> Back in the day at the Guggenheim, Jon
> Ippolito was thinking of how to build in preservation and access as
> part of the commission/purchase/exhibition of new media art...
> Jon, do you want to describe that model for us?
Thanks for the nod, Rick, though plenty of other cooks added ingredients to the Guggenheim's variable media acquisition model, including conservator Carol Stringari and legal council Maria Pallante. Based on my experience at DOCAM, I'm glad to say the original recipe seems to have been plucked up and tweaked by a wide swath of museums involved with new media.
Below are six key features of the model, along with reflections on their success or failure based on an unscientific poll of contemporary art conservators I met at DOCAM, including Joanna Phillips (Guggenheim), Tiziana Caianiello (IMAI), and Glenn Wharton (MoMA).
1. The big add-on to our accession process was to interview the artist about how her work might change, if at all, in the future due to shifts in technology and other factors. The results were recorded in a Variable Media Questionnaire. If my informal poll is any judge, this practice seems alive and well; lots of DOCAM participants reported using an artist's questionnaire of some kind in their acquisitions.
That said, a recurring theme at DOCAM was how this re-validation of intent over material can make life easier for artists than for conservators. Although I don't recall this happening in my experience, evidently some artists have used the variable media philosophy as a pretext for dumbing down their work's technical requirements so as to nab a show at a prestigious venue. ("You don't have a film looper? That's OK, we can show it on video.")
An artist all too willing to sacrifice the historical and aesthetic specificity of particular equipment might strike a conservator as a sellout, and sometimes rightly so. Maybe the variable media paradigm has reinforced this reprehensible behavior. But I have to say, as an artist active on the Internet in the 1990s, my work never *had* a particular medium. My collaborators and I knew our Web sites would be seen in Netscape and Internet Explorer, on screens small and large, in millions of colors or only 256, over T1 lines and over 2400 baud modems. (I'm guessing Simon Bigg's with me on this one.)
This goes for many installations too: the work Apartment by Martin Wattenberg, Marek Walczak, and Jonathan Feinberg underwent two dozen variations in an 18-month period--not because the artists were pandering to curators, but because new media art, like a shark, has to keep moving to survive:
Conservators and other historical materialists may be reassured to learn that the newest version of the Variable Media Questionnaire casts a net far beyond the artist to register opinions on a work's future. More on that in another post.
2. At the Guggenheim we wrote an acquisition contract that explicitly required the museum to abide by the artist's variable media guidelines, and I was told that this is still the case. Benjamin Weil's "Care Contract" sounds similar, though I don't know its details. As evidence that this practice is beginning to spread, I was pleased to stumble upon this similar agreement for commissions with the city of San Jose, which Steve Dietz tells me probably reflects the influence of Barbara Goldstein and Mary Rubin (at least in section 17, "Variable Media Artwork Guidelines"):
3. For the budget of its 2002 online art commissions (Mark Napier's net.flag and John Simon's Unfolding Object), the Guggenheim took 15 percent and put it in a variable media endowment. The interest from that endowment over time was supposed to build up and supply a fund to pay programmers to re-create (say) net.flag in a post-Java version, or to update the flags it referred to to match the geopolitical realities of the year 2050. As far as I could tell, this practice *hasn't* survived well--but I still think there's a strong case to be made for it.
4. We wanted to get the source code for every work, but couldn't always, even for works we were legally required to preserve. I gathered from DOCAM that this is a recurring problem for certain artists. Although we never implemented it in my tenure at the Guggenheim, the Open Art Network proposed a third-party code escrow, comparable to the practice in commercial software development, whereby an artist would agree to let the museum have its paws on the code once it is no longer of (commercial) use to the artist. Glenn Wharton confirmed this strategy seems to be getting some consideration today, at least at his museum.
5. Though launched in 2002, Napier's net.flag remains to this day a popular online destination, to which random visitors still add about one new flag per hour. The artist felt the work required a persistent public presence, and I agreed--so we added a clause to the contract requiring the Guggenheim to keep the work up as long as technically and financially feasible. Further, if at some future date the museum can't handle this responsibility, the artist is fully in his rights to host it himself. ("If you can't take care of this puppy, back he goes!") From the sounds of Marcia Tanner's example, this practice may have survived in certain variations for other online works.
6. Even when a work is publicly available in the short term (like Napier's), if you've carefully documented its variable media aspects, you can argue that in the long term you may be the only museum with the knowledge necessary to re-create it. While the notion of exclusive ownership is counterproductive to preservation--something Rick's Open Museum is explicitly designed to correct--it is nevertheless the way most mainstream art collectors think. So I made that argument to the Guggenheim's Acquisition Committee about our Internet art commissioning program in 2001, and they bought it (literally).
For related reasons, I believe it's a mistake to confuse a work's commission or market price with its inherent value. I'm assuming a lot of new media commissions only net the artist something in the low five digits--or nothing at all. (In 1998 I got $1500 for a prestigious commission--and had to split it three ways with my collaborators.)
But take the longer view. An intern of mine once asked what you would get if you could add up all the money a museum spent migrating, emulating, and otherwise re-creating a work from now to the future. At first I thought this was a pointless question, but on reflection realized it was an ingenious way to establish a lower limit on the value of an artwork. Plenty of people buy a cat for 10 dollars and then drop a cool thousand on shots at the vet. Which outlay better represents the value of that animal to its owner?
Forging the Future:
New tools for variable media preservation