Preservation and/or Documentation: the Conservation of Media Art

[beginPage: Intro]


door Gaby Wijers

Media art works represent some of the most compelling and significant artistic creations of our time. As an art medium, media art has transformed the perception of artistic practices since the late 1960s. Media artworks themselves are often described as live, processural, temporary, or site-specific, and their formats as unstable, or variable. Because of their short life and technical or otherwise variable natures, and because of the variability and rapid obsolescence of the media formats, they also present obstacles to accurate documentation, access and preservation. Without strategies for preservation many of these art works will be lost to future generations. This is why preservation is of fundamental importance to media art and a challenge to specialized technicians, curators and scientists in this field.

Over the last 10 years collection managers, curators, artists and conservators have become more and more interested in the issue of the preservation of media art. At the moment a serious number of national and international projects are conducting research that seeks to define strategies for, and best practice regarding the documentation and preservation of new media.

The main questions to be answered are:

* What to preserve and how to preserve it;

* What are the essential aesthetic and technological elements that absolutely need to be preserved if the piece is to retain any integrity into the future?

* What is essential to the determination of origins and authenticity of the work?

* Do different types of media art need a different strategy?

* What is different in the approach in documenting and preserving media art works?

The Netherlands Media Art Institute, in association with OASIS, has invited speakers from European and American organizations and projects to disseminate their policies, approaches, research, and case studies on the documenting and preservation of media artworks.

The purpose of this day is to

* Disseminate selected approaches, research, and case-studies developed for documenting and preservation of media artworks.
* Initiate wider discussion and collaboration with regard to those issues.
* Publish an overview of approaches, practices, examples relating to the documentation and preservation of media artworks.

February 14, 2005, the Netherlands Media Art Institute will offer the specialists in this field the opportunity to get a state of the art overview on the conservation and documentation of media art by presenting prominent international projects:

The Netherlands Media Art Institute researches methods for recording and preserving media art and develops and implements new methods and techniques in that field. Under the auspices of the Foundation for the Conservation of Modern Art (SBMK) preservation methods and techniques for video art were developed, implemented and evaluated. Over 1700 analogue videos were preserved, and a model acquisition contract and a registration model were developed. Documentation, consultation with the artist and the conversion of the analogue signal to Digital Betacam have turned out to be the essential criteria for the preservation of video art works for the future. The works are accessible in context on the network on MPEG2 quality and fragments are on the Internet in Reel Video.

The ZKM | Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe converges new low-cost, fast intranetworking technology and very large storage components to enable completely new solutions to conservation of and widespread access to cultural media. In a project commencing mid-2002, ZKM has investigated the medium and long-term implications of these technologies in the context of both archiving and conservation, and of access by researchers and the public. This work has centered upon the construction and management of very large disk storage systems by non-specialist personnel in the museum environment, and builds upon ZKM's experience with large-scale automated CD archives. While the advantages of disk-based storage for media archive are well reported, this project addresses the reliability of such systems for repository of high quality masters, enabling the complete disposal of conventional tape media for the first time.

The Variable Media Network founded by the Guggenheim and Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology explores both new and proven concepts of preservation by concentrating on the behaviors, rather than solely the material, of contemporary art made for ephemeral mediums. The variable media paradigm asks artists themselves, in conjunction with conservators and technicians, to imagine ways to outwit the obsolescence that often besets technological and other ephemeral art forms. This approach proposes that the best way to preserve artworks in ephemeral formats, from stick spirals to video installations to Web sites, is to encourage artists to describe them in a medium-independent way, so as to help translate them into new forms once their current medium becomes obsolete.

June 1, 2004, marked the start of a new three-year research project on the preservation and presentation of installation art, supported by the European Commission's Culture 2000 program. The project is coordinated by the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage (ICN) and co-organized by five other European institutions: TATE, England; Restaurierungzentrum Düsseldorf, Germany; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Spain; Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst, Belgium and the Foundation for the Conservation of Contemporary Art, The Netherlands. Each co-organizer collaborates with national partners (mainly museums), bringing the total number of organizations participating to around 30. This project is one of the initiatives of the International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art which has existed since 2002 as a platform for the exchange of knowledge and information.

In 2003, V2_Organisation conducted research on the documentation aspects of the preservation of electronic art activities, or Capturing Unstable Media, an approach between archiving and preservation. Capturing Unstable Media presents a complimentary approach to the widespread material- and object-focused, rather static approach to preservation of contemporary art. Documenting the context of electronic art activities is important, as well as a perspective of process over product. Such aRt&D processes can have very diverse outcomes, ranging from tools and installations to presentations and symposia. Each of these needs to be valued in the context in which they are produced, and, if necessary, needs to be captured. Based on the findings from two case studies, a series of recommendations were formulated in the areas of documentation strategies for electronic art activities, formal modeling and metadata, and archival interoperability. Furthermore, a number of technical realizations were implemented.

The conference is organized in the framework of the project OASIS - Open Archiving System with Internet Sharing. The OASIS project, a component of the EU's Culture 2000 program, is a joint activity of the Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung (HfG), Karlsruhe, Germany, International Centre for Art and New Technology (CIANT), Praha, Czech Republic, University of Science and Technology (AGH), Krakow, Poland, Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM), Karlsruhe, Germany, Les Instants Video Numeriques et Poetiques, Marseille, France and the Netherlands Media Art Institute, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Together these institutions will design a new environment for media arts content gathering, the preservation, presentation and distribution of media art, as well as for exchange of information.

The Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology is leading a new five years research alliance project that will focus on important issues regarding the preservation and documentation of media art. Museums, which are charged with preserving these works and in doing so providing the public future access to them, often find themselves without adequate resources and must make do with methods and means that are poorly adapted to the new artistic practices. The problems vary, but one constant remains: most of the technologies featured in the works are becoming progressively obsolete, thus threatening the survival of the works themselves. To address these problems, this research Alliance plans to pool numerous fields of expertise, including art preservation, art documentation, art history, technology history, information sciences, archival management, engineering and computer processing. The research will focus on three principal areas, and each will produce tools, guides and methodologies essential to preserving this new cultural heritage.

[beginPage: Program]
Morning program 14 Februari 9:00 - 14:00 hours

9.00 Coffee & tea & Welcome
9.30 Gaby Wijers (Netherlands Media Art Institute), Preservation of Dutch Video Art
9.50 Peter Cornwell (ZKM), Presentation of research and projects
10.10 Tatja Scholte (INCCA), an international network as approach to preservation
10.30 Questions and coffee break
11.15 Caitlin Jones (Guggenheim Museum)The Variable Media Network
11.45 Sandra Fauconnier (V2) Capturing Unstable Media Project - a process-based model for the documentation of electronic art
12.10 Juergen Enge (Staatliche Hochschule fur Gestaltung), OASIS
12.25 Alain Depocas (Langlois Foundation)
12.45 Working lunch with questions to the speakers and discussion
14.00 Start afternoon session

Afternoon program chaired by Juergen Enge for OASIS members and lecturers only
14.00 technical preservation issues; differences in formats, systems and visuals by Ramon Coelho differences in format, systems and visuals case study 'Eigenwelt' by Tabea Lurk or Woody Vasulka
14.45 introduction into metadata by Mikolaj Leszczuk
15.15 preservation questions and metadata concerning the Vasulka collections by Bart Rutten and Tabea Lurk
16.00 pause

evening program

16.30 preservation questions and possible collaboration followed by dinner and drinks

[beginPage: What to preserve and how to do it - an introduction to the preservation of media art]
Questions arise around defining media art/electronic art/ variable art, and which elements should be documented, described or preserved. All projects presented use there own definition of media art, electronic and/or digital art. Whether translated into Variable Media and Unstable Media or not, all projects deal with the physical fragility of film, video, media installations, internet, digital media, registrations and documentation of life events such as performances, processes, etc. Terminology for describing electronic art , genres and types etc. is still in its infinity. Apart from the question how to define media art, one of the basic questions seems to be what to preserve in order to maintain the fundamental part of the art work.

Media Art Definitions
Media art is a generic term in contemporary art, used for describing art which is to a significant extent related to or created in a technological medium. Media art refers to disciplines such as video art, electronic art, internet art and to works related to telecommunications and mass media, including television, radio and telephone. Intermedia and mixed media are similar artistic concepts.

Media art
The term media art is mainly used to describe specific types of artworks created from the 1960s until the present. The term itself has become widely used since the 1990s. Media art poses museums and cultural institutions with notoriously difficult problems in terms of preservation and conservation, because the technological equipment and software used for media art projects becomes obsolete very quickly. [Oct 2004]

Since the 1970s, media art has become a category in itself, with a growing number of artists experimenting with technological means -- video art is the most well-known example here. [Sept 2004]

Unstable Media Art
In the Capturing Unstable Media research project, the term 'unstable media art' is used as a synonym for electronic art (art which makes use of electronic media or, more broadly, refers to technology and/or electronic media). The term is historically related to V2_'s involvement in issues of instability related to technology and art.

Variable media
The Variable Media Network defines the term 'variable media' very broadly in order to incorporate a wide range of artworks from installation based works, through performance and conceptual art, film and video, photography, and new media - even painting and sculpture in some cases. More than an aggregate of mediums, however, variable media more specifically refers to works of art which, in order to survive beyond anecdote or document, can be migrated to new materials, mediums and equipment, and / or otherwise updated and adapted to changing environments.

[beginPage: Wikipedia definitions]
Recommended classifications or genres for media art are still in their infancy.
An object or technique oriented description is one approach. The Wikipedia definitions:

digital art
is art created on a computer in digital (that is, binary) form. The term is usually reserved for art that has been non-trivially modified by the computer; text data and raw audio and video recordings are not usually considered digital art in themselves, but can be part of a larger project, since the computer is merely the storage medium or tool which is used to create the work. Digital art can be purely computer-generated, such as fractals, or taken from another source, such as a scanned photograph or an image drawn using vector graphics software, using either a mouse or graphics tablet. The availability and popularity of photograph manipulation software has spawned a vast and creative library of highly modified images, many bearing little or no hint of the original image. Using electronic versions of brushes, filters and enlargers, these 'Neographers' produce images unattainable through conventional photographic tools. In addition, digital artists may manipulate scanned drawings, paintings, collages or lithographs, as well as using any of the above-mentioned techniques in combination. Artists also use many other sources of information and programs to create their work.

electronic art
is art which makes use of electronic media or, more broadly, refers to technology and/or electronic media. It is related to information art, media art, video art, interactive art, internet art, and electronic music, among others. The term electronic art is almost, but not entirely, synonymous to computer art and digital art. The latter two terms, and especially the term computer-generated art, are mostly used for visual artworks generated by computers. Electronic art has a much broader connotation, referring to artworks that include any type of electronic component -- also works in music, dance, architecture and performance. It is an interdisciplinary field; artists often collaborate with scientists and engineers when creating their works.

internet art
is art or, more precisely, cultural production which uses the Internet as its primary medium and, more importantly, its subject, much like video art uses video as its medium, but is also very much about video, although many artists working with the Net view video as only a component in a Software Art or meta-art system, which is very much 'about' code. Quoting a definition by Steve Dietz, former curator in new media at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis: Internet art projects are art projects for which the Net is both a sufficient and necessary condition of viewing/expressing/ participating. Internet art can also happen outside the purely technical structure of the internet, when artists use specific social or cultural traditions from the internet in a project outside of it. Internet art is often, but not always, interactive, participatory and based on multimedia in the broadest sense.

software art
refers to works of art where software, or concepts from software, play an important role; for example software applications which were created by artists and which were intended as artworks. Software art as an artistic discipline has attained growing attention since the late 1990s. It is closely related to Internet art since it heavily relies on the Internet, most notably the World Wide Web, for dissemination and critical discussion of the works. Browser art is an important subset of software art.

video art
as opposed to film and theatrical cinema, video art is a subset of artistic works which relies on 'moving pictures' and is comprised of video and/or audio data. The precise medium of storing this data is variable and at the discretion of the artist; the medium of storage is usually magnetic video tape although the data may also be stored as a computer file (or files) on a hard disk, CD-ROM, DVD or on film. The term video art in the Preservation of Dutch Video Art Project, is understood to refer to expressions of visual art in which video is used as an medium, both in the production process and in the presentation.

[beginPage: The Variable Media Network approach]
As another approach, the Variable Media Network developed the indexing of media art works in behaviors. This can be seen as the beginning of a more detailed taxonomy for media art.

Even 'self-contained' art forms like paintings and sculptures can provoke prickly questions when some aspect of their construction alters or requires an intervention. Such works or components are 'contained' within their materials or a protective framework that encloses or supports the artistic material to be viewed. Contained works or components require no infrastructure or apparatus beyond the human senses to be perceptible. These forms are the least variable among the types listed here, but can nonetheless include some variance over time or under different conditions. To account for these alterations in otherwise stable media, choices related to these forms might include what lighting is allowed for a work on paper, whether a protective coating is appropriate, whether surface qualities such as brushwork or gloss are essential to the work, or whether an artist-made frame can be replaced.

To say that a work or component must be 'installed' implies that its physical installation is more complex than simply hanging it on a nail. Works or components that include physical objects would be described with 'contained' or 'installed', in possible combination with other descriptors. Examples of works with this behavior are works that scale to fill a given space or make use of unusual placement such as the exterior of a building or a public plaza. For such works, choices may track issues of site-specific placement as well as scale, public access, and lighting.

'Performed' works or aspects of works include not only dance, music, theater, and performance art, but also works for which the process is as important as the product. For such works, choices may ascertain instructions that actors, curators, or installers must follow to complete the work, in addition to more conventional performance considerations such as cast, set, and props. 'Performed' indicates explicit actions that are allowed or required by the artist, agents of the artist, or the audience (thus including 'interactive' works) to realize, manipulate, or engage with the work. Additional choices for such works or components might include who is authorized to perform specific actions, how such actions are recorded, or the duration and impact of such actions.

A recording medium is 'reproduced' if any copy of the original master of the artwork results in a loss of quality. Media involving such 'loss' include analog photography, film, audio, and video.

To say that some aspect of a work can be duplicated implies that a copy could not be distinguished from the original by an independent observer. This behavior applies to artifacts that can be perfectly cloned, as in digital media, or to artifacts comprising ready-made, industrially fabricated or mass-produced components.

To say that a work is encoded implies that part or all of it is written in computer code or some other artificial language that requires interpretation (e.g. musical or dance notation would be another form of encoding, but not theatrical scripts which are written in natural languages and could be considered along with other texts associated with the work).

'Networked' describes distributed simultaneity; a work or aspect of a work that makes the work potentially present in more than one physical location within a given time span. A digital networked work is designed to be viewed on an electronic communication system, whether a cell phone region or the Internet. Networked media include Web sites, e-mail, and streaming audio and video. A non-digital networked work might include coordinated performances that are triggered by natural phenomenon like an eclipse to occur at several different physical locations simultaneously, or mail art. Networked does not include works which simply travel from one exhibition venue to another, but works in which physical distribution is a key part of the work.

With Rinehard (1) we could say media art is as much performative or behavior-centric as it is artifactual or object-centric

[beginPage: Documentation, Access and Preservation Obstacles]
One of the characteristics of media art is the need for software and hardware components to present the work, and whether this manner of presentation is either specific or not, depending on the artist. Technical forms of expression, formats and new systems with their (im)possibilities come and go at a rapid tempo. Standards simply do not exist. There is no insight into the aging process, there are no preservation criteria, and useful expertise on the composition of the medium is scarcely accessible. This causes even more preservation problems. But the traditional codes for the visual arts, such as the uniqueness of the physical manifestation, are not applicable to video art. The work of art is certainly unique and authentic, but its tangible form as such is not.(2) Electronic art practice developed out of a multidisciplinary practice: conceptual art and performance. Sometimes the technology used is simply the vehicle which makes it all technical possible. The technology used is always part of a larger (social) context and is subject to the intention of the artist, whether that is a conceptual or materialistic one.

In addition to the artist's intention (i.e., the artistic concept) and the dependence of such work on hardware and software components, for its documentation or preservation the following characteristics of electronic art also need to be taken into account :

* user interaction

* distributed authorship

* context

Most preservation and documentation projects acknowledge that:

* Intentions, techniques, and behaviors of a given artwork need to be fully understood

* Documentation and preservation strategies require collaboration with the artist

* Documentation is essential for future access and preservation

* Most works require what is referred to as a 'layered' approach to the diverse preservation strategies: Preservation handing; Documentation; Contact with the artist; Active preservation as transfer, reinstallation etc

As we know, documentation is at the center of any preservation strategy for new media. Improving efforts to preserve new media artworks is insufficient without the support of structured documentation about both the works and their context.(3) As in theatre, this documentation may often be the only remaining trace of the work.

The widest definition of preservation embraces almost the totality of an archive's curatorial functions. Preservation is necessary to ensure permanent accessibility; yet preservation is not an end in itself. Without the objective of access it has no point. Both terms have a wide spectrum of meaning, however, and tend to mean different things to professionals in different situations.(4) The relative fragile and fugitive nature of electronic art and its technology place these functions at the center of the management of electronic art collections and/or archives.

The convergence of fast intranetworking technology and very large storage components has enabled completely new solutions to conservation of and widespread accessibility to cultural media. New technologies (MXF, SAN,…) bring new perspectives.
Archiving is a process, and like preservation there is no end station but an ongoing process. The focus nowadays is no longer solely on the physical objects, but on the archival/documentation process and the physical objects. It appears the pattern is changing from tape to tapeless, with changing boundaries between archiving and distribution. Whether the borders between preservation and access for media art are changing as well is still an open question. ZKM and PACKED researched the medium and long-term implications of these technologies in the context both of archiving and conservation.

Documentation strategies developed by V2:(5)
Physical or visual; art object oriented
Scientific; research and development aspects of projects
aRt&D; combination of interdisciplinary and process-based nature with 'objective' occurrences

Contact with the artist

As <1>Modern Art Who Cares (6) showed us, as the creator of the object and/or process the artist's opinion should be used as a guide for the preservation of contemporary and electronic art. If it is the aim to remain as true as possible to the artist's intent, a continuous dialog between artists, curators, technicians, conservators, art historians and scientists is required. A number of valuable interactions with contemporary artists have taken place in the Video Art Preservation Project, the Variable Media Network and INCCA Installation Project, to work out a balance between the artist's intent and the conservator's aim and the custodian's interest.

Preservation Strategies
Following is a recommended list of strategies for preserving works or parts of works, along with descriptive terms and notes, as these have been developed by the Variable Media Network ( Preservation approaches should be indicated at this level of description because it is applied at this level. For instance, a work that included a QuickTime movie file and a physical prop like a table might opt to 'migrate' the digital movie, but store the table. It would not be accurate to describe the whole work as being Migrated or Stored.

The most conservative collecting strategy - the default strategy for most museums - is to store a work physically, whether that means mothballing dedicated equipment or archiving digital files on disk. Storing one of Donald Flavin's fluorescent light installations simply means buying a supply of the out-of-production bulbs and putting them in a crate. The major disadvantage of storing obsolescent materials is that the artwork will expire once these ephemeral materials cease to function.

To emulate a work is to devise a way of imitating the original look of the piece by completely different means. Emulating a Flavin fluorescent light installation would require custom-building fluorescent bulbs that produce the same light as and resemble the physical appearance of the original bulbs. Possible disadvantages of emulation include prohibitive expense and inconsistency with the artist's intent. For example, Flavin deliberately chose to use ordinary off-the-shelf components rather than esoteric materials or techniques.

To migrate an artwork involves upgrading equipment and source material. The obsolete fluorescent bulbs of Flavin's light installation could be upgraded to fluorescent or halogen lights of comparable hue and brightness. The major disadvantage of migration is that the original appearance of the artwork will probably change in its new medium. Even if state-of-the-art fixtures cast similar light to Flavin's originals, the actual fixtures are likely to look different.


The most radical preservation strategy is to reinterpret the work each time it is recreated. To reinterpret a Flavin light installation would mean to ask what contemporary medium would have the metaphoric value of fluorescent light in the 1960s. Reinterpretation is a dangerous technique when not warranted by the artist, but it may be the only way to re-create performance, installation, or networked art designed to vary with context.

Documentation also plays an important role both within the preservation process and after preservation. The purpose, objectives, technical and artistic decisions, research undertaken, judgements made etc. should be precisely documented. Public presentations or distribution copies should be accompanied by contextual information which at least identifies the work as a reconstruction and explains how it differs from the original etc. Preferably this is accompanied by information about the historical context. It is evident that description models for electronic art, their content and related documentation need active maintenance and updates on a regular basis, in order to keep pace with a quickly evolving field of research.(7)

And even more…

Most projects are working on

* Experiencing layered preservation strategies.
* Researching and developing description models and software tools
* Developing and establishing metadata standards
* Defining terminology for interoperability
* Researching compatibility

Preservation - especially that of electronic art - is a never-ending management task. How well the physically stored, emulated, migrated or reinterpreted electronic artworks survive in the long term will be determined by the quality and rigor of that process now and in the future. Nothing has ever been preserved - at best, it is being preserved!(8)

' We need to allow for uncertainty…we need to allow for differing opinions that emerge …. These works are dynamic, and warrant a preservation methodology just as energetic and disposed to change'.(9)

More question arise but are not addressed at this conference:

* What - if any - are the different approaches in documenting and preserving media art works for art organizations, academic research, artists and contemporary art museums?
* Who is responsible for documentation and preservation of media art?
* When should preservation and documentation strategies be implemented? Only after production?

[beginPage: Notes]


3. Alain Depocas : Recording the Recoding

4. Edmondson, Ray Audiovisual Archiving: Philosophy and Principles [PDF]. Written in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the UNESCO Recommendation for the Safeguarding and Preservation of Moving Images. 2004.


6. Hummelen IJsbrand, Dionne Sill'e (edit) Modern Art Who Cares?: An interdisciplinary research project and an international symposium on the conservation on modern and contemporary art (8.-10.9.1997). Amsterdam: Stichting Behoud Moderne Kunst / Instituut Collectie Nederland, 1999

7. Edmondson

8. Edmondson

9. Caitlin Jones : Reality Check