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Does Hardware Dictate Meaning?
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Does Hardware Dictate Meaning?
Three Variable Media Conservation Case Studies
by Caitlin Jones
Hardware and its inevitable obsolescence has become one of the greatest challenges
to contemporary art conservation. gold, pink and red, red (1964)
is an installation of unadorned fluorescent lights by American artist Dan Flavin.
Deliberate in his choice of off-the-shelf fixtures and tubes, conservators in
museums around the world face major challenges as replacement bulbs and parts
are no longer available. This situation has led to special orders (often at
great expense), infrequent exhibition, and the general fetishization of objects
originally chosen by the artist for their commonplace qualities. The same fate
is quickly befalling works of "new" media art as the industry's constant need
to upgrade makes our hardware obsolete before we even get it home from the store.
The questions we ask in regards to Dan Flavin's work are exactly the same as
those we would ask of JODI [www.jodi.org]
or Cory Arcangel, [www.beigerecords.com/cory/]
or any other artist whose work is dependent on hardware to produce meaning.
When we change the artwork's physical components, do we fundamentally alter
the meaning of the work?
Rather than looking solely at the physical components, we need to start looking at how these components produce meaning - how an artwork behaves, independent of its medium. The Variable Media Network, [http://variablemedia.net/] an initiative of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology, has developed a paradigm designed to elicit information directly from artists regarding the behavior and variability of their work. It draws on artist's creativity and vision, in combination with traditional conservation practice, in order to help preserve the original intention of an artwork once the current form is no longer viable. Such behaviors, as defined by the Variable Media initiative, are not permanent or fixed, but they do provide guidelines for discussing the more ephemeral qualities of a work of art.1
Emulating The Erl King
One of the first case studies undertaken by the initiative was Grahame Weinbren [www.grahameweinbren.net] and Roberta Friedman's The Erl King (1982-1985), a combination of obsolete hardware, artist-written software, and custom made components. Heralded as one of the first works of interactive video art, The Erl King invites the viewer to control the work's narrative structure through the use of a touch-screen monitor. The Erl King explores the relationship between Freud's The Burning Child dream, and Goethe's Erlkönig. Set to Schubert's music of Goethe's poem, the viewer is invited to discover their own connection between the two texts - to control the narrative flow and create their own cinematic experience. A medium-dependent description would note that the work is constructed from an aggregate of off-the-shelf and custom-built hardware - a 1982 SMC-70 computer, a cp/m operating system, a custom-built video switcher, a Carroll touch-screen, plus CRT monitors, laser discs, and three laser disc players - all operating on the verge of major malfunction. On the other hand, a medium-independent study of the work would indicate to future curators and conservators that the most salient features of this work lie in its interactive qualities, and would detail how the physical components - which are duplicable using other hardware of similar function - contribute to the viewers experience of the artwork.
For over a year, the Variable Media team engaged in numerous discussions with the artists, as well as technicians, conservators, and computer programmers, in order to identify The Erl King's components and their functional relationship to the work of art itself. As Grahame Weinbren has explained, "Physical limitation of the components of the early 1980's was embedded in the program of The Erl King to such an extent that they became determinants of the way it produced meaning."2 Although the physical equipment itself held no particular importance to the artists, its limitations needed to be clearly understood. Also, the original code was written by the artists and their collaborators, and was therefore deemed critical to the authenticity of the work. The necessity of preserving these two elements drove our decision to "emulate" this artwork rather than "migrate" it to newer components. Subsequently, a program was written to interpret the original source code, the video and audio files were all digitized, and all other hardware devices (excluding monitors and touch screen) were "emulated".
The term "emulation" has been applied generally to any re-fabrication of an artwork's components, but it also has a specific meaning in the context of digital media, where it indicates a powerful technique for running a program from an out-of-date computer on a contemporary one. Jeff Rothenberg [http://www.clir.org/pubs/reports/rothenberg/contents.html] of the RAND Corporation, [www.rand.org] a longtime proponent of emulation, explains that "the emulator makes the software 'think' it is running on its original computing platform, so it renders the digital artifact just as it did originally."3
During the emulation of The Erl King, lines had to be drawn in terms of where and where not to modify the original system's behavior. For example, the new system had a considerably faster response time, which shortened the interval between a viewer's physical contact with the touch-screen and the corresponding cut in the film. According to the artist, it became "so fast that one could not believe that one's action had had an effect on the system, and the power and complexity of the piece dissolved into an arbitrary porridge with no distinction between the viewer-caused changes and those built in."4 The artist felt that the added speed degraded the viewer's experience, so the new system was slowed down to match the original speed. In other cases - for example, an original bug which had caused the computer to consistently crash at certain points - it was decided that it would be acceptable to amend the program's original behavior in the emulation.5
Both versions of The Erl King were presented side-by-side in the Guggenheim exhibition Seeing Double: Emulation in Theory and Practice [www.guggenheim.org] in 2004. Though The Erl King was a major focus, seven other new media works from the 1960s through 2004 were also paired with versions of what the pieces might look like in the future if their original hardware were to become unavailable. Supported by the Daniel Langlois Foundation, artworks by Cory Arcangel / BEIGE, Mary Flannagan, JODI, Robert Morris, Nam June Paik, and John F. Simon Jr. were displayed alongside their emulated versions, allowing media and preservation experts and the general public to compare the variations directly, and therefore test the success of this preservation strategy.
Saving Andy Warhol
Two of the supporting works exhibited in Seeing Double presented us with unorthodox preservation challenges. Cory Arcangel and members of the programming ensemble BEIGE [www.beigerecords.com] create new works by hacking old Nintendo game cartridges. The work I Shot Andy Warhol (2002), a hacked Hogan's Alley game, was included in Seeing Double without an emulated partner. Though it was created using a Nintendo emulator on a Macintosh computer, Arcangel felt that in this case the replacement of the original NES system with new hardware would remove the work so far from its context that it would be rendered meaningless in a gallery setting. He explained that this was "because the public doesn't necessarily understand an emulator. The reason I make works based on game consoles is that all you have to do is see the cartridge to understand what happened... In 30 years a laptop running that game is going to mean nothing to the public. So I want I Shot Andy Warhol to be exhibited with a real light gun, the Nintendo, and preferably a period TV."6 Simple storage (and buying up old equipment on eBay) is therefore the default strategy for this artwork's preservation.
That said, Arcangel provides us with a complimentary strategy for preserving his Nintendo piece - a strategy that in essence opens up multiple streams of preservation for the same work: The artist releases his code on the Internet, and invites users to build their own games and alter the code. "Other people have already been porting my work to other versions," he points out. "Somebody wrote me and was like, hey, I got it to work on a Gameboy emulating the Nintendo... Because I also participate in behind-the-scenes emulation culture. Everything I learned about programming comes from the homebrew culture, and it's important to me to give the code away so someone else could learn from it." Indeed, archiving an NES unit in a crate in a warehouse may save the installation-oriented attributes of the work, but releasing the code freely to other artists and programmers ensures an equally important attribute - its place in a network context; the preservation of the artwork beyond its object value.
Recording 10 Programs
All Wrongs Reversed by JODI (aka Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans)
is a recording of an installation based on the Spectrum computer that was called
10 Programs Written in Basic © 1984. The 10 Programs
installation consisted of eight vintage ZX Spectrum computers placed in a gallery
space where the public was invited to undertake programming in BASIC, an obsolete
computer language controlling archaic machines. As artists have explained on
numerous occasions, the purpose of the installation was to highlight the behavioral
qualities of the ZX Spectrum and the action of programming in BASIC. The challenge
in preserving 10 Programs, then, was that many essential elements
- such as the noises generated when a program is loaded via cassette tape, interference,
and so on - would be lost if we migrated the installation to newer equipment,
or if the Spectrum were emulated on a Pentium machine.
Instead, as an alternative to stockpiling old equipment and leaving 10 Programs tied to its original hardware, the artists chose to document the process of writing code in BASIC and all its inherent behavioral byproducts by creating the digital video documentary All Wrongs Reversed. They explain that, "of course you don't see the cassette or the TV or the computer - you see someone coding and typing and having a simple result. But making a dvd was a way to record the original action."7 It was not the physical hardware, but the display qualities that the hardware produced, which were deemed most worthy of preservation - thus the decision to document them independently of their original hardware environment.
Variable Media, Variable Strategies
There is no silver bullet, no single approach for dealing with new media preservation.
But neither has there ever been such a singular solution for the conservation
of more traditional art objects. Institutional mandates to preserve inherently
dynamic artworks in static form always pose problems. As interactive artworks,
The Erl King, I Shot Andy Warhol, and 10 Programs
Written in BASIC © 1984 each have a computer at their core. The
relationship between hardware and the generation of meaning varies in all three,
and therefore they have received equally variable treatments.
Methods such as emulation do not fall within the realm of traditional conservation practice - some will argue that this is not preservation at all. The Variable Media paradigm requires that we accept the guidance of artists, engage in interdisciplinary collaboration, and acknowledge that rigid definitions of what is "original" greatly limit the ways in which we look at art. Media works are based inherently in the notion of change, and collecting institutions need to adapt and embrace this kind of change within their more traditional models of collection and conservation.
Caitlin Jones has a background in Art History and Archival Studies. In the past, she has worked in conjunction with the Daniel Langlois Foundation as the Langlois Fellow for Variable Media Preservation. Presently, she holds a combined research position in both the Curatorial and Conservation departments at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. She co-edited the Guggenheim / Langlois publication Permanence Through Change: The Variable Media Approach released in 2003, and was co-curator of Seeing Double: Emulation in Theory and Practice at the Guggenheim. She was also assistant curator for the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin exhibition Nam June Paik: Global Groove 2004.
1. A more complete discussion of these behaviors and strategies as related to
the Variable Media Network can be found in: Alain Depocas, Jon
Ippolito, and Caitlin Jones (eds.), Permanence Through Change: The Variable
Media Approach, Montreal: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Daniel Langlois Foundation
for Art, Science and Technology, 2003. Also available for download at
2. Grahame Weinbren, Navigating the Ocean of Streams of Story, in: Marsha Kinder and Tara McPherson (eds.), Interactive Frictions, forthcoming from the University of California Press.
3. Jeff Rothenberg, Preservation of the Times, in: The Information Management Journal, March/April, 2002.
4. Grahame Weinbren, Navigating the Ocean of Streams of Story.
5. A detailed outline of the process written by programmer Isaac Dimitrovsky is available online at www.variablemedia.net.
6. Cory Arcangel, didactic material for the exhibit Seeing Double: Emulation in Theory and Practice, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2004. Available online at www.variablemedia.net.
7. Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans (aka JODI), didactic material for the exhibit
Seeing Double: Emulation in Theory and Practice, Solomon R. Guggenheim
Museum, 2004. Available online at www.variablemedia.net.