[iDC] shelf life

Richard Rinehart rinehart at berkeley.edu
Mon Nov 19 21:05:05 UTC 2007

This is a timely discussion; thanks and please allow me to chime in.

First, I've been involved in some consortium projects that are all 
about preserving digital/media art, so let me refer you all to them 
for lots of info and research on the topic. The Variable Media 
Project of which I'm a parnter has already been cited, so please also 
see the "Archiving the Avant-Garde" project site for video of a 1-day 
symposium we had on this very topic at Berkeley (Bruce was among our 
speakers), as well as papers, etc:

<full-disclosure>I'm a self-avowed digital artist, but also curator 
of digital art in a museum context and teacher in an academic context 
and so my comments come from those perspectives</full-disclosure>

Below I just wanted to reply to some of the comments so far, in no 
particular order:

>axiom 3: ease of distribution is in inverse proportion to longevity
>(the spoken word is easiest, but lasts only the instant it is
>communicated; stone carvings last for millenia, but are difficult to
>lug around)

I don't know. I'd counter this statement with the following:

>Critical to the issue of shelf-life for digital works is the use of
>Free Software and Open File Formats.

But even open formats don't ensure immortality (SGML anyone?), but 
they do extend the time periods between necessary migrations and thus 
help. But it's really more the idea of openness and massive 
distribution and access that's important here. It's certainly true 
that someone needs to take responsibility for preserving our culture, 
in digital and other forms, and at this point in history, we're 
counting on the long-term social memory institutions to do that; 
museums, libraries, and archives. But I think one can have a hybrid 
model where digital culture is preserved both by stable institutions 
and simultaneously by unstable folkloric traditions. Kurt Bollacker 
of the Long Now Foundation refers to this as "moveage" a form of 
storage that requires keeping the data moving around, in circulation, 
OPEN. So, while Axiom 3 is true from a certain perspective, the 
fluidity of things like language and indeed digital media that can 
aid it it's longevity if we recognize the fluid nature and don't 
fixate on fixity.

For instance, instead of fighting the variability of the media as an 
obstacle to preservation, I think we need to embrace it; turn that 
obstacle into a strategy. I propose thinking of media works 
analogously to musical works; the hardware/instrumentation can change 
as long as the essential score is the same (see a full explication in 
a paper I published in Leonardo recently:

>Perhaps museums have to start considering also having hardware
>and software specialists with appropriate conservation skills? Will they do

Kinda. Museums are starting to wake up to the fact that digital art 
is obsolescing at a rate far beyond works on paper, photography, etc. 
and they need preserving now, not later. But since preservation is a 
practical as well as a theoretical problem, maintaining antique 
hardware is really not an option. It's just not feasible in the real 
world to keep a Mac SE in working condition for 200 years. 
Replacement parts will be unobtainable and refabrication is not 
possible within a museum/library (or probably other) context. 
Software is another matter, and emulation points in some interesting 
directions. But the bottom line is that museums need to create 
recipies for re-creating the work rather than preserving the machine 
or even fixating on the "one, true, original" machine, code, etc. 
Such recipies can be created upon collecting a work and in 
conversation with the artist if possible, since as someone mentioned, 
intentionality is important,  if not all-defining, in a work of art. 
With proper "scores" for media art, it can be re-performed into the 

>On the matter of "shelf-life" I tend to agree with Patrick, that artists
>bear a good deal of responsibility for the longevity new media work.

I think it's ideal to involve artists in both general preservation 
strategies (the consortium projects above do just that), and to 
involve them/us in the preservation of their own work, but I don't 
think that's the same as trying to prescribe that artists adhere to 
"preservation safe" practices, materials, formats, or anything of the 
sort. That would have been like telling Eva Hesse to work only in 
bronze and not her ephemeral, crumbling synthetic compounds. Artists 
should have the freedom to experiment with materials or to 
purposefully create works that are ephemeral. It's then a wonderful 
kind of dance with the social memory institutions that then try to 
preserve these works. They dance together, but no one leads.

Oh, and archiving should always be a future-oriented activity!

Anyway, I could on and on beyond anyone's patience, so I'll stop here. Thanks!

Richard Rinehart
Digital Media Director & Adjunct Curator
Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive
University of California, Berkeley
2625 Durant Ave.
Berkeley, CA, 94720-2250

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