Preservation of Digital Art Poses Challenges

An increasing number of artists are working with digital technologies and that's posing some new and especially difficult preservation problems for museums. One difficulty is what to do when a work of art needs to keep a hard drive running, or maintain an Internet connection.

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Your local art museum exists to show you art, of course, but also to preserve it. That means monitoring light and temperature in rooms filled with paintings, sculptures and photographs. But a growing number of contemporary artists are working with digital technologies, and that poses some new problems for museums.

NPR's Laura Sydell reports.

LAURA SYDELL: I'm in a lab at the engineering school at the University of California in Berkeley with artist Ken Goldberg, who is also a professor of industrial engineering here. Ken hits a switch to turn on a mechanical robot arm, the kind that are used in factory assembly lines.

(Soundbite of machine)

Professor KEN GOLDBERG (Industrial Engineering, University of California Berkeley): I'm sorry, I should never turned it on when you're in a workspace, because sometimes they activate and swing around. And people - one person has been killed by a robot.

SYDELL: Fortunately, that one person was not this reporter. Goldberg used this robot arm in an art piece he called "Ouija 2000." When it was first exhibited at the Berkeley Art Museum at University of California, visitors entered a tent, which looked a bit like the ones fortune tellers sat in in an early 20th century carnival. Inside was a computer, keyboard and mouse.

(Soundbite of music)

Prof. GOLDBERG: You are instructed to put your mouse and your mouse pad in front of the screen. Place your hands on your mouse.

SYDELL: On the screen is a Web site that looks like a yellowed wood Ouija board with letters, numbers and the words yes and no on the top two corners. The user is asked to concentrate on a question while their hands are on the mouse.

Prof. GOLDBERG: The microscopic movements of your hands are transmitted back to our server in the lab and that drives the robot arm.

SYDELL: The robot's movement drives an onscreen planchet to answer the question. But the person moving the mouse doesn't know if there are other people online and they don't know about the robot. It's the digital equivalent of Ouija board's mystery: You don't know who's driving the planchet.

Goldberg says the robot's meant to be a secret. So don't tell anyone. He says the piece is about getting people to question just how much they know about their encounters on the Internet.

Prof. GOLDBERG: So when you're experiencing on the Internet we're trying to raise a thread of doubt that whether or not what you're encountering is real.

SYDELL: "Ouija 2000," the robot arm, the Web site, the tent, the computer, is now owned by the Berkeley Art Museum. Richard Rinehart, the museum's director of digital media, says the piece is a good example of the challenges of preserving digital art.

Mr. RICHARD RINEHART (Director of Digital Media, Berkeley Art Museum): Because it's all driven by the computer industry and, you know, computer technology, which becomes obsolete, you know, roughly on an 18-month cycle.

SYDELL: However, Rinehart says the museum can update the programs for "Ouija 2000" or any other digital artwork.

Mr. RINEHART: So if we move a video from an artist from Quicktime 2.5 into MPEG 4, something in MPEG 4, yeah, encodes motion differently and they use the specific motion effect in the original. And when we move it over, we've changed the artwork.

SYDELL: In some ways, maintaining a digital artwork seems like it should be easier than preserving a painting, which can crack, chip and fade. Rudolf Frieling, the curator of media arts at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, opens a rectangular black box.

Mr. RUDOLF FRIELING (Curator of Media Arts, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art): Inside, it's just a memory stick and some instructions.

SYDELL: That memory stick contains a work of art by Anthony McCall called, "You and I, Horizontal." The instructions on the memory stick tell a digital projector to display a pair of 35-foot long light forms that appear three-dimensional. But who knows how long memory sticks will be au courant. So they have to back it up with another kind of technology.

Mr. FRIELING: Do you want to have a hard disk as a backup? Do you maybe also want to have film or a video play out?

SYDELL: But how long will those backups last before they're obsolete? Online art presents a different problem.

(Soundbite of wind blowing)

SYDELL: This is the audio of a piece called, "World of Awe," which is an online travelogue of a journey through a desert graveyard of old computers. "World of Awe" can be found right now on the SFMOMA Web site and there is no backup disk. Steve Dye is the exhibition's technical manager at MoMA.

Mr. STEVE DYE (Technical Manager, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art): If we have it always on, then immediately when there is an issue it's apparent. So it's sort of a very proactive way to maintain this work because it has a life of its own and it really is the piece only when it's there.

SYDELL: The downside is that the Web site must be constantly maintained. One advantage of contemporary artwork is that the artists are usually still alive. Pip Laurenson, the head of Time-Based Media Conservation at the Tate Modern Museum in London, says when they take work into the collection, artists and curators have long conversations.

For example, artist Angus Fairhurst felt he had to have old Sony Walkmans with cassettes for his piece to retain its meaning.

Ms. PIP LAURENSON (Time-Based Media Conservation, Tate Modern Museum): He really felt it was important that we kept the aspect of the technology as part of the piece. So that's our commitment. We spend time on eBay and we spend time with people in garages, keeping them running and we hoard all sorts of pieces.

SYDELL: Many institutions are now doing careful interviews with the artist when they buy work for the collection. The Berkeley Art Museum has a special list of questions for digital work. The result is a document that curator Rinehart compares to a musical score.

Mr. RINEHART: We know that it's variable. We know that it's going to change over time in the sense that we'll be using new hardware. But if we have something like a score that tells us what's important to preserve about a work, then we can make sure to focus on and preserve those important aspects.

SYDELL: This is an idea that many artists, including Ken Goldberg, like. Goldberg says too often museums don't really care what artists think.

Prof. GOLDBERG: The artist is kind of kept isolated, because the artist is meant to put this artwork out there and then stand back. And then it's taken over by the curators and the collectors and the critics.

SYDELL: And no matter how hard museums work to preserve art, some works are simply as ephemeral, says Tate conservator Laurenson.

Ms. LAURENSON: We do the best we can, and there will be times when we will lose important aspects of works of art.

SYDELL: And Laurenson says that is true of all works of art. She says paint colors fade, so do photographs, textiles decompose. All conservators can do is try to minimize the damage.

Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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