Cultural managements

A digital safe for cultural heritage

Sometimes it takes a stranger to appreciate the value and fragility of a local culture. An ambitious new initiative by local and international experts aims to collect, preserve and disseminate the largely untapped and threatened audiovisual heritage of the Greek Cyclades islands by creating an online archive and residency program.

Archipelago Network is the brainchild of Jacob Moe, a New York-born documentary filmmaker and translator who divides his time between Athens and Syros, the administrative capital of the country’s most visited group of islands. Speaking in a video call from his home in a village on the largely underdeveloped north side of the island, the 31-year-old says the idea came to him around five years ago when he ran a film festival at different locations in collaboration with various communities around the island.

“We came into contact with people who had their own audiovisual collections, mostly 16mm and Super 8 films shot in Syros in the 1960s and 1970s,” says Moe.

As he soon discovered, the vulnerability and precariousness of aging analog content required more attention and better organization than the short-lived festival format provided.

“The idea was born out of this need to start preserving these materials in a systematic way. We felt they were neglected and very unique to the Cycladic culture and landscape,” he says.

In the process, he realized more was at stake.

“Audiovisual archives have a unique ability to embody subjectivity, emotion and affect,” says Moe.

“By preserving endangered document collections, we can effectively protect endangered aspects of our not-too-distant past, gaining a better understanding of ourselves, others, and our shared future,” he says. he.

The Archipelago Network archives consist of films, photographs, videotapes, audio cassettes and sound recordings, including interviews, field recordings and oral histories from the late 1800s through the appearance of digital content on the islands today. It is growing as more material is digitized.

Jacob Moe, the mastermind behind the initiative, pictured in the traditional village of Ano Syros. [Dimitris Karaiskos]

“Living Archives”

The goal is to move beyond the traditional notion of an archive as a static repository of data and information to a more renewable, open-access platform – “a living archive”, as it is called. Moe.

“Forget the idea of ​​a hushed library where you approach a material with the agreement of a librarian and white gloves before carefully going through the information available. We hope it will be something much more contemporary,” he says.

The team will also establish a research-based residency on Syros so that people from a wide range of disciplines can interact with the collected archival materials and communicate them to a wider audience at home and abroad.

“It will allow it to move away from this purely archival realm of classification and information into stories and narratives,” Moe said.

The organization relies on a set of specialized advisers in Greece and abroad who provide ad hoc know-how on issues such as copyright, content management and organizational development.

“The scope is inherently both local and international, so it’s something that requires input from experts and researchers who are also outside of Greece but have some kind of interest in the islands,” explains Moe.

Moe, whose mother is a professor of modern Greek literature at Columbia University, was himself raised speaking Greek, despite having no Greek ancestry. Most of his formative years were spent in Greece, visiting Athens and the islands for summer holidays and sabbaticals from researching his mother. After graduating from Pomona College in California, he came to Greece, where he co-founded the Syros International Film Festival (SIFF) in 2013. After furthering his studies and working in Sao Paulo, Brazil and Santa Cruz, Calif., in 2019, he returned. to its festival functions on Syros while working to materialize the whole concept of Archipelago Network.

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Boatbuilder Mastro-Yannis Zorzos and his barber. Fouskis shipyard, Syros, 1980. [Archipelago Network]

Vessels and herbs

The network itself was developed in collaboration with the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), which also provided support for the first two pilot projects which will be officially launched on February 15.

One is an archive module on traditional shipbuilding in Syros. It involves the digitization of audio-visual documents from local private and public collections such as the Industrial Museum of Ermoupoli in the elegant capital of the island in the 19th century, and the production of five video portraits of surviving representatives of craftsmanship in decline. At the same time, experts in architecture and ethnography carry out field work on the social, cultural and economic dimensions of traditional shipbuilding.

Syros became the main industrial, commercial and shipbuilding center of the modern Greek state founded after the war of independence against the Ottoman Empire, until it was eclipsed by Piraeus.

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Hypercomf’s art team on location documenting photo quadrats in the Grammata area of ​​Syros, October 2021. [Archipelago Network]

For the second project, named Anthemis after a flower native to the region, the organizers invited Tinos-based multidisciplinary artist duo Hypercomf (Paola Palavidi and Ioannis Koliopoulos) to Syros for the development of an online herbarium that will house photo quadrats of plant biodiversity, linking them to community archives. It will include photographs, sketches and audio recordings made by botanists, artists and plant enthusiasts on the island. A portable botanical data collection toolkit, housed in a custom-made hiking backpack, will soon be available for use by community groups and schools.

“We basically use the original archives as a starting point for a community-driven plant archive,” says Moe.

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Hypercomf during their visit to Syros for the Anthemis pilot project, Syros, October 2021. [Archipelago Network]

Free access

True to the spirit of initiatives such as the EU’s Europeana web portal, Archipelago Network aspires to be an example of open and reusable digital cultural heritage.

“If we’re putting all of this effort into preserving and documenting this archive, then it really should be publicly accessible and reused,” Moe says.

“Priorizing ethical open access is core to our mission,” he says.

While the fervent celebrity culture driven by social media is already taking its toll on the Cyclades, some are understandably wary of moves to spark additional interest in its once-pristine islands. Moe, however, is confident about the enduring nature of the project, believing that it can foster this kind of substantive engagement with a specific place, its history and culture in a way that is neither passive nor damaging.

“One thing that really concerns us is the rate at which the items that are at the center of these archives are disappearing, which makes them all the more urgent,” he says.

“The notion of endangerment is viscerally present for us. There is no succession. »

For more information, visit the Archipelago Network website.