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The folder structure of Pig City

Digital archivist Frans Neggers is one of Het Nieuwe Instituut’s experts in the field of born-digital materials. He is currently evaluating the files in the MVRDV archive in terms of preservation and sustainable accessibility. The MVRDV archive is an important case study in the creation of an infrastructure for digital materials. He showed the folder structure of Pig City, an MVRDV project on land use from 2001. The folders include documents, renderings and films. In some cases, it is difficult to reconstruct the design process: what is the relationship between the various files and between them and the overall process? Which copies and versions were essential in the design process and which were not?

This information is important for the metadata associated with each archival object. But the design process was not linear. Jan Knikker, a partner at MVRDV, pointed out that the files are like an ecosystem. Understanding this ecosystem and indexing it clearly is a massive task. Here again, the importance of the conversation between the archive creator MVRDV and the archive managers comes to the fore. Frans Neggers explained the two biggest threats to digital heritage associated with the history of design software. The first is the loss or unintentional alteration of the digital object itself, for example by data degradation, also known as bit rot. This can be countered by a bit preservation strategy. The second threat is the obsolescence of the original software used to create the file: if the software no longer exists, the file cannot be read. One solution is to convert the file to an open file format, such as converting a Word file to a PDF, making it readable in the future.

The community of digital archivists meets regularly to discuss these issues, for example through the Dutch Digital Heritage Network. By working together, they can develop strategies and services that keep digital materials legible. An example of this is emulation, which aims to produce a ‘virtual simulation’ of the original technical environment of the hardware, operating system and software.

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Remixability

Experiments are already underway with this ‘remixability’ of collections. Curator Eline de Graaf leads Open Archive, a project in which artists are given the opportunity to create a new media work using the digital collections of Het Nieuwe Instituut, the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision and the International Institute of Social History. De Graaf explained how creative reuse and artistic research contribute to keeping the collection alive. The media works do not have to relate to the object’s original context. How do artists approach this? How blurred can the boundaries between history and fiction become? In the previous edition of Open Archive in 2019, Donna Verheijden gave archival documents a new life by making them part of a thriller, while Guy Königstein used photographs and films of offices from the archives for his installation and made audio of fictional, uninvited visitors.

Accessibility is essential for Open Archives. Some works are copyrighted, which creates a possible stumbling block. That is a fairly straightforward issue, but those surrounding privacy and ethics are more complicated. De Graaf wondered whether, for example, personal letters or archives related to the colonial past should be dealt with differently. The workshop participants addressed this matter. Why should some records receive special treatment? Should collection managers contribute to the normalisation of certain subjects? What was not discussed in the workshop was that, once something is online, it can spread uncontrollably and end up in all kinds of new contexts, for example in memes or on a Pinterest board. What responsibility do archive managers have in this? It is clear that dealing with digital archives is still largely unknown territory, but it is now in full development at Het Nieuwe Instituut.

Public programme

A public programme, including an exhibition, will be developed around the MVRDV archive in Octorber 2021. Flora van Gaalen, head of programming, concluded the workshop session with an introduction to the first exhibition idea: “The archive is incredibly specialised, and we have been given the fantastic task of making it public.” The programme will be more than a celebration of the iconic architecture firm’s built projects. It will also make tangible MVRDV’s way of working, which is interdisciplinary, networked and digital. The exhibition will also trace part of the history of the computer in architecture through MVRDV’s work: how architecture and design have evolved in relation to the digital revolution and the advent of the computer within the design process.

Behind the Screens

The Behind the Screens workshop was part of Repositioning Architecture in the Digital, the seventh conference at the Jaap Bakema Study Centre. The conference took a critical look at the interaction between architecture and digital culture since the 1970s. It was organised in association with Professor Georg Vrachliotis of Delft University of Technology.

Speakers

  • Flora van Gaalen, head of programming at Het Nieuwe Instituut
  • Eline de Graaf, curator at Het Nieuwe Instituut
  • Suzanne Mulder, curator at Het Nieuwe Instituut
  • Frans Neggers, archivist as Het Nieuwe Instituut

Participants

  • Ludo Groen, researcher at Het Nieuwe Instituut
  • Jan Knikker, partner at MVRDV
  • Marten Kuijpers, researcher at Het Nieuwe Instituut
  • Marina Otero Verzier, director of research at Het Nieuwe Instituut
  • Ellen Smit, curator at Het Nieuwe Instituut
  • MVRDV – NEXT

Moderators

  • Dirk van den Heuvel, head of the Jaap Bakema Study Centre
  • Georg Vrachliotis, Professor Theory of Architecture and Digital Culture at Delft University of Technology

Text: Soscha Monteiro, coordinator at the Jaap Bakema Study Centre

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