Top of page

Preservation Aesthetics: An interview with Shannon Mattern

Share this post:

Shannon Mattern Associate Professor in the School of Media Studies at The New School in New York.
Shannon Mattern Associate Professor in the School of Media Studies at The New School in New York.

The design and structure of cultural heritage institutions and systems comes with a values and a politics. The values and politics of these infrastructures are often worked out and explored in the work of artists in a range of media. This is just as true of physical structures and spaces as it is of digital infrastructures. I’m excited to continue our ongoing Insights Interview series today with Shannon Mattern, Associate Professor in the School of Media Studies at The New School in New York.

Shannon will be giving a talk titled Preservation Aesthetics at the upcoming Digital Preservation 2014 conference and I’m thrilled to talk with her a bit about the focus of that talk and some other areas of her work that are related and relevant to ongoing areas of discussion in the digital preservation community.

Trevor: You regularly teach a graduate seminar exploring history, values, politics and aesthetics of archives, libraries and databases. It’s an interesting mix of subjects, and the syllabus juxtaposes a range of very technical and practical work, like a piece defining FRBR (PDF), with things like Foucault’s Archeology of Knowledge. What do you think this juxtaposition of subjects and modes of writing enables in the course? More broadly, what kind of argument do you see the course making about archives, libraries and databases?

Shannon: Thanks for asking! I’ve thoroughly enjoyed teaching this course since 2011, and I love talking about it. I feel a bit selfish admitting this — but most of my courses are somewhat autobiographical: they reflect the way I approach a subject, or the way that I, if I were to imagine myself in various student “subject positions” — e.g., a student more oriented to media-making, a student committed to media art, a student enamored with highly theoretical media analyses, a student perhaps considering an archive or library career (not a commonly-recognized career path in media studies) — would want to approach the subject.

“Archives, Libraries and Databases” is particularly strongly informed by my own interests and explorations because I’ve been researching this subject — reading and exploring pretty widely outside the boundaries of my own field — for 15 or so years, but it wasn’t until relatively recently that I worked up the courage to propose it as an applicable course for a media studies program. I finally acknowledged that the fact that the folks in my field rarely examine archives and libraries doesn’t mean that these institutions aren’t an appropriate topic of study. Instead, it means that we in media studies have a lamentable blind spot.

Archives and libraries are institutions dedicated to the collection, classification, storage, preservation, etc., of media; the granting or limiting of access to media; and, increasingly, the making of media. I think the methodologies and theoretical frameworks germane to media studies — including approaches and topics like media reception, textual criticism, representation, media industries, medium specificity, media archaeology and more traditional media histories, etc. — could potentially allow us to engage in some fruitful collaborations with practicing archivists and librarians, and historians and theorists of these institutions. And I do stress collaboration, or exchange: the library and archive world might have something to learn from us, and we certainly have a lot to learn from you. That’s why I think it’s critically important to expose my students to both theoretical and practical texts from the LIS field — and to mix that work in among both “high theory” and applied works within media studies.

Yet I recognize archives and libraries not only as knowledge institutions. They’re also spaces — spaces that constitute and serve communities and function within a public realm, spaces that aestheticize and embody the interaction between people and information. They’re manifestations of epistemologies and politics and value systems. In order to acknowledge this multifaceted “ontology” of the archive and the library, it’s important to allow students to approach these topics through myriad lenses. I’ve found the lenses of design and art to be especially useful in my own work — and particularly in my teaching. Concrete designs and art projects have the potential to crystallize and materialize informational practices and intellectual models and infrastructural negotiations that are central to archives and libraries — and for these reasons I find them very useful practices and objects to think and teach with.

Trevor: You’ve taught your archives, libraries and databases course a few times. I would be curious to know a bit about how your thinking on the topic has changed a bit over the course of teaching it. Are you thinking about the relationships between the terms differently at all? If so how?

Photo from class field trip to the Reanimation Library. Provided by Shannon Mattern.
Photo from class field trip to the Reanimation Library. Provided by Shannon Mattern.

Shannon: The basic course elements — the themes, topics and texts we examine in the class; the assignments; our fieldtrips to the Morgan Library, the Reanimation Library, the Interference Archives, the NYC Municipal Archives, etc. — have always worked well. So, while I am constantly on the lookout for new readings and illustrative examples, the general structure and content of the course have remained consistent. The only major organizational change involved a inversion of our “units” on “archives” and “libraries.” The first time I taught the course, logistical mis-alignments necessitated that we visit the New York City Municipal Archives a few weeks into the semester, so I postponed our four-week “archives” unit to coincide with that visit in October, so I kicked off the semester with “libraries.” Besides, I figured it’d be helpful to start with the institution students most likely knew best: libraries. By the end of the semester, the students and I agreed that it simply makes more sense — historically, genealogically, methodologically, etc. — to start with “archives,” even if the archive is a relatively foreign place to most students (or a place that’s been obfuscated by theory).

Over the years I’ve also made my peace with one of the course’s built-in tensions. I’ve known from the very beginning that the three terms in the course title aren’t “ontologically parallel.” Libraries and archives are what we might call “knowledge institutions,” but databases are a different kind of entity; they are, for lack of a better term, an integral tool supporting both institutions. As someone who appreciates order and symmetry, this labeling imbalance makes me wince each time I read the course title!

Oh no — I sound like a crazy person.

Yet over the years, as I’ve thought back on my initial impetus for integrating this imbalance, I’ve realized that it’s served its intended rhetorical purpose. I initially anticipated it might be a challenge to convince media studies students — many of whom are fixated on the new and the now (and who equate “archives” with “dust”) — that archives and libraries have much contemporary or personal relevance. By including “databases” as the final term in the course title, I play off their preconceptions that the database represents the “third phase,” the contemporary state of “knowledge.” But then, over the course of the semester, we historicize the database, examine its “deep history,” and reinforce the roles databases play in reasserting the relevance of these two other historied institutions. In short, I’m quite sure this little rhetorical trick helps me draw some students into the course who might not have otherwise been interested.

I’ve also been pleasantly surprised, over the years, to recognize just how deeply invested students are in big questions about epistemology and ontology — and how aware they are that these weighty philosophical threads are running through our discussions from week to week. At the end of nearly every semester, I’ve had at least one student observe, somewhat proudly, that our task for the semester had been nothing less than examining what knowledge was, is, and can be. When students say amazing things like that, I can’t help but tear up!

An example of a student project. The student used Spectral Audio Processing to propose a sort of “machine reading” of — or listening to — music, as a sonic variant on Lev Manovich’s Cultural Analytics. You can view it online.
An example of a student project. The student used Spectral Audio Processing to propose a sort of “machine reading” of — or listening to — music, as a sonic variant on Lev Manovich’s Cultural Analytics. You can view it online.

My students have always had the option of writing a scholarly paper for the course, or doing a theoretically-informed, research-based creative project. I’ve had students make zines, websites, documentaries, algorithmic musical compositions, performance pieces and Memex-inspired bookmaking software (I’ve posted recaps of the 2011, 2012, and 2013 projects). This semester brings another exciting new opportunity: the students will be able to contribute to the curation of a Spring 2015 exhibition, hosted at The New School, on the future of knowledge institutions. I’m part of a research group that’s exploring “Emergent Infrastructures” — and we’ve been granted funding and space to launch a gallery-based investigation of the topic. We all plan to involve our classes in the exhibition, which, we hope, will inspire students to consider myriad display-worthy forms for representing knowledge about knowledge.

Trevor: In the abstract of your talk you suggest that “archivists, librarians, and database managers — and the patrons who use those resources — have much to learn about the nature of their enterprise from artists.” Could you talk us through why you think that is the case? What is it about artists envisioning and work that makes it useful to inform practice?

Shannon: As I mentioned earlier, I’ve always loved teaching about, with, and through art. Art offers us so many rich and wonderful things (or events, or ideas…) to think with, and it helps us recognize that understanding isn’t purely cognitive; it’s also affective, aesthetic. Archives and libraries, I argue, are intensely aesthetic environments: information reaches us in various forms and materialities; we store that information on bookshelves and server racks; we access it on tabletops and laptops and through interfaces. These are all aesthetic variables that have, in my mind, huge epistemological significance. And acknowledging archives, libraries and databases as aesthetic entities not only helps patrons to better understand how they think and learn; but it also, ideally, helps practitioners recognize that the physical and digital environments they create aren’t neutral containers of information: they give shape to information and knowledge, and thus constitute what it is.

There are lots of artists who take inspiration from archival or library material, or from the archive- or library-as-institution. There are even some who take up issues pertinent to digital preservation — concerns like file formats, versioning, migration, the lifespan of storage devices, metadata, digital decay, etc. Some of these folks call attention to the work of preservation by “prettifying” or fetishizing it. Others bring into stark relief the conventions of preservation practice, and propose new directions for that practice, by pushing protocols to their extreme, highlighting “snafus,” creating “limit cases,” etc.

Trevor: Could you talk us through an example or two of the ways that you see this playing out with some of the artists work you may explore in your talk?

Shannon: I have to admit: I’ll need to dig more deeply into this “preservation-based” work before I can speak confidently about the lessons it can offer us. In general, though, we have examples of work that defies preservation: the self-erasing disk, the self-destructing file, the self-deteriorating page. We also have digital artists who highlight the volatility of their medium by building parody archives — unreliable archives — to “preserve” it. We have artists transforming the processes of digital preservation and emulation into performances, and framing the documentation of those processes into aesthetic objects. We have artists aestheticizing the hard drive and other storage technology, reminding us of the materiality of the digital object and of memory. And we have a consortium of scholars, artists, and archivists concerned with the preservation of new media art in light of the inevitable obsolescence of digital platforms.

Some of this work is frankly beyond my technical comprehension. I need to do more homework to fully understand it. But I have very enjoyably and, I think, effectively used artists to illustrate other archival principles and processes. I keep an edited list of “archive artists” on my class website. Last fall we looked particularly closely at the work of Theaster Gates, who was an artist in residence at The New School’s Vera List Center for Art and Politics; his Dorchester Projects in Chicago includes a slide lantern library acquired from the University of Chicago; book and LP collections acquired from the now-defunct Prairie Avenue Bookshop and Dr. Wax Records; and the library of John H. Johnson, founder of Ebony and Jet magazines. The assemblage of media and architecture inspires its immediate South Side community, and the global audience who studies Gates’s work, to consider the significance of preserving others’ cast-off media, and of integrating these collections into a vibrant, multi-purpose community space; and the roles those specific materials played in constructing Chicago’s — particularly Black Chicago’s — history.

Image of the Computer Lab at the Gramsci Monument. Provided by Shannon Mattern.
Image of the Computer Lab at the Gramsci Monument. Provided by Shannon Mattern.

We also examined the work of Thomas Hirschhorn, whom art critic and historian Hal Foster regards as a key representative of contemporary art’s “archival impulse.” As the Fall 2013 semester began, we caught the tail end of Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument installation in the Bronx, which brought a variety of media spaces — an archive and library, a computer lab, a radio station — to the Forest Houses public housing project. A few former Archives students and I visited, and I wrote about our experience here.

The previous year, we were fortunate to spend our penultimate class at the Park Avenue Armory, which was hosting a gigantic installation by Ann Hamilton, one of my favorite artists. Her multisensory, participatory installation, the event of a thread, raised questions about the materiality and preservation of the historical record, and what defies recording and preservation. I wrote about our experience here.

Trevor: A lot of your work explores infrastructures of knowledge, things like the Seattle Public Library building. This often explores the meaning apparent in the design of buildings. One of my responsibilities is co-chairing the National Digital Stewardship Alliance’s infrastructure working group. In that case, infrastructure being more about the storage systems, networks and software applications that serve as the infrastructure for preserving and providing access to digital objects and artifacts. To what extent do you see the approach to studying physical infrastructures of buildings with considering and thinking about the material and digital infrastructures of these computer systems and their interfaces. Along with that, I would be curious to have you talk through some of the tactics for analysis of those buildings that you think translate and function in the consideration of these digital infrastructures.

Shannon: I could talk about this for days — but because I’ve already been far too long-winded, I’ll simply say a few words here, then refer you to another resource you can consult for more discussion. I think of archives and libraries and databases as hybrid, integrated infrastructures. As I write in the introduction to a new article in Places,

[Libraries] materialize, at multiple scales – from the design of their web interfaces and furnishings, to the architecture of their buildings and the networking of their technical infrastructures – their underlying bureaucratic and epistemic structures. This has been true of our knowledge institutions throughout their history – and it’ll be true of our future institutions, too. I propose that thinking about our libraries as an institution composed of integrated, mutually reinforcing, and evolving infrastructures – in particular, architectural, technological, social, epistemological, and ethical infrastructures – can help us better identify what roles we want our libraries to serve, and what roles we can reasonably expect them to serve. What ideas, values, and social responsibilities can we scaffold within the library’s material systems – its walls and wires, shelves and servers? While I’ll be focusing on public libraries, I’ll also address a few projects within the academic realm, since both kinds of institutions have much to learn from one another.

I’ve posted the text from a conference presentation, where I rehearsed some of these ideas, on my website. The more formal article was published in Places today.

Thanks so much for talking with me, Trevor! I look forward to seeing you in D.C. in July! (just typing that phrase — “D.C. in July” — gives me an asthma attack 🙂

Updated 6/10/14 for typos.


  1. Commenting in bullet points here for brevity. First, I favorably reviewed Shannon’s 2007 book about downtown public libraries in Public Libraries, and I’m hopeful that I’ll be at the DP conference this year. Looking forward to hearing from her there. Second, the course title’s slightly disjunctive elements are apt. Archives and libraries are similar in only so many ways. Their differences are perhaps more interesting: archives are typically introverted, libraries extroverted, for instance. Databases are ubiquitous, yes, but also widely misunderstood as tools. One example: we refer to Google et al. as “search engines,” mistaking the underlying technology for the interface. A database like Google uses a search engine to process input and generate output. Run an nGram for search engine between 1920 and 1980. The term was in use well before the Web. Finally, Shannon should consider including Elaine Svenonius’s The Intellectual Foundation of Information Organization (2000) on her syllabus. It’s biblio-centric, but the discussion is at a level abstract enough to comprehend archives, libraries, and databases.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.