[iDC] shelf life

Annette Weintraub annette at annetteweintraub.com
Wed Nov 14 04:07:22 UTC 2007

Hello, everyone,

Trebor has kindly asked me to start a topic on 
the list.  I am interested in asking some 
questions about the longevity or 'shelf life' of 
new media art, as it affects individual studio 
practice, curation and archiving- particularly 
from the pov of the practitioner. The question of 
shelf life as it applies to the currency of ideas 
or movements or the historical record is 
tangential, but could play some  role in the 

First, let me introduce myself: I am an artist 
who began her career as a painter, and began 
working with digitally manipulated images in the 
late 80s; I started making web-based projects and 
video in the early 90s while continuing to make 
still images. I'm interested in the visual 
language of architecture and how the built 
environment and the intrusion of media in public 
space shape our psychological sense of place, and 
ultimately our behavior and perception.  I'm 
currently working on a series of still images 
based on 3D models that are hybrid 
representations of constructed urban space. I'm 
also working on a web project that reinterprets a 
series of texts on urbanism through changes of 
visual presentation. I am a professor at The City 
College of New York where I founded and teach in 
the BFA of Electronic Design and Multimedia, 
although I'm now taking a short turn as 
Department Chair.

I started thinking about shelf life some time ago 
when It became evident that if I was going to 
preserve some of my earlier web-based work, I 
would have to go back and 'update' it. I did 
this, but not without some small resentment, 
because I prefer spending time making new work as 
opposed to reworking the past, and also not 
without some uneasiness that at some future date 
I might have to do this all over again. (of 
course, one response might have been to leave 
things aloneŠ). I began to look at my video and 
print work with a different eye-it had an 
agreeable stability, the work was 'finished,' 
fixed in time, and aside from possible 
conservation issues had an independent existence 
in the world.

Art is not always about object-making, and 
perhaps for web-based work, non-objectification 
is an essential attribute which comes with a 
different expectation of the work's lifespan or 
perpetuation. That may be true of other kinds of 
new media practice as well. However I 
increasingly am getting the sense that many new 
media artists have a kind of retrofit fatigue 
that has little parallel in other kinds of 
artistic practice. There seems to be an odd 
paradox of 'long gestation, short lifespan' that 
seems very particular to new media.

Frequently, in conversations with students or 
peers, I've struggled to describe work created in 
a technological climate that no longer exists, or 
tried to give context to work that was created 
when some particular web mechanism spawned a run 
of very interesting projects that no longer work 
because the underlying browser technologies have 
changed. Not only is the work literally 
unavailable, but the creative climate in which it 
was created sometimes seems increasingly remote, 
even after just a few years.

Ephemerality in art is nothing new, but perhaps 
this is a different kind of transience than that 
of other modes of art that exist momentarily and 
then reside in memory or photo 
documentation-performance, conceptual art, body 
art, and site-specific work come to mind. The 
Kinetic Art of the 60s was more purely 
sculptural; although perhaps it can be better 
categorized just as sculpture that came with 
built-in, future mechanical problems. While 
performance or conceptual art can be spontaneous, 
gestural, open-ended and casual, that's often not 
the case of new media production. Many new media 
artists work on large-scale projects that involve 
a period of research into new technologies, 
prototyping, collaborations with others from 
other disciplines or other practices for which a 
long period of development is often the norm.

Mythically, art objects have been imagined [or 
hoped] to have a kind of eternal life. Barring 
physical destruction, but acknowledging cultural 
difference, contextual change, and continuous 
reinterpretation, the [traditional] art object 
has a kind of inner stability/integrity that 
defies time. This is often irrespective of 
judgments of quality or fashion, but something 
that resides in the object itself, an 
indissoluble lamination of medium and idea. The 
Tamayo painting that recently was found in the 
trash went through cycles of loss and discovery, 
but it remained recognizable as a painting, and 
even buried in trash was 'available' to be 

What do we claim for new media art? Do works 
expire when the technologies that are their 
raison d'être have become commonplace and are 
rendered invisible by change? Is there a quality 
of reduced shelf life in new media, in which 
technologies experimented with and then abandoned 
or surpassed go the way of Bruce Sterling's Dead 
Media Project? And if so, what does that mean for 
individual studio practice in this area?

I'm most curious to hear from those of you who 
have orphaned interactive projects,  web pieces 
that break in the current browsers and garages 
full of boxed-up installations that run on 
equipment that's no longer produced.

Annette Weintraub
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