Performing Digital: Multiple Perspectives on a Living Archive

We’ve written a book. It’s called Performing Digital: Multiple Perspectives on a Living Archive and today we mailed the manuscript to our publisher, Ashgate UK, who will deliver it to the world in about eight months. We are all-a-flutter with anticipation.

Performing Digital has chapters or contributions from Timo Arnall, Kim Baston, David Carlin, Sebastian Chan, Ross Gibson, Lukman Iwan, Adrian Miles, Kjetil Nordby, Andrew Morrison, Jane Mullett, Laetitia Shand, Reuben Stanton, Peta Tait, James Thom, Laurene Vaughan, Even Westvang and Mitchell Whitelaw.  Many of the contributions had their genesis as papers presented at our Digital Acrobatics symposium held in July last year.

Performing Digital is edited by David Carlin and Laurene Vaughan. They say:

‘This book brings together discussion and analysis from diverse disciplinary perspectives, through the lens of a single digital humanities project, the Circus Oz Living Archive, to open up questions around the deployment of digital archives in the performing arts and beyond. Views from within and outside the project team address issues of the changing cultural position and utility of archives in the digital era; of how digital archives might be designed and the uses to which they might be put.’

It’s a big achievement and we are very grateful to all contributors and members of the larger troupe that has made this possible!

photo (21)
The finished manuscript

Acts of Design: Archives, Material & Intention in the Circus Oz Living Archive Project

Reuben's exegesis
Reuben’s exegesis

A bit of trumpet blowing on behalf of the project’s APAI candidate Reuben Stanton.  He has submitted (on time) his exegesis, ‘Acts of Design’ about his research with the Living Archive project.  He will present this orally and through an exhibition at RMIT city campus in June 2014, as part of the School of Media and Communication’s Graduate Research Conference (GRC).  You should be able to find dates and details closer to the time on the School’s webpage.

 About Reuben: he’s an interaction designer who has been undertaking his practice-based doctorate as an embedded researcher with the Circus Oz Living Archive project, (see  Although Reuben’s doctoral research is now complete, it’s our good fortune that he will continue to work into 2014 on development and further research for the Living Archive so there will be more changes coming soon.  Well done Reuben for this reaching this milestone, we admire and appreciate you.


What Type of Archive Is It?

This missed the cut in the edit of a book chapter for an anthology the project team is working on. Thought it ought to appear somewhere as vaguely useful to what this project has done.

The Circus Oz Living Archive research team have had innumerable, and significant, discussions about content and curation — the very stuff of the archive — throughout the project’s conceptualisation and development. Much of this discussion is undocumented, yet has been fundamental to shaping the archive’s epistemological self conception. Each decision made appears, somehow, within, across or against the realised digital archive, yet none are included — archived — within, or near by, the archive itself. As an example, the current archive revolves around and relies upon video, and has been built from an existing physical video collection as its source media. This video collection contained recorded circus performances, rehearsals, TV advertisements, and promotions from the mid 1970s through to today. As a result of this historical range, which largely coincides with the history of videotape, there was a wide range of legacy video formats that, outside of specialist institutions, were unplayable. To digitise this collection high end specialist hardware and software was used to clean, and then transcode, the original tapes to contemporary digital film archival standards.

However, the living archive is not a film or video archive, it is a performance archive where video happens to be the medium of record. Whether this archive is conceived of as a video or a performance archive makes a deep difference to how the archive is conceived ‘archivally’. The project’s researchers spent many hours debating this, in the process engaging with epistemological and ontological ideas around archives, circus performance, live performance, and video. In the case of this particular archive what was at stake in these discussions matters in two ways. The first is that if conceived of as a video archive then its artefacts would be thought of quite differently than if it were defined as a performance archive, and as a result what matters in regards to the integrity of these artefacts would also differ. The second, which is a consequence of the first, is that the sorts of artefacts the archive conceives of itself as being an archive of, deeply affects the specific digital affordances that might or should be enabled for its imagined users.

If the Living Archive is defined as a video archive, then the integrity of the original source media becomes significant, and therefore videographic metadata such as tape type, duration, luminance, chrominance, signal, video format (PAL, NTSC, SECAM) and so on need to be recorded, preserved and treated as exemplary, first order formal metadata. It might also suggest that the basic unit of the archive, it’s ‘minimal’ artefact, should mirror its originating media and so be determined by the reproduction of each entire, original, videotape. A ‘tape’ then becomes the archive’s basic unit of currency. However, if the Circus Oz archive is regarded as a record of performance, then the integrity of the recorded performances becomes paramount, rather than the reproduction or preservation of the original quality of the video, rendering irrelevant any archival concerns with video formats, transcoding, or digitally enhancing the quality of the image.

What comes to matter in relation to the integrity of the collection changes, depending upon what the Circus Oz archive is thought to be an archive of, and therefore specific technical questions shift their focus. As a video archive transcoding, enlarging, and digitally enhancing the image may be regarded negatively, as the artefacts no longer have an authentic, quasi–indexical relation to their original. However, as an archive of performance, enhancement of the image is unproblematic as the indice that matters is the record of performance much more than the media substrate the performances happen to have been recorded upon.

From a Circus Oz admirer…

All credit to those who have compiled the Living Archive. It’s accessible, organic and sometimes like our memories a little fuzzy, but enough to remind us of amazing experiences. Where archives can so often be so overprotected and inaccessible they may as well not exist, this is a great discovery and no doubt has taken more effort to assemble than most would appreciate. Thankyou.