Withering Bytes

preserving digital art. et tu DVD? et tu?

by by Olivia-Jené Fagon

illustration by by Diane Zhou


Over the course of two centuries, the Library of Congress was able to acquire, catalogue, and preserve 29 million books and 105 million items including maps, photographs, manuscripts, and films. In 2012 it would take the world 15 minutes to produce an equal amount of information digitally. Today most intellectual production is born digital; created with computers, published online, accessed on mobile devices.

Art-making and art-viewing have risen to meet the new digital standard. Like John Raffman’s online photo essay of selected Google Street Views, Kyle Mcdonald’s performative online hacks, and Cory Arcangel’s interactive video games, artists are using digital technology to make and show their work.

And larger art institutions have begun to embrace it. The 2008 exhibition “Design and the Elastic Mind” and the 2011 exhibition “Talk to Me,” both at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, featured many digital artists whose work depicted digital technology’s effects on design and function. Video artist Hillary Lloyd, who uses digital software to render and edit her work, was nominated for the Turner Prize last year.

Now that it has proven its cultural worth, art museums have begun to cautiously acquire digital works for their collections, following in the footsteps of organizations like Rhizome and Rhizome Art Base, an online user-populated digital art archive, and Franklin’s Furnace, a non-profit organization in New York with an extensive digitized video art collection.  And while the breakneck speed of digital production and technological obsolescence is opening up more and more possibilities for artists, it is making the institutional task of collecting and archiving these artworks that much more difficult.

“With digital art, there’s no room for things to fall between the cracks,” explained Richard Rinehart, the director of digital media for the Berkeley Art Museum explained.  “If you don’t do something to preserve it within a span of five years, it’s not going to survive.” Digital art is usually comprised of data, housed within a carrier like a DVD, which is made visible on display devices (monitors, projectors, etc.) Because operating systems and computer hardware are continually being upgraded, and even seemingly reliable digital repositories like CDs only have a lifespan of twenty years, the material of these works and the way they are displayed is inherently unstable.


Museums and their collections have traditionally dealt with the singular art object, like a painting or a print. Once a museum decides to acquire any work of art, an archival package is created and stored including exhibition copies of the work, video documentation, press material, statements by the artist, and licensing information. In the same way that the advent of performance art or installation works forced museums to evolve their collection and preservation strategies by demanding more holistic materials, such as interviews with participants, or the purchasing of very specific equipment, digital art’s rise in contemporary art practice immediately raises the issue of how to safely hold on to it.

Go to This is the web address of a seminal work of digital art. Olia Lialina’s net.comedy Anna Karenina Goes to Paradise reinvents the Tolstoy narrative by combining the results of set search engine queries for “paradise,” “love,” and “train” into a new three part story that produced an absurdist dialogue between Anna, the train she has fallen in love with, and links that the search engines returned. Of the three search engines used, Magella, Altavista, and Yahoo, only Yahoo is still running. In 2012, the artwork is still technically live but most of its links are dead and half of its web-software is now defunct.

In 2002, the Guggenheim Museum commissioned and acquired net artist Mark Napier’s Net.Flag, an online digital palimpsest, created by various online users manipulating and layering available flag motifs on an interface designed by Napier. In a 2002 interview, Napier explained of his software-based work that, “The computer language, operating system, and hardware form an infrastructure that supports the artwork, but they are not the artwork. The artwork is an algorithm, a design built on this infrastructure, which is constantly changing and rapidly aging. To hold onto that technology is to tie us to a sinking ship.”


For many museums, the name of the preservation game seems to be collaboration, with almost all large museums forming interdisciplinary and inter-departmental initiatives that pool the specific expertise of curators, media technicians, and conservators. Current Smithsonian Exhibition Technician Alex Cooper described this as a response to a knowledge gap: “Those that do have the technical expertise are only able to express themselves in techno jargon. Then you have a curatorial or more aesthetic role who are really trying to understand the technical aspects of these works but there is a total language barrier.” The impetus is to bridge the gap between technical proficiency and art historical backgrounds, so that museum’s aren’t left responsible for works they’re not fully capable of taking care of.

The Guggenheim has been a forerunner of technology-based art conservation. Their work began in 1999 with the Variable Media Initiative, a project that brought together in-the-field experts to try and establish best practices for digital and time-based works. In 2005 The Tate Modern, San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York formed the Matters in Media Art Coalition. The various D.C. based Smithsonian Institute’s art museums established the Collaborations in Preserving Time Based Art Consortia in 2010.

Many of these efforts espouse mottos like “permanence through change” “accommodating the unpredictable,” and “managing inherent variability,” romantic flourishes that indicating the ways in which museums are attempting to concede their institutional desire for standards, regulations, checks and balances in favor of preservation methods that are just as varied and flexible as the art they are intended for.

One approach to preservation museum’s have taken on been dealing with the digital data and the hardware used to present or hold it separately- to use Napier’s metaphor, to divorce the artwork from the sinking ship. “I see the digital essence of a work as an intellectual notion divorced from any physical thing,” Cooper explained. “The USB or DVD are simply carriers. There could be multiple copies of a work on different hardware, but it’s really just another location.” This strategy appears practical; digital data can easily be moved to another current medium and the hardware or software used, if not available, can be emulated as well.

But consider artists like Philip Stern, who creates “glitch art,” a type of art that purposefully exploits and visualizes flaws in digital technology. To emulate and to alter the hardware that make up the process, medium, and subject matter of his work would be to undermine the intent and integrity of it even while potentially preserving it for future audiences. Similarly, Lialina could have preserved Anna Karenina Goes to Paradise by recoding it with current search engines. However, the conceptual thrust of the piece was a comment on the embeddedness of content within an information network, a key theme of 1990s To “update” this piece with new software would make it available today but it would remove it from its art historical and intellectual context.

“I think it’s important to understand that things we do age, and they carry a history with them,” noted former Rhizome Director of Technology, Francis Hwang at the Echoes of Art Conference in 2004. “It’s really useful for people to be able to look at media works that are five years old, ten years old, thirty years old, and kind of see what those works may have implied about the tools that were available at the time, and how they affected culture.”  Perhaps the struggle for museums is that their efforts at preserving digital art could so easily undermine their material integrity while also preventing digital art from writing it’s own history.


One recently noted approach to preserving digital art is the Variable Media Questionnaire (VMQ) developed by net artist and curator, Jon Ippolito, and employed by the Guggenheim, whose current Media-Art Conservation Lab is considered to be the best digital and time-based art preservation facility in the country. The questionnaire captures both the functional components of a piece of work as well as the opinions and intentions of the artist, then proposes four potential preservation strategies: storage (collecting the equipment and software of a specific piece), migration (upgrading its hardware when necessary), emulation (simulating old software or hardware with newer versions) and finally, the most precarious, reinterpretation, in which works are reconceived each time they are exhibited or restaged.

So, in the ten years since the Guggenheim acquired Napier’s Net.Flag, how have they been preserving (storing, migrating, emulating, and reinterpreting) it? Besides archived physical copies of the algorithmic code and operating system, as well as visual documentation of the work’s evolution as users contributed to it, the museum has kept the work alive online. The museum’s preservation strategy has been to never allow the work to complete itself. “My concern is that completing a work kills it,” Ippolito remarked at a 2004 digital preservation conference. If looking at the current state of Anna Karenina goes to Paradise, this approach is conceptually attractive but unsatisfactory, since the work will remain complete and accessible only so long as it is technically practical.


Museums may not be fully prepared for what is to come and in some ways are unclear what their duties are to what has passed. In the time it takes for such pieces to be deemed historically or culturally important, the technology needed to operate them may have already become defunct. And in evolving their technology, museums may be erasing what made these works historically or culturally significant. What exactly is the museum trying to protect and to what end? As Napier pointed out,  “At what point is the work alive? At what point are we replicating something that should have passed?”


OLIVIA-JENÉ FAGON B’13 expresses herself in techno poetry.