So Much To Learn From Old Pizza (Did Andy like anchovies?)

I recently attended a conference in Dundee called “Burnishing the Lamp of Memory: Documentation and Preservation in the Digital Age“. The presentations mostly focused on digitization as a means to preserve precious objects or memories. In that camp, the most aesthetically interesting and well-performed presentation was probably by Vladimir Karen, speaking about the Manuscriptorium project that aims to meticulously produce extremely high-resolution scans of precious documents and rare books in the Czech National Library. Notable for jolting people out of their seats a little were presentations by Ben Coode-Adams, presenting his own interventions into museum spaces stressing the importance of the “30 foot Smurf moment” (the moment when something remarkable happens, like the appearance of a 30 foot tall Smurf), and Sarah Cook‘s excellent overview of new media art that confronted concerns over preservation of items that were never analogue in the first place.

The presentations of how analogue collections were being preserved digitally got me thinking of 20-year-old pizza and hotel keys. You see, in many cases, particularly when converting the analogue into digital format to preserve it for all time, you are a custodian of an enormous collection of things, and your judgement call as to how to group them or what is even worth preserving may be restricted to the efforts of curators who came long before you; your job now is simply to make sure none of it slips out of memory because the original object will soon be hopelessly degraded.

There was also a sort of honesty to most of the work presented, a sort of, “here it is, in its original glory” sort of attitude. For example, Norman Reid from the University of St. Andrews was asked if damaged negatives in their photo collection are touched up before being made available in the digital archive, and his reply was quite long but basically amounted to “no”. He also said they were trying to archive all the photos in their collection, there weren’t judgements being made about which photos were worthy or not.

In other words, there is no sorting going on. There is no curation. Choices have already been made, collections are already formed, and now we are saving them in case someone wants to have access to them. Perhaps no one wants to take on the daunting mantle of casting judgement on what might be an enormous and varied collection of objects or photos.

This finally brings me to my point about pizza and hotel keys. The Andy Warhol Archive in Pittsburgh plays host to basically everything that Warhol ever owned. Our late Uncle Andy had a habit of tossing things in boxes by his desk, and then when they were full, sealing them up, dating them, and putting them aside. Some very odd things have been found in these boxes. Entire pizzas. Slices of birthday cake. A mummified foot. Et cetera. At the Glenn Gould Archive in Ottawa, similar odd collections of personal effects linger on. The pianist’s trademark gloves and caps, of course, but also, a collection of all the hotel keys he ever pinched from the hotels he stayed at during his concert career.

Of the items in Warhol’s boxes, Tom Sokolowski, Director of the Andy Warhol Museum, says: “Everything in his life, in an artist’s life … was meritorious of recollection”. I wonder if it is. I speculate that I would gain no insight into Warhol from being able to handle an old pizza that Warhol purchased, never consumed, and then put in a box. I doubt that seeing Gould’s hotel key collection would tell me much about his character, though maybe I’d notice which hotel chain he preferred.

Perhaps this is heresy, but digitization could offer us a way out of the hefty task of storing and preserving items that may have little or no bearing on an artist’s thoughts or work, but are saved in case they hold a clue, or might be part of some larger narrative in the artist’s life. Selections could be made, things that are meaningful could be lovingly kept forever, and old pizzas could be digitally photographed from every angle and scanned in a 3D scanner, and then sent to the dumpster, or auctioned off to the highest bidder, to support the ongoing work of the archivists. I may be hopelessly unsentimental, but the benefits of digitization seem to offer more than the promise of keeping a copy of something forever – it also offers a safe way to make decisions about what to turf. Because once we know what Andy liked on his pizza and have safely recorded it in a database, the original pizza can offer us no more data about Andy. And is it not the data about the object itself that matters? Because we are talking about a pizza, here, people. This is not an artwork that may be examined for hours and new things revealed by seeing it up close and in person. Someone else made this pizza, and it appears it didn’t even meet Mr Warhol’s approval, as it went into the storage box whole. Perhaps Andy just missed the wastebasket on this one.

I am drastically simplifying this argument (I’m sure there are levels of guardianship I cannot appreciate, never having been in that role: pressure from the estates of deceased artists, governmental committees having final says on what is of cultural value, et cetera… chime in here my archivist friends – Vincent?) but I hope that the advanced levels of preservation afforded by digitization allow us to have a conversation about what should be kept in original form and what may be digitally copied (and shared) and then sold, given away, or thrown away. As Manuscriptorium demonstrates, many more of us can enjoy access to these documents and objects if they are well-digitized. Furthermore, the presence of the physical pizza in Pittsburgh does very little good for those Warhol worshippers at a distance wishing to see Andy’s pizza, but a digital recording could stand in for the original pizza, and if it is cross-referenced with databases worldwide, enables the public to know what all their favourite artists liked on their pizzas – and might offer a sort of easily-available insight into trivia and key facts alike.

Integrate the information, cross-reference with others, share it with the public, and save your storage space for the truly valuable physical artifacts. It sounds like a brave new world in archiving, but it may fly in the face of what archivists are expected to do, which might be interpreted as treating everything as precious and keeping it safe from damage (ie. away from the general public).

So there are two arguments being made here. One, open up the bloody boxes and give the public access. Archives are like gated communities. Often, one must be Dr. Fancypants at Highbrow U. to obtain permission to actually commune with the objects. Digitization allows the general public to access these archives, with no damage to the collection. (Years ago, naively, I thought I could just drop into the Gould archives because I like Glenn Gould. I was asked which book on Gould I was writing. Umm, none? Of course I wasn’t allowed within a mile of the collection.) Second, digitization may solve a storage problem, if one exists, if there is a reluctance to cull a collection of objects that have no obvious import on research into the artist’s work or subject of study.