When Artworks Crash
January 19, 2014 10:03 AM   Subscribe

In 1994, Douglas Davis [personal blog] created The World's First Collaborative Sentence. Last summer, The Whitney Museum faced a new challenge: what happens to digital art when the technology becomes obsolete?

Rhizome: Restoring 'The World's First Collaborative Sentence'
On Monday, the New York Times ran an article describing the Whitney Museum's restoration of an early online artwork by Douglas Davis, The World’s First Collaborative Sentence (1994).

Many of the comments posted to the article offered sage advice for the conservation team, free of charge. According to Francesco of New York, “it was probably build in java or php and they need to update the server.” VJBortolot of Guildford, CT, expressed surprise “that the Whitney didn't … use an legacy browser … and run it in a Win95 environment on a vintage computer.” E.W. Chesterton of Palm Beach simply wrote, “Oh please! It’s html!”

Expert diagnoses notwithstanding, it’s well worth delving a bit further into some of the complex issues that emerged during the Davis restoration.
e-conservation magazine: The Challenges of Digital Art Preservation

net-art.org on digital conservation
the beginner's guide to researching internet art
digital art conservation
posted by the man of twists and turns (31 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Paintings fade; sculptures chip. Art restorers have long known how to repair those material flaws, so the experience of looking at a Vermeer or a Rodin remains basically unchanged over time.

Er, no. I don't think that's true at all.

Other than that, this is a fascinating subject.
posted by chavenet at 11:05 AM on January 19, 2014

Peter Gabriel's Real World CD ROM "Ceremony of Innocence" is like a dream for me, just out of reach. I absolutely loved it back in 1997, but now it's nothing more than a disc in a jewel case, unable to run on modern computers. I miss it.
posted by davebush at 11:06 AM on January 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have more than a few of those myself, davebush. I have no idea if The Madness Of Roland will run on my Mac today or not. And Shuteye Town, 1999 is entirely closed off to me. And The Cynic's Tarot, also.
posted by hippybear at 11:16 AM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

from the "what happens to digital art when the technology becomes obsolete?" link ...

The Whitney considered several options. One was to simply let technological extinction take its course, and view Web-based art as “ephemeral, like a performance,” Ms. Paul said.

I can't help but think that this is the most rational conclusion. Sad but true.
posted by philip-random at 11:18 AM on January 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

There is an old hacker aphorism, "there are only two types of computer systems, experimental or obsolete." Any computer system you can use is obsolete, the experimental stuff is still being developed.

If you want a system to survive long term, you have to acknowledge that it is obsolete the moment it goes live. To preserve obsolete systems, you must preserve the original environment. You can't play back Edison phonograph cylinders on an iPod, you have to use an antique Edison phonograph. But usually, analog devices are easier to preserve than complex computer environments.

The solution is sometimes called "pickling." You "pickle" a hardware/software system as it exists when the product is live and operational. You package the work into one operational, storable system. You unplug the system and store it in a controlled environment where it is unlikely to deteriorate through aging. And then you hope that it runs if you ever fire it up again.

Of course this doesn't preserve any aspects of a work that rely on live interaction via a network. This means the work is essentially a work of Performance Art. It cannot live outside its original performance. Many Performance Artists produce documentation of the performance, since the performance cannot be preserved. This requires the artist to acknowledge the ephemeral existence of the artwork.

Apparently these works that need "restoration" were created under the naive belief that the state of the art would always allow these systems to stay operational. Let's call it a time-based variant of the ridiculous "write once, run anywhere" concept, write once, run any time in the future. Artists should know better, since the art world has hundreds of years of experience dealing with deteriorating artworks. Sometimes you can keep the legacy systems running (as is evident from the company I work with, that uses an antique server with a 1994 version of Solaris, for daily production work) but this is not a good long-term bet.

The art history world is largely a product of what works have survived, mostly by the quirk of fate that they were never destroyed in a fire, earthquake, etc. AND did not self-desctruct because they were built from non-archival materials. No amount of conservation efforts will preserve a work that is built from decaying materials. Let them rot and die. These works cannot be preserved, save your effort for works that can be preserved. Take a snapshot that is representative of the work, print it, give it a caption that describes it, and throw it in a vault where it is likely that even the most devoted art historians will never look at it again.
posted by charlie don't surf at 11:22 AM on January 19, 2014 [8 favorites]

Great set of links!

I heard Grahame Weinbren speak on this topic around the time he and the Guggenheim were grappling with restoring his The Erl King LaserDisc-based film project. It's a really thorny problem! Fortunately the Daniel Langlois Foundation is supporting some of the research to help untangle this mess (or these messes).
posted by cleroy at 11:26 AM on January 19, 2014

MOMA owns a bunch of Bondi Blue iMacs so they can keep their vintage John Maeda Shockwave running; who knows how long those will last. Cooper-Hewitt recently acquired Planetary along with the complete Github repository with tickets and comments. Source code feels like an absolute must.
posted by migurski at 11:26 AM on January 19, 2014

Somewhat related, I'm immensely grateful to the game emulation scene for preserving old video games. You can play pretty much any arcade or home console videogame made before, oh, 2007 on your PC. From the original ROM, thanks to the ROM pirates, and in a more or less faithful emulation thanks to the heroic efforts of folks writing emulators for weird undocumented hardware. It's a form of "pickling", to use the term above, and of course doesn't work as well for networked games. But it's a lot better than nothing.
posted by Nelson at 11:27 AM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

This certainly dovetails with the recent announcement that Paramount will be the first major studio to completely switch to digital distribution.

Motion pictures are distributed with some of the most restrictive encryption and DRM around. Unless some allowance is made for future use, a lot of the future of motion pictures might very well be lost because no one can get past the security.
In addition, of course, to the fact that digital is not long-term archival.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:38 AM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Why not look at it in the same way we look at land art?

Especially in the case of online art, where it's possible to think of the piece as "installed" in the landscape of the internet. Once the internet has shifted to the point that the installation has eroded away, well, that's part of the point of the art.
posted by Sara C. at 11:38 AM on January 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

A few years ago, when I was in grad school, I took a class on digital preservation. The class consisted of one task.

Norman Mailer's family had left all of his materials to the Ransom Center at UT. This included notes kept by his secretary. The three people in my group received some of her work: a box full of zip and jaz disks and two ancient laptops. She was a heavy smoker and the laptops were literally coated in nicotine.

Our task was to get the notes off of the disks and laptops without changing the contents of disks and drives. This meant that we spent the first four months of the class trying to figure out if this was possible: we spent a heck of a lot of time researching whether anybody else had done it (the answer being sort of) and then a fair amount of time finding equipment that could play nice with what we had to work with (including a couple of zip and jaz drives.)

After doing extensive testing using junk that we created, we spent the last two weeks of class trying to get the information off of the media. We were successful, but what we ended up with was converted into something that wasn't human-readable: that was the assignment for the next semester's class, which I didn't take.

The whole thing was way, way above my paygrade. During the whole thing I thought it was a bad idea to put any of that responsibility in my hands. Fortunately I had some very good class-mates that kept us from screwing anything up too badly.
posted by nushustu at 11:57 AM on January 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

I myself shudder to consider that Howie Mandel's Tuneland will one day stop singing forever.
posted by The Confessor at 12:29 PM on January 19, 2014

CTL Electronics, just around the corner from here in NYC, restores and maintains outdated video art installations.

I knew a guy in the East Village that acquired a light-bulb making factory machine, and he could do custom replacements for the obsolete little bulbs in artworks like Joseph Cornell's boxes.
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:43 PM on January 19, 2014 [5 favorites]

Oh, wow, does this bring back memories. I used to do website-related work for Douglas Davis back in the day, and still have lots of his digital art projects and such backed up on an old hard drive somewhere. I'll never forget the 4-foot-tall breast in the hallway of his studio on Wooster Street.
posted by greatgefilte at 2:19 PM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

In the electronic music world, the Pd Repertory Project seeks to make portable digital versions of classic live electronic works, using an open source program that is ported to new operating systems and hardware.
posted by idiopath at 2:27 PM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

There's a publication by the Guggenheim that's (wow) 10 years old now, but I still like to re-read on occasion to refresh my views on "preserving" art: Permanence Through Change: The Variable Media Approach
posted by estherbester at 2:54 PM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I keep saying that I'm going to learn Csound if it kills me (and it might, because it's complicated as a motherfucker and not remotely tactile/visceral), largely because the music I make is all locked to the machines with which I make it, and some of the best of them are destined to die as soon as their custom chips and the machines needed to work with them die.

Everything you do that's digital is ephemeral, just a live show that lasts as long as it can, though working from a de facto lingua franca may stave off obsolescence long enough for people to learn that a lingua franca is absolutely essential if we want these things to be something other than sparks dancing in a campfire, disappearing into the blue-black sky.
posted by sonascope at 4:19 PM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

sonascope: csound is indeed a lingua franca.

Csound can express many complexities more clearly than pd can, though it is less intuitive for the simple cases. Compare using a pictoral menu to order your food in a foreign country (yay, visual representation, low learning curve) to trying to describe your dietary restrictions with pictures (probably going to get confusing for everybody, better to just learn the phrases).

There is probably a convincing argument for punch cards and punch card hoppers. It seems extremely silly at first, but we have no digital archival method that is durable and clear as paper is, and we have pre-existing technology for reading it quickly into a computer.
posted by idiopath at 4:43 PM on January 19, 2014

but we have no digital archival method that is durable and clear as paper is,

... or (in terms of recorded sound) the well-manufactured vinyl record.

I remember very early in the days of all-things-digital a geek friend saying, "You know, a vinyl record, stored properly on a shelf, upright, in a cool dry place, is going to last longer than anything else you could buy."

We seem to still be there and I'm not convinced that's a bad thing.
posted by philip-random at 5:06 PM on January 19, 2014

Even for audio, while it takes up much more space, punch card format would be more durable and more accurate than vinyl.
posted by idiopath at 6:19 PM on January 19, 2014

Some time ago I wrote a diatribe arguing for the benefits of free software and emulation in the conservation of software art. The full article can be downloaded here: Notes for the sustainability of software artifacts.

Thank you, the man of twists and turns, and also everybody else who's posted more information. I love Metafilter.
posted by kandinski at 8:46 PM on January 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

This is a huge issue for libraries and archives as well, particularly for research libraries (academic as well as state/federal government libraries such as the British Library; Library of Congress; and National and State Libraries Australasia, to name a few). Libraries like these have to cope with everything from ageing CD-ROMs with obsolete programs that contain content that exists nowhere else to newsletters and government publications that are only produced electronically to websites that contain valuable information for their collection/user groups and run the risk of obsolescence. And yes, donations that can range from collections of discs that there are no machines to run to dying or dead laptops that need resuscitation before the content can be accessed. Not to mention artworks, since many collections also include those.

It really makes you understand the appeal of works on paper (or canvas or glass negatives). Low tech from hundreds of years ago is still perfectly accessible, while some "high" tech from even 10-15 years ago is essentially unusable.

(Disclaimer: yes, I work for one of those aforementioned research libraries.)
posted by Athanassiel at 9:37 PM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's a form of "pickling", to use the term above, and of course doesn't work as well for networked games. But it's a lot better than nothing.

I think the networking issue will solve itself in time. Before, everyone had their own networking protocol, now, everyone's using TCP/IP. Finally, of course, there's the bog-standard answer to this class of problem -- encapsulate in TCP or Ethernet Frames, reconstruct at the other end. See the entire class of FooOE protocols today. (PPPoE, FCoE) and things like PCoIP.

posted by eriko at 6:03 AM on January 20, 2014

"everyone's using TCP/IP"

UDP still has valid and widespread uses, like RTP, and in real time gaming
posted by idiopath at 6:12 AM on January 20, 2014

The ReCode Project "is a community-driven effort to preserve computer art by translating it into a modern programming language."
posted by moonmilk at 6:33 AM on January 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Even for audio, while it takes up much more space, punch card format would be more durable and more accurate than vinyl.

You have obviously never worked with punchcards. The spaces between holes would often tear and form little chads that could block other holes. Card decks were difficult to back up and easy to scramble.

Back around 1973 or so, I used to run a mailing list for my high school newspaper on punched cards. That was probably my first real computer job. It ended up as a sorted deck of card pairs (2 cards per address) about 2 feet long. They made cheap cardboard boxes to keep your decks in. To add a new address, I had to manually find the spot to insert the cards in zip code order, but if I had a bunch of new addresses, I'd run it through an IBM 082 Card Sorter. When we needed to do a mailing, we'd give the deck to the IBM/360 operator and the next day we'd get the deck back and big pages of sorted mailing labels.

The deck started small but kept growing and growing. One day I discovered that our IBM/360 had a card punch and you could duplicate a card deck. Give the operator one deck, get back two identical decks. This seemed like a really good idea to me. My very first backup ever!

A week or two later, sometime about the middle of February, I dropped off the deck at the computer center to run a batch of labels. I was busy doing other work on the newspaper so someone volunteered to go pick up them when they were done. But she never came back. After 3 or 4 days, we began to wonder what happened. Nobody had seen the girl at school for days. I checked at the computer center, the job ran and she picked up the labels. We figured she suddenly came down with cold or something. So our teacher decided to check into it, see if maybe someone could pick up the labels from her, at her home.

Well it turned out that just after picking up the labels and the cards, the poor girl slipped on the ice outside the computer center and dropped the box containing the card deck. The cards fell out of the box and were scattered in the ice and snow. I can just imagine the pitiful scene of her chasing after the lost cards blowing around in the cold winter wind. But it was too late, the deck was ruined. She was certain she had destroyed months of work, she actually had a nervous breakdown and refused to go to school and admit what had happened.

When I heard this, I was shocked. I told the teacher I had just made a backup, he didn't even know this was possible. For gods sake call the girl and tell her it doesn't matter, we have a backup copy, there was no harm done at all. But the poor girl was inconsolable. She never came back to school. I heard she transferred to the other school across town, so she could avoid triggering memories of the unfortunate card deck incident.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:02 AM on January 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

I make no claim that punch cards are convenient. But the possibility of recovering data from numbered sequential punch cards on acid-free paper that are thousands of years old, by a dedicated and patient archivalist or anthropologist is better than the chances any other digital media I know of, and if you factor the likelihood of accidents and abuse, likely better than the chances a vinyl record would have of being recovered as well.

That isn't to say they are the ideal format! If anything the fact that they would fare so much better is an indictment of our current default storage options. Perhaps an OCR friendly printout would fare better? Something on paper would be hard to beat regardless.
posted by idiopath at 8:49 AM on January 20, 2014

1. What is PaperBack?

PaperBack is a free application that allows you to back up your precious files on the ordinary paper in the form of the oversized bitmaps. If you have a good laser printer with the 600 dpi resolution, you can save up to 500,000 bytes of uncompressed data on the single A4/Letter sheet. Integrated packer allows for much better data density - up to 3,000,000+ (three megabytes) of C code per page.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:59 AM on January 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

When we needed to do a mailing, we'd give the deck to the IBM/360 operator and the next day we'd get the deck back and big pages of sorted mailing labels.

I will never gripe about MailMerge ever again.
posted by Sara C. at 9:03 AM on January 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Speaking of cards, the patch board on the IBM 514 card duplicator displayed at the Smithsonian is a complete mumbo-jumbo random mess, but whenever I've contacted them offering to set it up properly, they seem uninterested (these are the same people who labeled the Commodore 64 as having a 6502 processor—snort). Part of me feels old when I see the keypunch machines and other card hardware I used everyday in the Smithsonian, but the rest of me thinks it just proves my contention that much of my life can be explained by an out-of-control time machine lurching around the twentieth century.

In our business, we did a fair amount of work with "aperture cards," which were a pretty neat way to have a super high-resolution image (blueprints, engineering drawings, etc) with attached metadata. Watching the machines that would retrieve these was sort of gorgeous and fascinating, like watching a really skilled magician at play with a deck of cards. Keep 'em dry, don't roast 'em, and they're good for hundreds of years, and you can read 'em with your eyes and a magnifying glass.
posted by sonascope at 11:44 AM on January 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, i like your name and i like your posts, the man of twists and turns
posted by maiamaia at 12:26 PM on January 20, 2014

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