Can Digital Art Last Forever?

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Image: View from the Window at Le Gras, 1826 or 1827, the earliest surviving camera photograph. By Ben Fino-Radin

Artists have always reached for the tools, materials, and technologies of their time. The 20th century in particular has witnessed the greatest explosion of new materials for artistic experimentation.

Celluloid, analog video, early mainframe computers, networks, robotics, the personal computer, the world wide web – you name it. Artists created works with these tools as soon as they could get their hands on them – be it by sneaking into a video post-production house after hours, or by private corporations sharing the wealth through artists residencies (for instance, Bell Labs). The year I am writing this, 2016, marks the 50th anniversary of Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT), a Robert Rauschenberg and Billy Kluver founded organization established to develop collaborations between artists and engineers.

Computer Music pioneer, Laurie Spiegel, in her studio. Photo credit: Enrico Ferorelli

While fifty years is young for an artistic medium, during that time, we have seen technologies come and go making artworks created with these tools and formats oftentimes inaccessible, obsolete and impossible to recover all with drastic stakes. We suddenly have an entire generation of artistic creation – cultural heritage and artifacts – that are at risk of simply disappearing. While all works of art can fall apart eventually if not cared for, even a sculpture made out of concrete, the materials of the 20th and 21st centuries do so at an alarming rate, and are at great risk of disappearing long before institutions deem it worthy of collecting and preserving (if ever).

Thankfully there is at least one preventative measure that can be employed: digitization. It is a well established fact that there are no analog media carriers that will last forever – by digitizing analog media, we can ensure that the contents can be losslessly preserved and migrated into the future. However, digital files can also fall apart – become corrupted, obsolete, lost, deleted. To combat that, an entire profession has evolved,  devoted solely to digital preservation. Museums, have experts (myself included) dedicated to preservation.

  • What does it mean to “preserve” something digital?
  • When you “preserve” a digital artwork, what are you actually preserving?

First and foremost, you are preserving the digital files (videos, sound files, still images, executable software) that make up the artwork and that are necessary to exhibit and/or view the artwork. These files contain the data: zeroes and ones that make up bits and bytes. Preserving these zeroes and ones perfectly (and being able to prove and demonstrate that one has done so) is paramount when talking about a work of art. No matter what storage medium these files are copied to, we must be able to prove that the same file, bit for bit, every zero and every one has been accounted for. This is how we can prove and validate the authenticity of digital art.

Preserving these bits and bytes however is just the first step – just because we have perfectly stored a file, doesn’t mean that in the future it will be understandable.  Therefore, we need to record data about the data – metadata - about what these files are, what they are supposed to look like, and what purpose they serve within the larger context of the artwork. For instance,  are these video files part of the artwork itself, and they meant to be projected in the gallery, or are they videos documenting the exhibition of the work? Without the preservation of this contextual information, the files are useless.  

Consulting artist Phil Sanders at the 2013 New Museum exhibition XFR STN. Photo courtesy Walter Forsberg

The last piece of the puzzle is storage - we need to put all of this information somewhere safe. Unfortunately digital storage is by its very nature fallible – just as there is no archival or permanent analog storage medium (safe for film, when properly cared for) – there is no permanent or archival form of digital storage. Thankfully we can design around this problem. First and foremost, we can build storage devices that have built in redundancy and safety measures, including the ability to identify problems. Secondly, we need to store multiple complete copies of all of this data and metadata in multiple locations. This protects us from natural disaster, or complete failure of the digital storage device.

In theory, all of these principles are quite simple. The problem is that in practice they are quite hard. People have limited time, money, and expertise, and unfortunately, uploading assets and artwork to a cloud storage platform meant for regular everyday use simply isn’t a viable digital art preservation plan. Most artists have a hard enough time finding creative headspace with everything they are already juggling: paying the bills, running their studio, getting ready for the next exhibition, seeing their friend’s shows. Worrying about digital storage, checksum algorithms, growth projections, format obsolescence, viruses, natural disasters is yet another challenge that very seldom addressed.

This is where Niio comes in. I am collaborating with the team to not only make digital preservation accessible, but to also make it affordable and sustainable. Not just to artists, but to all of the various stakeholders in the art world: galleries, private collectors, institutions, you name it.

[Note: This article is the first in a 5-part series of preservation.]

Read Our In Depth Q+A With Ben

Part 1: A Conversation With Ben Fino-Radin, Preservation Expert Part 2: A Conversation With Ben Fino-Radin, Preservation Expert

About Ben Fino-Radin

Ben is a NYC based media archaeologist, archivist and conservator of born-digital and computer based works of contemporary art. Until recently, he was the Associate Media Conservator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) where he developed strategies and policies that contributed to the preservation of the museum’s digital collections. Today, he is the founder of Small Data Industries,  a consultancy providing services to support the collection, exhibition, preservation, and storage of digital and time-based media art.  His clients include the Whitney Museum, The DIA Art Foundation, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the studios of Cory Arcangel.

Prior to MoMA, Ben worked as a Digital Conservator at Rhizome at the New Museum where he structured preservation and collecting practices for collections management, documentation, and preservation of born-digital works of art. As an Adjunct professor at NYU’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation (MIAP) program, Ben taught a course on Digital Literacy designed to equip first year graduate students with fundamental technical skills for careers in digital archives as well as Handling Complex Media, a course designed to give second year graduate students practical skills for the identification, risk assessment, preservation and treatment of creative works that employ complex and inherently unstable digital materials.

Research interests include: digital preservation, digital cultural heritage, web based creative communities, computer history, information architecture, metadata and animated gifs.

 

A Conversation With Kelani Nichole of Brooklyn's TRANSFER Gallery (Part 2)

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We are big fans of Brooklyn based TRANSFER. Gallery founder/director Kelani Nichole, started the exhibition space nearly four years ago in order to support and and cultivate artists with computer-based practices. Get to know Kelani: kelani-nichole-headshot

What are the biggest challenges you face dealing in a digital medium both as a gallerist and as a curator?

Technical details aside, I’d say the biggest challenge currently facing the market for media-based artworks is around preservation and documentation of the artists’ intent.  Much of the work I deal with is software-dependent, ephemeral, or online public artwork, so preserving the larger context and supporting platforms becomes the major consideration when appreciating these works.  Just as any traditional format of artwork, new forms of media require restoration and care, and have the added complexity of authentication.

What are the biggest challenges in collecting digital art?

Preservation and authentication are the two biggest challenges to growing a secondary market for these artworks.  Additionally, the body of criticism is still developing – the artworld is warming up to how to talk about these works, and successful institutional displays are somewhat few and far between.

I’m very keen to explore new methods of authentication. The current standard for authentication is a signed certificate, often accompanied by a digital still, editioned media storage device/object or other accompanying physical ephemera.  In the near future I believe digital transfer of ownership will become more prevalent, as new standards emerge. 

How do you think a platform like Niio will affect the medium of digital art?

I think Niio has solved some of the challenges related to displaying these works. I’m particularly interested in the workflows and collaboration points of the software between collectors, curators, galleries / institutions, agents and artists and believe a method of seamless exchange is an important step to making the work more accessible.  

You’ve said that this year all the shows you’re staging at TRANSFER feature only women artists.  Why is a series like that important to you?

I dedicated 2016 to showing new works from the studios of women, all of them experimental in their format and looking to test new ideas from the studio at TRANSFER.  Gender balance was a hot topic in the artworld last year, a group of women working with new forms of performance and media were featured in ‘Women on the Verge’ in artforum.  

This article crystallized a movement I had started to engage with during ‘gURLs’ a night of performance at TRANSFER  in 2013, and have been tracking ever since.  I found this article inspiring, and saw a timely opportunity to deepen my own understanding of the ways in which women are pushing into new forms of performance, installation and time-based media unlocking new opportunities for technology that are emotional and deeply human. Carla Gannis launched my 2016 program, introducing a new body of 4K video works of self portraiture, a continuation of a year-long performative drawing project.  Claudia Hart’s large-scale media installation was extended through the summer at TRANSFER.  Next I’ll launch Angela Washko’s first video game artwork in September, followed by a new body of work from Morehshin Allahyari in the fall.

Read Part 1 of our interview With Kelani.

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A Conversation With Ben Fino-Radin, Preservation Expert (Part 2)

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Ben is a NYC based media archaeologist, archivist and conservator of born-digital and computer based works of contemporary art. He is the Associate Media Conservator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). In this role, he develops strategies and policy that contribute to the preservation of the museum's digital collections.  He has also worked with the Whitney Museum, Cory Arcangel, JODI, Rhizome just to name a few. We are thrilled that Ben has joined us as an Advisor and is working with us on a key part of the Niio platform – – digital preservation.

What do you believe are the biggest misconceptions about digital / moving image art and what would you like people to understand?

The idea that digital means immaterial. So often I hear collectors and institutions describe digital artworks as being fundamentally ephemeral and immaterial. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Take for instance Andrew Blum’s book Tubes: a Journey to the Center of the Internet – Blum travels around the world tracing and documenting the immense and complex physical infrastructure of the internet. An earlier example of this kind of hacker tourism / documentation is Neal Stephenson’s 1996 piece for Wired Mother Earth Mother Board, where Stephenson documents the gritty blood, sweat, and tears involved in laying a transcontinental fiber optic cable.

This same brutally physical reality exists when considering the storage of digital files. Let’s say you had 100 reels of 35mm film prints, and you digitized and digitally restored them. Are these now immaterial?  You’ve now created roughly 206 TB of data. If you were going to stored these on LTO 6 tapes, they would take up 4,684 cubic feet, and would weigh a total of 37 Lbs (16.7) kg. If you stacked the tapes, they would be almost 6 feet tall. Is that immaterial? Absolutely not. Granted, the amount of physical space in the real world that a digital bit requires is very small – but it is still very much physical.

Do you see a time when digital art / time-based media is considered mainstream?

It is. I think we can all agree that MoMA is mainstream, no? The atrium at MoMA is most often the first gallery that visitors see when coming to the museum. Now, consider the kind of artworks that have been shown in this atrium – the most prominent space in the museum – in the last five years. I would estimate that 75% of the work has been at least partially time-based media.

How do you define mainstream? Will media art be mainstream when museums are selling Ryan Trecartin coffee mugs in museum gift shops? Is that something we even want?

What do you think about all the hype surrounding VR?  Do you think it’s a tool that artists and museums will eventually embrace?  

Artists of course started playing around with the various new VR platforms as soon as they could get their hands on them, and I think that the response on the part of museums has been rather rapid.  MoMA in fact has been including VR in its curatorial programming, and it is only logical to suppose that it is just a matter of time before a VR work is collected.

Personally I approach anything that is hyped as hard as VR with a great deal of skepticism, but having tried various examples, it is absolutely an incredibly rich area for artistic exploration. The sensation is rather astounding. 

As an artist yourself, what drew you to “digital” vs. a more traditional medium?  

I’ve always been the kind of person who likes to take things apart, figure out how they work, put them back together (or not), and make something from the parts. I think that anyone with this predisposition is naturally attracted to working with computers, and time-based media in general.

Many of the professors I met in art school had been heavily involved in the upstate New York video art scene of the 60s and 70s – and they had built our studios accordingly. I became very immersed in real-time video synthesis and processing – hacking, circuit bending, custom electronics, etc. I was lucky enough to have spent time at the Experimental Television Center in the early 2000s, before it’s closure in 2011. Throughout this time I was still drawing, making sculpture, prints, painting, everything really. I was fortunate to have a very interdisciplinary art school experience.

Niio Co-Founder in front of a work by Cory Arcangel in the Lisson Booth @ Frieze NYC.

What was the first piece of digital art you remember experiencing?

Either Paper Rad or Cory Arcangel

Who is doing really cutting edge work?

Tabor Robak continues to amaze

If you could own one piece of art, what would it be?

Any Ed Ruscha

Favorite museum (aside from MOMA)?

The New Museum is always a favorite for a weekend afternoon.

Favorite city for exploring art?

New York, naturally

 

Read Part 1 of our interview with Ben.

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About Ben Fino-Radin

Ben is a NYC based media archaeologist, archivist and conservator of born-digital and computer based works of contemporary art. He is the Associate Media Conservator at the world-renowned Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). In this role, he develops strategies and policy that contribute to the preservation of the museum's digital collections.

Prior to MoMA, Ben worked as a Digital Conservator at Rhizome at the New Museum where he structured preservation and collecting practices for collections management, documentation, and preservation of born-digital works of art. As an Adjunct professor at NYU's Moving Image Archiving and Preservation (MIAP) program, Ben taught a course on Digital Literacy designed to equip first year graduate students with fundamental technical skills for careers in digital archives as well as Handling Complex Media, a course designed to give second year graduate students practical skills for the identification, risk assessment, preservation and treatment of creative works that employ complex and inherently unstable digital materials.

Research interests include: digital preservation, digital cultural heritage, web based creative communities, computer history, information architecture, metadata and animated gifs.

A Conversation With Ben Fino-Radin, Preservation Expert (Part 1)

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PART 1 Ben is a NYC based media archaeologist, archivist and conservator of born-digital and computer based works of contemporary art. Currently, he is the Associate Media Conservator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). In this role, he develops strategies and policy that contribute to the preservation of the museum's digital collections.  He has also worked with the Whitney Museum, Cory Arcangel, JODI, Rhizome just to name a few.

We are thrilled that Ben has joined us as an Advisor and is working with us on a key part of  the Niio platform - - digital preservation. 

Ben Fino-Radin. Photo by @textfiles

What led to your interest in digital preservation?

Early in my graduate work, I learned about digital preservation. Until that time, I had never stopped to consider who was ensuring that contemporary (read: digital) cultural heritage would be around in 100 years.  At that moment,  it struck me as such an incredibly fascinating problem and I knew that I wanted to see how I could contribute to answering some of those questions.

Why do you think digital preservation is so important for artists, collectors and museums?

You cannot simply put something digital on a shelf and expect it to be readable in ten years. Lack of active and systematic stewardship equates to benign neglect.

Artists working with digital materials must actively consider preservation or run the risk of their work being inaccessible some day in the future when an interested collector comes knocking.

For museums or collectors it is a matter of responsibility both to the cultural record, and to one’s own financial investment. If you hold digital materials in your collection and you are not thinking carefully about digital preservation, the odds really are stacked against you.

What is the biggest misconception people have about digital preservation and what would you like for them to understand?

Many people think that if they are just one person or a small institution, that there is nothing they can do because digital preservation is expensive and complicated. While ensuring proper care and preservation of your important digital assets certainly isn’t free, there are many approaches one can take for varying levels of expertise and budget.

Facilitating digital preservation on  small budget, with limited expertise is just a matter of good systems design. Work with someone who  has experience devising actual solutions, and develop an immediate plan, and a five year plan for the preservation of your materials.

How do you think a platform like Niio will affect the medium of digital art  and its multiple entities (artists, galleries, museums, curators)? I think that Niio has a huge potential to offer to artists, galleries, and museums, in that it offers a turnkey solution for collections management, digital preservation, display, editioning, and distribution. I can confidently say that no other platform can even come close to making that claim.

Read Part 2 of our interview with Ben.

About Ben Fino-Radin

Ben is a NYC based media archaeologist, archivist and conservator of born-digital and computer based works of contemporary art. He is the Associate Media Conservator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). In this role, he develops strategies and policy that contribute to the preservation of the museum's digital collections.

Prior to MoMA, Ben worked as a Digital Conservator at Rhizome at the New Museum where he structured preservation and collecting practices for collections management, documentation, and preservation of born-digital works of art. As an Adjunct professor at NYU's Moving Image Archiving and Preservation (MIAP) program, Ben taught a course on Digital Literacy designed to equip first year graduate students with fundamental technical skills for careers in digital archives as well as Handling Complex Media, a course designed to give second year graduate students practical skills for the identification, risk assessment, preservation and treatment of creative works that employ complex and inherently unstable digital materials.

Research interests include: digital preservation, digital cultural heritage, web based creative communities, computer history, information architecture, metadata and animated gifs.