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The Digital Archive : Variable and Unstable
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Variable and Unstable
Preserving and Documenting our Digital Art Heritage
by Alain Depocas, translated by Timothy Barnard

For more than forty years, a growing number of artistic activities have come to rest upon technologies that are now obsolete. As a result, it has become difficult to preserve this work. The institutions and individuals who must document and preserve these artistic practices are faced with a wide variety of new problems. These works deteriorate at the rate that their original components break down - and because the context of technological development often eludes specialists and historians, the problem is getting worse.

The works which pose a problem are varied in nature: they are both analog and digital, mechanical and electronic. They are often composed of several different kinds of media, and frequently contain objects such as: industrial or jerry-rigged mechanical parts; software; electronic, hydraulic, electromagnetic, or other systems; and combinations of non-traditional or industrial materials. The cultural institutions responsible for these works encounter two kinds of problems. On the one hand, they have to come up with effective strategies for preserving works of art with technological elements. On the other hand, they must document, preserve, and understand the technologies underlying these works, as well as the historical context in which they came about. These problems are not limited to contemporary art and museums. They are also found in the culture industries and in public sector heritage institutions. Both the visual and performing arts are affected by this issue, including music, theatre, dance, performance, and architecture.

This situation is especially worrisome because curators, art historians, and conservators often do not have access to the information or the specialized methods and tools needed to respond adequately to the new issues of documentation and conservation raised by technological, electronic, or digital works of art.

There are no standards - or even descriptive vocabularies - for this kind of artistic production, making it impossible to document these works accurately and adequately. In addition, historical documentation is very rare and poorly preserved: the Centre for Research and Documentation (CR+D) [www.fondation-langlois.org/flash/e/stage.php?NumPage=147] at the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science and Technology is one of the few places in the world to document the field of electronic and digital art.

The Importance of Documentation
The preservation of works of art containing technological components is still a very precarious field, especially given the lack of structured and adequate documentation. In preservation work, it is essential to document not only the work itself but also the context in which it was done. Despite the development of appropriate methods and adequate tools for preserving artwork, often the documentation itself will be the only actual trace of that work remaining. In other cases, documentation is necessary to complete those fragments of the work which survive.1 In order for such documentation to be effective, however, it must be active and adapted to the unique nature of electronic and digital art. Apart from the accelerated obsolescence of technological components, new forms of artistic activities are often of a transient nature themselves: fleeting and unstable phenomena in a state of constant mutation. Often they are at a great remove from static objects; instead, they are event-based. In the face of this new situation, documentation must develop new strategies, new tools, new structures, and new methods for making the work accessible.

It was in this context that the Daniel Langlois Foundation created its Centre for Research and Documentation. Since its opening in October 2000, the CR+D has worked to establish a major collection of documents covering the past forty years of electronic and digital art.2 Thanks to its extensive cross-referencing, the CD+R's database3 creates links between documents, people, organizations, events, concepts, and works of art, making it possible to obtain information from different perspectives. The preservation and documentation of works of art with technological components are of course both part of the CR+D's research and documentation objectives. A bibliography on the subject is also available on the Daniel Langlois Foundation's Web site.4

The Foundation's Involvement
Since it was founded in 1998, the Daniel Langlois Foundation has funded and supported the production, study, and distribution of many works of art with technological components. It was thus logical that it would also be interested in the preservation and documentation of these works. It is in this context that the Foundation has initiated and participated in research projects whose goal is to develop the necessary knowledge, tools, and know-how in the field of preserving and documenting electronic, digital, and media art. Most often, it has done so in a pragmatic and concrete manner, using case studies.

The Variable Media Network
The concept of "variable media" was proposed in 1998 by Jon Ippolito, [http://www.three.org/ippolito/] an Associate Curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.5 This idea proposes that we should view the description of works of art independently from their physical components. Thus, rather than enumerating the work's physical components, the Variable Media approach seeks instead to understand the way in which the artwork behaves, and its intrinsic and constitutive effects. It is for the artist to describe his or her work, taking its features and effects into consideration - and this is what curators and conservators of the future must respect and reproduce. In this way, artists themselves define the limits of possible intervention in their work. The approach of the Variable Media Network [http://www.variablemedia.net] therefore makes it better possible to preserve works of art possessing a number of unstable elements. Such works vary in nature, and can include performance art, conceptual art, installation, and of course works with technological components or which use structures or networks which are themselves highly unstable.

A questionnaire created by the Network allows the artist to describe the features of his or her own work, and to choose the most appropriate preservation strategies. These range from simple storage to reinterpretation, emulation, or migration. The latter two options are often possible in a technological sense, but may also be possible in a wider sense. In the case of work which uses computer technology, for instance, emulation replaces an obsolete layer of material with software which mimics it, forcing contemporary hardware to function like the old component. This strategy makes it possible to gain access to old digital files without having to modify them. By extension, emulation proposes that we find a way of "imitating" the original quality of a work of art (or of some of its components) using completely different means.

For its part, migration (in the strictly technological sense of the word) transfers a video signal or computer code onto a new medium, or into a new format or code. To migrate a work of art therefore involves bringing the equipment, signal, or source code up to date while trying to maintain the work's initial qualities intact.

In 2002, the Daniel Langlois Foundation joined up with the Guggenheim Museum to develop the concept of variable media and to increase its use. The partnership between these two organizations has given rise to a completely bilingual publication entitled Permanence through Change: The Variable Media Approach, which is available online on the Variable Media Web site. [www.variablemedia.net/e/preserving/html/var_pub_index.html] This publication contains a number of texts that are useful for better understanding the variable media concept and the issues it raises.

In 2004, the exhibition Seeing Double: Emulation in Theory and Practice,[www.variablemedia.net/e/seeingdouble/index.html] organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in partnership with the Daniel Langlois Foundation, was presented from March 19 to May 16 at the Guggenheim in New York. This event was complimented by the conference Echoes of Art: Emulation as a Preservation Strategy on May 8 at the Guggenheim. The conference was an occasion to present lessons drawn from archival case studies featured in the Seeing Double exhibition, to discuss the role of emulation, and to note the nostalgic fervour for old technology visible in contemporary art. This interest in obsolete technology is currently visible in the field of video games and in youth culture, and it will certainly have an effect on preservation efforts.

Capturing Unstable Media
In 2003, the Daniel Langlois Foundation participated in the financing of Capturing Unstable Media, [link no longer active www.v2.nl/Projects/capturing/index.html] an ambitious research project carried out by V2_Organisation, Institute for the Unstable Media [http://www.v2.nl] in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. On the basis of two case studies co-developed at the V2_Lab,6 this project's goal was to develop a new methodology for documenting electronic, digital, and media art activities which would take into account their instability and complexity. The results of this research have been made available as a series of recommendations; these include, among other things, the use of a conceptual model to guide procedures around researching, developing, and distributing electronic and digital art. The full research results are available on the project's Web site, where a bibliography and glossary can also be found.

This kind of research is extremely important, and is an indispensable stage in the development of documentation and preservation methodologies adapted to the reality of electronic and digital art. In the coming years, the Daniel Langlois Foundation intends to extend its involvement within this field. It hopes to carry out multidisciplinary research in partnership with other organizations, and to develop the tools, guides, and methodologies necessary to preserve this new form of cultural heritage.

This research involves several fields of expertise including: the preservation and documentation of art, art history, the history of technology, library and archival sciences, engineering, and computer science. It will serve in particular to develop the study, description, classification, and history of the technological components used in technological and media art; to develop a thesaurus for managing the descriptive vocabulary used in the documentation and thematic discussion of instruments and technology-based artworks; to create a cataloguing structure for these works; to perfect a documentation strategy adapted to this kind of art, which should make it possible to arrive at an overall understanding of the place of this work within the history of media technology; and, finally, to carry out technological and methodological research into the preservation of works of art with technological, electronic, or digital components.

Whether they are variable, unstable, fleeting, processual, procedural, programmatic, hybrid, mutant, migrant, immaterial, collaborative, or non-linear, new forms of artistic activity do not cease to amaze us, and call into question our methods of documenting and preserving them. This is why the development of new tools and methods necessitate a constant questioning process, and a flexibility which will make it possible for us to adapt to these new realities adequately. The years to come will be decisive for the preservation and documentation of technological art. Without the necessary efforts, many aspects of recent artistic activity will no longer be accessible in the future, and will vanish from history without a trace.

Alain Depocas has been working at the Centre for Research and Documentation (CR+D) at the Daniel Langlois Foundation since September 1999, and was named Director of the CR+D in March 2003. From 2002 to 2004, he co-directed the Variable Media Network. As part of this project, he also co-edited the publication Permanence Through Change: The Variable Media Approach in 2003.

Notes :
1. See: Alain Depocas, Digital Preservation: Recording the Recoding. The Documentary Strategy: [link no longer active http://www.aec.at/festival2001/texte/depocas_e.html]

2. A list of the CR+D's collections can be found at: http://www.fondation-langlois.org/flash/e/index.php?NumPage=147

3. The database can be viewed on line at: link no longer active http://www.fondation-langlois.org/flash/e/index.php?Url=CRD/search.xml

4. See: link no longer active http://www.fondation-langlois.org/flash/e/index.php?%20Url=XML/doc_liste_xml.php?Biblio=d00027786~Conservation

5. See Jon Ippolito, The Museum of the Future: A Contradiction in Terms?, in: Artbyte, Vol. 1, No. 2, June/July, 1998.

6. The two projects, which were also funded by the Daniel Langlois Foundation, are whisper by Thecla Schiphorst and Susan Kozel, and DataCloud 2.0, a 2D and 3D complex information modelling project on the Web developed by V2_Lab.

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