Hyperrhiz 11: Reviews
Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito, Re-Collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory
North Carolina State University
Rinehart, Richard, and Jon Ippolito. Re-Collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2014. 297pp.; 88 b/w ills. Cloth $35.00 (9780262027007)
How can we attempt to preserve art and practices of art-making that rely on binary code as a means of their creation? Will works of new media art dissolve into a state of obsolescence, further degrading each time computer platforms are updated or specific technical components are no longer manufactured? For traditional artworks, preservation methods are considerably more clear-cut; a 17th century Rembrandt can be carefully monitored in a climate controlled storage vault, sealed within the mausoleum art institution so as to combat the physical deterioration that inevitability comes with time. Yet the problem with works of new media art created within the later half of the 20th and into the 21st century is that storage is simply not enough to preserve the materiality and cultural significance of digital artworks. It can be quite difficult to find a replacement part for a Super Nintendo Entertainment System in an effort to preserve the context of a video game installation, and it can be just as daunting for curators to save digital animation files whose renderings no longer run on newer versions of software. Unfortunately, each time a new media artwork dies from obsolescence, a sliver of our cultural heritage dies with it. It is this problem of preserving the materiality, and most importantly, the social memory bound to works of new media art that seasoned curators Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito tackle head on in Re-Collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory.
For Ippolito and Rinehart, the answer to bringing content on old magnetic tapes, CDs, and file formats back to life is through the notion of variable media, a highly fluid method of preservation that "encourages creators to define a work in medium-independent terms so that it can be translated into a new medium once its original format is obsolete" (11). From the conservator's perspective, this allows the preservation of each work to be weighed in accordance to the artist's intent or rather, how a new media creation (and with it an image of contemporary culture) can live on while keeping loss of context and artistic essence at a minimum. The variable media approach presented in Re-Collection should offer a sense of hope and inspiration for curators who are currently questioning the nature of preservation practices after the digital turn. For Ippolito and Rinehart, there is no universal, "end-all" formula to preserve digital art in the wake of technological obsolescence, burdensome copyright laws, and institutional short-sightedness. Instead, and which is certainly the power of their argument in Re-Collection, Ippolito and Rinehart suggest that endangered new media art can be saved if curators "can identify the agents responsible for sending them to an early grave and find a way to outwit or reform them" through variable modes of digital preservation, namely emulation (running a copy of an Atari 2600 game on Windows 8.1), Migration(transferring a work of video art on Betamax to DVD), or reinterpretation (rewriting code using Python because an older programming language has become obsolete)(11). Of course, as the authors mention, each of these approaches has their benefits and downfalls. While these methods might help our social memory live on, they can just as easily detract from the authenticity of a work. Again, this is why Ippolito's and Rinehart's variable media approach presents such a saving grace. Each new media work is its own animal and as such, must be cared for differently. In noble fashion, the author-curators even admit that certain digital artworks are meant to perish as their conceptual nature is defined by their ephemerality.
There are culprits to blame for the decay of digital art and Ippolito and Rinehart provide a sound analysis of the big three: the technology sector, copyright laws, as well as the very institutional strongholds that are meant to protect such works. In terms of technology, that companies produce so that upgrades are needed biannually, Ippolito and Rinehart suggest that "for some artists, and for certain artworks, the choice of a new medium has doomed the artwork in the long term, whereas for others the temporal limitations of a medium become an accepted fact or even a crucial part of the work's aesthetic" (45). For instance, Ken Jacobs' stroboscopic film performance Bitemporal Vision (1994) uses two 16mm film projectors to create the illusion of three-dimensionality. As a significant artist within the canon of avant-garde film, it would seem near blasphemous to convert the celluloid of Jacobs' work into a digital facsimile of such. In a different vein, Bruce Sterling's internet artwork Embrace the Decay (2003), which uses flash animation to show a virtual typewriter whose keys fall away, has already begun to pass into a state of obsolesce as new flash plugin upgrade requests are intentionally ignored by Sterling, a choice on his behalf to help solidify the artistic message of his work. As Ippolito and Rinehart make clear, the call for medium-independent preservation is a necessity in order to evaluate whether works need saving (or should be left to die naturally).
Ippolito and Rinehart also tactfully unveil the inconsistencies of copyright law that injure the production of new media art as "artists and galleries have made the paradigm shift of peddling licenses and certificates instead of pigments and videotapes" in order to secure their intellectual property, a term that has become considerably more nebulous in the past decades for digital artists (141). The authors put forth the example of programmer/cultural theorist Alexander Galloway's attempt to recreate a virtual version of the late French Marxist Guy Debord's board game Kriegspiel. After production of the virtual Kriegspiel (2008) commenced, legal altercations ensued between Galloway and Debord's estate making it difficult for Galloway, whose virtual copy meticulously recreated the original look, feel, and rules of Debord's game. As Ippolito and Rinehart waste no time in calling out, copyright and intellectual property can act as "a form of cultural genocide — one for which the law acts as an accomplice, if not the chief perpetrator" (153). Their answer to these genocidal laws is taking a progressive approach to copyright, using digital artwork repositories as a means to experiment and provide precedent for real-world relationships between artists, lawyers, and institutions.
Ippolito and Rinehart make the strongest case for why a paradigm shift in preservation should be implemented through variable media with their treatment of the art institution as a killer of digital artworks and cultural heritage. The authors boldly suggest that the very keeper of knowledge, the art institution that they themselves are integral to, is guilty for allowing forms of media art to perish along with our social memory. Ippolito and Rinehart are absolutely right in suggesting that the traditional model of the art museum is "resistant to change" and that while its "mission is to preserve culture, its adherence to time-honoured policies can doom the works in its care as surely as printing them on nonarchival paper or leaving them out in the rain" (75). Often curators who are still indebted to traditional preservation models are entirely unaware that they are contributing to the death of new media works through practices of over-authenticating their recreation and poor collection management systematizing. For curators, collection managers, and virtually any museum employee who is passionate about safeguarding our cultural consciousness, variable media practices should be a wakeup call, and it is entirely refreshing to see that the authors openly admit that the same institutional traditions that they have been tied to are in need of change. Ippolito and Rinehart call instead for the creation of museums that have open access to digital works, what they deem the open museum model. In this sense, anyone via an online repository of digital art can view, interact with, and even remix digital works, with the responsibility of digital preservation crowdsourced to a global army of programmers and artists who can create emulation software, migrate works to different platforms, and reinterpret digital creations in fresh and innovative ways.
As curators, Ippolito's and Rinehart's sense of passion for saving digital art and our social memory is evident in Re-Collection and their book is a manifesto for museum professionals who are feeling the anxieties over how to best hold on to a sense of our collective, cultural heritage in the digital age. For the ardent curator, this book is a call to arms: an advocacy campaign for reconsidering traditional ways of thinking about preservation standards and combating the forces that are contributing to the atrophying of new media art through a variable media approach. In the struggle against the main assassins — technology, law, and institution — that stalk our cultural sector, we can triumph, and Ippolito and Rinehart are leading the charge.