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Sustainable technology? Questions of Art and Conservation in the Digital Age

09 • 02 • 20Flóra Barkóczi

The problematic nature of the distinction between photography and fine art and how this problem regrettably still persists has recently been discussed here on Punkt as well. (E.g.: György Cséka: Lemon or Orange.) Comparing this setup with the status of other art forms associated with technical media, we see that the concepts of media art and new media art popular in the 1990s are no longer relevant today, and there is less and less distinction between artworks which use new technologies and ones which don’t. However, there are aspects that justify the ways in which we apply these categories: the need to preserve these artworks and make them accessible. This is partly the reason why dedicated museums, museum departments and independent institutions around the world (or at least to the west of us) still operate – some of them newly established, in fact – today, specifically focusing on the conservation of ’born-digital art’ as well as the dissemination of art in the digital age, such as the ZKM in Karlsruhe, the iMAL in Brussels or the LIMA in Amsterdam. In 2016 an independent institution called Vašulka Kitchen was established in Brno, Czech Republic with a similar purpose, namely to encourage the creation and research of new media works, among others by organizing educational programs, conferences, talks, exhibitions and performances.

As part of its activities, Vašulka Kitchen hosted an international colloquium between 22-23 October 2019, the main purpose of which was to discuss the aspects of creating, collecting and displaying works that are technology-dependent. The question of preserving electronic and digital media-based works – as highlighted by Dušan Barok in his lecture –already arose at the symposium entitled Modern Art: Who Cares? held in 1997 in Amsterdam, and the exponential and continuous development of digital technology has been increasingly challenging professionals since then. (The presence of digital technology is less about digital photography and more about creating hardware or software-dependent works.) One of the major paradoxes is that we can only use current technologies to make obsolete technologies contemporarily accessible, thus we reproduce past problems for the future. For example, in recent years, much emphasis has been placed on preserving Internet-based creative practices, mainly on account of the increasingly striking inaccessibility of net art works of the 1990s (due to the obsolescence of web browsers and Internet infrastructures). One of the most ambitious examples of this is the gigantic net art reconstruction project of Rhizome, currently affiliated with the New Museum in New York, accompanied by their publication Net Art Anthology released this year. Within its framework, emulations of dozens of early web-based works were made available to today’s users on the Internet on a website evocative of the original interface.

 

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https://anthology.rhizome.org/, screenshot, 29.11.2019

As part of its activities, Vašulka Kitchen hosted an international colloquium between 22-23 October 2019, the main purpose of which was to discuss the aspects of creating, collecting and displaying works that are technology-dependent. The question of preserving electronic and digital media-based works – as highlighted by Dušan Barok in his lecture –already arose at the symposium entitled Modern Art: Who Cares? held in 1997 in Amsterdam, and the exponential and continuous development of digital technology has been increasingly challenging professionals since then. (The presence of digital technology is less about digital photography and more about creating hardware or software-dependent works.) One of the major paradoxes is that we can only use current technologies to make obsolete technologies contemporarily accessible, thus we reproduce past problems for the future. For example, in recent years, much emphasis has been placed on preserving Internet-based creative practices, mainly on account of the increasingly striking inaccessibility of net art works of the 1990s (due to the obsolescence of web browsers and Internet infrastructures). One of the most ambitious examples of this is the gigantic net art reconstruction project of Rhizome, currently affiliated with the New Museum in New York, accompanied by their publication Net Art Anthology released this year. Within its framework, emulations of dozens of early web-based works were made available to today’s users on the Internet on a website evocative of the original interface.

The main purpose of the colloquium in Brno was to bring together professionals active in theoretical as well as practical fields, who shared their knowledge and working methods in order to think together about strategies for collecting, preserving and presenting electronic-digital, technology-dependent and software-based works within private or institutional contexts. In default of international standards, it has become increasingly important to discuss what aspects we can prioritize while preserving them: historical fidelity or updatability? Would it mean a cultural loss for these works to be presented in a new form? – asked the organizers at the colloquium. The institution’s eponymous artist pair, Brno-born Woody Vašulka and Reykjavik-born Steina Vašulka are known worldwide for their active work in the field of video art since the early 1960s. In 1971 they founded The Kitchen, a New York-based institution that provided a platform for such multimedia, performance and video artists to introduce themselves, as Joan Jonas, Vito Acconci or Bill Viola. The Brno institution was created partly for the purpose of preserving the Vašulkas’ legacy, hence within the framework of the colloquium one could get to know the activity of researchers who discussed the Vašulka-tradition in the context of the problems of contemporary media art restoration, including Lenka Dolanová, who appraised the archive building strategies of the Vašulka couple, or Fréderic Curien who, as a representative of SLIDERS_lab, gave a presentation on rethinking the publication of the archive based on digital technology, along the idea of ’interactive cinema’. Besides, participants of the colloquium discussed the institutional, research-related and artistic aspects of technology-based art management in the course of short presentations – the most important of which I outline below.

 

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Woody Vasulka and Steina Vasulka, image from the documentary ’The Vasulka Effect’ (2019). Photo: IFFR

Institutional engagement

Out of the most prominent media preservation institutions, LIMA, grown out of Montevideo, Amsterdam, was represented at the symposium by Gaby Wijers, the founding director who outlined the purpose, operation and difficulties of the Dutch institution. Wijers highlighted that she found it difficult to talk about objectivity in the case of media art preservation, as individual aspects and specific situations greatly influence the way a technology-based work lives on. This contextual dependency also applies to the presentation of a work, for example a video recording of a performance may be presented in the form of documentation, as an installation or a video work, depending on the situation. Due to the diversity of individual practices, LIMA places high priority on the further education of creators working with digital and technology-based works, on collaborations focusing on preservation, and on initiating research projects.

International institutions such as Video Forum NBK in Berlin and Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam have taken pioneering roles in collecting media art, including video art. In recent years more and more institutional initiatives have evolved in the Central and Eastern European region aimed at the dissemination and local representation of video and media art, for example WRO Art Center in Wroclaw, established in 2008. An example of museum practices in the Czech Republic, the recently intensifying video art collection building strategy of Prague based GMUHK (Gallery of Modern Art in Hraec Králové) was presented at the colloquium by Frantisek Zachoval. The Etcetera Gallery, founded in 2004 as one of the first non-profit galleries in Prague, also focuses on video and motion picture art. The purpose of the independent venue is to encourage discourses and the creation of new works by organizing exhibitions, screenings and residency programs. In addition to its earlier focus, such as feminist discourses or climate change, Etcetera currently approaches socially and politically committed topics by featuring the medium of motion picture. At the event in Brno, the project of Etcetera Media Library was presented by Matěj Strnad and Kryštof Pešek, who had taken part in organizing the gallery’s exhibition in May 2019, entitled Restless Image II: Limits of Motion. In order to clarify the relationship between motion picture artists and exhibitors, Etcetera has recently made its Manual for Handling Moving Image available on its website, which can be an important reference for institutions with similar profiles.

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Lecture of Kryštof Pešek and Matěj Strnad, screenshot. Courtesy of Matěj Strnad.

Dušan Barok, Slovakian founder of Monoskop, known as the Wikipedia of (regional) fine art and a free sharing platform of related knowledge, drew attention in his lecture to the problem of limited institutional possibilities and resources regarding the preservation of contemporary art, which is an issue – although to different extents – in both Western and Eastern Europe. In the case of complex digital artworks, that is to say works with both physical and spatial dimensions, the issue of sustainable preservation is particularly unclear, which in Barok’s interpretation is primarily due to the lack of international standards, financial support, infrastructure, education and expertise. The artist-activist also pointed out that this would require a much greater openness towards the aesthetics of technology-based art among professionals active in the field of contemporary art.

In his lecture Miklós Peternák presented the golden age of the C3 Institute, founded in 1996 in Budapest, the afterlife of the projects initiated at that time and the outcome of its collaborations since its financial difficulties in the 2000s. Although C3 had not originally intended to collect artworks, it has become a collection of web works, media art installations and a large amounts of audio-visual material requiring constant maintenance as a consequence of the projects it coordinates (exhibitions, calls, residency programs), pieces of which are currently presented only through partnerships due to lack of resources.

In addition to Peternák’s lecture, I presented an overview of Hungarian institutional practices, introducing the archive of the Artpool Art Research Center, which exists since the seventies – focusing on the collection, preservation and display of electronic and digital technology-based works, as well as on the projects encouraging their creation. (Among others, I cited the examples of the 1983 Telephone Concert, the 1992 Fax Action, the 1993 Danube Connection, the 1996 Curriculum Vitae and web projects created since 1996.) Since its beginning, Artpool has put great emphasis on the preservation and publication of ephemeral works and their documentation. In my presentation, I also mentioned that for Artpool, which became an independent affiliate institution of the Museum of Fine Arts in 2015, we envisage the opening up of new opportunities for the preservation, conservation and accessibility of electronic media-based and digital works starting in 2020, as part of the newly established KEMKI (Central European Research Institute for Art History) at a new location shared with OMRRK (National Museum Restoration and Storage Centre).

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Lecture of Lukas Pilka, screenshot. Courtesy of Lukas Pilka.

Research of Digital Art / Digital Art Research

Some of the colloquium’s lectures explored the role of digital technology in the field of media art research. Jana Horáková presented a research project led by her at the Masaryk University in Brno, which seeks to approach the video art of the Vašulka artist couple in new ways with the help of artificial intelligence: exploring the video archive by means of deep learning in order to discover structures and patterns in the archive. According to their hypothesis, by systemizing and analysing data-driven information carried by digitalized video materials, the oeuvre could be placed in a new context.

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Deep Learning from Vasulka’s Video Archive, Jana Horáková (CZ), Jirí Schimmel (CZ) et al., Credit: Jbajzik Sikoral www.ars.electronica.art_outofthebox_en_deep-learning

Lukáš Pilka’s lecture on the research methodology of digital art history focused on the adaptability of the increasingly relevant digital humanities to art history. The new type of research model is partly concerned with the practice of analysing digitalized versions of artworks and the data that can be extracted from them. Examining the digital information content of the reproductions of artworks enables the establishment of relationships and correlations between works as well as the automated visual analysis of individual works – by means of learning algorithms based on artificial intelligence. Pilka mainly presented those practices that have become known through Lev Manovich’s projects, primarily resulting in spectacular visualization charts. However, there was no mention of a specific type of research in the field of digital art history, which seeks answers to structural art historical questions and problems by digital means, adapting the fields of networks science, text analysis or even geographic mapping. The program of the Digital Art History Conference in Zagreb, held for the second time in 2019, provides exciting examples of this, which is also important to highlight because the field of digital art history has been neglected so far in Hungary.

In her lecture, Martina Pachmanová explored the role of digital devices in the field of research in gender science: she interpreted the aspirations of The Feminist Institute as a realization of Griselda Pollock’s book from 2007 entitled Encounters in the Virtual Feminist Museum: Time, Space and the Archive, as an opportunity for a more prominent appearance of feminist artistic endeavours.

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Lecture of Lukas Pilka, screenshot. Courtesy of Lukas Pilka.

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Lecture of Lukas Pilka, screenshot. Courtesy of Lukas Pilka.

Analogue/digital barriers

Preservation is a challenge not only for digital media-based, but for all time-based, performative and ephemeral works. At the same time, it is mostly technology that helps to preserve these works for posterity. The technology of augmented reality which has become increasingly popular in recent years can also provide a solution for preserving analogue works. An example of this was presented by Sasha Arden, a graduate student of Conservation and Fine Art History at the New York University, who is currently working on an interactive virtual 3D simulation of the accessibility of an Alexander Calder work that cannot be exhibited in its original material quality due to its condition and vulnerability. The issue of material authenticity and the question of original and copy arising from the case would also require the setting of international standards and a more focused discussion on how AR technology could represent a sustainable mode of preservation in the future.

Two media restorers currently working in the US, Joey Heinen (LACMA, Los Angeles) and Flaminia Fortunato (MoMA, New York) deal with the complexity of preserving artworks made for iOS systems. In their presentation they highlighted the difficulty of preserving AR simulation or live streaming works based on phone applications in museum collections as they largely depend on tech companies (such as Apple) that have no interest in providing sustainable accessibility. For example in the case of the iOS application based works they presented (Mungo Thomson: Composition for Marimba, 2016; Brent David Freaney & Martine Syms: wyd rn, 2017) the rapid obsolescence of iPhones, the different screen ratios of different types of phones or the limited compatibility of some iOS applications and Apple phones pose great difficulty.

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Brent David Freaney, Martine Syms, WYD RN?, 2017. © Martine Syms.

At the same time, our vulnerability to the IT sector is not only illustrated by the unpredictability of interfaces and devices, which are changing on a daily basis, but also by the market-oriented data-dredging of large tech companies or the increasingly criticized consumption-oriented, manipulative nature of social media. In his lecture, Michal Klodner presented platforms and initiatives that could provide an alternative to mainstream social media (primarily Facebook and Instagram) for the actors of the art sphere, creating a safer, more equal and more effective community functioning. Low power technologies and tools that have been popular among media activists for a long time encourage network sharing and community building in a decentralized manner. Such platforms are Diaspora or Node9 for example, which use open network protocols (ActivityPub or Zot) to deliver the possibility of a more sustainable social media. Klodner pointed out that actors in the art world (artists, curators, galleries, museums and other art institutions) are in dire need of these conditions of independent functioning.

Although there was no time left for a conclusive discussion at the end of the Brno Colloquium due to the intensive program, informal feedback has shown that there is great need for similar meetings, forums and discourses in the CEE region, in particular to discuss and review institutional and technological dependencies, as well as to counteract these with collaborative action.

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Lecture of Michal Klodner, screenshot. Courtesy of Michal Klodner.

Jegyzetek

Artworks from the Digital Era in Galleries and Museums

International Colloquium

The Brno House of Art

22-23 October 2019

Organizers of the colloquium: Vašulka Kitchen Brno, Brno House of Arts

Concept: Miloš Vojtěchovský, Matěj Strnad

The author is a staff member of the Artpool Art Research Center. She participated in the colloquium with the support and in representation of Artpool – Museum of Fine Arts.

At the time of writing this article, the author was a recipient of the Ernő Kállai scholarship for art historians and critics.