Web Archiving and the production of Art History: a talk at The Arnolfini

Have you ever wondered what happens to a website after people stop using it? When technology develops and pages are redesigned or abandoned, digital content can be lost forever. At a time when some of the best writing around live art, performance and experimental practices now takes place online, we stand to lose vital historical information if these sites are not properly archived.

I’m not the first writer to note the importance of the Internet for creative discourse. In 2011 Andy Field wrote for the Guardian about the joys of blogs by Chris Goode and Tim Etchells and how both artists use online writing to augment their practice. While previous generations had to wait for the posthumous publication of artists’ diaries and letters, we can access vital writing about an artists’ process with the push of a button.

The immediacy of the Internet also marks it as a territory for new kinds of criticism around live events. No discerning Live Art festival is complete this year without an online ‘writer in residence’ who comments on the work as it happens. Diana Damian’s current stint at Spill has thus far produced writing more sprawling and loquacious than could ever be offered in tightly constrained mainstream print media.

Promo video for the British Library’s new initiative – Capturing the Digital Universe

On Saturday 6th April new legislation came into force that will afford The British Library the opportunity to archive any web content published in the UK. As I understand it, the pilot will begin with ejournals and ebooks, but eventually will extend to online material in any format. The new regulations reflect the work that has already been done by The UK Web Archive; an online repository that collects websites that “reflect the rich diversity of lives and interests throughout the UK”. The Live Art Collection of The UK Web Archive, which is curated by The Live Art Development Agency, has already completed the important task of archiving Goode and Etchell’s blogs for posterity.

On 13th April I am giving a talk as part of the Performing Documents Conference at The Arnolfini, that will interrogate the impact that web archiving might have on the way that we construct future art histories. I am excited by the radical possibility that the Internet offers to democratically preserve contributions from any artist or writer who has the ability to self publish. Equally I am suspicious about the value of some online discourse (check out the comments on the Guardian Theatre blog for example) and wish to question where and how we draw a line between what is preserved and what is allowed to disappear.

I am on a panel that starts at 4pm in the meeting room of the Arnolfini. Come along if you can.

Featured image: Performance Re-enactment Society, After Yoko Ono, Grapefruit (1964), Arnolfini, 2009, Photo Carl Newland

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