissions, journalism, education and preservation. Based out of the office of its affiliate the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, Rhizome has a strong local audience but also nourishes a diverse, international community through its aforementioned programs, and also services and membership which connect people in disparate geographic locales around the exchange of ideas and the promotion and production of new media art.

Key to Rhizome's membership program are its online archives of art and writing: the ArtBase contains upwards of 1,800 digital artworks, and the TextBase holds 2,500 articles of new media arts-related commentary and discussion. Both are invaluable resources for those interested in learning about new media art for the first time or deepening their familiarity with different aspects of the field.

Franklin Furnace

Since its inception in 1976, New York-based Franklin Furnace has presented what has come to be known as variable media artwork--works that take on new dimensions in each iteration. These works challenge the bounds of genre, varying in the meanings they take on contextually as well as in their physical deployment.

Franklin Furnace has had a history of actively making its collections and archives available for research. From pioneering storefront art space to the Internet, Franklin Furnace has explored new venues to reach the public. Franklin Furnace has served as a research resource since opening day in 1976, presenting a marginalized art form that came to be known as "artists' books" to the public.

The records of Franklin Furnace present an unparalleled resource in that they are the only artifacts of live, ephemeral, variable media works. While scholars still debate the locus of art in time-based, variable media, the physical history held in Franklin Furnace's institutional archives are a rare and valuable resource in that they capture the moment, the concept of the artist, and the historical context in which the work was created through the prism of its documentary parts.

Whitney Museum of American Art

The Whitney Museum of American Art is the leading advocate of 20th- and 21st-century American art. Founded in 1930, the Museum is regarded as the preeminent collection of American art and includes major works and materials from the estate of Edward Hopper, the largest public collection of works by Alexander Calder, Louise Nevelson, and Lucas Samaras, as well as significant works by Jasper Johns, Donald Judd, Agnes Martin, Bruce Nauman, Georgia O'Keeffe, Claes Oldenburg, Kiki Smith, and Andy Warhol, among other artists. With its history of exhibiting the most promising and influential American artists and provoking intense critical and public debate, the Whitney's signature show, the Biennial, has become a measure of the state of contemporary art in America today.

Recognizing art using new technologies as an important part of artistic practice, the Whitney started to include Internet Art and new media art in the Biennial in 2000, and mounted several exhibitions devoted to this art form, among them BitStreams and Data Dynamics (2001). In March 2001, the Whitney Museum launched artport.whitney.org, a website designed as a main portal to Internet art worldwide, and as an online gallery space for new and specially commissioned net and digital art. With several works of new media art in its collection, the Whitney's conservation department is committed to developing successful strategies for preserving this art form.

New Langton Arts

The mission of San Francisco-based New Langton Arts is to cultivate experimental and innovative contemporary artworks in visual and media arts, music, performance, literature, and interdisciplinary projects while encouraging broad public appreciation and access to the art of our times. Its mission is achieved by providing professional support to contemporary artists from diverse economic, social, and cultural backgrounds through exhibitions, performances, readings, new works commissions, awards, and publications. The visual arts program is presented in Langton's 2,200 square foot gallery. Since its inception in 1975, Langton has commission and presented works by over six thousand artists, providing the artists with the technical and promotional assistance needed to realize their works.

In addition to its onsite programming, Langton created NetWork as a curated showcase of art created on and for the Internet. Through this program Langton supports and presents experimental artwork that engages the Web as an artistic medium or site of cultural exchange.

Langton has already undertaken an ambitious project to catalog its 30-year archive of experimental media art in compliance with new standards for experimental and variable media art collections and related documentation developed in the Variable Media Network and Archiving the Avant-Garde projects. For its part in Forging the Future, Langton would evaluate the consortium's tools as they apply to this unique real-world collection of variable media and documentation, thus complementing the primary work, electronic, and performative focus of the other collections represented in this consortium.

Please email any queries about Forging the Future to ten.erutuf-eht-gnigrof@tcatnoc.