In the primeval days of the PC and the web – that would be the Eighties and Nineties -- artists became just as enamored with digital technology as techies did, seeing in the new media the potential to expand old forms in new ways and the capacity to invent art that couldn’t have been conceived of, let alone realized, before – all well and good except that the new media has proven even more ephemeral than more traditional works that made use of paint, canvas, wood, stone and metal. Sooner or later all artistic creations do deteriorate although it usually takes several decades or centuries for a patina to form, paint to fade, or metal to rust and corrode. It is seldom that art – traditional art anyway – regardless of when it was made or by whom -- to become obsolete. But that is exactly what’s happening to work generated on computers and that’s turning out to be a vexing problem (philosophical as well as practical) for museums that have acquired computerized art.
If a work is changed or simply ceases to function because the technology used to produce it has been superseded is it the restorer’s job to reverse engineer it, return it to the condition it was in when the artist created it? The Whitney Museum recently had to grapple with just such a dilemma when a piece in their collection called “The World’s First Collaborative Sentence,” created by the artist Douglas Davis on the Internet between 1995 and 2000, stopped ‘working.’ As its title suggests, “Sentence” was an interactive collaboration which ultimately attracted the contributions of 200,000 people around the world. But the software used to produce the work has long become obsolete with the result that the piece crashed. ‘Sentence’ no longer functioned as intended. The antiquated codes and the links were out of date. “There was endlessly scrolling and seemingly indecipherable text in a format that had long ago ceased being cutting edge,” reports Melna Ryzik writing in The New York Times. “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.” The museum’s curators had to decide whether if they updated the software they would be changing the artwork, undermining its integrity. The answer would be obvious if you were dealing with, say, a portrait by Leonardo; it’s one thing to clean a canvas and retouch it to restore its true colors, but quite another to repaint it in an attempt to duplicate the original pigments. The Whitney’s dilemma, Ryzik reports, is hardly unique. New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Pompidou Museum in Paris are only a few of the museums that have been collecting digital art. “We’re working on constantly shifting grounds,” said Rudolf Frieling, a curator of media arts at the San Francisco MOMA, “Whatever hardware, platform or device we’re using is not going to be there tomorrow.” In the case of “Sentence,” the Whitney hit upon a Solomonic solution: it decided to present the work in both its original and updated, debugged forms. But what happens in twenty or fifty years from now when the obsolete technology can no longer be recovered or made to work. Would that mean that works rendered on computers at the end of the 20th Century would simply cease to function and turn into lifeless relics?