The Boston Globe had a wonderful little article in their Ideas section today, "How Digital Art Decays." Simon Waxman describes how a graduate student, Matthew Epler, at Interactive Telecommunications Program in New York stumbled on the archives full of digital art projects dating back to the 1970's. Digital art from that period would have been programmed on punch cards, using programs and operating systems that are no longer in use. Epler asked Rhizome, a New York organization dedicated to creation and preservation of art based in technology for help. Together, they created a crowd-source project to bring these archived art projects into the current digital technology, and preserve them. The project is called the Recode Project.
The Globe article goes on to explain examples of the problems faced by curators of digital art. Librarians are all familiar with the problems of software moving on, leaving materials "beached" in the older formats. But art conservators have multi-dimensional issues beyond simply getting the programs to run.
How would the program run without its original operating system, which couldn’t easily be emulated on modern hardware? Could the code be preserved while eliminating bugs that caused the original system to crash? How much original equipment needed to be used? The artists felt that the new exhibit ran too fast to accurately re-create the original experience, so it had to be slowed down. On the other hand, they were willing to replace the original touchscreen with an up-to-date equivalent. In short, the dilemmas involved in re-creating “The Erl King” forced conservators to decide what was art and what was expendable. [Ben] Fino-Radin [digital conservator at Rhizome] sums up the metaphysical predicament: “When you have a sculpture or painting, it’s very clear what the work actually is,” he says. But when you’re dealing with digital media, “separating what is the actual artwork from the technology that supports it can be a challenging thing.”I was fascinated by the issues that the art conservators faced with this project. It was a fun read and very interesting. It makes the problems of dealing with out-moded CD-Roms and discs seem much simpler and more mundane.
The image decorating this post is Mandarin Ducks I, by Matsuko Sasaki, one of the many striking works that can be found at the Recode Project.