Archiving Software Art

Preservation of Complex Objects Symposia

Software Art

11 – 12 October 2011, the Lighthouse, Glasgow

The event was presented in association with the University of Glasgow’s Humanities Advanced Technology & Information Institute

This event, which I attended on 11th October sought to share and extend the body of knowledge on the preservation of complex objects, in this case the archival of digital software art. POCOS define software art as:

… an active and growing genre of artistic development that has attracted significant interest from both the art world and cultural institutions. Software artworks have been commissioned and displayed in major museums across the globe, therefore emphasising on the need to curate, manage and preserve such material. Preservation of software-based art presents challenges in many fronts, including complex interdependencies between objects; time-based and interactive properties; and diversity in the technologies and practices used for development. [1]

Following from a definition of software art, conversation moved to the roots of new media and the computational theories of Allan Turing. It was argued that variability could be the source of it’s preservation. The first speaker, Richard Rinehart argued that preservation is better served if we consider the art to be ‘media independent.’ The function of the software art, not it’s form may be what we preserve. This is especially true if we consider some software arts antiquated variables no longer available: Operating system, storage medium, resolution, size and colour can not be exactly reproduced and archived as the technologies are no longer available. A purist perspective states that new and emerging works should have all the technological devices packaged with the art as an archive solution. Rinehart however states that archive and display of software art can use ‘variable’ as a solution: why package all associated technologies with the art object, when we can simply display a ‘version’ of the original art. This version could be emulation – the function of software art without the antiquated hardware.

However, I believe that with too much variability, a software work dissolves – variability has to be limited.

Too few variability means that the work lacks adaptability to new technologies – too much fixing – the artwork dies. In addition collecting authentic hardware to run the fixed artwork results in a denial of variability of computer art.

The archive solutions above do not acknowledge that the experimental use of digital technologies result in works that embrace analogue and physical spaces. Art that is networked, performed and distributed across mixes of virtual and physical do not subscribe to the notion of self-contained systems described above. Not only do these works challenge the traditional archival process, but redefine what constitutes an actual work of art: software art, and other digital art, challenge typical museological approaches to preservation precisely ‘because of their ephemeral, documentary, technical and multi-part nature.’[2] Moreover, early software artists, such as Jodi, Douglas Davis and Olia Lialina embraced the media in part due to their view of ‘commerce as irredeemable corruption.’[3] In their view, art was part of commerce, and their choice of, in this case internet art works resulted in nothing archival – which in turn means nothing that can be sold or used to make money (ironically the internet and web sites may represent globalization of capitalism).

For me the preservation of software art presents a bit of a dilemma. I very much welcome the appreciation of computer art in museums and galleries. Acceptance of the medium is long over due. In addition, the fact of the matter is such that public display in galleries and museums, high culture venues, will go a long way to authenticating the practice of computer art.

On the other hand, software art is momentary, ephemeral and traverses our notion of time and space. Some artists’ practices have been bourn from an anti-art, anti-commerce rational, and so perhaps, at the behest of the artists should not be preserved or archived. The solution then is the same formula for archiving many other diverse and rich artworks from the arena’s of performance, installation and participation – documentation!

[2] Perla Innocent, History of Art, University of Glasgow

[3] Rachel Green, Internet Art, 2004, Thames & Hudson, London, UK, p.31

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