Platform vs. Toolkit

When our project was funded by the NEH and we began the designing and building process in earnest, Seth Kaufman, Whirl-i-Gig’s founder and lead developer asked, “Are you looking to build a platform or a toolkit?”  

As Seth explained, a platform and toolkit would be quite different. A platform would be a digital resource hosted by a central group (e.g., us), that could expand/scale up to host other collections. A toolkit, on the other hand, would be a template for others to use and adapt. If adopted by multiple collections, either a platform or a toolkit could help standardize content management systems, metadata, and search vocabularies across those collections.  

I began picturing these two options in terms of trees. A “platform” would be one large tree that we planted and tended. As people wanted to add their content to it, it would sprout new branches to accommodate that content. Because all the content would be built on similar branches, it would be easy to search among them. The bigger the tree became, the more advantageous it would be for others to become part of it. Care of the growing tree would fall to us. A “toolkit,” by contrast, would consist of a group of identical seeds that we freely shared. Once planted by different users, the seeds would grow into many trees similar enough that it would still be possible to search within and between them. Using the “toolkit” seed would be advantageous in that it would place collections within the searchable, interconnected network. Care of each separate tree would fall to the planters.  

We thought about the many other dance archive and technology projects that we have seen disappear because of an eventual lack of funds to update, migrate, and host them, and we decided that building a “platform” would be unsustainable. While we have short-term funding from the NEH and many benefits from our university affiliations (as detailed in a previous post), neither would provide the kind of ongoing support needed to maintain a large digital resource underpinning multiple collections. We also did not want to take on the curatorial responsibility of administrating a “platform.” We decided to proceed according to the “toolkit” model. 

Admittedly, our “toolkit” goal is hopeful and aspirational. Gesel and I have not found any existing templates that can accurately present the priorities of her collection. So, why should we be able to create a template that will fit others? Our thinking is that even if our digital framework is not exactly what other dance collection holders need right out of the box, using it would only require a small amount of adaptation and reconfiguration, rather than starting from scratch and reinventing the wheel. On the simplest level, each stage of figuring out how to best make Gesel’s resources accessible online has taken more time, effort, and resources than we could have imagined. We would like our work to make the process easier for others, and we believe that sharing the digital framework as well as our experiences making it are the most effective ways to do so. 

Dance Becomes Data, or Who Can Help Us Translate? 

Since beginning our collaboration, Gesel and I have shared a number of goals/hopes/expectations for the No Boundaries online prototype archive. Central among these is our desire to create something that connects to the body and liveness and performance. Yet, on its journey to online delivery, even the most stirring and expansive recorded performance becomes a data point in a database. For those of us attempting to make this translation without a software development background, we find ourselves in the position described by Melanie Aceto in Phase I of our progress blog as “having an idea without the ability to do anything else.”  

My previous experience of running up against a translational wall occurred when I began to transition from making live performance to making dances for the camera. I had the good luck to begin the journey with amazing film collaborators. However, it was only after I learned to shoot and edit my own work that I could begin to conceive projects that more fully took advantage of the medium. Now, I have the same desire to roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty in the creative process. But, this time, the bar to learning that new language seems impractically high, and the language itself feels much more foreign.  

In a perfect world, Gesel and I would have been able to find a computer scientist collaborator among our academic colleagues. However, we discovered that our vision for this online archive was not in an area of research interest for our colleagues. Graduate computer engineering students were also possible collaborators. But, while our graduate student researchers provide much of the energy and insight that fuels our project, and we expect, support, and applaud their transitions to other work after graduation, the idea of handing over the principal software development to a student who would also transition out of our institutions felt more precarious – exactly because of our own lack of fluency in the language of coding. We were concerned that a graduating computer engineering student might take the keys to the castle with her, leaving us to recreate much of her work.  

Because of this concern, we decided to seek and pay for help outside of our universities. But, at the beginning of this process, we did not understand what architecture we needed to build, who would help us build it, or how to find them. Did we only need a web designer? I should mention that all of this research occurred prior to our having any funding, since the “what” and “how” of our project needed to be fleshed out in order for us to write funding proposals; here again, our status as paid, tenure-track faculty at a university mattered in what we could do.  

Because one of the problems we wanted to move toward solving was the fragmented nature of online dance content—i.e., how difficult it is to search for dance content online across multiple sources — we explored how existing online performing arts archives were built with the hope of figuring out how to build our own prototype so that it would play well with others. We discovered that the open-source software CollectiveAccess was being used by a number of existing or developing dance and performing arts archives, including those of Mark Morris Dance Group, Trisha Brown Dance Company, Martha Graham Dance Company, Brooklyn Academy of Music, La Mama, and Jacob’s Pillow (Jacob’s Pillow Archives, specifically). While we did not want to copy those resources, CollectiveAccess’s common use within the field increased the possibility of future interoperability and aggregation. We decided to move forward using CollectiveAccess as our content management system (CMS), and to go directly to CollectiveAccess’s developer, Whirl-i-Gig, to help us configure the software for our project. 

It is worth mentioning that other open-source CMS’s used widely for digital humanities projects include Omeka, Drupal, Scalar, and the ubiquitous WordPress.  

Working with Whirl-i-Gig and CollectiveAccess is proving to be an excellent choice. CollectiveAccess has features and functionality tailored to collections in the visual and performing arts, and Whirl-I-Gig’s expertise with performing arts collections is proving to be a tremendous asset. Additionally, choosing a commonly used CMS has, as we hoped, helped to initiate conversations with other institutions regarding possible future connections. 

Going back to my earlier point, I still regularly feel my own lack of fluency in the language of computer science. As I write this, we are building and refining the back-end, i.e. the database in which the collection is stored and organized. We have tentative designs for the user interface, i.e. the front end, but the two pieces are not yet connected. When we make decisions about how to configure the database, it is often difficult for me to extrapolate and grasp what the ramifications of those decisions will be for the user. I am asking a lot of questions and learning as I go. 

Preparations/Context

Building an online prototype takes considerable resources and we would like to be transparent about the conditions that have allowed us to advance our project thus far. First, we have been able to obtain grant funding from the NEH, which not only helps pay for the work, but also validates the project in a way that makes it easier for us to connect with other scholars and institutions. Dancing Digital and No Boundaries are also led by tenured faculty members at two large public universities. Both of these conditions together create a much more highly-resourced situation than that of most artists, organizations, or collection-holders. That having been said, we are still in need of significant additional funding to both complete the No Boundaries archive and to demonstrate the potential of its replicable digital framework – one goal of which, ironically, is to lower the threshold costs for this type of project. 

Our NEH budget is roughly allocated as follows: 40% for our software developer, 40% for key personnel (project directors, graduate student assistants, technical specialists), and 20% in indirect costs (overhead) that flows back to the recipient universities. 

Our academic affiliations have helped us in the following substantial ways: 

  • Gesel’s appointment in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Texas at Austin has connected her with the Harry Ransom Center (HRC), which will serve as the archive of record for No Boundaries. The HRC will preserve and hold the physical items, such as costumes and programs, as well as the original images and recordings in Digital, MiniDV, VHS, and DVD formats. They will also hold archival-quality digitized copies of the images and recordings.
    • This is a tremendous benefit! An independent artist, organization, or collection holder would need to secure space to store their materials. Depending on the extent and condition of the materials, they might also need to hire someone with archival preservation expertise.
    • The HRC also has an extensive digital collections platform. We are building a separate No Boundaries digital archive in addition to what is available via the HRC because we are interested in exploring features, search vocabulary, and an aesthetic specific to dance and to Gesel’s vision for her collection.     
  • We are in conversation with both The College of Fine Arts at UT Austin and the Alabama Digital Humanities Center to determine the digital home of the No Boundaries online archive. During this building process, the prototype archive lives on the servers of our software developers, Whirl-I-Gig. 
  • Rebecca’s academic appointment at the University of Alabama has allowed us to work with the Alabama Digital Humanities Center (ADHC), which hosts this progress blog as well as participating in its design and maintenance.  
  • Both Gesel and Rebecca have been able to tap into their universities’ talent pools to connect with graduate research assistants Carlson Coogler and Molly Roy, who continue to be significant and essential contributors to the project. 

The expertise contributed by colleagues at our home institutions, in particular Dr. Eric Colleary, Cline Curator of Theatre and Performing Arts at the HRC, Dr. Rachel Winston, Black Diaspora Archivist at the University of Texas Libraries, and Dr. Anne Ladyem McDivitt, Digital Humanities Librarian for the University of Alabama Libraries, is another invaluable benefit of our faculty status. And, while our reliable full-time academic positions sometimes present their own obstacles, they also provide us with living wages – a condition that cannot be supported within our limited grant budget.  

As part of the first phase of Dancing Digital, we assembled a list of ingredients/conditions that we understood to be necessary when planning for a sustainable online resource. Now, in the implementation phase of our project, we are attempting to assemble these ingredients and to satisfy these conditions. Below is the list with comments explaining what this reality is looking like during the process of building a No Boundaries online prototype archive. 

People: 

  1. Scholarly/educational staff dedicated to developing and updating content in conversation with the resource’s users and stakeholders. 
    • Our current NEH funding, a 2-year grant, compensates our research staff to develop content for the No Boundaries working prototype. We are in the process of seeking longer-term funding.  
  1. Software developers to build both the front end (user interface) and back end (server, application, and databases). 
    • Again, our current NEH funding allows us to work with a software developer to build a working prototype for what the finished online archive should look like. Longer term funding to finish the archive is not yet secured.  
  1. Information technology staff to maintain, update, and migrate all of these components to prevent digital obsolescence. 
    • While we are not yet at this stage, we anticipate working with staff in the College of Fine Arts at UT Austin and at the Alabama Digital Humanities Center at the University of Alabama on these maintenance and migration tasks. 

Other resources: 

  1. Physical servers on which to house the resource.
    • As stated earlier, we are in conversation with both UT and UA about this question.
  1. Regular backup systems (to restore data to how it was at a certain point in time).
    • This will be provided by whichever institution provides server space.  
  1. A plan to archive the resource (a snapshot of the digital framework and data).
    • The Internet Archive, the Library of Congress, and a variety of collections and museums regularly archive web resources.  We plan for the HRC and the Library of Congress to archive our online resource once built.   

Project’s Background and Goals

Gesel Mason and I first met via Skype in 2018 at the suggestion of one of our Dancing Digital advisors, Sali Ann Kriegsman, dance expert, leader, scholar, and supporter extraordinaire. It was immediately clear to both Gesel and I that our separate projects, No Boundaries and Dancing Digital, shared the overall goal of furthering dance legacy and transmission via online access. However, the way we might join forces was not yet clear. 

Despite our promising virtual conversations, it took meeting in person at the Joyce/NYU American Dance Platform in January 2020 to cement our collaboration on this digital project, an irony which is not lost on me. Perhaps it was not simply the different qualities of interaction that come with meeting in person, but also that Gesel’s section of the presentation flowed seamlessly between a lecture and a performed excerpt from Donald McKayle’s 1948 solo, “Saturday’s Child.” In other words, I was able to experience a tiny bit of Gesel’s No Boundaries project live.  

No Boundaries: Dancing the Visions of Contemporary Black Choreographers began in 2001 as a collection of solos choreographed by several generations of African American choreographers and performed by Gesel in one evening. She gathered and commissioned work from an impressive list of the nation’s leading contemporary African American choreographers, including Robert Battle, Rennie Harris, Dianne McIntyre, Bebe Miller, Donald McKayle, Reggie Wilson, Andrea E. Woods Valdés, David Roussève, Kyle Abraham, and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. Gesel presciently recorded the rehearsal processes, interviews with the choreographers, and the performances themselves. With choreographic works spanning from 1948 to 2018, the No Boundaries performances delivered snapshots of and created discussion around the trajectory of Black dance over seven decades. While Gesel had granted access to selected recordings and images from No Boundaries on other platforms—including her own website, Google Arts and Culture, and the Fusebox Festival 2020 Virtual Edition—she had not yet found a digital framework for the entire collection that was sustainable, extensible, and honored her priorities as an African American artist and scholar. 

Gesel’s goals for No Boundaries and Dancing Digital’s desire to apply our findings by building an online prototype felt symbiotic. We decided to collaborate. During that disturbing and difficult first pandemic spring and summer, we managed to create a plan and write an NEH grant proposal. (Coincidentally, that summer, I broke a bone in my right foot and Gesel broke a bone in her right leg. So, we also spent some time comparing orthopedic boots and healing processes.)  

Gesel and I could see that No Boundaries would work well as the test case for Dancing Digital’s proposed working prototype. While it is a logically self-contained collection (in that all of the choreographic works included are solos commissioned by Gesel for the No Boundaries performances), it also connects to an expansive array of other concepts and entities within and outside of dance. Some examples of related concepts include: solo performance across time periods and genres, other works by the No Boundaries choreographers, other African American choreographers, African American dance’s influence on American culture, and expressions of resilience in African American and other cultures. Entities with possible related collections include the Library of Congress, New York Public Library, Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the International Association of Blacks in Dance. Together, these layers of relevance and potential interconnections across collections made No Boundaries an ideal seed for an outgrowth of dance content. 

Therefore, our collaboration aims to create a working prototype for an online archive of No Boundaries structured to 

  • model accessibility by providing online access to important full-length recordings of works by African American choreographers; 
  • provide features and supporting materials that enhance the use of the No Boundaries recordings, center the embodied, and enrich dance study; 
  • and, serve both as an archive and a scalable, open-source digital framework. When shared, this framework 
    • can lower the technical hurdles for other artists and organizations seeking to provide access to their collections, 
    • while also creating the possibility of an interconnected field-wide archive. 

Meta-documentation

This progress blog is a documentation of a documentation of a documentation, a circumstance that poses certain challenges in terms of clear and organized communication.  

Layer 1 – Gesel Mason did not just dance and choreograph in her No Boundaries project. She also extensively documented it; choreographed with that documentation (the live performances featured interstitial projections of rehearsal and interview video); and conceived of the dancing itself as documentation—as an embodied archive of important dance works. 

Layer 2 – The online prototype archive that we are building seeks to document the No Boundaries project as a whole—as performances and as process. 

Layer 3 – Finally, we are assiduously documenting the process of building the online prototype archive through transcripts, notes, and video recordings, and then synthesizing and distilling that information for this blog.  

While we necessarily must break up this journey into discrete blog posts, the experience, with its multiple layers and many moving parts, is much less tidy.  We encourage you to think about this research blog as a curated collection of insights leading to many possible journeys and allowing for many points of entry.  

Welcome to Phase II of Dancing Digital!

Welcome to Phase II of Dancing Digital, a project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities to create and facilitate more accessible, equitable, sustainable, and interconnected dance resources online. The previous chapter of this progress blog covered Dancing Digital’s planning phase, which began in 2016 and was funded by an NEH Level I Digital Humanities Advancement Grant from 2019-2020.   

We are grateful for the NEH’s continued support in the form of a Level II Digital Humanities Advancement grant (2021-2022), which allows us to implement ideas discovered in that planning phase. 

This new phase of Dancing Digital involves multiple levels of collaboration. Gesel Mason has joined this phase of the project as Co-Director. Gesel is both an Associate Professor of Dance at UT Austin and Director of Gesel Mason Performance Projects (GMPP).  It is her curated collection, No Boundaries: Dancing the Visions of Contemporary Black Choreographers that serves as the material for our prototype digital archive.   

Other collaborators include the Alabama Digital Humanities Center (ADHC), the College of Fine Arts at UT Austin, and the Harry Ransom Center at UT Austin.    

Two research assistants are invaluable and driving forces behind this prototype-building process:   

Carlson Coogler, a doctoral student in Educational Research with a specialization in Qualitative Methodologies at The University of Alabama  

Molly Roy, a doctoral student in the Performance as Public Practice program at UT Austin whose research is situated at the intersections of dance, surveillance, and information studies.  

We have also contracted with Whirl-I-Gig, the developers of the open-source cataloging software CollectiveAccess, on which the archive is being built.  

Just as we compiled and shared a list of existing online resources that provide access to full-length dance works and published a final position paper with recommendations for how the field might improve dance content online in Phase I, sharing our knowledge and experiences continues to be central to Dancing Digital’s mission in Phase II.  

We continue to gather information about earlier online dance archive projects and to build upon the lessons learned. We are also in conversation with colleagues currently creating dance archive and technology projects, the urgency of whose work has been amplified by our Covid-induced convergence on screens. While we understand that these digital endeavors are not one-size-fits-all, there are many common needs and hurdles.   

With these common needs in mind, we write this progress blog to encourage and intensify the truly collective work of improving and expanding access to online dance resources. We aim to share our knowledge not only in its ‘product’ form, but by providing a detailed account of what our process is requiring and how we are making decisions within it. From our current vantage point – still very much engaged in learning and discovering – we cannot be sure whether what we share will demonstrate what to do or what not to do. We offer it not as the process but as ours, with the hope that this sharing will be of value in our fieldwide pursuit of a more accessible, equitable, sustainable, and interconnected digital dance future. 

What it Takes: An Interview with Digital Dance Resource Pioneers

by: Rebecca Salzer, Project Director

Introduction

Sybil Huskey and Melanie Aceto are dance artists and educators who have contributed significantly to the planning phase of the Dancing Digital Project. Part of why they have been invaluable members of the working group is that each of them has experience designing and realizing a novel online resource for dance.  Sybil is one of the creators of Video Collaboratory (http://videocollaboratory.com/) and Melanie created Choreographic Lineage (http://www.choreographiclineage.buffalo.edu/).  Their full biographies can be accessed at https://adhc.lib.ua.edu/danceprogress/bios/.  Working with Sybil and Melanie over the past few years it has become clear that their collective knowledge and experience is not only useful for Dancing Digital but would also be helpful for other dance artists inspired to expand dance knowledge online – an especially relevant concept during the Covid-19 pandemic.  With this in mind, we set up a conversation about their experiences developing Video Collaboratory and Choreographic Lineage. What follows is a transcript of our conversation on August 11, 2020.

Rebecca:  Could we start with a summary of your projects for those who may be unfamiliar with them?  Please give us an elevator pitch.

Elevator Pitches

Video Collaboratory

Sybil Huskey: The Video Collaboratory is a web-based private platform for collaborating around video documents, much like you would use Google Docs for collaborating around text. It allows you to put a comment in a very specific point in the video without referencing the timeline. So it’s very easy. 

Rebecca Salzer: Can you elaborate on how the commenting functionality works? 

Sybil Huskey: As the video is going, you select the comment function and click where you want to say something. The comment box appears, and you type a comment and/or make a drawing. This also adds a little marker on the timeline. When you click on either the comment or the marker, it takes you back to that specific place in the video. If it’s a point comment, it’ll loop for about four seconds so that you can look at it multiple times without having to scrub back and forth. Those are two of the really good things about the system: that all the comments are accessible alongside the video; and you can go to any comment and corresponding time in the video by simply clicking the comment or the marker. Plus, you can also color code your comments. 

Rebecca Salzer: In what other ways does Video Collaboratory activate sharing of video online? 

Sybil Huskey: Video Collaboratory allows you to upload your own, or your students’ videos, or you can link to Vimeo or YouTube. If it’s a video that you posted, you can change the speed, if you need to see something go slower or faster. As we’ve developed this – because it is always in development – we’ve added other kinds of functionality, like filtering. If I wanted to see all the comments that mentioned something about arms, for instance, I could type in “arms” and see all of the comments that have to do with arms or arm gestures. There’s also an analytics part that we added in so you can see what part of the video people are watching and where the interest is not as great. Another feature – one we have a patent on – is that you can set up a whole segment of the video so you can make comments. That has been very, very helpful especially in teaching workshops. In a workshop I did, we put all the video segments that we wanted these teachers to watch. They didn’t have to go hunt for them in the larger videos. They could just go right in, click the comment marking the segment, and it would take them to it. Plus, everyone who has a membership to Video Collaboratory has a workspace that allows you to be part of any number of projects or classes. So it’s very easy to navigate. Once you go into your project, you will see thumbnails of the videos. Once you click on a thumbnail, you’re into the actual platform where you can begin to comment.

Choreographic Lineage

Rebecca Salzer: Thank you!  Melanie, can you please describe Choreographic Lineage?

Melanie Aceto: Choreographic Lineage is an interactive web-based network illustrating connections between dance artists, their teachers, their students, their collaborators, and people they were influenced by, like musicians or authors. It’s intended as a global resource for investigating artistic influences, career paths, choreographic connections, and complex and obscure relationships. 

Rebecca Salzer: Where do the data on these relationships come? 

Melanie Aceto: It’s user reported. If you studied with a person, danced for them, etc., then you would report that. That has its drawbacks. It is possible a user might not report a relationship for whatever reason, and that may obscure the influence. But, I think that’s okay because the point is to see the relationships overall, not the minutia. For instance, why a person’s work looks a certain way – hopefully, you can use Choreographic Lineage to say, “oh, this person danced in this company for 15 years.” And it could even be that their work looks very different from those they’re connected to, that they went the opposite way. Choreographic Lineage is flexible enough not to have to imply a specific type of influence. It is also unique because it tracks those relationships that may not show up otherwise: people you haven’t danced with or for, but seeing their work has influenced you substantially, what your work looks like or how you think about what you make. So I wanted to allow for that. 

Rebecca Salzer: Where do you see Choreographic Lineage filling gaps in dance knowledge?

Melanie Aceto: The thing that keeps me excited about it is that a resource like this doesn’t yet exist as far as I know: the ability to find out where someone studied, who they started with, who their influences were. You can’t find that unless you call the person up or if there’s some sort of documentary film made about them to learn about their lineage. It could really be the departing point for a researcher wanting to learn more about an artist’s work. I see Choreographic Lineage as not the ultimate source, but as a point of departure, like the first place you would go to find out, in general, a sketch of this person’s life. 

History of Development

Video Collaboratory

Rebecca Salzer: Great. Tell me about the development of your projects.  

Sybil: The Video Collaboratory was originally called The Choreographer’s Notebook. It began as a research tool for us. It grew from a need to be able to talk about the details of rehearsal videos when we were not in the studio. At the time, I had a National Science Foundation grant with some computer scientists to do real time sensing choreographic projects over a three-year period. Because it was a research project, we were trying different hardware, different software and different kinds of applications for the dancers. Each iteration was trying something new. So, of course, it didn’t always work perfectly the first time. What we found was that we really needed to be able to look at the rehearsal video from the last run of the previous rehearsal and be able to talk about that when we weren’t sitting in the studio. We started out always showing the last rehearsal, and it was using up this valuable studio time to go “well, this should maybe go here. Oh, let’s rewind that.” It was very time consuming. So, one of the computer scientists said, “Let’s see if we can’t do something about that.” So one of the PhD students, who is now a co-founder, was charged with doing some coding to develop a solution so that everyone could see the rehearsal video before the next rehearsal: the dancers, the technicians, the computer scientists, the lighting designer, the visual artists involved with us, even the costumer, who was intimately involved because of where these hardware pieces had to be embedded relative to the movement. So, everybody had access to that, and people could post questions at very specific places in the video. They could respond to each other and basically have an asynchronous discussion. In this way, at the next rehearsal, we were starting with a good foundation. We didn’t have to backtrack; a lot of problems had already been solved. Sometimes the dancers would even solve some of the performance issues on their own. So, that’s where we started. 

Rebecca Salzer: What year are we talking about? 

Sybil Huskey: 2010 was the start of it. 

Rebecca Salzer: So, your collaborators were also academics at this point, and the person coding for you was a graduate student? 

Sybil Huskey: Right. We had three different PhD students working on this project with us because it was a multi-pronged project. Part of the project was also using galvanic skin response to looking at audience responses to the dance. So, at this point, there were three PhD students, two computer science faculty, me, and one dance undergrad. 

Rebecca Salzer: And who are your partners now? How is it structured now? 

Sybil Huskey: After we finished with the NSF project – in which we had used this program, The Choreographer’s Notebook, to create all these dances – several people looked at what we had made and said, “Well, this could be really great for a lot of fields that use video, not just dance.” And since video was being increasingly used in a variety of fields, they said, “you really should get a provisional patent.” So, we applied for a provisional patent, and we received it. Then we decided that, since it’s obviously going to have applicability outside of dance, to change the name. We chose “Video Collaboratory” because it’s like you’re working in a laboratory; you’re collaborating; and, the medium is video. Ultimately, we got two patents on Video Collaboratory, and around 2015 we formed a Limited Liability Corporation. And, because this was developed out of a university, albeit with grants that we wrote, we had to license the technology from the university because we had used university space and resources in the process. So, we have a licensing agreement from the university to which, of course, we pay royalties. It’s a very complicated document, but it also talks about how much money the university gets if we’re bought out. It’s been complex, and it’s way more complicated than I would ever have thought. Certainly, having it as a business has been very, very challenging. 

Choreographic Lineage

Rebecca Salzer: Melanie, what’s the history of Choreographic Lineage’s development? 

Melanie Aceto: Choreographic Lineage started in 2011 with a focus group. So, I think I had the idea, you know, 2009, 2010. I don’t remember exactly where it came from, but it’s not a new idea. I’m just trying to solve the problem of how you can’t know much about a choreographer’s influences on their work from their biography. They don’t often include that information. So, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to have a network that connects everybody in terms of who they’ve studied with, and who their influences are?” I got some funding through University at Buffalo to assemble a focus group of students, a couple artists in the field, a librarian, a computer scientist, and Maura Keefe who is a dance historian, as well as myself, to see if there was interest. They were all from UB, my small network, aside from Maura Keefe who was at SUNY Brockport and now is at University of Maryland; Monica Bill Barnes who I brought in from New York City; and Libby Smigel, Dance Archivist for the Library of Congress. We met for a full day and brainstormed, and we talked about the possibilities and the idea. Since the feedback from the focus group was positive, I moved forward with trying to find a collaborator. That was my biggest challenge. I just had the idea but not the ability to build it. So, we brought in one company from the city of Buffalo to talk about what it would cost to build something like this. Not only was it cost prohibitive, but we quickly ran into concerns about maintenance. The company said, “you know, this is a live thing.  If we build it and give it to you, how are you going to make changes and update it?” So, it was immediately apparent that I had to have someone work with me throughout this entire process. That it wasn’t really hirable in the sense that I could outsource it. So, I started knocking on doors. Although it seems pretty obvious to me now that I needed a computer scientist, a coder, at the time I didn’t even know who to ask. In 2011, I didn’t even know I needed a coder. I didn’t know if I needed a mathematician or a statistician. I just ended up finding a collaborator through my network. I knew Robyn Sullivan at the University at Buffalo. She has many different titles and has played many different roles at UB, but I think at that time she was working in the Teaching and Learning Center. It was a great resource center for faculty that sadly no longer exists. But, she said, “why don’t you talk to Dr. Bina Ramamurthy”, a woman in computer science. So that was the first time I had a specific name for someone who would have a conversation with me. All other emails and literally knocking on doors were dead ends. So I had a conversation with Bina, and she said, “I’m interested. And I have graduate students that I could put on this.” Plus, she was experienced in getting funding for her own projects. So that’s how it started – with a focus group and then finding a collaborator. And I don’t know exactly when I met her, but it was shortly after the focus group. Like 2012. After that, we didn’t go around with too many names. We did go around some with trying to decide what to include. Is this just dance? Is it just modern dance? But we didn’t get hung up on those details. I added a graphic artist to the group, and a user experience guy. 

Cost of Development

Rebecca Salzer: Do you recall at all how much you were quoted by the outside company to build the resource that you were describing? 

Melanie Aceto: The company was called Algonquin. In February 2011, they quoted a minimum billing of $4,000 and a safe estimate of $4000 to $10,000 for the requirements analysis. That was how they would figure out what I needed and wanted. That was step one. Step two was a structured spec, which would include an additional fee for making the actual site. So, yeah—lots. 

Rebecca Salzer: Can you elaborate some on the ongoing and set-up costs you had, Sybil? 

Sybil Huskey: Well, let’s see. Um, there’s cloud computing. We had to have Amazon Web Services, and that is a monthly charge, even if no one absolutely no one is working on the platform at the time. It can be anywhere from $300-$500 a month with no users.

Rebecca Salzer: And that is server space? 

Sybil Huskey: Yes, it’s video processing and storage. It’s sort of the third component that makes everything work. So you have to have it. It’s what most online platforms run on, you know, have their engines running on a cloud provider. Ours is, of course, Amazon Web Services. And then, of course, we had – I’m just going to go to the bare bones – taxes and that usually also means you have to have an accountant charging you something every month to keep your books. If you have an employee, then you pay a payroll company to take care of all of the various withholding taxes and workman’s comp and all of those complications. And then costs like your domain name. A Google suite, also a monthly charge which you really have to have if you have a business. And insurance, which is every month because you can’t run a business and not have insurance, certainly with software. As far as coding goes, after we had made Video Collaboratory, we got a quote from a company in Durham, North Carolina, to see what it would cost to speed up our development. I think it was like something like $80/hour to outsource the coding work. Because coding takes forever. That was a few years ago, so I don’t know for now. But it could be a ballpark. 

Rebecca Salzer: Okay. Yeah, I’ve actually seen much higher rates recently. So, some of those are relevant to your business, specifically. Which costs might someone expect to have for an online resource that isn’t a business?

Sybil Huskey: It’s hard sometimes to separate them out. But, if I’m thinking in terms of just the software, just the platform… Certainly you’d need cloud computing, and someone to keep up with it. Somebody to fix something if it breaks or to add to it. Whether you have a business or not, that is certainly part of it. Obviously, if you are offering it as a free service, then probably you would not need insurance. Just a domain name, I suppose. You probably wouldn’t have any legal fees, unless you’re worried that somebody might come back and sue you. So, you might need some sort of disclaimer, depending on the resource — something users sign to acknowledge their responsibility in participating, saying that they give you permission to have that information. Otherwise, someone might decide suddenly, “Wait a minute. I don’t think I put that on there.” And, then they can come after you. We had quite a lot of legal preparation to prevent something like this. I think that cost us about $4,000. I guess we would have done that even if it had been open source. I don’t know.

Problems Experienced 

Sustainability/Scaling 

Rebecca: Melanie, when you were talking about what the web company said about your site being live and needing to be updated, you brought up some of the things I was hoping to get at. Over the last four years or so, I’ve gone through a learning process to better understand this idea that you’re building something living, something that requires continual maintenance. And, the meaning of the word “sustainability”, which is thrown around a lot. I still probably don’t have a full concept of it, but I’m beginning to understand it more in a digital context. It’s at the heart of what I wanted to talk to you both about. I think sometimes we think, “oh, look, I can throw up a free Wix page for that.” Or like, “I can make a website. I can embed my Vimeo link in it, and we’re done.” I know that you both are working on or have worked on projects that have much more innovative functionality than that. But, that was one of the key points of the conversation that I wanted to get to. 

Melanie Aceto: I can chime in that there were many people who said, “Oh yeah, that’s easy. You don’t need to hire anybody. You can just…You can just…” They kept saying, “You can just, you know, use this platform”, or “That’s super easy.” And I just kept coming back to the fact that what was available was not what I needed. The genealogy software out there was not appropriate, because it only offered two parents. I was looking for four relationships: people you studied with, people you danced for, people you collaborated with, and people you were influenced by. In a way it was general — like I don’t think it’s field-specific by any means. But, I felt like what I was after originally was a much bigger ask than just connections. Originally I also wanted to include in the network the duration of your relationship with someone, and the times of those relationships. When you studied with them. When you collaborated with them. Now, we’ve had to give up all of that, because it was paralyzing for a couple reasons. It was just too big of a project to start with all that. And, the people I was working with didn’t have that level of knowledge. So we’ve had to scale down. But that’s to say that, even in what I’m considering as it’s “simple” form, it was never something that I could just “just do”, or piggyback on something that already existed.

Rebecca Salzer: And can I add to that. If I understand the concept behind Choreographic Lineage, you want this thing to grow and grow and continue to work. So it’s really got to have the right coding to allow it to be expandable like that. 

Melanie Aceto: Yeah, and that’s becoming even more of an issue now. There’s the database part that has to be able to continue to grow, but we haven’t worked on yet how the visualizations grow. So that’s a whole kind of additional part: there are two chunks to Choreographic Lineage, the database part and the visualization part. Rendering 500 names is one thing. Rendering 500,000 names is a different thing. So, there’s the issue of scale. Since it’s living, it’s growing. And when it grows, you have scaling issues for sure.

Privacy

Rebecca: What sort of issues were you concerned with when designing Video Collaboratory? 

Sybil Huskey: I think that the aspect of privacy was the most important to us. We knew people were putting things on YouTube, but we wanted people to know that if they were working on a project, that those videos would only be accessible to the project members. And of course, obviously, since we were dealing with college age dancers, we especially did not want these images to be out everywhere. 

Reality Versus Expectations

Rebecca Salzer: If I were to give you a multiple choice question – “This experience has been (blank)  what I expected 10 years ago,” and your options are: A) much easier; B) about what I expected; C) much harder; D) something entirely different –  how would you answer? What’s the reality been in relation to the expectation, when you first had the idea?

Sybil Huskey: Business is complicated. You know, I think if we had just decided to make Video Collaboratory open source, we would have been done working on it by now. But, I think all of us felt like it was valuable, and you shouldn’t just give everything away. Even though we had very good guidance from the National Science Foundation (because we had subsequent grants from them: first as researchers, second as a small business in their business program), it was harder than we expected. We were so excited about it and so committed; it was our child, and we just kept pushing on. But, it’s not just hard work. There’s also a bit of luck with it, as to how well a commercial platform sticks, what kind of traction it gets, who’s interested in investing. It is all so complicated. And, in the middle of all of that, you have costs to continue to run the platform, even if you’re not doing further development on it –  just monthly costs that are substantial, actually. So, I think it’s hard. That’s why they always say 97% of startups fail. Or, I don’t think “fail” is a good word, but they don’t manage to get enough traction to make enough to keep going, basically. 

Rebecca Salzer: Okay, thank you. Melanie?

Melanie Aceto: It’s harder than I thought. In my life, most everything else I’ve tried to do, I could do myself with a little help. Like, I figured out how to buy a house with a little help from the bank. Choreographic Lineage, though, was me having an idea without the abilities to do anything else. I didn’t even know what questions to ask. I was at the mercy of other people. So, to answer your question, it was much more difficult than I expected, because of all the things I didn’t know or didn’t realize early on. Like, now it’s so clear to me that I needed an equally interested collaborator. I didn’t need someone to build something for me or someone to work “for” me. I needed someone with at least partial interest and investment in the project to work “with” me. For years, I arranged for graduate students to work on this project as a side project. So not only did they have very little time, but I didn’t have the knowledge to oversee their work. So, it was me working with a computer science graduate student, and I knew nothing. So, this thing was being built in the back end with no oversight. I had no idea where it was stored, if it was stored, if it was secure and stable. A million things like that. Looking back, though, I wouldn’t change a thing because of how much the process revealed to me over the years. I lucked out when UB hired a Professor of Practice in computer science, whose entire job is to provide graduate students in computer science and engineering with real world projects. I pitched Choreographic Lineage, and they put a team of graduate students plus a faculty mentor on it. They worked on it as part of the coursework, not an extra project. That was invaluable. From that experience, I learned that I needed people who had dedicated time coupled with the oversight. I still cannot make anything happen. I’m still in a position where I’m requesting that things happen. That’s a really hard role for me because nothing else in my life is like that. 

Moving Forward, Advice, and Working with Coders

Rebecca Salzer: I have three more questions. We’re running out of time here, so I’m going to give them all at once. You can decide what you respond to. They are: 

1) What’s the future of this look like, and how are you feeling about it? 

2) What one piece of advice would you give to someone else in a dance field with an idea that would require some sort of online access or the creation of the new online resource? 

3) How do we deal with imbalance in the relationship between the artists and the coder or other individuals who have the know-how to make these online resources function? I’ve heard so much related to what you’ve said earlier. Hearing feedback such as “That’s easy.” It’s not like sending a man to the moon in terms of technology, but it’s also not easy. The functionality or platform doesn’t exist, and somebody has to build it.

Melanie Aceto: The idea that this was “easy” was the main point of frustration for me with Choreographic Lineage in the beginning. I knew this was not new technology: it was a database and data visualization. What I’m looking for – even at its fullest version in my head – had to be possible with all the technology that was already available. In that sense, I knew it was “easy.” But, that was frustrating, because it was “simple” in that way but not at all simple, because it was this very specific application. I needed to figure out how to bridge the artists and the technology and the person who can make the technology work. Figuring this out is wrapped up in my one piece of advice: if possible, you need to find yourself a collaborator, someone who is genuinely interested in your project. Not in working “for” you. Now I have that. The same faculty member who manages the projects for the graduate students has taken an interest in choreographic lineage. So he’s not just simply like checking in on their code. He’s invested. He’s like, “Melanie, you ought to do this. Look what I made.” He’s added to the site himself. So my piece of advice is to find someone who can work with you and who has ideas as well. I couldn’t possibly think of the things that Alan was thinking of because I don’t have that knowledge base. When it comes to the future, I feel like I’m on a roller coaster. I start to think like, “oh, this is going to be great. We’re in a great place. I can collect so much lineage.” And then two people will use it, and something will come up. Not even a glitch. But some issue will arise. We’ll realize that we hadn’t thought about that permutation of whatnot. At the moment, we’re going to keep moving forward with this project. It will be pitched again in the fall for another team to work on it. My future looks like it will continue to be graduate computer science and engineering students chipping away at this at a snail’s pace, but I’m feeling optimistic because we’re in such a better place. We’re in a place where we can collect lineage, and we’re starting to shift to look towards the visualization network, which is frankly the piece that everybody would be interested in, now that we have the data collection form figured out. So, I’m optimistic, but I realistically will still move forward inch by inch.

Sybil Huskey: I feel everything you said, Melanie. I agree that having a collaborator is really key. When we first started out, Vikash Singh sat in on all of our rehearsals. Even though he was the original coder on The Choreographer’s Notebook, he didn’t really know anything about dance. He had just come to the United States from India to start his PhD program, and his mentor threw him into the dance studio, which we all still laugh about. And, he really cared about the project, along with another graduate student. They were really the technologists that masterminded the different software relative to the hardware we were using. When they weren’t writing the code, they were making suggestions. The main coder that we hired was just out of undergrad, but he’d already worked for the Department of Computer Science. And he was very good, but he was slow, because he had to learn a different coding language. That’s something that people don’t always take into consideration: not all coders can code everything. When you’re setting up a system, figuring out how your back end talks to your front end, you have to figure out what languages you need. So, I agree that you want someone who’s genuinely interested, who can also, like Melanie said, make suggestions. The same is true of the computer science professors who became involved. They developed an interest in dance and provided really helpful suggestions. Now we have a really developed platform. Of course, though, you can always do more. We have the patent to be able to further develop. So we could have voice commenting as opposed to text and drawing. But that costs a lot of money to develop. So right now, we’re happy with where the platform is. It’s really super functional. It’s been through lots of fires. Now, we’re looking to partner with someone, maybe a bigger company who wants to take Video Collaboratory with its license and its patents and all of that and and pretty much just absorb it into their operation. But, that’s not easy either. Nothing is easy. We have all these leads, and we talk to them, and get all these emails going back and forth. Then you have some face to face meetings, but then it sometimes just kind of fizzles out. At one point, we thought that a sovereign nation fund was really interested in us. We had several meetings and lots of emails and phone calls, and talks of in-person meetings in California, for almost two years. But, then the fund representative realized that we were not TikTok, that we weren’t going to reframe ourselves that way. You have to be willing, I think, in order to really get a platform out there, to knock on a lot of doors and have most of them shut in your face. Maybe not right away, but ultimately. Of course, I’m not making it sound fun. The truth is I’ve had a grand time. I mean, it’s been hard, but being hard doesn’t mean it’s not been fun. That sounds counterintuitive, but I have been thrilled with all the extra learning and the people and the problem solving I’ve had to do, and the humility I have had to admit. Because I’m not a computer scientist, and I don’t know coding. For me, you know, it’s been so different, especially having this company and doing this commercially. It’s so different than being in academia and so different from being a dance person. So, yes, it has been very hard. I’ve had some stomach issues over this through the years. But, I wouldn’t go back and say that I wish I hadn’t done it. I am very grateful for the opportunity because it’s also given me a lot of respect for people who do build big companies, who go through all these same things. Nobody is just suddenly a Google. 

Insights into the Creation of the Dance Heritage Video Archive at USC’s Glorya Kaufman School of Dance

by: Alison D’Amato, Ph.D.

In early 2018, I was in my second year at USC’s recently established Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, mostly teaching lecture courses in dance history and dance studies. When I heard that Kaufman was collaborating with the USC Libraries to acquire a collection of over 1,200 video recordings (largely digital assets drawn from at-risk media formats such as Beta, Umatic, and VHS), I jumped at the chance to get involved alongside my colleague, Patrick Corbin. Despite having recently finished a dissertation on contemporary choreographic scoring that necessitated deep-diving into theoretical issues around preservation, documentation, and dance’s complicated relationship to the archive, I hadn’t, at the time, thought too intensely about the lives and afterlives of dances in an evolving digital landscape. Two years later, having had the pleasure of engaging with brilliant colleagues through Dancing Digital, as well as being immersed in USC’s project, it seems like a terrific time to reflect on the recent past and to consider what might be possible in the future.

Early on in my involvement with the USC project – now officially named the Dance Heritage Video Archive (acronym: DHVA; colloquially pronounced: DIVA!) – I talked it up excitedly to all who would listen, emphasizing the impact that such a collection could have on teaching and student research. I detailed some common challenges, familiar to most educators: relying on advertiser-interrupted YouTube clips lacking contextual information, searching in vain for full-length recordings, butting up against paywalls. Yet even as I listed these problems, I realized that I had complacently accepted them for as long as I had been teaching and researching – living with a “this is just how it is” mentality, relying on old standby DVDs and, increasingly, frenetic “trailer” videos that could give my students fleeting glimpses of contemporary works.

When Corbin and I travelled to the University of Alabama for 2019’s Dancing Digital symposium, I was stunned to hear about the long history of leaders in the field combatting the state of affairs that I had naively assumed was unyielding. (Much of this is detailed in Sali Ann Kriegsman’s illuminating post on this blog.) In addition to Kriegsman, I was excited to meet Libby Smigel and Imogen Smith, integral figures in developing and maintaining the collection of videos that USC was in the process of acquiring, materials that had been painstakingly sourced by the Dance Heritage Coalition as a part of their Dance Preservation and Digitization Project. Bolstered by a deepened sense of historical context, as well as a collective desire to enrich the digital dance landscape, I returned to USC excited about “phase 2” of our work – namely, acquiring new materials focused on the particularly under-acknowledged realm of Southern California dance history.

At this stage, we have completed the publication of all of the DHC materials, 400 of which are available for public access. (The remaining videos are accessible with log-in credentials, provided upon request for educational use). We have also selected 156 new recordings representing significant contributions to Southern California dance. Though all of the phase 2 contributions are tremendously exciting, users can get a sense of the breadth of the new acquisitions from these highlights: videos featuring the work of site-specific choreographer Heidi Duckler, the blend of modern and traditional Mexican dance of Pacifico Dance Company, and West Coast hip hop veteran Ali “Legendary” Shabazz.

Corbin and I, along with library collaborators, also put together a vibrant event through USC’s Visions and Voices program, titled Dancing the Archives: Emerging Choreographers and Living History. On a warm February afternoon, audiences from on and off campus watched site-specific performances by early career, Los Angeles-based artists Chris Emile, Jinglin Liao, and Marina Magalhães. All of these works were informed by their research into the DHVA materials; the three choreographic approaches could not have been more different, but each demonstrated the incredible potential of archives like DHVA to spark creative possibilities and dialogue for the present moment. After the performances, we enjoyed a panel discussion led by the incredible Bebe Miller, herself no stranger to digital innovation in the sphere of choreographic archives.

As exciting as all of this is, I find myself mulling over questions about what’s next for DHVA, and how we can fine-tune it to maximize relevance and accessibility. For one thing, I wonder a lot about context. A diverse, robust collection of choreographic works deserves equally well-developed framing. I’m thinking here about the DHC’s invaluable “100 Dance Treasures,” which paired photos and video clips with historical analysis written by leading scholars. Or the engaging “multimedia essays” on Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive. Not to say that DHVA’s videos can’t stand alone, but I do dream about education tools that fully mine the potential of each contribution. Additionally, I wonder how existing models for digital presentation will resonate with the typical experience of  undergraduates in years to come. Students and researchers can certainly access DHVA’s “browse” function, but what would it take for them to really get lost in the collection, discovering something they didn’t know they were looking for? I’m not necessarily suggesting that we need to mimic the social media scrolling that helps them “discover” new artists on Instagram or TikTok, but is there a way to translate that flexibility and tap into their curiosity outside of social media? Ultimately, I’m glad to sense a responsive community in the field who is eager to mull these questions over, propelling resources like DHVA, as well as those we haven’t yet dreamed up, into the future.