Digital Art Restoration

“The World’s First Collaborative Sentence” is a work at the center one of the first debates about digital art restoration

Digital art restoration is a new challenge for galleries, museums and collectors. Unlike other media, digital art is comprised of 1’s and 0’s and the technology behind it shifts continuously.

Projects completed just a few years ago may contain buggy and outdated code making it difficult if not impossible to show years after its initial display. It’s an issue  with ramifications for anyone producing content in the digital era.

The New York Times reports on the problem of digital art restoration is a report on New York’s Whitney Museum. In 1995, the museum became one of the first to acquire an Internet artwork, Douglas Davis“The World’s First Collaborative Sentence.” Between 1994 and 2000 the work enabled users to add to the opening lines. Ultimately, it attracted some 200,000 contributions.

When the Whitney’s curators decided to display the work again last year, it didn’t work. That’s one of the problems with digital art. As technology changes and programmers come and go, digital art restoration can become nearly impossible. Pigments may not change over the course of hundreds of years. Yesterday’s digital code is just that — yesterday’s digital code.

The curators faced a decision: 1) They could treat digital art like performance art, as an ephemeral piece that just fades into time; 2) The could let modern day programmers try to restore and maintain the piece; or 3) They could try to update it completely. The Whitney ultimately, adopted a novel and solution that seems to cover all of the bases.

The Whitney chose to “freeze” Davis’ original in time, meaning that it was viewable but no longer interactive. (“The World’s First Collaborative Sentence” is available for viewing on the the archival site, the Wayback Machine). The Whitney then launched a new version of the piece, a “live” version, that keeps the spirit of the original but includes live links.

The longevity of work is a new topic for content producers. We can no longer assume that today’s content will be readily accessible tomorrow. Formats change. Much of the video library of my own television work is on beta masters and VHS copies. I have to update it as my own VCR hasn’t been in my living room or office in quite a while.

One possible solution is to keep updating your content as new technologies emerge. Granted, it could be a lot of work, but you will not find yourself technology generations behind. Another way to help is to leave as complete a blueprint of your technology, including coding instructions, templates and passwords, as possible. That way programmers and other producers down the road will know how to access your work.

There are a number of organizations now working in the realm of digital art restoration: The New Art Trust, the Tate Modern in London and the Museums of Modern Art in New York and San Francisco started Matters in Media Art;   the Variable Media Network, was started by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science and Technology.

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