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Lizzie Muller

Towards an oral history of new media art

How to create an oral history of new media art

The purpose of this section is not to try to provide a “How To” for oral history in general. There are numerous resources addressing good practice in the field, some of which appear in the reference list for those who would like further information of this sort. The aim here is to examine particular issues that relate to documenting the audience’s experience of new media artworks, which have arisen through my own practical attempt to document David Rokeby’s work The Giver of Names. The account concentrates on the creation of records, including the rationale, methods and challenges for recording experiences, and discusses briefly the curation of records, including how to organise them, preserve them and make them available.

Case study: The Giver of Names (1991-) by David Rokeby

The following discussion of methods and issues for capturing and curating experiential documentation is based on the case study of the artwork The Giver of Names (1991-) by David Rokeby as shown at the exhibition e-art: New Technologies and Contemporary Art at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, September – December 2007. The Giver of Names is an interactive installation first developed in 1991. Since then it has undergone many iterative developments, and Rokeby now considers it to have reached its “sweet spot,” (5) where further major changes are very unlikely.

At this point, the work consists of a pedestal with a small projection screen suspended above it on one side of the room, while on the other side of the room sits a large computer monitor with a camera mounted beneath it pointed directly at the top of the pedestal. On the floor between these two modules is a pile of colourful objects, mainly consisting of toys. David Rokeby intends that visitors place one of the objects from the floor onto the plinth. The camera captures an image of the object, which it displays on the projection screen above the plinth, so that the real object and its image are seen next to one another. The screen then shows the way in which the computer breaks down this image into components. From an extensive language database, the computer generates a series of descriptions of the image, which appear on the screen as text and are spoken by the computer. Meanwhile, the monitor shows a visual representation of the way in which the computer searches the database and constructs the description of the image.

I worked with Caitlin Jones to create a documentary collection for The Giver of Names. Our collection includes an interview with David Rokeby, interviews with audience participants and museum attendants, as well as detailed technical documentation of the work, photographs and bibliographic references. Our approach was to emphasise the powerful dialogue between the “ideal” notion and the “real” existence of the artwork, which allowed us to articulate the relationship of experiential material to the broader archival context (Jones and Muller 2008).

During the course of the exhibition, I interviewed audience members of all ages and backgrounds who represented a variety of professions and many levels of experience with art and technology. Short extracts of some of the interview transcripts are included below to illustrate the nature of the material gleaned using different recording methods. The full set of interviews as well as contextual information on the artwork and exhibition can be accessed online in the Documentary Collection.

The role of the researcher

Created documentation is controversial in some quarters of the archivist community, where its appropriateness, validity and reliability are questioned. Created materials are considered by some to have diminished status among other forms of historical record, because they necessarily reflect the personal viewpoints of both the archivist and the subject (see Ellis 1993 for a discussion of the controversy surrounding created documentation). It is not the place here to enter too deeply into this debate, as this paper clearly contributes to an established field of practice where the usefulness of creating documentation is accepted. However, it is helpful to emphasise two strategies that Ellis proposes to counter these objections. The first is to make created materials available in conjunction with a variety of other kinds of materials wherever possible. This allows for a form of triangulation in which different types of material can validate and problematise one another. The second is to emphasise the unique value of the proactive, self conscious way in which created documentation is produced. Created documentation implies a proactive role for the archivist/researcher as initiator or creator—and not merely as custodian. Materials are produced self-consciously for an array of future purposes and with an awareness of current practice. Oral history, then, is produced by concerned individuals who see a gap in the historical record and aim to fill it. The rigour of this practice is generated through an emphasis on clarity of motives and methods and a reflexive and critical appraisal of one’s own role in the process. These two strategies will have an important bearing on the following section, which discusses how to create an oral history of new media art.

Capturing experience

There are already many oral history projects that relate to art, but these focus mainly on the lives and accounts of important or powerful figures in art history. The Archives of American Art Oral History Program, for example, which began in 1958, documents the history of the visual arts in the United States, primarily through interviews with artists, historians, dealers and critics. I have not found any archives that feature interviews with non-professional audience members. Such interviews present particular challenges of procedure, ethics and technique. For example, the subjects are unknown to the interviewer in advance and have greatly varying levels of experience with art, to which the interviewer must be able to adapt.

Capturing the experience of the audience is difficult and controversial. There are various objections even to the notion that it can be done, such as the inseparability of “an” experience, from an individual’s past or future memories, or the ineffability of experience in language. This is not the place to take on the varied objections in detail, but it is important here to acknowledge that such objections exist and to counter them with two crucial points. Firstly, having identified the central importance of experience in understanding new media art and the existing gap in the documentary record, the worst thing we can do is to ignore the problem. While attempts to capture experience may provoke objections, it is necessary to make the attempt and open up the discussion. Secondly, alongside oral history, there are many other disciplines and fields of research, such as anthropology, sociology and psychology, which offer useful methods and practices for recording experience.

Within these many disciplines are numerous different ways in which accounts of experience may be gathered, and an oral history of new media art would need to be as flexible as possible in terms of the kinds of information it could incorporate. For example, a researcher may choose to conduct a retrospective or longitudinal approach in which someone’s account of their experience of an artwork is recorded several years after it has occurred or perhaps on several different occasions over a period of time.

Following Ellis’s (1993) insistence on the accountability of the researcher, I argue that it is fundamental for each researcher to identify a definition of experience that they are comfortable with and to rigorously and reflexively develop recording methods that capture their notion of experience as fully as possible. My own research has been influenced by phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty and pragmatist John Dewey. As such, my notion of experience emphasises its embodied and situated nature and the entwining of its pre-reflective and reflective aspects. I select and develop methods that capture the immediate impressions of visitors and record in as much detail as possible the way in which each particular experience of an artwork unfolds in place and time. (6) A selection of these methods is described below to illustrate some of the pros and cons of different techniques and to open up some of the theoretical and practical considerations that arise when such work is undertaken.

Methods for creating experiential records

During my residency at the Daniel Langlois Foundation, I developed three methods for recording experience based on my previous qualitative research with audiences (Muller et al 2006a and Muller et al 2006b). The video-cued recall interview was adapted from the fields of video-based ethnography and design research (see Costello et al 2004). The semi-structured interview and exit interviews are based on interviewing strategies in the field of qualitative social research (see Kvale 1996 and Richards 2005). The exit interview also borrows from a journalistic style, the limitations of which are described in more detail below, but it is worth noting that the skills and techniques of broadcast journalism and production have much to offer in the creation of an oral history of new media art. To adapt these three methods for the creation of permanent public records rather than for private qualitative research material, I incorporated elements of good practice from oral history interviewing techniques (see Reimer 1984, p1), which focus on the intelligibility of the interview for future listeners rather than just its intelligibility to the researcher.

1) Video-cued recall

With this method, participants (either general audience members or invited participants) are video taped while they experience the artwork. They are then immediately taken to a separate room, where they are shown the video and asked to simultaneously describe their experience in as much detail as possible. The final record is the primary video with the report as a voice over. Through the combination of video and verbal material, this method records individual experiences in detail, particularly revealing how each experience unfolds in time and relating motivations and reactions to movement in the space. The process usually takes approximately 45 minutes, depending on how long the participant spends with the artwork.

Video-cued recall is difficult and time consuming to execute. Because of the time it takes and the need to conduct interviews in a separate room, it is hard although not impossible to attract general visitors to participate in this process. An alternative is to invite participants specifically to come and take part in the research, which will necessarily create a more artificial experience. The pros and cons of “manufacturing experiences” in this way are discussed in the next section. Capturing video-cued recall records is labour intensive and technically challenging; it involves considerable equipment and resources and at least two people (interviewer and camera operator). The records also require some post-production to synch the verbal and visual aspects.

The payoff for all of this hard work is the compelling “self contained” documentation, which tells the story of the participant’s experience in great detail. Participants in video-cued recall reports tend to reveal a great deal of detail about the motivations behind their actions. In the eight interviews I gathered for The Giver of Names, the participants revealed highly personal thoughts, including the more negative or challenging aspects of the experience. This short extract from the video-cued report by Mary Beth la Violette, for example, shows how the technique reveals her confusion before she is aware of how to interact with the work;
Mary Beth: I can see how the picture is changing, but I'm not sure if the picture is changing in relation to my positioning — where I'm standing — or (if) the viewer is not a part of this at all. [laughter]

I wondered at this point if the screen behind me with the text was trying to describe what was on this screen here... I wondered about that...

[Lizzie Muller demonstrates changing the objects on the podium and Mary Beth experiments; placing a small plush red mouse on the podium with other soft toys]

Mary Beth: ...I have a son who's 17 years old who still has all these kinds of kids’ toys — toddler toys — and while I was picking through things in the pile I was thinking to myself: “I wonder when Duncan is going to get his act together to have a garage sale so we can get rid of some of this stuff that's in our attic.”
Mary Beth’s subsequent description of the way the toys remind her of her son demonstrates the particularly intimate and engaging material that can be captured through video-cued recall. Several of the video-cued recall reports revealed the participant’s intense personal and emotional reactions to the objects in The Giver of Names — a detail that was not so evident in the records gained from other methods of capture.

2) Semi-structured interviews

Semi-structured interviews take place in the installation space and allow a social and naturalistic form of data gathering with fairly low barriers to participation. The method is based on dialogue and allows the interviewer to probe specific areas of interest while at the same time facilitating a conversation through which new and unexpected aspects of the experience can emerge. It has the double benefit of supporting and enriching the participant’s experience by answering their questions about the artwork. The loose structure provides a degree of consistency between participants’ descriptions of their experiences, which is helpful in organising, analysing, and categorising the reports. The structure that I use to guide my interviews begins by focusing on the description of the participant’s perceptual experience and moves through their conceptual reflections to their evaluative feedback.

The final record includes an audio or video file of the interview and ideally a transcript. The process varies in time but is usually less than 20 minutes. This method is technically fairly simple, and it is relatively easy to persuade audience members to participate.

One of the major problems of semi-structured interviews is that a video camera in the installation space can be intimidating for participants. Awareness of the camera can impact the natural course of their experience and deter participants from giving an interview. I had considerably more success using a digital voice recorder, which allowed me to wait unobtrusively in the installation area. I found this way of working very efficient, allowing me to record several interviews in one day. These audio interviews are often candid and intimate, but without a visual dimension they may be difficult for listeners to understand. To be intelligible to future researchers, such records require considerable accompanying visual documentation.

The following extract from an interview with Julie-Ann, a French speaker, gives a flavour of the kind of material gleaned by this method and shows how the interviewer can clarify statements made by the interviewee in order to more clearly understand their experience;
Julie-Ann: I was trying to see the words. I thought it was like an enigma, to try to find the good object to put there. So I was trying to understand the link between the words and the objects to see if there was an enigma to find …the right answer.

Lizzie Muller: So you thought the computer was describing an object and you had to find that object in the pile?

Julie-Ann: Exactly.
This extract also shows how semi-structured interviews can reveal the “misunderstandings” or different understandings that lie behind a participant’s actions, providing a richer insight into their experience than observation alone.

3) Exit interview

The exit interview is a version of the semi-structured interview, but it records the participant’s experience of the whole exhibition rather than just one artwork; it takes place, as the name implies, as the participant leaves the exhibition. These interviews are necessarily wide ranging and shallow rather than deep and detailed. They focus more on the reflective and evaluative aspects of a participant’s experience rather than on the pre-reflective perceptual unfolding of experience and action. The script I developed for this style of interview covers broad areas, such as the participant’s motivation for coming to the exhibition, their expectations, the reasons why they liked or disliked certain artworks, and their overall thoughts about museums, art and the themes of the exhibition. As with the semi-structured interviews, the social and opportunistic nature of the method makes it fairly easy to persuade visitors to participate. As I was stationed (with the camera operator) outside the exit of the exhibition, the video camera did not have a negative effect on how the participant’s actual experience unfolded. Compared to the video-cued recall and semi-structured interviews, the exit interviews appear general and lacking in specific detail. However, as an edited compilation, they provide an interesting and diverse overview of people’s experience of the exhibition. What they lack in depth and detail they make up for in offering a broad and lively picture of the general response to an exhibition, as this quote from the interview with Lorelei Robins demonstrates:
Lorelei: I was quite fascinated by (the whole exhibition)... I always feel there's room for me to learn and appreciate a different kind of art... I do believe that we have to explore all areas of human experience, and especially in this world where things go so fast….we have to take time to explore our minds, and our art and our abilities.
Such broad and evaluative reports provide interesting contextual information, revealing a great deal about the general audience’s understanding and appreciation of new media art as a new form of practice. Such impressionistic information may prove invaluable to future researchers by offering real-life viewpoints on the position of new media art in the general public consciousness.

Issues and considerations

1) Technical considerations

Creating audiovisual documentation of digital installations is notoriously difficult because of the prevalence of darkness, screens and projections. Often the local conditions of an artwork (e.g. the ambient lighting) will need to be altered in order to create good photographic or video documentation. When documenting audience interactions, this kind of alteration is impossible, as it will affect the participant’s experience of the work. This is particularly problematic for video-cued recall, where the quality needs to be good enough to prompt the participant’s memory of their experience and produce a watchable documentary record. There is no magic solution to these problems, and my own experience suggests that a combination of the best camera available with maximum manual control (to avoid particular problems like auto-focus), a skilled camera operator, and considerable tweaking during post-production achieves reasonable results.

On the other hand, it is important to remember that in recording audience experience, the verbal report of the participant is the most important information. My technical priority was always to ensure that the sound quality was as good as possible. Fortunately, with good microphones and the availability of portable digital voice recorders, this was very achievable with sufficient planning and consideration.

From a storage perspective, there is considerable existing guidance in the oral history literature regarding the archival stability of different digital recording formats (Mackay 2007), which I will not repeat here. Suffice to say that in my experience, whatever format is chosen, maintaining detailed logs of the location of data and backing up records as soon as possible are key tasks in the job of keeping recorded material safe and secure.

2) Ethics, consent, copyright

The ethical and legal status of an experiential record is vital if it is to be made available to future researchers. This is an area that features strongly in the oral history literature, where it is dealt with in some detail (see, for example, Mackay 2007). The main points relate to the need for informed consent and the transfer of copyright from participant to researcher. In my own work, the need to complete the proper paperwork was offset by the need to persuade general visitors to participate in an interview. Long, complex and intimidating forms could put off potential participants. Using a model template (Mackay 2007), I created the shortest possible consent form I could that covered the key legal requirements. Most visitors who had agreed to an interview were willing to look at the form, and none of those who read it were unhappy with its content.

3) Manufacturing experiences

The techniques I use to record audience experiences all, to a greater or lesser degree, affect those experiences. The most profound effect comes from the video-cued recall technique, in which people are aware, throughout their experience, that they are being recorded. Some participants report that they are conscious of the presence of the video camera during the experience, while others say they are able to ignore it. Whether conscious of the camera or not, all participants spend longer and try harder to engage with the artwork than the average general visitor. Participants in the video-cued recall are often volunteers who have come to the museum specifically to take part in the research, so their motivation and interest in the work is greater than many of the general visitors. I also offered assistance to the participants during their experience to ensure that I could record an interesting report (although I would wait until I was asked for help, or, if they were struggling, I would allow the participant to thoroughly explore the work alone before intervening). While the experiences of the video-cued recall participants are real—in that they are the unique and actual encounter between person and artwork—they are also manufactured for documentary purposes.

In my opinion, this does not detract from their usefulness. They represent very thorough encounters with the artwork, which is a useful thing to document as long as it is placed in the context of the normal range of experiences (more on this in the following section). In my experience, even these high-quality experiences were significantly different to any idealised description of the work, containing numerous idiosyncrasies, difficulties and negative aspects. Nevertheless, it is important to be clear about the effect of the documentation process on the experience by clearly noting, for example, how the participant came to experience the work (were they a volunteer or a normal passer-by?), how much they knew about the artwork before they came, and how much the researcher assisted them. All of these aspects are part of the requirement for the researcher to be self-reflexive, which Ellis (1993) describes in relation to the rigour of oral history.

4) Capturing the range of experiences

An important challenge in creating experiential documentation is to record negative experiences. During the course of my case study, I realised that I was selecting participants who had clearly had a satisfying, or at least reasonably long interaction with the work. As I observed the general interaction of the audience with the work, it was clear that a large number of visitors had very minimal engagement with the installation; some walked straight through without even pausing, while others looked briefly and moved on. My interviews were only recording the small proportion of high-quality interactions with the work.

On the one hand, this selectivity is reasonable; to be of interest to future researchers, records need to have enough quality content to make them worth listening to, and visitors who, perhaps because they are hurried or tired, do not choose to give the installation a great deal of attention will not be able to provide an interesting report of their experience of the work. On the other hand, in order for the documentation not to be misleading, it is necessary to place the high-quality experiences in the context of the larger proportion of less attentive encounters. The question is how to record interestingly the experience of the large number of participants who did not engage with the artwork.

My solution was to conduct interviews with the professional gallery attendants who watch over the artwork every day. The attendants describe their own perception of the general behaviour of the crowd and provide something of a contextual overview of the audience told from their own perspective. Capturing the experiences of the attendants therefore provides an interesting source of more general information.

5) How many experiences to record?

The aim of creating an oral record of an audience’s experiences of any particular artwork is not (and could never be) to create a complete record of the different ways in which an artwork manifests itself. Each person’s experience is at once necessarily partial—only showing some of the many aspects of an artwork—and complete in itself. Just one real experience is enough to open up the field of possibilities that exists in an artwork and add a spark of life to its documentation. The kind of records of experience that would form an oral history are qualitative rather than quantitative in nature and therefore do not lend themselves to statistical uses.

On the other hand, comparisons between different people’s experiences can be very illuminating, and recording a variety of different types of experiences adds richness to a collection. My own approach in The Giver of Names case study was to try to create a multi-layered portrait of the work as it existed in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. I tried to imagine myself as a reporter or documentary film maker and to ask: what different kinds of experience might provide interesting and provocative insights into the nature of this work? There were some clear possibilities for enriching the kind of portrait I could create through the types of participants I selected, such as a balance between the sexes, a variety of ages, and a range of expertise and interests.

Audience experience records are time consuming to both produce and listen to, so the desire for more and more material needs to be balanced with what is reasonable and useful to produce. In my own previous research, I have found that as few as three audience interviews can demonstrate a great variety of detailed and unexpected experiential aspects (see Costello et al 2005).

Preservation and access

Creating an oral history of new media art is a process of creating documentation in order to fill an important gap in the historical record. This offers an opportunity and responsibility to consider how each experiential record will be kept and used. A key aspect of preservation and access is the type of media used for recording. The instability and rapid obsolescence of digital formats make this a much researched and debated issue as well as being far from a certain science. (7) But preservation and access are as much concerned with the intelligibility of a record as with its materiality. To preserve a record in any useful way, one must ensure that future researchers understand the context and significance of the work at the moment that it is created (as well as the way this significance changes over time). This has implications for the specific information that is collected and stored alongside each interview and the mechanisms by which each record and collection of experiential records relates to other collections and sources of information.

Firstly, the methods, details and particular circumstances surrounding each interview need to be meticulously documented and presented as an integral part of the record’s existence. This contextual information can be used in cataloguing and for online search processes that provide access to the records in the future. In my own case study, this information included details about the subject (name, age, occupation), the method used to conduct the interview, comments about the interview conditions, as well as a short description and a transcript excerpt to facilitate access for future users.

Established cataloguing and archival standards and practices allow experiential records to mesh with existing bodies of information. The intelligibility of experiential records relies on their interconnection with other forms of material. There are a number of initiatives currently underway that seek to extend models of classification and archival structures to accommodate more process-based and iterative art forms, such as the Media Art Notation System (MANS) developed by Richard Rinehart (2007) and the Capturing Unstable Media Conceptual Model for Media Art (CMCM) (Fromme and Fauconnier 2004, p185). As part of The Giver of Names case study, I worked with archivist Caitlin Jones to articulate the relationship between experiential records and other forms of documentation. Our structure for the case study follows the MANS model, which specifically provides space for records of audience experiences as “versions” and builds on it by emphasising the tension between the “ideal” notion of the artwork (as a composite, theoretical idea constructed from artist statements, technical schemas and the accumulation of many iterations) and the “real” situated and individual experiences of the audience members at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Our introduction to the case study explains in more detail the way we have articulated the relationship between audience experience and the archival context.

These fundamental questions of physical preservation, intelligibility and interconnection through cataloguing are precursors to the question of how an oral history of new media art could be accessed and contributed to online. The future-use scenario presented at the beginning of this paper is based on the notion that an online oral history could be accessible from anywhere in the world and would gather information from artworks exhibited around the world. The Giver of Names case study demonstrates that the Internet is a natural and accommodating home for such a resource in terms of receiving, organising, storing and distributing audiovisual information, and for the integration of experiential material with other kinds of documentation. Brokering reciprocal connections between other online resources and archives would be an essential part of placing audience experience within a global landscape of new media documentation and preservation.

Lizzie Muller © 2008 FDL

(5) Quoted from the interview with David Rokeby conducted by Caitlin Jones and myself as part of The Giver of Names Documentary Collection.

(6) For more background on my methodology for capturing and recording audience experiences, see Muller et al 2006 and Muller et al 2006b, which explain in more detail the strengths and weaknesses of various methods and the challenges of applying them in artistic contexts.

(7) For more on the technical challenges and current good practice in the field of digital preservation, one could begin by visiting the American Library of Congress’s Digital Preservation section: