The Blackaeonium Project: Workspace/Keeping-Place - An Archival Continuum of Creative Practice

PhD by Research Project, Lisa Cianci, 2012

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Painting can be said to be an action, an injection of energy, an attempt to capture the memory of things. And so it is with an archive faced with the deterioration of materials, with entropy, we inject more energy, we introduce buffers, we convert to another format and we adjust the environment. We seek a balance. Often these memories intersect with one of us. A researcher, a historian, a student interacting with a madly preserved bit of information and that encounter is remembered, may lead to a narrative, to an analysis, to a history, to an understanding or even a philosophy that can last for… well lets be absurd and say… forever.
(Archivepost, 2012)


To return to Marcel Duchamp’s quote from the beginning of Chapter 1:

Art is not about itself but the attention we bring to it. (Sanouillet & Peterson 1973)

One could also say that the Archive is not about itself, but the attention we bring to it.

This research project has endeavoured to focus creative attention on the Archive:

  • for the purposes of empowering artists to make educated use of archival and preservation strategies and methods in creative practice - if we choose;
  • to enable a continuum of creative practice which reveals threads, traces and themes in our work that allow us to better follow a practice-based research cycle of development for artwork, and
  • to maximise access to our own creative content and to make our creative content, our methods and processes more explicit through documentation to enable meaningful access to our work over time for ourselves and for other potential stakeholders.


Addressing the propositions

In looking back over the research project, the work undertaken throughout the project has employed methods and processes that attempt to stave off or at least delay “archival entropy” by applying energy to the archival assemblage through various means: the archival act; the creative act; and to a lesser extent, through the act of educating others about combining the archival and creative acts.

a rough interpretation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics (entropy increases with time) implies that it is difficult to keep an ordered system -- such as a data file, a piece of iron, or any other object in the universe -- from decaying (and becoming unusable) with time. An object can only be maintained in its current organized form by the application of energy, which creates more disorder somewhere else in the universe.(Coughlin, 2008)

Following this, entropy will ensue unless there is an input of energy into the archive. Purposeful selection and documentation of content, remixing, recombination, use, reuse, access and engagement of and with the archival assemblage are all activities aimed at slowing the inevitable entropy. The Blackaeonium archival system and its contents require continuous access, change, manipulation and reinterpretation by the artists involved, to avoid a dissipating of the contents, and their possible meanings – this is one reason for working creatively in a continuum mode. Whether this practice is somehow creating further chaos in other parts of the universe is unknown at this point.

The actions of artists directing energy into the archive to stave off entropy was tested in the following aspects of the research project:

  • The proposition that artists may benefit from consciously incorporating archival and preservation strategies into our own art practices. This was tested through my own practice undergoing a six-year experiment in working with my Blackaeonium archival system to document and create new works. Considerable energy was expended in documenting and creating artworks that followed a continuum mode of creation using the archive as a central point - as the work-space and keeping place for artworks;
  • The proposition that the archive is a slow remix: using remix and recombination in the archival assemblage – harnessed as methods of preservation, creation and engagement of and with creative content. A substantial amount of energy was channeled into the archival assemblage through these methods, and a substantial body of work was created from these methods and processes;
  • The proposition that artists are empowered to make informed decisions about their work through both awareness of strategies for keeping and preserving creative content, and systems that may be available for their use. This is of value for artists in undertaking our own archival and preservation strategies as part of a creative practice. This was undertaken by promoting the Blackaeonium archive through tiering methods, through artist participants and audience guest users engaging with the Blackaeonium archival system in different iterations, and through the development of educational modules piloted in the School of IT and Creative Industries at Victoria University.

Perhaps the most effective “archive” for most uses (except civilization reboot) is an active archive where the data is in active storage systems (such as disk drive arrays today) and constantly is rewritten, backed up, and moved to new formats as they become available. This requires more work to accomplish, but hey – that’s what the second law of thermodynamics is all about. (Coughlin, 2008)

Many questions have arisen from this research project. Can we maintain this energy and activity to prevent entropy from creeping into the archival assemblage? What happens when the artist no longer directs that energy into the assemblage? Will audience engagement continue and be enough to sustain the archival assemblage? How will other stakeholders sustain it? It would take a longer timeframe than this research project allows to answer these questions. The project will continue beyond the scope of this research for a substantial length of time to see how the archive can be used in an ongoing way.


Addressing the research questions

1. What elements from archival science (and archival curatorial practices) can an artist use on a daily basis to improve the quality of self-documentation, to future-proof creative content and make explicit an artist’s intent for the presentation of artwork?

This question was addressed by creating an archival system that is suitable for artists to engage with for both archival and creative purposes. As shown in both the project and the exegesis, building context and relationships between content objects in the archival assemblage in the manner of a traditional archival system has many uses for the artist. It can be an informative method for self-reflection and for documenting the traces and threads that form creative practice. It makes explicit the idea that past work informs future work. The documentation in the archive can itself be creative (such as descriptive elements, code documented in certain fields, and the tag cloud), and can contain important statements for the artist’s intent for artworks to be presented or re-presented. This may then form a part of preservation strategies such as reinterpretation. The Recombinant Groups formed in the Blackaeonium archival system are one method of testing this intent, which was found to be a subjective and changeable thing in itself. The artist may have different intentions for their work over time. The Blackaeonium archival system has demonstrated that it can keep the documentation of intent as it changes through documentaton in various areas within the system such as Inventory, Series, Group and even the Fonds.

The documentation at different levels of the system such as Inventory, Series and Fonds also tested how best to describe the artworks, and what kinds of information should be described. It was found that a mix of archival and curatorial information such as those recommended by the ISAD(G) and VMQ worked best for this research project – for creating a way of documenting creative content that was not too complex, but adequate for archival/preservation purposes.

The documentation work, while a necessary part of the process, is still perceived by the artists who engage with it, as an onerous task to perform – despite tools to facilitate the workflow, and despite the incentives of having ready access to content for play and experimentation, exhibition and proliferation. It was found that any kind of system or method for individual creative use requires minimum input for maximum output or “reward”. The space to play and experiment with the archive and the assemblage is an important part of making archiving a desirable prospect, not just for the artist, but potentially for the audience to engage with the content.

The processes and workflow for archival documentation are areas that require further investigation. The tension I found for my own work, which became even more apparent in the Atemporal project, was in wanting to make the process of archival documentation easy to undertake, while not trivialising the archival act by over-automating the data entry and file upload processes. I want to ensure that value and importance is attributed to the archival act, but somehow improve the workflow to make it easier to focus on the descriptive elements.

Batch processing and multiple file uploads (in the manner of Facebook or Wordpress systems) would make the process quicker, but might also lead to more content being uploaded, without a proper selection process or quality documentation to go with it. This will be an ongoing issue as new developments to the Blackaeonium archival system become operational, and we (myself and the artist participants from Atemporal) can test this area more fully.

There is still no consensus on metadata standards. What I found from my own research and experience, and from talking to others such as academics involved in the Variable Media Initiative, is that rather than expending energy on determining the best standard, (which countless others are currently attempting), it is more productive to focus on the types of documentation most valuable in ensuring the essentials for curatorial, archival and artistic requirements are documented, and that some kind of basic top-level semantic information can be produced to link the individual archives (in the wild) to other content online.

I choose to keep my “archives in the wild”, without institutional intervention, but I try to form more meaningful networks with others in the wild, or in the “archival commons” via proliferation through other sites (tiering) and systems (semantic searching). These are preservation strategies external to the archive, necessary for keeping content meaningful, accessible and alive.


2. By building archival elements into a creative practice, how might this affect the creative practice itself, and what new works might be able to be produced?

This question was addressed by developing a body of creative work through using the Blackaeonium archival system and attendant methods and processes developed over the course of the research project. The work was created both in the archive and derived from content in the archive.

The chain of use and reuse of items, and the way they are described with free text, tags, relationships and contextual linkages, has lead to a shifting in my own practice. I find I have become more open to interpretations of what the “artwork” might be, and how it might be presented and represented. The remixing and recombination has become a much more conscious method of creation, and it has also become a more deliberate means of employing preservation strategies such as migration to new or different formats, to ensure selected creative content is accessible in a variety of ways. The Colour Fields series is an example of this where image, video and animation are used as metacontent for each other, and the relationships between discreet items are documented in the Blackaeonium archival system.

This opening up of my practice, making all methods and process more explicit through archival elements and methods, has also lead to the work becoming more open to collaboration and audience participation. Having a documented, open, online assemblage (both archival and creative) makes it much easier to invite the audience in via different means – both physical and virtual. The Guest Remixes and Atemporal projects are examples of this. It also enables the content to become linked to other similar systems and projects. The method of tiering content to interlink with other sites such as the Artbase, Perpetual Art Machine and JavaMuseum has been much easier to implement by creating recombinant works from and within the archive, and linking individual objects in the archive to other sites.

Aspects of my work that existed before the research project such as memory, identity and hauntologies[1], which for me are a presence/absence, and the tangible/intangible relating to how keeping and loss are manifested in variable media art – what Stefan Schutt describes as my “machines of yearning” (Schutt 2011b), have become more explicit through using the Blackaeonium archival system, and have become a more direct focus of the work. This is most notably evident in the Colour Fields series. Ideas of atemporality and the archive as space-time distancing have provided a conceptual impetus to create works that specifically address these ideas, which are now a current part of our creative and cultural discourse. We as a culture now have unprecedented access to information and content of all kinds from all times and places. The online digital archival assemblage echoes this. I can readily draw elements from my own past and present into potential future works. I can move across time and space to initiate collaborative works with others as easily as creating a Recombinant Group in the Blackaeonium archival system. The incorporation of more figurative and personal elements in my recent work has come directly from the archival documentation and opening the assemblage to the public.

All exhibitions entail the bringing together of unlikely assemblages of people, things, ideas, texts, spaces, and different media […] they are highly artificial assemblages, brought together for no other reason than the experiment itself, and yet their purpose remains to make visible that which is otherwise invisible, to make tangible something intangible.
(Basu & Macdonald 2007)

The Atemporal project was initiated to bring together unlikely assemblages "for no other reason than the experiment itself". Further possibilities for narratives and fictional elements are currently being explored through the Atemporal archival assemblages as well as my own Blackaeonium archival assemblage. We are documenting our work, and also playing and experimenting in the archive, opening up many creative possibilities such as collaborative remixes, curated recombinant groups, and works derived from the archive such as publications and physical exhibitions.


Addressing the importance of the research

The four current iterations of the Blackaeonium archival system (Blackaeonium, ACW, At Home and Atemporal) are evidence of what can be achieved without (or before) institutional archival or preservation intervention. These online digital archival keeping-places demonstrate how this level of documentation can provide ready access to content. Examples of this include the Colour Fields series that has the highest level of relationship documentation and the At Home series (and it’s use in the MUMA exhibition), which provided ready access to content in the planning stage of the exhibition, and gave unprecedented access to the materials of a significant Australian feminist artwork to a new audience.

Contextual documentation in the Blackaeonium archival system demonstrates ways of making artistic intent explicit. This can be seen in all four iterations of the Blackaeonium archival system. The Blackaeonium and Atemporal archives enable the creative process of remix to be more explicit using archival methods. For example, the Colour Fields series and the Blurscapes series show how the archival items trace the creative processes through documentation of metacontent, tags, relationships and contextual documentation such as Series and Provenance.  These archival systems show how remix can be used as a method of preservation – many of the recombinant works have lead to digitisation, documentation and migration of content to different formats.

Finally, this work demonstrates in a creative way, how the archive can form something new itself, and as Derrida states, “The archivization produces as much as it records the event.” (Derrida, 1996 p.17). Through atemporality and the space-time distancing of the archival act, we can create new work and enable a multitude of potential works to be formed from the archivization of creative content via an online digital archival assemblage.


Considering the Practice-based Research Methods used in the project

The use of an art project and practice-based methods were central in addressing and testing the proposition of drawing archival elements into creative practice. The Blackaeonium archival system is a remix of archival elements with other elements deemed useful for creative purposes. As this is a creative media research project, evaluation was undertaken from an artistic perspective – using artist participants (myself included) and engaging audience as creative users rather than employing standard web testing methods.

The challenges of combining the archival act and the creative act in a practice-based methodology revealed certain tensions:

The Documentation Process highlighted a need to strike a balance between the desire to make archival documentation a quick and automated process, and the desire to have detailed and specific documentation at a fine granularity.

The Selection Process revealed that the artist must decide what is significant – a subjective decision made at a location in time and space. There will be long-term implications for these decisions, and yet so many of us make them without much thought. The project also revealed that learning what to keep is part of the personal creative journey of the artist. It showed that we need to figure out what our “vital” content is, and then take measures to keep it.

Defining the “Artwork” in the archival assemblage is a plastic notion. It may exist in the system metadata and throughout the content at many levels of granularity. Many curatorial strategies are focused on the “artwork” as central to their documentation systems. I found the archival model of documentation or “records”, “items” or “objects” better related to an artist working in the studio with content that is not necessarily complete or defined as an artwork. The archival documentation allowed for the content, once in the archive, to be easily remixed and reinterpreted as recombinant work – something that would not have been possible with the VMQ model or the DOCAM model for example.

The Extent of Preservation Intervention became an important question for the “artworks”, the metacontent, the documentation and metadata, and the system itself which are all artefacts. No answer was found. Will the system itself require some kind of archival intervention to preserve it, or will it continue to evolve over time through usage, to keep the contents of the assemblage alive and meaningful? It is impossible to know what will happen in future years, but if we are to adhere to a principal of “archival entropy”, it would suggest that keeping the archival assemblage going in some form will be necessary to further test concepts and propositions developed in this research.

Requirements for stakeholders were only able to be investigated to determine the present needs for the artist in the studio. It is impossible to know what the future needs might be for potential stakeholders. One question that this research has raised is: what provisions should be made for future custody of a non-institutional archive if there will be no institutional intervention? Does one rely on trusted individuals – family members for example – to keep the archive going? The issues are the same for any online digital system – in fact, many are asking the same questions about social media applications that contain substantial content by individuals who have died. In the Future-proofing for Artists educational module, one of our class discussions was of this nature – I asked the question “who would you give your passwords to?” – and not many were able to give a definitive answer. For those of us working with complex and variable media such as those used in this research project, the question is a difficult one to answer. I can give my passwords to a number of people, but none of them may know what to do with them. Would they know how to back-up my databases? Could they keep abreast of updates to various code systems? The Atemporal project will be the best testing ground for these questions because as a collaborative group, we will be better able to preserve our content, and better able to understand the system and what is required to keep it going. Perhaps the answer is that a community of practice is required to ensure it continues.

Resistance - How do we combat resistance to archiving by artists? Does it matter? If artists don’t want to keep anything, should that intention be respected?[2] Some artworks are about destruction – for example, Yves Klein’s Immatériel Pictorial Sensibility[3],or Le Catalogue by Yann Le Guenec, which is created with deliberate destruction or erasure in mind:

In Le Catalogue, Yann Le Guenec has developed a public database of documentary images (an archive) of art projects which he created between 1990-1996. Every time an image is viewed, a horizontal line and a vertical line forming a cross are added; the image is then stored for access by another user. The more the images are accessed, the more they are abstracted or — if one is thinking of art conservation — destroyed. (Navas 2003)

This issue relates to McKemmish and Upward’s questions in Chapter 1 for witnessing the cultural moment. Alan Sondheim made the suggestion that the desire to preserve is DNA driven, but in the end, this project puts forward the argument that the artist has the right to keep or destroy according to individual intent. I believe this highlights the need for education about preservation issues so that an informed decision can be made.

The technology - How do artists protect against technical obsolescence without conforming to limited archival standards? This research has identified the necessity to compromise a little – to do what is wanted with any kind of media and technology, while making documentation or “versions” or “remixes” in standard formats that can still provide meaningful information. The question remains regarding what will be standard in the future. The project demonstrates that a practice combining different media types seems the best strategy to future-proof creative content. This means using image and video where possible in different formats, but text descriptions are also crucial. Text encoding such as ASCII, although machine-readable, is most likely the simplest of digital formats that will endure. I have also entertained the option of creating printable content from the Blackaeonium archival system. It is easy to generate PDF or other formats from the archival system to print out sections or the whole archive’s documentation, but even with adequate text descriptions, how will the audio, video and interactive content be understood? This is an area of research for further development.

Interoperability – The research investigated why artists should be concerned with metadata and interoperability. I found that like tiering, allowing interoperability between my systems and other similar systems would improve the chances of keeping our creative content accessible and meaningful over time. I sought ways in which a higher-level semantic layer might provide increased access to the archive without forcing the archival system itself to conform to a particular metadata standard.

Step 3 will be to make different archives, dealing with homogenous topics, to be searchable altogether. […] The resulting scenario would then be to make “islands” of culture which are maintained by the respective responsible persons […] archived “islands” of culture slowly and independently emerging online, and then growing. They’d be made by people who share passion and just want to share valuable information and contribute to the access to important content.(Ludovico 2010)

This search for the best methods for artists continues for me as it continues in the fields of practice examined in Chapter 1. Whilst working out these interoperability issues in the Blackaeonium archival system, I have employed a Wordpress system as the portal for all of the archival systems and projects that form a part of this research. The Wordpress system is being used mainly to create linkages between iterations of the Blackaeonium archival system and other project related sites, and is enabling better external search capabilities through the SEO fields enabled in the “Posts” functionality. I am currently developing the use of two or more types of RDF in the fourth prototype of the Blackaeonium archival system[4].


Significance of the findings

Artists who understand the archival continuum and can apply it to creative practice (to our process, our content and the frameworks we use to present our work) through both archival documentation and the practices of reuse, remix and recombination, will be better able to keep content live and alive in the archival assemblage. This can both maximize access to content at all dimensions of the continuum for artistic creative uses, and enable creative work to be accessible and meaningful to others through space and time.

This research project has put forward the proposition that artworks can be created in a continuum mode – creating works that are “born archival” in that they are created with archival awareness, and an archival presence. The associated awareness of method, process, documentation and reinterpretation of content is important because it builds upon artistic processes used by other artists as demonstrated in Chapter 1, to situate this work within the milieu of contemporary art and new media art practice.

As a result of testing with a number of artists using different strategies, I believe the Blackaeonium archival system, as a framework and structure enabling creative outcomes, demonstrates what is possible when working with the archive and variable media content in a continuum of creative practice. Further, I submit that this project is a link in the chain of developmental research undertaken by artists, archivists and curators that will benefit those working in the field to preserve and make accessible ephemeral and variable media artworks.

The archival documentation, the content in the archival assemblage, and the works produced through using the system are evidence of a collision of archival and creative acts in one art project that not only link the creative and the archival, but also follow current artistic practice-based research methods. The Blackaeonium archival system has become a site where meanings are interrogated and ruptured through creative and archival practices.

Furthermore, I believe that the research has shown, in demonstrated creative project work, supported by research and examples from the fields of practice, that artist involvement in the documentation of our work is more effective than relying on professional documentation alone. I would also claim that artwork that comes with artist-created documentation will be more accessible, meaningful and useful for institutional and non-institutional stakeholders in future.


Limitations of the research

Technical limitations: the system development was limited to working with open source code common to web systems, and 2-dimensional visualisations enabled by HTML/CSS/JavaScript scripting languages, using PHP/MySQL as the underlying server-side scripting for interaction with the database. These limitations were mainly due to the fact that I chose to work with common and ubiquitous open source code, and I was the sole developer of the Blackaeonium archival system prototype with limited time and programming skill in creating a complex database-driven system. The project was not undertaken to develop a piece of software, rather the project was undertaken to create a body of artwork using some kind of archival online framework to address theories and concepts relevant to artists. Despite the technical limitations, it was possible to explore a range of problems and propositions within the scope of the research.

Creative limitations: As a PhD project, involved with "proof-of-concept" through in-depth experience, only a small number of artists were invited to participate in the project. This will be able to be expanded as a "next step" at the completion of this initial research. Due to the multidisciplinary nature of the research, the project was divided between technical and creative endeavours. The substantial body of creative work that was developed and exhibited in online and physical locations must also include the technical, methodological aspects of the archival system and processes. The project must be understood as a creative project that meshes the artistic with the archival as a proof of concept for a model of creative practice.


Future Developments

The Blackaeonium archival system will continue to be developed to improve interfaces, visualisations of the contents and workflow processes for artists using the system. These developments are underway and involve using HTML5, CSS3, jQuery and RDF scripting to redevelop the fourth prototype.

Creative works will be continuously developed and documented in the Blackaeonium archival system and the Atemporal archival system. Individual and collaborative projects will continue, and the outcomes will continue to be tiered, exhibited, published and audience members will continue to be invited to engage with the archival assemblages in various ways.

Educational modules will continue development to further the aims of this research project in empowering artists to take control of their own archival and preservation strategies. The pilot module used with Digital Media students from the School of Creative Industries at Victoria University at the start of 2012, will be rolled out to incorporate Visual Art and Creative Industries students from the same School in the second half of 2012.

Education for artists in art schools and universities could consider the inclusion of preservation issues as a unit of study. There are some courses such as the new online Digital Curation certificate course at the University of Maine, USA (University of Maine 2012), which can accept artists into the course to study aspects of preservation, although generally, preservation studies seem only to exist as a part of curatorial studies, or related to art history, curation, archives and records management. The students of these course areas are not necessarily art students, creative media students, or digital media arts students. Just as units of study exist in university courses to prepare artists for dealing with business and commercial issues, or learning how to research and use different materials in a creative practice, preservation strategy should be part of an artist’s education.

If we as artists have knowledge of the current best practices for preservation strategies and how to go about them, we can choose to implement strategies suitable for our own work. Some will still choose to forget or destroy creative content: that’s the rationale for some artworks – to eradicate the trace. The important factor is that the choice is in the artist’s control.


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[1] Hauntology being Derrida’s term – a pun on the word ‘ontology’ and a neologism that “uncovers the space between Being and Nothingness” (Fisher 2006).

[2] This research did not include the scope to investigate the tensions that arise when an artwork becomes a valuable commodity, and the stakes for preservation are raised, but there are issues such as those discussed in the work of artists such as Nam June Paik where the artist cannot be consulted about their intentions for work of a variable nature that deteriorates over time. These issues are similar in that the Institution has a stake in preserving the work and presenting it to an audience, and these requirements must be balanced with the ethics of respecting the artist’s intentions.

[3] The Immatériel Pictorial Sensibility exhibition was held in an empty gallery in Paris in 1957. People purchased some of this void, this immatériel pictorial sensibility from Klein by giving him a quantity of gold leaf. For their gold, he gave them a certificate (as evidence of purchase), which was then burned, and he threw half the gold into the river. Ostensibly there was no trace of the “artwork” – was it the void? The immatériel pictorial sensibility? Was it the performance of the transaction of gold and certificate? Was it the burning and destruction, eradicating the trace? Klein kept some of the gold (we artists have to make a living), and interestingly, we know about this work today because it was somehow documented and written about. Even when the artist attempts to leave no trace, traces exist everywhere. It is these traces that may be documented for even the most complex and variable contemporary artworks. Just knowing that they existed in space and time may be all that we need in some cases.

[4] I have contacted Jon Ippolito (and others) about implementing an API to allow connection to the Metaserver from the Blackaeonium archival system




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created 01/12/2011
last modified 30/07/2012