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Conservation – Restoration – Sustainability
Conference Report
The Digital Oblivion: Substance and Ethics in the Conservation of Digital Media Art
4-5 November 2010, ZKM | Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie Karlsruhe

On November 4th and 5th 2010, the Karlsruhe Centre for Art and Media Technology (ZKM | Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie) hosted the specialist conference “The Digital Oblivion: Substance and Ethics in the Conservation of Digital Media Art”, taking place as part of the broader EU research project digital art conservation. The conference, the first organised by the project, addressed the significance of the “digital revolution” for cultural identity and “cultural memory” (Jan Assman). It focussed in particular on the problem of preserving digital media art. A range of invited speakers addressed these questions on both a theoretical and practical level, in front of a plentiful international audience, who also contributed vigorously to discussion. On the afternoon of November 5th, ZKM technicians and curators presented four artworks from the Centre’s collection, concretely demonstrating the difficult decisions which memory “professionals” have to face on a daily basis, given the current rate of digital progress. Lectures were given in German, English and French, with simultaneous translation available between all three conference languages.

Peter Weibel opened the conference by making connections to ecology. Art made with new media was, he suggested, approaching a tipping point, the point of irreversible loss. The conference would contribute to working against this loss.

Bernhard Serexhe explained the objectives of the project – the analysis of the conditions under which digital media art was preserved in collections and museums. The “digital revolution” had, he noted, called into question the very survival of cultural memory, a fact closely connected to the IT industry’s promotion of high levels of consumption and its consequent opposition to secure, long-lasting storage systems. Solutions to this problem might be pursued through the question of the material versus the ideal substance of the work.

Edmond Couchot counterposed the concept of “chronic time” with that of “uchronic time”. The latter was shaped by simulations, eventualities and possibilities – it refers to a condition of permanent present-ness, free from delay, duration and action. Via the Internet, everyone can construct their own history, but these stories are not reproducible. Perhaps an archive functioning like an organic, living memory might serve as a medium to transmit these stories.

Siegfried Zielinski outlined how today we are witnessing both the spread of a flat time consciousness and also the emergence of archaeology as an important theme in public consciousness. “Archaeology is sexy” as it were. Digital technologies enabled the spread of “instant archaeology”, abolishing the present. Turning to questions of archives, Zielinski suggested that their role should be as living research sites, retaining an overview of culture. Decentralised archives without “claims to leadership” – which Zielinski termed “anarchives” – will have specific and highly varied uses.

Hans Belting argued that the concept of the digital archive was contradictory. Digital media, he suggested, are subject to rapid change and thus inherently unstable, with a large gap likely to open up between, on the one hand, vast quantities of data and, on the other, limited possibilities for their preservation. In this context, he also noted that non-Western cultures have different ideas of contemporaneity, with less contradictory relations to concepts of tradition. In conclusion, Belting presented an analysis of media art as a “hybrid of technology and concept”. When placed in a museum, old technologies merely gathered dust. Artworks, by contrast, aged in a different way, since they had never been useful in the same manner. Thus, the conservation of artworks must concentrate on their contents. With reference to early media art, it was not clear why it should be reproduced – unlike established art, it wanted to be fleeting and evanescent. “To capture and mount a butterfly is to take away its ability to fly.”

Ingrid Scheurmann explained that longevity was not a necessary condition for official status as a protected monument. The criteria for protected status were uniqueness, substance and identity and thus many heritage professionals were of the opinion that the original lost significance it if was heavily reconstructed. In general, this profession tended to focus on protecting the beautiful and the good – but who would preserve everything else? Heritage preservation liked to categorise its protected objects, selecting them according to criteria including national significance, symbolic value and the presence of historical traces. In the postmodern epoch, “aesthetics” and “home place” [Heimat] had been buzzwords of heritage preservation. Later, the documentation of historic upheavals had come to the fore. Society, she suggested, must constantly reassess the criteria for protected status.

Klaus Weschenfelder argued that museums replaced the authentic with the symbolic, suggesting that the material preservation of an object did not guarantee the transmission of its meaning. These days, there was what might be called a “bulimia” of collecting, in which an eye for the particular and the special is lost. Museums favour the accumulation of easy-to-maintain objects, with the result that non-specialist museums are less likely to collect media art than other forms. Analysing the terminology deployed in the art journal Kunstforum International, Weschenfelder showed how the concept of “net art” was markedly less used than “installation” and “video” and that discourse was still dominated by painting. The material preservation of cultural tradition only ever gave a partial and fragmentary reflection of cultural reality, a fact offering a certain justification for digital forgetting. Art’s thematisation of the ephemeral demanded a reassessment of the role of the museum as a place for collections of works. Finally, the desire for a systematic and representative collection, he suggested, contained a hidden desire for homogenisation.

Hans-Dieter Huber argued that the particular “presence” of artworks was due to their materiality. This presence is in turn the basis for aesthetic experience. As regards the relation of the original and its documentation, we must make a distinction between analogue and digital works. He listed various well-known strategies for the conservation of digital artworks – storage, emulation, migration, re-interpretation. Possibly, he went on, improved forms of description should replace the physical maintenance of the work, just as music is preserved through notation. This would have to be done in collaboration with the artist. Since the authenticity of the experience of the artwork depends on conditions prevailing at creation, and since these are unrepeatable, there in any case is no authenticity.

Alain Depocas explained that in a technical environment, works first of all have effects, but also have a mode of behaviour and additionally change over time. Some works are dynamic and generative. New kinds of documentation are needed, he suggested, which could be adequate to the high variability of technical objects and to their various modes of interaction. For the purpose of preservation, an artwork’s function should be described, but without too many unnecessary technical details, simply those required for its possible reconstruction. Depocas went on to list various research projects dealing with the documentation of media artworks, including “Capturing Unstable Media”, “Media Art Notation Systems”, “Inside Installations” and “Matters in Media Art”. Finally he introduced the question of whether visitor reactions should also be recorded.

Antoni Muntadas began his talk by observing that we should destroy more artworks. Not every artwork deserved to be maintained and some artworks, such as performances, do not have to be reproduced – it is enough that they are documented. Among numerous examples, he pointed to his work Between the Frames (1983-1993) – it was only the concept of this artwork that he gave to various curators to re-interpret. Only software was actually handed over; any remaining elements of an installation were manufactured or constructed on the spot. In each individual exhibition of the work, the artwork looked completely different, just as he, the artist, had intended. Ultimately, only the artist’s concept remains.

Herbert W. Franke read out a short story written specially for the symposium. The story thematised the question of “writing history for the future”, imagining a time in which humanity’s digital archives have been lost through a technical error. The past has to be reconstructed from memory, a process resulting in the retrospective reshaping of the past to suit the wishes of the politically powerful. Fortunately, having discovered this falsification of the writing of history, a young couple decides to fight back…

Rosina Gomez Baeza Tinturé gave an overview of the activity of the Laboral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial in Gijón, Spain, a place of exchange between artists, exhibitions and research. She pointed out that the conservation of media art is discussed almost exclusively in the form of case studies, rather than being approached through general strategies of conservation. But for most collections, strategic thinking is what is urgently needed, in order to clarify what precisely should be preserved. The question is particularly pressing in the case of performance, and where works are altered by the artists.

Peter Weibel discussed memory as a kind of storage capacity. The mummy was the first storage technology. Even Noah’s ark was a kind of storage medium, one with limited capacity and storage duration. Storage media ultimately serve as a kind of immortality; the 45 tonnes of material that Buckminster Fuller bequeathed for archiving could today be fitted onto a single USB stick. Humans die twice, once physically, once symbolically. Coins with imprinted images were not only a medium of memory, they also allowed power claims to be communicated over large distances. Storage capacity has exploded in relation to the quantities of data. The present is assaulting the rest of time, temporality itself is compromised by and within a culture of real time. Forgetting has already set in.

Daria Parkhomenko opened her lecture with a historical overview of Russian media art since the 1980s. Since perestroika, there have been a number of “new starts”. Post-perestroika, there was a development of art with a strong media element, anchored in cultural memory. However, what was not at that point present was the markedly technological approach which appeared in the 1990s, a development introduced and mediated by television and the club scene. Another new initiative was the establishment of institutions devoted entirely to contemporary art, like the NCCA, the National Centre for Contemporary Art. Parkhomenka also introduced the work of Laboratoria Art&Science Space in Moscow, an institution she had herself founded in 2008, which primarily addressed relations between art and science. The process of exchange, she suggested, is sometimes more important than the result, and documentation of just this kind of process is a key question for preservation and conservation.

Johannes Gfeller moderated the closing discussion with Hans Belting, Christoph Blase, Renate Buschmann, Rosina Gomez-Baeza Tinturé and Siegfried Zielinski. He noted that many categories of time had been introduced in the course of the conference. Peter Weibel had spoken of the assault of storage space on storage time and Edmond Couchot had introduced the notion of uchronic time. Presenting his own reflections on space and media art, he noted that electric space had existed since the 1960s, electronic space since the 1960s, digital space from the mid-1980s on, and since the mid-1990s, cyberspace. This space lies outside classical conceptions of time. Is cyberspace situated in non-time or in an infinitely extended now-time? Hans Belting questioned whether traditional modes of documentation were appropriate for media art, since the latter could not be located in empirical time. Christoph Blase argued that much useful knowledge could be gained from the “recomputing” and “gaming” communities. Renate Buschmann pointed out that with the passage of time, simply mastering the necessary knowledge took more and more effort. On the question of whether industry’s point of view might be of interest, Johannes Gfeller observed that industry has no interest in history: the museum remains the most reliable actor in terms of the preservation of art.

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