43rd Annual Meeting – Electronic Media Session, May 16, 2015, “Archiving the Brotherhood: Proposing a Technical Genealogy for Time-Based Works” by Joey Heinen

Warning! If you are a techy, you will have to wait for the published paper for the complete technical details; read on if you can stomach a more philosophical overview.
I recently heard a thought-provoking presentation by photograph cataloger Robert Burton who quoted his mentor, Sally Buchanan, and then explained how cataloging is preservation. Joey Heinen pushed that envelope further for me with his recent Electronic Materials Group presentation on his archival work focused on The Brotherhood, a technology-based, interactive, kinetic artwork (1990-1998) by Steina and Woody Vasulka that no longer exists. Since the artwork can no longer be experienced as an installation, preserving the archival record of the piece is the closest we can get to preserving the work.
The only way to understand or study the work now is to imagine it through immersion in its archival record, and Heinen argued further that understanding the technology is as important as understanding the visitor experience when representing the history of the artwork, much as a traditional conservator might integrate a technical study of manufacturing methods into a conservation treatment plan. As part of his graduate internship, Heinen spent the better part of a year analyzing, documenting and processing a disassembled collection of components and archives that form the corpus of The Brotherhood. And so I pose a question to you: is this preservation, or is it conservation, both, or neither?
Have you ever made a robot move to the rhythm of your voice when speaking into a microphone? Made from scavenged vintage warfare machinery from Los Alamos, the Vasulkas jury-rigged hardware, composed software, and used midi protocols to connect the gadgets to inputs like microphones and video cameras that took input or signal from the visitors (both inadvertent and purposeful), resulting in a stimulus/response sequence that integrated the visitor into the artwork and its experience.
Now disassembled and on the verge of being donated to the Brakhage Center at the University of Colorado – Boulder University Library, the work was originally installed in several venues including the InterCommunications Center in Tokyo. The artists do not intend for the artwork to be reinstalled. However, as the work integrated cutting-edge technology of the time and pushed limits of technical and aesthetic experience, they would like the collection (consisting of the work’s physical components as well as their personal archival materials) to be able to be studied. While ample video documentation of visitors experiencing with the work exists alongside a paper-based archival collection, there was no handbook to guide Heinen in how to document and therefore preserve the elements of the work that are possible to preserve.
How did Heinen accomplish this? He went way beyond normal archival processing, and instead imposed order on what I overheard one audience member describe as “chaos on so many levels.” He examined not only the physical objects, but the archival documents (e.g. notes, drawings and instructions) that were part of the artists’ design process, and videos of visitors experiencing the artwork. The analysis yielded complex mappings of the various components and their relationships to each other. He delved into the software code, creating what he calls a technical genealogy, and traced the various types and connections between inputs and outputs.
What is left to do to facilitate researchers successfully accessing the collection? One could develop curriculum to guide exploration of this kind of media, perhaps in the fields of history of computer science, or media archaeology, or enrich the archival record with artist interviews. While it may seem like a unique, one-off type of preservation project, in fact, in digital experience realms, the skills and tools Joey developed to document this project could have broader applications in documenting web-based experiences as well. I’ll be honest, some of this talk was over my head, but the rest of the audience feedback was incredibly positive, and confirmed my reaction: Wow, what a massive amount of work, and thank goodness Joey Heinen did it, or it would all be lost!
Joey Heinen’s internship was funded through the IMLS as part of requirements for the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation MA program at NYU.