Nº 281

Experts on Archives

Since founding their design studio Astrom / Zimmer in Zurich in 2011, Anthon Astrom and Lukas Zimmer have been questioning established modes of interaction and helping to further the debate around today’s information landscape. In their work for a range of archives, for instance, the duo has developed alternative methods for curating and contextualising digital content.


What in your opinion is the difference between an archive and a collection?


In our view, archives are systematic and have a wider social significance. Their inherently systematic nature allows the visitor to recognise the boundaries of an archive. What belongs, what doesn’t? The line between an archive and a collection is not hard and fast. A collection doesn’t necessarily have to be rigorous. Instead, it benefits from the originality and circuitous decision-making processes of its creators. A collection can be strongly shaped by the interests and attitudes of a person or institution.



What are the key principles that underpin your approach?


We are interested in the materiality, organisation, and locality of the original archive and the knowledge generation processes that take place there. A careful mapping of these key characteristics provides the foundation and inspiration for a digital counterpart. Ideally, we aim to achieve a hybrid blend of physical originals and digital representations. For us, it’s important that digital archives are not just well-structured containers for discrete items, but that they are also compatible with other perspectives, narratives, workflows, and presentation methods. Digital archives should have a pulse, emerging through the interaction of their users.


What role do the three levels of past, present, and future play in your work?


We’re interested in historic forms of information presentation; we collect ideas developed by informatics pioneers who proposed alternative concepts to the World Wide Web as we know it today, a system that we, like everyone else, inevitably have to engage with. The possible futures represented by these past visions are a key source of inspiration for our work and intriguing examples to study regarding knowledge sharing processes at the interface between technology and design.


Which kinds of archive material are particularly challenging?


We are currently working on a complete redesign of the Swiss Material Archive, a task that perfectly illustrates one of the biggest challenges: translating materiality into the digital realm. The trick is not to resort to the cliche of mimicking physical materiality on a digital screen, but instead to seek ways of translating the sense and meaning of the original material into a new form, a new language. The physical and the digital are so fundamentally different that representing the qualities of one within the other constitutes a major challenge.



What problems does digitisation bring in the context of your work?


The notion that the digitisation of an object securely preserves its information is an illusion. Yes, physical objects degrade, but digital representations of physical objects are just copies of technological interpretations and are always the product of current technologies and of current technological and cultural biases. The best way to preserve information would be to regularly reinterpret, question, and contextualise physical objects, while also retaining all the different perspectives that already exist.


What is the target group for your work?


With our work we primarily attract institutions in the cultural sector – archives that are seen not just as suppliers of facts but also as a source of inspiration. On the second level we give our clients a modular toolkit that can be reconfigured over and over again. This allows them to address new target groups as and when required by creating new access routes into and perspectives on the data, which we help them to develop.



Can a layperson or outsider find his way around your systematics?


A successful archive design is a complex intermeshing of different elements. We like to think of it as constructing a machine. From defining the metadata and building a bespoke database to the retrieval of data for the interface using an API (application programming interface) – all these different elements working in concert to allow orientation and navigation in our archive interfaces. Our interfaces need to function on a whole range of levels in order to meet different users’ needs. From a simple targeted search to complex combinations of search terms and filters to the browsing of themes and categories – everything should be possible for everyone.


How do you integrate user or visitor feedback into your process?


In the early stages of a project, we devote a lot of attention not only to our client’s needs but also to those of the project’s future users. In the concept phase, we then work more on our own, relying on our expertise and intuition. We need that freedom and distance in order to bring together all the different requirements.



What tools do you use to document your own research?


In the early years of our practice, we gave a lot of thought to exactly that question. We experimented with innovative organisational structures und attempted to translate analogue processes into digital equivalents and vice versa – always with the aim of developing knowledge sharing tools that would also be accessible to other users. We haven’t yet found the perfect solution, so screenshots, Dropbox, and index cards are still ubiquitous. Developing tools that reflect the interaction between head, hand, and heart without interrupting the flow is a challenging task but an exciting one, too.


Why do you collect and archive things?


We collect in order to give stability to our thinking. Picking out individual items from the endless stream of information is an important first step in building knowledge. Once you have a range of such consciously chosen items, cross references can develop and the items start to enrich each other.



Do you believe in the right to forget?


An individual right to forget, yes, definitely! For the sake of personal transformation and development. As developers of interactions and systems, we see it as one of our key tasks to allow every individual user to be able to subsequently erase their tracks. In the wider context, it’s a question that primarily concerns Facebook and Google, but it’s also one that arises in the design of our archives and the participation of their users. As for institutions, we would argue that they don’t have a right to forget. Every citizen should be able to view the history of their public institutions, even the darker chapters, in order to form their own opinion. In our work, things get particularly interesting when users start to make their own written contributions to an archive. Do such annotations become part of the archive? And if so, at what point can they no longer be deleted?



Which project has made a lasting impression on you?


Lines, an early project in which we explored new modes of writing and reading online, made a strong impression on us. We examined not only how information is organised, but also how it can be created in a way that follows the reader’s own logic, as well as how things can be filtered and annotated via more flexible, visual tools.


What are you working on at the moment?


How can students’ work processes be documented? How can the implicit knowledge of a celebrated lithographer be archived? How to browse a digital encyclopaedia of Swiss art? How can a digital material archive be fused with the physical world and how should an archive for artists be organised so that it works both for Picasso and for the amateur painter next door?


Nº 284
Region of Design

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