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Preservation and Security Challenges

19. Electronic Information and DigitizationPreservation and Security Challenges
Maxwell L. Anderson

Museum and library professionals have always assumed that preservation of the evidence of the past is their primary responsibility, but that long-held assumption is now being tested by the advent of digital media. This paper will consider obstacles and solutions ahead for administrators who seek to preserve intellectual property in digital form, with an emphasis on museums and libraries. The three main obstacles such administrators confront are: our instinctive devotion to preserving all artworks and intellectual property at any cost, the instability of a digital platform, and the fluid and seemingly infinite permutations of any digital experience.

Institutional fetishism is our first dilemma. Art has been at the core of human prehistory and history. But a heretical question is posed in the contemporary world: would we be better off now if it had been possible for the entire record of past creativity to have been preserved? The question is more urgent given today's creative explosion through the chip and the network, in an age in which every banal whispered sentiment or retinally scanned visual bitstream stands ready to be uploaded to a personal Web page, to float in an unfathomably vast ether of data. The curator's spirit of advocacy is the first problem we face, and the Solomonic decisions that await us are more complicated than ever because of the sheer volume of creativity to be charted in a digital world. Complicating the situation even further, this digital transformation is happening at a time when the relativistic fashions of the academy have made art historians and critics resistant to defining hierarchies of quality. Yet, taste and critical judgment to decide what will survive have never been more in demand.

Digital artists today work in a way that defies the conservator's impulse to protect. Possible permutations of the digital experience are so numerous that it is not feasible for any individual or group to determine which are the best suited to our attentions. Conservators need curators to define which are the works most deserving of perpetuation. The impulse of the day from the keyboard of the artist is not to be explicit about what is the preferred context of experiencing digital art; artists invoke instead a "do-it-yourself" spirit that reduces the authority of the artist and engages the participation of the broad public. Like many academics, the artists themselves eschew the role of arbiter of how their art is to be experienced. Neither do they look to curators to decide this question. Although the conservation of a screen capture is a complicated enterprise unto itself, the screen capture is hardly a compelling version of a work of Internet art, and it is often the interactivity of a Web site that gives the work meaning, rather than a series of static pages.

The core problem in this preservation dilemma remains the simple one of volume. Of all that is available, who is to decide what is worth preserving? Artists who use digital video and the Internet as their media are increasingly a self-reliant lot, for whom the museum is a curmudgeonly old-guard institution insisting on antiquated methods of display. The presentation of streaming video is not like the display of a painting. Here there is notionally no reason to make room for other works, because whereas a painting occupies space on a wall, in an altogether different way, streaming video occupies only a little memory on a server. Museums nevertheless would appear to be falling back on their familiar ways in filtering what experiences their on-site and online visitors are to have, instead of recognizing that the old models of eleven-week exhibitions in finite spaces do not have much to do with these new ways of making art.

Furthermore, the whole reason to choose among thousands of paintings for purchase and display in museums is to set a standard for appreciation, implicitly excluding those pictures that are felt to be second-tier. The museum must use limited financial resources for purchasing a finite number of works that will occupy limited gallery and storage space, be described in the limited space of analog publications, and attract a finite number of visitors. In the digital realm, however, there is no necessary limit on the number of works to be featured, displayed, published, or seen. The choices are limited instead only by the appetite and tastes of the consumer.

The extent to which the curator's palate is discerning is a huge problem. Without any practical reason to limit oneself to a finite number of works worth advocating, art historians in this new generation are in a double bind. Their Lacanian training has led them to resist categorization of works of art according to a presumed hierarchy of quality, which is also felt to be the domain of nineteenth-century colonial oppressors. Add to that the realization that there is no need to use quality as a shield from squandering limited resources, because the resources are notionally almost infinite, and conservators will be faced with the insurmountable challenge of possibly having to preserve every scrap of code made by every artist at work at a given time.

So what we must do, alas, is to introduce that tried-and true technique for winnowing: the marketplace. Once digital artists find themselves trying to sell their work by licensing finite versions of it, the familiar and inexorable forces of greed, acquisitiveness, and aesthetic judgment will again assert themselves, and we will no longer have the same problems of scale.

On the practical front, the second problem we face is that we have much to learn from art of the last century about the physical challenges of preserving art made with digital media. Beginning with artists who used collage, assemblage, found objects, industrial multiples, and Conceptual, Process, Performance, and Anti-Form techniques, the preservation of artistic intention may be as significant as—or even more significant than—the preservation of particular manifestations of that intention. We face a losing battle in attempting to conserve various perishable ingredients of artworks that were devised to explore alternatives to traditional craftsmanship or even to sabotage it. In such cases, it is important to document the intention of the artist through a direct exchange, with a series of questions answered. These include the artist's flexibility regarding transferring analog works to digital platforms. Artists' resistance, while understandable, may consign their works to a parallel track of public appreciation, because the equipment necessary to show films and recordings will eventually demand the specialization available only within institutions. It could be that these analog works will come to resemble texts written in an unfamiliar alphabet; we know they exist, but until they are converted into an alphabet with which we are familiar, they will not occupy much of our mental bandwidth.

The artist's flexibility toward experiential platforms is never guaranteed. Will a film from the 1970s, if transferred to DVD (digital videodisc), remain a work of art in the eyes of the artist or become a documentary equivalent lacking in its fullest experiential dimensions? Will a video from the 1980s if streamed through a Web site, lose its value as it loses the granular quality of its original presentation?

Much is being done to study how to preserve disk and tape-based memory. At present, although estimates vary, the contents of a CD-ROM (compact disc-read-only memory) are believed to be subject to corruption within ten years, and a 3.5-inch floppy disk can begin to deteriorate in eighteen months. The 1996 report of the Task Force on the Archiving of Digital Information proves that digital information, even in laboratory conditions, cannot remain stable forever. [1] Discs and tapes are perishable and, unlike their paper-based ancestors, do not give us much advance notice about the problem. Even films at least can begin to reek of vinegar to alert us that they are near their end. In a report dated January 1999, Jeff Rothenberg maintained that although we should always push forward with the most advanced hardware and software solutions, we should ensure that these new solutions do not make previous platforms obsolescent. [2] This of course flies in the face of a primary corporate strategy in a market economy, which is to force us to buy a new version of each hand-held device as often as possible.

On the third front-facing the Protean fluidity of the digital realm—we can be certain that art—making itself will change by virtue of digital media, and not simply in response to changing platforms. The individual artist may find herself or himself tempted to work in combination with other artists around the world, simply because art-making will not be isolated from other kinds of creative exercises on an instantaneous global network traveling through the air to receivers and transmitters that are hand-held, worn, or even implanted. Automatic gestures have been part of the history of art from Dada to Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism to scatter pieces. These represent, however, only early manifestations of what could become possible with countless participants free-associating through voice-recognition technology. We may face a diminished appreciation of originality as a value integral to making art and an enhanced appreciation of interactivity and participation. We may even come to disavow the "completed" artwork altogether, when a work's continuous refreshing becomes the artist's prerogative.

The conservation challenges presented by digital flexibility begin with the ease of change made possible by computer codes. When an artist paints a painting, she or he makes choices based on a strategy tied to materials. The size of a canvas, the method of building up a surface, the length of time during which paint is in a liquid state are but a few of the factors that are essentially inflexible. Once a path is chosen, the painter has fewer options than one might at first imagine. By contrast, the artist working with digital media can change his or her work at a whim and need never consider the work finished, as in the case of a Web page or a digital file. Some artists see their Web sites as iterative, ongoing works of art with no beginning and no end. And it will be up to those seeking to preserve the experiences as the artist provides them with a reasonable simulacrum of such a work as new platforms emerge.

For two decades, we have laughed off the profession of television repairman as a pre-information age relic, since all electronics are now disposable, with limited shelf lives, cheaper to replace than to repair. Suddenly we awaken from a market-induced slumber, as those fascinating junkyards of my youth, filled with the possibilities of new life breathed into dormant mechanical devices, may soon be treasure houses for museums, filled with priceless lost parts.

The disposable society we have created has changed over the last handful of years. Ersatz antiques distressed courtesy of Ralph Lauren were requisite in the 1980s. Today our disdain for the authentic but recent antique is suddenly being overturned, as retro fashions bring back 1950s kitchen furniture only recently deemed embarrassingly passé. Just like the earliest Sony Portapak cameras, the microprocessors that were home to the first Mosaic browser are now priceless vintage devices, and the earliest IBM personal computers stand to be reawakened after a RAM-envy induced slumber—that is, induced by the illusion of constantly growing capacities for storage in random-access memory, or RAM—of two decades.

Even with an ambitious effort to reanimate forgotten recording and projection equipment, we will have to make peace with the likelihood that the original character of a digital experience will never be recaptured in its entirety. Through meticulous conventional documentation by interviewing artists, we will have to accommodate ourselves to the emulation of experiential conditions instead of their replication. The tolerance of relative degrees of accuracy on the part of artists and experts will be tested as we make our way into the uncertain waters that lie ahead.

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   September 15, 2008
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