The creative promise and open collections: An interview with Template

Annet Dekker interviews Template, a graphic design and digital development studio run by Lasse van den Bosch Christensen and Marlon Harder. They engage in both client oriented work and initiate their own critical design related projects.

‘The contemporary interface of many digital collections shows images merely in neatly divided grids. How can we create context and meaning for these images?’

Introduction:

As sociologist Mike Featherstone puts it, ‘Increasingly the boundaries between the archive and everyday life become blurred through digital recording and storage technologies’ (2006, 591). Whereas the paper archive has always been the place to store and preserve documents and records, and has functioned as a warehouse for the material from which memories were (re)constructed, its digital counterpart is changing the meaning and function of an archive. The archive’s traditional representational relationship to social identity, agency and memory is challenged by the distributed nature of networked media. Initially designed as a mirror of physical collections and paper archives, the digital repository became a collection itself. A new set of values is presented, but it often remains unarticulated at the cultural and scientific level. What are some of the new understandings of the relationship between the software by which online archives are coded and the social, commercial and organisational practices of what is still considered the archiving of documents? What are the roles of users, in all their manifestations as the meeting point of cultural value and technological systems?

Numerous terms are used to describe the ‘new’ types of archives, for example ‘living archives’ (Passerini 2014; Lehner 2014, 77) or ‘fluid archives’ (Aasman 2014), what is commonly acknowledged is that archives are no longer stable institutions.  The terms ‘living’ and ‘fluid’ point to the following characteristic of online archives: openness (they are constantly changing and accumulating), self-reference (hash tags have replaced traditional categorisation), and they represent – like many other online platforms – the shift from passive audiences to active users. Due to their transient quality, it could be argued, these archives are not designed for long-term storage and memory, but for reproduction. As media scientist Wolfgang Ernst explains, the emphasis in the digital archive shifts from documenting a single event to redevelopment, in which a document is (co-) produced by users (Ernst 2012, 95). Whereas the source may remain intact, as in the original archive, its existence is changing and dynamic.

One of the main reasons for this change in archiving is the practice of a variety of non-specialists  who are ‘archiving the everyday’ and creating endless ‘personal archives’. This has often given rise to statements about the ‘democratisation of archival practices’, which allows a broad range of individuals, communities and organisations to document, preserve, share and promote (community) identity through collective stories and heritage (Cook 2013; Gilliland and Flinn 2013). What does it mean when archives are thought of in terms of (re)production or creation systems instead of representation or memory systems? Whereas this question has many consequences for thinking about the archive, the design duo Template focuses on how these changes affect the agency of users, by addressing the ways in which users engage with online archives and playfully interrogate and subvert systems such as archives to produce new knowledge concerning their social, cultural and commercial values. With their project Pretty old Pictures, Template addresses the future of online archives and collecting. Whilst critically analysing web 2.0 innovative platforms, particularly Flickr Commons, their aim is to present potential consequences of openness, unclear copyright and ownership legislation, and loss of context in a playful manner.


Template [http://template01.info/] is a graphic design studio established in 2014 and run by Marlon Harder and Lasse van den Bosch Christensen. Marlon studied graphic design as a bachelor at ArtEZ in Arnhem, the Netherlands, and Lasse did his bachelor studies in communication at Kolding School of Design, Denmark. They met during their master studies at Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. With their studio they both engage in research and client practice. Their research projects often relate to their own practice as designers. For example: how labour, especially digital labour, is in flux and how ‘fun’, playing and making friends are new ways to conceal this. Or how the idea of the creative individual seems omnipresent (everyone is a maker) and how digital ‘template-promoting’ tools are stimulating this tendency. However, they argue, instead of the promised individuality these tools generate a very bland sameness. In their client-based work, they do almost everything that relates to visual communication: from web programming to areas where digital translates into analogue (or the other way around), such as Automated books and the conversion of HTML to print.

Annet Dekker: Can you describe the project Pretty Old Pictures and in what way it represents a ‘new’ archive?

Template: With our project Pretty Old Pictures we are looking into the archive of Het Nieuwe Instituut. Along with many other institutions Het Nieuwe Instituut shares part of its image archive on Flickr Commons. This section of the photo-sharing platform Flickr hosts images with either none or unknown copyright restrictions. The interface of Flickr is extremely visually focused, often displaying an endless amount of imagery lacking any original context. We wanted to explore what potentially can happen to this rather overwhelming content. In a way, these images only exist in the present and attain meaning when a user starts working with them. As such, we believe the ‘present moment’ will very likely become more important in the future where content is extracted from archives and presented as single images unrelated to each other and seemingly without a past. Our intention is to print out specific selections of the images and sell them in nicely packaged bundles.

What were your intentions? What do you want to achieve?

As graphic designers we are fascinated with crowdsourcing platforms and what they stand for: the promise of creative empowerment. You spend four years in an art school learning a trade and then in the real world it is of course not easy to find work. You become part of a broader creative category and especially online there are numerous platforms that turn your trade and your livelihood into un- or underpaid competitions or games, albeit not always in an obvious way. Already at the Piet Zwart Institute [Media Design and Communication in Rotterdam] we became interested in this type of ‘crowd sourced graphic design.’ Take the example of 99Designs. 99Designs is a platform that organises competitions around specific design jobs. For a mere 250 dollars a client often has over 500 designs, made by hundreds of designers, to choose from. For a week we participated in 99 design competitions and made 99 designs that fitted the briefs. During the process we exhibited the designs together with the rejection letters – none of our designs were selected. Rather than being cynical about it, we sincerely wanted to follow this prescribed anticipation of 99Designs and see where it would lead us.

We were interested in how feasible it would be to make the designs, how many hours it would take and in return what our profit would be. Secondly, how much exposure it would generate and if it would broaden our network, which is a main motivation pushed on to designers using these platforms.

Similarly, we looked at other business models like Etsy that all have this same promise of generating an income for your ‘unique products’. When browsing their database it soon becomes apparent that the products are not unique; there even seems to be a very specific Etsy aesthetic. In the end, these platforms tell you more about a specific period in time than anything else. From these experiences we became interested in starting our own company to see how we could benefit from the trend. And then we saw all the content on Flickr Commons and how hardly anyone is using it in the way these other platforms are using content. We wanted to see how easy it would be to make a business out of it: to live the dream of creative entrepreneurs!

Basically we want to comprehend how these institutions are dealing with their digital archives, especially when publishing the content online. In the meantime we confront them with what could potentially happen. There are many possibilities, from selling to copying and changing the images. We want to investigate the consequences of those actions. For example, what does ‘open’ content mean, what are the consequences not only in terms of copyright, but also for the institute and its archival tasks. Are museums following a general trend or are they idealistic about spreading information, or both, and what does that mean in relation to traditional methods? More generally, what are the effects of a changing image culture with regard to new ways of dealing with decontextualized content, appropriation, or even the influence on cultural – and individual – memory? With this project we want to poke at all these issues by actually doing and setting up a business.


At the same time, we are interested in the influence of the online platform that is used. What happens when you give away content to a commercial business, which then becomes a co-owner of the material? This is not necessarily a new question, but it is becoming more urgent now that bigger platforms are offering these easy solutions. In a way it resembles the Google Books project in which many libraries and publishers gave away rights just to have their books digitised. These issues are far less resolved within Flickr Commons, or by those uploading – or downloading – the content. It all happens without people being truly aware of the consequences.

Why did you focus on Flickr Commons, rather then other large repositories, databases, or archives like, for example, Europeana?

We started looking at what sort of external databases and platforms Het Nieuwe Instituut is using, and found out that Flickr Commons is one of the more central, and definitely the biggest. Flickr Commons is interesting because of the promotion of public domain and ‘openness’, using guidelines on copyright that seem purposely unclear. Each image under Flickr Commons is tagged with ‘No known copyright restrictions’, meaning that either the image is in the public domain or that the author cannot be verified or found. Additionally each participating institution has its own rights statement, some of which loops back to the Flickr statement and therefore remains  ambiguous or even contradictory. This leaves room for interpretation and opportunities from both Flickr as a platform but also other third parties, like us.

The interface of Flickr also caught our interest. Once you enter the website you see a vast amount of images, infinitely scrollable. Some museums have millions of images on Flickr, which is served up visually as an extremely fragmented image collage. Rather than offering the original context of an image, the system functions primarily through visual linking. That’s how a new context and meaning is made. Of course if you know what you are searching for and manage to type in the right search query you can get relevant results, but this will never match the expertise or human-provided knowledge that is found in a traditional archive. This is what we found fascinating when visiting the physical archive of Het Nieuwe Instituut, where the archivist explained all kinds of relations between documents, offering additional information that you would not necessarily be looking for. We realised what is missing in many online archives or databases right now, and more so in the future, since this kind of human knowledge, built up over time, does not transfer easily. Of course there are descriptions, categories, and keywords based on folksonomies on Flickr, but there are no stories – at least not yet.

Do you use specific criteria for the selections you make?

At first it was merely based on our own favourites. Now we are also looking more at things that are popular, that sell on platforms like Etsy. Often these are the regular things like nature, space, and architecture of course, but we are still testing. For Het Nieuwe Instituut and other institutes partaking in Flickr Commons, Pretty Old Pictures creates custom packages. These are sold in their museum shop, perhaps used as business gifts, merchandise or advertisements. Design-wise we grasp the DIY [Do It Yourself] spirit and this is essential for our strategy. For example, we make our own envelopes for the images we sell, which neatly transforms into an image-frame. They even smell of the laser cutter that we used.

There is such an overall emphasis on all kinds of retro trends, from old school barber haircuts and beards to riso prints on vintage book pages and moustaches on t-shirts. Trends we do not necessarily try to understand, but feed into our project. We are at the same time following the hype and trying to create hype: all in pursuit of a genuine creative business.

What is your relation to the material you selected? Is it ambivalent, or are you complicit – buying into the creative promise?

It is both. On the one hand we feel a bit ashamed, because at times it comes across as ripping someone off. On the other hand we are very excited about the project and looking forward to what may happen. There is a tension between these elements, which we also want to enforce and play with.

Your studio Template also seems to have two sides. On the one hand you make a critical nod to templates and on the other hand your work is about playing and using templates in slightly different ways. Similarly, an interface directs what you can do, and now you are building your own interface. You work seems rather paradoxical.

Yes, we use templates as topics for our research, but then we refuse to use them in our commercial projects. You know templates exist and it is really hard to avoid them. Because of their ease of use it is also completely understandable that people use them. It does not make sense to be completely negative about them. However, of course we like to be critical and subversive in our use of templates. Often the very limited possibilities or options of the template enhance the feeling of having made something. You created something original, that no one ever thought of or will do again. However, you created it within a framework that dictates what you can and cannot do. All these platforms and DIY mechanisms very much play on the assumptions of the importance of the original, the authentic and the individual. Essentially, these are still important beliefs in art traditions and our culture at large.

Most of these discussions also link to the debate on free labour; sometimes you feel in control when using all these readily available tools, but at the same time you are losing your power, because you are giving up the content and work that you create. We have no idea what 99Designs, for example, will do with the 99 designs that we made: they might sell them to different parties, use them to create new templates, or just delete them. Then again, communities get formed on platforms, and seeing other people’s work might in turn benefit you in some way or another. Some platforms even organise special lunch meetings, and the relationships between users have been known to outlive the platform itself. It is too easy to just be dismissive of it all.

Where is the breaking point for you; when will you, or the user, become more powerful than the other?

For us it is important that the design part of the project functions in the way it should. We want to create something that is convincing. In more general terms, it is important how people are addressed, what agency they get and how much freedom they have to use what they created in other ways or places. Of course the failures never receive any attention: the focus is on the success stories as they help promote the platform. That is the point where things start to derail.  It may also go wrong when more obvious commercial stakes become apparent. For example, at a certain point Flickr started to sell images from its users licensed under the Creative Commons, causing a scandal amongst angry users who saw their content being commercially appropriated by Flickr. Likewise, we would also be very happy once we can sell the archive back to the organisation to which it belongs! Then again, we would just continue the cynical part of the project, which is not the most interesting part. It would be more interesting to discuss the situation the organisation has created for itself.



I am particularly interested in the idea of sharing and circulating images and other information that is made possible with Flickr Commons as a new form not just of distribution but perhaps also production – and archiving. In what way do you play with these kinds of mechanisms? Do you think it brings out a new potential in archiving?

These collections of images are open, so essentially you can do what you want; digital archiving is really made for interpretations. It demands a much more active role from its audience. They can provide context to the images without having to follow any rules. This would be unthinkable in a traditional archive. At the same time it brings up the question of what the role and function of an archive is. The relation to the past seems to disappear. It is only the present that counts, which is linked to the near future; the excitement of other people’s reactions and how they will respond. Most likely the two ‘archives’ will exist simultaneously, because at a certain point we will need to go back into history. The real question is how we will be able to return to the past in a digital archive, in which context is very scattered, and based of rapidly changing folksonomies rather than standardised categorisations.

In a way it could be argued that your project follows the same ideas as many creative industry start-ups: focusing on future business, economic models and sometimes even utopian perspectives. But at the same time, you work from the present, which may not be obvious to everyone, but is still very relevant as it is changing the way we deal with property, archives and memory.

One of the main things that is often missing in these discussions are the users: they are somewhere in the background, invisible. However, in this project we are replicating this system by focusing on the platform, and not necessarily the users. The physical archive of Het Nieuwe Instituut was a valuable experience for us. It became so clear that the knowledge the archivist possesses is unique and this kind of contextual information is hard to replace in a digital environment. Rather than trying to bring that into a digital environment we wanted to expose other layers, other ways of using and perhaps abusing the content that is void of context. Essentially today’s image culture is hard to grasp, it is partly steered by mechanisms and systems that are working in the back-end, which makes us use images in different ways. Archives are transforming from places where memories are kept to databases in which the present and near future are becoming more important. It is all about the now, presenting and sharing your, or other people’s images with friends and strangers alike. The context of an image is not important anymore; it is all about form and ease of distribution.

This, of course, throws up interesting questions: how do we relate to these images, how does this culture influence us, now and in terms of how we think about the past? Are we taking the image – and its content – for granted? In a way images – and perhaps archives – also become meaningless, or at least the importance shifts in favour of relations and communication between people. We tend to think that selections are still important: similar to the archivist we make selections that may seem random but the constraints generate meaning. Not necessarily the same ‘original’ meaning, but a selection brings something new, it makes people think in a different way about the images. Connections are thought of and narratives appear. Such creative thinking is of course easier with a selection of five than with hundreds of images. This new way of dealing with the content of the archive is no longer related to singular objects but meaning is generated through different constellations. Similar to oral culture, events and histories are now retold in different ways. As such it could be argued be that the (future) digital archive has more in common with oral traditions than with its paper version.

Pretty Old Pictures is commissioned by Het Nieuwe Instituut as part of their ongoing research  ‘New Archive Interpretations’ (curated by Annet Dekker). For more information see http://archiefinterpretaties.hetnieuweinstituut.nl/en

Template are part of the exhibition: “Algorithmic Rubbish: Daring to Defy Misfortune” @ SMBA in Amsterdam, with Blast Theory, James Bridle, Constant Dullaart, Femke Herregraven, Jennifer Lyn Morone, Matthew Plummer-Fernandez, Template, Suzanne Treister. The show runs till 23 August with a final day discussion that includes Template and Constant Dullaart, moderated by Josephine Bosma. For more info: http://smba.nl/

Bibliography

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Cook, Terry. 2013. ‘Evidence, Memory, Identity and Community: Four Shifting Archival Paradigms’. Archival Science, June, Vol. 13, No. 2-3, pp. 95-120.

Ernst, Wolfgang. 2012. Digital Memory and the Archive. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Featherstone, Mark. 2006. ‘Archive’. Theory, Culture & Society, May, Vol. 23, No. 2-3, pp. 591-6.

Gilliland, Anne and Andrew Flinn. 2013 ‘Community Archives: What are we really talking about?’. Nexus, Confluence, and Difference: Community Archives meets Community Informatics: Prato CIRN Conference Oct 28-30 2013, editors: L. Stillman, A. Sabiescu, N. Memarovic, Centre for Community Networking Research, Centre for Social Informatics, Monash University.

Lehner, Sharon. 2014. ‘Documentation Strategy and the Living Archive’. In Inheriting Dance: An Invitation from Pina, edited by Marc Wagenbach and The Pina Bausch Foundation. Bielefeld: Transcript-Verlag, pp. 75-84.

Passerini, Luisa. 2014. ‘Living Archives. Continuity and Innovation in the Art of Memory’. Unpublished transcript of lecture at Columbia University, 1 April.