Digital Art Proves Difficult to Preserve as Older Technology Becomes Obsolete

What constitutes art in the digital world, and how is it separate from the technology used to make it? It’s a question that plagues conservators as they attempt to preserve early forms of digital art, which often become difficult to replicate as technology improves. The Boston Globe explored some of the challenges in this morning’s paper, detailing, for instance, the problem with a Cory Arcangel work from from the “olden days” of 2002:

“Digital Diaries” was made by scaling up very small videos in order to achieve a pixelated look. When browsers displayed the videos, they showed sharp, colorful blocks, as intended. But since the videos were created in 2002, browser technology has improved, and today’s software smooths off the hard edges in “Digital Diaries.” This smoothing is great for scaling up photos, but it undermines a work like “Digital Diaries,” which deliberately exploited limitations in earlier browsers. Fortunately, for Fino-Radin, the fix was relatively simple, because the old up-scaling algorithms are still available.

At least with Arcangel’s work, the old technology is still readily available. What about work from several decades ago? It’s a constantly evolving challenge that’s increasingly being taken up by museums and digital-art-related non-profit organizations like Rhizome. Just how hard is it? Akin to “trying to pin Jell-O to a wall,” Lynn Herrmann Traub of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum (outside Boston) told the Globe.

— Shane Ferro

Image: QR Code art (Scott Bl8ke; Creative Commons)