Rhizome’s Artbase: from user generated archive to curated archive

Rhizome-Espenschied

Great article by Dragan Espenschied who leads Rhizome’s digital conservation program. Well not really an article but as he says “a mixture of manuscript and transcript of my keynote/closing lecture at Digital Preservation 2014, July 23rd in Washington, DC, held by the Library of Congress.”

He poses the question how come the Artbase changed from its starting position in 1999 as a user generated archive to what it is today, a curated archive. This means Rhizome as an art institution frames the artworks in the artbase with introductions and categories, and I would like to add that it validates and ranks certain works above others by archiving and conserving some works.

Halfway through the transcript he says this:

A big part of my job at Rhizome is to figure out what interesting parts of this approach to conservation could be put into action as an institutional process, and trying to tap into resources that are more akin to oral history.

My perspective on digital art is really that this instability and variability is not a problem, it is just a thing that we have to deal with. We do not need to pin down artifacts into one single form, instead we need to conserve exactly these variable qualities.

On the other hand, things need to be in some kind of form, they need to exist on some banal level, in some “place,” and need to be referenceable. And then there is the sheer amount, the fact that every collection of digital culture is by definition too large for the institution that tries to handle it, because—it is digital culture. It would be injust to concentrate conservation efforts on a small selection of artifacts (like a museum), as this would fail to represent the fluidity of roles I mentioned earlier. And it is also not right to fall back to normalization and mass processing only (like a library), as this would fail to represent the wide, heterogeneous materials and processes. A position in between is needed.

I believe it is productive to move a bit towards trying to conserve the banal: standardized systems and environments that enable unique artifacts to perform and users to act. There is a way to do that with this catchily named Emulation as a Service project “bwFLA,” from the University of Freiburg in Germany. Rhizome is a research partner with them.

Espenschied then shows how this works: by recording the changes needed to set up a computer and its software to run the digital artwork that is to be conserved. He concludes:

Via the recording approach, an object boundary is defined just by looking at the activities. If I would want to conserve this artwork, I would just go through all of the menus, look at everything manually, and what ends up in the recording represents the artwork.

And so here, right at the end the main problem of digital entities pops up again. Dragan confuses what is conserving the artwork with what ‘represents the artwork’. The artwork is emulated, not conserved. The problem lies in the fact that digital entities are ambiguous and performative. The artist has to authorise what the artwork consists of, and how/what might remain.The digital files or programs? The digital files on a particular computer? The digital files on a particular computer, connected to the internet on a particular day?  The artist has to come to terms with the fact that there is a pay-off for working digital/ internet based. The digital nature of the work means it is very temporary, and conservation in this context means a remaking, adaptation, reusing, remixing etc. And then I have not even started mentioning hybrid art work that is located both online and onsite. How to deal with that in the future?

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