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Preserving Digital and Software-Based Artworks: Recap of a NDSA Discussion

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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.

In response to a suggestion from our active membership, the NDSA Standards and Practices Working Group recently hosted a discussion about preserving digital and software-based artworks. Interestingly, the suggestion for this topic came not from a museum staffer but by Winston Atkins, Preservation Officer at Duke University Libraries. Complex materials like digital art works and other new media are increasingly part of collections outside of traditional museum environments and cultural heritage institutions, including libraries and archives, will see more and more of this type of content in their collections.

The Working Group invited experts from four collecting institutions to share their experiences in both preserving and providing access to these unique and challenging digital objects.

Madeleine (Mickey) Casad and Dianne Dietrich discussed the diverse holdings of The Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art, a research archive within the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections at Cornell University Library. The extensive core collection includes many complex interactive born digital artworks created on CD-ROM, DVD-ROM, video, digital interfaces, and the internet dating from early 1990s through the present. The complexity of these objects present a new set of challenges for preservation but especially in providing reliable access, which is part of the Goldsen Archive’s core mission. 

The receipt of a National Endowment for the Humanities grant (PDF) in 2013 allowed the Goldsen Archive to explore new preservation and access frameworks for these materials with a strong mandate to develop scalable and transferable workflows. These workflows need to practically acknowledge the limitations, such as financial and staffing constraints, that research libraries and other similar institutions face. Mandated within the grant is the need to document the work as much as possible so that the community as a whole can benefit. Outcomes should be transferable to other collections. One lesson learned is the need to work with artists as early as possible in the creative process.

To achieve their preservation and access goals, the Goldsen Archive is focusing on three technical challenges: developing workflows at scale for imaging discs, or copying the data off fragile optical media, using utilities such as IsoBuster and FTK Imager; investigating the use of emulation for multiple systems and platforms with an emphasis on documenting how a work performs in emulation; and defining the appropriate metadata for files that comprise the work, especially when the artwork involves various and outdated files systems. 

Photo courtesy of Time Based Media Art at the Smithsonian from the Report on the Status and Need for Technical Standards in the care of Time-Based Media and Digital Art

Isabel Meyer, Crystal Sanchez and National Digital Stewardship Resident Erica Titkemeyer discussed the digital asset management perspective of the Smithsonian’s Time Based Media Art initiative. TBMA is a pan-institutional Smithsonian initiative looking to develop long-term and comprehensive preservation strategies for time-based art, and to establish a set of best practices for the acquisition, documentation, installation, and display of time-based art. A significant contribution of the TBMA group is the Report on the Status and Need for Technical Standards in the care of Time-Based Media and Digital Art.  Some of well-known works in the Smithsonian collections include Doug Aiken’s Song1 from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and Lincoln Schatz’s The Cube from the National Portrait Gallery.

Working through the Smithsonian’s Office of the Chief Information Officer, the Digital Asset Management System team is working across the entire Smithsonian Institution to bring materials into the centralized DAMS and need to be accommodating to the diverse set of communities and collections under the Smithsonian umbrella. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution but rather an appreciation for tailored strategies and procedures. The Smithsonian DAMS runs in an OpenText Media Management 7.1 environment and currently holds about 422TB of content. With this system, each unit can define their own structures in a way that makes sense to them.

While the DAMS has separate metadata models for video, audio and images, the DAMS team recognized that none really addressed the specific needs of time-based media art. While they work to create an appropriate time-based media art metadata model, they use the video metadata model. One key feature of the DAMS is that each asset can be directly linked to any other ingested asset including other components of the artwork or related material like artists interviews.

Ben Fino-Radin and Kate Lewis discussed preserving digital artworks at the Museum of Modern Art which has a strong tradition in the conservation of software-based materials but not necessarily digital works of art.  A sampling of MoMA’s 30-odd piece collection of digital art includes Jonathan Harris and Sep Kanvar’s commissioned I Want You to Want Me and 33 Questions Per Minute by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. One example of the challenges in preserving these materials is Philip Worthington’s Shadow Monsters, in which the original hardware used was unstable so migrating the work to other resources is particularly challenging.  In addition to the design-based objects, MoMA is actively collecting video games such as Tetris which carry another unique set of preservation and access issues.  Video games are very complex, and museums have really only began to grapple with these issues in the last five years.

MoMA’s Media Conservation staff is hard at work focusing on documentation practices, including source code documentation, technical documentation of dependencies and qualitative documentation of significant properties. They are also formulating acquisition, exhibition and storage strategies.

<a href="">Matters in Media Art</a>, a collaborative project between the New Art Trust (NAT) and its partner museums – the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and Tate.
Matters in Media Art, a collaborative project between the New Art Trust (NAT) and its partner museums – the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and Tate.

Martina Haidvogl, Mark Hellar and Jill Sterrett discussed the activities at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. SFMOMA has consistently played a leading role in presenting, preserving and collecting media art since the 1970s. Its collection of appropriately 250 works comprises a range of media, including single and multichannel video, slides, film, software-based art and works of art on the web. In addition to the complex technical requirements, such as display parameters, artists’ intention is a major focus of all preservation decisions so the SFMOMA team highly engages with the artists throughout the process.

Over the past five years, SFMOMA has developed a thoughtful plan to preserve digital video, software and web-based art. A major driver was the official acquisition in 2008 of a series of commissioned web-based works that had been featured on the museum’s website during the late 1990s – early 2000s. This acquisition was intended as a strong statement that the institution was ready to take on the proper handling, maintenance and display of web-based art works. Working together with MoMA and the Tate Museum, SFMOMA participated in the Matters in Media Art collaboration which sought to develop shared sustainable practices for the care and preservation of time-based artworks. One of the works investigated is Agent Ruby by Lynn Hershman Leeson, a pioneer of media and conceptual art.  

SFMOMA draws a distinction between preservation approaches for video works and software-based art. In general, video objects are unchangeable after creation – they are more or less fixed. Software-based artworks on the other hand have more moving parts. The faster pace of software updates and changing platforms result in faster obsolescence and technical vulnerability.

The presentations generated significant interest among NDSA members and we will continue the discussion on the next Standards and Practices Working Group call in June.

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