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Digital dilemma: what to do with outmoded art

  • Article by: MELENA RYZIK
  • New York Times
  • July 29, 2013 - 3:41 PM

Paintings fade; sculptures chip. Art restorers have long known how to repair those material flaws, so the experience of looking at a Vermeer or a Rodin remains basically unchanged over time. But when creativity is computerized, the art isn’t so easy to fix.

For instance, when a Web-based work becomes technologically obsolete, does updated software simply restore it? Or is the piece fundamentally changed?

That was the conundrum facing the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, which in 1995 became one of the first institutions to acquire an Internet-made artwork. Created by artist Douglas Davis, “The World’s First Collaborative Sentence” allowed users to add to the opening lines. The piece attracted 200,000 contributions from 1994 to 2000 from all over the globe.

By 2005 the piece had been shifted between computer servers, and the programmer moved on. When Whitney curators decided to resurrect it last year, it didn’t work.

For a generation, institutions from the Museum of Modern Art in New York to the Pompidou Center in Paris have been collecting digital art. But in trying to restore the Davis work, which was finally debugged and reposted at the end of May, the Whitney encountered what many exhibitors, collectors and artists are also discovering: The 1s and 0s of digital art degrade far more rapidly than traditional visual art does, and the demands of upkeep are much higher. Nor is the way forward clear.

“We’re working on constantly shifting grounds,” said Rudolf Frieling, a curator of media arts at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which has been at the forefront of sustaining online art. “Whatever hardware, platform or device we’re using is not going to be there tomorrow.”

At the Whitney, a team of programmers and curators spent more than a year debating and tinkering with the restoration of “Collaborative Sentence.” Davis, a pioneer in technologically enhanced art who is now 80, was unable to take part in consultations on rebuilding his piece. “One of the biggest philosophical questions,” said Christiane Paul, adjunct curator of new media, “was, do we leave these links broken, as a testament to the Web” and its rapid development?

Many artists, curators and patrons are now reconsidering whether such art should remain unchanged, said Pip Laurenson, the head of collection care research at the Tate Gallery in London.

The Whitney considered several options. One was to simply let technological extinction take its course, and view Web-based art as “ephemeral, like a performance,” Paul said. Another tactic was to let the new generation of Web-based creators and everyday Internet users help with the maintenance. Or the Whitney could attract more viewers by modernizing the design of the piece. But, Paul said, “that seemed too radical an intervention.”

After much deliberation, the curators decided to duplicate Davis’ installation and pre­sent it in original and updated forms.

One version is the frozen original, with broken code, pages of oddly formatted, garbled text and instructions for users who wanted to fax in their contributions (including the number for the Lehman College gallery, which first showed the piece). Links were redirected, through the archiving site the Wayback Machine, to their 1990s counterparts.

The new version, which the Whitney calls the live version, looks similar but has some new links. Users can’t contribute to the historical site, but they can add to the live one — albeit not by fax. The Whitney also open-sourced part of the original, hoping that users would contribute to its upkeep.

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