Reading the Art Between the Lines

Eddy Colloton is a second-year graduate student in the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation M.A. program at New York University. He recently completed an internship in the conservation department of the Denver Art Museum, preserving born-digital works from the museums design collection.


The design and manufacture of computer hardware and software has consistently looked in only one direction: forward. The proprietors of these technologies have drove headlong toward their mandate of “better, faster, cheaper” – rarely pausing to look behind them at the trail of obsolete and outdated technologies in their wake. For many, this manifests in the casual annoyance of constantly updating the operating systems on our personal devices, but for the conservator of contemporary art, the ramifications of this ever-shifting digital landscape represent a serious threat to museum collections.

“TechFocus iii: Caring for Software-based Art,” a symposium organized by the American Institute for Conservation’s Electronic Media Group, sought to address the difficult task of preserving works created in a constantly evolving medium. Hosted by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the symposium brought together leaders in the field of software-preservation from a variety of cultural institutions to share case studies, provide workshops, and to further develop a network of collection caretakers. The complexities of software-based artworks are immense, and a community of collection professionals (formed through events like these) is essential to providing future access and exhibition of such works.

Presenters at the two-day symposium reiterated a two-pronged approach to handling software as stewards of memory. To properly preserve a work of software-based art, one must understand the mechanism of the artwork – how it functions, how it was created, how it “decays.” However this technical understanding is insufficient without a dual understanding of the expression inherent in the production process and functionality of the work – what does this use of technology mean? What artistic expression is the contemporary conservator charged with preserving?

These parallel aims were established in the opening presentations of the symposium. Mark Hellar, a technology consultant for SFMOMA and other cultural institutions, educated symposium attendees on the mechanics of coding, providing a brief lesson in the development of computing languages from COBOL to Arduino. This historical overview was mirrored in curator and educator Christiane Paul’s presentation The Evolution of Software-Based Art: A History of Art Production and Curatorial Practice, reflecting museum practices related to software-based art. Ms. Paul’s presentation tracked early examples of collecting and exhibiting works created using computer code, and throughout this timeline, indicated the important role of the artist in contextualizing their own work.

Jurg Lehni’s Drawing Machine "Viktor" (2006)

Jurg Lehni’s Drawing Machine “Viktor” (2006)

Echoing this sentiment, many of the case studies presented at TechFocus iii required substantial engagement with the artist. Contemporary artist Jürg Lehni has formed a strong relationship with SFMOMA in the process of installing and exhibiting his work. Lehni continues to actively participate in the preservation of his drawing machine Viktor (2006-), editing exhibition documentation (now written in markdown language, the artist’s suggestion), and sharing code updates through a cloud-based account.

Similarly, the Guggenheim enlisted the perspective of artist Siebren Versteeg on his work Untitled Film II (2006). When installed, Versteeg’s work is composed of two projectors or monitors, displaying names of individuals who have recently been born, or have recently deceased. The work’s inherent relationship with current information gathered on the contemporary web guarantees its need to change over time. A team of conservators from the Guggenheim and computer science students from NYU worked directly with Versteeg to identify the essential qualities of his work, and how software and hardware articulate these qualities. Through engagement with the artist, the museum was able to arrive at a preservation strategy that maintains the original character of the work. Moreover, the Guggenheim has fostered a relationship with Versteeg that will allow for future collaboration as the technologies that make up Untitled II evolve over time.

TechFocus iii Workshop Part 1: Understanding Code as the Foundation of Software-Based Art

TechFocus iii Workshop Part 1: Understanding Code as the Foundation of Software-Based Art

To establish such relationships, and to elicit meaningful feedback from artists, a technical understanding of software and computer code is invaluable. To this end, the second day of TechFocus iii began with a workshop, providing attendees with hands-on experience with tools for disk imaging, documenting code, and even creating their own works of software-based art.

Ben Fino-Radin, digital repository manager at MoMA, began the workshop with an introduction to the command line interface, demystify the process of working without a graphical user interface, and sending text-based commands directly to the software. Professor Deena Engel of the Department of Computer Science at NYU, along with Mark Hellar, guided the symposium attendees through the process of writing code in the computer language Processing, and how to document and monitor the changes of that code using the software Git.

Armed with these skills, collection caretakers will be able to work directly with the material in their repositories more comfortably, and, perhaps more importantly, these museum, archive, and library professionals will hold a deeper understanding of the way artists are using these tools to create art.

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