Distributing History: Archives, Access and GAMA, Gateway to Archives of Media Art

By Caitlin Jones


We use the term 'archive' to mean many things: it's a verb, a noun and a strategy for preservation. In the past few decades, theorists, Jaques Derrida and Michel Foucault among them, have mined the archive's political and social significance, and as a result our idea of the archive has transformed from a more traditional notion of the archive as a collection of records and the location in which they are kept, to a less definable and more insidious locale of political and cultural hegemony. With its neutrality shattered, the idea of the archive, its power to construct and sustain cultural memory and to essentially pick and choose what is saved for posterity, has become a focal point in cultural studies.

The deconstruction of the relationship between archives and power translates fluidly into the field of Art History where the dominant narratives have been narrowly defined by principles of monetary value, ownership, authenticity, originality and uniqueness. Collections, whether owned by private or public bodies, have tended to dominate and direct the discourse towards works that fit this criteria, for example, painting and sculpture. Media Art, highly ephemeral and easily reproducible (rendering it neither original or unique in the traditional sense) has as a result been largely excluded from these historical collections and thus the history of art.

This situation has most definitely changed in recent decades, with installation based work, photography, conceptual art, video and digital mediums becoming an increasing part of the contemporary art landscape. And while it is not at all uncommon to see media art in many major galleries and museums, its development has largely occurred outside of these hallowed spaces. Worldwide, small and medium sized art centers have supported experiments in new media, provided access to new technologies and exhibited and distributed media-based art. As a result many have considerable collections of videotapes, documentation and ephemera; collections that tell a far more complete history than could ever be told by the few select pieces held in major institutions.

Unfortunately, most of these independent collections exist under a constant threat of deterioration, obsolescence and inaccessibility. Analogue and digital tapes are notoriously fragile, and with hardware and tape formats at the mercy of larger market forces (companies like SONY constantly creating new formats and scrapping the old), and media art has suffered enormously. Costly migrations and hardware refurbishment has made it extremely difficult for many of these organizations to make consistent use of their own collections or provide access to them. In the absence of clear and available standards, data structures and cataloguing standards have applied in idiosyncratic ways, making many of these materials difficult to locate systematically.



Over the past ten years a number of large and high profile museums and cultural institutions have addressed concerns of ephemerality and obsolescence in video and installation based art. Matters in Media Art, a large-scale effort by MoMA (New York), SFMOMA (San Francisco), the Tate (London) and the New Art Trust (San Francisco), is tied directly to their joint ownership of numerous large-scale media works. Their websites describe case studies and processes in great detail. The Variable Media Network, with partners including the Guggenheim Museum, the Walker Art Center and sought to develop new strategies for preserving works of variable media (video, conceptual, installation, performance and media art) and archive the subsequent documentation. Although slightly dissimilar in scope and approach, both of these high profile projects shared a commitment to dissemination of information and collaboration with other smaller organizations.

A number of independent research institutes have also funded major research in the area, including the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science and Technology, the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute Media.Art.Research, and INCCA (International Network of Conservators of Contemporary Art). In 1997 INCCA organized one of the first large scale efforts in the field with the conference and publication, "Modern Art Who Cares?" and followed up with the large scale, multi-institutional Inside Installations project. In addition to being a major contributor to the Variable Media Network, the Langlois Foundation established a preeminent resource center for the field of media art research, funded a number of smaller scale archive projects, and is currently finishing a major, multi-year research project, DOCAM (Documentation and Conservation of Media Art Heritage). The Boltzmann Institute Media.Art.Research has for the past three years worked in collaboration with Ars Electronica to make available their extensive archive, and funded and developed scholarship and methodologies for the field as a whole. And, these are only a few of the notable efforts in the field. While these organizations, and the aforementioned institutions, have in some cases scaled back, shifted focus, or closed, their contributions to the discourse cannot be under estimated.

Formal pedagogy is also being established with the development of numerous University programs. Certificate and Masters level programs are training art conservators in new media, as well as the broader issues of moving image archiving and access. Masters program at the Berne University of the Arts in Switzerland, Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden Kunste in Stuttgart, and NYU in New York are only a few of the programs currently training new generations of media art conservators and moving image archivists.

Some of the most significant work however is being done within some of the smaller, independent organizations where large volumes of materials lie. For example, Netherlands Media Art Institute/Montevideo has made preservation, distribution and access to its world renowned collection of video art a major component of its mandate since inception. Many other similar organizations have also worked diligently over the years to migrate and provide continued access to their collections despite financial constraints. The history of video art exists within these smaller archives: documents of performances and installations, talks and lectures, exhibition documentation and single channel video. As the web has enabled unprecedented tools to access these collections, a larger question arises. In addition to all the steps necessary to insure their continued survival, how can we publicize and make known these remarkable materials? If we cannot locate them, how can we make the case for their inclusion in the art historical record?

GAMA -- Gateway to Archives of Media Art

These are the questions which GAMA, Gateway to Archives of Media Art, sets out to explore. Eight independent media art centers and archives throughout Europe: ARGOS centre for art & media, Belgium, Ars Electronica, Austria; C3 Center for Culture & Communication Foundation, Hungary; Filmform, Sweden; Heure Exquise! International centre for video arts, France; Netherlands Media Art Institute / Montevideo, The Netherlands; SCCA-Ljubljana; and Center for Contemporary Arts, Slovenia have pooled their resources and created a portal, a single location on the web that provides access to their collections. Centralizing not the holdings themselves, but sharing the knowledge and resources, and centralizing the access.

A precedent for this type of collective access exists in the world of Library and Information Science known as the "union list WorldCat is an example of a large scale union list that allows a user to search for book titles through an incredibly broad range of libraries, from your neighborhood branch to Egypt's Library of Alexandria. A library portal like WorldCat provides users with information about a book's location, but as more and more information is available on the web in the form of ebooks, mpegs and audio files, researchers will also have access to primary materials throughout the world.

GAMA's objectives, while perhaps smaller in scale than WorldCat are similar, enabling access to European media art archives. By making it available from a centralized portal researchers are able to see a wide range of activity throughout European Art centers. Additionally, an organization like GAMA promotes collaboration between archives with similar collections and mandates, gives the participating institutions an opportunity to promote their collections to a broader audience, and increases awareness of digital art and culture as a whole.

Significantly, GAMA achieves these goals with a keen and critical eye towards the issues of power and cultural memory raised by the term archive. They are the first to acknowledge the political ramifications of their own selection criteria, as well as the leveling of contextual information necessitated by a database structure. As such, GAMA has endeavored to create a transparent system to which other institutions are encouraged to participate, and it employs rich descriptive standards as a way for each record to reflect the unique historical, geographic and cultural context of its creation.

In providing access with such a clear vision and commitment to collaboration, GAMA is poised to become an invaluable research and curatorial tool. For example, a quick search on the name 'Vasulka' currently yields fifty-seven entries related to Woody Vasulka, Steina Vasulka, and their collaborative work. From a range of European institutions and over a span of twenty years, these entries include single-channel videos, documentation of video installations, documentation of performances, film and video work about the artists, and presentations and lectures in which their work is discussed. Within this group of Vasulka material there are also six entries for Steina's video installation "Geomania." Documentation from 1987 to 2006, in combination with other contextual material such as detailed biographical information, metadata, moving images and related material allows a researcher to see changes to this work over time and exhibition contexts. Connecting archives in this manner enables a rich and more nuanced understanding of "Geomania" than previously possible through a simple database search at a single institution.


GAMA represents an important milestone in the field of Media Art preservation and archiving. By connecting multiple archives, GAMA is easily adaptable to new works, new mediums, new institutions and new standards. In an area so reliant on government and institutional funding, this type of flexibility is crucial. It enables small independent archives to have their collections seen and used by a broad range of researchers. It also helps to make connections and distribute knowledge, and means less reliance on the selection process of large-scale institutions for the preservation of our Media Art heritage. GAMA provides a new framework, encompasses multiple perspectives and distributes the responsibility for preserving cultural memory.