The afterlives of network-based artworks

The afterlives of network-based artworks

Journal of the Institute of Conservation
Volume 40, 2017 – Issue 2


Due to the obsolescence of software programmes, hardware and network infrastructures, many network-based artworks have disappeared. How can we give them an afterlife? A close look at messages within an international new media curating mailing list reveals that current theories and practices relating to digital art preservation are extensively based on a comparison with performance art and an immaterialist conception of art. This paper aims to challenge these notions and put forward a suggestion as to what we might call the materiality of ‘machinic-writing’. It focusses on the media-archaeological reconstruction of a telematic artwork by Eduardo Kac, his Videotext Poems, to develop the idea of what we call a ‘second original’ artwork. This second original is a sometimes incomplete duplication of a digital work of art which has either disappeared or is non-functional and achieved by reproducing as closely as possible its original conditions in terms of hardware, software and user experience. Its function is aesthetic, educational and epistemological. This paper aims to show that what is at stake is not so much the work of art’s afterlife, since it has ‘died’, but rather its new archival life.

One extract

One critique of this line of thought is from the artist Martine Neddam (a.k.a. Mouchette), whose, an emblematic work of 1990s internet art, is a complex piece comprised of a large number of variants, sites, sub-sites, contributions and, therefore, an extremely rich database. Neddam has variously argued that preserving her work consists in conserving its constantly growing database which thereby constitutes an argument against the re-interpretation thesis. She argues that re-interpretation presupposes the need for an original that would act as a trace (recordings, scores or other traces), which could then be used as the basis for such re-interpretation. However for all internet artworks based on databases there can be no original since the artwork is perpetually changing and being continuously re-interpreted. In other words, such an artwork is itself an endless performance.2525 Neddam made these contributions to the conference UNFOLD#2—Reinterpretation as Creative Act held at LiMa, Amsterdam on 14 September 2016, (accessed 15 January 2017), and subsequently at a study day at the Beaux-Arts de Paris (France) centred on the preservation of digital arts and literature, co-organised by Alexandra Saemmer (LABEX Arts-H2H) and Emmanuel Guez (PAMAL).View all notes

Dekker recounted how the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the Museum of the Image (MOTI) Breda, Netherlands jointly acquired but, given its complexity and its generative dimension, how they could not acquire the entirety of the artwork. Consequently, Neddam offered to sell a fixed encapsulated version of the work along with documentation containing screenshots and a video explaining the working of the site which meant understanding the administration of the database. Briefly, a version of a ‘mechanical Turk’ is needed for some database functions and so anything about its preservation, necessarily involves, according to the artist, the oral transmission of such know-how to a third party in a form of what she calls its ‘generative preservation’.

Faced with the question of how to preserve, Ippolito formulated the hypothesis that the artwork is neither score nor the recording, but rather a ‘matrix  …  a structured environment containing the building blocks of future life … ’. This matrix contains instructions that can be read both by humans and a machine and, in addition, the necessary screen recordings and interpretative documents giving the context to know how these ‘instructions are meant to be performed’.

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