A digital painting from artist run Paint FX tumblr
DIGITAL CONSERVATION AND THE VIRTUAL ART ARTEFACT
Originally an article written in 2013
An exponential growth in the public provision of digital and virtual storage in the last few decades alongside an up-scaling of connectivity and unceasing replacement of hardware and software has encouraged new zones of autonomy; feeding the development of alternative communities of artists, makers, uploaders and downloaders. This information-centric realm of virtuality poses problems for the traditional methods of conservation amidst such input and upload pollution the question becomes 'Can we retain any true form of a digital culture archive?' In 2009 Yahoo! Switched off the servers to GeoCities one of the most popular webhosting sites of the 90's before 'social media' hosting overtook GeoCities as a preferable and more suitable metaphor for our interactions over the web. This act reveals the salient tensions between the virtual and the physical environments; where the degradation of one affects the other. Jason Scott one the founders of the 'ArchiveTeam' speaking of closure of GeoCities stated, "[Yahoo!] found the way to destroy the most massive amount of history in the shortest amount of time with absolutely no recourse"
Institutions that are attempting to deal with the problem of digital conservation such as 'ArchiveTeam' and Rhizome's ARTBASE, when planning for a future further than 10 or 20 years, contend with very different problems to normal archives; the proliferation of computer formats and languages leaves the issue of encoding even if data itself is backed-up the code may become unreadable a few years or decades later. Steven Robertson's DRS (Digital Rosetta Stone) is one solution to this problem as he suggestions storing data with the information relevant to its encoding embedded within the actual data itself yet this suggests a constant translation leaving room for permutations to occur.
New media historian and curator Jon Ippolito suggests an approach of constant reinterpretation of digital artefacts, and more specifically digtal art works, using the example of Olia Lialina's regular reinvention of her 1996 art piece 'My Boyfriend Came Back From the War'.
Ruins by Olia Lialina screenshot from old Geocities site
The rate of technological and platform/software obsolescence creates easily identifiable era's of digital-history that pool and solidify, stratified and preserved to be uncovered via anarchaeological means; unlike other artefacts throughout history the virtual artefact may be frozen alongside its entire pre/post-history. This mutation of affect discards the static character of an artefact allowing it to own multiple points of departure, broadcasting as 'Gesamtkunstwerk' (total-artwork); a total system. Stano Filko and Alex Mlynárčik's HAPPSOC 1 (1965) states that all life in the city of Bratislava between the 2nd and 8th is a work of art, neatly encapsulating the mantra of systems-thinking the work as one seamless whole. Similarly Ken Goldberg's 'Telegarden' (1995) allowed users from the internet to remotely control a robotic arm situated in a circular patch of garden that was able to plant seeds, water plants and stream live video footage from the garden; an autonomy dependant upon a non-present public's communal participation in the upkeep of its physical garden. Both 'Telegarden' and 'HAPPSOC 1' act as a grouping of interactions made meaningful through their grouping yet Goldberg's Telegarden is actually able to deliver its metaphoric promise of totality.
Digital Conservation for the Virtual Art Artefact lies between total-memory (Total Recall) and complete reinterpretation. In 'Preservation in the Future Tense' Abbey Smith asserts “When all data is recorded as 0s and 1s, there is, essentially, no object that exists outside the act of retrieval.” This whole dynamic is parodied in 'Digital landfill 1.1' (1998), a website created by new media artist Mark Napier that accepts data from users which it then proposes to dispose of, yet the process is made to seam like a futile one; a compost heap of data unable to rot in the true sense of the word. An excavation of 1998 through the means of the internet, one thousand years in the future, might be more likely to find a perfectly intact document thrown into Mark Napiers 'Digital Landfill 1.1' than a GeoCities user account.