Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Re: [Yasmin_discussions] ART, NEW MEDIA, AND SOCIAL MEMORY

I found myself nodding while reading Johannes Goebel's lifelong struggle with museums over "digital/time-based art." His account was originally posted on CRUMB, so I'm cross-posting my response to both lists.

Johannes' description of digital media as a mapping from immaterial to material is evocative:

> The only way we can perceive and interpret that which is encoded in the "invisible, mute, intangible" mode of the digital is the mapping of the "invisible" into the realm of our senses, seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting.

Although Johannes' characterization would also apply to Conceptual art, I think its implications for new media are especially important. That said, I have a bit more trouble swallowing his corollary:

> So it might be worthwhile to regard all art that involves digital technology as time-based art. It is not "an object", it needs at least conversion from the "intangible" into the realm of our perception....

I absolutely agree that you can't have the work we're discussing without some form of conversion (what Lev Manovich in The Language of New Media calls "transcoding"). The necessity of that translation--from hard-drive voltages to screen pixels now, from MPEG4 to MPEG21 or whatever in the future--prompts Rick and me to look for a new term, such as "variable media."

Nevertheless, at the risk of beating the terminology drum to tatters, I'm drawing the line at calling all new media "time-based art." Johannes rightly points out the ways digital forms unfold in time. And I appreciate Johannes' conclusion that organizations dedicated to time-based arts such as dance and theater might be better prepared to conserve the crucial performative aspect of digital media:

> The declaration or viewing of all "digital" art as time-based arts changes the perspective on such art radically. It is now part of "performing arts", it needs to be "performed" or in the digital realm "executed"....with machines, operating systems, programs and I/O devices and maybe by the audience in "interactive" and "participatory" art....

My problem is not with dance archivists and theater techies per se, although they have a long ways to go in figuring out how to preserve their own art forms. Re-collection even argues that digital emulation can be thought of as a re-enactment of an old performance (Super Mario) on a new body (a PC instead of Nintendo).

My problem is with how the term "time-based arts" is used by organizations accustomed to collecting static media like paintings, documents, and books. For the past four decades, art museums have been timidly inching along the bending limb of video art, thinking that it will help them accommodate all manner of new media because at the end of that limb is something a lot like video art but just a bit more "out there." So they call that whole branch of their taxonomic tree Time-Based Media. And they think if they know how to preserve a spool of celluloid or a Betamax cassette they know how to preserve Arduinos and Augmented Reality.

The reality is that adopting a medium-dependent approach to preservation doesn't even make sense for movies anymore. Re-collection cites a case study of Ken Jacobs' Bitemporal Vision performance, whereby the filmmaker trains two 16-mm film projectors on the same point on the wall, adding a stroboscopic propeller that reveals the two image sources in alternation. By manipulating identical film snippets in each projector, Jacobs superimposes similar frames to tease out a three-dimensional image from these two-dimensional pieces of film stock. The stunning result--almost impossible to explain unless you've seen it--makes the Hollywood version of 3D in movies like Avatar look trivial.

Now suppose I say the Bitemporal Vision piece is "time-based media." What does that do? It prompts conservators to copy it onto safety film and put it into cold storage. But that does nothing to save the work's essential performative behavior.

Of course, you could say Bitemporal Vision is a special case compared to a theatrical release like Toy Story, which does not have a performative dimension. Surely in a conventional film the narrative's time-based qualities eclipse any other properties. Well, my co-author Rick Rinehart relates a great story about Toy Story in our book. When Rick was at the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archives, the Pixar folks showed up from across the bay and said they wanted help preserving this new, all-CGI movie called Toy Story. His colleague said, "This is a well known problem: nitrate film was flammable, and cellulose acetate turned to vinegar, so now we use polyester...." But the Pixar people said "Whoa, whoa! We don't want to preserve the film. We want to preserve the *movie*."

By "the movie," the Pixar reps didn't mean "digital video." They meant the original computer data that would allow them to re-create the movie in 3D or 4k, or with different lighting, or from Buzz's perspective rather than Woody's, or as a video game. Toy Story was a completely different genre than Gone with the Wind, even if we call them both "film." Its behaviors are not just about being a reproducible, time-based medium; they are also about being encoded in a rich data set that can give birth to the versions you see in theaters, on your Playstation, and online.

Toy Story was 1995. In 2014, the hottest trend in moving images is probably Vine--those six-second videos you can take with your cell phone and then upload and share. It's fairly simple to preserve Vines themselves, because they are a variant of MPEG4. They are short, so they don't take up much storage space. But that ignores their networked nature--sharing Vines via Twitter, discovering and promoting them with hashtags--which is pretty much the point of Vine. These clips are tied to commerce, with Vine micro-trailers promoting a movie years before it comes out. They're part of a social network. All of that is invisible and lost if all you do is save a bunch of MP4s on a hard drive.

So I'm concerned that the Time-Based Media label lets archivists off the hook for capturing the relationships that underpin performative installations or social networks. In my work, I'm particularly interested in understanding those relationships on a functional level, so we can plan to migrate, emulate, or reinterpret them in the future when the 16-mm projectors or CAD files or Twitter URLs break down.

Some observers claim it's impossible even to try to re-create such relationships, especially for performance. Johannes says:

> "Digital" art works will have to die, fade away, maybe being restored at some later point in time ­ but they are an acceleration of the changes traditional performing arts undergo. It is the signature characteristic of "digital" art that its life cycle is indeed very brief. It almost approaches the time-scale of oral tradition.

One of the most exciting discoveries for me in researching Re-collection was finding out how extraordinarily long the time-scale of oral traditions can be, thanks to what Rick and I call "proliferative preservation." I'm curious if anyone else sees parallels between oral culture and new media.



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