Update your bookmarks: artbase.rhizome.org
Rhizome’s key archive of born-digital art, the ArtBase, was initiated in 1999. Accepting open submissions which were lightly moderated, the ArtBase grew over the years to hold more than 2,200 artworks.
Since 2014, Rhizome’s preservation team under the direction of Dragan Espenschied has been working to re-implement the software infrastructure for this unique archive as part of a larger effort to develop better tools for accessing and understanding legacy digital culture. Today, we are unveiling the first phase of this major research project, with a relaunched ArtBase featuring new infrastructure, improved metadata and presentation, and a new accessioning process.
The Need for Semantic Archives
With so many tools available for cataloguing digital archives, it may seem startling that Rhizome would have invested so much time in developing a new approach. We did so because we believe that technical infrastructure shapes the way in which knowledge about cultural heritage is created and captured, organized and shared, and that existing software infrastructure is poorly suited to born-digital cultural archives.
There are a range of reasons for this. One is that knowledge management systems tend to assume that artifacts are discrete objects. This presents a technical problem: born-digital artifacts do not behave like traditional, “self-contained” archive objects. Instead, their objecthood can be performed only when an array of technical elements which may be explicitly outside the artifact align: in the case of a website, that could include HTML files, a specific browser, plug-ins, an operating system, networking connections, screens, input devices, embedded media, and so forth.
This assumption of discrete objecthood also raises particular issues for meaning-making. A born-digital artifact is best understood in relation to the context in which it was created and circulated. Consider, for example, a series of messages in an online forum: each post responds to another, and is composed in relation to the affordances of the platform (Was the author hoping for a certain kind of feedback, such as a “Like”? Were users messaging with one another in real time?). Thus, in born-digital archives, there is a need for software infrastructure that can model artifacts as assemblages, reflecting the relational and dynamic qualities of born-digital cultural expression.
Systems designed for traditional heritage archives are typically based on a relatively stable knowledge schema that is derived from long-established forms of artistic expression. Digital culture, in contrast, is characterized by quickly changing materials and terminology, driven by the pace of software development and the rapid rise and fall of cultural practices. On a practical level, organizations using traditional software to catalog born-digital collections have limited choices—they can either fit content as best as they can into predefined categories, choose to willingly put the “wrong” content into a category not strictly meant for it, usually a miscellaneous “notes” field, or leave certain fields blank. This rigidity limits the data’s usability, accessibility, and compatibility with other data sets.
Welcome to Linked Open Data
With the help of an NEH CARES grant, the ArtBase has been implemented in a new software infrastructure centered around Wikibase, an open-source data platform which is part of the Wikimedia application ecosystem. Wikibase uses Linked Open Data (LOD), a set of standards for structured, machine-readable, and interoperable data on the web. Rhizome’s custom Wikibase installation provides an opportunity to explore how archiving and preservation processes can benefit from LOD in a heterogeneous born-digital archive.
Wikibase is well-suited to the ArtBase because of the dynamic nature of born-digital art. Wikibase can support the description of large groups of creators, artworks that change over time, artworks that encompass multiple distinct manifestations, and artworks that are not described well by properties like location or dimensions. The Wikibase software, with its basic schema of items, properties and qualifiers, offers the flexibility and nuance that is needed to describe practices like net art.
Furthermore, the new LOD infrastructure, facilitated by Wikibase, enables users to pose new questions regarding ArtBase data—questions that go beyond keyword search or faceted categories. Users can access a dedicated SPARQL✨ query service with a graphical user interface to formulate complex questions concerning multiple data points in the archive, without requiring extensive data science skills. This service allows web users to query and visualize the data in real-time through a variety of visualization approaches, such as tables, image grids, charts, maps, and more. These visualizations can also become excellent ways to browse the archive and discover new artworks, as well as information about artworks, artists, and software. Dedicated tutorial materials and visual examples are developed to guide users through the new interfaces and services available in the ArtBase.
Crucially, the flexible structure of the database software enables the ArtBase to remain under active development while users interact with it. This facilitates iterative improvement over time by allowing input from various user communities and the broader digital preservation field to be taken into consideration.
With this relaunch, then, we are not presenting a final, fixed version of the ArtBase, but an open and dynamic one, whose visual design, and data model, will be developed further in parallel to ongoing R&D work at Rhizome.
Trust the Process
Recognizing that the works in the ArtBase were at risk due to technical obsolescence, Rhizome began software development in 2014 to support ongoing access to its collection. With external collaborators, Rhizome’s digital preservation team developed the Emulation-as-a-Service approach to software preservation. In addition, network preservation was facilitated through the development of the decentralized web archiving tool: Conifer (Rhizome’s own hosted version of the Webrecorder platform).
Alongside this work, the third key focus area of the preservation program at Rhizome has been redeveloping the ArtBase infrastructure. At the time, there were few tools available for organizations that wanted to adopt LOD. In 2015, Rhizome became one of the first cultural heritage organizations to pilot the use of Wikibase as a collections management system. At that time, Wikibase was not developed for use outside of Wikimedia’s own deployment. Since then, Rhizome has made a sustained effort to foster a community of support around Wikibase. In September 2018, Rhizome hosted the NYC Wikibase Summit at the New Museum with participants from the GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums) sector. Rhizome continues to actively foster the broader Wikibase community by facilitating ongoing conversations and technical development.
In 2016, the ArtBase became the main focus of a collaborative doctoral project between Rhizome and the Centre for the Study of the Networked Image at London South Bank University. The practice-based PhD project seeks to contribute new knowledge to the field of online archive design for born-digital cultural heritage by addressing the question of how archived web-based works can be made accessible to the public in their primary context, online. The lead researcher of the project, designer Lozana Rossenova, worked closely with Rhizome’s preservation team, and the wider Rhizome community, towards prototyping and iteratively developing a new data model and interface design framework for the archive. (You can explore Rossenova’s research in a dedicated micro-site).
In 2020, with support from NEH CARES Grant (HC-274988-20), Rhizome restructured ArtBase's data from its original relational database model to a new LOD implementation. In the coming years, Rhizome will build on this work by fully implementing and assessing Rossenova’s new ontology for born-digital culture; working with users and researchers to test and improve software, design, and usability; and laying the groundwork for a federation of LOD archives.
This last point represents one of the most interesting features of LOD: it allows interoperability among disparate archives. On a practical level, federated archives would allow researchers to find information across multiple institutional archives more readily. On a more idealistic level, they may help foster an understanding that archives are interdependent—resources and responsibilities to be shared.
We believe in Users
With this relaunch, we welcome engagement from artists, researchers, partner organizations, and casual users.
If you’re an artist who wishes to submit your work, we will be running periodic, focused open calls to accession new works. Announcements of open calls will be shared on our email list, Rhizome News.
If you’re a researcher or even a more casual user, we would love to hear your feedback and questions about using the ArtBase.
With the new design of the ArtBase infrastructure, Rhizome welcomes strategic partnerships with artists or researchers whose work can help enrich the archive. We especially encourage partnership proposals from communities underrepresented in the ArtBase. For consultations and inquiries email: [email protected].
This relaunch is a culmination of years of research and development, but in many ways, the real work begins now. The relaunch is just the first step; it’s time for all of us to discover how this new infrastructure will be used.
Spend some time with the new ArtBase today!
The new ArtBase was made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this website do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.