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Making art from a lifetime of data

by Alex in | | | |

This weekend Little Sweetie asked whether she can have my computer when I die. I had to explain that she is unlikely to want it: by the time I die, my current computer will be useless.

“But how about this,” I suggested instead. “When I die, you can have whatever computer I have at the time. Although I want somebody else to clean it first.”

“Why?” she asked.

“You don’t want to have to read love letters from my old boyfriends or journal entries about how crazy I was after having a baby.”

She was satisfied with this deal, but I want to add a rider. About six months ago, Sweetie and I went to see an exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery by Song Dong, titled Waste Not. It consisted of a lifetime’s worth of objects — everything from shoes to plastic bottles to furniture — as hoarded over a lifetime by the artist’s mother.

Lord & Taylor shopping bagWhen the time comes, I will doubtless leave Little Sweetie and Little Peanut to contend with an epic collection of physical detritus, judging from both our current house and my genetic predisposition to packrattitude. When my grandmother died my mother and I were cleaning out her apartment, we opened a closet that began with a layer of string-handled shopping bags. My grandmother loved the shopping bags that Sak’s, Lord & Taylor, Macy’s and Bloomingdales dispensed, and she could never bear to throw one away. We pulled out the layer shopping bags to find out what was in the closet, and found another layer of shopping bags. And then another. It turns out that if you live in New York your entire life, and you can’t bear to throw out a single shopping bag from a New York department store, you accumulate a closet’s worth of string-handled bags.

The shopping bags were (relatively) easy to let go of, but not so the other treasures we found in that apartment. There were generations of “I can’t throw this away” embedded in her various cupboards, from my great-grandfather’s childhood sketchbook to his grandfather’s newspaper clippings. From this experience I realized the urgency of regular purging: what you inherit from your parents may be treasures or it may be clutter, but what they leave from their parents is by definition an heirloom.

That realization may have inspired me to be modestly diligent about curbing my tendencies toward the hoarding of physical objects, but it does nothing to slow the rate of digital accumulation. On the contrary, I go to enormous lengths to ensure that I hold onto every email, file and floppy disk I’ve every had.

One day, this pile of digital crap will get passed along to Little Sweetie and Little Sweetie. I could put all the really incriminating stuff in a separate folder and ask a couple of good friends to ensure it gets deleted (or at least kept out of my kids’ hands) upon my timely or untimely demise, but the kids are still going to be handed a lifetime’s worth of memos, emails, podcasts, half-written short stories, tweets, journal entries, meeting notes, read and unread research papers, hip hop tracks, interview transcriptions, photos, bookmarks, torrented TV shows, university essays, digital receipts, client reports, blog posts, book proposals, web page wireframes, jotted-down ideas, family video, graduate research notes, craft projects, travel bookings, Broadway cast albums, screenshots and php snippets. Just thinking about the volume of bits I will leave behind is enough to kill me now.

And the very worst part is that unlike the family memorabilia my grandmother accumulated, this collection will fit on a single hard drive or web server: my kids will have no excuse for not maintaining it and passing it on. The main chore will be ensuring that the stored data will be accessible to future generations rather than decaying on a single drive. There’s a great potential business for perpetual digital crypts that archive your loved ones’ digital remains and keep it in viable storage formats.

How much value do we really get from hanging onto our files in perpetuity? Maybe my archival impulse stems from the fact that my parents both spent their careers digging through other people’s documentary remains. Maybe it’s the digital equivalent of a closet full of shopping bags. Maybe it’s a way to cheat death, metaphorically or (as per the premise of Caprica) even literally. Maybe it’s proof that social media fuels narcissistic pathology.

But Song Dong gives me hope. If a lifetime’s worth of physical objects can be transformed into an art installation, what might an artist create with a lifetime’s worth of data? From video projections to an immersive landscape of the voice and music of the dead, to touchscreens that let you leaf through someone else’s files, to walls covered in printed-out emails and photos: that’s just the beginning of the creative possibilities.

I won’t curse my kids with the expectation that they transform my digital detritus into a world-renowned work of art. But I suspect it’s not (solely) that public recognition that made Song Dong’s Waste Not significant to the artist. Art is a way of knowing, a way of coming to terms with the world and your place in it. If curating your mother’s material possessions can help you know her — and yourself — then what might you learn from grappling with your mother’s digital remains? That’s for us to wonder, and for our children to find out.

First posted on May 30,2011
  • http://www.everydaypublicrelations.com Kristina Summers

    great article! With three kids I too often wonder what will happen to all the “stuff” that now sits in closets, boxes and under beds. Recently I have tried hard to cut down on the number of items I hold on to (much to my husband’s lament – if left to him he would keep every single paper, hair and wrapper that our kids ever handled). Like you though I realize that the amount of digital detritus will far outweigh the box of “special stuff” I leave behind. When i changed computers, transferring files was such an unwieldy task that I ended up putting most of it on a couple of externals, which truth to be told will probably sit, un-accessed unless something comes along to send me searching, which isn’t as often as I and probably everyone who keeps things probably does. I admit though that when the occasion comes for me to go through older things, I do feel connected with the past. 

    Again, great – good way to start my day. :)

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