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Re: Antw: [NEW-MEDIA-CURATING] An article that doesn't understand new media art


"Goebel, Johannes" <[log in to unmask]>


Goebel, Johannes


Sat, 28 Jun 2014 22:11:23 +0000





text/plain (528 lines)

Dear Crumbs,

Please allow me to share a different view to Oliver¹s perspective.

Since I am not a known member of the new/digital media circles, I should
maybe give a few pointers to my background so what I write is not by
necessity heard as the voice of a disenchanted person, but as coming from
someone who has been involved deeply in parts of the field discussed in
this list. This background does not pre-qualify my view, but it does give
an indication of my continuous involvement in some parts of the field.

I have worked in institutions focused on ³digital² and ³art² in two
phases. 13 years as a founding member of ZKM in Germany and then 13 years
as founding director of EMPAC in the US. And then outside of such
institutions in the 13 years before ZKM, I was learning some trades in the
field starting with computer music at Stanford, trying to get ³something
going² in Germany with a culture deeply averted at the time to the
combination of ³digital² and ³art(s)² ­ which is another interesting

As part of these positions I curated and organized in 1989 the first
MultiMediale festival of ZKM, which then took place up to the opening of
ZKM. At ZKM I was able to set-up the structure of ³institutes² for
production and research as the first Leiter, ³director², of music and
acoustics ­ and a year later Jeffrey Shaw joined us as the Leiter of image
media. During the first half of my time at ZKM, I was highly involved with
the design and construction of the ZKM building and facilities. And at the
same time I was deeply involved in a large archival project of digital
data (music) at a time when grants were declined for such endeavors
because ³all-digital archives are not feasible² (1990).

The discussion, Oliver spearheaded in this forum regarding museums and
digital art, would find a trove of materials by analyzing the process,
development and turns of the museums at ZKM. Indeed, the ZKM museums did
have the largest ³media art² collections at the time and they have
invested a lot of energy, work and more or less deliberations into the
museumification of such art works. A highly interesting case study some of
you in academia might find a Ph.D. student to dive intoŠ

An analysis of the productions and directions of the two producing
institutes at ZKM might be equally valuable. Both institutes had
distinctively different goals, methodologies and cultural perspectives in
pursuing their potential. And I think it is fair to say that an analysis
of how the production side of ZKM evolved after Peter Weibel took the lead
at ZKM and Jeffrey and I left in 2002 may indeed be of high historical
interest ­ how it all shifted, where the creation of new works has been
positioned in relationship to the agendas of the ZKM museums, how
exhibition, retrospectives and preservation activities in conjunction with
panels and intellectual activities have shaped the change over time at an
institution founded specifically as a combination of production, public
engagement and exhibiting museums.

Analyzing in concrete terms the activities of the ZKM museums regarding
³media art² works at ZKM will reveal in very concrete terms the needs and
necessities, strategies and difficulties, Oliver addresses in his plea for
(central European) museums to integrate new/media/digital art into their
corpus. I do not believe that so much has changed in the field that an
analytical dissection of ZKM museum activities in regard to such art works
can be most revealing. (Starting with video monitors for Paik
installations all the way to operating systems and ports of ³only digital²
works) ­ worth another Ph.D. thesis.

Such analysis may yield, that the support system for digital ³stuff² and
for the related technologies ­ as it was in exemplary fashion tackled at
ZKM ­ is financially unobtainable or not sustainable (people, expertise,
machines, budgets etc.). Two pointers: Currently only the western military
powers (and maybe the cloud giants???) are most likely in the position to
constantly monitor their data, copy it before it deteriorates and port it
to other formats and operating systems. There is a reason why banks
(certainly one of the most powerful entities on this planet) stick for so
long to old generations of machines, languages and operating systems for
decades way beyond where the technology industry has moved the rest of the
world; or why they even print their data out on acid-free paper and store
it deep in a mountain.

I was hired to the US to build an ³Experimental Media and Performing Arts
Center² (EMPAC) as part of the oldest technical university in the US,
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. I worked with architects and engineers
to define parameters and functionality for an ­ eventually - $220 million
project, which did not have any museums, but which was to be focused on
³time-based arts² and creating a common infrastructure and program that
would span the digital (computer) and the physical (experiential) realms
and that would support arts, science and engineering to use the facilities
under the same roof with the hope for serendipity to bridge between the
different motivations, goals and methodologies of arts, science and
engineering. At the same time I was enabled to create a team of four
curators (covering time-based arts from the visual arts to music, dance
and theater) years before the center opened its doors.

³All of the sudden² a center was created that stands in contradiction to
the main stream of how culture is viewed in this society (which is
detrimental to the European perspectives ­ and that is one reason why
Oliver¹s arguments sound totally different here in the US). And this
center for some mysterious reason has developed in a first phase the ³arts
side² to its full potential with residencies, commissions, technical
development and events and installations, while the ³research side²
(science) is now catching up - quite the opposite to other such projects
at universities. (It should be mentioned that EMPAC is a university-wide
center and is not part of any department or school and there are no
regular classes or teaching at EMPAC as there is no faculty, but a staff
of professionals dedicated to the mission and program of EMPAC).

This now brings me to my ³different perspective² in contraposition to

Indeed culture is only possible by tradition ­ that which is passed from
one to the other. And there are different paths for passing things, for
changing histories, for preserving that what was done, for
re-interpretation etc. ­ like oral, making objects, symbolic (writing or
math or digital encoding), and there are different media that are or carry
that what can get passed on (from papyrus to stone to paint to engravings,
etc), digital being the latest addition.

And the major difference being, that digital ³stuff² is not an object we
can perceive without it being ³brought back² through intermediary
materials (machines) into the realm of our senses ­ the only way we can
perceive and interpret that which is encoded in the ³invisible, mute,
intangible² mode of the digital is the mapping of the ²invisible² into the
realm of our senses, seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting Š

So it might be worthwhile to regard all art that involves digital
technology as time-based art. It is not ³an object², it needs at least
conversion from the ³intangible² into the realm of our perception. So even
a digital image or just a text that gets displayed on a monitor or screen
would be time-based (remember flickering screens that might interact with
fluorescent lights); time as a constituent of the machine and of the
conversion (I/O) and of what appears.

And most certainly all executions of any computer program are time based.
Because the computer is time-based ­ not on a perceivable way for sure,
for if you want to see if a chip functions on the electrical level you
have to use a logic analyzer which slows ³things² down for our senses so
we can figure out if a transistor functions properly ­ again the digital
operations needs to be converted to the bandwidth / resolution / speed of
our senses to be able to determine ³what it is doing².

Every piece of net-art is time-based art. Every digital video is
time-based art in a dual sense ­ it is something moving that needs to get
moved (converted) to be perceived, experienced and interpreted as moving.
(Movies on acetate substrate are time-based in a single sense, since we
can look at each individual frame and they are meant to get accelerated).

Every work that involves digital technology is not only time-based because
the machine itself is time-based in its operational mode, but also on the
next higher level in the sense that the machine itself (including
operating systems, programming languages, video or audio standards etc.)
is time-based in an economic sense. Its ever-changing ³embodiment² gets
changed continuously by powers outside of those who use it (us). This is
different from a sculpture deteriorating over time or a painting building
up grime on its surface or an acetate film fading. It is also different
from printing technology moving to the next generation of printing
machines. The book once printed, is an object. But a new computer system
may render that, which previously could be executed and converted for our
senses as being impossible to get done. The ³instructions² need to be

To look at ³digital² art as tangible objects misses fundamentally the
properties of computers and thus of the work itself. (I am using ³digital²
in this context as short hand for ³computer based² ­ certainly there are
non-computer based digital modes).

The declaration or viewing of all ³digital² art as time-based arts changes
the perspective on such art radically. It is now part of ³performing
arts², it needs to be ³performed² or in the digital realm ³executed² (i.e.
put on a time-line) to ³come to live², to be perceived, experienced and

(Just to not get side-tracked too much: certainly viewing a painting is
also ³time-based² as is the deterioration of a sculpture­ but I am
referencing the mode of the ³object² and ³non-object² and not the mode of
us as living beings who cannot be but time-based and are born and will
die, with many heart beats in between.)

So museums as institutions based on collecting art in the form of tangible
objects may or are not be the appropriate place for time-based arts. As
for exhibiting time-based art museums certainly have a ³function² and
offer opportunities. But the recent boom in tying performing arts and
performance art into the program of museums shows the great, well:
incapability, lack of expertise and understanding of museums to deal with
time-based art. Museums built in the past decades do not meet any criteria
for ³time-based media art², ³digital² art or leave alone for ³performing

Even at ZKM where it was the program of the museums to show such art, it
was extremely difficult during the design process to integrate at least a
few elements that would allow the exhibition of such art in an appropriate
and easily manageable way. The lack of understanding came from those in
power who had little of an idea or experience with ³media² art even of the
eightiesŠ leave alone interactive installations and their conditions And
most of you who are curating ³media² or ³digital² art in such institutions
will know best the difficulties you are up against on the
institutional-political as well as on the production side to for instance
get that large spaces can be dark, that projectors are not noisier than
the potentially subtle sounds of an installation, that there is no sound
spilling over form a neighboring installation, that adequate projection
surfaces are installed, that the lighting does not interfere or does
supports sensor technology etc. It is ³absolutely maddening² for people
who are coming from the time-based arts to realize how little sensitivity
and expertise such institutions have allowed to grow within their walls to
show time-based art, not mentioning the design of new museums integrating
these arts.

Likewise the arts market: time-based art does not accumulate ³added value²
over time. Musicians, dancers and actors have understood that forever ­
their art is gone as soon as it is performed (²executed²) and experienced
and it is needs a new performance to enter the realm of perception, to
meet an audience. ³Media², ³digital² art falls into the same category.
Only tangible objects accumulate value and can be market driven.

Why does a major museum like MoMA pay a pittance for the screening of a
video or for acquiring videos (unless you are a star)? Because the value
is time-based and ³expires after use². It cannot accumulate value wile
sitting on a shelf, because time cannot sit still.

So the argument that museums have a cultural mission and one could
pressure them to accommodate and preserve ³digital² art, can at best be
valid for central European countries. But even that direction of thought
may be flawed because ­ as I tried to point out ­ museums are not
institutions that were ever meant to deal with time-based ³entities². They
are deeply rooted in the 19th century as a successor to arts collections
by the courts and churches. And as containers for the trophies of colonial
Before, courts and churches had, besides their arts collections and
libraries, a separate entity for time-based arts­ their musicians,
composers, dancers, actors, writers. And under an institutional
perspective, the visual and the time-based arts were all part of the same
entity and were paid from the same source. But then these organizational
structures were separated out in the 19th century when the museums took
over the public viewing of objects and viewing of time-based arts moved to
ever growing numbers of opera houses and theaters, and then to movie
theaters, and then to Biennials and Š Disney Land : )

So we can view and position all ³digital² arts as time-based arts and as
being connected to the cultural and economic model of the ³old² performing
arts ­ and NOT as being part of the traditional visual arts canon and the
related institutions. If museum show such ³digital² art ­ great ­ for
whatever reason they might do it. As it is equally ³great² if they put on
performances. We wish all time-based artists to find such opportunities.
But one will observe that, as mentioned before, there is little observance
of the needed requirements in details (which are carefully observed when
presenting ³static² art) to put such works or shows on.

³Digital media artists² produce time-based arts as their art needs to be
³executed², ³performed², with machines, operating systems, programs and
I/O devices and maybe by the audience in ³interactive² and ³participatory²
art or be it in performing arts integrating digital technology or be it as
a large slide show on the side of a building. (This certainly does not
apply to all artists using digital technology, like those creating ³still²
objects with prints of digital photographs or 3-d printing or
algorithmically developed static objects).

And indeed I think such artists and their work do underlie the same
economic conditions like all time-based arts. I have not heard of many
artists who made a fortune from such a time-based ³digital² works being
bought by museums or individuals (besides video installations from a few

Now to take this a step further: ³digital² art works will have to die,
fade away, maybe being restored at some later point in time ­ but they are
an acceleration of the changes traditional performing arts undergo.

It is the signature characteristic of ³digital² art that it¹s life cycle
is indeed very brief. It almost approaches the time-scale of oral
tradition. The survival in the
³cloud² is a myth once any kind of programming is involved in the
³performance² of a digital art work. The documentation of such an artwork
may be around for a while in the cloud (or on your computer) ­ that is why
documentation is the only way to keep such works in some way accessible in
the future. This documentation may include program code, screen captures
or video documentation with maybe multi cameras, either edited into a
single video or where the material form each camera is kept. But the
documentation is not ³the work² and it will hardly ever lead to anyone
reconstructing a work from its documentation.

Looked at from the traditional perspective, the artist of ³digital art² is
confronted with being the most vulnerable artist. We know that texts only
survived if they were copied by hand on sturdy material or printed on
(hopefully) acid-free paper. We have no idea how music pieces from the
12th or 17th or 19th century sounded, where we still have a symbolic
notation, but where tradition has changed ³the sound² once it gets
performed. Dance tries to cope with their specific problem that there is
no common notation ­ they try it now with the help of digital technology.
And theater (words) never minded to have all their texts being edited,
augmented, cut for whatever performance a director was aiming for.

Or the artist of ³digital art² is the most avant-garde because the
inherent properties of the work make clear what digital technology offers
us contrary to what we are told: The reality of a fast and quick
obsolescence and disappearance of ³anything digital² that does not get
maintained continuously (!) by a highly expensive and labor-intensive
system. And such systems ­ as mentioned before ­ are in our world only
created by those who see a financial or military interest. Even one of the
greatest (largest and of high importance) collections of data, the one in
the scientific community, has no way to be all ³saved².

Not to speak of the programs and algorithms, which are used and modified
and programmed to create art as part of an interactive work or of
live-processing. Again, here we have an important example in music with
live-electronics, be they analog or be they digital. They simply disappear
very rapidly unless an institution (like IRCAM) invests to port programs
and patches to new system, to keep old computers alive or to document in
flow-charts and with mark-ups in the scores what actually is supposed to
happen. And the decisions, which works will be elevated to this level of
care, is a matter of politics, of money and of ³stature² and of power ­
like in the old days, when it was decided, which manuscript was worth to
be copied by hand on a new set of vellum with new ink.

Maybe the ³digital artist² has to understand her/himself like performing
artists do: once you cannot perform a piece anymore, once the hardware or
software does not run anymore, once you cannot dance anymore, once you
die, your work disappears with you. Is that not a great perspective? Being
freed from reaching eternal relevance ­ creating for the ³here and now²,
the actual realm of the arts ­ of the performing arts?

And this will not make culture get less rich and will not result in
tradition being eroded. It is the indication of what digital culture
actually means and does contradictory to what seems to be the standard
anthem sung by the choir: Digital culture makes it incredibly clear that
it is the owners of resources who determine how history and tradition are
shaped, interpreted and used. (You might say: Nothing has changed. And
indeed digital technology has not resulted in a change in this aspect, but
has made it sharper, more apparent: digital technology maybe democratizing
a wide range of areas, but it certainly closed off an after-life for more
and more people. I am not sure this makes a difference ­ but it does make
a difference if we are told and we believe it IS different). We all have
digital ³devices² ­ but we do not have the power to even port data and
programs through more than 3-5 generations of devices or through 2-3
generations of new operating systems.

As we know from theater, music and dance, most works disappear with their
creator or performer ­ they still continue to live for a while in
³trans-substantiated² form in some individual or collective memory, they
may contribute to a fertile ground for new works. But they will disappear
eventually. Which indeed is not bad at all.

Was that not the goal of performance art ­ to get out of the white cube,
to put things on a time-line, which could not be replicated? And is it not
amazing that we now revive inside the white-cube that which was meant to
be outside of the institutional-temporal structure of museums? Are we
building mausoleums?

How great (seriously) ­ now we have digital art, which has an inherent
expiration date. Maybe that is what is meant by ³artificial life².

We should welcome the ³digital² artists to the performing arts world ­ and
work on the unifying understanding of time-based arts.

And you ³digital² artists, you may dive deep into the tradition of
performing and time-based arts from a new perspective ­ namely that here
may be your (new) roots.

The gatekeepers to history and museums need not be convinced to take on
³digital² art. Either they get it or they don¹t. They have the power to
support me or to turn me away. But, once again, that is the fate in
performing, in time-based arts, that cannot accumulate value but lives
only with and through the audience in the moment if enters time.

It is a necessary luxury that we have academics, thinkers, writers,
curators who reflect on all this ­ we do need this intellectual work
because it keeps culture alive as a complex environment and it enables to
go into different directions within a cultural context. To stop and then
continue to stumble, walk or run.

What I am proposing is that we need to support the artists even more so ­
because what will the academics, thinkers, writers, curators do if there
are no artists creating new works :)

The ³digital² artists wake up as time-based artists, as part of performing
artists and the authors in these fields. The real challenge is not how we
enter institutions, which are petrified or have an ³incompatible agenda² ­
I have been trying that approach for ever and I will continue to do so for
the sake of creating new opportunities for new works and their reception,
to support the artists and their work ­ but not for the sake of these
institutions or for the sake of history or my contribution to history
(haha). It¹s only for the moment I want to experience with an art work
someone created to share time with me in its own moving through time.


On Restoration, Preservation and Documentation

As I mentioned above, dealing with vanishing media has absorbed quite a
chunk of my professional life and keeping works afloat that are inherently
based on digital technology.

These experiences have contributed greatly to the thoughts I sketched

The earliest experience was using the then new technology of Audio-CDs to
create the first CD series, which pulled ³digital music² (music only
possible with a computer) together and made it available in digital format
through a label which had started to move form vinyl to CD.
At that time there were a wide variety of digital audio formats. So the
actual mastering process was to convert all the pieces submitted in a
variety of formats to the Audio-CD standard. A nightmare. This taught me
what everyone knows but does not want to consider when they are creating
new works: The actual digital formats dictate how long we can keep ³the
work². The only way out is to analyze which format will most likely
survive the longest ­ and which format will be supported by mass-market
devices in millions of clones (which one may cheaply buy and which one
will find on dumps even in a hundred years to reverse-engineer them). The
Audio-CD format fulfills this criterion. With compatible DVD players (and
maybe, maybe Blu-ray players) extending this strain of devices.

As part of this process I had to re-create a piece form the early
seventies, which had never existed in a digital copy, but only spliced on
analog tape. We dug up an old 9-track data tape on a dusty attic and then
found a still existing digital tape drive, to get the bits off ­ not the
audio bits, but the program that created the audio. The compiler for this
program did not exist anymore, but a more recent version. The composer and
I had to sit together and adapt the old program structure to the new
compiler ­ and then we had to go by the memory of the composer if what we
cobbled together was the ³original² piece. This taught me that there is
absolutely no way to maintain programs (leave alone specific hardware) to
reconstruct pieces later on. Many experts are involved in porting programs
to new machines and operating systems. The ³arts world² cannot support
such approach but has to rely on individual fanatics who dedicate their
life to such endeavor.

An example of pre-digital machines is the Labor für antiquierte
Videosysteme at the ZKM, which has more than 300 pieces of equipment to be
able to play videos from the fifties to the eighties and to digitize them.
Which is important ­ but it reveals that the next question will be how to
preserve and copy now the content in the digital domain. A continuous
effort without end. Which does not mean one should not start. But it shows
clearly how time-based arts underlies different conditions than
non-time-based arts.

The next larger project was the International Digital Electronic Music
Archive (IDEAMA), collaboration with Stanford University between 1989 and
1996. More than 600 works of electro-acoustic music were collected
worldwide. Besides the mountain of collecting the pieces, the information
and the legal issues, the question was how to store the digitized data. At
the time the first professional CD-Writer had entered the market with a
professional program to edit and burn Audio-CDs on writable CDs that would
not get destroyed easily by UV-light, temperature and humidity. Already
then it was known how ³regular² writable CDs would get destroyed over a
rather brief period of time because of the organic material used in them.

The archive was distributed world-wide on such archival CDs. Then later on
the distribution was switched to hard discs because it was easier to copy
than to produce individual CDs. This was actually a step in the wrong
direction, because hard discs do not have the longevity of CDs.

I do not know how many of you have experience with keeping a rather large
complex installation alive over an extended period. Here at EMPAC we
produced between 2003 and 2008 an interactive film installation with the
Wooster Group / New York City. The work is based on Jeffrey Shaw¹s
panoramic screen system having augmented some parameters. This
installation consists of a very large panoramic screen (12m diameter, 4.5m
high), panoramic projection with first 6, now 5 video projectors, an
interactive chair, 32 channels of audio and a 20 minute video the viewer
can navigate through. To maintain the hardware and software over just the
past 6 years, to port to new systems etc. has been a major challenge and
demanded expertise, labor and finances, which I cannot imagine many
institutions would invest (Jeffrey certainly is probably the most
knowledgeable in this area since he has a large number of different
installations set-up in Hong Kong and has diligently maintained his
works.) I could not imagine any museum (but the Media Museum at ZKM)
maintaining such a work and updating it. The hardware and software
expertise to update all the integrated systems and to make such a work
portable is quite difficult to find in one place (Bernd Linterman at ZKM
certainly being an expert in many aspects of this.) The accumulation of
this knowledge in a new team like here at EMPAC ­ which would need to be
the case if Oliver¹s proposal to have museums take on such work ­ is
especially complicated. I wonder if such pragmatic examples are taken into
consideration in the conferences and discussions, Roger Malina mentioned
in his recent contribution to this list. And what the conclusions and
resulting strategies might be.

As I proposed above, the only way might be to have a video/audio
documentation of such work instead of keeping the work itself functioning.
The video formats will certainly be kept supported for an extended period
of time, especially if they are used by commercial studios.

Which brings me to the final consideration: How do we store the resulting
documentation without having to constantly monitor the state of corruption
of the data stored on some medium. Again, we in the art world cannot
afford complex systems of automated error checks and automated replication
processes. And museum certainly will never be able to create and support
such automated systems.

It is always good to go with standards, which some important business is
relying on ­ like Hollywood. So we went with LTO-5 tapes to back up our
productions. Having been through many generations of back-up
considerations, I still felt uneasy about tapes ­ or in a generalized way
about media, which have moving parts integral to their functioning - which
can crash (heads on hard disks), stretch or tear (tape) or have a magnetic
storage life, which will run out at some point in time (hard disks, SSD).

For all these reasons, I have been ³fond² of writable optical media like
CDs, DVDs and maybe Blu-ray discs. The only shortcoming of these media was
(maybe so far) that they used organic material, which will deteriorate and
eventually make it impossible to read the disc. The reflective layer will
peel off if exposed to UV-light and they don¹t like high temperature and

I used at ZKM high quality archival CDs, which have been available now for
almost 25 years. The seem to stand up to their advertised 100 year
life-span Š

Recently I came across the Millennium Disc (DVD and Blu-ray), which is
supposed to not have any organic materials as part of its make-up and
which withstood reportedly tests by the US-army in excellent shape
(nowhere comparable to standard discs).

I would like to hear feedback on my current strategy (for video, audio,
images and documents in a format that will most likely be kept around to
convert to then newer formats) :

Put everything on these Millennium discs; buy a few computers and a few
disc reading devices and put them on a shelf, maybe restart them once a
year and replace batteries on the mother board Š) and otherwise just let
them sit there. The investment might be $5,000. But I can be certain that
this is the cheapest way to keep the documentation and documents available
for say the next 30 years, maybe 50 or until someone decides to throw them
out - without the constant need for ³checking the state of the bits².


Ending on this pragmatic note,


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