New media art preservation

New media art preservation

New media art preservation, a form of Art conservation, is the study and practice of techniques for sustaining artworks created using digital, biological, performative, and other variable media.

Artists' increased use of multi-media, digital, and internet media since the 1960s has called into question the conventional strategies by which society preserves, cares for, and redisplays cultural artifacts created with or on ephemera media formats. While the most obvious vulnerability of new media art is rapid technological obsolescence, the study of its other aspects that defy traditional conservation—including hybrid, contextual, or 'live' qualities—has provoked investigation into new strategies for preserving conceptual art, performance, installation art, video art, and even to a limited extent painting and sculpture.


Relationship to other preservation efforts

The catchall term sometimes applied to such genres, variable media, suggests that it is possible to recapture the experience of these works independently of the specific physical material and equipment used to display them in a given exhibition or performance. As the nature of multi-media artworks calls for the development of new standards, techniques, and metadata within preservation strategies, the idea that certain artworks incorporating an array of media elements could be variable opens up the possibility for experimental standards of preservation and reinterpretation.

Nevertheless, many new media preservationists work to integrate new preservation strategies with existing documentation techniques and metadata standards. This effort is made in order to remain compatible with previous frameworks and models on how to archive, store and maintain variable media objects in a standardized repository utilizing a systematized vocabulary, such as the Open Archival Information System model.

While some of this research parallels and exploits progress made in the practice of Digital preservation and Web archiving, the preservation of new media art offers special challenges and opportunities. Whereas scientific data and legal records may be easily migrated from one platform to another without losing their essential function, artworks are often sensitive to the look and feel of the media in which they are embedded. On the other hand, artists who are invited to help imagine a long-term plan for their work often respond with creative solutions.

Preservation strategies


The acquisition and storage of the physical media-equipment, such as DVD players or computers, used in multi-media or digital artworks has proven a short-term tactic at best, as hardware can quickly become obsolete or can ‘stale’ in storage. Storage is also notoriously bad at capturing the contextual and live aspects of works such as Internet art and performance art.

Variations on storage include:

  • Refreshing

The periodic transfer of an audiovisual or digital file from one cassette or disk to another device of identical format.

  • Restoration

The cleaning or repair of an existing artifact or file, especially when the new version supersedes or replaces the original.

  • Networked storage

The use of computers linked by a persistent data loop to keep critical files in circulation or as multiple copies cloned on multiple hard drives.


To migrate a work of art is to upgrade its format from an aged medium to a more current one, such as from VHS to DVD, accepting that some changes in quality may occur while still maintaining the integrity of the original. This strategy assumes that preserving the content or information of an artwork, despite its change in media, trumps concerns over fidelity to the original look and feel.


The process of simulating an older operating system (or by extension, other supporting infrastructure) on a newer software or hardware platform is called emulation. As in migration, the impetus behind emulation is to keep a work alive though its original media may become obsolete; unlike migration, however, emulation of computer-based art preserves the original code underlying the artwork. Emulation software is currently in various stages of development and efficiency.

Seeing Double: an emulation testbed

In 2004, the Guggenheim Museum, in conjunction with the Daniel Langlois Foundation, held an exhibition entitled Seeing Double: Emulation in Theory and Practice as a trial of emulation. In the exhibition, artworks operating on their original physical media were displayed alongside versions emulated on newer physical media. The exhibition was organized with the participation of computer researcher and emulation specialist, Jeff Rothenberg. In 1998, Rothenberg had published "Avoiding Technological Quicksand: Finding a Viable Technical Foundation for Digital Preservation".


The most powerful, but also most risky, preservation strategy for new media art is to reinterpret the work each time it is re-created. Reinterpretation may require rewriting code for a completely different platform, following site-specific instructions regarding installation, or recasting a work in a contemporary medium with the metaphoric value of an outdated medium. Reinterpretation is a dangerous technique when not warranted by the artist, but it may be the only way to re-create performed, installed, or networked art designed to vary with context.

Preservation tools

Variable Media Questionnaire

First developed in 2000 by Jon Ippolito, associate curator at the Guggenheim Museum, the Variable Media Questionnaire [1] is an interactive form linked to a larger database, which is designed to capture behavioral information about digital, performative, and other variable media artworks upon their acquisition by a museum. The goal is to specifically define ‘what it is’ and ‘what is needed’ when the museum is acquiring a work of this kind. The goal of the Questionnaire is to assist artists and museum professionals in understanding which attributes of an artwork may change and how best to make those changes when future re-creations necessitate them.

Based on the premise that some aspects of an artwork's logic or presentation can be considered independently from the physical context and equipment used to display that artwork, the Questionnaire captures information about the following behaviors or medium-independent aspects:

  • Contained

Covers glazing; coating; support/structure/mounting; frame; acceptable change in surface.

  • Installed

Covers space; boundary; access; lighting; sound; security; base/s; distribution of elements; display equipment for inert elements; architectural placement; equipment visibility.

  • Performed

Covers props; set; costumes; performers; number of performers; format of instructions; instructions apply to…; documentation of new performances; audience location; boundary; synchronization of performance.

  • Interactive

Covers user input; interaction mechanism; maintenance.

  • Reproduced

Covers relationship to artist master; location of master; status of master; acceptable fabricators and vendors; acceptable submasters or exhibition copy; permission to create submaster; fate of exhibition copy; permission to compress/digitize.

  • Duplicable

Covers inert material; physical attributes of inert material; authorized fabricators and vendors; materials duplicated according to…; electronic equipment and hardware; fate of exhibition copies.

  • Encoded

Covers screen resolution; color palette; external data source; fonts; source openness.

  • Networked

Covers exhibition context; external data sources; non-standard protocol; minimum bandwidth; network model.

Metadata standards

Media Art Notation System (MANS)

Developed by Richard Rinehart, Digital Media Director and Adjunct Curator, Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, MANS is described as a ‘formal notation system for media art’ that is in keeping with existing preservation frameworks and vocabularies currently being used to document and preserve other forms of art by museums.

Using the metaphor of the musical score, as a form of declarative and conceptual notation of music, Rinehart likens Media Art to musical compositions that are able to maintain their original integrity while being realized by different instruments or in different arrangements, over evolving time periods; in this sense, scores are considered to be inherently variable. In Rinehart’s view, Media art (in which logical information is considered separate from physical hardware) is able to be ‘scored’ based on the information acquired from a document like the Variable Media Questionnaire to be realized by different media-equipment.

Maintaining the notion of the musical score, the Media Art Notation System is derived as (and has as its underlying structure) an interpretation of computer programming languages, drawing primarily from Digital Item Declaration Language (DIDL), a type of Extensible Markup Language (XML) that allows for greater, more granular descriptions of a multi-component digital object. MANS has three layers; the conceptual model of documentation, the preferred expression format (vocabulary) for the model (the interpretation of DIDL XML) and, its top layer, the score, which serves as a record of the work that is database-processable.

It is hoped that by interweaving the ideas of a declarative language and a more procedural language, MANS is able to act as a backbone to the artwork by being specifically suggestive though not overly prescriptive of how to best delineate and then, later, reinterpret an artwork.

History of new media art preservation

Individual efforts

Numerous contemporary art conservators have contributed individual efforts toward new media art preservation:

  • Carol Stringari of the Guggenheim in New York

She took care of her collection with much care and effort which we now call it is beyond conservation. As a deputy director and chief conservator, she led her laser research of a monochromatic painting by Ad Reinhardt and project on conservation of the works of László Moholy-Nagy. She later won the CAA/Heritage Preservation Award for Distinction for Scholarship and Conservation for her work on Ad Reinhardt's technique.[1]

  • Pip Laurenson of the Tate Gallery in London

Pip Laurenson, the Head of Time-based media conservation at Tate, is currently working to achieve her PhD in the care and management of time-based media works of art at University College London.

Director of Collections & Conservation at SFMOMA, Sterret is now an avid collector and preserver of artworks made by contemporary artists. She also is committed to the vital collaborations between artists, curators, technical experts, registrars, and conservators that support contemporary art conservation practice.

Consortium efforts

The variable media concept was developed in 1998, first as a creative strategy Ippolito brought to the adversarial collaborations produced with artists Janet Cohen and Keith Frank, and later as a preservation strategy called the Variable Media Initiative that he applied to endangered artworks in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum's collection. In 2002 the Guggenheim partnered with the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science and Technology in Montreal to form the Variable Media Network, a concerted effort to develop a museum-standard, best practice for the collection and preservation of new media art. Apart from Stringari and Ippolito, other key members of the Variable Media Network included Alain Depocas, Director of the Centre for Research and Documentation, Daniel Langlois Foundation; and Caitlin Jones, former Daniel Langlois Variable Media Preservation Fellow at the Guggenheim Museum.

Around this time similar investigations into the preservation of digital/media art were being led on the West Coast by Richard Rinehart, Digital Media Director and Adjunct Curator of Digital Art at the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, who published an article on the subject, The Straw that Broke the Museum's Back? Collecting and Preserving Digitial/Media Art for the Next Century, in 2000. Rinehart had also established Conceptual & Intermedia Arts Online (CIAO) [2] with Franklin Furnace, the New York based performance art-grants giving organization and archive/advocate of performance, 'ephemeral' or non-traditional art under the directorship of Martha Wilson.

Members of the Variable Media Network and CIAO subsequently joined forces with other organizations, including, an affiliate of New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art, for collective preservation endeavors such as Archiving the Avant Garde [3]. This broader coalition, operating under the rubric Forging the Future, is managed by the Still Water lab at the University of Maine and offers free, open-source tools for new media preservation, including the 3rd-generation Variable Media Questionnaire.

In 2002, Timothy Murray founded The Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art. Named after the pioneering critic of the commercialization of mass media, the late Professor Rose Goldsen of Cornell University. The Archive hosts international art work produced on CD-Rom, DVD-Rom, video, digital interfaces, and the internet. Its collection of supporting materials includes unpublished manuscripts and designs, catalogues, monographs, and resource guides to new media art. The curatorial vision emphasizes digital interfaces and artistic experimentation by international, independent artists. Designed as an experimental center of research and creativity, the Goldsen Archive includes materials by individual artists and collaborates on conceptual experimentation and archival strategies with international curatorial and fellowship projects.

Other important initiatives include DOCAM, an international research alliance on the documentation and the conservation of the media arts heritage organized by the Daniel Langlois Foundation, and the International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art (INCCA), organized by the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage (ICN).


Further reading

External links

See also

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