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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Physical servers on which to house the resource.
- As stated earlier, we are in conversation with both UT and UA about this question.
- 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.
- 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.
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.