Our Database/Archives class was at the Textile Museum of Canada last week for a field trip. We met with Sarah Quinton, the Senior Curator of the museum, and she was describing to us her foray into digitizing the museum’s collection. Deciding to document/catalog/digitize an entire museum’s collection is a daunting task but an admirable one; it allows for more public access to the museum’s archive. The Textile Museum recognizes this “give and take” relationship. A museum needs an audience (I use this term for lack of a better word. I could say “the public,” “guests,” “visitors,” etc.) to stay alive and it’s audience needs/wants material/information to digest. It’s a cyclical relationship of absorbing, digesting and creating culture. One cannot exist without the other and so often I think galleries/museums treat the public as more of a menace to their precious collections rather than honoring this quid pro quo relationship.
Anyway – what I suddenly became aware of was the delicate nature of digitally documenting photos, artifacts, objects, etc. A photo preserves a moment in time, right? It acts as a document of a document/event/person. But what happens when the original document is destroyed (for whatever reason) and the only thing left is a digital record of what once was? Like the museum’s relationship to it’s audience, can an object’s tenuous position as a purveyor of historical truth only be considered relevant if it’s documented in an attempt to record it’s existence? If an object in a museum just sits on a shelf collecting dust and no one knows that it exists – does the object matter? But once a museum documents that item and adds it to the digital collection, it’s another step towards recognizing it’s significance…”the ceremonial grass skirt from the Ikta tribe in New Guinea really does exist. We have it and here’s the proof…go online and scan our collection. We have pictures. We also have a record of it in our database. You might never see it in person, but it exists.” The original document and it’s digital document exist almost as a certificate of authenticity in our age of electronic consciousness. But does a digital reprint of an object, item, photo, painting diminish the original’s significance? As it stands, it’s only a pixelated copy that floats in a combination of 1s and 0s amongst the world wide web. A mere carbon copy. How can anyone, an instituation, person or otherwise become sentimental about a carbon copy? It’s only a thumbnail, a negative of the original, a line in an excel sheet corroborating it’s existence.
So, for the “100 Pictures” project I am creating an “Irretrievable Archive.” That’s right. In my archive, you won’t see any pictures, only the digital information that is attached to it IE: it’s exposure histogram, summary of the picture’s contents: exif properties, TIFF properties, etc. I’m going to collect this information and organize it according to when it was digitized. We’ll see how the pictures align themselves once they’re grouped by digital code, not by a “human made” construct of how they should be grouped according to theme or significance. The only significance here is the picture’s digital DNA. I’m curious to discover how these pictures will be grouped according to this categorization. And ultimately, will this be a completely frustrating, unfulfilling way of looking at an archive? I think yes. Absolutely. What’s the point of looking at a picture’s digital information…I want the visual pleasure and satisfaction of absorbing the picture’s message/meaning/composition. But if the picture archive’s original material is lost, for whatever reason, this collection of digital information will be all that is left. And will it even matter? If we are able to reconstruct the original photo according to this digital information, will the picture truly be able to come alive again? What happens if the information is inputted inaccurately? What kind of picture will result? And will it matter? One day we might be able to clone our pets according to their DNA that we’ve collected and stored but will it even matter if that clone doesn’t have the same spirit or soul of the original critter? I shouldn’t really compare the “soul” of a picture to the “soul” of a pet but so much of what draws me to a picture is it’s ability to capture that moment in time (whether through digital photography or film which is another conversation about the medium/format reflecting the intention of photography). I like to think that each photograph (however manipulated in post) captures the spirit of the person, the place, the time that it was taken. If everything is reduced to it’s digital code, does it hold the same essence as a material that you can touch, a picture that you can see, a fragrance that you can smell (I’d prefer a love letter written on paper than sent through an email). Aghhhh….I don’t know. Maybe it doesn’t matter at all. In the age of reproductions which provides accessability for all – who cares? I’m still trying to figure out if I do.