April 2018.

Interview with
Annet Dekker
for Open Set

Cover of Lost and Living (in) Archives. Collectively Shaping New Memories.(Amsterdam: Valiz, 2017) edited by Annet Dekker.

Archiving as a practice has battled to keep pace with digital technologies since the proliferation of the internet in the 1990s. This inherently methodical activity requires time that digital economies rarely allow for. As Samantha Morton’s character in Cosmopolis says, ‘The future becomes insistent’. [1]

For decades now, many archivists have simply amassed as much content as possible and put aside worrying about the quality of it until a later date, under the assumption that emergent technology will provide solutions. Instead, the opposite has happened with the advent of Snapchat and the realisation that online technologies erode. It is only in very recent times that those working in the field of archiving have begun to accept ideas around forgetting, not keeping and letting go.

These are topics on the mind of Annet Dekker. From a background in the collection and preservation of ‘net art’ she does not describe herself as an archivist, but has become an authority on the preservation of digital content, producing collaborative projects on the subject such as the New Archive Interpretations series for Het Nieuwe Instituut. She is also training a new generation of archivists as Assistant Professor, Media Studies: Archival and Information Studies at the University of Amsterdam. We sat down in the cafeteria at AKV|StJoost Institute in ‘s-Hertogenbosch at the end of a full day working with Open Set Lab 2017 participants.

Michael Bojkowski
How do you see your position in relation to archiving and archivists? Would you say it’s as more of an ‘educator’?

Annet Dekker
Yeah. It’s educator and researcher… and a ‘mediator’, I think.

MB
‘Mediator’ is interesting.

AD
With my curatorial work, I’ve always seen myself much more as a mediator between various parties—between the public, the artist and the space, as an example. And someone who can make things possible. I see that in the way I relate to the archive where I have a certain knowledge and I combine that with different things, and other people. That’s also my way of teaching. It’s not straight-forward lecturing. It’s much more about connecting people and encouraging them to start formulating questions and answers.

MB
So that’s why the New Archive Interpretations project [2] you undertook at Het Nieuwe Instituut is very collaborative? It seemed like you managed to find a collaborator to express an aspect of everything you were doing.

AD
Yeah. They asked me initially to do this project on my own. Their approach was ‘We need advice on our digital archive. How should we set up our digital archive?’ I replied ‘I’m not very interested in answering that question. I’m more interested in seeing what other people think about it and how existing archives can be taken into the future’. What would the practice of archiving mean five years from then? Especially when focussing on digital and online archives. And so, this is what I proposed to them—I wanted to commission several other people to answer these questions for me. Or at least explore and experiment with them.

MB
You didn’t ask technologists as such but asked designers, photographers and artists.

AD
There were combinations: they were technologists, programmers and artists.

MB
And how did you land on this group of people? Did you have criteria for selecting your collaborators?

AD
I didn’t really have very strict criteria. I was interested in people who were interested in certain aspects of the archive and the systematic nature of the archive. That’s how it all started. I wanted to see—and this was the first commission for the project in a way—how this old database they were using at Het Nieuwe Instituut functioned and how it could be thought about differently. How you can explore and circumvent ‘standardisation’?

So, we approached Richard Vijgen and he made a new interface and that was fine. But I was also, like, ‘I’m not interested in a hundred more interfaces’. [3]

Another question became, ‘Okay, if we have a different interface, how do you use the online environment, from the point of view of an institution?’. Then we noticed Het Nieuwe Instituut was using Flickr. I was talking to people at the time who were also working on projects using Flickr as well as Google SketchUp. They had undertaken a whole lot of research into SketchUp and I thought they might be interested in exploring how the Flickr Commons works here. That’s how we came to that project with Template, Lasse van den Bosch Christensen and Marlon Harder. [4]

I jumped from one project to the other. New questions arose and then I looked for people to answer them. From this exploration of Google Earth and then Flickr Commons we came to the question, ‘Okay, this is an institution. What would an individual do?’. Individuals start creating their own online archives. So, then I approached someone I knew was working within the kinds of mechanisms and methods around automatic video editing etc. I thought it could be interesting to have Erica Scourti look at this problem. [5]

MB
It seems like when you get to the point where people are self-archiving, disposable media becomes more of an issue.

AD
Exactly. That’s a really nice comment. Katrina Sluis’s article is based on an older article she’d written a couple of years ago. I knew Katrina because I worked with her before at The Photographer’s Gallery in London. Her article was also about digital photography in online environments and how online structures and systems can create a new sort of image culture where it’s not necessarily about the representation of the image but much more about the network and how that functions—or doesn’t function.

I approached her and was like, ‘You know, how there’s this app called Snapchat? I would love it if you go back to that article you wrote and include and explore Snapchat in there to see if we get any new insights out of this’. It was really funny because as soon as she had finished the article, Snapchat announced that they were actually going to add all these new functions so that you could save your snaps. I was like, ‘Oh no!’ [laughs] This beautiful mechanism for forgetting was gone.

MB
Do you think that institutional archives need to be able to forget, too?

AD
Yeah, in a way, I do. [laughing]

It’s really important for institutions to be aware that it’s okay to get rid of some things, to change things and to make versions because this is the way it’s always been. It’s not new.

The way we now look at a Rembrandt or a Picasso or whatever is not the same as when it was first seen. Rembrandt is an interesting example because there was a recent case in Holland where it turned out that, after cleaning one of his paintings, the colours were much brighter than they had been. All the accumulated dirt had made the painting look much darker. So, when they cleaned it properly it became a whole different painting. People were really shocked by the effect and many didn’t like it.

I think that’s a beautiful example of the changes that have always happened. It’s not that the essence of the work has vanished. The work has been slightly ‘versioned’. Look at the Bible, for example. That’s gone through quite a few iterations and there’s still many people who continue to believe in it.

In that sense, I’m really interested in how, in oral cultures, memory is preserved by creating little hooks that connect to create stories. If you talk about the preservation of digital archives then this becomes key.

MB
Do you think there need to be systems for showing what hasn’t been kept in order to maintain those hooks?

AD
No, not necessarily, because then you do the reverse. You still stick to the idea that ‘something is lost’. What I what I like—as a nice example—is the Wayback Machine by the Internet Archive. [6] It’s very simply built. The way it works is, they crawl a website, starting at the home page, and scroll through all the links to find connected pages and other information. But they crawl the backend—the code. That’s not how you’re used to seeing a website. Also, if they crawl a really large website, by the time they get to the end of it, the beginning might have changed. In this way, the Wayback Machine creates new works. You think it’s preserving something but, really, it’s creating something new.

That really reflects how we navigate the web. I don’t see the same thing as you do because we’ve got different settings and different computers. 

MB
I have a question about ‘post truth’. In your introduction, as editor, to Lost and Living (in) Archives (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2017) [7] you mention factual versus fictional modes of archiving and I wondered if your viewpoint might have changed with this idea of ‘post truth’. Now we have ‘fictional archiving’ but in a massive (and disturbing) way.

AD
I have a real problem with the binary between truth and fiction. As soon as you say something is fiction you presume there is a truth. There are multiple truths, but there’s not one truth. When the discussion about ‘true or fake’ came up within the whole Trump thing, these distinctions were completely useless because the news was never truthful. There has always been a translation taking place. And with that translation, an assumption. So, I don’t believe that binary is productive. What I’m getting at here, I hope, is that the archive has never been a place of truth. It has always been assumed that the archive is a place for evidence. Yes, there is evidence, but it’s always contextualised evidence. You make evidence out of it. That’s something that stays in my mind—there is no truth within the archive, necessarily.

MB
So, it’s okay if you end up with an archive with lots of news articles about things that might not have occurred?

AD
Yeah! I mean the work of a researcher, in that sense, is to find out, through exploration and through comparison, where the boundary is. It’s not up to the archivist to decide ‘is this reliable or authentic’? It’s up to those conducting their research within the archive. So, even if something is not true, I want to have it in the archive because otherwise we wouldn’t know about it.

MB
Do you feel like there needs to be more work done to put archives in public places or create more projects around them to sustain them?

AD
Of course. I’m interested in how you can create sustainable communities around different types of archives, and what the effect of this would be on more traditional archives. I’m very interested in small communities that are already undertaking their own archival activities and how these groups form around specific issues, topics, works, records or whatever.

MB
And separate from the ideas of ‘citizen archivists’. Like ‘organically formed’ groups rather than programmed ones?

AD
Yeah, but citizen’s archives too. Those archives are also really interesting to look at and to see how people are making decisions about what to keep.

MB
That’s where people are going now, isn’t it? They’re like, ‘That’s great! We can keep everything! Wait, why would we do that?’

AD
That’s where you can see, all of a sudden, ‘Okay, that says something about society or a culture or an institution. Why did they decide to do this and not that?’

MB
Based on your New Archive Interpretations project, is there an evolution of the archive you’d most like to see made manifest? Is there something in all the work done around that area that you think ‘that’s actually something I would really like to have, or to have in the world’?

AD
It’s more about collaboration between people because—and I think this is now changing—but, for a long time, museums and their archives have been really isolated and have only been doing the things that they thought were necessary to do. And they were obstructing people from entering into their dialogues and bringing new knowledge and ideas.

That is changing, but it could change more. And institutions and individuals could benefit from each other a lot more. This is a necessity, particularly with digital, because things change so rapidly. Talking to programmers is really interesting. When you ask them about something that is two, three, four years ago, they often can’t remember because development is a process that continues all the time. You don’t look back and fix something that’s dead. You keep building.

MB
That’s how code builds and builds. Code doesn’t stop and go backwards, it keeps going.

AD
And that’s the system. That process is really interesting.

MB
Do you think institutions need to be quicker in addressing issues around the archive. Is it the bureaucracy that slows things down?

AD
That’s one obstacle but I don’t think it’s necessarily the bureaucracy. I think it’s also… ‘Try to experiment’.

MB
Take the risk?

AD
Take the risk, yeah. Risk doesn’t mean that anything will be lost, not necessarily. That’s what we’ve learned from the digital realm—that copies, or versions are easy to make so you can experiment a lot. So, take that advantage of that and start experimenting. That’s what’s behind the whole idea with versioning and it’s a method that should fit well within institutions. It would be nice to see how this would work.

MB
Why do you think this hasn’t happened yet?

AD
There’s many different reasons. One of them economic interest, especially within the museum world. In the archival world, it’s about legislation. You have to abide by the law. Another reason centres around the anxiety of letting go of what you’re used to. People like to do what they do and this is a new approach. I get that. We need to discuss this more and do more.

I do see these things happening more easily in smaller institutions that don’t have lots of highly specialised people working there. If you’re in a small institution, you are used to doing multiple things at the same time. You are the curator, and the producer, and the person that applies for the funding. You can make decisions quicker and are used to taking on more roles. In a large institution, there might be people saying, ‘I’m only doing the restoration of the paint’, for example. They may not be used to working and collaborating with other people. There’s a different mentality.

MB
Hopefully as more people interested in archiving and archives come through the system who are considered ‘digital natives’, things will start to speed up a bit.

AD
I think they will. Smaller organisations will get a bigger voice as well. They just have to build more confidence in themselves. It’s a hierarchical world. Smaller institutions need to be more confident and speak up.

MB
Are you going to have to ‘mediate’ another round of projects?

AD
There’s no one commissioning me for it yet but I would love to!

MB
Do you feel like you’re in a position to predict how archives are going to evolve?

AD
No, I’m not. It’s really difficult. Change is happening, but it’s a very slow process.

MB
Too slow?

AD
Always. I’m very impatient so that doesn’t help.

MB
I think the medium is impatient as well.

AD
That’s true. Change is happening. If you look back 20 years ago and see what the museums did then and what they do now, it’s a huge leap. So, change is still doable. It’s all fine. But it happens in chunks, not overnight.

MB
In your work at the University of Amsterdam, are you able to push people in that direction?

AD
Yeah, absolutely. That’s what I’m trying to do, at least.

MB
Would the majority of your students have already been working as archivists? Do some of your students find it challenging?

AD
Half of them have already worked in archives for years and they’ve come back to school to find this ‘new way’ of looking at archiving. I don’t challenge them as much now as I used to, especially when I was teaching at the Piet Zwart Institute. Students would arrive in September and one of the things I would say was ‘You’re going to completely change your own mind here. You’ll be seeing and reading things that will make you think, “Why am I doing this?” and at a certain moment hopefully it will make sense to you. The purpose is to confuse you’. Students would come to me in tears, saying ‘Why am I here? What am I doing here? I want to quit.’ And then half-a-year later they were saying ‘thank you’. It worked well.

MB
I have a lot of optimism about the younger generations who are making their YouTube videos and the doing their Snapchats. Hopefully by the time they’re coming through the system it’ll be natural to work in a fluid way.

AD
You see it already with younger people here today [at Open Set Lab 2017] as well. [8] They’re not afraid of ‘the machine’. They’re not afraid to say, ‘I can code’. It’s okay to do these things now.

MB
Yeah. And not seeing the difference between digital and physical media.

AD
It’s just material.



Produced for the 2017 edition of the OpenSet Reader
as part of the Design Curation & Writing MA at Design Academy Eindhoven.
Tutors: Irina Shapiro, Alice Twemlow