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The Many Uses of Rhizome’s New Social Media Preservation Tool

Screenshot of Amalia Ulman's Instagram project "Excellences & Perfections" as preserved on Colloq
Screenshot of Amalia Ulman’s Instagram project “Excellences & Perfections” as preserved on Colloq (screenshot via Colloq)

How do you capture and preserve the experience of a new media artwork created on Twitter in 2010? How do you re-create the design and feel of Twitter’s interface at that time, and populate that interface with users’ contemporaneous profile photos? These are the types of questions that New York’s digital art nonprofit Rhizome is trying to answer in the development of Colloq, a new conservation tool that will help artists preserve social media projects not only by archiving them, but by replicating the exact look and layout of the sites used, and the interactions with other users.

Though Colloq could be invaluable to artists who use social media in their work — not to mention social media users in general — its development was spurred by very practical concerns.

The idea for Colloq came “not so much [from] a particular project, but rather the realization that Rhizome will be unable to accession new, contemporary Internet art if we don’t rethink archival practices,” Rhizome’s digital conservator Dragan Espenschied told Hyperallergic. “Our archive, the Artbase, was conceptualized at a time when artists would create and host their own software, so it is very much based on the assumption that there are objects the artist created and hands over.” The situation now is different.

“Today many artists working on the net use all kinds of complex services, that might be Google Maps or social media widgets or embedded videos, some have moved their appearance completely into social networks,” Espenschied said. “Such projects cannot be collected as a set of files that can simply be served up on the web. With Colloq we will be able to conserve many of those. I certainly hope that the possibility to archive such activities will give artists working on the net a better position and control over their work.”

That’s assuming artists using social media want control over their social media work in the first place.

“It’s great for people to have a tool to archive a version of a project or performance, much like photos did for Vito Acconci, Tehching Hsieh, or Marina Abramović, and I commend the effort. For the most part I have little interest in revisiting the majority of my old projects as they were meant to be experienced in real time, and, well, they’re in the past,” says Man Bartlett, an artist who has done a number of projects using Twitter and other social media platforms. “Seeing a version of time suspended isn’t nearly as interesting to me, no matter how it’s archived. At times throughout my career I’ve been pretty antagonistic about archival processes and digital nostalgia in general.”

In many cases, what may have attracted artists to using social media is precisely the impossibility of archiving, preserving, and collecting such works.

“It’s completely intangible, which is also what has drawn me to it as a platform for creative production,” Bartlett added. “All of that said, I’ve recently been seeing an increased interest from other folks about that body of work, so I’ve slowly been considering ways to bring back some version of an archive that doesn’t feel disingenuous. Colloq may end up being one interesting way to do this.”

Nevertheless, the tool’s potential applications for artists and other art professionals — not to mention the general public — are innumerable. For one, Colloq could prove invaluable for museums trying to archive their social media initiatives and gauge the success of their online engagement projects.

“Colloq is a really exciting development for us and would have helped enormously on our 1stfans membership project,” said Shelley Bernstein, the Brooklyn Museum’s vice director of digital engagement and technology. “During 1stfans, we had artists using a dedicated Twitter feed for monthly projects which were available to members. When we decided to close that program, we had no easy way to archive the artist’s work on that feed. We had to use Twitter’s API [Application Programming Interface] to create an archive manually and were lucky to have web developers on staff who could accomplish this task. Even though the resulting archive represents each project well enough, it does not go so far as to replicate the user interaction at its fullest.”

For now, Colloq is still in its early stages of development — helped along by outside developer Ilya Kreymer and a recent $35,000 Knight Foundation grant— and for Espenschied and his team it is constantly raising new questions and challenges.

“We are in contact with folklorists, sociologists, web communities, of course artists and looking for more to learn about what they might want to do with such a tool,” he said. “The ethical implications of what it means to capture behind the login is also something we are researching.”

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