Since this commission began, there’s been a visit to MVRDV in Rotterdam, a Part I blog post, and an interview about these ideas with Annet Dekker published on the HNI website. Annet also wrote a great scene-setting post there too, about the challenge of this kind of digital archiving, with a great reading list: Bringing out subjective relationships: Relations of technics, concepts and actors in digital archives.
I must admit, it’s taken me much longer to complete this speculative commission that I’d first thought. I’m now sure answering the questions it asks could be a life’s work, and that made it a bit daunting to try to collapse the huge range of initial ideas into two blog posts (and the interview). In any case, I’d be curious and appreciative of any reactions you have to it.
New Representations of Work
One theme that’s emerged through conversation and research is that we’re missing an opportunity to do better, more relational, and richer archival representations of organisations. There is very much more available to us than the more traditional “bucket of files” which is often deemed the equivalent of an archive (when really it’s just a backup of a bucket of files.
In a previous life, I was art director at Stamen Design in San Francisco. When we had a design intern join us for a few months, Zoe Padgett, I wasn’t sure how to keep her busy and engaged from the outset, so I dreamt up a piece of work that could simmer away while she was with us: to visualise the company itself. In this project now, I’ve found myself returning to what she made. It feels like a new representation of corporate life, and has a particular focus on the people in the company, not necessarily the company’s output. During her internship, Zoe conducted a bunch of interviews, surveys and other chats, and painted a picture of us that we’d never seen before, even though we lived it each day.
Zoe studied us and the studio, figuring out who we were, where we’re from, and what we liked to eat when we were in the office. One of her interview questions was ‘what is your favourite animal?’ and that resulted in one of my favourite staff lists ever.
The other thing I enjoyed about Zoe’s approach was that it wasn’t particularly about our projects, our output, but about us. There is (and has always been) so much more material available to us about the whole company that what it makes public, to illustrate and even explain the company dynamics.
MVRDV is a titan in the architecture world. It’s a big, successful firm that’s made hundreds of projects, many of them built, and the public facade online reflects that. It’s ultra-professional, and (interestingly) specialises in creating hyper-real aspirational imagery around its projects. One tricky part with architecture archives though, is that it’s almost never possible to collect The Thing made by architects. Inevitably they’re about process around the thing, and in fact, it’s actually quite rare that an architecture project gets built in the world, in which case it’s all process.
Today though, there’s a pretty big gap between representing the process of creation and what we often think of as the archive… The digital archive is handed over as a bucket of files, like someone dragged a backup disk onto another backup disk, so what you’re seeing is files and folders and files and folders. No sense in there of who did what when and why.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still interesting to look at working files. But, what I can’t know from the bucket of files in its current form is who made them, at whose request, for what stage in the project, whether the boss was happy with it, whether it reached the client, or anything like that. We can’t know that from Zoe’s Stamen Menagerie either, to be fair.
(Does this mean I want to be a social historian?)
This problem is hard, and most companies probably don’t really record this kind of information in a organised or archival way. Is there more of an opportunity than ever to witness the people involved in the creation of raw archival material? How does having a named account on a web service where you upload stuff (Dropbox, Google, Instagram, Flickr) improve potential for identity in archives? It’s no longer endless folders of IMG_3467.jpg, is it? Can we do better? How can we do better?
Actors in the Archive?
I wanted to know much more about the who, so I set about a quick study of the MVRDV actors to see if I could figure out anything about who worked there. The first piece was a bone simple survey that asked a few simple questions:
- What are the four most important projects at MVRDV?
- What’s your job title? optional
- What year did you start at MVRDV? optional
With the caveat that the staff probably didn’t know anything about me or this commission so why would they do the survey, we ended up with 25 responses from the company. Even in these responses, the results were as expected: respondents would probably mention the famous projects.
MVRDV Stage 1: Staff Survey, Top 4 Projects
I’ve published the raw results and some cooked views on it as a Google sheet, with permissions set to ‘anyone can comment’. I liked that because people had been asked for their Top 4, it seemed like there were quite a few personal favourites mentioned in the results too. 33 projects got a special mention in the end.
Another highlight for me was a glimmer of something that you probably wouldn’t find in a bucket of files; someone’s answer to “When did you start?” was “I don’t wanna know”.
The Soylent Archive: It’s Made of People
I’m drawn to projects that put people in the centre. Here are some of my favourite examples.
1. Hacking Rambert
You’ve probably heard of Leila Johnston, and if you haven’t, you should have a look at her work. She’s a prolific writer, thinker, and maker who’s constantly putting out incisive, original work around the collision of art and tech. Anyway, I watched with interest as she worked on her latest project called Hacking Rambert, installed as ‘digital creative in residence’ at Rambert Dance Company in London.
I looked into a lot of interesting things. Time. The building. Code. Rendering sound. Musicality. Portraits. Heat. I looked at people – especially dancers. How is it possible that most people never get really good at anything, yet other people find themselves here, doing such an extraordinary thing for a living?
I particularly enjoyed Johnston’s portraits of the dancers, especially in the context of the ephemeral performance. I love that she made digital captures of the dancers, and then printed them in 3D physical form, and even more so that a lot of it was very ‘lo-poly’ or low resolution. As Johnston suggests, low resolution can mean high fidelity and that’s not something traditionally witnessed in archives, I’d suggest, except maybe after years of work?
She also published a short book about her reflections on the residency, and one phrase struck me, her conceptual prompt, “how can I ensure I’m not doing ‘interior design’ or simple illustrations of dance concept on stage etc, but show something of the authentic situation of digital and its relationship to dance, as it stands in 2016?”
Hmm… authentic situation of digital… in 2016.
2. Tracking Transcience
Is a much older piece of work, but still living, which is sort of nuts for a digital thing. Tracking Transience was started in 2002 by an artist called Hasan Elahi (who has gone on to make all sorts of brilliant things). After 9/11, Elahi got hassled a lot as he travelled, always getting bothered at borders and airports and questioned unfairly, so he did something amazing. He put his whole life online, in remarkable detail. Where he was all the time, what he ate, what he bought… the lot. So the next time he was hassled, he could point to precise evidence of his whereabouts.
In 2002, this was a radical act, and I think that level of transparency still is radical. As much as the world has turned since then, and many of us post a lot of ourselves online, it’s rare to show ourselves wholly. It’s even more rare for a company. Transparency can be threatening, but maybe if there’s a company who would be up for it, perhaps it’s MVRDV.
3. Who lives in the Wellcome Library?
A project I’ve been working on over the last ten months or so with the Wellcome Library touches on this idea of trying to find the actors in a collection system. Library websites can be really dry, and almost always rely on people knowing what they’re looking for, so we tried to directly reveal the WHO and not just the WHAT.
With our What’s in the Library? project, we looked at the data from a bird’s eye view, and were able to display the people in it. Visualising people in a dataset like this can show you a really different dynamic in the collection. Just by clicking around and exploring interconnections of people and subjects, you can learn something about who was writing what, and when.
It’s simple, but a nice way to explore.
Who are the actors in the MVRDV performance?
Even though this commission wasn’t about making a piece of software, I did a few sketches about showing people, who they worked with, and how many of their projects ended up getting built. I wonder what data you’d need to drive a visualisation like this?
When I began this project, I started following MVRDV on the popular web services like Facebook. I noticed an announcement that they appointed five new partners, and immediately wondered about all the things that had led to that announcement.
Then I wondering how the staff at the firm has changed over time, and who worked together a lot and formed great collaborations. Which of the lots of fresh interns made a great impression and stuck around? What might be interesting about mapping job titles and pay rates over time?
Turns out you can start to see this sort of thing, if you look, on LinkedIn. I spent an afternoon looking up everyone who listed the company in their profile, and made a note of when they started, and you can easily see the growth of the company over time:
This is just a small thing I suppose. I remember on the visit to the company back in November last year wondering if I could access the more HR-related records. I’m looking for some kind of overlay of all the digital output of the company with the people that made it.
But, what about born-digital work?
It’s really hard! You must be indefatigable, and not many of us are.
- Track and manage all external systems. In my first three months of making Good, Form & Spectacle, I’d used about 30 online services in some way.
- Try to use a common thread across your projects, like an sequential identifier. MVRDV does this, and I’ve started to. (HNI is #011.)
- Make plan for documenting and packaging near-past work. Teach all staff, and even better, collaborate and talk over it all together. Add this step of describing together to your workflow.
- At some point you’ll have to attack the early projects. As a first step, you could archive at least one born-digital element for each?
- Determine “important” projects by interview and/or data analysis (cost, profit, built/not built, staff happiness, press attention etc). This sort of analysis will be interesting for future visitors too. Even imagining that your company may be interesting enough to be poked at by a future researcher is a good thought, because it’s useful to imagine an audience for your archival narrative.
- Assess whether old works need to be able to be re-run or just well-documented. Even though a Proper Archivist would want to truly encapsulate it, that just might not be possible. These vast software systems we see today (Facebook, etc) would require archival infrastructure the like of which has not been seen in order to be encapsulated for posterity.
A Live Archive?
Let’s just say you’ve done the hard work of going back over your work and archived it all beautifully. What might you do into the future, as you work?
Since very many of us are now using computers to do our daily work, we create and hold dates, files, IDs, assets etc for all sorts of things as we go. This is broadly good. It’s a lot more raw material than we’ve had before, and it has some automated metadata that’s useful (instead of being ‘in the shoebox under the bed covered in dust and only brought to an archivist posthumously’).
For me, one of the main revolutionary aspects of Web 2.0 was this idea that you could be looking at a live dataset in a webpage. Before that, everything was fixed (if updated here and there). Since then, a lot of the web and its design has become centered on liveness, or recentness. It’s possible to know in bizarre but fascinating detail who did what and when.
Look at this animation of six weeks of coding on the open-source Linux operating system:
So what could a live archive be like? What if archiving things was a moment-by-moment active task? Remember that a backup is not the same as an archive, mostly because it’s not especially described separate to its existence. Perhaps there are instant or daily uploads into it, like you’d upload to Dropbox or Google or wherever. Perhaps there’s also a daily ingest by a local institution or one you’re a member of. (So for me, that would be Islington Council Libraries and Heritage Services, or maybe even the British Museum). Perhaps it’s about drip-fed longevity instead of great globs. Perhaps a junior archivist could actually be a computer program. It might compute things about your work, a bit like Slack’s weekly updates, or the lovely, now defunct Dopplr Annual Report.
When I was starting up Good, Form & Spectacle, I was fantasising about what sorts of roles I’d like to have make up the company, and archivist was hire no. 2. Therefore, I was envious when I came across an LA design studio that has created a position called Studio Mirror, whose main role is to document things, and then report back after projects are finished. What luxury!
The studio mirror is a distinct role and a job title. In our studio Luke’s role was to archive our work and reflect it back to the team in a unique way, much like the documentation of these principles. Pursued with persistence and the eye of a journalist, the Studio Mirror should capture not only WHAT is being made but HOW and by WHOM. This isn’t simply dumping files on a server but rather curating the content in a way that is compelling and consumable for the team. For example, our studio created a quarterly magazine. You can read ADQ2.1: The Launch Issue here.
There are many reasons to identify a single person to own the documentation process. First and foremost, the details of a project are easy to forget, especially when projects last several years. Archiving work is both productive and functional; a reflective studio believes that the work can always be done a little better. Finally, a well-documented project also makes it easier for new studio members to enter a project quickly and efficiently.
But perhaps the most important value for persistently documenting the collective work of a studio is that it is a sound investment in the future. The longer I work the more I have come to appreciate how people behave throughout the entire design process. Thus, the story of the product is not only how the product itself evolves, but also how the individuals and team grew while making it.
In a world which demands so much in the present, I value that at some point in the future I can look back through our quarterly magazines with a glass of whiskey in my hand, examining the process of what was made and how we made it, and think, “That was a good place to work, I learned something and we made great things.”
There’s a mountain of live reporting tools to show you exactly where your devops systems are at, and the smallest changes in performance of massive systems (and small ones) like web services or data centres.
These sort of things tend to show you what’s happening, and not always why, and I think that’s the tricky part and not just with born digital stuff.
I’m afraid I don’t have a mind blowing conclusion. It’s a combination of creator-awareness, small bit archival just-in-time processing, and humans to keep an eye on it all. It’s helpful to imagine yourself leaving notes to the future, and how they might be read. I’ve enjoyed reflecting on my own work through this, and making small interventions. I’ve started a Slack channel where I post photographs of every whiteboard before we erase it, annotated and dated, with the view to making an artefact of it at some point down the line. I’ve started writing README files for all client and project folders, about how the work came about. And one thing I’ve tried to do from the outset is write a lot about what’s happening along the way.
So what could this mean for MVRDV? There’s some thinking to do about how transparent they might like to be with Het Nieuwe Instituut. There’s an opportunity to share company machinations in very great detail, very much more than a back-up bucket of files. In order to fully do that, and fully embrace the capacity for our born digital work to generate all this metadata, there must also be spiritual confidence that this level of revelation around client correspondence, finances, HR, good times, bad times, failures and so forth must be as easily discoverable as the folder of working files for TP261, the Markthall.
If I had another twenty years to think about I might be able to figure something out. I guess the main thing is that we’re not just what we produce.