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Sonic Arts Research Archive
The Sonic Arts Research Archive is part of Simon Waters' Applied Research in Aesthetics in the Digital Arts (ARiADA) project which received AHRB funding in 1999. It attempts to document current practice of artists using new media - particularly in the sonic arts - in Britain. Although not explicitly an e-Science project, SARA can benefit from some of the ideas current in e-Science, particularly those regarding digitisation of multimedia content and management of data collections.
This page has been submitted by Richard Lewis who is a Ph.D student in Music at the UEA and has worked on the SARA project as database designer, Web programmer and archivist. He also attended the National e-Science Institute-hosted conference Digital Representations of Performing Arts in July 2007 and so outlined below are some of his responses to the ideas raised at this event as they may pertain to past and future work on SARA.
The Textual Bias
In her keynote paper, Susan Melrose (Middlesex) makes the point that archives are often considered things to be read; text is privileged at the expense of, crucially in this context, more performance-relevant content such as audio and images. SARA reflects this textual bias. Its main design concerns have been around the database schema used to store meta-data and its Web presentation used to convey that meta-data. Although this meta-data is "meta" in that it describes media objects, the nature, availability and sometimes even presence of these items has been a secondary concern. And although archival projects often privilege meta-data, Melrose also makes the point that very few archives ever make the methods or schema of this meta-data available. It would be very feasible for SARA to publish its database schema allowing users some insight into the structure of the data while using the archive.
Rick Rinehart (UC Berkeley), in his paper on the Media Art Notation System, takes up the issues around the nature of what is and can be stored as media objects. He asks the pertinent question, "is the art in the computer?" or, the case of SARA, "is the music in the recording?" He makes a case for longevity of encoding of digital art by storing scores rather than instantiations. Scores, in this context he argues, are generally computer code used to create digital art works. SARA makes little provision for storing this type of media, but rather stores performance instantiations in the form of digital images and digital audio - often using the MP3 encoding method which raises serious concerns for longevity. It does, however, also store a number of recordings on CD and DAT but these are problematic in their availability. SARA also stores a small number of sound diffusion sketches and it seems quite a feasible objective to attempt to archive score-like computer code.
In discussing what aspects of a performative digital art work should be stored, Rinehart proposes addressing the views of the artist, encouraging negotiation between the artist and the archivist. Similarly, Melrose argues that many performers are often removed from the digital realm occupied by archivists. SARA (and other digital art archive projects such as those which are of concern to Rinehart) is an interesting case in that the practitioners whose work it captures are working with what Rinehart calls "born-digital" objects. However, although they are often quite technically aware, their bias is more usually towards art and performance technology and different to the technological biases of the archivist. Rinehart stresses that the Media Art Notation System is for archivists, not for artists. Similarly, SARA currently (and maybe in the future) will be expanded by archivists with archival biases, rather than by artists. It did, however, in its early stages foster a curatorship scheme in which artists were invited to select and archive content.
Similar to Rinehart's discussion of capturing score-like data, Paul Clarke (Dartington) argues for a view of archival material which is more dynamic and allows for the possibility of using it as a resource for future performance work. SARA is well placed to implement this idea in that much of its content is produced as a result of practice-led research and it is housed in an institution whose faculty would be biased towards this kind of work, and which has the resources and context to carry it out. However, it currently lacks the provision of a data capture method which would allow such recycling of material.
The Institutional Bias
SARA is very much a product of UEA. The majority of the data it holds (particularly records of events) are concerning UEA artists and works. This reflects a wider issue with archival projects, especially those with loosely defined remits: the processes and consequences of selecting material for archiving. What should the archivist include? And what should be left out? Institutional biases plays a key role in this process. Sally Jane Norman (Newcastle) argued that our "historical apparatus", our references are built upon what we chose to document in the past and warned against succumbing to the "omniscience myth", the archive as an authority.
Norman, along with Rinehart and Melrose, discussed the idea of not privileging the account given by the archive of works and performances. Rinehart described an accounts mechanism as part of the Media Art Notation System which takes the postmodern view of works as texts with different readings and doesn't privilege any reading as authoritative. He argued against implicitly fixing the work's status at the point of archiving and suggested that archives should make explicit their own role in the history of the works they document. Norman and Melrose both highlighted the importance of the (often neglected) view-point of the spectator, Melrose fitting this into her concept of "set ups". Similarly, Clarke described being able to store users' routes through the archive and making such information available as another resource. SARA makes no provision for differing accounts of works or performances and assumes a kind of authority. The solution to this problem is two-fold: first the database schema should be altered to allow for capturing such information; and second (but more difficult) alternate views of works need to be captured.
Paul Stapleton (SARC, Belfast) also discussed the "cultural authority" of the archive in the context of the how the archived account of a work may influence future views of that work or performance. He demonstrated video recordings in which the camera operator, through constantly changing perspectives, plays a clear role in interpreting the performance. To a lesser extent, SARA's use of MP3 encoding affects the perception of future archive users of the works archived; as does the decision (with electronic music) whether to make an ambient recording (with microphones) or a source recording (capturing the final mix of digital audio before it is sent to the speakers). SARA rarely makes these distinctions explicit.
Stapleton's project, LiveArchives.org, highlights one of the main current shortcomings of SARA. SARA is, as mentioned above, a project rooted in its host institution. All of the selection and archiving work is carried out at UEA by a very small number of people. Except through correspondence with the project's staff, outside users can have no influence on the content of the archive. LiveArchives.org, on the other hand, has adopted some ideas prevalent in contemporary online social construction of knowledge such as user submissions and tagging (the assigning of categorising words or phrases to items in the archive by the users). At times when no one at UEA is working on SARA, the archive cannot grow at all; this is problematic for a project whose remit is to document "current practice".
Clarke's ideas around practice-led research discussed above are also relevant here in that they attempt to break down the institutional authority of the archive. He argues that archived documents should be "critically reflexive" allowing the archive to grow through reactive means as well as by conventional submission. Implementation of these ideas is as much a question of technology as it is of archiving practice; as mentioned above, it requires a media representation technique (such as Rinehart's score-like representations) which allows such interactive re-use of material.
Stapleton also discussed the importance of performance documentation in the academy and noted the trend that doctoral level researchers are permitted to include performance as part of their research work while researchers in later stages of their careers are rarely given this opportunity, only written documentation is acceptable. SARA reflects this in that a considerable portion of its content is evidence of practice by doctoral students from UEA, but it does also include work by research fellows and the UEA faculty.
Perhaps the overriding impression from the preceding discussion is the current dichotomy between static, insular archival practice and dynamic, democratic archival practice. It will be necessary to investigate the benefits and costs to SARA of implementing a more user-centric archival paradigm and interesting to explore some of the technologies which may enable such practices.