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Pollinate Ep. 19- Andrea Lipps & Curating Digital Artifacts

Acquiring physical art for a museum requires a lot of planning and care. But what does it mean to acquire a digital artifact? You might be surprised to learn it’s less like the acquisition of a painting and more akin to how a zoo acquires a living tiger. In this episode, Andrea Lipps shares some insight into the inherent fragility of and challenges in acquiring digital media in her roles as a Curator of Contemporary Design and the Head of the Digital Collecting Department at Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum.

Andrea Lipps, Associate Curator of Contemporary Design and the Head of the Digital Collecting Department at Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum

Andrea is the curator behind the acquisition of Stamen’s watercolor map tiles into the permanent collection of the Smithsonian, so she has a perspective on our work that’s been developing over years. Initially trained as a reproductive rights lawyer, she now applies her formidable skills to navigating federal bureaucracies and creating new possibilities at the intersection of design, museums and the digital world.

Stamen’s Watercolor map, which was acquired by Cooper Hewitt in 2021.

Andrea has said that collecting digital artifacts, like our watercolor map tiles project, is more like the National Botanical Garden acquiring a tree, or the National Zoo acquiring a tiger, than it is like Cooper Hewitt acquiring a painting or a chair. Which I absolutely love! It’s not called Stamen for nothing. And as the director of the first new department created at Cooper Hewitt in the 150 years it’s been open, she has a unique perspective on the relationships between digital art, museum practices, and developing technologies. Andrea has already worked to collect a variety of digital pieces such as a medical illustration of the coronavirus and an emoji. She also has plans to potentially acquire computer viruses and interactive news stories into the collection of the Smithsonian. I’m super excited to share this conversation.

Images of a medical illustration of the coronavirus and an emoji of a person wearing a headscarf are both in the digital collection at Cooper Hewitt.

Collection of digital design is new for most museums, and Andrea is right at the forefront of this. The 2020 pandemic made two things happen at the museum: first, curators like Andrea suddenly found themselves with lots of bandwidth since they couldn’t work on in-person exhibitions, so they finally had time to work on this. Second, suddenly everyone was forced onto their screens and into these virtual worlds collectively, which helped museums like Cooper Hewitt be more open to thinking about the importance of the digital to their mission. 
One thing that I’m really happy we got to talk about is the idea of “performance as preservation,” which is to say that what a thing is has to be understood in terms of what that thing does. With a painting or a photograph, you can lock it away and take it out whenever you want to display it. But when you lock a digital asset into a vault, there’s no guarantee, for example, that the hardware you need to run it will still be around or working the same way. So in order to conserve the asset, you have to make sure it can perform its function, in perpetuity. It’s difficult for museums to think this way, and it’s great to have a ringside seat to be watching this change happen.

Transcript +


You’re listening to Pollinate. A podcast on data, design, and the people that bring them to life. Brought to you by Stamen Design.

Eric Rodenbeck (ER): The first new department at the Smithsonian National Museum in over 150 years. Caring for digital acquisitions like you’d care for a tiger. The inherent fragility of digital art and design. These are a few things that come up in today’s episode.

I’m Eric Rodenbeck, founder of Stamen. Today, I have the honor of sitting down with a digital curator at Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Museum, who acquired Stamen’s watercolor maps for the museum’s permanent collection. Please welcome my guest…

Andrea Lipps (AL): I’m Andrea Lipps, Associate Curator of contemporary design and head of the digital collecting department at Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum

ER: It used to be not that long ago that museums didn’t have those…

AL: …and many museums still do not have them!

ER: I wanted to talk to you about that. Because it wasn’t that long ago that in most of the museums you go to, museum curators just didn’t know what to do with digital artifacts. But you’ve created a new division inside of the Smithsonian to accommodate and manage digital artifacts. So I guess I just wanted to get a sense of how that feels from where you’re sitting and what you think the possibilities are for formal digital curation.

AL: Yeah, I mean, obviously, I’m incredibly pleased that the museum has formalized the department, it feels very inevitable that this has happened. I mean, the digital is just a part of our lives, take it or leave it. And this has been a very long road. I mean, it’s been over 10 years in the making, since the museum really first acquired an initial file based work, which is a typeface. And since that time, myself and a few key colleagues have really been doing a lot of research, building our own expertise into how we can collect and steward this type of work responsibly, because of the fact that this is quite new material, the ways in doing so are really unknown, I think in formalizing it and actually just concretizes the fact that like this is happening, that the museum is doubling down on this, we’ll be diverting resources towards it so that we can continue this work into the future and ensure that it continues to happen.

ER: For me, that’s one of the most exciting things about it, right? Because, as we discussed, digital stuff is actually much more fragile than we had imagined when we were getting started doing it.

AL: Oh, my God, I mean, at the outset of this, I mean, really, it was tasked to us, just collect some of those digital files, just thinking that like, yeah, it was just that simple. You just kind of pluck them out of the ether. And then we just have them. But what does that actually mean? What does it mean to preserve them? How do you contextualize them? What sorts of stories are you telling with them? How do you display them? Yeah, it’s incredibly, incredibly complicated work and just opens up a whole plethora of questions. But I think in many ways, it’s why I love doing all of this is, there’s just a lot we don’t know. And it’s really fun to kind of make it up as we’re doing it.

ER: How did you come to be here? Can you give us a little sense of how you got into the field and some points along the trajectory that got you to the place that you’re at?

AL: Yeah. So I like to say that I had a first career where I thought I was going to be going to law school.

ER: That’s why you’re so good at this!

AL: I was working in international human rights work, focused on women’s reproductive rights. And I had wanted to go to law school and on the weekends, and in the evenings, I was always going to gallery openings, and museums and things. And then it got to a point where I decided that I wanted to switch the balance. And I wanted to work in the creative community, specifically more like galleries, museums full time, and then I could spend the rest of my time kind of working on some of the other rights based issues. So ultimately, I found a graduate program centered on design history, and got my master’s degree in that and actually had an internship on the first design for the other 90% exhibition back in 2005, 2006 or so. It was a Cynthia Smith show that actually was here at Cooper Hewitt that I began cutting my teeth on. And then I was over at MoMA then for a couple years working with Paola Antonelli on Design and the Elastic Mind, and then got reeled back in over here at Cooper Hewitt and I’ve been here ever since.

ER: Right. And Stamen was in Design and the Elastic Mind. It was a good show. That was the first one where I became aware of this approach that Paoila Antonelli at MoMA has, where she just puts out like the widest possible call that she can to figure out what’s going on across the world of design. And then there’s 100 artists participating in these shows. And it’s just this incredible cross section and a kind of celebration of what design and art can say in this moment.

AL: Absolutely. And I think with that particular show, it happened at such an interesting moment in history, because it really, I felt like it really captured the synthesis that was happening between science and digital technology. And just the mass of data that was happening all of like the dataviz that was in there, I think, what did Stamen have in there?

ER: It was called Digg labs. There was a site called Digg. It’s gone now. But at the time, it was very much like “this is what’s happening on the internet right now.”You posted links to things, you liked things, you gave them sums up or thumbs down, and we made a bunch of visualizations of that activity happening in real time. So that was just an incredibly exciting moment to be part of. It was certainly the first time that I had seen a global community constituting itself in real time.

AL: I felt like at the time of that exhibition, things felt a little bit more utopic. That might seem a big word, but it was much more optimistic.

ER: We’ve been talking about that a bit and I think we should talk about it here too. It’s a very common thing, at the early stages of a technological revolution for everybody to get super excited about the human liberatory possibilities of it all. That happened with the railroad. It happened with the telegraph.

AL: I totally agree. But then what does it say about AI, for instance, that, we’re really at the outset of that, and everyone is completely and utterly terrified. And you even have people who are actually leading the cause saying, We really need to regulate. Can we just dial that back?

ER: Okay, so we should get into that, too, because I think you’re right, like the change at this point is happening so quickly, in terms of human lifetimes, and the people that are living through this AI thing. We’re all active in technology, and at the beginning of the internet. So I think maybe the speed at which things are happening is potentially a good thing, in this case, in the sense that we’re all so freaked out at the idea that somebody would just blindly charge forward and move fast and break things. People are like, no, no, remember what happened? The last time we did that?

AL: Yeah, yeah, we still haven’t even figured that one out yet.

ER: I read my first article today about companies that are being founded to determine whether something has been generated by an AI or not. There’s like this arms race and these different flavors, and all these kinds of companies stepping into this space because AIs are gonna leave signatures, right? I mean, they do leave signatures, some of them you can detect by human and some of them not. One of the features that they were using to determine whether or not a video was a deep fake was analysis of subtle blood pressure changes in the human face.

AL: Jesus Christ!

ER: People can’t see these changes directly, but you can perceive whether they are there or not. Machines can perceive whether those very subtle blood fluctuations are happening within a face. And that’s that’s the difference. And then, of course, there’s going to be an AI that’s going to simulate subtle blood changes in the face, and things will keep going from there.

AL: Exactly, someone’s going to develop that. I mean, the problem is it feels like we as humans will not evolve quickly enough to keep pace with all of this.

ER: Well, good luck to us all. But it is helpful, I’m glad you’re putting that bit of hope in there. That this time, maybe we’re not simply blindly charging forward with a California techno hippie optimism with this stuff. Even the industry leaders are holding up a hand and saying, hang on, we need to figure this out. It’s certainly probably too soon for museums to start acquiring AI models.

AL: Yeah, probably. One of the things which I’ve really wanted to bring into the collection, and I just have not had the bandwidth, or the capacity to approach it yet, is a training model for an AI. There was an exhibition in 2019 that I saw in Milan that Kate Crawford and Trevor Paglen had done called Training Humans, and the exhibition included AI training systems and it was absolutely fascinating. A lot of it was really looking at the harvesting and labeling of images and how there’s this computer vision and these AI systems that form measurements that basically turn into moral judgments. And it just raised a lot of really interesting questions. And so that, to me, is at least one way into AI and a way into collecting something that seems bounded enough and viable in which to then have some critical dialogues around what’s happening.

ER: Do you see the role of the museum to kind of create spaces where that critical dialogue can be collected and done by professionals? And those kinds of things?

AL: Yeah. 100%, yeah. As a part of the Smithsonian and the Smithsonian’s mission, writ large is the diffusion of knowledge. And to do that, through our collections, and through sparking critical conversations about culture, about our world, about history. So that’s one of the things which I think a lot about, even in collecting any of this work. I think collecting digital work is perhaps different than trying to collect and build up an art collection for the inherent value of a piece. And trying to find, the one end all be all. But instead, really to try to find these ways of collecting work that can allow us to have those conversations.

ER: That’s one of the most exciting things about our conversation in this whole dialogue is that it’s happening at the Smithsonian. I’m thinking of that amazing show that we saw in New York, the black potters of Edgefield, South Carolina. They had these just astonishing artifacts, made in the 1830s by enslaved Americans who weren’t allowed to read or write. But this one poet managed to actually write little poems on his pots, and just what an astounding thing it was to have that person be able to speak across time and space to us. What I found so exciting about it was that it wasn’t at the pottery Museum in Edgefield, South Carolina. It was at the Met, at the center of American culture and right at the center of American culture. Now, we’re talking about what does it mean for enslaved people to be producing artworks, how do we equate just having that, and having that conversation and as direct a way as we ever possibly could. And not to knock the museums in South Carolina at all, but there’s something about it being front and center on the banners, hanging from the front entrance of Met. It’s the same thing with the Smithsonian. These works that you’re collecting, they’re not at BitForms gallery down in the Lower East Side. They’re not at Grey Area on Mission Street in San Francisco. They’re at the fucking Smithsonian. So I imagine there’s pressure in that. But I think also, there’s opportunity in that too, for you to influence the conversation in a way that these other institutions maybe don’t have the same ability to or remit to do.

AL: Well, and when you think about the Smithsonian, our collection is your collection, it’s all of our collection. We are the National Museum system for our country, all taxpayers pay into this, right? So I think, absolutely, there’s a responsibility there. But at the same time, it’s really exciting. And I think it puts it on a different type of stage to have an institution like the Smithsonian recognizing and pushing forward this type of work. What it really is saying is that, this is a major part of human material culture that we need to recognize and preserve for future generations.

ER: There’s the preservation of it, which is, again, also super exciting, because almost everything that I’ve ever made on the internet is gone. Kind of the only thing that’s left is my Vimeo account and the videos that are on it. I’m just recognizing the inherent fragility of all this stuff. So you acquired our watercolor project a year or two ago, which is fantastic. One of my favorite things that you’ve said about that was that the acquisition of the watercolor tiles doesn’t fit normal acquisition models for design museums, and that you had to go to look at acquisition models that the National Botanical Garden or the National Zoo use to acquire things like trees and tigers. And that’s maybe my favorite thing that anyone’s ever said about our work. I wonder if you could just elucidate that a little bit and help us understand what curators at your level are thinking about in terms of models for how to acquire these kinds of things?

AL: One of the ways that we approach each and every digital project or digital work that we want to acquire, we have to think about how to acquire it in a way that is true to what it is. And we get into a lot of very philosophical conversations about what the thing is. And as I’ve been doing even more and more reading around this, I think, really one of our definitions of digital design focuses attention on the user experience. And there’s a scholar named Johanna Drucker, who talks about this as what’s called performative materiality. So it really is this idea that, what something is has to be understood in terms of what something does. And so I think that that was really the thing with watercolor map tiles was understanding what it is, is about understanding what it does and to enable that level of performativity within it. And so then we decided, as a result of that, to acquire it, not as an archive of either images or to archive all of the assets and the code itself, or to create documentation of the thing, but to try to acquire it in a state that would enable people to continue to interact with it. And of course, it took us two years to do that. But we were able to do that. And using those biological metaphors is very much about how once it is in our care, how we have to continue to care for it. And it really is about continuing to look at these things and tweak them and maintain them. And that’s where that idea around the zoo and something that is almost a living thing comes into play with this type of work, because it’s not like a kind of a literal, but more of a contingent materiality that’s contingent on all sorts of other things as well,

ER: I’m so intrigued by this notion of you as a lawyer, because it seems like that’s the kind of level of commitment to the bureaucracy that it takes in order to not just be talking about doing this, but to actually do it. And to be able to convince what I’m sure was a very conservative, in some ways, institution to really flex, to really develop a whole new set of documents, procedures, resourcing, all of it.

AL: Yeah, we are a huge behemoth. I think that there’s a level of being able to stay the course and to understand what it is you need to do, and to figure out and find the allies within the system that will help you do that. The one thing which is really terrific, though, is honestly there are some really, really rad people that work here at the Smithsonian. And as soon as we tell them some of the crazy stuff we want to do, they’re really excited about it, because it’s something that’s really different. And it’s never been done. And then we all kind of get to learn how to do something a little bit different. And it just helps all of us evolve. And our own practices evolve. I mean, even I don’t know if you remember, her name was Erin, the lawyer who then was working on some of the contracting for us. I mean, she ended up writing papers and presenting on specifically this, because it was a whole different way, even for the legal team here at Smithsonian, to think about how to structure the contracts and how you do things with it. So it’s great because it just allows things to move forward, which I think is ultimately a huge goal within all of this and a huge aim.

ER: So I have two questions around that. One would be well, first of all, it’s amazing that you’re in this position as an institution constantly being able to learn. That’s what I often say about us at Stamen is that we may not know the subject matter that you’re coming to us with to visualize, but we’re really good at learning quickly. So we’ve gotten good at that. And that’s a skill that you can be proud of. Are other institutions thinking this way? Are you the only major group that’s engaging with it at this level? And then my other question was around that whole shift. Is there maybe a key moment where things started to shift from being not interested in pursuing digital to pursuing digital?

AL: Yeah, and you may have to remind me of both questions. But I would say as far as a moment of shifting between not doing digital or doing digital, for better, for worse, it probably was the pandemic.

ER: Oh interesting!

AL: And a large part of that was, at least here at the museum to be quite honest, my bandwidth as a curator, because I had been working on so many other major projects and books. And a lot of the work I was doing on the digital collection front was really about building expertise in our own capacity and trying to understand how to collect these things, and how to care for them, and to get some funding to bring in a digital conservation contractor, and to set up the framework, if you will, and the scaffold to be able to collect these things. And pretty much the time when the last major exhibition that I opened, it closed in January of 2020. And so at that point in time, it then opened up just my time to kind of move into what I called phase two, and that was very actively collecting this type of work, which then coincided with the pandemic. And because we then were all kind of forced into our screens and into these virtual worlds together collectively, I think that within the museum itself, people were just a little bit more understanding and open to having some of these conversations into thinking about this stuff. And that way, it was a confluence, I think in a way of what I was able to have the bandwidth to do, as far as really beginning to actively collect, and really, the growth of the collection ended up doubling every year, over those few years. And then also I think everyone is getting much more comfortable and recognizing, I mean, the digital is not going anywhere. It’s a part of our world and a part of our lives. And to not collect it and to overlook it would just be a major oversight. Particularly having Maria Nicanor, who is Cooper Hewitt’s new director, she’s incredibly visionary. She’s really centered on contemporary practice. And the idea of collecting and representing contemporary design practice within the museum without having the digital again, it would be such a major oversight. And so she very much recognizes and embraces all of that, and hence agreed to the formal establishment of it as a department

ER: It’s funny, during the pandemic, we had some projects that we started before and then finished during it. In some work we did with the Getty, the original way to evaluate the success of the project was how much press it was gonna get and how many hits it was gonna get or how many visits. And during the pandemic, that shifted to are audiences engaged with this work, because all people made all those projects, everybody had to think like, how do we engage people with our collection when they can’t come to see it? And so all these kinds of projects about putting yourself into a painting, those kinds of things? Maybe the pandemic changed the way that museums understood their roles kind of across the board?

AL: I think so. And one of the other things, too, which actually is a major challenge, still, but I think, by formalizing the digital as a collecting department, it helps us begin to overcome it. There’s an indistinctness, within the lexicon of museums, about how we talk about the digital and what the digital represents. And I think that that was also a major part of it, was that we had for quite a long time a Digital and Emerging Media department. And there was confusion about collecting digital as an artwork, versus the digital media practices of the museum. And I certainly think that again, perhaps it was with the pandemic, the idea of bringing these things into the collection has at least allowed for some productive conversation to recognize that the digital is also something to be collected. It’s also something to be considered an artwork, these are collection objects, they’re not surrogates, we care about and we think about them in a much different way.

ER: I’ve had a similar conversation with Emily Pugh over at the Getty about Ed Ruscha’s collection. It’s this gigantic collection of basically undeveloped film. And so this idea that the archive is a surrogate for the original—If you were actually able to look at the original, it’s basically a giant closet full of negatives. So the only way that anybody is actually able to engage with it is through this digital archive. And I can’t think that that’s the last time that this kind of situation is going to arise. Like it finally did actually happen, that the archives are not just a surrogate for the original.

AL: Right, exactly. And that’s what’s totally fascinating, right, is always then having those, those conversations and they do get inherently philosophical around what is the artwork? What are the boundaries of that? When does the archive itself become a part of the artwork as well? I mean, I think a lot about Theaster Gates. I know that we had seen that exhibition, but a lot of what he does is work with archives and archiving materials and effectively makes that an artwork anyway, it’s a really interesting territory to think about.

ER: The piece that he made was at the New Museum, where those archive books each had one word on the cover, and reading them together was this massive poem. I loved that. I mean, just the notion of playing with archives and using artistic practice as a way to kind of understand this new world of archives being the real thing. It’s super fascinating. So the second question was: clearly you’re not the only museum who has been affected by the pandemic. Emily Pugh told me she gets frustrated when people talk about doing “digital scholarship,” as though that has a different set of rules to real scholarship. And so I think maybe that’s one of the things that’s starting to change is that digital, not just in museums, but in scholarship and other places is becoming not a separate thing. You don’t do the real thing, and then you do the digital thing. And I just wonder whether it’s sort of across the board of museums, either in America or your sector or others. When you get together for drinks with other curators, you must talk about this stuff.

AL: Yeah, absolutely. And I have colleagues at other museums who are doing similar work, Natalie Kane over the V and A is doing very similar work. And she and I definitely stay connected about all of this, we’re really interested in what one another is doing. And, and a lot of it I like to think is complementary to what each institution is doing. I mean, they’ve collected things like WhatsApp, which is fascinating to me. I know that she’s absolutely fascinated by our collection of the watercolor map tiles website. And so there are others who are very directly doing this type of work, which is fantastic. And I hope that honestly, it continues to grow. As we go down this road, and more and more museums begin to pick up on this type of practice.

ER: Do you know David Rumsey? He had the largest private collection of maps in the United States in his basement in San Francisco, and we got to go visit it. And it was just astounding to go down and just see priceless artifacts, just like stacked with atlases on top of them and stuff. But what he was a big proponent of, I mean, he had the means to be able to collect all this work. I remember going into his house, he had the most incredible map from a PanAm ticket lounge, or something like that, from the golden age of flight. And it was just this incredible painting that he had hanging in his hallway that was the world from the point of view of PanAm. Or maybe it was Dutch Airways so Holland was in the middle and it was hand-painted. Just amazing stuff. He was one of the first people to really extensively digitize his map collection, that was sort of what he was known for, being somebody who didn’t just go out and collect the stuff, but was actively trying to share it with the world. And so he actually invested in a bunch of companies that do this kind of work in these formats. So now it’s all at Stanford, but it’s another example of where the archive of the physicality and the digital part of it are very much connected with one another.

AL: And it’s interesting, because that’s a part of what a lot of scholars have called “productive confusion,” at least within museums themselves. Because of course, we digitize all of our artworks. The Smithsonian has digitized millions upon millions of things. Cooper Hewitt’s entire collection of over 210,000 objects is all entirely digitized. And all of those images then are considered the “digital surrogates.” And all of that is then stored. The physical infrastructure of the storage is in Virginia, and it is our digital asset management system that then stores all of these files. But then with the collection works, once we really started acquiring collection works, they were getting stored, of course, still in the digital asset management system, but then needed extra layers of protection, if you will, to ensure that they wouldn’t, I don’t know, disappear or deprecate, we wouldn’t get hacked, they wouldn’t get stolen or whatever. And so now Smithsonian have identified a separate category of collection work, which we call Primary Digital Collection Objects, otherwise known as PDCOs. And that’s the way that we determine and separate out the digital surrogates of actual physical collections versus actual digital objects.

ER: We’re getting into science fiction territory here.

AL: I know, it’s really bananas.

ER: Do you have a sense of what other kinds of things you want to acquire besides AI learning models and video games?

AL: Yes, of course I do! Without getting into specifics, some things that I’m actively working on right now are collecting some interactive visual journalism stories from a major mainstream news outlet and I’m very close to doing that. We understand how to do it. But now the obstacle has been clearing IP with said company and we’re really close to figuring that out, which is extremely exciting, I can’t go into more detail than that. But hopefully that will materialize. And we can talk about that in more detail more publicly as a museum, because it would be the first time that that type of work is acquired by any museum.

ER: I don’t mean to pry, but it’s just interesting to think about. If I look at any news site on the internet, my expectation is that it’s changed in some way since the last time I’ve looked at it, right? It’s not like reading a physical newspaper, where you finish the news, and you’re done. So the notion of collecting that kind of protean object, almost like trying to collect fire or something.

AL: Well, and it’s really interesting. And again, this is something which began happening and changing quite a bit within the pandemic was our experience with journalism with the news. And the way in which stories were being told before the pandemic, there was a lot of visual journalism and kind of integrating the interactive elements into it to enhance the journalism and to enhance the narrative and the story that was being told. But then once the pandemic hit, that type of news making really changed as so many of us end up really consuming the news on our handheld device. So really, what I want to collect are a few stories that represent sort of that transition moment for us, and it’s something that the newspapers themselves don’t do, they have these URLs for these stories. But a URL is largely accessed, of course, at the time when it hits the news site, and then it pretty much is never revisited again. And then we’ll slowly deprecate and usually, the lifespan of one of those URLs is maybe three to five years. So that’s something which I am working on. I also have a group of open source fonts that I’ve been working with a fellow on and have held some advisory committee meetings, and we have a group of 18 fonts that we want to bring into the collection. And my interest in looking at open source fonts themselves was to really comment on more of that open source nature of design and design practice, and to really think about how collaboration itself has changed over the years and become more horizontal. So that’s something which we are actively working on. And then there’s another work that I want to try to bring into the collection. And that’s a computer virus, which is challenging, but I think doable. We’ve identified what computer virus it is, it exists, the executable files exist on a CD, we’ve begun talking with our colleagues in DC about this. There are a few steps we would have to take, of course, in making the files themselves inert, for our storage systems, but this gets at that idea of performative materiality itself, it’s not just something that is, it has to be understood in terms of what it does. And so then it’s almost making that computer virus a performance itself. And so in an ideal world, I would love to get like a period specific computer and to then run the virus itself in a safe, contained way and to document what that is, and that then can become a part of that story. And that display alongside the inert version of the virus to contain it within our systems.

ER: It makes me think of what the visualization of that would look like, and the kind of really performative nature of it. We know that this virus is going to take 12 hours to totally infect this computer. So we’re gonna infect the computer every morning, starting at nine, and then this thing plays out, then we wipe the drive and start again the next day. Yeah, it’s so sad about that poor computer.

AL: A sacrificial lamb. Yeah, so those are certainly some things which right now are in kind of my immediate sight. And then longer term, I absolutely want to try, to the extent possible, bring in some earlier examples of digital work, which is incredibly challenging, because what exists and what doesn’t. I think that that’s a part of the really big challenge with all of this. For those of us who are working within this space, and within this field, we talk about how there really are digital Dark Ages. And for our successors, and the next generations, really this period from like the 90s into the teens or so, we really just don’t have much documentation whatsoever of what was happening at that point in time within our digital lives themselves, because we just we didn’t know what to preserve or how to preserve it. I think you’re entirely right. What you said at the outset about thinking that like the internet was a place where something would stay forever and it doesn’t at all. Things disappear all the time, and they actually disappear quite quickly.

ER: I remember leaving my first internet job—was telling stories about this worldwide sailing race. And we spent months and months and months and months telling all these stories and putting them all on. And I just sort of assumed that it would even when I left that they would just keep the server up and running. And one day I wanted to show somebody my portfolio and I was like, oh, oh,

AL: Yeah, they’re not there. They’re gone!

ER: There’s no backup?! Nothing. I mean, there wasn’t even a Wayback Machine, right.

AL: Exactly. I know. At least we have like, yeah, Internet Archive, and the Wayback Machine.

ER: So that’s so interesting, there’s this period when the work was also new, but also that not much was collected there. There was a show at the Whitney, Christiane Paul put it together. And that was the first time I had ever seen anything like that exhibited at the Whitney. I mean, I’d seen it before and I knew that it was happening. And I thought of myself as part of a movement, But had never seen it exhibited. I think it was a 2001 show where she exhibited Mark Napier’s work. And then there were these incredible 3d printed skulls that had the model of the skull kind of tweaked in the 3d space and then printed. And so you could just never reconcile, like those Renaissance paintings where there’s like a skull smeared, and you can look at it from the side, and it looks like a skull, but these just never look right. I’d never seen anything like that before. The digital still has the capacity to enrich our lives.

AL: I think the thing which is really interesting is, there were exhibitions which were displaying any of this type of work, but then how was it being collected. And those are two different practices. And really, it’s the collection of a lot of this stuff that just was not happening. I will just clarify for our purposes here. Of course, there’s a thing called time based art and time based media, art, which has been happening for years and years. Nam June Paik, for instance. And that’s video art and kinetic art and all of that. And, really, since the 90s, museums have been collecting that and beginning to understand how to steward it and care for it. And I will say that, through a lot of the practices that have been established there, that was really kind of the beginning and the core root of our research and beginning to encounter, how we would then collect the file and codebase work of digital design itself. So it was good, because we weren’t entirely starting from scratch. But there’s a lot that we’ve had to uncover along the way,

ER: There’s an article around, I think it’s about Nam June Paik, specifically where the work was supposed to be shown on a certain kind of monitor that doesn’t exist any more. That kind of stuff.

AL: And that’s another piece of all of this is: there’s the digital, which is intangible. However, in order to access it, you need hardware, you need the physical. And so a part of whenever I’m collecting anything, I’m often looking at, is there what we call “contingent equipment” that we need to bring in as a part of it. And we have two separate pools of equipment, we have non-dedicated equipment, iPads or computers or whatever that we can use to show things on. And we have dedicated equipment. I have a very specific piece called The Substitute, which is a projection, and it has a very specific projector and it has a subwoofer, the specific thing and all of this equipment that is needed for the display of that specific object, then that’s dedicated. So it’s interesting because the digital itself is always connected to and is contingent upon the physical still.

ER: I think we talked about this, that I picked up my old iPad from like, 2011 or ‘12, and it has all these apps on it that I can’t get anymore. They’re so good! The original Tetris, the original Drop7, the first Angry Birds, the version that was on the iPad was really pixelated because the app had been authored for the iPhone, and so they just made it bigger on iPad. It’s so nice. I just love the thing.

AL: Oh, that’s so great. And it’s not about the device itself. What happens when you turn it on? So this is a thing: we collect the iPhone, we have the first iPhone in Cooper Hewitt’s collection in our Product Design and Decorative Arts department, which is great. But it’s there almost as a formal thing, looking at its form, and it’s formal typology. But what’s fascinating about it is that the thing itself was designed to recede behind what happened on the screen when you turn it on! So yes, we’re celebrating the design, but then we’re actually completely missing the most critical part of it, which is the interface itself and that all those little apps,

ER: So it’s not even turned on?

AL: No, we wouldn’t turn that thing on! We take all the batteries out of these things! Anything that’s in our product design and decorative arts department, any consumer, electronic? Anything? No.

ER: Seems like maybe this should be turned on every once in a while.

AL: Well, you know, for preservation purposes, batteries..

ER: Of course! We’ve covered a lot of ground, I guess I’ll end by asking what’s next for you? What’s next for the museum, what’s next for this space?

AL: One of the things that is an incredibly important project to us here and the department is something that we lovingly call CATS: Collections Access and Transformative Stewardship. This is a project proposal to create a permanent, accessible digital sub site on which to openly share everything that is in the collection itself. And the primary purpose of the site is twofold: one, to of course, allow the public access to all of this work. But almost more importantly, is to enable us to better preserve it. And I’m thinking specifically around any of the interactive based projects that we have, because they can deprecate so quickly. We need to be able to constantly perform them and have people using them in order to understand when something begins to obsolesce or deprecate, so that we can very quickly address it. It’s much easier to address something when this begins to happen rather than much, much later. And right now, what’s happening with all of these works is we have all of the code in our GitHub repositories and such, and they have not been enacted in years. And so the CATS proposal and digital sub site is effectively a way to make this concept of “presentation as preservation” active. And so it’s something that we really are striving to do, and put the pieces together so that we can put something out hopefully in a couple of years.

ER: It’s such an interesting notion to bring forward that performance is preservation. You can’t lock these things in a box, because first of all the batteries will degrade. Right? But this notion that far from being this kind of inert thing that needs preserving, it’s that it’s like a tiger, you’ve got to feed it. It’s got to tiger in order to keep being a tiger. I just love that. It’s so, so different from how art is collected. But it’s sort of more like the way that dance is collected, I would think.

AL: I keep coming back to performative materiality, it subverts the idea of what an artwork is, but in that subversion, it’s also pushing it forward. It’s moving it from a notion of what is to that which is always in flux. And it’s really being able, as a museum, as an institution, to embrace that thing that is always in flux and to allow our own systems and procedures to accommodate change.

ER: Beautiful. Sounds like a good way to spend your time.

AL: I enjoy it!

ER: Terrific! We’ve got change and flux at the highest levels. We’ve got performative materiality. We’ve got iPhones sitting in boxes. Pretty good stuff. Thank you!

AL: Deteriorating slowly! [laughter] That’s fun. Alright, thank you!

ER: Thank you. Really appreciate it.


ER: Thank you for listening to Pollinate. Thanks to Andrea for our wonderful conversation today. This episode of Pollinate was written by Eric Rodenbeck, Katie Kowalsky, Laura Gillen, Nicolette Hayes, Ross Thorn, and Stephanie May. Music for Pollinate was created by Julian Russell. You can see more of the digital collection that Andrea curates—including the Stamen watercolor map—at

If you’re a fan of Pollinate and the content we create, please review and subscribe to the show wherever you get your podcasts! And share it with your friends and colleagues. If you enjoyed today’s episode, tell us on Twitter @stamen or on our Mastodon account at using the #pollinate or #pln8. For a summary and full transcript of today’s episode along with some visuals of the works discussed, check out the blog post at Thanks for listening!

About Stamen

Stamen is a globally recognized strategic design partner and one of the most established cartography and data visualization studios in the industry. For over two decades, Stamen has been helping industry giants, universities, and civic-minded organizations alike bring their ideas to life through designing and storytelling with data. We specialize in translating raw data into interactive visuals that inform, inspire and incite action. At the heart of this is our commitment to research and ensuring we understand the challenges we face. We embrace ambiguity, we thrive in data, and we exist to build tools that educate and inspire our audiences to act.