Digital art may vanish as technology changes, guru warns (Feature)
By Ingo Senft-Werner Dec 10, 2010, 2:06 GMT
Karlsruhe, Germany - Digital art, lovingly made with Macs and PCs over a quarter of a century, is vanishing forever as new tech pushes out the old, a digital-art guru in Germany is warning.
A lot of so-called media art from the 1980s and 1990s can no longer be shown in contemporary art museums because the display devices provided by the artist are worn out, but no replacements are on the market.
Many 1980s artists welcomed the opportunity to fuse audio art, which uses creative soundtracks, and performance art. They built whole walls of video, did installations that included video images, or simply made artworks on disc.
It was harder to sell than a framed canvas, but top art museums and wealthy art-lovers gladly collected the work.
Now, 'data rot' is hitting many museums as CDs and DVDs containing such audiovisual art degrade. The discs' lifetime is limited.
Bernhard Serexhe, an art historian who works at the Centre for Art and Media Technology ZKM at Karlsruhe in Germany, explained one reason: the hardware used back then has vanished from the market.
The software is also on the way out, as operating systems and programs evolve. Work from just 10 years back can be widely reproduced but is sometimes unplayable on the current computer operating systems.
'A key promise of digital was long-term data security, but it has not been met,' said Serexhe.
Museums are now desperately seeking ways to preserve the expensive assets.
In the 1990s, they over-estimated the digital lifetimes of the art, and, in Serexhe's view, failed to invest in conserving it, partly because of a lack of funds.
'Often the files were already corrupted when they were put into storage,' he said. 'Quite often they have either been irretrievably lost, or are only recoverable with a major investment of work and money.'
Artists and collectors must now face up to a fundamental question.
'What is the logical consequence if we have to assume that today's digital artwork has a shelf life of under 10 years?' he said.
The faster the technology develops, the quicker is the rate of decay, he added. The digital collector's desire to preserve the asset contradicts the technology companies' economic interest in constantly changing and updating the software to extend sales.
'If they want to remain in the market, they must avoid selling secure memory systems that function long-term,' said Serexhe, who argues that such a strategy is a threat to cultural heritage.
'At the demand of powerful lobbies, more and more of our cultural heritage has actually been digitized in recent years,' he said. In digital form, art is easier to use commercially worldwide. But no one is responsible for preserving the work when the IT changes.
Serexhe quotes as an example a file set on CD-ROM created in 1999 by the Spanish artist Antoni Muntadas.
It includes pictures, as well as texts and audio interviews in three languages.
'It is ideal content for an art historian covering Muntadas' area who is looking for documentation,' he said.
But Apple Macintosh computers since 2007 cannot play the CD-ROM because the new Mac OS X operating system does not include certain applications that were in the older Macs. Recent Microsoft Windows versions also refuse to play the Muntadas files.
'We were a co-producer of this CD-ROM, but not even specialists from our centre can get it to play properly on the current operating systems,' he said.
ZKM, which claims the world's biggest library of digital art and its own art museum, has been supervisor since January 2010 of a three-year European Union research project, Digitale Kunst, which is aimed at finding some answers. Internet: http://www.digitalartconservation.org
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