Computer Art Conservation



Virtualization as a preservation strategy for computer based artefacts

By Hanna Barbara Hölling

Electronic media has entered art collections a considerable time ago. Nowadays,
installations including media such as video and film are hardly to think away from a
contemporary exhibition space. Moving image and time-based arts became common
notions in the contemporary art discourse. However, only a little has so far been said
on computer based artefacts and the problems of displaying, maintaining, storing
and, last but not least, preserving them for the future audiences. A question arises as
to the reason why those media receive such a little attention, notwithstanding their
exemplary presence in a great number of contemporary and recent art collection?
At times, it is the technical complexity of computer-based art that aggravate the
access and understanding of the functionality and specificity of those objects. A
competence in maintaining and preserving those artworks has so far been a rare and
unappreciated virtue. One more reason why source code based art has attracted
little attention might lie in the fact that the artists play also a role of technicians in re-
installing, adjusting, arranging and maintaining their works themselves. Caretaker
and institutions in charge have learned that only by involving artists in a collaborative,
synergetic cooperation may they ensure the performance of the displays.
The presence of computer based art goes back to the seventies (first computer
graphics) and experience its greatest development only in the last two decades.
Today the artists are still alive, active and able to participate in the 'live' of their own
production. This situation, however, is not of indeterminate duration; it might shift
significantly in the near future when the new generation of caretaker encounters a
number of artefacts that authentic technical history and specific behaviour will no
more be recoverable. Subsequently, it will render those artworks inoperable in a
condition as close as possible to artist's primer intension; a conservator nightmare, a
great thread to a significant portion of the digital cultural heritage.

For this reason, computer based art call for development of new, reliable
preservation strategy that enables the existence a number of installations in museum
collections and private displays in the coming times. One of the preservation
solutions applicable to computer media might be offered by the virtualization.

Virtualization is the creation of a virtual (rather than actual) version of an operating
system, a server or network resource. It enables abstracting the data form a physical
storage and operating system into a new/different environment. By the mean of a
virtual machine - a digital carrier enabling the portability of computer- and internet-
based artworks, a creation of a hardware-independent environment renders the
artworks portable, in other worlds suitable for migration and emulation and thus
operable in the future.

Currently, the (first) research project devoted to the exploration of the possibilities of
virtualization and its application as a preservation strategy for computer based
artefacts is running at the Netherlands Media Art Institute in Amsterdam (coordinated
by Gaby WIjers). For the first time, in the international group of researchers and with
participation of the artist, the project aims to investigate the advantages and
disadvantages of virtualization process. The empirical study is being conducted on a
given artwork that will be be a subject to migration and virtualization. The evaluation
of the results will be conducted both by the professionals as well as by the audience

in a form of a specifically tailored questionnaire on the occasion of a comparative
display of both installationsʼ version.

Virtualization as a preservation strategy for computer-based artworks may stimulate
the establishment of a research network within the new announced Science4Arts
programme for conservation and restoration of art.