Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

Blog and project archive about transdisciplinary design, media theory and creative coding

Time-Memory-Experience (part 2 of 4), by Anja Wiesinger

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Timeliness and Perception of Time in and with the Computer, by Anja Wiesinger

from the Time-Memory-Experience project

(this is part 2 of a 4-part essay)

The Construction of ARTstor as Collection

The object of analysis is a specific kind of digital image archive. I chose ARTstor, the biggest online image library for research and education. ARTstor is located in the USA but collaborates worldwide with other institutions to include as many collections as possible. The non-profit organization was founded in 2003, out of the urgency to make image material available by using the advantages of the Internet. One of the advantages was to offer a central platform where all kinds of resources can be searched and viewed all at once by an international community. Currently, ARTstor holds more than 130 image collections and is steadily growing. The collections come from museums which have produced digital photographs of their art works, such as MOMA, and academic research databases, which were up to this point accessible only to the students on campus.

Traditionally, the collection as form is not considered an archive. Archives are per definition locally restricted storage spaces for historical documents. They have originally been systematized by provenance [location and era], which means that the parameters to be entered for retrieving a document are time and place. Whereas the archive is supposedly a neutral trustee of cultural heritage, collections are subject to the individual interests and tastes of a collector. Hence the weighting and classification of objects in personal collections are usually more specific and individual.

[As Jean Baudrillard explains in The System of Objects, the subject’s relationship to the object is inherently one of passion. In its non-practical mode, the pure or ‘beautiful’ object is held dear as part of an assortment or compilation. The human orderer of things may collect porcelain eggs, Persian miniature portraits, matchboxes, rare books, postage stamps of a certain country or baseball cards. But it is my own stature as a singular being that I civilize and refine as I exercise my taste and discrimination in seeking out objects which are more and more singular. There is a secret rule – known only to the collector, but perhaps concealed even from her – that governs the choice or selection of the individual pieces in the collection. For Baudrillard, what I really collect is always myself. “The last [item] in the set is the person of the collector.” The most complete collection is paradoxically the one with at least one member missing from its array of objects. — ANS]

Since the images are semantically enriched with metadata, the search process differs from searches with big search engines a la Google on the World Wide Web. ARTstor is a closed system. It integrates the collections according to strict international standards which have been developed over the years. ARTstor uses CDWA (Categories for the Descriptions of Art Works), a standard for a set of fields which are machine-readible as well as useful for the user to retrieve information. Names are checked against so-called name-authorities to ensure formal standards. Certain instances of control (control over authorship, the authority of information, registration via institutional membership, etc., and the classification system as a whole) are incorporated into the design of the information architecture.

The combination of the collection form together with a strict classification system allows for information retrieval by provenance [location and year] as well as by categories that suit the established terminology of the disciplines working with the database, which in this case is mainly art history, architecture and cultural studies. The organization into collections in ARTstor allows also for more flexibility, ensures the high quality of the images, is respectful of the images’ origins, and helps in the handling of copyrights and institutional memberships.

Not only are the resources collections, but ARTstor allows users to create their own personal collections extracted from the image library. These selective collections can also be shared within user groups, which aids in the organizing of material for classes, presentations and publications. ARTstor is also running pilot projects for community-based research and collection building. In this context, archived material that has not yet been made available to the public is tagged and evaluated in a collaborative process through commenting and discussion tools. The results get integrated into the library. ARTstor hence differs from a traditional archive, altering the traditional functions of an archive to become also a social media in which the material is constantly reworked, newly sorted, and transformed.

The metaphor of trace as discussed in Freud, Benjamin and Assmann


Generally stated, the metaphor of the trace and its usage derives from the insight that text is an abstract and formal medium that privileges certain forms of knowledge and through which other modes of communication (like verbal communication) are not easily preserved.


The trace as metaphor – which has been the leading keyword for historiographical disciplines in the 20th century –  has by now a history of its own. In the 18th century, the mass production of books led to mass circulation of information (possibly similar to the information overload that one experiences today), and the text medium came under critical examination. Until then, writing (or, to borrow Jacques Derrida’s term, ‘ecriture’) had been believed to be the most comprehensive storage medium to conserve and pass on the past. Through writing, the past was stored and could also be made to come alive again. The text was seen as something magical, just as Walter Benjamin described new technologies as being something magical.

Yet through writing, and the abstract-formal character of the book form, other forms of knowledge were repressed. Especially repressed were those forms of knowledge formerly passed on verbally via close human contact and communication, as well as those transmitted sensually, or in the trenches of practical, technological or hands-on experience. In the 19th century, it became clearer that historiography as conventionally practiced is accompanied by a process of selection which, over longer periods of time, forecloses access to the events of everyday life subsumed under the grand narratives of history.

In response to this, history later came to be read not only through texts considered to be “historical documents,” but also through traces. This new methodology became especially popular in archeology, where the objects of observation were usually not texts, but rather ruins and fragments of everyday objects that could be sewn together in a tapestry in order to reconstruct the past into what is regarded to be a complete image. With industrialization, the new media of photography was elevated to the status of allegedly being capable of capturing a “record” of “truth” and “reality.” Marcel Proust, for example, compared the “presence” of the past in human consciousness with a photo negative, a shadow-image that is yet to be developed. A memory-trace. The search for traces left its imprint on historiographical research, in the sense of an index, the physical imprint.

Freud’s involuntary memory


Sigmund Freud distinguished in his description of the psychic apparatus between the voluntary and the involuntary memory. Voluntary memory meant the ability to bring to mind things from the past by themselves and without any outer influences. Involuntary memory accounts for moments that resemble something which has happened in the past. Freud assigned the voluntary memory to consciousness and the involuntary memory to both the pre- and unconscious. He also emphasized that the psychic apparatus is an open and porous system. The pre- and unconscious save experiences which are then – in the process of remembering – re-activated and updated.  This also means that the present influences how we remember (and what we remember of) the past.

Freud also specified the trauma as being that situation where the subject is not capable to cope with an event. He or she fails to clear or defend the mind from those stimuli which are in excess, where self-generation fails to protect the subject’s psyche. If the subject experiences a trauma, a portion of the stimuli remains “undigested” and are escorted to the unconscious.

The method of the defense mechanism is one of suppression. The not- remembered however, is not forgotten. It returns in a specific mode. The not- remembered reveals itself in side issues, actions and narratives about which the subject has no conscious awareness.

The work of the therapist is then to extract and decompose — in other words, to analyze the elements, to discover and resolve densifications and displacements, and to decipher and interprete certain codes.

The work of the therapist is to bring unconscious processes to the conscious awareness of the subject. This, in turn, triggers a positive shock, leading the subject to overcome the experienced trauma and set the subject back on a course towards self-management.

Of course it is our belief (myself together with Alan N. Shapiro) that this cannot really be accomplished by the classical Freudian psychoanalysis where the analyst says almost nothing to the analysand. It will require the practice of Gestalt Therapy, which is psychoanalysis raised to the level of the unity of theory and practice, a psychology of consciousness where the deciphering of the text of the unconscious is but a component of the overall self-practice of awareness and change, where there is an explicit concentration on healing rather than just a focus on “recognition” (Erkenntnis).

Freud’s description of a mystical writing pad in 1925 was that of a type which gets imprinted into a plastic mass and slowly disappears, and by which an indexical trace remains, opening up new possibilities for accessing the past. Freud applied this to the functionality of human memory. He made the analogy with memories which have not been lost, but which have been repressed into the unconscious. These memories are still there, but they are not directly accessible to consciousness. Trace is then everything that cannot be “absorbed” by the text and holds the secret to to the past (it holds the direct print or proof-form of the past) and is the key to emancipation in a possible future. It is also that which has yet to be transferred into consciousness, which has yet to be remembered again.

Aleida Assmans’ usage of the trace


In the 21st century, the traumatic experiences of the world wars of the 20th century are no longer remembered by lived experience. The generation of survivors or contemporaries has died away. In this context, a new discussion about cultural heritage came about in the 1990s and early 2000s. According to the cultural studies scholar Aleida Assmann, the past is less connected to one kind of memory which in German is called Erinnerung, and more to another kind of memory which in German is called Gedächtnis.

In this shift, memory is passed from an individual to a collective, where it is administered by public institutions. With respect to the archive, Assman has offered a distinction – inspired by Freud – between an arbitrary and and an involuntary memory. Concerning the archive, there are two different memories: the memory storage (Speichergedächtnis) and the functional memory (Funktionsgedächtnis).

The Speichergedächtnis is responsible for the conversation, editing and (re-)activation of history. The institutions and administrators in charge remain necessary distanced and/or neutral towards the archived material. This prevents immediate identification with the material, and any kind of instrumental or political abuse. This corresponds to a disembodied historiography where any kind of emotions and/or personal experiences are withdrawn.

The Funktionsgedächtnis, by contrast, is constituted by contemporary states and subjective events and experiences which actively transform the Speichergedächtnis. Assmann understands the Funktionsgedächtnis to be an embodied corrective to the Speichergedächtnis. It gives meaning to and stabilizes the Speichergedächtnis. Similar to Freud’s theory of memory, Assmann in her theory emphasizes the notion of transparency or porosity between the two forms of memory. This is a political measure for prevention of abuse, as well enabling an allowance for change and alternatives. Time would not just stop in a way which would equal the end of history. Ironically this is precisely what has been criticized about modernism by many thinkers.

I conclude with a citation from Assmann:

“Solange die Analogmedien Photographie und Film ihre Bilder über Spuren inmaterielle Träger eingravierten, dominierte in der Gedächtnistheorie von Proust und Warburg bis Freud die Auffassung von der Festigkeit und Unauslöschbarkeit der Gedächtnisspuren.Im Zeitalter der digitalen Medien, die in nichts mehr eingravieren, sondern Schaltungen koordinieren und Impulse fließen lassen, erleben wir bezeichnenderweiseein Abrücken von solchen Gedächtnistheorien. Gedächtnis wird nichtmehr als Spur und Speicher, sondern als eine plastische Masse betrachtet, die unterden wechselnden Perspektiven der Gegenwart immer wieder neu geformt wird.“ (Assmann, Erinnerungsräume, p. 202)

Assmann’s understanding of digital information is that of electronic impulses, immaterial by nature, a constant flow of information which has no form, but which is instead in constant flux, some kind of chaos where we are dealing with a plastic mass being constantly reformed.

The materialist theory of New Media and New Technologies that we (Alan N. Shapiro and I) will develop is the other to these immaterialist assumptions of Assmann’s.

To mention the ARTstor library again: the role of ARTstor is to distribute and administer data for sustainability, a goal which is reached by way of semantically enriched data. This highlights even more how Assmann’s view is informed by earlier notions in discussions among humanities scholars, who looked only at the binary structure as being the computer’s working paradigm. Today we see more clearly that the binary structure is a very limited idea of what computers and technology can do. We must instead look at all the software and application patterns.

Some theorists of digital technology have claimed that, due to the operational and formal character of automation – and the strict logics thereby applied – database design predetermines not only the past but the future.

My goal is to relativize the assumption that the database alone predetermines past and future. The digital archive, by way of the design as collection, is the place that allows for a multiplicity of stories.

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