How digital art decays—and how to save it
A team of curators takes up the challenge of preserving computer art
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L ast summer, Matthew Epler was combing through the archives of the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University when he found something remarkable. ITP, a master’s program that focuses on creative uses of communication technologies, has been archiving its students’ thesis papers since 1979. Among them, Epler came upon works from Computer Graphics Art, an obscure quarterly magazine that between 1976 and 1978 published dozens of examples of early “code art.” These images, generated directly from software developed by programmers, looked shockingly contemporary.
“For the past six months, this is all I’ve seen on Tumblr,” Epler, who is a graduate student in ITP, says. Unlike code artists of the 1970s, today’s artists often work in color, but the basic look—dominated by simple curves and repeating geometries—had changed little since the 1970s.
Surprised that contemporary code artists seemed to be unwittingly mimicking the efforts of their predecessors, Epler became enthusiastic about preserving the early material. There was just one problem: When it comes to code art, the art isn’t necessarily just the final result. Some code artists, including Epler, argue that it’s the whole process. And the process was now irreproducible. “Some of these things were programmed on punch cards,” Epler says. There was simply no way to recover the original programs.
For help he turned to Rhizome, a New York organization dedicated to fostering and curating digital works. Rhizome had posted scans of the full run of Computer Graphics Art on its website, available to anyone. In November, Epler used these scans to launch a crowd-sourced effort, the Recode Project, which produces new code to generate the old images.
For years Rhizome has been wrestling with art-preservation problems just like the one Epler encountered. Rhizome began in 1996 as an e-mail list for discussion of digital art; two years later, it had become a nonprofit organization, and in 1999 launched an online gallery of important works known as the ArtBase. Rhizome has since grown further, becoming a patron as well as curator and exhibitor, commissioning and displaying new works in an attempt to build a canon of digital art. Today the organization and its ArtBase operate out of the New Museum in Manhattan.
The concern with preservation at Rhizome and like-minded institutions may seem counterintuitive. After all, digital media seems to avoid most of the problems of decay and degradation that affect traditional, tangible works. But as digital creators have carved out a place in the art world, digital-art preservation has become a huge technical challenge. Conservators face a range of problems unique to this media, problems that speak not only to the complexity of this relatively new kind of art, but also to pesky and fundamental questions about what makes something art at all.
Digital art—which may incorporate video, photography, animation, found and scripted stories, video games, physical installations, interactive narratives, and many media besides—does, in a sense, degrade. It needs to be displayable and sometimes usable decades after its creation. But the technology it depends on changes quickly. The original hardware might no longer exist, or the software might run on an operating system that no one has touched since the first Bush administration. A piece can become what Ben Fino-Radin, digital conservator at Rhizome, calls “a work that has obsolesced.”
Lynn Herrmann Traub, who catalogs and manages the permanent collection at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, likens keeping up with changes in technology to “trying to pin Jell-O to a wall,” but says the more digital art “comes to the forefront in galleries and exhibitions, the more that it needs to be preserved.”
Conservators go to great lengths to prevent, or work around, its tendency to slide into rapid obsolescence. In one instance legendary among conservators for its difficulty, curators and programmers worked with artists Roberta Friedman and Grahame Weinbren to salvage “The Erl King,” an interactive video mash-up of Freud’s “The Burning Child” and Goethe’s “Erlkönig.” Friedman and Weinbren completed the project in 1985 using now-obsolete hardware and software, some of which they had custom-built. Nearly 20 years later, the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum took on the preservation of “The Erl King,” opening the door to trade-offs and compromises.
How would the program run without its original operating system, which couldn’t easily be emulated on modern hardware? Could the code be preserved while eliminating bugs that caused the original system to crash? How much original equipment needed to be used? The artists felt that the new exhibit ran too fast to accurately re-create the original experience, so it had to be slowed down. On the other hand, they were willing to replace the original touchscreen with an up-to-date equivalent. In short, the dilemmas involved in re-creating “The Erl King” forced conservators to decide what was art and what was expendable. Fino-Radin sums up the metaphysical predicament: “When you have a sculpture or painting, it’s very clear what the work actually is,” he says. But when you’re dealing with digital media, “separating what is the actual artwork from the technology that supports it can be a challenging thing.”Continued...