Software and data innovations are routinely present in projects that examine culture. Magic will showcase these advances and the process, design, and implementation by which they are created. Specifically, Magic is comprised of three core intents:
— To provide a platform for discussion of innovations in interactive media. Through interviews, annotated code, descriptions, and video demos, the magical space between database and front-end design, where programming turns flat data into objects, will be revealed.
— To create a resource for culturally-sensitive interactive media projects, as this project genre often requires a rethinking of approaches in both content and software.
— To act as documentation for open source projects. With many projects hoping to open up their code for reuse by others, but whose development team lacks the resources to document their code and tactics, Magic will be the documentation.
Consider a new media project linking Indigenous cultural protocols and media content. The project would require presentation and media delivery software. In addition, it would also need to create logic based on the cultural protocols. This isn’t a task written up in how-to books by major software houses in America, but rather is the domain of humanities groups and individuals interested in advancing knowledge and community. Creating a resource hub for sharing between these groups—and new teams venturing out—will benefit similarly-minded practitioners and educate others on the efforts required to create such projects.
Resources presented in Magic could be technically-oriented and cross-disciplinary: how team A mapped migration routes; how team B overcame relational data limitations to create mind maps; how team C created an innovative way to represent a culture’s sharing protocols with a MySQL database.
What “Makes” Interactive Media and Who Makes It?
Free and available web-based publishing tools such as WordPress, Drupal, and Omeka have made mid-level web development much easier than previous write-your-own methods. Certainly, WordPress’ well-advertised “5 minute install” makes one wonder why all computer-related projects couldn’t be so easy.
Yet the smallest changes to existing systems such as WordPress create complex challenges. Adapting HTML, re-arranging categories, or customizing publishing templates is one thing; adding cultural parameters such as race, family, node, lexica, or other requests requires more in-depth knowledge (and patience). Many culturally-sensitive interactive media projects require not only a plan to develop software, but a complex set of software protocols to represent culture. And these complexities require innovation.
Why do the existing, open source platforms not manage these cultural descriptions already? Because cultural protocols are vast and changing—hard for a large, standards-oriented open source community to stay on top of. Smaller, more spontaneous collaborations are well suited to develop these tools. A sharing platform, specifically geared to their needs, will provide momentum and encourage stronger, more robust, and networked applications.
Magic will demonstrate the aforementioned challenges and provide an overview of the practitioners actively engaged in their solutions. The project will have traditional media features, such as video documentaries, audio interviews, and text with production collaborators, while also including interactive techniques to demonstrate how code represents culture and vise versa.
Education and Remix: Documentation for Open Source Projects
After laborious development and tight production schedules, adequate documentation of a project’s inner-working is left by the wayside. There never seems to be enough time to produce video or text documents explaining how a project works.
Much like a Hollywood DVD arrives packed with documentaries explaining the cool new processes and gadgets used in the film, Magic will produce video, interactive media, and text explanations of the inner workings of projects. These explanations will not only facilitate educational opportunities for those learning about interactive media, but will provide access to the code for other programmers.
Collaborator John Bell mentions that his code for The Pool (a web-based project-design software hosted at the University of Maine) is downloadable. John adds that there haven’t been many downloads or reuse of the complex code base. When asked why, John suggests that without a guide to the code, it would be difficult for another programmer to find useful bits to cut out. Never mind the non-technically-minded scholar attempting to squeeze out protocol innovations.
Magic project will include “traditional media” in the form of video, motion graphics, and text in order to create companion documents. These documents can be used to advance knowledge and discussion of culturally-sensitive software.
An Archive and Resource: Foregrounding Collaboration
When producing Spiral Jetty (1970), Robert Smithson asked a local Utah construction worker to grab his dump truck and tractor for the project. Bob Phillips used his machinery to move six tons of rock needed to create the work in Salt Lake. Looking around, one can find reference to Phillips but credit for the idea to build the obtuse lake intrusion is provided rightfully to Smithson. Less important in art history is the means of execution provided by the more ambiguous skill of operating a tractor.
Leaping forward to the twenty-first century, digital art-making often takes hard-to-find proficiencies. In the electronic world, as technology complexities grow, the amount of specific knowledge needed to craft a pioneering artwork also increases. Server operations, web services, mobile device syndication, programming languages and paradigms, and design all fit under the “programmer” umbrella. If combined with idea generation and the equally complex fields of the humanities, suddenly moving Smithson’s six tons of rock doesn’t seem so daunting.
Bob Phillips suffers in history for the ubiquity of his skill at the time. Though, a line exists where the number of qualified technicians is small enough that their skills constitute art itself. More importantly, creators are realizing that formally including the Bob Phillips’ of the World in the creation process leads to unexpected and new results in art and scholarship.
Credit may lie with the creator of an idea. But with unique technical innovation required to reach completion in the digital humanities, collaborations have become commonplace. Magic intends to pinpoint the contributions of diverse team members in an effort to demonstrate the changing notions of authorship and provide examples of successful collaborations.
Putting to Use: Future Considerations
Precedence demonstrates that live process-driven collaboration is effective for spreading technical and cultural ideas. This precedence stems from successful working groups benefiting digital-age literacy with cross-cultural collaboration: USC’s Vectors Journal, which has produced a number of noted interactive media projects and worked with fellows to create tools and new ideas for digital authorship; Iowa City Senior Center Television Online!, a project in Iowa City, Iowa, placing University of Iowa students with senior video producers to create online shows and attend conferences and community events; and Maine’s LongGreenHouse, a organization weaving community members together with on-the-ground environmental sustainability projects and companion digital tools based on sustainability.
A “phase two” proposition, Magic hopes to place into action the archive it will grow. Based on the models above, Magic will invite teams challenged with implementing cultural code to come together (physically over a weekend, e.g., or virtually as part of a continuing forum). Working together, and utilizing past knowledge, teams may build dynamic software paradigms to support cultural protocols. Magic will also provide technical and conceptual consulting for specific “data layer” challenges.