How can digital art created on obsolete platforms be preserved?

As the lines between art and technology continue to blur, digital art experiences become more commonplace. Already, you can visit a virtual reality museum or display artwork on a digital display that looks incredibly like a real canvas. But all these developments are raising an important question for art conservationists: How should digital artworks be preserved?

It might seem like digital artworks are some of the easiest to preserve — after all they can be copied an infinite number of times and will not suffer degradation from environmental factors which affect physical art such as temperature and humidity. But in fact digital works can be remarkably fragile because they usually depend on a specific set of software and hardware in order to be displayed as the artist envisioned. When operating systems change and software updates, it becomes much harder to preserve digital artworks — not to mention the challenge of working with obsolete hardware such as floppy disks.

To address this issue, the Guggenheim Museum and New York University have established a joint project to preserve key digital artworks. “As part of conserving contemporary art, conservators are faced with new challenges as artists use current technology as media for their artworks,” Deena Engel, a member of the project and professor of computer science at New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, said in a statement. “If you think of a word processing document that you wrote 10 years ago, can you still open it and read or print it? Software-based art can be very complex.”

The works covered by this project include those such as Shu Lea Cheang’s Brandon (1998-99), Mark Napier’s net.flag (2002), and John F. Simon Jr.’s Unfolding Object (2002), all of which were originally released online. These online works have interactive elements such as the ability to manipulate the colors and shapes of the flag in net.flag, making it part of a movement called “networked art.” Eventually, once restoration is complete these works will be made available on the Guggenheim’s website. Brandon was restored between 2016 and 2017 and is available to view on moderns browsers on its own site.

Restoration sounds like an odd word to use for digital art, but the process of conservation for digital works is surprisingly similar to physical works. “The principles of art conservation for traditional works of art can be applied to decision-making in conservation of software- and computer-based works of art with respect to programming language selection, programming techniques, documentation, and other aspects of software remediation during restoration,” Engel explains. “For example, if we migrate a work of software-based art from an obsolete programming environment to a current one, our selection and programming decisions in the new programming language and environment are informed in part by evaluating the artistic goals of the medium first used.”

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