Eleventh in a series of monthly posts guest written by Zoe Bartliff from the digital branch of the Legacies of Stephen Dwoskin project based at the University of Glasgow
Zoe Bartliff 4 Nov 2019
Stephen Dwoskin, innovative and experimental in so many ways, was equally so when it came to filmmaking technology. Working throughout a period of enormous shifts in audio-visual technologies, Dwoskin, it seems, was never left behind, embracing new technologies for all the advantages they could bring to his work. This is one of the reasons that the project The Legacies of Stephen Dwoskin’s Personal Cinema(AH/R007012/1) includes a digital branch. Alongside the boxes and boxes of physical material present within the archive, there are twenty external and internal hard drives (comprising 12TB in storage size). These illuminate Dwoskin’s digital footprint throughout the late nineties until his death in 2012, perhaps even earlier periods—inaccessible and almost entirely opaque at the start of the project.
Anecdotally, it is known that Dwoskin was heavily reliant upon his computer, both for his filmmaking and for more personal projects such as his autobiography and personal correspondence. However, the true extent of his computer usage is an unknown entity. Are there previously unknown projects present on the drives? Can we find evidence of his early-stage edits or raw material? Is it possible to gain an insight into Dwoskin’s creative process by examining the tools he used to create his works? These are just some of the questions that the Glasgow and Sheffield team are beginning to explore through the data drawn from these hard drives.
The early stages of this branch of the project fall in line with established digital forensic practices. We have utilised open source tools to capture exact images of Dwoskin’s hard drives, preserving their state at the last point that they were used. We have run a series of processes to create a list of drive’s contents along with additional information like file size, file creation date as well as the most recent, access and modification dates. The result is almost 10 million files from the 12 thus far imaged drives, a massive treasure trove of information.
A forensic approach, although well established as a methodology within criminal investigations, is still finding its footing within the archival sector. Where this avenue of research differs, both from the analogue archive and established practice for digital archives, is the application of additional tools for a more detailed understanding of this content. A branch of the team led by Frank Hopfgartner, at the Information School, University of Sheffield, are employing image analysis techniques, for example frame by frame extraction of low and high level features, such as object, tags, descriptions (Figure 1 below), to identify and track the specifics of the artist’s editing and filmmaking processes, hopefully leading to insight into Dwoskin’s creative practices.
Figure 1 – Example of high-level feature extraction and identification
The branch led by Yunhyong Kim at the School of Humanities, University of Glasgow, conversely, is exploring how analysis of file activity data and textual analysis might help us to sort, search and access key files as well as to elucidate upon the broader working patterns. Both of these approaches are couched in the development of digital archival strategies at the University of Reading Special Collections, and complements the digitisation efforts of other partners of the project (British Film Institute, LUX). The research feeds into and is informed by the historical and theoretical strands of the project at the University of Reading and Queen Mary University of London.
So, what have we learnt so far?
The data-driven research to date has revealed a plethora of insights into Dwoskin’s working patterns.
For example, we have established that the majority of the drives were utilised for the storage of projects, potentially for transportation between his home and his associates’ offices. These drives can be analysed to give us an idea of the patterns present within Dwoskin’s work life. For example, when viewing the types of files present on the drives, there is a suggestion that, in his earlier forays into a digital environment, Dwoskin prioritised work on image and audio files, with work on video files beginning in earnest in 2005. There are numerous reasons for such a pattern, whether that be the lack of mature software, a preference of editing software, the incompatibility of his filming techniques with the technology on offer, or simply incompleteness of hard drive data.
By exploring the drives on a variety of levels, whether that is visualising all 10 million lines of data in a graph, or focusing in on a single keyword, or project, we can make observations that give rise to numerous questions with which we can interrogate established historical and theoretical thought concerning Dwoskin and his works.
On top of this, our forensic methodologies have given birth to an emulation of a bootable desktop computer, an exciting opportunity to explore Dwoskin’s work in its original context—an invaluable resource at the archive for researching the filmmaker’s practices. Such an approach both provides insight into Dwoksin’s working space and mitigates the issue of working with two-decade-old files and software.
This post has only provided the barest insight into developments so far on how we are approaching Dwoskin’s digital legacy. Hopefully, more updates will emerge as the project progresses, so, keep your eyes out for further news.
The Digital branch of The Legacies of Stephen Dwoskin project is based at the University of Glasgow and the University of Sheffield and is supported by the AHRC. Follow its progress on Twitter: @DwoskinProject
Zoe Bartliff is a research assistant at the University of Glasgow.
Twitter: @ZBartliff, @YunhyongKim