Digital Production

Museum 2.0: The Last American Pirate

During the Long Depression of the 1870s, a man named Edward Owens took up piracy in Chesapeake Bay. He had run out of money, his work as an oyster fisherman no longer able to support him. Born in Virginia in 1853, he chose Watt’s Island as the location for his new profession after hearing about its past of harbouring pirates. Thanks to research by student Jane Browning, Owens subsequently became known as the last American pirate. Posting her research on a blog of the same name, it was described as an ‘example of the power of these tools for an individual to track and frame their own educational experience’ and was reported on media outlets including USAToday.com. On Browning’s blog, you can view photographs of items from archives including Owens’ will and follow links to watch a Youtube video of her visiting his abandoned home and gravesite.

Except Edward Owens never existed. The whole thing was a hoax created by a group of students at George Mason University. The brainchild of Professor Mills Kelly in the Department of History and Art History, Kelly taught the students a course titled Lying about the Past in 2008. The syllabus stated ‘we’ll make up our own hoax and turn it loose on the Internet to see if we can fool anyone.’ Through creating and learning about historical hoaxes, Kelly’s aim was for his students to become ‘better consumers of historical information’, making sure they were acquired with the tools to think critically about sources they came across in their research.

The classes’ result was successfully deceptive and only revealed as a hoax once media outlets began reporting it as factual.  The smoke screen of authenticity was propped up by bad quality photos down to ‘kind of old’ digital cameras and convenient claims of broken photocopy machines with transcripts for substitutes. In some cases, documents from archives were merely set in a new context within Owens’ narrative, masquerading as evidence to back up the story.

The advent of digital technology has allowed increased access to archives, most notably through digitisation projects. Having downloadable images means people can take them, put them in another context or alter them altogether. Old images can become something new and new images can be made to look old and be mistaken for the real thing.

Artist Joan Fontcuberta has explored this throughout his work, challenging ‘disciplines that claim authority to represent the real – botany, topology, any scientific discourse, the media, even religion.In his Stranger than Fiction exhibition in 2014 at the Science Museum, his ‘Fauna’ series was presented as a replica natural history exhibition. Purported to be the long-lost archives of German zoologist Dr. Peter Ameisenhaufen, it included photographs, x-rays and taxidermy. None of the animals existed. Each specimen was an amalgamation of different species and had been given a ‘scientific’ name. These included a winged monkey called a ‘Cercopithecus Icarocornu’ and a snake with legs named ‘Solenoglypha polipodida’.  Visitors were never warned it was a fabrication.

The result is a disorientated audience. The exhibition glaringly lies to our faces in a place we freely reward with implicit trust. Despite our better judgement, doubt creeps in. Could this be real? In a setting like this it can become worryingly convincing. When the same work was shown at the Barcelona Museum of Natural Science in 1989, 30% of university-educated visitors aged 20 to 30 believed some of the animals could have existed. In the same Museum, Fontcuberta recalls seeing a father slap his child on the back of the head for saying the exhibits were fake. The father’s reasoning? The exhibits were in a museum therefore they must be real. ‘It was interesting to me that the child wasn’t educated in the truth of the museum; he wasn’t perverted by culture. This is a very important political concern.’

Throughout his work, Fontcuberta makes the point that although the amount of pictures we take has increased, it has failed to improve how well we read and perceive images and their context. Having worked as a retoucher I know that everything from models, food, cars and furniture are doctored.  With 68% of adults admiting to editing their images before they post them online, altered images are becoming the new normal. What does this mean for digital images of factual and historical documents, objects and art works on the web?

Fontcuberta’s work along with that of the students from George Mason University raises difficult but important questions. When work like this appears, we find it both humorous and horrifying. Throughout our lives we are ‘educated in the truth of the museum’ and persuaded that if it’s been photographed then it exists. The work I’ve referenced here forces us to question this and contemplate the more sinister possibilities. Fontcuberta’s aim is just this and considers his work a ‘vaccine’. ‘My mission is to warn people about the possibility that photography might be doctored and show why people need to be sceptical of images that influence our behaviour and our way of thinking.’ No matter your reaction, they expose weaknesses in ourselves and in the platforms, organisations and projects these images and information are made available from.

How, as online collections continue to increase in size, can museums and archives assure that images of collection items remain uncompromised? Strict digitisation standards and an ethos of capturing everything ‘as is’ contradicts the trend for filters people are applying to their own images. Should we be educating and encouraging people to respect the standards we work to when sharing images online? Online collection use and social media engagement are becoming increasingly relevant to a museum’s or archive’s success. Developing user activity online inevitably means relinquishing some control and allows inventive and brilliant repurposing of archives and museum collections. However, it will become increasingly important to find a balance so that the facts remain clear and digitised items avoid being corrupted while they move through the web.

 

Sources:

http://lastamericanpirate.net/

https://www.scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk/what-was-on/joan-fontcuberta-stranger-fiction

https://www.fontcuberta.com/

http://www.archivesandcreativepractice.com/joan-fontcuberta

Header image:

Historical maps of Hormúz Island, British Library: Map Collections, IOR/X/3127, in Qatar Digital Library <https://www.qdl.qa/archive/81055/vdc_100000006836.0x000001>.

A Blockchain For Archives: Trust Through Technology

At a time when the fragility and vulnerability of digital records are increasingly evident, maintaining the trustworthiness of public archives is more important than ever.

Video and sound recordings can be manipulated to put words into mouths of people who never said them, photographs can be doctored, content added to or removed from videos and recently, AI technology has “written” news articles that can mimic any writer’s style. All of these media and many other “born-digital” formats will come to form the public record. If archives are to remain an essential resource for democracy, able to hold governments to account, the records they hold must be considered trustworthy.

But is this really a problem for archives?

Until recently, this has not been a concern for archives. People trust archives, especially public archives. We are seen as experts, preserving and providing access to our holdings freely and over a lengthy period (since 1838 in the case of The National Archives in the UK). We could rest on our laurels. But the challenges to our practice brought by digital technologies have to lead us to question whether this institutional or inherited trust is enough when faced with the forces of fakery that have emerged in the 21st century.

In 2017, The National Archives of the UK, partnered with the Centre for Vision, Speech and Signal Processing (CVSSP) at the University of Surrey and Tim Berners-Lee’s non-profit Open Data Institute, started to research how a new technology could be harnessed to serve on the side of archives. The ARCHANGEL project is investigating how blockchain can provide a genuine guarantee of the authenticity of the digital records held in archives. A way of publicly demonstrating our trustworthiness by proving that the digital records held in archives are authentic and unchanged.

Often considered synonymous with Bitcoin, blockchain is the technology that underpins a number of digital currencies but it has the potential for far wider application. At root, it is the digital equivalent of a ledger, like a database but with two features that set it apart from standard databases. Firstly, the blockchain is append only, meaning that data cannot be overwritten, amended or deleted; it can only be added. Secondly, it is distributed. No central authority or organisation has sole possession of the data. Instead, a copy of the whole database is held by each member of the blockchain and they collaborate to validate each new block before it is written to the ledger. As a result, there is no centralised authority in control of the data and each participant has an equal status in the network: equal responsibility, equal rights and an equal stake.

As with any new technology, there are issues to be researched and resolved. The most common criticism is that 51% of the participants could collude to change the data written on the blockchain. This is less likely in the case of ARCHANGEL because it is a permissioned blockchain. This means that every member has been invited and their identity is known, unlike bitcoin networks where many of the members are anonymous.

A more practical issue that arose early on was around what information could be shared on an immutable database that would be available to the public, to prove that they were unchanged from the point of receipt by the archives. Every public archive holds records closed due to their sensitive content. This sensitivity sometimes extends to their filenames or descriptions so adding these metadata fields to the blockchain would not be appropriate. We settled on a selection of fields that included an archival reference and the checksum, a unique alphanumeric string generated by a mathematical algorithm that changes completely if even one byte is altered in the file. In this way, a researcher can compare the checksum of the record they download against the checksum on the blockchain (written when the record was first received, potentially many years previously) and see for themselves that the checksums match. As archives sometimes convert formats in order to preserve or present records to the public, the project has also developed a way of generating a checksum based on the content of a video file rather than its bytes. This enables the user to check that the video has not been altered for unethical reasons while in the archive’s custody.

So, the ARCHANGEL blockchain enables an archive to upload metadata that uniquely identifies specific records, have that data sealed into a “block” that cannot be altered or deleted without detection, and share a copy of the data with each of the other trusted members of the network for as long as the archives (some of the oldest organisations in the world) maintain it.

In the prototype testing, we found that the key to engaging other archives is in emphasising the shared nature of the network. Only by collaborating with partners can the benefits of an archival blockchain be realised by any of us. It is blockchain’s distributed nature that underpins the trustworthiness of the system; that enables it to be more reliable, more transparent and more secure, and therefore effective in providing a barrier against the onslaught of synthetic content.

At the same time, the effort of the organisations to make the prototype work demonstrates their trustworthiness: in wanting to share the responsibility for proving the authenticity of the records they hold, they demonstrate their expertise and honesty.

The arms race with the forces of fakery that archives find themselves in is the reason why The National Archives is thinking about trust. We do not want people to trust archives only because of their longevity and expertise. Instead, we want to demonstrate their trustworthiness. We want to provide what Baroness Onora O’Neill said was needed in the BBC Reith Lectures in 2002:

“In judging whether to place our trust in others” words or undertakings, or to refuse that trust, we need information and we need the means to judge the information.” O’Neill, A Question of Trust

This is what we think blockchain gives us as a profession: by being part of a network of trusted organisations which assure the authenticity of each other’s records, we demonstrate the trustworthiness of all of our records.

 

Acknowledgements

The ARCHANGEL Project would like to acknowledge the funding received from the ESPRC Grant Ref EP/P03151X/1.

Copyright

Header image: ‘Crown copyright 2019 courtesy of The National Archives’

Further details:

The project website is here: https://www.archangel.ac.uk/

For a more detailed paper about the project see: https://arxiv.org/pdf/1804.08342.pdf

An archivist walks (back) into a film visual effects company

Introduction: From film to archives, and back to film

From a young age, I’ve been enamoured with films and the magic of bringing moving images to the screen. In my 20s I pursued undergraduate studies in media production and dabbled in many areas of film production, never quite getting my break into the industry. The closest I got was when I landed a job with a visual effects company in Sydney. However, after 11 months of being there, they went into liquidation and closed down.

In my 30s I set aside my dream to work in the movie business and enrolled into a Masters of Information Management. Within a few months, I lined up a professional placement which turned into full-time contract work. Then within a year, I secured an ongoing role in a government archive. I thoroughly enjoyed my new career and didn’t look back to film until one day my friend tells me about a new school being set up to teach animation and VFX. “They’re offering research scholarships”, she told me, “you should apply”. “But what would I research?” I responded puzzled. “Archiving of course!” she said matter of factly.

Almost two years later, and here I am, doing a PhD about film VFX archiving. On many levels, it’s fantastic being in the film world again. This time bringing my archiving expertise back to help a niche group of creative and techy filmmakers preserve their work and reassess the value of their records. However, selling ‘archiving’ to this community is a challenge. In this article, I present some of my experiences and findings so far during my PhD with the VFX industry.

Film VFX

VFX is a creative and technical field of film production, which utilises digital technologies and computer-generated imagery (CGI) in conjunction with live-action shots. The industry is a transnational “media heterotopia” made up of geographically dispersed places and people funnelling work into networked pipelines to create fabricated and seamless visuals for the screen
[1].

Since its introduction in the 1970s through films such Westworld (1973) and Star Wars (1977), the “spectacle, imagery and esthetics afforded by computer-generated imagery has shepherded digital visual effects to the forefront of film production process” [2].

Producing VFX for films involves some specialists skills and tasks including 3D modelling, animation, texturing, lighting, effects and compositing which are provided by digital artists and an array of proprietary, open-source and bespoke software and tools. VFX production also generates high volumes of data, assets and records. Selecting, archiving and maintaining this material can prove to be a challenging process in the industry.

Archiving VFX

VFX studios do not generally employ records management or archiving specialists. Instead, information technology staff or data managers are assigned the task of archiving data, records and assets, usually, once a production project concludes. While some studios have sophisticated tools and processes in place to select only high-value assets that were used in final shots and which represent the ‘hero’ elements (key characters, props etc.). Other information (such as business records and the metadata and contextual information about the assets) are not always archived with the production asset material.

Access and retrieval of archives can be troublesome as archives are generally written to passive LTO magnetic storage tapes. Locating and restoring tape data can often rely upon staff knowledge as there is not always a detailed tape manifest or database to build upon. Besides, another issue is that new generations of LTOs are released every few years, and generally, the tape readers are only one to two generations backwards compatible. This means that if archives are not being migrated to newer tapes, the data becomes trapped due to media obsolescence.

Archiving is motivated by a need to free up online storage space for new productions. When I talked with senior VFX practitioners, they indicated that sometimes they would go back to their previous work if a sequel is on the cards or to reuse a specific technique. However, the technical environment progresses so quickly that most of the time, they just rebuild everything from scratch.

The notion of preserving evidence of VFX for cultural or historical purposes is not high on the agenda for VFX studios. Although, there is evidence that VFX collections do exist in publically accessible archives [3]. VFX is an industry that is continually looking ahead to the next job and the future creative and technical breakthroughs. Looking back to the past—to the records of previous generations of digital artists is something most studios do not consider.

This is partly because they often don’t own the rights to their work. Under copyright law, VFX studios and their artists are considered “work made for hire” [4]. Intellectual property rights sit with the producer (generally a film studio). This means, technically, film studios are the owners of the work and thus should have responsibility for managing VFX archives over time.

Because of the ownership model, the VFX industry takes information security VERY SERIOUSLY. Upon entering any VFX studio, you must sign an NDA and adhere to their strict security policies (e.g. visitors must be escorted at all times, certain machines have zero network access, studios cannot promote their work until the film is released and/or they have permission from the studio).

Conducting research with the VFX industry

So far in my research, I have interviewed over a dozen VFX practitioners based in Australia, USA and the UK. I have heavily relied upon my personal contacts to facilitate the research and introduce me to key staff in studios around the world.

As I experienced, first-hand, VFX studios are very busy work environments. They all have impending deadlines, and staff don’t have precious time to spare—especially not for some Archivist PhD Candidate! Selling the benefits of proper archiving can be a challenge as it inevitably will require resourcing. Smaller-scale VFX studios are generally resource-poor, and the larger studios have competing departments vying for more staff, software or newer tech.

In addition, due to the rigorous information security, I get the impression that for some studios, letting in an Archivist is seen as a risk not worth taking. To try and mitigate this, I have agreed to adopt strict confidentiality and anonymise all my research findings. However, this can also work against me as often the first question potential participants ask me is, “So who else have you spoken to?”. So without having the option to name-drop, I have instead ‘sold’ my research as a potential means to create more online space, improve access and retrieval and usability of their records over time.

Conclusion

In this article, I’ve reflected upon some challenges and findings of my industry-focused doctoral research project with the film VFX industry. In the next year or so I hope to continue to document archiving practices in various VFX studios around the world, share my findings and explore how improvements could be made to help ensure that evidence of this significant discourse of modern cinema is preserved for future generations.

References and notes
[1] Chung, H.J. (2012). Media heterotopia and transnational filmmaking: Mapping real and virtual worlds. Cinema Journal, 51(4), 87–109. doi: 10.1353/cj.2012.0071.

[2] McClean, S. (2014). Digital storytelling: the narrative power of visual effects in film, Cambridge: MIT Press, p. 5.

[3] For example, see Dan Curry papers, 1967-2008, UCLA Library Special Collections z

[4] Copyright Act of 1976 (USA), § 101