Archiving Digital Media

Last month, I downloaded a trial version of the most recent Adobe After Effects, CS4, so that I could work on the titles for a short film project. A couple of days after my 30-day trial expired, a few adjustments had to be made. I have the previous version of After Effects, CS3, on my personal laptop, so I saved it on a flash drive and brought it home to make the changes. But when I tried to open the file, I was informed that it was not compatible with the program. What followed was a multiple-hour frenzy of finding another computer on which I could download another trial version (using an alternate e-mail address) so that I could open up the file, make the changes, and resave it. All for two lines! This got me thinking about the notion of backwards compatibility and of archiving digital/ new media artwork in general.

As artists, we are encouraged to use archival materials: ph neutral paper, reversible glues that won’t yellow over time, acrylics under oils. Yet, what happens when we choose to work in a medium whose materials are rapidly and perpetually changing?

One issue is how to store digital media. In 2007, DSG International and PC World announced that they would no longer stock the once ubiquitous floppy disks. Consumers now use cds, dvds, and flash drives to store and transport data. Indeed, computers today do not even have a place to insert a floppy.

For video, dvds have replaced VHS tapes, and now new technologies, like the Apple TV, may soon replace dvds. Ipods and MP3 players hold our music, which was previously held on cd’s, and before that, on cassette tapes. Even under optimal storage conditions, digital media is fragile. In fact, there is much debate over the life expectancy of dvds and cds; some estimates claim they will last for up to two-hundred years, but a researcher at IBM has said that most have an anticipated life expectancy of just two to five years, far less than the hundred-year standard that makes something archival. What’s more, the rapid updating of operating systems and programs renders much information that does survive obsolete.

And, presently, there’s no standard for preserving or archiving artwork that is created from digital media. This includes digital photos and prints, and the obvious solution there is to preserve the physical print. But, more complicated is what happens when the work in need of preservation is not printed, not physical, but was originally created and viewed using some new technology? Such work includes projections, art-project websites, multi-media time-based works, etc. How do we best preserve or archive an artwork created using a digital media?

So, archiving digital media is not simply problematic because the technology used to create the work is constantly being rendered obsolete, but also because the materials used to hold data integral to the work are not necessarily archival. In an effort to overcome both the ephemeral nature of the media and the problem of technological obsolescence, many archivists periodically refresh digital information; that is, they copy it onto a newer media. But this necessitates two things: that the information is independent of the software and hardware used to create it, and that the software and hardware used to create the work is still viable, or at the very least, that new software is backwards compatible with the original software. Migration, in which information is transferred but it’s formatting, etc are not always maintained (imagine what happens when you open a word document in text edit, for example), is even more problematic in terms of artwork, where the formatting of a work may be fundamental to the piece.

And, even if this constant resaving of digital information onto the newest technologies does work as a method of preservation, it’s incredibly time consuming and expensive. New media artists need a better way to document and preserve their works. Fortunately, there are myriad groups working on this: Jane Hunter and Sharmin Choudhury’s PANIC (Preservation and Archival of Newmedia and Interactive Collections) model aspires to be capable of preserving all forms of digital media, including composite, mixed-media digital objects, and even uses mixed-media digital art as its three major case studies; Richard Rinehart’s MANS (Media Art Notation System) uses a musical score as its conceptual model. Rinehart has created a standardized system for notating and reading digital media in the way that we notate and read music. It’s particularly interesting because such a system gives us the ability to recreate works without actually having to recreate them in a specific code or language.

Yet, even if MANS is the optimal model to archive digital and variable media, does it actually succeed in doing what conservators and archivists of more traditional media seek to do, which is to not simply document, but to preserve the artwork? Archiving is record keeping, and different methods (Refreshing, PANIC, MANS, our own memories) may be more accurate than others at correctly documenting what a work was like. This documentation may make it possible to recreate or reperform a work, but is that recreation also the artwork?

Certainly the creator system such as MANS that uses musical notation as its model likely thinks this is so. When we go to a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony we believe that we are experiencing the artwork and not just a documentation or copy of the artwork. The Philadelphia Philharmonic’s version of Beethoven’s Fifth is just as much the art as it was when Beethoven was alive to perform it on his piano or conduct an orchestra.

Precedent for a sort of archive as artwork also exists in the visual arts canon. Marcel’s Duchamp’s first readymade, Bicycle Wheel, consisted of two common objects: a bicycle wheel mounted upside down on a kitchen stool. The Museum of Modern Art houses a Bicycle Wheel, but it is DuChamp’s third version of the piece. The first two were lost. However, the museum states:

the fact that this version of the piece is not the original seems inconsequential, at least in terms of visual experience.

Indeed, more important was the fact that the items used to create Bicycle Wheel were mass produced, anonymous. Twelve Bicycle Wheels were created, four, and then an authorized edition of eight. The later versions, produced more than forty years after the first, look more modern because they used the contemporary, mass produced wheels and stools available at that time, following the spirit of the work. In this way, once could say that a digital artwork that looks different than it had originally because it’s utilizing updated technologies is still, in fact, the artwork.

Yet, more similar to the idea of an archiving model for digital media than instructions for making a physical work is an archive of another ephemeral media: performance art. In November of 2005, performance artist Marina Abramovic presented Seven Easy Pieces at the Guggenheim, in which she reenacted, with the artists’ permission, five famous performance pieces by other artists, and two of her own. Much of the concept of Seven Easy Pieces lies in the fact that performance is such an ephemeral medium, and documentation of these performances are few. In this way, Seven Easy Pieces is able to exist simultaneously as an archive and as an artwork, one that comments on the nature of performance art, documentation and archive. However, when the audience saw Abramovic reperform Bruce Nauman’s Body Pressure they were not seeing the artwork, Body Pressure. Instead they were seeing an archive of Body Pressure and a portion of an entirely new artwork, Seven Easy Pieces. It is my belief that at its best, an archive of digital media will do this as well: act as a record of a necessarily ephemeral medium and, while doing this, become an entirely new piece of art.

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1 Comment

Filed under Art

One response to “Archiving Digital Media

  1. Pete Ippel

    Well written Taq. I’m going to post a response on my site, I’ve had something in draft for a while…

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