Digital Art Preservation

From SIS Wiki
Jump to: navigation, search

Preventing Lost (Art) History: Problems and Practices of Documentation in Digital Art Preservation

Created by Autumn Wetli

Definition of Project

This annotated bibliography contains articles relating to the problems and practices of documentation in the preservation of digital art. Contemporary art practices in new media, and rapid technological advances, have created problems for galleries, museums, and art historians as they attempt to preserve digital works for posterity. The body of literature consulted for the creation of this bibliography is limited to 2007-2017. The increasing interest in this topic is representative of the concern for digital art preservation, as digital art, like all other digital mediums, are at risk of fading into technological obsolescence. The practice of hardware preservation has been superseded by the practice of documentation, whose proper practice can enable the recreation of digital artworks beyond the confines of their initial, and eventually obsolete hardware. Involvement of the artist in the preservation of their own works has been repeatedly noted as an important aspect of documentation, though contention may exist between the intention of the artist and the intention of the institution spearheading preservation.


  • Becker, C., Kolar, G., Kung, J., & Rauber, A. (2007). Preserving interactive multimedia art: a case study in preservation planning. In Proceedings from the
10th International Conference on Asian Digital Libraries: Looking Back 10 Years and Forging New Frontiers, Hanoi, Vietnam, December 10-13, 2007,(Lecture :Notes in Computer Science 4822), 257-266. Berlin: Springer.

There are three less significant, but good points raised in this article in context of its greater conversation. The first point made states the difficulty in preserving complex digital art versus more traditional digitized materials in the simple file formats found in institutions of archives and libraries. The second is that while typical digital preservation systems have best practices and guidelines to follow, the author notes that artists “cannot be obliged to conform to submission policies that prescribe formats and standards” (p. 258). The third point refers specifically to the digital preservation technique of emulation, and the author highlights that for artwork, intellectual property rights can inhibit whether this practice is an option or not. The main point of this article though, and it’s greatest strength, is the introduction of the preservation approach PLANETS (Preservation and Long-term Access through Network Services) to the realm of digital art preservation. The article walks two sample digital artworks from the Ars Electronica museum through the PLANETS process- defining requirements, evaluating alternatives, and considering results. This article thoroughly presents the PLANETS process as a support tool for preservation planning.

  • Depocas, A. (2013). Documenting and conserving technological art: The evolution of approaches and methods. In B. Serexhe (Ed.), Preservation of Digital Art: Theory and Practice: The Digital Art Conservation Project (pp. 145-153). Vienna: Ambra Verlag.

Depocas gets to the crux of this paper right in its beginning, “in the field of art practices that use technology, documentation and conservation are indissociable” (p. 145). This article gives a thorough overview to a few of the systems that have been developed for the documentation of digital artworks, including MANS, DOCAM (Documentation and Conservation of the Media Arts Heritage), and VMQ. Before delving into each system, Depocas first discusses what are “the things to be documented and conserved” in digital art (p. 146). Depocas notes that documentation must address the “reality of the work” (tangible, physical, digital constituents) and the “effects it produces on viewers and the artists intentions” (p.145-147). This dual form of documentation will help in the creation of a holistic and complete picture of the original artwork and its creator’s intention. In his conclusion, Depocas acknowledges that none of the systems for documentation presented are perfect or exhaustive and these systems will need to be updated and evolve with technological changes and advances.

  • Enge, J. & Lurk, T. (2013). Operational practices for a digital preservation and restoration protocol. In J. Noordegraaf, C. Saba, B. Le Maitre, & V. :Heidiger (Eds.), Preserving and Exhibiting Media Art: Challenges and Perspectives (pp. 270-281). Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Enge and Lurk make the valuable point early on, that most individuals trained in the conservation of art do not have the education in computer science that is needed for the preservation of complex digital artworks. They reinforce the idea that documentation over hardware preservation is the best solution to digital artwork preservation, but that so far, documentation practices have been very diverse, making different practice incompatible with each other. Enge and Lurk pull from these previous documentation systems and alter the parameters in an attempt to better fit the language of digital art. They refer to their developed concept as “work logic” (p. 271). Work logic approaches the digital artwork through four separate “hard and soft fact” areas: the work/core, appearance, artistic concept, and cultural value (p. 272). Enge and Lurke provide a simple and effective graphic to illustrate these four areas and the important data that should be preserved within each. They then provide a thorough example of a form used in documentation through the work logic model. The article ends with further explanation of work logic provided by a real-life case study of the interactive, computer-based installation piece Liquid Perceptron by artist Hans Diebner. A thorough visual model of Liquid Perceptron through work logic is presented.

This article looks to software documentation practices as a means for digital art preservation. Engel and Wharton provide thorough analysis of both software documentation and current digital art preservation practices before presenting their studies. The authors have analyzed the programming codes of two artworks, Shadow Monsters by Phil Worthington and 33 Questions Per Minute by Lozano Hammer, artworks which contain code written by the artist themselves or in collaboration with a computer programmer. The authors test software documentation practices as a digital art preservation method through their code analysis. They are able to provide multiple insights into each artwork and its creation through this code analysis. Engel and Wharton provide an important understanding of how software documentation practices can be successfully mapped onto digital artworks for preservation purposes. An important aspect of this article is Engel and Wharton’s suggestion of documentation being team created by various stakeholders in the preservation process. The authors use research showing that documentation is more effective when written by an interdisciplinary team to propose such an approach when documenting source codes in digital art preservation. For their studies, Engel and Wharton create a team consisting of an Art major, a Museum Studies graduate, and faculty from the Museum Studies department and Computer Science department at New York University.

  • Magruder, M.T. (2014). Between code and space: The challenge of preserving complex digital creativity in contemporary arts practices. In J. Delve, & D. :Anderson (Eds.), Preserving Complex Digital Objects (pp. 31-46). London: Facet Publishing.

Magruder’s article focuses on digital artworks created within networked digital cultures, outside of the self-contained confines of software and hardware systems. Magruder presents a unique perspective by being a creator of digital art himself. As an artist, he notes how in an ideal world, the preservation of each piece would be individually customized, but also points out the impracticality of such a process. Instead, Magruder highlights common problems that occur in the preservation processes of digital art, as seen through the lens of various case studies. In each case study, Magruder offers a means to best capture and preserve the artwork, but as he is focused on evolving, non-static, non-linear works, each case is also left with an open-ended question. These questions touch on larger issues concerning the ethical and theoretical. Magruder asks the deeper question of what exactly constitutes the sum of a digital artwork and hence, what should be captured in its preservation. In his conclusion, Magruder decides that the preservation of the technical aspects of a digital artwork, such as hard or software, are not as important as the preservation of the “greater nature and significance” of the piece itself (p. 45). How to necessarily capture this “greater nature and significance” is not something the author elaborates on extensively though.

  • Marchese, F.T. (2011). Conserving digital art for deep time. Leonardo, 44(4), 302-308.
Retrieved from

Marchese stresses the importance of documentation in long term digital art preservation and suggests the use of software engineering practices and principles to do so. These practices include five important areas of documentation: conceptual requirements, architecture/design of software components, technical source code and interfaces, end user manuals, and supplementary materials which may include legal documents, interviews, and anything else related to the artwork. The summation of these documents is meant to provide a comprehensive picture of what the artwork looks like for future installation and recreation. Marchese also brings up an interesting point that has not been addressed in the other articles of this bibliography, that this detailed documentation of digital artworks will not only ensure the longevity of a piece, but will also be of benefit to future art historical scholarship. The importance of the artist as a stakeholder is noted and Marchese explicitly places part of the responsibility of preservation on the artist. However, he does not elaborate further on the role of the artist in the preservation process or make note of contention that may exist between artist intentionality and preservation.

  • McHugh, A., & Konstantelos, L. (2010). In Pursuit of an Expressive Vocabulary for Preserved New Media Art. In M. Lalmas, J. Jose, A. Rauber, F. Sebastiani, & :I. Frommholz (Eds.), Research and Advanced Technology for Digital Libraries: 14th European Conference, ECDL 2010, Glasgow, UK, September 6-10, 2010,
(Lecture Notes in Computer Science 6273), 148-155. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

McHugh and Konstantelos’ article focuses on the use of vocabulary in digital art documentation. While the importance of the semantics used in documentation was a starting point for Engle and Lurke’s “work logic” project, this is the first article that devotes significant study and thought to vocabularies used. It is also the first article that has openly noted the lack of collaboration and crossover between traditional library and information sciences and the fields of museology and art history in regards to digital art preservation. The authors propose use of the Vocabulary for Preserved New Media Works (VPNMW), a creation of their own, in the documentation of digital artworks. McHugh and Konstantelos thoroughly define their vocabulary, though also allow for the flexibility needed due to the various manifestations a digital artwork can take. Their term Versions is particularly important for creating an elemental field that can encapsulate the many various forms a digital artwork may take over time.

  • Post, C. (2017). Preservation Practice of New Media Artists: Challenges, Strategies, and Attitudes in the Personal Management of Artworks. Journal of :Documentation, 73(4), 716-732.

Post’s article is interesting in that it focuses heavily on the thoughts and ideas of the artist in relation to digital art preservation. His idea is that a better understanding of artist's “concerns, conceptions, and practices in the preservation of their own artworks,” should be used by institutions to inform their own practices and strategies in deal with digital art preservation (p. 717). This is a unique way to approach the subject, that from the very beginning focuses more on the artist’s intention and working around this, rather than imposing institutional structures and standards onto the artwork. Post’s article also brings up a significant point regarding the lack of general methodology in digital art preservation research and its literature, which often focuses instead on specific instances of preservation. Using the theoretical framework of media archaeology, Post conducts seven case studies of new media artists who are working outside of major collecting institutions. He notes that documentation is the prevailing practice for preservation by artists, but that they do not follow any standardization in this regard. The author suggests further study to resolve this disconnect between artists and institution and further the reaches of standardized documentation practices to artists. The article’s presentation of the difference in challenges perceived by artists versus institutional perceptions provides thought-provoking insight.

Rinehart’s article is a well-cited piece, providing a critical read on the concept of documentation in digital art preservation practices. It is a work that the author has expanded upon in further papers and discussions. The importance of metadata documentation (descriptive, technical, and administrative) is discussed. The author examines the pros and cons of various different schema before presenting his own notation system. Rinehart’s definition and description of MANS (Media Art Notation System) is helpful for providing a metadata schema better suited for describing and preserving complex digital artworks. This article is particularly useful to those familiar with, and looking for an article, that discusses digital art preservation in traditional library and information science concepts. Rinehart discusses the use of metadata and XML in MANS and alludes to FRBR (Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records) when writing about a Work and its representation. He concludes that there is no one system or “silver-bullet solution” for the successful preservation of digital artworks, but hopes that MANS can make a helpful contribution to the field of digital art preservation (p. 187).

This article begins with an introduction to the broader context of digital preservation before delving into the deeper essence of its discussion, an introduction to the “art problem” (p. 3). This is a discussion on the institutionalization of art and the contentions it brings to digital art preservation. Yeung and Greenberg note that new media art “tends to be subversive in nature, bucking the general paradigm espoused by the prevailing institutions that reflect normative identity and majority views” (p. 5). The authors ponder how artists’ anti-institutional views can be reconciled with the gallery and museum’s need for standardization and early preservation practices. Yeung and Greenberg also note that the issue of standards in art is a tricky topic. Artists often push the boundaries of technology to points where standardization has not yet been formed. The future of digital art preservation is “murky” to the authors, as they point to the aforementioned problems and lack of resources in institutions attempting the preservation of digital art.