Saving Flash Works: Report #1
This is the first of several reports from the lab about its efforts to preserve born-digital literary works produced with Adobe Flash software.
Where We Are and How We Got Here
If you have been following us over the last two years, you may remember that we submitted a proposal, entitled “afterflash,” to the National Endowment for the Humanities in July 2019 to use Rhizome’s Conifer to preserve the 447 works published in the 12 publications hosted on the Electronic Literature Organization’s Repository. That proposal was rejected, but it received an evaluation of three “excellent” and two “very good.” We resubmitted that proposal in July 2020 with revisions that addressed the concerns of all evaluators. We will know in the next six to eight weeks the results of that attempt.
But Adobe was not waiting for us to get the funding to save Flash works. The announced end date of 12/31/20 came as the company promised. We did host an event, “A Toast to the Flash Generation,” that very day that brought together 24 of the Flash artists featured in the Repository to perform one or two of their works via Zoom. The recordings of those performances were uploaded to Vimeo and made accessible to the public the following week. That said, since January 1, 2021, we have lost close to 500 treasures held in the Repository.
Ruffle was introduced as a tool that could help with the effort to save Flash works. The lab has not been keen on using it because it requires us to intervene on the HTML file(s) on which the Flash work resides. Furthermore, it was reported Ruffle is not yet robust enough to handle complex Flash works. Despite that, the lab was hearing from artists and scholars that they needed access to Flash e-lit for exhibitions and research. So, the lab decided to implement Ruffle on the Flash works held in the Repository in order to 1) test its efficacy, and 2) save as many works as possible now.
ELO provided funding for two Undergraduate Researchers, Andrew Thompson and Arlo Ptolemy, to work on the project. They began two weeks ago on the Electronic Literature Collections 1, 2, and 3. Thus far, they have completed Volumes 1 and 2. They plan to complete Volume 3 by next Sunday.
Along with adding the requisite code to the HTML file(s), they are also testing the works on various browsers. This step is very time-intensive in that the team needs to visit all pages and links associated with a work.
Our Findings Thus Far
Our findings show that Ruffle is indeed not currently an ideal solution for preserving Flash e-lit. Of the 25 Flash works in the ELC 1, only nine can be easily saved. Of the 24 found in the ELC2, only one can be saved. As expected, a pattern has emerged. We found that videos do not play, such as with Lance Olsen and Tim Guthrie’s “10:01.” The position of media moves off screen because Ruffle seems to add spacing, as with Dan Waber’s “Strings.” Sound files won’t work properly, such as with Donna Leishman’s “RedRidingHood.” In some cases, the team found that changing the code by commenting out sections, adding a missing style tag, or recoding entire sections could fix some problems, but this kind of action can result in changing the state of the work,  and so from our standpoint, not optimal.
Once they complete the ELCs, they will add a scholarly note to the introductory page that the ELO’s editorial team created for each work rather than on the work itself. If the work was able to be preserved with Ruffle, the note will state that information and include an alert about the Play button and potential lag; if it could not be, the note will relay that information to readers.
Holding Out for Conifer
Conifer currently presents a far better long-term solution for preserving Flash e-lit than Ruffle. First, Conifer emulates a legacy browser on which the work can play and, so, does not require any intervention to the files. Second, produced as it has been by an art organization specializing in net art, Conifer is built to address complex functionality like that found in e-lit. Third, while Ruffle requires us to use local files of the works, Conifer can address external files. The good news is that the Ruffle community continues to develop it to address its constraints.
So, at the moment we are using Ruffle as a bandaid on the problem with the hope that we can begin a more aggressive campaign on June 1, 2021 to save the 447 Flash works in the Repository with Conifer. Fingers are crossed for the grant funding.
 Espen Aarseth talks about the variable state of cybertexts in his book, Cybertext. As he writes, “A text is determinate if the adjacent textons of every scripton are always the same; if not, the text is indeterminate” (63).