Preservation of Media Arts: Interview with Jon Ippolito by Karina de Freitas
Jon Ippolito is an artist, educator, new media scholar, and former curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. He’s a graduate in physics and astrophysics at Harvard. In the art world he found his place as conservator of digital culture. In 2002 Ippolito became part of the Department of New Media at the University of Maine, USA. That same year, along with the teacher Joline Blais, he founded Still Water, a laboratory dedicated to the study and construction of creative networks. He is part of The Variable Media Network, an international consortium of museums which aims to develop strategies to preserve works of media art, regardless of medium used. Among other projects, Ippolito is one of the authors of The Variable Media Questionnaire, a database to assist artists and museum professionals in understanding the needs of the works, establishing potential issues to consider when displaying media art.
Next year, along with Richard Rinehart, Jon Ippolito launches the book Re-collection: New Media and Social Memory, which covers the preservation of new media. For them, the historical record of our era will be unrecoverable [without] a drastic change in technology, institutions and laws governing cultural preservation at the time. I invited him for a special interview for Tecnoartenews. In it, Ippolito presents an updated view on the conservation of media arts by museums, discusses the reasons to preserve media art, the criteria that define the works to be preserved, and also provides a comparison between Variable Media Questionnaire and ‘proliferative preservation’.
Karina de Freitas – Why preserve the media art?
Jon Ippolito - No matter how many times I’m asked that question, it always seems peculiar to me. I’m having trouble thinking of another form of cultural expression that a historian would slug in that blank: “Hey, why are we preserving ________________, anyway?”
Why *wouldn’t* you want to preserve media art? Is it because media art is not relevant to the future, or too difficult to preserve, or somehow inappropriate to preserve?
It’s easy to find things we preserve that are a lot less relevant, either in historical or economic value. Individual users archive tens of thousands of useless e-mails a year. The US Library of Congress preserves 10 million tweets each day, whether their subject is Barack Obama or Justin Bieber.
Personally, I believe new media art represents a critical coming to terms with the dramatic influence of technology in our lives at the turn of the millennium, and hence is more important for the future then just about any other artform happening today.
So that leaves difficulty and appropriateness as obstacles to preservation.
Sure, it’s complicated to preserve a Shockwave animation, because we know the clock is ticking for the plug-in, browser, operating system, and computer it once depended on. It’s also hellishly difficult to preserve one of Eva Hesse’s sculptures made of latex poured on cheesecloth. But we try anyway. New media give us a toolkit of clever preservation solutions like emulation. And because of the common software protocols and programs underlining many digital works, solutions found for one artifacts can often be applied to others.
So that leaves appropriateness. When would it not be appropriate to preserve a work of art? Maybe if it does actual harm. Medical ethicists question whether to preserve the last remaining strains of the smallpox virus. We could ask whether it is ethical to preserve computer viruses. While some artists have experimented with virus-like artworks, such as Eva and Franco Mattes and Jaromil, their snippets of code are about as threatening as a toy lightsaber–more show than schadenfreude. These experiments would certainly be of more value to historians than to terrorists.
Perhaps a better criterion for appropriateness is whether the art was intended to persevere or meant to be ephemeral. The only way to know if the work had an expiration date is to interview the artist and others associated with the work. There might still be a good reason for preserving our work meant to be ephemeral, but there are benefits to interviewing the artist anyway, so why not do it? That’s why we built the Variable Media Questionnaire.
Karina de Freitas – Often, the museum was seen as an institutional entity not adapted to certain artistic practices of media art. Though slowly, the museums have realized the socio-cultural importance of collecting these types of works. There is talk about possible limitations that artists could suffer due to suit your process of creating to the criteria of inclusion in the museum collections. Many artists believe that institutionalizing the art media could endanger its character of freedom and easy access. How do you see this question. How the institutions has dealt with these “contradictions”? And what role they play to write the history of media art, as well as the formation of a market value for these artistic practices?
Jon Ippolito - You’re right, the traditional focus of museums on exclusivity as a marker for value make them a tricky dance partner for new media artists, many of whom are looking to maximize exposure and participation. That said, if museums and creators can adapt to be “both/and” dynamic of digital media, they can have their cake and eat it too. For a his work net.flag commissioned by the Guggenheim in 2002, Mark Napier wrote into his acquisition contract the right to host the project at his own Web domain if the museum couldn’t keep it live in the future at Guggenheim.org for technical or economic reasons.
An example of an artist who reached even further outside the art world is Scott Snibbe, who produced sophisticated interactive experiences for museum galleries in the late 1990s and early 2000s. While engrossing, these interactive installations were expensive and complex to produce, so they appeared in a couple dozen venues over the decade. Once Snibbe looked outside of the white cube and began adapting versions of its works for the iPad, his audience grew from hundreds of gallerygoers to hundreds of thousands of users. At one point his work Gravilux was the number one free iPad app in the Apple App Store, and was downloaded 500,000 times.
Museums can aim for this tremendous reach by opening their Web sites up to broader models of distribution and access. Or they can collect the source code now, and then in 20 years when today’s popular digital platforms are extinct, they’ll regain their role as cultural standard-bearers by working with artist to renovate their works. In fact, I believe in the future museums will be known less as warehouses that mothball works and more as laboratories that re-create them.
Karina de Freitas - We are in the era of digital media, the technological obsolescence occurs at an unprecedented speed. In a time in which so many works of art are created (only in Rhizome’s Artbase are over 2,500 works of net.art), and given also the cost of the conservation process of media art, what are the criteria that defines today which works are more relevant to conservation? After all, all the works of media art should be preserved?
Jon Ippolito - Thinkers like Kevin Kelly don’t believe in information overload. They think we can store everything and just develop more and more efficient algorithms to pull the meaning out of the mess. Most works of media arts, however, have far too intricate dependencies on particular hardware and software for that to be feasible.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t put all of digital culture on ice for future inspection. Given the difficulty of re-creation, however, it does mean that we have to pick our battles. Preservationists should focus on writing an emulator that works for the most popular platforms. They should re-create an installation only if the artist, collector, sponsor, and source code are all on board and ready to work hard to make it happen.
We should also accept a triage approach: some works will be re-created at great expense; others, known only through screen casts of users interacting with them; still others known only as a title and date in a database somewhere.
And rather than fight over copyright, we should let whoever has the gumption to preserve digital culture digital works do so without wrangling over who owns that work. This especially goes for the thousands of amateur preservationists who archive, emulate, and mod pop culture like video games. Maybe safeguarding Donkey Kong or Nude Raider isn’t the highest priority for the American Institute for Conservation, but if a distributed community of fanboys is willing to put their shoulders to the wheel, more power to them.
Richard Rinehart and I talk at length about crowdsourcing preservation in our book Re-Collection: New Media and Social Memory, coming out in 2013.
Karina de Freitas - Maintain the media art is to preserve our cultural memory. This phrase seems somewhat poetic if we take into account that hundreds of media art works that are lost in time due to lack of maintenance. So what aspects are relevant to accelerate this process of preservation of art?
Jon Ippolito - Our book Re-Collection ends with twelve recommendations for rescuing new media culture from oblivion. That’s because there are twelve different kinds of people necessary to fix our broken system. Some are the usual suspects: curators, conservators, registrars, archivists. Others are people who might seem peripheral to the process of preservation, but who paint the backdrop against which all preservators work–people like lawyers, sponsors, and historians. As our book argues, the status quo is a holdover from a time when collecting something meant just putting it in a crate. And we are going to need all hands on deck to change that.
That’s why this September we are launching a Digital Curation online program at the University of Maine. While most such programs specialize in training for librarians, archivists, or museum professionals, our program recognizes that digital works are being created all the time by ordinary citizens in their everyday lives–whether they work in photography studios, government offices, or just have a Tumblr blog. And those ordinary citizens need to act as curators and archivists of their own and other people’s data.
Karina de Freitas - You used the term “proliferative preservation” as a strategy to save the new media, which includes the Variable Media Questionnaire. But in the future, new paradigms for the preservation of media art should arise. Nature is blamed for the deterioration of equipment. You say that while guilty, may end up serving as inspiration for new paradigms for the preservation of media art. Could you talk a little about the relevance of the Variable Media Questionnaire in the process of formation of a cultural heritage of media art? How nature could help to set new standards for conservation?
Jon Ippolito - Those are really two different questions. The Variable Media Questionnaire solicits opinions about exactly how a work should change over time (if at all). At first, the Questionnaire was controversial among more conservative curators or artists, but it was meant to be a practical instrument that can be used every day by folks tasked with maintaining creative works. And from what I can tell, such questionnaires–and more importantly, the fluid model of creativity they embody–are cropping up in many museum’s acquisition and conservation policies.
While the Variable Media Questionnaire assumes that works must transition from version to version in order to survive technical and cultural obsolescence, proliferative preservation represents a bigger conceptual leap that I’m not sure every institution is yet ready to make. Migration is like a “relay race,” in which each version once deprecated passes on the baton to the next “authentic” version. Proliferative preservation, on the other hand, is a splintering into simultaneous variations, spreading out like a fan rather than unfolding in a linear chain.
Even so, a version of proliferative preservation is already at work in communities based in asynchronous collaboration. Remix, for example, can help keep culture alive, albeit through a distorted lens. DJ Danger Mouse dusted off the Beatles by mashing up their beats with Jay Z’s vocals. Code revisions in the Linux kernel propagate into Ubuntu, Debian, and Red Hat distributions. In a less benign example of cultural proliferation, spammers clone passages from literary figures like Virginia Wolff or newspapers like The New York Times into fake blogs designed to manipulate search engine rankings.
But there is another, far older and more pervasive history of proliferative preservation. We find this in the dances, songs, and stories shared among indigenous peoples. And if we reach back still further and open my our minds a bit more, we see proliferative preservation in the genetic archive of all of the living beings surrounding us.
Our book Re-collection examines the advantages and disadvantages of such a living archive, comparing the now relatively accepted strategy of variable media with the much more speculative strategy of variable organisms. Researchers have shown that DNA is a computational medium that can store petaBytes of information or compute solutions to problems like the Travelling Salesman puzzle. Could wetware be the preservation medium of the future?