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A Residency Update: Working with Digital Media Art at the Smithsonian

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The following is a guest post by Erica Titkemeyer, National Digital Stewardship Resident at the Smithsonian Institution Archives

As the National Digital Stewardship Resident placed within the Smithsonian Institution Archives I have been tasked with identifying the specialized digital curation requirements for time‐based media art (TBMA). I typically use this definition to best describe TBMA (also referred to here as digital media art): artwork containing audiovisual components that rely on playback mechanisms or systems for decoding, and that are typically engaged with other elements as an installed, interactive and/or performed experience.

Nam June Paik's Megatron/Matrix, an 8-Channel TBMA piece with 215 monitors at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Photo by Erica Titkemeyer.
Nam June Paik’s Megatron/Matrix, an 8-Channel TBMA piece with 215 monitors at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Photo by Erica Titkemeyer.

As part of my residency I am focusing specifically on issues imposed by born-digital or digitized works, which can be as simple as a one-channel video, or as complex as a video game with graphic and sound files, source code, and specific software, hardware, and technical specifications related to platform, CPU, and/or display requirements that dictate how the game operates for the player. While not a video game, Doug Aitken’s Song One is a prime example of exactly how large a time-based media artwork can be, both literally in size and in complexity. Another well-known digital media artist is Nam June Paik, whose archive was given to the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

In establishing a set of best practices and documentation that expand on the OAIS and Trusted Digital Repository criteria, I am further charged with producing recommendations for Smithsonian units acquiring these types of works, including the National Portrait Gallery, the American Art Museum, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

From the moment of acquisition, to the later installed iteration, to the continued monitored care of its components, digital media art requires the stewarding institution to consider and define documentation procedures, custodial roles, and how to sustain authenticity, especially when components might have the room to be variable with regard to their format and display characteristics.

Museums have typically relied on collection management systems, such as The Museum System (TMS) to produce and display records for their artifacts and artworks. While this kind of system has long been incorporated into museum workflows, adding a centralized digital asset management environment to hold preservation, exhibition, and derivative files might prove to be trickier and slower to adopt, since juggling different taxonomies and information structures can be cumbersome across collections, units, and staff. However, in being dedicated to storing, describing, and backing up these components on something other than their original carriers, a repository for these digital assets and their married documentation files (such as video walkthroughs, signal diagrams, artist interviews, etc.) will be instrumental in the continued exhibition of the work.

With these factors in mind, creating scalable procedures and fixity policies is a priority to the Smithsonian Institution collections. In being pan-institutional, the Smithsonian represents a myriad of collections, mission statements, and staff structures. Emerging as a source for digital media storage and access, the Digital Asset Management System (DAMS) team located within the Office of the Chief Information Officer has already begun ingesting a number of digital media art pieces. Additionally, the Smithsonian TMBA working group has worked diligently to collect interviews from external digital preservation and time-based media experts, while also producing internal case studies (most recently one produced by the American Art Museum on the artwork titled Cloud Music).

Along with Crystal Sanchez (DAMS Video Specialist) and the rest of the SI DAMS team, I am in the stages of developing a file format action plan specific to the TBMA collections across SI that includes steps for monitoring for both format and codec obsolescence. As we are still trying to grasp exactly what the units have collected, I’ve sought out similar resources seen in Lee Nilsson’s previous Signal post. However, time-based media art imposes a few additional questions, primarily dealing with the authenticity of a work and what an artist might deem permissible with regard to transcoding, migration, and emulation. Additional issues surrounding hardware and software rights and dependencies are at play as well, and they demand that the centralized repository be explicit about what it is willing to commit to storing and describing, and what is being left to the registrars and collection management systems.

IT staff, conservators, and curators within the various Smithsonian units oversee large collections, and they have expressed that their digital media art acquisitions are significantly more time and resource intensive. For this reason, Digital Art Packages (basically Archival Information Packages specific to digital art and tailored to each Smithsonian unit) are currently in development by the DAMS team, with participation from individuals across the working group. These packages will help designate the roles, steps, and checklists for each unit as it compiles all of the necessary components for each work. In return, the package stipulates audit measures to be carried out by the DAMS. Alongside helping advise on this project, I am also working to produce robust metadata models for web and video game-based works that represent networked and interactive behaviors, which drive what documentation is necessary for the work to remain operational both as it is maintained on exhibit, and following long-term storage.

All of this is to say that solutions for properly installing and storing digital media art depend on communication and participation across fields and staff. As previously mentioned, this kind of process is time and resource intensive, leading many institutions within the wider field of time-based media art conservation to consider and ultimately incorporate positions and conservation centers dedicated to carrying out the specific tasks related to TBMA handling and storage.

Finally, since we know artists will continue to produce pieces with unforeseen technologies and tools, we know that conservation, preservation, and installation practices will regularly be challenged. This fact requires that stewards learn to evolve and remain relevant with regard to their digital initiatives and strategies, while ideally implementing prescriptive measures capable of being reversed or altered through the lifecycle of the artwork.

For more information see my recent post to the Smithsonian Institution Archives’ The Bigger Picture Blog, and check for updates here.

The residents at their recent Emerging Trends in Digital Stewardship symposium at the National Library of Medicine. Photo by Dawn Aveline.
The residents at their recent Emerging Trends in Digital Stewardship symposium at the National Library of Medicine. Photo by Dawn Aveline.

National Digital Stewardship Residency News

  • Emily Reynolds at the World Bank has posted on her trip to the Code4lib conference.
  • Julia Blase at the National Security Archive and Lauren Work at PBS have posted on the Code4lib and Coalition for Networked Information conferences they attended.
  • Both Emily and Heidi Elaine Dowding put together a poster on the NDSR training model, which was presented at the Wayne State NDSA Student Chapter Conference.
  • Lastly, check out #ndsr14 for tweets on our Emerging Trends in Digital Stewardship symposium that took place on April 8th. An audio recording will be made available in the coming weeks.



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