Collecting and Preserving Digital Art: Interview with Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito

Jon Ippolito, Associate Professor of New Media at the University of Maine

Jon Ippolito, Professor of New Media at the University of Maine

As artists have embraced a range of new media and forms in the last century as the work of collecting, conserving and exhibiting these works has become increasingly complex and challenging. In this space, Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito have been working to develop and understand approaches to ensure long-term access to digital works. In this installment of our insights interview series I discuss Richard and Jon’s new book, “Re-collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory.” The book offers an articulation of their variable media approach to thinking about works of art. I am excited to take this opportunity to explore the issues the book raises about digital art in particular and a perspective on digital preservation and social memory more broadly as part of our Insights Interview Series.

Trevor: The book takes a rather broad view of “new media”; everything from works made of rubber, to CDs, art installations made of branches, arrangements of lighting, commercial video games and hacked variations of video games. For those unfamiliar with your work more broadly, could you tell us a bit about your perspective on how these hang together as new media? Further, given that the focus of our audience is digital preservation, could you give us a bit of context for what value thinking about various forms of non-digital variable new media art offer us for understanding digital works?

Richard Rinehart, Richard Rinehart, Director of the Samek Art Museum at Bucknell University.

Richard Rinehart, Director of the Samek Art Museum at Bucknell University.

Richard: Our book does focus on the more precise and readily-understood definition of new media art as artworks that rely on digital electronic computation as essential and inextricable. The way we frame it is that these works are at the center of our discussion, but we also discuss works that exist at the periphery of this definition. For instance, many digital artworks are hybrid digital/physical works (e.g., robotic works) and so the discussion cannot be entirely contained in the bitstream.

We also discuss other non-traditional art forms–performance art, installation art–that are not as new as “new media” but are also not that old in the history of museum collecting. It is important to put digital art preservation in an historical context, but also some of the preservation challenges presented by these works are shared with and provide precedents for digital art. These precedents allow us to tap into previous solutions or at least a history of discussion around them that could inform or aid in preserving digital art. And, vice versa, solutions for preserving digital art may aid in preserving these other forms (not least of which is shifting museum practices). Lastly, we bring non-digital (but still non-traditional) art forms into the discussion because some of the preservation issues are technological and media-based (in which case digital is distinct) but some issues are also artistic and theoretical, and these issues are not necessarily limited to digital works.

Jon: Yeah, we felt digital preservation needed a broader lens. The recorded culture of the 20th century–celluloid, vinyl LPs, slides–is a historical anomaly that’s a misleading precedent for preserving digital artifacts. Computer scientist Jeff Rothenberg argues that even JPEGs and PDF documents are best thought of as applications that must be “run” to be accessed and shared. We should be looking at paradigms that are more contingent than static files if we want to forecast the needs of 21st-century heritage.

Casting a wider net can also help preservationists jettison our culture’s implicit metaphor of stony durability in favor of one of fluid adaptability. Think of a human record that has endured and most of us picture a chiseled slab of granite in the British Museum–even though oral histories in the Amazon and elsewhere have endured far longer. Indeed, Dragan Espenschied has pointed out cases in which clay tablets have survived longer than stone because of their adaptability: they were baked as is into new buildings, while the original carvings on stones were chiseled off to accommodate new inscriptions. So Richard and I believe digital preservationists can learn from media that thrive by reinterpretation and reuse.

Trevor: The book presents technology, institutions and law as three sources of problems for the conservation of variable media art and potentially as three sources of possible solutions. Briefly, what do you see as the most significant challenges and opportunities in these three areas? Further, are there any other areas you considered incorporating but ended up leaving out?

Jon: From technology, the biggest threat is how the feverish marketing of our techno-utopia masks the industry’s planned obsolescence. We can combat this by assigning every file on our hard drives and gadget on our shelves a presumptive lifespan, and leaving room in our budgets to replace them once their expiration date has expired.

From institutions, the biggest threat is that their fear of losing authenticity gets in the way of harnessing less controllable forms of cultural perseverance such as proliferative preservation. Instead of concentrating on the end products of culture, they should be nurturing the communities where it is birthed and finds meaning.

From the law, the threat is DRM, the DMCA, and other mechanisms that cut access to copyrighted works–for unlike analog artifacts, bits must be accessed frequently and openly to survive. Lawyers and rights holders should be looking beyond the simplistic dichotomy of copyright lockdown versus “information wants to be free” and toward models in which information requires care, as is the case for sacred knowledge in many indigenous cultures.

Other areas? Any in which innovative strategies of social memory are dismissed because of the desire to control–either out of greed (“we can make a buck off this!”) or fear (“culture will evaporate without priests to guard it!”).

Trevor: One of the central concepts early in the book is “social memory,” in fact, the term makes its way into the title of the book. Given its centrality, could you briefly explain the concept and discuss some of how this framework for thinking about the past changes or upsets other theoretical perspectives on history and memory that underpin work in preservation and conservation?

Richard: Social memory is the long-term memory of societies. It’s how civilizations persist from year to year or century to century. It’s one of the core functions of museums and libraries and the purpose of preservation. It might alternately be called “cultural heritage,” patrimony, etc. But the specific concept of social memory is useful for the purpose of our book because there is a body of literature around it and because it positions this function as an active social dynamic rather than a passive state (cultural heritage, for instance, sounds pretty frozen). It was important to understand social memory as a series of actions that take place in the real world every day as that then helps us to make museum and preservation practices tangible and tractable.

The reason to bring up social memory in the first place is to gain a bit of distance on the problem of preserving digital art. Digital preservation is so urgent that most discussions (perhaps rightfully) leap right to technical issues and problem-solving. But, in order to effect the necessary large-scale and long-term changes in, say, museum practices, standards and policies we need to understand the larger context and historic assumptions behind current practices. Museums (and every cultural heritage institution) are not just stubborn; they do things a certain way for a reason. To convince them to change, we cannot just point at ad-hoc cases and technical problematics; we have to tie it to their core mission: social memory. The other reason to frame it this way is that new media really are challenging the functions of social memory; not just in museums, but across the board and here’s one level in which we can relate and share solutions.

These are some ways in which the social  memory allows us to approach preservation differently in the book, but here’s another, more specific one. We propose that social memory takes two forms: formal/canonical/institutional memory and informal/folkloric/personal memory (and every shade in between). We then suggest how the preservation of digital art may be aided by BOTH social memory functions.

Trevor: Many of the examples in the book focus on boundary-breaking installation art, like Flavin’s work with lighting, and conceptual art, like Nam June Paik’s work with televisions and signals, or Cory Arcangel’s interventions on Nintendo cartridges. Given that these works push the boundaries of their mediums, or focus in depth on some of the technical and physical properties of their mediums do you feel like lessons learned from them apply directly to seemingly more standardized and conventional works in new media? For instance, mass produced game cartridges or Flash animations and videos? To what extent are lessons learned about works largely intended to be exhibited art in galleries and museums applicable to more everyday mass-produced and consumed works?

Richard: That’s a very interesting question and its speaks to our premise that preserving digital art is but one form of social memory and that lessons learned therein may benefit other areas. I often feel that preserving digital art is useful for other preservation efforts because it provides an extreme case. Artists (and the art world) ensure that their media creations are about as complex as you’ll likely find; not necessarily technically (although some are technically complex and there are other complexities introduced in their non-standard use of technologies) but because what artists do is to complicate the work at every level–conceptually, phenomenologically, socially, technically; they think very specifically about the relationship between media and meaning and then they manifest those ideas in the digital object.

I fully understand that preserving artworks does not mean trying to capture or preserve the meaning of those objects (an impossible task) but these considerations must come into play when preserving art even at a material level; especially in fungible digital media. So, for just one example, preserving digital artworks will tell us a lot about HCI considerations that attend preserving other types of interactive digital objects.

Jon: Working in digital preservation also means being a bit of a futurist, especially in an age when the procession from medium to medium is so rapid and inexorable. And precisely because they play with the technical possibilities of media, today’s artists are often society’s earliest adopters. My 2006 book with Joline Blais, “At the Edge of Art,” is full of examples, whether how Google Earth came from Art+Com, Wikileaks from Antoni Muntadas, or gestural interfaces from Ben Fry and Casey Reas. Whether your metaphor for art is antennae (Ezra Pound) or antibodies (Blais), if you pay attention to artists you’ll get a sneak peek over the horizon.

Trevor: Richard suggests that the key to digital media is variability and not fixity which is the defining feature of digital media. Beyond this that conservators should move away from “outdated notions of fixity.” Given the importance of the concept of fixity in digital preservation circles, could you unpack this a bit for us? While digital objects do indeed execute and perform the fact that I can run a fixity check and confirm that this copy of the digital object is identical to what it was before seems to be an incredibly powerful and useful component of ensuring long-term access to them. Given that based on the nature of digital objects, we can actually ensure fixity in a way we never could with analog artifacts, this idea of distancing ourselves from fixity seemed strange.

Richard: You hit the nail on the head with that last sentence; and we’re hitting a little bit of a semantic wall here as well–fixity as used in computer science and certain digital preservation circles does not quite have the same meaning as when used in lay text or in the context of traditional object-based museum preservation. I was using fixity in the latter sense (as the first book on this topic, we wrote for a lay audience and across professional fields as much as possible.) Your last thought compares the uses of “fixity” as checks between analog media (electronic, reproducible; film, tape, or vinyl) compared to digital media, but in the book I was comparing fixity as applied to a different class of analog objects (physical; marble, bronze, paint) compared to digital objects.

If we step back from the professional jargon for a moment, I would characterize the traditional museological preservation approach for oil painting and bronze sculptures to be one based on fixity. The kind of digital authentication that you are talking about is more like the scientific concept of repeatability; a concept based on consistency and reproduction–the opposite of the fixity! I think the approach we outline in the book is in opposition to fixity of the marble-bust variety (as inappropriate for digital media) but very much in-line with fixity as digital authentication (as one tool for guiding and balancing a certain level of change with a certain level of integrity.) Jon may disagree here–in fact we built in these dynamics of agreement/disagreement into our book too.

Jon: I’d like to be as open-minded as Richard. But I can’t, because I pull my hair out every time I hear another minion of cultural heritage fixated on fixity. Sure, it’s nifty that each digital file has a unique cryptographic signature we can confirm after each migration. The best thing about checksums is that they are straightforward, and many preservation tools (and even some operating systems) already incorporate such checks by default. But this seems to me a tiny sliver of a far bigger digital preservation problem, and to blow it out of proportion is to perpetuate the myth that mathematical replication is cultural preservation.

Two files with different passages of 1s and 0s automatically have different checksums but may still offer the same experience; for example, two copies of a digitized film may differ by a few frames but look identical to the human eye. The point of digitizing a Stanley Kubrick film isn’t to create a new mathematical artifact with its own unchanging properties, but to capture for future generations the experience us old timers had of watching his cinematic genius in celluloid. As a custodian of culture, my job isn’t to ensure my DVD of A Clockwork Orange is faithful to some technician’s choices when digitizing the film; it’s to ensure it’s faithful to Kubrick’s choices as a filmmaker.

Furthermore, there’s no guarantee that born-digital files with impeccable checksums will bear any relationship to the experience of an actual user. Engineer and preservationist Bruno Bachiment gives the example of an archivist who sets a Web spider loose on a website, only to have the website’s owners update it in the middle of the crawling process. (This happens more often than you might think.) Monthly checksums will give the archivist confidence that she’s archived that website, but in fact her WARC files do not correspond to any digital artifact that has ever existed in the real world. Her chimera is a perversion caused by the capturing process–like those smartphone panoramas of a dinner where the same waiter appears at both ends of the table.

As in nearly all storage-based solutions, fixity does little to help capture context.  We can run checksums on the Riverside “King Lear” till the cows come home, and it still won’t tell us that boys played women’s parts, or that Elizabethan actors spoke with rounded vowels that sound more like a contemporary American accent than the King’s English, or how each generation of performers has drawn on the previous for inspiration. Even on a manuscript level, a checksum will only validate one of many variations of a text that was in reality constantly mutating and evolving.

The context for software is a bit more cut-and-dried, and the professionals I know who use emulators like to have checksums to go with their disk images. But checksums don’t help us decide what resolution or pace they should run at, or what to do with past traces of previous interactions, or what other contemporaneous software currently taken for granted will need to be stored or emulated for a work to run in the future.

Finally, even emulation will only capture part of the behaviors necessary to reconstruct digital creations in the networked age, which can depend on custom interfaces, environmental data or networks. You can’t just go around checksumming wearable hardware or GPS receivers or Twitter networks; the software will have to mutate to accommodate future versions of those environments.

So for a curator to run regular tests on a movie’s fixity is like a zookeeper running regular tests on a tiger’s DNA. Just because the DNA tests the same doesn’t guarantee the tiger is healthy, and if you want the species to persist in the long term, you have to accept that the DNA of individuals is certainly going to change.

We need a more balanced approach. You want to fix a butterfly? Pin it to a wall. If you want to preserve a butterfly, support an ecosystem where it can live and evolve.

Trevor: The process of getting our ideas out on the page can often play a role in pushing them in new directions. Are there any things that you brought into working on the book that changed in the process of putting it together?

Richard: A book is certainly slow media; purposefully so. I think the main change I noticed was the ability to put our ideas around preservation practice into a larger context of institutional history and social memory functions. Our previous expressions in journal articles or conference presentation simply did not allow us time to do that and, as stated earlier, I feel that both are important in the full consideration of preservation.

Jon: When Richard first approached me about writing this book, I thought, well it’s gonna be pretty tedious because it seemed we would be writing mostly about our own projects. At the time I was only aware of a single emulation testbed in a museum, one software package for documenting opinions on future states of works, and no more conferences and cross-institutional initiatives on variable media preservation than I could count on one hand.

Fortunately, it took us long enough to get around to writing the book (I’ll take the blame for that) that we were able to discover and incorporate like-minded efforts cropping up across the institutional spectrum, from DOCAM and ZKM to Preserving Virtual Worlds and JSMESS. Even just learning how many art museums now incorporate something as straightforward as an artist’s questionnaire into their acquisition process! That was gratifying and led me to think we are all riding the crest of a wave that might bear the digital flotsam of today’s culture into the future.

Trevor: The book covers a lot of ground, focusing on a range of issues and offering myriad suggestions for how various stakeholders could play a role in ensuring access to variable media works into the future. In all of that, is there one message or issue in the work that you think is the most critical or central?

Richard: After expanding our ideas in a book; it’s difficult to come back to tweet format, but I’ll try…

Change will happen. Don’t resist it; use it, guide it. Let art breathe; it will tell you what it needs.

Jon: And don’t save documents in Microsoft Word.

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