On "Link Rot" and Other Scourges of Digital Art Conservation (And Some Strategies to Counter Them)
One of the problems, but also one of the attractions, of using new technology to make art is that there are often few precedents for what the results should look like. This frontier quality makes for an exciting, dynamic field, but it can also lead to tough questions with lasting consequences. For instance, how can we be sure that something asephemeral and finicky as Internet art is still viewable a decade from now, let alone 500 years in the future?
Last Wednesday, in the basement theater of the New Museum, the new medianonprofit and blog Rhizome gave a presentation on ArtBase,its continuously growing, intensively-curated online archive of Internet art meant to "keep the field of Internet art available for artists, curators, and viewers," according to the organization's Ben Fino-Radin. ArtBase's collection currently holds 2,483 objects dating from 1993 to the present, with the highest concentration of works made in 2001. Artists can submit their own pieces via Rhizome's Web site, after agreeing to a contract that allows Rhizome to host their work (more on that later).
Many of the objects archived in Rhizome's collection are only represented by brief descriptions, or a photograph or screen capture of the art object, rather than an exact working replica of the piece itself. As Fino-Radin explained, Internet art faces many problems that make it difficult to archive — which is why ArtBase exists in the first place.
THE PROBLEMS WITH INTERNET ART
The term "link rot" refers to the impermanence of location on the Internet. Many of the earlier pieces in ArtBase's collection were tethered tohyperlinks that artists emailed to the Web site's curators, and as the artistsstopped maintaining their domain name or ceased paying for hosting, those links stopped working, and the work they connect to was lost.
Not unlike Dan Flavin works, which pose challenges for conservators because the proper light bulbs aren't made any more, Internet art often depends on a very specific technological environment to fully function. Obsolete technology, or the changing capabilities of the Internet, can "break" online artworks. Fino-Radin told the story of one online work that took advantage of a dial-up connection's slow loading speeds to create something that appeared over a length of time. With broadband, that aspect is now gone.
Lack of documentation means that many early Internet art pieces are difficult, if not impossible, to recreate, even if the original files and source code are still available. Without the artist's direct presence or extensive guidance, some works of Internet art can neverbe repaired to their original state.
SOME WORKING SOLUTIONS
ArtBase is combating these problems by formulating best-practice strategies for today's artists, and working to restore older Internet art by any means possible. Now, pieces submitted to ArtBase as "Archival Copies" must be fully hosted on Rhizome's own servers, fighting link rot and making sure the original files are accessible. Artists must also fill out a media questionnaire about the work and how it functions, providing useful metadata and helping future conservators.
For earlier pieces, the favored conservation strategy is good old-fashioned elbow grease, as Fino-Radin put it. Conservators working with curators, programming consultants, and any tools at their disposal"repair the works manually," digging into their code and figuring out how to restore outdated file formats. Once a work is deconstructed, emulation — or the creation of digital environments that mimic the qualities of older environments — can be used to present a working version of an artwork.
Yet the guardians and conservators of Internet art can still get overzealous, committing the virtual equivalent of cutting the surface of a painting off its wooden support. Like when an Anselm Kiefer loses its straw, how a work degrades — breaks, or wears down, online — could be part of the piece itself, a process that the artist values. Another question is howmuch archiving is good archiving? "If we have a record of the artist's intent," Fino-Radin said, "altering what they've done for the sake of open access can be controversial."
Conserving digital art is an evolving practice with many fundamental issues yet to be resolved. What is hopeful about projects like ArtBase is that they attempt to come to grips with these issues before the permanent disappearance of even more artworks and digital art history.
OCCUPY _______: Internet art collective F.A.T. ("free art and technology") Labs has released "Occupy the Internet,"a bit of code that, when added to a Web site's HTML, causes a random assortment of classic Internet-meme GIF animations holding Occupy Wall Street signs to pop up at the bottom of your Web browser. A good number of sites have been occupied already, with plenty more to come. The animations include: Batman holding "lost my job, foundan occupation"; the "Peanut Butter & Jelly Time" dancing banana with "America wake up!"; a moonwalking pixelated Michael Jackson with "debt is slavery"; and an air-humping stormtrooper with "Wall Street is our street." The project retains a tongue-in-cheek, mocking quality, but one senses that it's also a sincere gesture of support for the "Occupy" movement.
– INTERNET AS WILDERNESS: The same evening as Rhizome's ArtBase talk, contemporary art blog Hyperallergic hosted a conversation with EcoArtTech, the artist duo of Leila Nadir and CaryPeppermint. The pair's work, mingling nature with technology by breaking down the barrier between the real and the virtual, seems particularly timely. What I found most intriguing was Nadir and Peppermint's discussion of the idea of "wilderness" and "wildness" as itrelates to the Internet. Natural wilderness is organic, uncontrolled, and uncontrollable — what could its online equivalent be? Caverns of lost Geocities pages? An epic virtual tangle of unused and decaying Tumblrs?
Net Work is a weekly column exploring the state of contemporary new media art and its practitioners by ARTINFO Assistant Editor Kyle Chayka. Follow Kyle on Twitter at @chaykakor email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.