methodology

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

Archive in Practice: An imagined exhibition

 Part one: Archive in Practice

One dimension of photography is that it is concerned with the staging of a struggle against the loss of memory – an attempt to archive and preserve what is about to disappear for good.[1] Gerhard Richter

These reflections by artist Gerhard Richter, encapsulate the very reason why I was lured into working with the medium. “An attempt to archive and preserve what is about to disappear for good”… Photography frames subjective experience in time. The act of taking a photograph is a highly romantic gesture – it captures a frame in time, which then becomes a fragment, isolated from its whole.

(Including the black edges of the film strip and a sliver of the next photograph on the film, amplifies the notion of the fragment)

3.2 The View. 2006 [2011]. Archival Inkjet Print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag. 77 x 46cm. Edition of 3 + 2 AP. (Including the black edges of the film strip and a sliver of the next photograph on the film, amplifies the notion of the fragment)

Every single photograph that I have ever taken contributes to an organically growing archive of irretrievable past defined in pictorial representation. This archive is the foundation of my art practice whereby the images within it become subject to constant reinterpretation and reconfiguration.

Acts of Recall, [sort excerpt], 2015, 16:9, colour, 14 min, 36 seconds, video still

By continually retrieving earlier photographs and combining them with more recent pictures, I explore new sets of formal connections and narrative relationships, which then surfaces other imagery or elements. In this way, my work reflects upon the transitory nature of meaning and memory, thereby amplifying the paradox of photography.

Drifting Down, [The Dome], 2012. Archival Inkjet Print on Hahnem Archival Inkjet Print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag. 100x100cm. Edition of 5 + 2 Ap

I am working with an acutely active archive, one that is constantly expanding physically as I continue to take pictures using analogue film in combination with digital printing processes. However, it is the emotional impact of each of these pictures that cause my archive to function and how they evoke and interact with my own memory. The enduring questions are:

How does one preserve content in an archive that is driven by “the felt”, the narrative and the poetic?

 How does one organise and manage the content in an archive that is continually changing in meaning and has endless manifestations, inter-relationships and formal and narrative connections?

All The Gardens I Could Find – Installation View
Blindside, Melbourne, 2016.

 I explore these themes through projects and exhibitions. Through the use of installation strategies I create pictorial and spatial structures that often function as a visual and temporal representation of the archival process and the concept of the catalogue as a completed physical item.

I playfully present photographs from my archive as a composite experience across a gallery space, thematically arranged, described and in constant dialogue with one another. This is realized through using colour, components of text and careful placement of the works in relation to the architecture of the gallery space. I usually include mechanisms for storing, reimaging or archiving like boxes, tables, folders, envelopes, and frames as a way of suggesting that the order is not fixed, and that the material is always in a state of being sorted through and processed – meaning is always in a constant state of flux.

Series 5: Overlaps – Garden Green and Sky Blue. Installation View Detail. Blindside, Melbourne 2016.

  For When All the Leaves Will Fall (Chiang Mai, Thailand) 2016 (2015)
  Archival Inkjet Print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag. 54x37cm.
  Edition of 5 + 2 Ap.

Through working in collection institutions like the State Library of Victoria and the British Library as my day job, I have been exposed to institutional workflows and archival tools and processes used to manage and preserve collection material and to make it accessible and discoverable for users. I have been inspired by the principles of archival arrangement and description and systems used to store, display and handle collections. This day-to-day engagement has undoubtedly woven into my own methodology.

The second half of this article for Archivoz, takes on the form of an imagined exhibition where archival tools and principles are employed to organize and display the works, as well as to amplify readings concerned with the fragmentary. The concept of the archive is also used as a metaphor for representation of the inner workings of the mind.

The Course of Leaving [Of course I will be Leaving]. 2010.
Archival Inkjet Print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag Baryta. 60x40cm

 

Part two: An Imagined Exhibition

A single table is positioned across the centre of the gallery, causing the room to be split into two parts. The dimension of this table permits only just enough space for the viewer to move around it and access the other half of the gallery.

The table’s surface acts as a carrier of meaning. Upon this surface, lay fragments of images – unmounted, unframed and resting in piles, that seem to be assembled into groupings according to colour, pictorial content and geometric forms. The surface layer of pictorial content is presented to the viewer, while the photographs embedded underneath are concealed by the nature of the pile. These deeper layers suggest a personal content that is not accessible.

For Proust, the deepest most profound memories really need to have been “lost” by being gradually covered over by other memories…[2]…. Embedded underneath the surface layers of the pile are ‘the true emotional tone of the past

The viewer enters the space through the whiteness and emptiness, being lured toward the zone of the table by the fragments of deep and vivid colors revealed between sheets of creamy white paper and manila folders that evoke the sense of residue that has accumulated over the years. In this structure, the pile is a metaphor for The Ruin and one of the beauties of a Ruin is its ability to be re-constructed.

The space in the back half of the gallery (behind the table) is roused by activity – large scale photographs, evocative and contemplative are assembled onto the whiteness of the walls – activating them with colour, light and image.

“Archives are seen as rows and rows of boxes on shelves, impenetrable without the codex which unlocks their arrangement and location”[3]. In this pictorial structure, it is as though the contents of the archive have emerged from their boxes and folders in storage and are undergoing a process of renewal, construction and re-construction.

A code of access is provided for the viewer, through the visual dialogue that operates between the piles of information laid out on the table and the photographs on the walls. Memory is used here as a device: through the use of installation strategies like repetition, groupings, rhythms, contrasts in scale – the viewers’ own memory can be evoked.

As the viewer passes through the area around the table to access the back half of the gallery, they will encounter a Finding Aid, which invites them to go deeper into uncovering further layers of content, through the descriptive information listed at item level.

The archive presented here is fluid, flowing, and its content discoverable through the act of slowing down and paying attention to the subtle codes revealed visually through the careful placement of works throughout the space.

 A Room for Ordering Memory. 2012. Installation View. Counihan Gallery, Melbourne.

For futher information: www.melaniejaynetaylor.com 

[1] Gerhard R. (2010). Between Translation and Invention: The Photograph in Deconstruction. In Copy, Archive, Signature: A Conversation on Photography. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

[2] Gross, D. (2000). Lost Time – On Remembering and Forgetting in Late Modern Culture. Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press.

 [3] Breakwell, S. (Spring 2008). Perspectives: Negotiating the Archive. In Tate Papers 9. Retrieved from https://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/09/perspectives-negotiating-the-archive