Screenshot documentation of Ahasiw Maskegon-iskwew's Speaking the Language of Spiders, a Flash-based web project commissioned by Neutral Ground's SOIL project (all images courtesy Neutral Ground)

On December 31, Adobe’s Flash will shutdown. This comes as no surprise, since its demise was announced in 2016, and browsers like Chrome, Firefox and Safari have already disabled it by default. Less parsed is Flash’s legacy in digital art, and how it has raised awareness and even mobilized open source digital archiving initiatives by online communities and institutions. 

Recently, the upcoming dissolution of the Flash medium has been the subject of Gone in a Flash, a digital programs series from the MacKenzie Art Gallery and Neutral Ground Artist Run Centre. Bringing together artists, digital archivists and game developers, the program has been exploring the medium’s significance and what its disappearance means for digital art.

In anticipation of the program’s final iteration — a December 19 online walkthrough of flash-based works commissioned through Neutral Ground’s SOIL project — I spoke to artist Cat Bluemke and digital archivist and artist Clara Chen about their five key takeaways regarding Flash’s imminent demise, as well as what open source tools are accessible to artists and curators still needing to archive their old Flash-based works.

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1. Flash Shaped the Aughts Web Aesthetic.

Screenshot documentation of Guillermo Gomez-Pena and Roberto Sifuentes’s Mexterminator II, an online gallery and cyber debate space

“Flash let us dream what we wanted the internet to look like,” remarked Nathalie Lawhead, a net artist and game designer who’s been working with the software since the late-1990s. These sentiments — shared during their Gone in a Flash artist talk involving a tour of past works, like the award-winning interactive art zine/game Everything is Going to Be OK — acknowledge its impact on digital animation and gaming. As the pre-eminent aughts multimedia software platform, Flash allowed users to develop and play vector-based animations, audio and video content. In Lawhead’s view, Flash-based art websites and games led to to her own experimentations with digital animation and even interactive poetry, where the movement of a mouse, for instance, could trigger sound pieces in a website animation. 

For Cat Bluemke, Flash was significant because it was an accessible software tool that were important to digital artists like herself coming of age online. “Myself as a practicing digital artist, one of my first art communities that was the most impactful for me as a teen growing up with a dial-up connection was Flash games, but specifically websites built with Flash that you could draw on. I spent so long just drawing back and forth with people online,” explains Bluemke, who, alongside artist and partner Jonathan Carroll, co-organized the Gone in Flash program in their capacity as the MacKenzie Gallery’s Digital Programs Coordinators. “I didn’t have an arts education or go to a specialized arts [high] school, so that was my outlet, which then made me continue in working in digital art.”

2. Social Media (and Web Standardization) Killed Flash.

Screenshot documentation of Paul Wong’s Hungry Ghosts (2003) for Neutral Ground and Soil Media, which consisted of a performative livestream video and web piece.

By the end of the aughts, the web went fully 2.0. As more users became reliant on accessing the internet through social platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, the website became less of its “gateway.” Furthermore, web standardization ushered in open standards, and the increasing expectation that a site be accessible via mobile device. Many pinpoint the beginning of Flash’s demise when Apple chose not to support it with the 2007 release of the original iPhone 2G. Apple’s hate-on for Flash was later clarified in a 2010 open letter by its co-founder, Steve Jobs: it was a proprietary product (not open standard), had poor security, and was designed for desktop, not touch. This emergence of open standards led many developers to embrace HTML5. 

“As an artist, it’s such a frustrating thing. Like paint doesn’t really change. If you learn a specific skill set, you can improve upon that skill set, especially in traditional media. No one suddenly owns paint, all paint, and you have to go through them,” vents Bluemke. “The way art schools give you four beautiful years of Adobe Creative Suite, and then rips it away from you: ‘oh, now you have to pay for this now, and it’s more than your food budget.’”

“It’s just a type of capitalism that is very frustrating to the people who want to see the potential for what this medium is.” 

3. This Open Source Tool Can Preserve Your Old Flash-based Art Website or Game.

Garnet Hertz’s Experiments in Galvanism, exhibited online in the Soil Media Digital Gallery

Conifer, a Rhizome-supported web archiving service, is your best bet for preserving any old Flash sites or games. It essentially takes an automated approach to archiving, preserving interactive and high-fidelity websites with embedded media, Javascript and even user-generated content. This allows web archives to then be captured and explored through emulation, meaning that the original browsing experience of an aughts iteration of a Flash website can be recreated by emulating remotely older browser versions of Chrome or Firefox. 

Originally referred to as Webrecorder, Conifer is the result of Rhizome’s Digital Preservation program. In 2016, the New York new media non-profit received a $600,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation for the Arts to develop the open source tool, working closely with the developer Ilya Kreymer, who formerly worked for the Wayback Machine. When Rhizome organized their The Art Happens Here: Net Art’s Archival Poetics exhibition in 2019, Webrecorder was used to preserve and mount many of its featured works.

4. Open Source Tools Like Conifer Help The Digital Preservation Efforts of Smaller Arts Organizations.

Jillian McDonald’s Screen Kiss is a humorous flash web art project which explores celebrity and fetishization

The benefit of an open source tool like Conifer is the ability for it to be accessed by smaller institutions and artist-run centers. This is the case for Neutral Ground Artist Run Centre, which has a significant archive of Flash web art projects commissioned through its Soil Media program. Active from 1997-2015, SOIL Media was one of the first long-term new media projects led by a Canadian artist-run center, supporting presentations and artist residences by mid-career and established artists like Paul Wong, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, and Ahasiw Maskegon-iskewew. 

“While a large portion of the projects have been exhibited long-term in the SoilMedia Digital Gallery & Archive, a lot of exhibitions, performances and events were not,” writes Clara Chen, who recently led a “Gone In a Flash” workshop about Conifer, and shared her experiences preserving Flash-based works from Neutral Ground’s digital art collection. It involved her sourcing documents and various email chains through old drives, recovering what she could from a website backup and viewing SWF files — an Adobe flash file format containing videos and vector-based animations — via open source emulation tools. “Open source archiving tools and communities are the best option for smaller arts organizations, independent creators, and the general public.”

5. Planning to use Conifer? Expect a Line (or Use Another Open Source Web Archiving Tool).

Guillermo Gomez-Pena and Roberto Sifuentes’s Mexterminator II

As we get closer to the December 31 deadline, users hoping to use Conifer to archive their Flash sites and/or games should expect to wait in line. Yes, like dial-up internet or the age-old BBS, Conifer has a limited capacity in how many sites it can archive in one time: it’s a free service that allows 5GB space, but for a monthly paid account, provides 40GB of storage.

If you’re pressed for time, Chen recommends the webgame preservation project BlueMaxima’s Flashpoint and Ruffle, a Flash Player emulator written in the Rust programming language, both of which are open source projects. 

“Online communities have been the driving force for open source digital archiving missions,” explains Chen via email, citing the Internet Archive’s repository of user-generated flash collections and Archive Team, an online archiving group founded in 2009 that was partially responsible for preserving Geocities. “These organizations were created in response to the ever changing nature of the web […] There is a bit of hope that our web history won’t be erased because of a few predatory business moves or myopic legislations passed in favor of mainstream media industries and tech conglomerates.”

Rea McNamara is a writer, curator, and public programmer based in Toronto. She has written extensively on art, culture and the internet for frieze, Art in America, The Globe and Mail, VICE, Art F City,...