Essays

Bit Rot: The Limits of Conservation

by Martha Buskirk on June 9, 2014

Broken Jeff Koons sculpture at "No Longer Art" (Image courtesy ccgsapp.org)

Broken Jeff Koons sculpture exhibited by the Salvage Art Institute at Columbia University in 2012 (image courtesy ccgsapp.org)

Bad things can happen to almost any art. Casino impresario Steve Wynn famously stuck an elbow through his Picasso while bragging about the high price he was about to get for the trophy canvas, and a clumsy visitor to the Fitzwilliam Museum managed to trip on a staircase and take out a whole row of important Chinese vases displayed on an adjacent windowsill. Since neither would have happened if the objects had been securely locked away, they are particularly dramatic examples of the always delicate balance between access and preservation.

For works involving time-based or electronic media, however, the clock is constantly running, wherever the work resides. Rather than keeping them pristine, leaving your tapes or disks in the vault for any significant period can be catastrophic. On a physical level, iron oxide can separate from magnetic tape backing (“sticky shed”) or the reflective material used for optical media can start to break down (one version of “bit rot”). But equally urgent is burgeoning obsolescence that leaves orphaned media with no equipment on which to be played or software that is incompatible with current platforms. As conservator Paul Messier warned at a recent ICA panel on the ownership of time-based media, benign neglect is not an option: if you miss a few migration cycles, you could be left with nothing.

So what should the proud owner of media-based artwork do? One solution is to donate the work to a museum equipped to address such issues. Not only have a growing number of institutions devoted considerable resources to tech-based conservation, but they are banding together on many of the challenges. The Guggenheim’s 2004 exhibition Seeing Double: Emulation in Theory and Practice (sponsored in partnership with the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology) demonstrated the pioneering work of their Variable Media Initiative, which tackled questions about how or whether aging technologies might migrate from one platform to another — with particular emphasis on the role of the artist as arbiter. More recently, the Tate, the Museum of Modern Art, and SFMOMA have been collaborating, via their Matters in Media Art, to articulate procedures for all stages in the process, from pre-acquisition to ongoing conservation.

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Damaged Alexandre Dubuisson’s “La Moisson” (1850) exhibited by the Salvage Art Institute at Columbia University in 2012 (image courtesy ccgsapp.org)

Can a work created for a particular piece of equipment be reconfigured to play on something else? Should effects specific to one technology be simulated in another format? The Seeing Double website documents how, in conjunction their 2000 Nam June Paik retrospective, the Guggenheim worked with his studio to create an updated version of his 1965 TV Crown using an altered 1989 television. But that maneuver was still based on cathode-ray technology, leaving questions about the work’s future in a flat-screen era. One strategy for collectors and institutions is to buy extras of older equipment for backup or replacement parts (evoking visions of museum storerooms that could start to resemble grandpa’s garage), and custom fabrication of outmoded hardware is another (which is already standard practice for the replacement of obsolete florescent bulbs in the work of Dan Flavin, even as the implications of this strategy continue to be debated). At a different extreme, it would be possible to imagine a complete simulation of TV Crown, with an image of the electromagnetic disturbance played on a modern display, which could even be housed within an older television case. While there is a general aversion to outright fakery, all possibilities have to be considered in response to relentless cycles of obsolescence.

A centerpiece of this new conservation specialty is the artist interview. Traditional conservation ethos was to keep artists at arm’s length — in large part to avoid problems with artists wanting to rework or even completely reconceive older objects in light of current aesthetic priorities. The need to respond to an increasingly wide range of potentially ephemeral materials, however, has inspired a new conservation strategy based on interviews with artists that ask them to weigh in on a whole series of questions about where the essential qualities of the work reside, along with criteria for allowable substitutions as elements age out of existence. One danger to this tactic is that the artist’s vision for the future of the work may push it in a different direction than what drew members of its audience in the first place. But far more problematic is the small percentage of media-based artworks likely to be granted any type of conservation attention — leaving open the question of what happens to all the rest, along with a much larger body of non-art material that is still culturally significant.

For the vast majority of material encoded via magnetic or digital media, the best chance at preservation is not a painstakingly specific approach based on following an artist’s express wishes, but aggressive multiplication — any type of copy that will allow it to move forward in time. The use of standardized, non-proprietary formats (such as those articulated by the Library of Congress) might be optimal, but throwing it up on YouTube is another hedge against disappearance. “Lots of copies keep stuff safe,” or LOCKSS, is both a general strategy and the name of a peer-to-peer network pioneered by Stanford University for the preservation and ongoing availability of digital library materials. The initiative emphasizes the potential strength of a distributed approach to preservation, but the need to secure cooperation from publishers in order not to run up against copyright restrictions also indicates a potential roadblock.

Commodore Amiga computer equipment used by Andy Warhol 1985-86, courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum

Commodore Amiga computer equipment used by Andy Warhol 1985-86 (courtesy of the Andy Warhol Museum)

Another important element of the distributed approach is the role of amateur aficionados. The Carnegie Mellon University Computer Club played a crucial role in the recent recovery of Andy Warhol’s 1985 experimental images created on an early version of Commodore’s Amiga 1000 personal computer. Nor was it surprising to learn that Cory Arcangel was both instigator and collaborator in the in the Warhol initiative — given how his own work has long moved across multiple spheres, including an Internet culture focused on shared hacks of older gaming software. Evidence of the latter can be seen in the current fan base for Atari’s 1982 E.T. — widely denounced as the worst game ever made, and even blamed for a downturn in the gaming industry as a whole. Its present cult status is affirmed by the dissemination of code modifications and the well-documented excavation this April of a New Mexico dumpsite outside of Almogordo long-rumored to be the burial ground for truckloads of unsold copies.

Last summer’s “XFR STN” (transfer station) installation/exhibition/public-service hub at the New Museum also had strong grass roots elements, both in the precipitating desire to preserve material from the Monday Wednesday Friday Video Club, a 1980s outgrowth of the Colab collective of the 1970s, and in the decision to go beyond attention to museum-held archival material by opening the transfer service to the broader public. There was an equally central interest in figuring out how the examples thus transferred could be kept in circulation (an agenda that would not be well served if they were handed over on portable media that could go the way of last decade’s Zip disks). Files were therefore uploaded to the Internet Archive — where those with the perseverance to make it through the rather clunky interface (best bet on the Monday Wednesday Friday Club page: the “all items” link) can experience such time-travel gems as Christy Rupp’s 1980 “City Wildlife: Mice, Rats and Roaches,” video announcements for the 1980 “Times Square Show,” or a 1981 Cave Girls extravaganza.

The impetus for the Monday Wednesday Friday Video Club was to distribute independent film and video to the public at modest consumer prices (in contrast to the high-priced, limited-edition model used in the gallery context). But even after the New Museum initiative, only a small portion of the archive (reportedly encompassing some 800 or more tapes boxed away in a storage facility somewhere on Staten Island) is available for digital viewing. Plenty of other material from individuals and defunct collaborations is destined for complete disappearance. While lots of photos and films have been lost as well, at least the object itself is potentially legible (for example, the black & white snapshots of c.1979 art openings taken by art-world lawyer Jerald Ordover that Matthew Higgs discovered at a flea market a few years ago). Old video tapes and floppy disks are likely to go directly into the trash can.

The quick obsolescence of new media art is drawing attention to the need for preservation in general — but given limited resources it is equally clear that only a minuscule portion of our media environment will be subject to full-fledged conservation attention. Copyright limitations present another challenge to migration and dissemination, both with respect to the object itself and access to proprietary software used for its encoding. Individuals and institutions would therefore be well advised to pay attention to what parts of their history they want to hold onto, before retrieval becomes a heroic undertaking.

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  • kunalsen

    Thank you for the thought provoking and informative article. It is not only a concern for conservationists and art owners, but also for artists like me who work with electronic technology as their medium. The artists also wants, in most cases, that their art survives a reasonable period of time. I have to put in a lot of thought about which technologies to use such that it has a better chance of being maintained in the future. For example, I use electronic chips and motors in many of my work, but it is so hard to predict which form of motor or chips will be available in the market 25 years from now.

  • http://three.org/ippolito/ Jon Ippolito

    This article is a good summary of many of the thorny issues confronting today’s creators and curators working with variable and new media. Preservation crowdsourcing projects like XFR STN look especially promising, given the huge number and range of endangered species of media culture.

    Artists who want to register opinions about the future of their works can use the Variable Media Questionnaire, a free online tool for this purpose. For their part, conservators may be interested in taking an online course in digital preservation or reading Re-collection, the first academic book on the topic.

  • stevetiffany

    A lot of early software-as-art could be re-coded for the web using Processing.js, which browsers see as JavaScript so it should have a pretty good shelf life. I resurrected a collage-generator from 1988 this way. Viewers can go Full Screen and completely hide the web browser interface. The blocky pixels of the original platform, a mid-‘80s Commodore Amiga, are convincingly recreated.

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