Digital Art: Questions of Conservation

Who’s responsible for documenting and conserving digital art?

Questions about the conservation of art, especially contemporary art, are not new. In an article by The Getty Conservation Institute, Thomas J. S. Learner explains the capricious, and sometimes ephemeral, nature of modern materials and artworks, citing examples such as Eva Hesse’s synthetic latexes and Dan Flavin’s fluorescent lights. The endless materials modern and contemporary artists have engaged with the past few decades, Learner argues, make for an infinite number of ways materials can change over time. Conservation concerns do not end there. Digital artworks, such as creative coding, also pose questions of conservation.

Preserving Digital Art

Research by Francis T. Marchese, of Pace University’s Department of Computer Science, examines the preservation of digital arts, and offers a solution in his essay, “Conserving Digital Art for the Ages.” Supported by two artwork examples from a viewpoint centuries in the future, Marchese draws parallels with software engineering practices to extend the longevity of digital artworks.

The author explains that proper conservation of digital art is essential, given the variety and evolving technologies associated with it. Artists use a host of computer languages, including C, C++, Java and Ruby. Furthermore, hardware that runs software will eventually become outdated. Thus, Marchese’s posed question is an apt one: “Will digital art created in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century be displayable 500 years in the future?”

Which techniques will help us sustain digital art?

Marchese advocates using software engineering techniques to sustain digital art for the future. This practice involves comprehensive documentation. Upending traditional preservation — treating digital artwork as an entity with distinct qualities maintained for a piece’s longevity, the general museum approach — the author places responsibility on artists, curators and conservators for new thought and action. That said, Marchese promotes applying software engineering techniques for artists working with a non-archival medium that is always changing.

What does software engineering offer the arts? According to Marchese, “software engineering provides a systematic methodology for creating and maintaining documentation to support communication, preservation of system and institutional memory.” Furthermore, it emphasizes the software’s development process and the end result, R.S. Pressman maintains in his book, “Software Engineering: A Practitioner’s Approach, 6th Edition.” Thus, the turn towards software techniques for the preservation of digital art could be a valuable one.

Sebastian Chan, Director of Digital and Emerging Media at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, concurred that digital art should be documented during a March 2015 Artsy roundtable discussion, “On Collecting Algorithms: A Roundtable Discussion.” Open sourced code, meaning the software’s source code is available for the public to use, improve or alter, makes documentation even more important, Chan maintained. Since code can be changed and modified by anyone in the world, he finds documenting an important process to “see how we did it beforehand.”

Who is Responsible for Documenting Digital Art?

The answer to this question is where opinions differ. Daniel Doubrovkine, another roundtable participant and head of engineering at Artsy, said it is up to the institution to conserve and maintain open systems, such as open source software, if it is for the greater good of humanity. And it is. Digital art is evolving; before it becomes obsolete or drastically changes, preservation is important. Tellingly, leaving it up to the institution and relying on traditional conservation practices could result in the demise of exhibiting digital art mediums in the long-term.

Marchese posits a different view; he puts the onus on artists, curators and conservators. Artists working in an non-archival medium need to be accountable for their work, he opines. And this is why: “traditional artists” using “archival” mediums and who observe standard processes tend to produce long-lasting tangible objects; whereas the preservation and display of “non-archival” mediums may be compromised without adequate documentation. To this point, the author states that key museums have important pieces of art that cannot be displayed due to feebleness and decay. A digital artwork without appropriate documentation could fall into this same category. But Marchese’s conclusion appears promising: “digital artists who choose to adapt software engineering practices to their artistic process will be able to extend the lifespan of their artwork.”

Documenting code and other digital technologies is not only an art issue, but a life one. Before digital technology changes forever or becomes obsolete, it is imperative to preserve it; people writing code outside of the arts also need to think about conservation methods for the same reasons. To underscore this claim, Chan provided this comparison: “[Systems and code are] like an oral history — it’s almost like trying to collect slang or popular music. It’s very hard to collect the song or the riff that is going to be the one that you remember 20 years from now.” Chan makes a compelling reason for why to collect code; Marchese makes a stronger case as to how. Without proper preservation, code, and other forms of digital technology and art will be gone. To that end, placing the responsibility only on the institution for an artwork’s documentation may be asking too much; artists need to account for their own work. So turning to software engineering is reasonable, and necessary, advice.

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