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Being able to experiment with digital works of art years after they were created can be a challenge: computers and other materials may be out of order, its code may be unreadable by more recent machines…
Sometimes you can’t see or hear anything anymore. And even if the works of art aren’t dependent upon a technical device of their own, as is the case certain installations, they are fragile and have a limited life span, and therefore need constant attention. Even if there are many methods one can use to make works of art at least partially perennial, the fact that there is no magical solution art preservation has limited (at least until now) the broadcasting of digital arts in public and private collections.
And yet, in France and abroad, museums and art centers purchase works of art and collectors buy from specialized galleries or artists. The art market, just like pieces of writing on art by critics, art historians or journalists, participate in generating the value of the works of art, and are therefore involved in the preservation of digital works of art (which will be the subject of another article in another MCD issue). Artists do what they can for their works to be accessible, said preservation being intrinsically linked to the presentation of the work to the audience.
This first article about the preservation of digital arts examines museums’ strategies, so that the works of art that they acquire can be shown, in the short, medium and long term. Each generation of works of art questions the museum organization, notably the way it treats the works of art.
The use of everyday material by artists from the 20th century forced museums to think differently about how to present and preserve them. Technological works of art are a new stage that makes it necessary to reconsider exhibition practices, and to re-think older works of art through this prism.
The variable media approach is the most sophisticated museum strategy for apprehending digital works of art. It was originated by Jon Ippolito (artist, teacher, and
then curator at the Guggenheim museum). The work of art is not defined by its medium anymore, so that it can continue to evolve, and be re-created, when its original medium has become obsolete for example. Each work of art is individually considered, more like a musical score than a finished and static object. The expression “variable media” makes it possible to include our digital works of art, as well as all forms of contemporary art that are based on the process, and no longer on the object, from conceptual art to land art, minimal art, performances, etc…
To preserve the artwork of the American artist Dan Flavin, the Guggenheim museum had to purchase a stock of red neon tubes that were about to be recalled. It is this example, its excessiveness and its absurdity, that started Jon Ippolito thinking about a possible alternative. It was a sign of the limits of preservation based principally on the replacement of broken parts. For example, it is possible to replace the red neon tube by a halogen light bulb of the same colour, and to recreate the external aspect of the work. However, the artist bought his neon tubes at the supermarket and the colour was not necessarily his priority.
When the time to exhibit the work of art comes around again, the question is how necessary it is to be faithful to the artist’s intention; should the priority be the variety of neon available, without taking into account the colour of the neon tube, or should one be faithful to the appearance of the work of art when it was exhibited; or is it necessary to adapt the work of art to the technology which is contemporary to the exhibition? Jon Ippolito asks himself who should be making that decision.
It’s even more complicated in the case of Dan Flavin, now deceased. The reflection of Jon Ippolito found an echo in the Fondation Daniel Langlois Pour l’art, la science et la technologie (the Daniel Langlois Art Foundation, Science and Technology), in Montréal, a partner in his research. Following the reflection on variable media, the Fondation Langlois launched the DOCAM (Documentation and preservation of the heritage of media arts) project of whose results will be published by the end of 2009.
With the variable media approach , the institution communicates with the artist in order to understand better his intentions, the characteristics of the work of art, if the artist wants the original form of his work to vary or not, or to be translated into a new media once its original media expires. The specificities of works of art with digital elements are taken into account when the time comes to determine the way the work of art will be preserved by the museum which is purchasing it.
It is the artist who needs to decide, which is something new, and changes the relationship between the artist and the museum. Now museums even include the choice of the artist in their contracts.
There are four possible strategies: the exact storage of the data, the migration from a media to another, emulation and re-interpretation.
This last option is the original contribution of variable media, making it possible to free oneself of the physical and technological aspect of a work. Storage is the most classical solution, consisting in storing works of art on digital media. The work of art will disappear when its materials or data become obsolete. Migration implies updating from one media to another. Migration takes place when a file is converted into a new format, or when a more recent version of it is saved.
Migration can lead to a work of art of art’s appearance changing, for example if some functionalities disappear when changing from one software version to another. Emulation consists in recreating the appearance of the work of art (with a different source code). Keeping the computers which were created the works of art on is not conceivable in the long term, but software emulation is possible, following the example of old video games with which it is possible to play on more recent computers. For that matter the Guggenheim museum offered in 2004 the exhibition Seeing Double: emulation in theory and practice, where original works of art were presented (Jodi, Cory Arcangel, Mary Flanagan, as well as Robert Morris and Nam June Paik) next to emulated versions.
An opportunity to pick up on the differences in behavior and appearance between the works of art.
Re-interpretation, a more radical strategy, consists in re-interpreting the work of art for each update, recreating a work of art which would be faithful to the artist’s intention, but which may be very different from the original. It is the most “risky”strategy, but it also allows the museum to change its role in relation to the works of art. To quote Jon Ippolito, as eccentric as the idea may appear to traditional collection practices, this vision of preservation offers an alternative to those for whom the conception of a work of art goes further than its manifestation in a particular form. And it helps us to imagine the museum as an incubator for living, changing works of art, rather than a mausoleum for dead works of art.
The approach of variable media will therefore make the way art is shown, and transmitted, evolve. Its implementation can be seen in the few (and rare) institutions
that have adopted it. Other institutional initiatives exist, but are often subtended by preoccupations linked to the art video collections of the museums that initiated them, and to the particular problems that result from their preservation; these problems as complex as those of the digital arts, but different.
DOCAM: < www.docam.ca >
Variable Media Network:
< www.variablemedia.net >
< www.variablemedia.net/f/seeingdouble/ >
Published in the Digitalarti Mag #1.
Digitalarti Mag, the international digital art and innovation magazine.
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