Articles

Conserving the Digital

by Ben Valentine on June 14, 2012

Panel discussion for #ArtsTech. Image by author.

Panel discussion for #ArtsTech. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

Last night was #ArtsTech: Digital Conservation and Archiving, not the most exciting #ArtsTech Meetup I have attended, but a necessary one to consider as more and more art migrates onto the digital sphere. As servers fade to disuse, files become corrupted, programming languages become incompatible, online platforms change and the physical storage devices become obsolete the future of online and digital works are in serious jeopardy.

(original image via Wikipedia)

The take away from the lecture is that artists must consider how they want their work to live on, and they shouldn’t take it lightly. Artist intent for a work is crucial, and shouldn’t be restricted to only what a curator wants to show, but responsibility for the work first and foremost should rest on the artist. This requires good documentation, planning for future changes in technology, saving in multiple formats in multiple places and more.

These problems are not new to art conservators but they are taking new form, and growing in complexity more quickly than ever before. Planned obsolescence, it seems, does not fare well for the digital art conservator. What would a curator do if the artist provided their work only as a 5 ¼” floppy disk? We laugh at the idea, but this is technology that was used in our lifetime, young artists today will be have work stored on outdated devices tomorrow.

Ben Fino-Radin, who works as digital conservator for Rhizome at the New Museum, mentioned how a work originally made by an artist using a Netscape browser might change in aesthetic quality or functionality if re-installed on, say, Google Chrome. This hurdle to display is similar to the types of considerations that must undertaken for re-installation of site-responsive installations to new spaces. As much as artists might not want to plan for the future of these changes, context does change everything.

Ben Fino-Radin speaking at #ArtsTech.

Ben Fino-Radin speaking at #ArtsTech.

During the Q&A the panel touched on the notion that some artists believe the medium to be ephemeral in nature, and therefore in opposition to conservation. Fino-Radin, somewhat demeaningly brushed this notion aside, attributing it merely to youthful logic. The panelists agreed, saying that many artists renneg their original disinterest in conservation, including Cory Arcangel.

I relate to the sentiment of wanting to embrace ephemerality, but the panel was very persuasive. If you want to make a living from your work, how do you plan on doing that with corrupted files? If you believe art history to be important, how will it advance with such quickly deteriorating artwork?

Late last year, Rafaël Rozendaal shared his thoughts about digital preservation on his blog, and his observations address the issue from an artist’s perspective:

Art works should last a long time. I love seeing old art, and I think it’s not until an artist dies that we get the big picture of their work.

… The context might change, but we will always be able to revisit old software in some form. Transferring software to new platform is peanuts compared to preserving traditional art. Sharks deteriorate in formaldehyde.

If something is interesting, it will survive. As long as someone cares, a copy will exist.

Interestingly, Doug Reside, the first Digital Curator of the Performing Arts at New York Public Library, has found curatorially and art historically relevant information through digital conservation processes. This gives the drive for conservation a possibility for the enrichment of the original experience, similar to doing high-tech scans of paintings to see the original sketches underneath.

Screen shot of "Occupy Man" by Man Bartlett.

Screen shot of "Occupy Man" by Man Bartlett.

More and more however, the younger generation of artists are committing their works to being ephemeral. How does one show a past Twitter performance and pretend it is the original work? Many internet artworks are placing value on the process of participation instead of the product. If Man Bartlett died, could you redisplay “Occupy Man” — a Twitter-based work — with the same effect and quality without a live feed? Was “Echo Parade” about the individual images and their specific order, or the relationships and processes that the project sought to highlight?

These are questions every artist, and especially the digital artist must be considering. The answers have larger implications outside of conservation; they drive at the core meaning of the work and value. Where are we, as young artists, going to place our value, how do we plan on making a living, what does our work mean now and how will it be seen and understood in the future?

#ArtsTech’s Digital Conservation and Archiving took place on Wednesday, June 13 at 7pm at Eyebeam (540 W 21st Street, Chelsea, Manhattan).

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