ArtBase and the Conservation and Exhibition of Born Digital Art: An Interview with Ben Fino-Radin

To try and better communicate and share information about the work happening at organizations in the National Digital Stewardship Alliance we are trying out a new series for the blog that draws attention to particularly interesting and valuable born-digital collections. This series will profile particular collections and incorporate conversations with curators, archivists, librarians, historians, scholars and others working on collecting, preserving and providing access to our born digital cultural record.

The first conversation in this series is with Ben Fino-Radin, digital conservator for the Rhizome ArtBase online archive of digital art. Founded in 1999, the Rhizome ArtBase is a collection of new media art containing some 2125 art works. The ArtBase encompasses a range of projects by artists all over the world that employ materials such as software, code, websites, moving images, games and browsers to aesthetic and critical ends. As digital conservator, Ben oversees the development of Rhizome’s online archive. He actively monitors and creates new records on art works and drafts policies and procedure for the preservation of digital works. He also collaborates with a team on the repair of artworks that fall victim to obsolescence, as well as supporting the ingest of digital archival materials.

Trevor: What kinds of stories do you think the ArtBase collection tells us? Are there some trends and changes over time in the collection that you could tell us about? It would be ideal if you could point to particular works that you think exemplify these trends.

Ben: In a big way, the collection directly reflects the narrative of our institution’s history and evolution as a community. Rhizome was established in 1996 as a listserve and served as a hub for some of the first artists that worked online. The email list was used by the community not just as a public forum, but also a place to debut new projects. In 2001 the ArtBase was established to serve as a more permanent and accessible index to the broad catalog of web based work emerging from the community. So in many ways the collection is reflective of the various players in this early scene. As well, I think the collection presents a very human telling of the evolution of the web and the artist’s relationship to emerging technologies in their practice. This narrative has naturally unfolded as the collection has aged, and it is something that we are actively cultivating. I’m deeply interested how an artwork that engages what is at the time of creation a new technology, accrues different meaning and historic value as it ages.

Here are a few examples of artists engaging new technological affordances or responding to cultural memes created by new affordances, spanning from the early web, to current date.

Lev Manovich, Little Movies (1994), an experiment with early QuickTime.

Olia Lialina, My Boyfriend Came Back From the War (1996), is an oft cited example of early hypertext oriented Lialina’s early work is heavily narrative driven as she came from a film background before becoming immersed in the web. As evident in this piece, Lialina was quite fond of framesets, back in the early years.

Barbara Lattanzi, The Letter and the Fly (2002), is an example of works from the early 2000’s when a lot of artists who had been producing interactive CD-ROMs began to compile these works for the web, making use of Macromedia Director and the Shockwave plugin.

Image of The Letter and the Fly (2002), Barbra Latanzi.

Perry Bard, Man With a Movie Camera – The Global Remake (2007), is a great early example of a web-based, crowd sourced digital archive of video – here employed to produce a shot for shot remake of Vertov’s landmark piece of cinematic history.

Petra Cortright, VVEBCAM (2007), serves as a monument to the culture of YouTube – produced in 2007 only two years after YouTube’s public beta (hard to imagine that it has only been that long).

PaintFX, (2010), is emblematic of this idea of works serving as a historic document of the introduction of innovation in the creative practice. This artist collaborative sought to highlight the aesthetics inherent in the tools they were using – producing prolific quantities of “default” digital paintings – insinuating a post individual style era of production.

Sebastian Schmieg, All jQuery Effects (2012), represents a sort of ultimate web minimalism. The piece cycles through all of the animation effects of the ubiquitous jQuery, using all of the default values from the jQuery demos.

Trevor: What are some of the most popular pieces in the collection? Could you tell us a little bit about them?

Ben: Alexei Shulgin and Natalie Bookchin’s Introduction to is pretty legendary. Shulgin (who coined the term ‘’) and Bookchin produced this tongue-in-cheek diatribe in 1997 both as a manifesto for art’s place in cyberspace, and as a somewhat sardonic guide to success for the aspiring net.artist.

Rafael Rozendaal, (2008), is a crowd pleaser for obvious reasons.

Recently we archived several works by Takeshi Murata. I’m guessing that most readers of The Signal aren’t familiar with Takeshi’s work – but he has been hugely influential in the field. He pioneered a style of glitch video referred to as “datamosh”, which entails removing certain bits of data from .AVI files, causing them to spill out incredible artifacts. His pieces Untitled (Pink Dot) (2007), and Untitled (Silver) are two examples of this. His work has evolved quite far from his early work, as exemplified by I, Popeye or Get Your Ass to Mars, yet his early datamosh work is to this day parroted by young aspiring glitch artists.

Image from Untitled (Silver) (2006), Takeshi Murata

Trevor: How about a few of the most underappreciated pieces in the collection? Do you have a few favorites that you think people should be paying more attention to? Again, it would be ideal if you could give us a bit of context for these pieces. What kinds of stories do these works help us tell?

Ben: I wouldn’t venture to label any works as underappreciated, but two big ones for me are Alexei Shulgin’s Desktop Is (1998), and Adam Cruces’ Desktop Views (2012). Both of these projects collected screenshots of the desktop environments of various artists. No surprise that these would appeal to an archivist. The desktop is such a rich area of metaphor and personalization within a strict set of parameters, and these images reveal so much about their owners. Jason Huff wrote a great piece about just that. Unfortunately Desktop Is has suffered from significant link rot, as back in the day it was never archived by Rhizome and many of the images were hotlinked from sites that have long since passed. We are in the process of hunting and gathering the missing pieces.

Image from Desktop Is (1998), Alexei Shulgin

A recent addition that has a lot of potential is Anthony Antonellis’ Endangered GIF Preserve (2012-ongoing). Antonellis is building an ad-hoc archive of animated GIFs on Wikipedia that have been marked for deletion. Archivalism in the studio practice of artists tends to focus on what others would consider to be the chaff of culture, and this is all the more valuable when it occurs online.

Trevor: Could you tell us a bit about how the collection is being used? To what extent is the audience for the collection artists in search of inspiration? To what extent is it for the general public? To what extent is it for scholars and researchers?

Ben: Currently the collection is used most heavily in academia, and by curators and researchers. Many professors of new media integrate the ArtBase into their lesson plan, designing research and curatorial assignments centered around the students using our members tools to curate exhibitions.

Trevor: I don’t think there are many people out there with the title of digital conservator. Could you tell us a bit about how you define this role? To what extent do you think this role is similar and different to analog art conservation? Similarly, to what extent is this work similar or different to roles like digital archivist or digital curator?

Ben: I drew the distinction with my title for two reasons: 1) I am at the service of an institution that lives within a museum, and 2) the digital objects I am cataloging and preserving access to are not “records” by the archival definition. They are artifacts – and as such require a different kind of care.

I am responsible for the stewardship of intellectual entities that are often inseparable from their digital carriers, due to the artist’s exploitation of the inherent characteristics of the material. It calls for a high degree of regard for the creator’s intent, and a thorough understanding of the subtleties of the materials. A digital archivist tasked with preserving the records of an office probably isn’t going to wonder if the use of Comic Sans in the accountant’s email signature has artifactual significance.

Of course the lines are much blurrier than that and there plenty of examples of people with the title “digital archivist” or “digital curator” doing significant work on preserving the subtle artifactual quality of digital materials (not to mention the incredible people who are contributing to significant projects in their spare time). This is a new phenomenon though, where you have individuals with the title “archivist” or “curator” devoting a level of care to documents, that with paper materials would be the work of a document conservator.

While I would hesitate to compare the two, I think that the conservation of digital artifacts, and the conservation of objects, documents and the like, at their essence hold many similarities. They both require an empathy for the artist, expertise with the medium, and understanding of the proper environment. Sometimes I go to the Greek and Roman galleries at the Met, and daydream about what net art from the 90’s will look like hundreds of years from now.

One Comment

  1. John L. Ghertner, MD
    May 1, 2012 at 5:10 pm

    This is a very impressive task to not only archive and protect but to actually define the necessary. It is heartening to see that people are taking this very seriously. Mr. Fino-Radin is doing vital work which I am pleased is receiving the recognition he deserves.

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