Lorraine Wild | Essays

New Year's Housecleaning

I am a member of a typical Los Angeles turn-of-the-century multi-cultural family, so the concept of the New Year as we practice it stretches from its mere Gregorian beginning on January 1st through the much grander lunar New Year of early February. The lunar will celebrated in many ways, culminating with our standing (with a few thousand other people) along the curb of Broadway in Chinatown, knee deep in firecracker smoke, to witness another edition of the weirdly eclectic Chinese New Year's Parade, with martial artists of all stripes and colors from all the Valleys, dragon floats with princesses, city councilmen in cherried up 1960s cars, syncopated high-school bands from Compton, and guys in kilts playing bagpipes from who knows where.

But my favorite of the customs attached to the Chinese New Year is the mandate to clean house: not because guests are coming, but because you are supposed to enter the New Year unburdened by unresolved problems, unpaid bills, and unnecessary belongings associated with the former year as much as you possibly can. Being a bit of an accumulator, it has taken me a while to see the beauty of this, but age has helped me understand that I will not be able to drag all this stuff with me to the next incarnation, or whatever. So, into the re-cycling bins it, or as much of it as possible, goes...

Now, I want to pause for a moment to acknowledge those who are probably rolling their eyes at this moment, those who are acquainted with my "book problem", or the "desk problem", or who perhaps find it a tad hypocritical of me to even post on a blog, given the quite cynical things that I've written in the past about blogs as sites for design "discourse." (To summarize: I'm troubled by the flowering of design writing in a format that is difficult to search and/or save, when the basic literature of design is still relatively undeveloped). Yet here I am, rhapsodizing about the joys of taking out the garbage, on a blog: all I can do is embrace the contradiction.

But it is precisely this contradiction, and my struggle with it, that has riveted my attention to a conversation going on out there in the worlds of museums and libraries about the problems of archiving that which for philosophical, aesthetic, and technological reasons is either problematic, or downright impossible. An essay in the first Sunday New York Times Arts and Leisure section of the year about the problems of authenticating Dan Flavin light sculptures and extending their existence (whether or not it's legitimate to change their light bulbs when they burn out) only skims the surface of what is clearly going to be a bigger and bigger mess. Dan Flavin initially considered his work to be temporal, its lifespan limited by the 2000 or so candle-hours of his neon tubes: of course, as human nature has it, it's not so easy to face the inevitable, and now that Flavin is gone, all sorts of energy is being poured into the preservation of what was initially conceived of as unpreservable, for reasons ranging from the desire to extend the cultural life of the work, to the need to support the investments of collectors.

And that's just light bulbs. In November, I attended "Devices of Design," a colloquium presented at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (a major repository of architectural documents). The co-sponsor of the event was La Fondation Daniel Langlois pour l'art, la science et la technologie, an organization based in Montréal which has begun to support research into the problems of preserving media and time-based art of every conceivable platform. The ostensible subject of the meeting was the relationship between designers and their tools, and there were some intriguing presentations on the influence of media-like ink or transparent vellum-on the way that architects were able to conceptualize their work. (It seems that the creativity of these kinds of historical investigations is something that we can attribute to our digital moment: how the immersion in new tools has eliminated the invisible status of the old ones).

Discussions at "Devices of Design" invariably turned to contemporary media and looming questions of how to archive the digitally-produced work of today's artists, architects, and designers. Anyone who has watched their own archives shrink from flat-files filled with paper to little piles of disks with mysteriously titled files (and ten versions of each of those files, at that) knows that there is an interesting problem percolating for themselves, if not someone else, to untangle.

During a roundtable conversation with librarians and archivists from all over North America at "Devices of Design", stories were swapped about inoperable or indecipherable art works and collections, and what they think it will take to render them accessible over time. The word used to describe a reclamation process that seems to be the only contemporary solution is "emulation." To emulate (in the specific patois of archivists) is to re-create a work that uses a defunct technology by essentially re-copying it into a current technology. The hardware of media art, like light bulbs and TV sets is the easy part: the much stickier issue is software, such as the early programming languages used to create works that had interfaces or complex effects. The energy devoted to this problem by such entities as the Fondation Daniel Langlois is directed primarily at media-based art work of the last 30 years, but you can see it eventually being extended into the realm of such design documents as CAD renderings, websites, etc.

So you just take all this stuff and digitize it, into whatever today's latest technology supports? This is the point where lots of believers think that there's no problem. Technology has already answered the question, and storage is cheap: but the reality is quite different. There still is no such thing as "archival" digital storage, and both media and formats are still in flux. Works are "dying" before their creators, bringing the issue of artistic intentionality and control into a piece-by-piece reclamation project that is conceptually and financially expensive. Even the smoothest emulation is accompanied by minute changes that must be chewed over collectively by the curators, archivists, and librarians, tech support minions, and the artist if he or she is still alive-and a whole lot of them are-because we are talking about art that mostly dates from the 1970s and 1980s. (for a more detailed rendition of what this entails, plus a wonderful essay by Bruce Sterling, please see Permanence through Change: the Variable Media Approach (2003), a publication of the Variable Media Network available online, with link, also supported by the Fondation Daniel Langlois). And then, before you know it, the next generation will have to do it all over again, with yet more loss, more variation.

Sitting in the "Devices of Design" conference a few weeks ago, I suddenly had a vision of archivists and librarians mutating into the night nursing crew of an intensive-care ward, with each digital work a patient on life-support, needing constant care. And we know what that scenario costs, and the sorts of hushed conversations the take place outside of the ICU, trying to square the desire to extend life with the realities of diminishing returns and diminishing funds. We live in a country that can barely bring itself to fund the creation of new art and culture, or the education of future audiences, and we now have to contend with the nightmare of a disembodied, "emulated" artistic legacy that demands constant care and feeding, driven by an obsession to sustain work that ironically was never given a permanent form in the first place.

When I was about to start hyperventilating in Montréal, I thought of my own position as a designer who designs a lot of books on art and photography (and now a few on time-based art). I am in the business of cultural preservation, and I witness, on a daily basis, the peculiar reverence for artworks and their authors that drives the urge to collect and preserve. But documentation is vastly different than emulation. The ancient critique of print as an asphixiator of life may, on some days, be true, but it seems more sustainable, in the long run, than the Frankensteinian project of eternal life that the digital demands.

As for my design work (and the work of many other designers as well), it's all "time-based": each artifact produced is actually the result of an exchange, a collaboration, and collection of ideas directed to an audience. I devote a lot of energy to the physical aspect of my work, because the process of communication with which I'm so enamored is embodied in its form, and the form is its own record of existence.

So back to the contradictions: as a teacher of design, I worry about continuity and history and whether or not designers of tomorrow will ever understand how their particular inheritance of forms, practices, and theories of design evolved, so that they can figure out how to move on, or beyond it. How the digital processes that designers work with today are described in the future does depend upon how they are collected and kept. On the other hand, maybe design will just have to depend upon being read through its own artifacts as it always has. But as a practitioner of design, and not an artist, I'm blessedly free of the worry over eternal life. There is something beautiful about the lightness of design practice: no need for emulation when the work embodies life itself.

That's why design will always look funny in a museum. Best wishes for 2005, the year of the Rooster, 4702! Now go clean your desk (top).

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