Last June, the nonprofit Rhizome introduced Conifer, an open-source web archiving initiative that can create a high-fidelity copy of whatever webpage thrown at it, no matter how complex the scripting.
Conifer isn’t new. It’s Rhizome’s rebrand of webrecorder.io (formerly known as Colloq), cementing the nonprofit’s stewardship of the software and its integration into their infrastructure. Name aside, the software still has the same features and same ease-of-use, the same desiderata, too: “Web Archiving for All.”
Slap any URL into Conifer’s bar—for example, that of your social feed—and hit the capture button. The software would then store the dynamic web content, media files, comments, and likes into an online repository for future retrieval. As accessing the archived file allows viewers to interact with the website as captured from a specific window in time, it’s a significant step beyond screen captures and recordings in understanding contexts.
Try it with Ho Tzu Nyen’s Critical Dictionary of South-East Asia (cdosea), for example. As cdosea works under an algorithm that randomly combines elements of the work, thus producing different permutations with each visit, saving a specific viewing has merit for future reference decades after.
Click here for Rhizome’s official announcement; further down is a must-read ethics component on web archiving. This is a user guide to learn how Conifer works, and you can sign up here. Membership is free. All users are allotted 5 GB of cloud storage and can avail of more by becoming a supporter (the donations help keep operations running).
Collections in your archive can be set for either public or private viewing and won’t be discoverable unless shared via a link. If you’d like to know more about what we think of it and why Conifer has us excited about some of archiving’s best practices, read on.
Dependence Is Risk
Think of the last interactive exhibit you encountered online, now expired, or the last Net Art you saw, publicly available. Consider that riveting thread you last saw in your feed about a topic you care about, which you can no longer find. Consider the protest art circulating the Web that, should some hypothetical law questionably come to pass, could be taken down tomorrow.
If these haven’t yet been deleted by a hacker on a payroll, been censored or turned into ad space, decades down the line, they likely will.
Web resources are prone to rot. And not all care for the ephemeral aesthetic with their art. As more and more people take their art and discussions to the online space, it’s worth noting which among them carry art historical value — as experiments with new media, as propaganda, as visual “slander.” Bearing witness to crucial movements has been, especially and expressly now, digital.
The plug could be pulled just as easily through something as simple as non-compliance to policy, or, should she or he decide to move on with life, the eventual negligence of the user. Keeping copies saved in a hard drive, meanwhile, might limit circulation and may someday fall to obsolescence (one need only think of CDs and floppy disks). Unlike paintings that enjoy a tried-and-tested preservation process, there doesn’t seem to be a set procedure for Internet Art outside of institutions at this side of the world. One would be hard-pressed to imagine one in the future that keeps to the spirit of being publicly accessible, AKA, free.
It was from our last trip into Asian Net Art that had us wondering: how do we share them when they’re gone? What if some distant relative of the artist decided to put the site’s domain up for sale posthumously? Or what if (on the theoretical future-death of the artist still), a database chooses to keep it under paywall and perpetually renew copyright?
Archiving Fosters Digital Memory
The Internet is the world’s stage. It’s less about assuring the endless consumption of these works than it is about regional, even local, posterity. Archiving could be for scholarship, criticism, or a way to help future budding artists grappling with the digital medium along.
In light of the controversy with Cambridge Analytica, it’s also worth considering how online dependence on dubious platforms puts users in a bind. On the topic of compromised data privacy and security in social networks, it bears mentioning how this odd economic relationship came to pass: one in which these social media platforms generate capital from content freely made by its users. For some, it’s unpaid labor.1 More alarmingly, the manipulation of voter opinion as part of an experiment shows how knowledge is produced, and it’s certainly not in the collaborative way Wikipedia has us understand.
Take it another way by looking at our Conifer screencap above. Acclaimed international artists like Ho Tzu Nyen are likely set, but what about those that are, were, underrepresented, like most artists in the far-flung corners of the world?
What about the gender-dissident Kollontai Commune of 1970s Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan? Little known until unearthed forty years later by the School of Theory and Activism (STAB), the Commune was meant to be forgotten. (Queer love didn’t fly so well under the machismo rampant in the Soviet period).
STAB’s 17-minute film of the commune is as much archival retrieval as it is willful interpretation. There was a lot of guesswork involved for STAB to make sense of what the Soviet time had suppressed. The result, as Juliet Jacques reviews it, was a “beautifully presented documentary [that] dissolves into fiction.” Through the Kollontai Commune, STAB had the opportunity to create the antecedent they needed and find a voice.
Wouldn’t it have been easier, though, if the analog sources were just readily available, done by hands that looked decades forward into the future when the commune’s efforts would fall into a better fit? Isn’t digitizing these artifacts a good part of what the Internet is for?
Hindsight is a funny thing. Any valorization of discovery would have to acknowledge that the discovered object had first been obscured. Erased. There are tools now that don’t allow for obscurity anymore, with much of their use for surveillance, invariably, to oppress. Often, and through preference-based ads no less, most discoveries occur in social profiles we have come only tenuously to own.
Independently archiving the art and artifacts you like probably won’t release you from some diabolical schema overnight, but it’s a good exercise in cultural practice. Can we even begin to imagine multiple minor sharing platforms versus a centralized one monitored by god-knows-who-in-Silicon-Valley?
Before it becomes entirely a mall, the idea of the online space as a forum is at least worth contesting.
1 Orit Gat explains this well in the latter end of her essay, “To Bind and to Liberate: Printing Out the Internet.”