Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Re: [Yasmin_discussions] Keeping works

It's enlightening to read on this list the perspectives of legendary artists Frieder Nake and Michael Noll on the fate of their groundbreaking works. In their comments, I read a diverse spectrum of potential approaches to preservation. This medley reflects the uncertainty many of us feel about how (if at all) our work should survive us, but it also points toward powerful solutions we can achieve by combining the assorted strategies.

Frieder seems to take a materialist stance when he argues:

> This kind of art "lives" with the
> equipment it is implemented on. When it disappears, the work
> disappears.

Yet his larger vision suggests his work is inherently variable, possibly performative:

> These works or fluid by nature (if anything in this
> artificial world could be called "natural"). Their ontology is that of
> processes, not things.

He concludes that the only way to capture them is in something like notes, still images, or videos:

> If we still want to keep them around for a
> while, they must be documented. The documentation then becomes witness
> of the work....

Michael Noll echoes the conclusion that "live" works only persevere through documentation, though his preferred format seems to be microfilm and prints rather than ink on paper.

> Paper enlargements were made from the microfilm, but
> paper unfortunately deteriorates and hence is no longer available. So
> in the end, the old media of film and prints survive and serve as the
> preservation.

In other words, prints, plotter drawings, and microfilm are pressed into service as stand-ins--or, in Frieder's evocative phrase, "witnesses"--for the original works. In his message posted on this list, Johannes Goebel claims that "the documentation is not 'the work' and it will hardly ever lead to anyone reconstructing a work from its documentation." (I'll speak more about Johannes' post in a followup message.)

Rather than view material, process, and documentation as contradictory solutions, however, Rick and I see them as complementary--at least for those artists who don't want their works to expire when their mediums do. There are certainly pieces for which the specifics of hardware are important, such as Nam June Paik's rewired analog TVs or Cory Arcangel's hacked Nintendo consoles; when CRTs and NES cartridges are extinct, these works will evaporate, leaving behind a precipitate of related screenshots, videos, and interviews.

Such media-dependent examples are far from the majority, however, as proven by the popularity of video on flatscreen monitors and Nintendo games played on Mac and Windows emulators. For a wide variety of artforms, re-creating the process (and hence experience) is more essential than the details of hardware. In these cases, documentation can serve not as the tombstone for a deceased work but as an elixir that reanimates it. In chapter 5 of Re-collection, Rick argues that certain forms of documentation, such as the metadata scheme MANS, can serve as a sort of "musical notation" for re-performing new media art.

Even when both the artist and documentation are missing, a work may still survive if it finds a fan willing to reverse-engineer its process. This is the mission of ReCode, a community effort to resurrect early computer art by translating it into the contemporary language of Processing. As one example of the over 100 works re-created to date, here's Krystof Pesek's reverse-engineered "performance" of Zdenek Sykora's Structure from 1976:


The fact that such processes can be reinterpreted in Processing or emulated in JSMESS means they can run directly in the browser, which makes them accessible to a vastly larger audience than if they were confined to their original IBM mainframe.

These reanimations bring up important questions of authorship and authenticity--questions that Re-collection tackles in a chapter called "Unreliable Archivists." They also remind us of the fundamental distinction between storage and memory that Frieder points to at the end of his post:

> Unfortunately, technology is more and more replacing the human memory
> by the technical storage. The two are fundamentally different....We
> should trust our memories much more. With them, we remember what is
> important for us. When something gets lost, it's gone. But we
> consciously work to replace memory by storage.

We tend to think of memory as unreliable compared to something written down, whether on a clay tablet or hard disk. In Re-collection, Rick and I agree that memory is indeed transformative (following theorists Wendy Hui Kyong Chun and Aleida Assmann). But we also argue that social memory is an under-recognized force that has served to preserve human "records" far longer than storage has.


Yasmin_discussions mailing list

Yasmin URL: http://www.media.uoa.gr/yasmin

SBSCRIBE: click on the link to the list you wish to subscribe to. In the page that will appear ("info page"), enter e-mail address, name, and password in the fields found further down the page.
HOW TO UNSUBSCRIBE: on the info page, scroll all the way down and enter your e-mail address in the last field. Enter password if asked. Click on the unsubscribe button on the page that will appear ("options page").
TO ENABLE / DISABLE DIGEST MODE: in the options page, find the "Set Digest Mode" option and set it to either on or off.
If you prefer to read the posts on a blog go to http://yasminlist.blogspot.com/