Significance & Authenticity: a Briefing

As an Ancient History graduate, significance and authenticity of source information characterised my university education. Transferring these principles to digital objects in an archival situation is a challenge I look forward to learning more about and embracing. Therefore I set off to Tate Britain on a cold Friday morning excited to explore the Digital Preservation Coalition’s briefing: Significance & Authenticity. Here are some of my reflections.

A dictionary definition is not enough

The morning started with a stimulating discussion led by Sharon McMeekin (DPC), on the definitions of these two concepts within the field of Digital Archives and the context of the varying institutions the delegates were from. Several key points were made, and further questions generated:

Authenticity

  • Authenticity clearly carries with it evidential value; if something is not what it purports to be then how can it (claim to) be authentic?
  • Chains of custody and tracking accidental/intended changes are extremely relevant to maintaining authenticity
  • Further measures such as increasing metadata fields – does this ensure authenticity?

For an archival record to retain authenticity there must be record of the original creation or experience of the digital object; otherwise we are looking at data without context. This also has a bearing on how significant an archival record is. A suggestion was also made that perhaps as a sector too much over-emphasis is placed on integrity checking procedures. Questions surfaced such as: is the digital preservation community too reliant on it? And in turn, is this practical process approach to ensuring authenticity too simplistic?

Significance

  • Records are not just static evidence, they are also for appreciation, education and to use
  • Should the users and re-users (the designated community) be considered more extensively when deciding the significance of a digital object?
  • Emulation as a digital preservation action prioritises the experience of using the data: is this the way to go regarding maintaining both the significant properties together with the authenticity?

There was no doubt left in my mind that the two principles are inextricably linked. However, not only are they increasingly subjective for both the record keeper and the end user, they must be distinguished from one another. For example, if a digital object can be interpreted as both a game and a book, yet the object was created and marketed as a book, does this make it any less significant or authentic? Or is the dispute part of what makes the object significant; the creation, characterisation and presentation of data in digital form is reflective of society today and what researchers may (or may not be) interested in in the future? We do not know and, as a fellow delegate reminded, cannot prejudice future research needs.

Building on the open mindedness that the  discussion encouraged, we were then fortunate enough to hear and learn from practitioners of differing backgrounds regarding how they ensure significance and authenticity of their collections. One particular example had me contemplating all weekend.

Significance & Authenticity of Digital Art by Patricia Falcao & Tom Ensom (Tate)

Patricia and Tom explained that they work with time-based media art and its creators. Working (mostly) with living artists ensures a short chain of provenance, however the nature of the digital art means that applying authenticity and significance is in no way straightforward. A principle which immediately affects the criteria of significance is the fact that it is very important that the Tate can exhibit the works, illustrating that differences in organisations will of course have a bearing on how significant a record is.

One example Tom analysed was the software based Brutalism: Stereo Reality Environment 3 by Peruvian artist Jose Carlos Martinat Mendoza:

Brutalism: Stereo Reality Environment 3 2007 Jose Carlos Martinat Mendoza born 1974 Presented by Eduardo Leme 2007, accessioned 2011 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T13251

The artwork comprises of a range of components: high speed printers, paper rolls,  a web search program and accompanying hardware, movement sensors and a model replica of the Peruvian government building ‘El Petagonito’ which is a symbol of brutalist architecture. The computer is programmed to search the web for references to ‘Brutalism’ and the different extracts of information it gathers are printed from mounted printers on the sculpture, left to fall to the floor around the replica.

Tom explained that retaining authenticity of the digital art was very much a case of the commitment to represent the artists work together with the arrangement and intention. One method of ensuring this is the transfer of a document from the creator called ‘Installation Parameters’. For this particular example, it contained details such as paper type and cabling needs. It also contained display specifications such as the hardware being  a very visible element of the art work.

Further documentation is created and stored to preserve the original authenticity and thus unique significance of the artwork and the integrity of its ‘performance’.  Provenance information such as diagrams, process metadata and the original source code is stored separately to the work itself. However, Tom acknowledged there is no doubt the work will need to change and in turn will be reinterpreted. Interestingly, the point was made that the text itself on the paper itself is time sensitive; live search results related to Brutalism will evolve and change.

Looking ahead, what will happen when the hardware fails? And even, what will happen when nobody uses printers anymore? Stockpiling is only a short term plan for maintaining authenticity and significance. Furthermore, even if hardware can be guaranteed then the program software itself generates different issues. Software emulation, code-change tracking systems and a binary analysis are all to be explored as a means to enable authenticity but there will always be a risk and need for alternative solutions.

Would these changes reduce the authenticity or significance? I believe authenticity is associated with intention and so perhaps if changes are communicated to the user with justifications this could be one way of maintaining this principle. Significance, on the other hand, is more tricky. Without the significant and notable properties of the work, is significance automatically lost?

This case study reinforced that there is much to explore and consider when approaching the principles of authenticity and significance of digital objects. To conclude, Tom and Patricia reinforced that within the artistic context, decisions around authenticity and significance are made through collaborative dialogues with the artist/creator which does indeed provide direction.

Workshop

After 3 more talks and a panel session the briefing ended with a workshop requiring us to evaluate the significance and authenticity of a digital object provided. As a trainee digital archivist I can be guilty of shying away from group discussions/exercises within the community of practice, so I was really pleased to jump in and contribute during the group workshop exercise.

Thank you to the DPC and all involved for a brilliant day.

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