JAIC 2003, Volume 42, Number 2, Article 10 (pp. 363 to 380)
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 2003, Volume 42, Number 2, Article 10 (pp. 363 to 380)




During the second half of the past century, some artists began creating works in electronic media. Conservators are now sharing concerns with librarians and archivists about how to preserve works made in these new formats, the technology of which continues to change rapidly. Discussions about the preservation of such artworks almost always focus on the predicted obsolescence of their components, including the recorded visual and audio elements and the hardware that allows them to produce their intended effects. Replacements for damaged components are also likely to become unavailable. Artists and collectors of electronic artworks have learned to start preparing for their inevitable treatment and re-treatment when they create or acquire them (Vitale 2001).

Ethical considerations (Brooks 1998) and general guidelines (Real 2001) for the care of such works have begun to be formulated. To reduce the burden of dealing with cycles of equipment obsolescence and the need to reformat (perhaps more than once) entire collections, it has been proposed that for video imagery a “preservation format must be universally recognized, promoted and adopted” (Messier 1998, 35).

Walter Henry's PowerPoint slide series for a course called “Digital Preservation for 121L” is available at Conservation OnLine (Henry 2000). One slide of this series is titled “What Makes Digital Preservation Different?” and it lists two characteristics: a work created in a digital medium will undergo “no benign neglect” (because that is impossible for such materials), yet it “requires perpetual maintenance.” Henry was asked if he thought that concerns about re-treatments might also apply to digital materials. “Sort of,” he replied. “Normally when you work with digital materials, you produce a new ‘object’ and the original object can exist side by side with it.” But it does not always happen this way. Henry said, “If someone does some image enhancement to a digital image, the ‘restorer’ might actually overwrite the original or might save a new copy of the enhanced version, creating two versions of the ‘same’ object. In a perfect world, this would be perfectly documented and both versions would be retained” (Henry 2002).

Regarding retreatment, Henry (2002) added, “If someone were to do an [additional] ‘enhancement’ they would normally work not from a previously enhanced version, but from the original master (after which there would now be three versions of the object).” One of the difficulties, he explained, is “the ease with which a digital thing can be presented as something it is not.” For instance, a viewer would have no way of knowing whether someone had changed the bits at a specific Internet address, or URL.

Conservator Michelle Barger at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art said in March 2002 that SFMoMA has owned works created in electronic formats for over two decades. As a part of the accession process for electronic media, attempts are made to understand the artists' intent in their work and to understand the essential elements in terms of what can and cannot be modified. In order for such works to be shown, she works with the artist to establish guidelines for “migrating” their works to another format when the original format or equipment becomes obsolete or unavailable. “As a good custodian, we have to keep up with the changes,” she said (2002).

Substituting damaged original television screens and other physical components with comparable but different ones causes an obvious visual change. Much more subtle changes, such as shifts in color, are caused when migrating a work from videotape (in which the image gradually degrades) to digital format (in which the image quality remains the same). Video artist Nam June Paik, during a 1995 interview in Germany, made these remarks about what happens when the work of early video artists is transformed into modern systems in order to make them last:

Of course, the best way is to put it into a digital disc, you can't die anymore. Then it is far stronger than a Rubens, they don't change, Rubens and Leonardo constantly change. Even old films change their color, but in a video recording system they can't change their color. But if you “improve” it this way, it becomes more Sony-like, that becomes stronger than you thought, that's the problem, and so many filmmakers don't like it, because they prefer a Renoir tone. (Herzogenrath et al. 1997, 104)

Some works will remain exhibitable only as long as their owners continue to allow them to be migrated. Thus re-treatments—as one might classify repeated migrations—are crucial for preserving electronic and digital art. So is documentation, for without a record of what has been done, one cannot be sure that a decades-old work of art shown today accurately reflects the artist's intent.

With conceptual art, however, whether or not it is electronic, the notion of preservation may be irrelevant. This is because each time that a conceptual artwork is exhibited (for example, a wall drawing by Sol Lewitt), it is created anew according to the artist's directives. In theory, at least, owners and conservators will never have to worry about which prior treatments to retain with this category of art.

Copyright 2003 American Institution for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works