[iDC] shelf life

Richard Rinehart rinehart at berkeley.edu
Tue Nov 20 21:55:55 UTC 2007

Hey John,

As always, good interrogation. I have some replies below......

>The Variable Media Project has disappointed me because the originals 
>seemed so distant from the  re(presentation) as to seem entirely 
>distinct, thereby eliminating the very continuity that it ostensibly 
>sought to maintain. Now, if I catch your drift, I see that this 
>degree of re-invention may be intentional.

Which examples of works preserved or re-created through the Variable 
Media model have you seen? Perhaps I made it sound like there are a 
lot out there, but there aren't. There was the Seeing Double 
exhibition at the Guggenheim, but it really needs a lot more testing, 
for exactly this reason. And yes, some degree of re-interpretation is 
certainly required, the same as it's required of a conductor when 
leading a symphony in the (re)performance of a piece by Beethoven, or 
when a story is re-told again and again.

>>But I think one can have a hybrid model where digital culture is 
>>preserved both by stable institutions and simultaneously by 
>>unstable folkloric traditions.
>What we need is here is examples of creative cultures that have been 
>'preserved' by stable institutions while simultaneously remaining 
>relevant and vital within 'unstable folkloric traditions'. 
>Unfortunately these can be hard to find. What is Outsider Art at the 
>MOMA? Jazz at Lincoln Centre? What does Keith Haring's work 
>represent now that his designs adorn bedroom walls instead of 
>subways halls?

You are right; there aren't many examples of such hybrid 
preservation, but one might be video games that are preserved by a 
dedicated fan-base spread across the net and loosely self-organized 
(MAME, etc), but video games are also preserved in collections such 
as the Stanford Library 
And of course just because there aren't many examples doesn't mean we 
can't do it if we need to and want to.

>Museums are about art products not art processes, whereas folkloric 
>traditions are experiential and interpersonal by nature.

This barb is partly true, one has to admit a long-standing 
over-emphasis on the object within the modern tradition of museums. 
However, even this can change, and is changing as museums come to 
understand that they are about context every bit as much as objects 
and further upon the necessities of trying to preserve digital art 
(much less performance art, conceptual art, etc). But to say museums 
are not experiential is perhaps a bit much. After all, one 
experiences artworks, objects, installations, and the like, right? 
This is the whole idea behind a museum; instead of relying on 
second-hand telling/writing, one can directly experience the 
original. (one should note here that the over-emphasis of the object 
arose out of a desire to preserve and make continually available to 
the public *one* form of the "primary evidence" of our culture).

>the degree to which data transcends physical limitations is such 
>that the very notion of fixity, and history, as many of us have 
>noted, is undermined, and on some level even eradicated in the 
>virtual sphere.

Exactly. And that is why I propose that our approach to preservation 
of digital art cannot be one based on traditional museological 
fixation on fixity, but needs to adapt the variability of digital 
media into a strategy; turn it into a friend. The strange thing is 
that data never really transcends physical limitations, it just has a 
different relationship to them. Computation is never fixed to one 
physical instance (that's why we don't need to preserve the 
"original" Mac SE that the artist used), but computation does always 
need to take place physically (so we need *some* computer). So, the 
physical manifestation of <digital> data is one that is periodically 
and variably physical instead of continuously physical. The dance 
remains, as with human existence, between the logical and the 
physical, the spirit and the body.

>The question is, to what extent are fixity and fluidity compatible. 
>If we look in the world around us, I think we see that to some 
>extent they are compatible. We see that compatibility - that 
>biculturality - in ourselves, living as many of us do, for example, 
>on a day to day basis, in the realms of ephemeral orality and 
>literate shelf life, aware occasionally of the conflicts they 
>engender within us as we make choices between speaking and reading, 
>experience and artifact, fixity and fluidity.

Exactly, because fludity and fixity are not a polarized set of 
exclusive opposites; one always has both, each on a continuum of 
degree in relation to any one object or process. No form of social 
continuity would work without some fixity; if every single word and 
aspect of a story were changed, it would not be the same story upon 
re-telling; it would not continue. Same with music, with digital art. 
So, my proposal is just that, in relation to traditional methods of 
museological preservation, we decrease the level of fixity and 
increase the level of fluidity so that it more closely resembles the 
mixture of say, musical works. I use this form as an analogy of 
course, not a direct equivalent, but it's a good one because it's 
another art form that is able to survive despite the lower level of 
fixity. To my mind; fixity=integrity + fludity=longevity. Too much of 
one and the work ceases to be the work, too much of the other and the 
work will survive a very short time.

>I guess, having somewhat meanderingly tried to grapple with this 
>idea above, that in the end I disagree. Not just that this is really 
>fruitfully and integrally possible, but that it makes sense in the 
>digital context, where cutting and pasting and mashing and sampling 
>and updating - without reference to author or origin - is simply 
>what people do. Period. Pushing against that wave in the interest of 
>preservation of an original is, I believe, however valuable from our 
>archival literate perspective, destined to be a marginal activity, 
>relegated to the unappreciated fringe of post-literate artistic 
>And this isn't a manifesto. I'm not for or against this process. 
>It's just what I see happening. I'm less scared by it than most 
>people because i've devoted much of my life to learning oral 
>practices and I know what we have to gain, as well what we have to 
>lose, in the post-literate world.

I ended my paper on IP and digital art with a quote from you because 
you're so good with the visionary insights. But here it seems as 
though you're saying that museums have no role in digital art 
preservation because they emphasize fixity to much, there is no need 
for attribution or historical context in a remix culture anyway, 
and/or because they represent the higher power in a power imbalance 
between formal and informal social memory models.

I agree that we should really question the formal model of social 
memory and museums in particular. And one outcome of that may be to 
throw our arms in the air and say we can't work with museums or any 
formal model - that will not starve the formal model out of 
existence; rather it will just preserve the status quo.  Another 
outcome would be to say that museums and other formal models need to 
be continually re-visited and if needed, changed. Museums DO 
represent the higher power in some power imbalances, and we can 
change that equation. Change radically if need be. I still feel that 
preserving digital art is worthy (not as commodity, and not all of it 
- if some artists want to work ephemerally they should have that 
right, but we should not out of hand assign all digital artists to 
the "dustbin of history"). Further, there is a positive role that can 
be played by our culture's formal social memory 
mechanisms/institutions as well as the informal/folkloric.

That way have the possibility of preserving multiple voices, and 
multiple ways of remembering. Yes, this means changing the equation 
so that society doesn't privilege one at the total expense of the 
other. I have to admit that part of my concern for say preserving 
digital art is practical as much as theoretical, and I just can't put 
all my eggs in the one basket of informal/folkloric tradition. Kurt 
Bollacker also said that folkloric tradition in the digital era was 
the way to go, and that digital porn will certainly be preserved, in 
a distributed manner, for a long time. I agree, and I don't worry so 
much about very popular forms such as porn or games being preserved, 
but I do worry about the lesser-known, non-commidity, oddball, 
aesthetic, or critical elements of our culture being preserved so 
widely by themselves. Is that happening with digital art? Rhizome is 
doing an absolutely heroic effort with the ArtBase, but not many 
examples exist to prove that informal or formal is the better way to 
go. Better hedge our bets and utilize redundant strategies.

As for the fact that so many just "rip.mix.burn" without regard; 
fine! It's great for future researchers to have the "authorized" 
biography, a little rigor and context as well as the multiple 
"unauthorized biographies" that we all know are more fun and perhaps 
in some ways, more true.

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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