Speculative Archiving && Experimental Preservation of Media Art

Nina Wenhart
A spectre is haunting Media Art – the spectre of digital decay. All the powers of old school archiving have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Academics and industry, Microsoft and Free Software, pirates and copyright law enforcers.

This research explores experimental and speculative approaches to archiving and preserving Media Art. As such I define artistic and academic theory-practices that dare to think beyond the confines of traditional strategies to see if and how they can contribute new aspects of dealing with failure, decay and obsolescence – in other words, the everyday challenges of archiving and preservation.

While recent years have seen the spring of numerous research initiatives for preserving and archiving Media Art, the question remains if these artworks are ‘archive-able’ at all, in the traditional sense. Database archives and research initiatives have been launched and then disappeared again, without offering solid, sustainable solutions. Increasing technological decay and the loss or subsequent inaccessibility of data not only poses a threat to Digital Cultural Heritage – of which New Media Art constitutes an important part – but also demonstrates the shortcomings of traditional archival practices when applied to this field.

Speculative archiving

Speculative archiving starts by understanding a work of art as an ongoing process. It therefore qualifies artistic re/production and radical modifications as legitimate ways of contributing new aspects to the discourse of archiving Media Art. Rather than in deep storage, solutions for sustainability seem to be provided by the network, in which artistic practices of hacking, remixing and Open Culture, of versions, glitches and pirating, of sampling, appropriation and wild dissemination, are creating novel perspectives on digital originals and mutant life forms on a daily basis. The accelerating loss caused by (politically-implemented) incompatibilities of different hardware, of software versions, of decay and obsolescence force us to rethink the archive and its processes. It no longer is a passive place, but has become a hyperactive non-space.

By grasping the ‘currents of current culture’, speculative archiving is a critique of the standard model for particles and forces in economic, academic and cultural realities, the particles that matter in this context, the subtext of coded cultures. It departs from traditional archiving in three major points: Firstly, that the artwork is not a product or a closed entity, but a process and open system; Secondly, that the scope of an archive can no longer be restrained to storage and the prolongation of the shelf-life of assets, but has to embrace the circulation of copies, versions, remixes and other forms of modifications; And thirdly, that the original – the holy cow of art history – is finally slaughtered and Walter Benjamin’s concept of the aura in his seminal text “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” has to be rethought with a different mindset.

Speculative archiving is a re/search for/about methodologies that are compatible with the complex and changing issues of Media Art. Far from seeking or resulting in a standard procedure, it is developing, testing, applying and analysing a diverse range of fluid, modular strategies and methods. On the massively moving waves of technological development, Media Art’s survival depends on how well it can adapt to these constant changes, not anchored to one standard that might be short lived, but freely floating with the best practices available. For in the end, a moving ship is safer when on the open sea than tied to the coast.

“Know ye, now, Bulkington? Glimpses do ye seem to see of that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore?”
(H. Melville, Moby Dick, Lee Shore chapter)


Posted in in/compatible Research Category