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Conserving Digital Art

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The emergence of digital technologies has impacted not only the nature of museums as institutions, but also the practice of artists. Consequently, artworks which employ digital media (such as video and software) in their access or display are making their way into permanent collections in increasing numbers. These digital media can pose considerable challenges in terms of long-term access and display, due to a changing technological environment and resulting risk of obsolescence. Contemporary art museums are among those leading the way in developing approaches to collecting and caring for these types of object. This accompanies a general shift in conservation theory and practice, from a traditional object-centric approach to one which allows the continued evolution of the work through time. The presence of digital media in collections is also forcing the art museum to look beyond its walls and engage with experts from formerly unfamiliar domains. In this chapter, we will introduce the imperatives driving digital preservation and discuss the state of the art in the field of conserving and preserving digital art. We will then focus on recent research relating to specific digital media types and present a number of case studies from the Tate collection.
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T. Giannini & J.P. Bowen (eds.), Museums and Digital Culture,
Springer Series on Cultural Computing 1
Chapter 11
Conserving Digital Art
Patrícia Falcão and Tom Ensom
Abstract The emergence of digital technologies has impacted not only the nature of museums as institutions, but
also the practice of artists. Consequently, artworks which employ digital media (such as video and software) in
their access or display are making their way into permanent collections in increasing numbers. These digital media
can pose considerable challenges in terms of long-term access and display, due to a changing technological
environment and resulting risk of obsolescence. Contemporary art museums are among those leading the way in
developing approaches to collecting and caring for these types of object. This accompanies a general shift in
conservation theory and practice, from a traditional object-centric approach to one which allows the continued
evolution of the work through time. The presence of digital media in collections is also forcing the art museum to
look beyond its walls and engage with experts from formerly unfamiliar domains. In this chapter, we will introduce
the imperatives driving digital preservation and discuss the state of the art in the field of conserving and preserving
digital art. We will then focus on recent research relating to specific digital media types and present a number of
case studies from the Tate collection.
Introduction
In this chapter we will introduce the field of digital art conservation within the art museum, including its primary
goals and methods, and recent insights from research and practice at Tate and elsewhere. Research efforts in the
conservation and preservation of digital media have been gaining momentum over the past few decades. Through
new collaborations between disciplines and international partners, considerable progress has been made toward
addressing many of the theoretical and technological challenges faced. We will first introduce the fields of digital
preservation and art conservation, which while increasingly interconnected in the context of digital art
conservation, have distinct origins and patterns of discourse. For each, we will also highlight recent research and
its implications for the conservation of digital art. We will then discuss in detail two digital media types digital
video and software including the preservation challenges they present (illustrated using a number of case studies
from the Tate collection) and recent research that has sought to address them.
Much of the content of this chapter builds from our experiences in Tate’s Time-based Media Conservation
team, a section of the Conservation Department. Tate’s mission includes the care of the artworks in the collection
and to ensure these can be exhibited to the public in the long-term. Over the last 20 years we have seen wide
changes in the technologies used by artists, and the Time-based Media Conservation team’s remit has grown from
roots in technologies like film, to include digital video, software-based and performance artworks. Tate was the
first contemporary art museum to have a time-based media conservation department, and has led in building the
expertise required to care for these artworks. These works are mostly technology dependent and can be installed
in variable ways. Preserving them requires a continued engagement with the new forms of media being used by
artists and with the emerging field of digital preservation. While this new expertise has built on existing experience
with conservation of contemporary art, it has also required bringing in technical knowledge from outside the
museum to help deal with challenges ranging from cathode ray tube maintenance to digital preservation storage;
from analogue video playback to hardware emulation. This has proved to be, like the artist’s practice that drives
it, an ever-evolving process.
2 Patrícia Falcão and Tom Ensom
Digital Preservation
Digital Preservation is defined by the Digital Preservation Coalition
1
as “(...) the series of managed activities
necessary to ensure continued access to digital materials for as long as necessary” (DPC, 2015). In this section,
we will consider what this means in the context of the museum and introduce the ideas from digital preservation
which are shaping the way museums care for digital artworks. Following in the footsteps of archives and libraries,
museums have begun adopting (and where necessary adapting) standards, best practices, tools and infrastructures
developed by the digital preservation community (Fino-Radin, 2018). Digital preservation initiatives must extend
across the whole organization. Planning and implementing digital preservation infrastructure therefore requires
close collaboration between departments, including those working with the art collection, the archives,
photography and records. The development of infrastructure that meets the varied needs of different teams and
media types remains an active area of exploration for museums.
The so-called “three-legged stool” model, developed at Cornell University for the Digital Preservation
Management training course (Kenney et al., 2003), conceives of digital preservation as supported by three “legs”.
The “organization” legs represents organizational concerns: what the organization is collecting, the policies in
place, and the processes and procedures that support digital preservation. The “technology” leg refers to
technological infrastructure: the hardware, software, and skills required to implement the policies and procedures.
This also includes the monitoring of the constantly evolving technologies of artwork production and preservation.
Finally, the “resources” leg refers the resources that support digital preservation: funding for development,
training of staff and perhaps most importantly the operational costs of maintaining preservation activities and
infrastructure (McGovern, 2007). The balancing of the stool in relation to these three legs is one way of
understanding what constitutes a “fully-implemented and viable long-term preservation strategy” (Kenney et al.,
2003). This is not a one-time activity, but demands ongoing engagement and advocacy. It is essential that digital
preservation infrastructure receives sustained support at all levels, to ensure that digital objects are preserved,
even in the face of significant changes in the technological environment. Fortunately, many years of research in
the digital preservation community has resulted in knowledge and tools which offer a head start to organizations
approaching digital preservation for the first time.
The formative times in the development of digital preservation were the early 1970s (Day, 2000), when the
need to preserve electronic records started to become apparent. As early as 1982, the major international space
agencies created the Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems (CCSDS) to provide a forum for discussion
of common problems in the development and operation of space data systems (CCSDS, 2017). This collaboration
led to the development of the reference model for an Open Archival Information System in 2003 with the last
update published in 2012 (Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems, 2012). This model is much debated
and critiqued in the digital preservation community, but remains an important de-facto standard and baseline for
discussions within the field. The OAIS model does not specify technological solutions; rather it identifies the
“functions” required to ensure the preservation of digital records. It places digital preservation at the core of an
archive or institution, and makes explicit the importance of the context under which this occurs; the systems and
processes needed to preserve the data for the long-term do not exist in isolation, but are intrinsically linked to the
producers and users of the data that the archive holds. Digital preservation is therefore intrinsically cross-
disciplinary, offering an overarching set of technical frameworks, with the individual negotiation of what precisely
counts as preservation occurring within the sub-field relating to the type of materials to be preserved (Owens,
2018). The field has several other well established standards worth considering, from the relatively simple and
pragmatic NDSA Levels of Digital Preservation (Phillips et al., 2013) to the gold-standard Trustworthy
Repositories Audit & Certification (Ambacher et al., 2014). These standards can provide useful targets for
institutions to work towards when developing their own systems and policies.
In working towards any of these standards, it is necessary to understand the risks faced by digital materials,
and appropriate responses to these risks. We will now introduce the two primary risks (see Rosenthal et al., 2005
for a more complete examination): the loss of the bits of digital information; and the loss of the means to access
information as a result of a changing technological environment. The first of these is perhaps the most apparent
risk faced by digital materials, and the failure or loss of storage media will be something very familiar to any
computer user. By storage media, we mean the physical carrier for the bits (be it magnetic tape, a hard drive or a
USB flash drive) the fundamental unit of digital storage which encode the digital materials. Failure can occur
for a multitude of reasons and at different rates depending on the type of media–the principle of “inherent vice”,
1
The Digital Preservation Coalition is a UK-based non-profit organization which advocates for digital
preservation and supports its members in ensuring long-term access to digital content and services.
Conserving Digital Art 3
or the tendency for all materials to deteriorate over time (American Institute for Conservation of Historic and
Artistic Works, 2017), applies just as much to digital storage media as to any other. Fortunately, approaches to
dealing with this risk have advanced dramatically since it was identified, and we are approaching a situation in
which it is possible to mitigate it providing the resources are available to implement a solution at the required
scale.
At its core, a digital object can be understood as a bitstream: a specific sequence of bits (that is, values of 0 or
1). Bit-level preservation concerns ensuring that the exact sequence of bits that constitute a digital object is
maintained through time. By storing identical copies in multiple locations (such as a magnetic LTO tape or a hard
disk drive in a data center) and applying fixity checks, the integrity of a bitstream can be verified and monitored.
Fixity checks are automated methods which use an algorithm to generate a digital fingerprint from the bitstream,
often referred to as a checksum. If any bit within the bitstream is altered, the resulting checksum will change.
These checksums can be stored alongside a digital object and used to verify the integrity of the bits whenever they
are copied (NDSA Infrastructure & Standards Working Groups, 2014). Various steps can be taken to minimize
risks to bit integrity when storage media is accessed and archived. Tools and techniques from the field of digital
forensics, which has emerged around the requirement for demonstrable bit integrity in criminal investigations, are
increasingly being used in the capture of digital materials in museums (Kirschenbaum et al., 2013). For example,
the use of write-blocked disk imaging (shown in progress in Figure 1) allows the capture of a complete bit-for-bit
representation of the contents of a hard drive, while mitigating the risk of writing any data back onto the source
storage media. At Tate, we have used the free and open-source BitCurator toolset to help us implement digital
forensics in our workflows (BitCurator, n.d.).
Fig 11.1 Using forensic write-blocking hardware to acquire a disk image of a hard drive extracted from a PC. (Photograph by Tom
Ensom)
While frameworks for bit-level preservation are now well established and widely agreed upon, ensuring the
long-term usability and accessibility of born-digital materials is a tougher challenge. This problem is caused by
technological obsolescence, which can be understood as the decrease in use and availability of a specific
technology. A classic example of hardware obsolescence is the 3½ʺ floppy disk. Once a popular storage medium
for which reader devices were ubiquitous, as more efficient forms of storage such as the compact disc became
available, interest in the floppy disk declined and production slowed, rendering it obsolete. Software and file
formats may also become obsolete, sometimes as a trickledown effect from hardware obsolescence (for example,
when a processor architecture becomes obsolete, so too does the software which runs on it), and sometimes
independently (for example, where development ceases on a software program which is required to access a
specific file format). A considerable amount of research over the past few decades has focused on how we might
respond to these problems, and has resulted in several distinct strands of thought, which we characterize as
content-centric and object-centric.
4 Patrícia Falcão and Tom Ensom
Content-centric strategies seek to alter the technical structure of digital objects to meet the requirements of a
changing technical environment, while ensuring the original content is maintained. For example, data stored in an
obsolete file format might be converted to a more stable one. The primary drawback of this approach is that
important characteristics of the content may be lost in the migration process, particularly if the new format does
not support all the features that the original did. Object-centric strategies seek to maintain a suitable technical
environment using emulation (and related technologies) in order to allow continued access to the original
unaltered object. Recent advances in emulation technology and the tools to apply it mean that object-centric digital
preservation has become more common and usable at scale (von Suchodoletz et al., 2013, Cochrane et al., 2017).
However, such an approach can still not be used successfully in all circumstances; it is contingent on a suitable
emulator having been developed to support the required technical environment. Both strategy types introduced
here are returned to in subsequent sections of this chapter Conserving Digital Video and Conserving Software-
based Art respectively where specific examples of their application are discussed.
Both strategy types demand a degree of change, either in the digital object itself or its environment, and as a
result frameworks have been developed to ensure that the important characteristics of a digital object can be
maintained through time. In doing so, we aim to ensure that the digital materials preserved can be considered
authentic. This idea is widely understood in digital preservation as preserving “significant properties” (Wilson,
2007). Although significant properties can be problematically vague as a term and hard to implement consistently
in practice (Dappert & Farquhar, 2009; Yeo, 2010), it remains a useful way of thinking about the potential
appropriateness of a particular preservation strategy and measuring its success if applied. Beyond documentation
to support an understanding of significant properties, documentation standards within digital preservation are
linked primarily to the metadata which accompanies a particular object in archival storage. There are established
standards for this, ranging from the baseline Dublin Core specification (Dublin Core Metadata Initiative, 2012),
primarily supporting access, to the specialized PREMIS standard (PREMIS Editorial Committee, 2015), which
enables sophisticated machine-driven management of digital objects. Off-the-shelf storage and management
systems have also been developed, that provide digital object management, access and information services for
collections, such as the free and open-source Archivematica (Artefactual Systems Inc., 2019).
As digital preservation matures, there are a number of challenges on the horizon. One is the sustainability of
the field, and its tool and technologies. With this in mind, we are increasingly seeing the favoring of open-source
tools to meet digital preservation requirements (Gengenbach et al., 2016). While this may not always be practical,
when it can be achieved it helps ensure that development is transparent, can be picked up easily by others and
carried out collaboratively. In this chapter we have tried to highlight open-source options where possible. Another
emerging challenge is the increasingly common blurring of the boundaries of what we have typically understood
as digital objects. The increasing use of software that is cloud-based and dependent on the web for access poses
challenges to digital preservation, such as the widespread use of Google Docs (Mitcham, 2017). As a result, there
is increasing interest in capturing a record of the subjects history and context as documentation, as means to
extend, augment or event act in place of object-centric and content-centric preservation efforts. This may be
particularly important in cases where the subject of digital preservation is inextricable from the networks it
occupies for example, virtual worlds (McDonough et al., 2010) and internet art (Dekker, 2018).
Art Conservation
Conservation “encompasses actions taken toward the long-term preservation of cultural property” (American
Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, n.d.). The principles and theories that support it as a
discipline were shaped over the twentieth century, evolving from the in-depth knowledge of production processes
and constituent materials of objects to concerns about authenticity and the ability to study original materials.
Principles that have resulted from this evolution include: making any treatment or intervention clearly identifiable
and reversible; introducing the least possible change to original materials; and an emphasis on thorough and
accurate documentation of actions taken (AIC, 1994). Paraphrasing Jill Sterrett, Director of Collections at the San
Francisco Museum of Modern Art, one of the roles of contemporary art conservators is to create finds for future
researchers (J. Sterrett, pers. comm., 2016).
Traditionally there has been a strong focus on the materiality of the preservation object, but different specialties
in the field from ethnographic objects to industrial heritage to contemporary art have widened the scope of
conservation to include considerations about the context of objects and their use, that influence or sometimes
determine how an object is preserved (Muñoz-Viñas, 2012). Contemporary art including art with digital
components has, because of its dependency on complex industrial technology, widened the focus of conservation
Conserving Digital Art 5
from the physical object to include the artist’s intent and the public’s experience of an artwork. The principles
developed for the preservation of traditional materials still apply, but the outlook of conservation has changed
from avoiding change to managing inevitable change (Depocas et al., 2003; Laurenson, 2006; Phillips, 2007).
An important aspect of time-based media art (art involving technology and a durational element) is its often
spatial and performative nature, meaning that an artwork only exists if its equipment is running and properly set-
up within a space that meets certain requirements. Conservators of time-based media work with artists,
technicians, galleries and curators to define what the artwork is, how it should be displayed and how an artist may
want to see it preserved. The concept of work-defining properties (similar to the significant properties concept
introduced in the Digital Preservation section) provides a framework to support decisions around changes to an
artwork. This can vary from changing a specific piece of equipment (for instance, swapping projectors from a
technology like LCD to DLP) to migrating to a new medium. While this technical evolution of the artwork is a
necessary component of contemporary conservation, the extent to which an artwork may change varies
considerably, and conservators and curators are responsible for overseeing these processes within the museum.
Negotiating change involves maintaining a balance between changing a work to be able to display it and wanting
to be respectful of its technical art history. A strategy to keep that balance is to create thorough documentation of
original systems and the changes made to them. If art historians in 20 years’ time are to understand a specific
artwork, its context, how it has evolved over time, then the focus on documentation is essential, and the effort put
into it by teams of conservators fully justified.
A time-based media conservator needs very specific knowledge of the technologies involved in production,
but also on the strategies and tools being developed for preservation. Training in this field was first available in
1999, when the first specialization was launched at the University of the Arts in Bern, Switzerland. In the US the
degree in Moving Image Archiving and Preservation started in 2005 at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, with
a broader focus in moving image. The need for further expertise in this field has been acknowledged in the US in
the last 5 years, with new positions and fellowships in time-based media conservation in museums like the Denver
Art Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Hirshhorn Museum and the Smithsonian Institution. The National
Digital Stewardship Residency has also supported fellows in institutions working with time-based media art
collections. There is currently no similar training in the UK, as far as the authors are aware.
Artists working with video or software are also confronted with the need to maintain their works, and often
they must support collectors and institutions in their preservation measures. This has happened with video from
the beginning, with artists migrating video tapes as needed, and the same trends apply to artists who are asked to
show now obsolete works. Many artists are interested in approaches to the aging or evolution of their artworks.
One accessible introduction has been written by the artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, whose “Best Practices”
document serves as a guide to other artists interested in the longevity of their work (Lozano-Hemmer, 2015). In
this document, among his other recommendations for artists, he suggests that artists trust conservators and that
is good advice if artists are interested in keeping their work alive.
Conserving Digital Video Art
The medium most frequently found in Tate’s collection of time-based media art is video. This includes single-
channel video works, video as part of sculptural or installed works and as complex multi-channel video
installations. It is fair to say that any video work-of-art is the result of four elements: the media, the playback
system, the display equipment, and for video installations, the exhibition space and all its elements. Conservators
must understand the specificity and relevance of all these elements to maintain the identity of a work. This
understanding is a key part of any acquisition process even before a work is fully brought in to the collection. It
must be kept in mind that this understanding is also likely to change, at least partially, over the life of the work.
The initial questions conservators ask pertain the production process and the media of an artwork along with its
display parameters and equipment. Following Tate’s usual workflow, we will start by addressing the files
themselves and processes around them, and then focus on the display parameters and equipment.
The media is usually the core of a work, and also the object of most of the conservation actions taken. These
actions include tape to file migration for obsolete formats, quality control of any files supplied or produced from
migration and sometimes file transcoding. It is also essential to have archival digital storage in which to keep
them. A good example is In the Bush (1972a), by Gilbert & George, which together with Gordon’s Makes Us
Drunk (1972b) and A Portrait of the Artists as Young Men (1972c), are the earliest video works in the collection,
being acquired in 1972, shortly after their production.
6 Patrícia Falcão and Tom Ensom
Fig 11.2 Gilbert & George, In the Bush, 1972 (T1702) installed at Tate Britain. (© Gilbert & George and Tate, London 2018)
In the Bush was produced and stored in analogue open-reel tape, then transferred to digital tape formats in
1998, and in 2010 transferred to a file format. By then it was clear that all the tape-based video media would need
to become file-based both for preservation and display purposes. At that point it was also clear that more and more
artists were working in a fully digital environment and that the production of video art moved from being
dependent on hardware and technical facilities to be available on every laptop. This is reflected in the media
formats supplied by artists for archiving and display purposes, which ranged from Digital Betacam and DVD in
the early 00s to the multiple flavors of Apple ProRes and H264 currently used as master and display formats,
respectively. Following the evolution in the entertainment and broadcasting industries, we have seen a shift in
resolutions from Standard Definition video to High Definition and more recently 4K, as well as in aspect ratio
from 4:3 to 16:9 and now 16:10. It is only a matter of time until we collect our first 3D and Virtual Reality works.
In relation to the media the aim is to preserve both the production format used by an artist and be able to create
formats appropriate for display over time, adapting to new playback and display technologies. To decide which
formats to preserve it is essential to understand the production process of a video. Did it start as an analogue tape?
Maybe the video was made from a low quality Mpeg4 file downloaded from YouTube? The image quality may
look terrible to some audiences, but that can be part of the artist’s intent and certainly part of the production history
of a work. The handling, storage and care of these files must be as careful as for any other artwork. At Tate
checksums (introduced in the digital preservation section) are calculated as soon as a file comes in to ensure any
issues with file integrity can be easily detected and any unwanted change corrected. Thorough quality control is
done when a work is first received, each video is viewed in its entirety, for content and errors that may have been
overlooked. Specialized quality control tools for digital video tools, for instance the QCTools software
(MediaArea, 2017), are also used to help in this process.
Fig 11.3 Graphical interface for QCTools (MediaArea, 2017), an open-source software tool used to analyze and understand video
files, developed by MediaArea.net. (Screenshot by Patrícia Falcão)
File headers are investigated to confirm technical metadata and identify possible problems with codecs, using
tools such as the open-source MediaInfo (MediaArea, 2018). At this point risks for preservation are identified,
and so files that use uncommon or unsupported formats or codecs must be transcoded to a more sustainable format
(Rice, 2018; Arms et al., 2017). Once all of this is done the file or files can then be moved to archival storage. An
interesting development, somewhat parallel to what happened with artists, is how the technical skills and
knowledge about digital video files has evolved with this new digital environment. While in the tape-based
environment even an institution with Tate’s resources would use external video production services it is now
Conserving Digital Art 7
normal that the expertise around video files and how to handle it is available in-house and time-based media
conservators are now comfortable working with command line tools and analyzing files. This is based on the work
being done in the video and film preservation area around open source tools, open video formats and training.
Media archivists and developers are collaborating to create tools to the archivist’s requirements, and conservators
and conservation students are contributing to the development of their own tools.
The next element that is useful to consider is the equipment, both for playback but mostly the display. Whether
an artwork is shown on a monitor or as a projection is usually a very deliberate decision from the artist or possibly
curators. Obsolescence of display equipment is the most easily identifiable issue around preserving time-based
media the demise of CRT monitors being a familiar example. This obsolescence process has been very visible
and can strongly impact the look of a specific artwork, most clearly when the equipment is meant to have a
sculptural effect, as in the work Joints 4tet Ensemble (1971-2010) by Charles Atlas, where the CRT monitors are
almost like actors in a stage.
Fig 11.4 Charles Atlas, Joints 4tet Ensemble, 19712010 (T13849). (© Charles Atlas and Tate, London 2018)
We have seen that often the decline of a technology will drive interest from artists in using it. An example is
the use of CRT projectors, which have been discontinued in the early 2000s, but were recently used by Mark
Leckey in his work Dream English Kid, 1964 1999 AD (2015).
Fig 11.5 Mark Leckey, Dream English Kid, 1964 1999 AD, 2015 (T14213). The CRT projector is visible at the center of the space.
(© Mark Leckey and Cabinet, London 2015)
The use of obsolete technology means that conservators and technicians are having to develop networks of experts
on the different types of equipment. These experts are helpful not only in maintaining existing equipment but also
often in sourcing replacement equipment or parts and most of all in training the conservation team on maintenance
and repairs. It is also clear that both new and obsolete technology require conservation teams to acquire new skills.
As mentioned at the beginning of this section, videos can also be part of much larger installations including
many different components, such as sculptural elements, photographs or even live performances.
8 Patrícia Falcão and Tom Ensom
Fig 11.6 William Kentridge, I am not me, the horse is not mine, 2008 (T14213), installed at Tate Modern, South Tank. (© William
Kentridge and Tate, London 2018)
Commonly these works will be video installations for which video projections have a relationship with the space
where they are being shown. For example, William Kentridge’s I am not me, the horse is not mine (2008) when
installed in the space of the South Tank at Tate Modern in 2012/13, created a different impression to the same
work as shown at Inhotim in 2015/16. Information about the exhibition space, the size of the projection, whether
the space should be dark and more cinema-like or lighter and whether the work can be shown with other artworks,
are all questions that help define the artwork and the requirements for its display. Often it will also highlight the
need for specific playback, display or audio equipment.
Some artists will simply request that a work is projected or shown on a monitor (with varying levels of
specificity), where others may require that a particular space is built. To ensure that this happens according to
their requirements, artists will often create extensive drawings and plans, provide precise dimensions and specify
the type of equipment to be used. Conservation teams will usually collect and keep this information, track it over
time and highlight changes and the reasons for them. These are likely to be the finds for many later researchers.
Conserving Software-based Art
The term software-based art has emerged from museum conservation practice over the past decade to describe a
group of artworks for which software forms the primary artistic medium. For these artworks, software is not only
employed in the display of the artwork in a functional sense (that is, software is being executed when the artwork
is displayed) but is also utilized by the artist as a means of expressing an artistic statement. Software has been
used in such a way by artists since the early days of the technology. The cybernetic sculptures of Nicolas Schöffer
(Dreher, 2014) and Edward Ihnatowicz (Mundy, 2012) for example, both utilized computers developed by the
Phillips Company to control a set of sensors and motors which allowed these works to respond to their
environment. While these early experiments stemmed from collaboration with industry, the increase in access to
computers over the following 50 years, culminating in the personal computer, saw software becoming more
accessible to artists (Taylor, 2014). Since the early 2000s, software-based art has begun to enter the collections of
museums of contemporary art, with Tate acquiring its first Michael Craig-Martin’s Becoming in 2003. The
collection remains relatively small today, but shows signs of an increased rate of growth in the last few years.
Frances Morris, Director of Tate Modern, said in 2016 that, “for the collection, the next big challenge is going to
be digital. In the 19th century we didn’t buy photography. It took us over 100 years to catch up. Let’s not be in
Conserving Digital Art 9
that position again” (Higgins, 2016). As a result, identifying strategies for preserving these works has become a
pressing concern for conservators of time-based media.
Fig 11.7 Michael Craig-Martin, Becoming, 2003 (T11812). This work was the first software-based artwork to enter Tate’s collection.
(© Michael Craig-Martin and Tate, London 2018)
The materials acquired for software-based artworks can vary considerably, ranging from portable storage
media (such as external hard drives and USB sticks), to complete computer systems, to digital downloads (for
example, from an artist web server). In all cases however, some kind of executable code is at the core of the work,
the execution of which results in the experiential qualities of the artwork. Much like digital video, the display of
software-based art is often contingent on hardware components which may become increasingly difficult to
replace as they become obsolete. These problems are often magnified for software-based artworks, which may
employ many interrelated components, including both bespoke and off-the-shelf software, in order to achieve
particular behaviors and characteristics. It can therefore be difficult to predict how change will affect these
complex systems without regularly revisiting the work in question (Falcão, 2010). Furthermore, software-based
art is often diffuse (Laurenson, 2013) that is, it extends into its technical environment. Most commonly this is
observed in linkages between the software and the computer system which supports it, but in some cases the
connections may extend beyond the gallery walls and into networks and the internet. These make for some of the
most challenging cases for conservators, as the longevity of the artwork involves responding to unpredictable
forms of change in external resources a challenge we will return to later in this section.
For contained software-based artworks (i.e. those for which the technical system does not extend beyond the
gallery walls), content-centric and object-centric approaches to digital preservation outlined in an earlier section
10 Patrícia Falcão and Tom Ensom
(see Digital Preservation) can still be applied successfully, although their application may be challenged by certain
characteristics of software-based art. Unlike digital video, software is hard to understand simply by examining the
digital object which is acquired. This is usually a package of executable software (or ‘binaries’), a compiled form
of software, the internal data structure of which is designed to be understood by a machine rather than a person.
Therefore, gathering information about what it does and how it does it becomes much more challenging using this
object alone. This has led to new collaborations with experts from the fields of computer science and software
engineering, and work to incorporate this new knowledge into the existing frameworks of conservation. In this
section we will highlight research and case studies relating to several complementary approaches to software-
based art conservation.
The first is to focus on ensuring that a suitable technical environment is maintained in the long-term. In these
cases, the emphasis is on preserving the digital object as-is (without altering the bits) and understanding its links
with other components to ensure these links can be maintained. As a starting point, digital forensics tools can be
used to capture a complete bit-for-bit copy of the storage device acquired as part of a computer system. This
encapsulates all of the software contained, without impacting its internal structure. This can be examined as a
virtual device, or if paired with information about the hardware configuration, can be used as the basis of
emulation or virtualization strategies. The latter are powerful techniques for preservation, which allow one
operating system (i.e., the one encapsulated within the disk image) to be executed on another of a potentially
completely different architecture. In this way, the content of a Windows 95 PC hard disk drive could be booted
on a contemporary Linux host. The utility of this approach has been explored in recent research at Tate (Falcão et
al., 2014; Rechert et al., 2016) and elsewhere (Lurk, 2008; Rechert et al., 2013). There remain issues in the legality
of approaches which rely on archiving third-party commercial software a problem affecting software
preservation broadly. Recent developments in the United States, including an exemption to the Digital Millennium
Copyright Act (Albert, 2018) and work toward a Code of Best Practices (Association of Research Libraries, 2018),
are promising signs of progress.
One example we will briefly highlight is the application of virtualization to John Gerrard’s Sow Farm (near
Libbey, Oklahoma) 2009 (2009), an example which demonstrates some of the considerations involved when
taking this kind of approach. Gerrard is an Irish artist who works in a medium he calls real-time 3D. This involves
the use of technology more familiar from video games and architectural visualization to render 3D imagery from
a collection of data assets (including meshes and textures) in a scene dynamically controlled by a simulation
model. In this work, a camera orbits a complex of buildings modelled on a real pig farm in the Great Plains of the
USA. This scene was painstakingly reconstructed in 3D, based on extensive on-site photography. As the camera
slowly orbits the buildings, day and night cycles unfold in real time over the course of 365 days. Once every 156
days, a truck drives up to the buildings and waits for one hour, symbolizing the moment of exchange as the mature
pigs are collected for slaughter.
Conserving Digital Art 11
Fig 11.8 John Gerrard, Sow Farm (near Libbey, Oklahoma) 2009, 2009 (T14279), installed at Tate Britain in 2016. (© John Gerrard
and Tate, London 2018)
In this case, the software is much more than just functional - and the nuances of the lighting and processing of
the rendering engine make the work-defining characteristics of this work difficult to separate from specific
software binaries acquired. Furthermore, the engine on which the software is based is no longer commercially
available. Moving the simulation to a new 3D engine would be a high-risk option, and the precise qualities of the
rendered image specified by Gerrard could be lost. As long as existing hardware supports the specific Microsoft
DirectX API employed, the work can be migrated to new hardware. In the longer term, using emulation or
virtualization would be a suitable way to recreate this specific technical environment, a process which was tested
at Tate in 2015 with promising results (Falcão & Dekker, 2015).
For this work, the graphical fidelity of the rendered image is paramount, and the artist has specified particular
performance and quality parameters to be maintained when it is displayed. This includes the requirement of
smooth camera movement (measured in respect to the frames generated by the host system) and the application
of specific rendering effects using the graphics card driver. In this case it was found that when running in a
virtualized environment, these characteristics were lost (Ensom, 2018), which thus prevents the use of the strategy
until the technology allows them to be applied. This example demonstrates the caution required in applying
emulation and virtualization, and how problems may emerge where issues of performance are not completely
identified. Such strategies must be carefully applied to ensure that the characteristics of the original ‘performance’
are maintained. This idea of integrity of performance runs through all software preservation work and achieving
this could be considered one of the conservators main goals.
Another approach is to focus on the code the set of instructions on which the computer system acts when the
artwork is realized. Here emphasis shifts from understanding technical environment, to understanding what the
software does and how this might be changed or reimplemented in order to avoid obsolescence. The utility of
source code in conservation and technical art history has been championed by Professor of Computer Science at
NYU Deena Engel, in a number of collaborations with Glenn Wharton from New York’s Museum of Modern Art
(Engel & Wharton, 2014, Engel & Wharton, 2015) and Joanna Phillips from the Solomon R. Guggenheim
Museum (Dover, 2016). While many museums had already been seeking to acquire source code with accessioned
artworks, this research has demonstrated the value of source code as a key tool in the conservation of software-
based artworks, providing a complete description of the functionality of the work, which can then serve as
documentation, and allow troubleshooting when applying preservation strategies. The latest strand of this
research, conducted by Engel in collaboration with time-based media conservator Joanna Phillips, applied an
12 Patrícia Falcão and Tom Ensom
approach that reframes ideas of minimal intervention for software, by leaving the original code of a website intact
(as code comments) while adding new lines in order to reimplemented original functionality in newer frameworks
(Engel and Phillips, 2018). Further collaborations of this kind are likely to be very important in continuing to keep
museums at pace with fast moving technology.
José Carlos Martinat Mendoza’s Brutalism: Stereo Reality Environment 3 (2007) is an installed software-based
artwork, the formal focus of which is a scale replica of the ‘Pentagonito’, a building in Peru that housed the secret
service during the Fujimori presidency. Sitting on the surface of this sculptural element are a set of thermal
printers, connected to a computer by visible cables which sprawl across the gallery floor. This computer is
connected to the internet, and behind the scenes is searching the internet for terms relating to the word ‘brutalism’
(or ‘brutalismo’ when exhibited in Spanish-speaking countries), forging serendipitous connections between the
various meanings of the word. Fragments of these search results are printed out, falling onto the gallery floor and
accumulating during the time the work is active.
Fig 11.9 José Carlos Martinat Mendoza, Brutalism: Stereo Reality Environment 3, 2007 (T13251) installed at Tate Modern in 2012.
(© José Carlos Martinat Mendoza and Tate, London 2018)
For Brutalism, we can understand many of the artwork’s work-defining characteristics as residing in the
underlying concept and the instructions that were encoded in its binaries when the source code was compiled. In
Conserving Digital Art 13
this case, the source project files (which contain the human authored representation of the code, pre-compilation)
acquired with the work might be used, altered or even reimplemented in another language should Java become
obsolete. Reworking of the code has already happened once for Brutalism, as the artist and programmer worked
remotely on a development machine to update the code to add support for the USB communication protocol,
replacing the obsolete parallel port module used in the original version to connect to the printers.
However, the connection with the internet results in a vulnerability that extends beyond what can be understood
simply through functionality expressed as code. The artist and programmer originally utilized the Google Search
API, the ubiquitous search engine of the time, through which to harvest internet search results. Changes to the
Google Search API are likely to render this component of the work non-functional in the short term as the API
changes, requiring continued work on the code (this has already occurred once in preparation for display at Tate
Modern). What happens if search engines close off their public APIs? What if search engines as we know them
cease to exist? In these easily imagined futures, the artwork is not something which can be fixed in terms of digital
object or code rather, it must continue to evolve in order for it live. The museum therefore faces difficult
decisions in the long-term care of this work. Does the work become static, the live link to web severed and the
database remaining a historical artifact? Or should the work be reinterpreted in some way to meet the changing
world in which it is situated? In this case, future conservation treatments may need to be more drastic in its
departure from earlier versions. There are no easy answers to these questions, and museums are having to negotiate
them on a case by case basis as they arise.
What we can do however, is document the rich technical history of these works, their variable installation and
their shifting relationship with a broader socio-technical context. Forms of documentation that support this may
engage directly with process and change. Documentation best practices for software-based artworks now include
video recordings of the functioning work and interactions with visitors, acknowledging the limitations of text and
still image to document dynamic works. For internet art, tools like Rhizome’s Webrecoder have been developed
to capture website documentation (crucially including traces of user interaction with the site) in contained archival
file formats which can be replayed in the future (Kreymer, n.d.). Museums are now experimenting with forms of
process documentation such as the use of version control systems to capture changes in source code as software-
based artworks evolve (Haidvogl, 2015; Paul & Mancusi-Ungaro, 2018). This provides a rich record of the
development history of the software, which as we know from research into source code analysis can provide
considerable insight into an artist’s working practice (Engel & Wharton, 2015). Looking beyond technical
approaches, the notion of ‘artwork biography’ has been developed by a group of scholars based in the Netherlands
(van de Vall et al., 2011). This philosophical perspective on conservation posits the idea that artworks be
considered biographical subjects. We might therefore want to generate rich accounts of their life histories, through
an interweaving [of] partial biographies with different beginnings, itineraries, dynamics and endings” (p.6). How
this desire might mesh with the pragmatism demanded in conservation practice remains an open question, and
one that museums may seek to answer in the years to come if they are to help ensure a historical record for this
rapidly evolving medium.
Conclusion
In this chapter, we have introduced the fields of digital preservation and art conservation, and their intersection in
the long-term care of digital art. We have examined some of the primary challenges in the conservation of digital
art, and highlighted some of the recent research (at Tate and further afield) that is being undertaken in order to
meet them. Among the insights gained, it is clear that there is no silver bullet solution nor any one-size-fits-all
method for conserving digital art. The process of conserving digital art is driven by the characteristics of the
artwork and its relationship with the particular technologies employed in its realization, resulting in a variable set
of considerations in each case. Even within a particular digital media type there may be considerable variation in
approach taken: an internet artwork experienced through a web browser, for instance, demands very different
considerations to an interactive installation realized in a gallery environment despite both being dependent on
computer systems running software.
As illustrated in the examples discussed in this chapter, developments in preservation technology are also
shaping how we approach the preservation of digital art. For example, the growing maturity of emulation and
virtualization tools has resulted in a growing interest in their application to digital artworks, particularly as they
become more feasibly applied at scale. Collaboration is also proving to be essential in order to address the
challenges presented by digital technologies as they enter museum care. Having already helped museums meet
the requirements of digital video and its display, we are now seeing new connections forged between conservation
practice and expertise in computer science, leading to pioneering new research. Nowhere is this clearer than in
14 Patrícia Falcão and Tom Ensom
preserving software-based artworks, which have required the conservator to engage with expertise outside the
museum in order to understand the role of code and programming in the care of such works.
Looking more broadly, it is evident that the practice of art conservation has evolved from object-centric origins
towards an acceptance of the evolution of the artwork over time. Thus a significant part of the conservator’s role
becomes managing this process, documenting its phases and brokering collaborations. Within this model for
conservation practice, the artwork is not simply collected and stored, but enters a phase in its life of custodianship,
in which the museum negotiates its continued placement within an evolving socio-technical environment. For
institutions starting out with the conservation of digital art, we recommend an engagement with the established
communities who have been involved in the field as it has developed. While the field is always developing to
meet the new challenges posed by technologically-engaged artistic practice, many of the common problems faced
are surmountable with existing approaches.
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Classical theories of conservation are well known in the heritage community, but in the last two decades thinking has shifted, and classical theory has faced increasing criticism. Contemporary Theory of Conservation brings together current ideas in conservation theory, presenting a structured, coherent analysis of the subject for the first time. This engaging and readable text is split into 3 parts. The first, Fundamentals of conservation, addresses the identity of conservation itself, and problems arising when classical conservation theories are applied. The second part, Questioning classical theories, delves deeper into the criticism of classical ideas such as reversibility. This leads on to the creation of new paradigms such as sustainability, which are covered in the final part of the book, Conservation ethics.
Book
Collecting and Conserving Net Art explores the qualities and characteristics of net art and its influence on conservation practices. By addressing and answering some of the challenges facing net art and providing an exploration of its intersection with conservation, the book casts a new light on net art, conservation, curating and museum studies.Viewing net art as a process rather than as a fixed object, the book considers how this is influenced by and executed through other systems and users. Arguing that these processes and networks are imbued with ambiguity, the book suggests that this is strategically used to create suspense, obfuscate existing systems and disrupt power structures. The rapid obsolescence of hard and software, the existence of many net artworks within restricted platforms and the fact that artworks often act as assemblages that change or mutate, make net art a challenging case for conservation. Taking the performative and interpretive roles conservators play into account, the book demonstrates how practitioners can make more informed decisions when responding to, critically analysing or working with net art, particularly software-based processes. Collecting and Conserving Net Art is intended for researchers, academics and postgraduate students, especially those engaged in the study of museum studies, conservation and heritage studies, curatorial studies, digital art and art history. The book should also be interesting to professionals who are involved in the conservation and curation of digital arts, performance, media and software.
Article
This paper builds on the findings of a workshop held at the 2015 International Conference on Digital Preservation (iPRES), entitled, “Using Open-Source Tools to Fulfill Digital Preservation Requirements” (OSS4PRES hereafter). This day-long workshop brought together participants from across the library and archives community, including practitioners, proprietary vendors, and representatives from open-source projects. The resulting conversations were surprisingly revealing: while OSS’ significance within the preservation landscape was made clear, participants noted that there are a number of roadblocks that discourage or altogether prevent its use in many organizations. Overcoming these challenges will be necessary to further widespread, sustainable OSS adoption within the digital preservation community. This article will mine the rich discussions that took place at OSS4PRES to (1) summarize the workshop’s key themes and major points of debate, (2) provide a comprehensive analysis of the opportunities, gaps, and challenges that using OSS entails at a philosophical, institutional, and individual level, and (3) offer a tangible set of recommendations for future work designed to broaden community engagement and enhance the sustainability of open source initiatives, drawing on both participants’ experience as well as additional research.
Preprint
The historical record is increasingly digital. Over the last half century, under headings of “electronic records management” and “digital preservation,” librarians, archivists, and curators have established practices to ensure that our digital scientific, social and cultural record will be available to scholars and researchers into the future. This book is intended as a point of entry into that theory and practice. The book serves as both a basic introduction to the issues and practices of digital preservation and a theoretical framework for deliberately and intentionally approaching digital preservation as a field with multiple lineages. The intended audience is current and emerging library, archive, and museum professionals as well as the scholars and researchers who interface with these fields.
Article
As part of its program to conserve software-based artworks, the Museum of Modern Art undertook a risk analysis of 13 works that use a variety of software programs, programming languages, and code libraries. Risks assessed in this study include the potential impact due to changes and upgrades to hardware, operating systems, and programming languages that would render the software obsolete. The assessment made clear that one of the museum's primary conservation strategies should be building technical documentation about the artworks. Consequently, the museum undertook a second project to build documentation about the software and hardware dependencies for 13 software-based works. While analyzing artist-rendered source code, the researchers in some cases discovered hidden information about the working methods of the artists and their programmers. This information includes the development of aesthetic properties such as color, movement, and sound. The discovery of these clues to the artists' concerns broadened the scope of the research to include an argument for source code analysis as a tool for technical art history. In this article the authors describe the potential for adapting documentation methods from software engineering for conservation purposes, and further argue for using these methods in art-historical research. © 2015 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.
Article
Conservation expertise required for software-based art varies depending on the nature and function of its components. Our focus in this study is technology, specifically related to the impact of changes and upgrades to the operating environment that can adversely impact future exhibition of software-based art. In our research to date, we found that each specific work requires individual analysis and conservation strategies due to unique technical risks. We also concluded that artist-generated source code is a primary risk for software-based works. We then devoted the next phase of our research to a closer examination of risks associated with source code. The purpose of the research reported in this article is to investigate whether examining and documenting the source code can inform conservation practice. A corollary second goal is to define relevant best practices for documenting source code for software-based art. In order to address these questions, we selected two artworks at the Museum of Modern Art for a collaborative study using students and faculty from both the Museum Studies and Computer Science departments at New York University. This collaboration helped ensure that technology skills complemented a deep understanding of art history in the museum context. We based the methodology for our study on current software engineering practices and composed diagrams and narrative documents to reflect what we found in the source code. We also relied on artist interviews to explore the requirements and goals of the system, and user manuals to assist in understanding the implementation and physical installation of the works. It was our hypothesis that once the behavior of software-based art is understood by combining a standard software engineering approach with considerations specific to artist and museum needs, conservators and programmers will be better prepared to address changes in the operating environment. Based on our experience, we found this to be true. We conclude this paper with plans for our next phase of research.
Conference Paper
Preservation of complex, non-linear digital objects such as digital art or ancient computer environments has been a domain reserved for experts until now. Digital culture, however, is a broader phenomenon. With the introduction of the so-called Web 2.0 digital culture became a mass culture. New methods of content creation, publishing and cooperation lead to new cultural achievements. Therefore, novel tools and strategies are required, both for preservation but in particular for curation and presentation. We propose a scaleable architecture suitable to create a community driven platform for preservation and curation of complex digital objects. Further, we provide novel means for presenting preserved results including technical meta-data, and thus, allowing for public review and potentially further community induced improvements.