Monday 29 August 2016

It's time to say goodbye

On a recent Slate Culture Gabfest, the hosts bemoaned cutesy 404 pages - the responses you get when your device is able to make contact with a server, but that server is not able to deliver the page you've requested. Perhaps the most famous 404 page was Twitter's "fail whale" (discontinued in 2013), and for a period there web people got very excited about making playful, pun-filled and beautiful 404 pages. It was seen as part and parcel of caring deeply for the user's experience ("We can't give you what you want but we'll make it beautiful!"). Pages and pages of results can be generated for a search for a phrase like "best 404 pages".

So it was a little disconcerting to hear people on this podcast who I really like seeing all this effort as going to waste. Perhaps no-one really wants to be delighted when they're told they can't have what they're asking for: maybe they just want things to be fixed.

To my mind, the artisanal 404 page is one of the great artefacts of Web 2.0, and I really hope academic study, plushy print publications, and considerable archival effort are being devoted to its documentation and retention for future generations to enjoy and learn from.*

Right up there with the 404 page is the shutting-down announcement. Nothing reminds you that the web is an ephemeral space with a metabolism akin to a hummingbird's like trying to remember all the web services you've used at some point and then had to transition on from when they close (here's me three years ago being overly upset about Google Reader shutting down: reader, life has gone on).**

I've been mulling this since clicking through a couple of links to the news of - a location-based micro-blogging-ish site I'd never heard of before - setting to close at the end of this month.

I read about this in a post by Russell Davies, where he talks about the pleasure of writing on corners of the internet that are public, but not highly frequented. Starting on Gowalla Davies had written little fictional histories about places he was spending time; when Gowalla closed down he moved on to, which is now, too, shutting down.

But they're shutting down in the most elegant way. As site founder Craig Mod writes in a Medium post, they are taking all due care of their users that they can, but also trying to record the existence of for posterity. As he writes:

Web projects often lack hard edges. They begin with clarity but end without. We want to close with clarity. To properly bookend the website. Sometimes web projects exhaust themselves. Outlive themselves. Are allowed to stagnate, be forgotten. Resources dry up and then one day — poof — they’re gone. This has happened countless times, Geocities being one of the foremost examples. We don’t want this to happen with

So, is enabling users to download their archives, and to promising to keep an online archive alive for at least a decade. And they're also producing a small number of physical storage artefacts, inscribed with the content of the site, that will be deposited with institutions like the Library of Congress:
We’ve partnered with Norsam Technologies and Los Alamos Laboratories to utilize a special ion-etching process, capable of printing tens of thousands of pages onto a 2" × 2" plate. 
The process does not produce “data.” It is not like a CD. It is not a composition of 0's and 1's representing the information. It is the information itself. The nickel plate is a medium, not media. And everything printed on the plate will be readable with an optical microscope. 
The nickel plates have an estimated life span of 10,000 years. They’re fire resistant. They deal well with salt water. And because they’re printed with our pictures and words — assuming contemporary language is decipherable in the future — anyone who finds this and has access to fairly elementary technology (an optical microscope) will be able to read our thoughts and experiences as mapped to city and place.
It's such an interesting question. As with video games (see MOMA on acquiring their first batch) so many questions exist. What are you collecting when you try to memorialise a website or service? The code? The visual appearance? The user interaction? The history of the making and marketing of the site? Or the described experiences of those people who made and used it?

Businesses shut down all the time, and have for as long as they've been around. Traditionally they've been captured for the record - often incidentally, lurking in the background of the main focus) in photographs, newspapers, gazettes, phone books, correspondence, government records. Sometimes - when they're old enough, big enough, flash enough or loved enough - their closing is a cause for reminiscence and celebration. But often they just slip out of sight.

But websites and services seem to take their closures with the same seriousness that they take their launch. (Three thoughts on this: (1) people who work in web design are pretty much the most self-analytical and self-descriptive that I know - what other industry devotes so much time to examining and publishing in real time upon itself? and (2) People who are shutting down things on the internet are doing so in a medium beautifully designed for people to tell them exactly what they think of their decision; and (3) like 404 pages, the attraction of the graceful failure is as potent in this part of web operations as in any other.) Here for example is John Gruber announcing the shutting down of Vesper, a notes app, last week. Although the app is shutting down due to low usage (and, from my deduction, accompanying low interest) and a notes app is hardly a crucial life tool, Gruber's post is a detailed and thoughtful retrospective on what they could have done better, and why they made the decisions they did. No simple CLOSED sign here.

Here, for example, is a long and admiring article on the grace with which Glitch, a massive multi-player online game, was shut down. The game was built out of this almost obsessive love for the end user that powered early Web 2.0 properties like first-iteration Flickr (not coincidentally, the lead designer was the co-founder of Flickr and founder of Slack, both of which place/d a tremendous emphasis on surprise and delight of users). From the Glitch post announcing their shut-down, the list of FAQ titles:

  1. Why why why why?
  2. What will happen to the team building Glitch?
  3. What will happen to Tiny Speck?
  4. How long will the game remain open?
  5. Can people still sign up to play?
  6. But I spent money! What about that?
  7. I'm really angry about this!
  8. Why can't you sell the game so someone else can take it over?
  9. Why don't you give the game away or make it open source or let player volunteers run it?
  10. Why can't you just _______________? 

Or for another example, look at how Matt Webb announced the closure of design company Berg through a poem on the company's blog (week 483, RIP). And here's his post on the Little Printer blog that shares that announcement, and explains that Little Printer, Berg's experiment in the Internet of Things and a more human interface with the web, will also be shutting down. And here's his post - redolent of a late night and too many cups of coffee*** - explaining that he's "trying something:
Hi everyone. Hello from where I’m sitting at home in London. It’s Sunday night, I’m Matt, my personal homepage is over here. Till recently I was CEO at Berg, now I’m the last employee and trying to wrap things up nicely. To do that I’ve got about a day a week cos I also now have other commitments. 
I’d like to try something…
I really hope someone out there - an obsessive individual, an academic, or an institution - is collecting these artefacts. By their very nature they're usually written in places that will soon disappear from the internet, and then all we'll have are the GigaOm and FastCompany rehashes (until they too degrade away.) and gravestones in the Internet Archive. But they're such a visceral and telling part of this period of design, communication, and business.  They deserve to be held on to. Maybe there's more nickel-plate books to be made.

*Seriously, there don't seem to be any print publications on the history of the 404 page, and I think that's a real oversight. And of course, all my bookmarks on this topic are long-lost in the endless shuffle of bookmarking sites I've been through over the past decade or so.

**Also, of interest to me but probably not for you, looking at what sites I opened first when I got up in the morning, I've gone from Email > Twitter > Reader > Work email to Feedly > [work] Facebook > Twitter > Email > Instagram .... work email when I get to work.

*** I have no idea how late it was or whether Webb even drinks coffee - I suspect not - but you get what I mean.

Saturday 27 August 2016

Reading list, 27 August 2016

Bulky, heavy, pricey - yet flourishing - Carolina Miranda in the LA Times on the continuing success of art book publishing

Promoting audio guides and other mobile experiences in museums - useful points from Frankly Green and Webb

What it really takes to get a perfect street style shot - actually engrossing stuff from Elle's street style photographer Tyler Joe

The volunteers who do the dirty work for the Field Museum's mammoth bird collection - covered in depth by Joan Cary for the Chicago Tribune

A blog post from Ed Rodley from earlier this year, resurfaced this week on Twitter, about the difference in depth and width between old paper-based exhibition development files and more current electronic filing, in terms of our ability to understand our own and other institution's changing practices
When Times live videos are good — and many are — they capture an immediate experience, feel spontaneous and put the viewer in a front-row seat with a hand on the controls.
Facebook Live: Too Much, Too Soon - Liz Spayd, the New York Times' public editor, gives a critical review of the newspaper's Facebook Live instant video work.

Charles Desmarais' 'Unraveling SFMOMA’s deal for the Fisher collection' for the San Francisco Chronicle has been getting a lot of play amongst American bloggers this week; it's behind a paywall but this link worked for me and hopefully will for you too.

Rebuilding a Former Slave’s House in the Smithsonian - the way entire structures are shown in American museums weirds me out a bit, but this is special.

On the to-read-on-a-slow-day pile: the NMC / Balboa Park Online Collaborative museum digital trends report (PDF).

Saturday 20 August 2016

Reading list, 20 August 2016

Why Brands Are Building Their Own 'Museums' Where Immersion Is the Price of Entry - AdWeek

The Oppressive Gospel of Minimalism - another kicker from Kyle Chaka for the New York Times

Take Me (I'm Yours) - the Jewish Museum runs a Kickstarter campaign to raise $ for production costs for an exhibition exploring concepts of value and participation.

House Arrest - Nate Freeman's long form examination of how Sotheby's is changing for Art News

David's Ankles - re-examines the already-covered story of how Michelangelo's sculpture is is fatally flawed, worth clicking through for Maurizio Cattelan's amazing hero image.

Two fantastically insightful interview on Tusk: On The Level with Emma Ng and Tuakana with Matthew Oliver.

Tuesday 16 August 2016

Millennial child

This essay was my contribution to The Third Enjoy Retrospective Five Year Catalogue, edited by Louise Rutledge and available from the Enjoy website for a value-packed 20 bucks. Thanks to Louise and Emma Ng for inviting me to write for this.

Millennial child  

Enjoy and I appeared in Wellington in the same year: I moved here to study art history at Victoria University, and Enjoy materialised on Cuba Street, a fresh new space for contemporary art practice. My perspective on what Enjoy offers has changed in pace with my own involvement in the art world: as a young arts reviewer, Enjoy was where I went to seek out edgier presentations than those I saw elsewhere; as an arts viewer it was an essential part of my rounds of the galleries; today, it’s where I go to locate emergent voices in art making, curating, and writing. It’s fair to say I can’t imagine Wellington without Enjoy.

I wrote the above earlier this year when Enjoy asked me for a letter of support for a funding application. I was pleased to be asked to support the gallery - flattered, even - because for a good while I was a little intimidated by Enjoy's effortless cool, the contemporary language of the work they showed. Scrolling through the (new, bounteous) online exhibition archive I realised there was a lag of two or three years between arriving in Wellington as a third year arts student and becoming a regular at the old gallery on the other side of Cuba Street.

Wellington was on a visual arts high at the turn of the millennium. The Adam Art Gallery opened in September 1999, and Te Papa (a mixed bag for the arts audience, sure, but perhaps the single biggest moment in Aotearoa New Zealand's museological history) had opened in February 1998; in Porirua, Pataka opened September that same year. In 1999 Massey University had also merged with Wellington Polytechnic, establishing the College of Design, Fine Art and Music. There was a new concentration of established artists putting down roots, and a new cohort of younger artists and art students to fill a space like Enjoy.

Something else came to Wellington in 2000 - the fifth Labour government. Technically, Helen Clark became Prime Minister on 10 December 1999, but let's not let a matter of 21 days stand between us and aligning this auspicious moment with the new millennium. In addition to being our first elected female Prime Minister, Clark took the role of Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage. And boy, could you tell. Even as a student, I could feel the concentration of energy and belief around the visual arts in Wellington (edged with a deep border of frustration and betrayal amongst those older than me over the treatment of contemporary art at Te Papa).

This was the environment in which I came of age. It was one that made optimism around the visual arts feel natural - and one that made the leadership of women feel equally natural. In addition to the lodestar of Helen Clark, in my nearer orbit were Jenny Harper as head of Art History at Victoria, Tina Barton in the same department, Zara Stanhope as the inaugural director at the Adam, the redoubtable Cheryll Sotheran at Te Papa and Paula Savage at City Gallery Wellington. I held part-time jobs at various stages in all four institutions.

Enjoy was reflective of these trends - both towards the investment in a Wellington arts scene (an art scene that could lead the nation) and towards female leadership. From Charlotte Huddleston onwards, Enjoy has been exclusively helmed by women; a fact remarked upon in with some rancour in the first Enjoy Five Year Retrospective Catalogue by Tao Wells, an original Enjoy member.

Today much has changed, and as I look around me that buoyant positivity that I took for granted at 21 has dissolved. The National government is seemingly unassailable, and the most important announcement from central government to the arts sector this year has been a warning that more belt-tightening is needed as predicted income from Lotteries falls. While we no longer bask in the warm glow of Clark's championing of the arts, on the upside we do see increased female leadership across our art galleries, and the beginning of I what I hope is a generational change away from Pakeha dominance.

And we see the endurance, and maturation, of Cuba Street’s scrappy artist-run space. A move across the road to the same floor as Peter McLeavey Gallery placed the gallery literally on the same footing as the establishment. While still the most freewheeling figure on the Wellington visual art scene, Enjoy is definitely an “institution” these days, a place with a whakapapa of staff and supporters, artists and projects.

It's not easy to stay optimistic in the arts. But I think Enjoy has cracked the nut of that problem. Stay focused on nurturing new talent, stay focused on encouraging experimentation, stay focused on knowing and sustaining your community of interest. Draw your energy from these actions. Use that energy to support others. Kia kaha, Enjoy, and happy sweet 16.

Saturday 13 August 2016

Reading list, 13 August 2016

The Met posts record attendance figures, but attributes part of its current financial strictures to an increase in younger visitors who are paying less for their voluntary admission charges (following a lawsuit where the Met was forced to change the wording on their admission policy, from 'recommended' to 'suggested').

As reported in the above NYT article by Robin Pobegrin, alongside redundancies, the Met is predicted to reduce the number of temporary exhibitions and start shopping in its own closet (making shows from its own collection to reduce the costs involved in loaning works) to continue with cost-saving. Interestingly, the situation has echoes to 2009, when Thomas P. Campbell took over the Met - facing a dive in its endowment due to the GFC, the museum dropped programming and shed staff. At that same time Campbell announced a revitalisation of the museum's digital work, a campaign that led to the hiring of Sree Sreenivasan, former Chief Digital Officer at Columbia University. Now Sreenivasan is among the laid-off staff, and has just taken a new role as CDO for NYC.

This is one of many shake-ups in the small, tight world of museum's digital leadership: Seb Chan from Cooper Hewitt to ACMI, Nancy Proctor from Baltimore Museum of Art to full-time Museums and the Web, Shelley Bernstein from Brooklyn Museum to the Barnes Foundation, Rob Stein from Dallas Museum of Art to the Alliance of American Museums. There's a fascinating long-form piece of writing to be done about how digital overhauls in museums track with changes in leadership - digital work is relatively flexible, compared to programming and collection development, and is kind of like the canary in the mine of major museum operations. Hmmmm.

In other, shorter, news:

In architecture: Adding - invisibly - to Versailles

In the Olympics: The world of dressage

In New Zealand: Paula Morris's tribute to Peter Gossage

Wednesday 10 August 2016

Saturday 6 August 2016

Reading list, 6 August 2016

When museums shut down.

SFMOMA responds to Lee Rosenbaum's sniffy article about their audio guide not with indignation, but with data.

Teju Coles writes for the New York Times Magazine on The Superhero Photographs of the Black Lives Matter Movement, a rare example of a arts critic grappling with the depiction of world events as they happen.

Hyperallergic's new(ish) podcast is showing promise: start with the latest, on women artists in the Ab-Ex movement, because Linda Nochlin. (And also because those of us who are part of the apparatus that determines whose work gets shown and whose stories get remembered have nobody to blame for invisibility and erasure except ourselves.)

Le Guin might have had Roke, Atuan and Gont, but Martin O'Leary has built a naming language to generate fantastical place names.

SEGD (not sure who that is, but hey) have published a list of of the 20 most influential exhibition designs of the 21st century to date. What fascinates me here is that exhibition design (ie. scaffolding to support object display, narration, and visitor interactions) are not differentiated from artworks that are experiential.