In 2004 I developed a ‘permanent’ new media art work for a new building in London. It was commissioned before the building was built so that the systems in the work could be integrated during construction. The work inhabited a number of spaces in the building and was interactive with a lot of the activity within it - both in terms of control systems and the material the system worked with (all of which was live). That meant miles of Cat 6 cabling encased in the concrete superstructure, along with everything else. It meant meetings with the architects and the engineers two years before the work went live. Project budget was six figures (GBP).
When it came to contracts we agreed a five year maintenance clause. The system employed a mixture of LED screens, projection systems, video and IR based sensing and live capture systems and a few computers. Within two years one of the computers had a meltdown, which left part of the work out of commission whilst it was replaced (that took about three months). Soon after there was a leak in the concrete substrate and two of the projectors died as a result. Two new projectors (with modified installation to ensure any future leak would not affect them) were installed within a couple of months. The clients were always responsive and timelines were down to technical constraints (eg: matching computers and projectors like for like, to ensure systems compliance, two or three years after commissioning is tricky).
For five years I had a VPN connection to all the systems in the building, so I could monitor and manage them from my studio (wherever that might be). I would check in once or twice a week, look at the systems, observe the live feeds, watch people interacting with the work. Most of the time the systems were working fine. Sometimes I would have to re-boot a machine. A few times, over the five years, I had to request engineers to get their cherrypickers to adjust camera angles for the capture and sensing systems (they were 6 metres above the floor and hard to get at and would, over time, droop a bit). The clients always responded and we would undertake maintenance, over the phone, with the engineers up their cherrypicker and me watching live on VPN. It wasn’t straightforward, but it worked. A couple of times I had to travel to London to oversee some trickier maintenance.
After 5 years the systems were still working. Around 2011 the 2008 crash got the better of the client. They downsized, vacating part of the building, including the part that had my work in it. After that I lost contact with the work. I have no idea what its current state might be. The work functioned most of the time for 7 years. Given the commissioning budget plus the cost of maintenance over that period the piece probably cost the client around GBP £30k a year. I doubt anybody ever thought that was good value. I assume the clients saw it as a write-down, not so much for tax but a kind of cultural investment/apology.
I’m always surprised when people approach me to commission new media works because I know that financially it is a really bad idea, especially as there is more or less a 100% chance the work will be redundant, offline and non-functional within five years or so. I’m working on one right now ;)
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> On 16 Dec 2017, at 20:41, Laura Sillars <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
> Really think David's points are very well made.
> Artists working with new technology are usually working on a prototype and
> therefore the robustness of repetition, easy replacement (and access to)
> items isn't always thought through.
> We've just developed a light work in South Korea with an artist Ben Tew
> whose practice has predominantly been working with architects. This project
> was him moving into his own work in this space rather than collaborating
> with other creatives. We produced a work with a likely life span of twenty
> years due to warranties on all of the parts, careful planning on the method
> of fabrication, construction and power .... but we've contracted the whole
> thing for only two years with paid support for five afterwards with us
> assuming that there are circumstances way beyond our foresight that could
> impact functionality. We'll see - this seemed the safest way to do it -
> Sheffield to Busan in South Korea is a very long way away so it would be a
> very expensive 20 years if Ben had to return annually to switch around a
> few LEDs!
> So some of this is expectation management - if an artwork costs £50k to
> produce and you are being asked for a 20 year life span that's probably
> another £50-100k budget. If you think of it in terms of buildings and
> capital replacement versus depreciation it starts to make more sense.
> On Sat, 16 Dec 2017 at 02:01, David Rokeby <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
>> I remember Kasper Koenig talking about how public art works need a
>> commissioning process and a decommissioning process. (And this was of
>> course not even in the context of new media public art). I think this is a
>> good point, at least for many works, but most public art commissioning
>> scenarios are not structured in a way that works with this idea of limited
>> My strongest personal impressions as an artist in both public art
>> commissioning situations and institutional acquisition is that very few of
>> the stakeholders have any way of grasping the nature of the problem. This
>> either results in optimistic blindness to the real challenges, or
>> under-informed knee-jerk fear of the challenges. This includes the artists
>> in many cases.
>> Like Simon, I have burned up untold thousands of hours bringing old pieces
>> back to life or keeping them current. And I now find myself mourning the
>> loss of a number of lost works. And practically, it seems like institutions
>> and collectors are starting to pay attention and take the plunge, and as
>> they become informed, they are starting to ask about those older,
>> technically challenging works that lie moribund.
>> But I also realize that part of the problem of maintaining these older
>> works was amplified by the fact that they were not created with an eye to
>> maintainability. The effort went into getting them to work somehow by the
>> opening. The thought that these things would live on past their year or two
>> of active exhibition could not have been farther from my mind. For much of
>> this time I was also inexperienced enough to not have a grasp of the real
>> meaning of the rate of technological change that would play out over my
>> active professional lifetime.
>> The result is that, in many ways, these works were cobbled together in
>> ways that make then unnecessarily susceptible to rapid obsolescence. In the
>> preparation of some of these works for acquisition I have gone through the
>> process of refactoring my code to create a clear boundary between the code
>> that gives the work its affective character, and the code that merely
>> implements an easily specifiable function (i.e. functions that can be
>> described to my full satisfaction to an engineer.). I deliver the core code
>> in an operating system agnostic form with functional description and a
>> documented API, and a functional, operating system / computer era specific
>> generic ‘wrapper’ which provides things like display on a screen, input
>> from a camera, etc. (along with source code).
>> The intention is partly to learn the discipline of creating new works with
>> this modular structure in mind. It does not solve all the problems that
>> might come up, but it is slowly making the task less daunting. I can put
>> complex works in collections with some peace of mind that I have done all I
>> can to deliver a work in a form that could be resurrected at some
>> relatively distant point in time with a reasonable amount of committed
>> Part of this process also helps to clarify the aspects of a work that will
>> be most likely to require the attention of conservators. i.e. It provides
>> the beginnings of a job description for future new media conservators…
>> these are the kinds of tasks and technologies that are most vulnerable to
>> In my experience, few if any commissioners, curators, collectors and
>> conservators are in any position to really assess the future viability of a
>> new media art work at this point. I suspect many new media artists are also
>> in that position. At the moment, it almost seems like the less they know
>> the better as some public art commissioners, and collectors, and
>> conservators, will take the leap of faith because they love the work, or
>> they understand its import. This situation is however, completely
>> I have unconsciously and for pragmatic reasons created a separation in my
>> own work between those pieces that relatively effortlessly move into the
>> future as functional pieces, and those that are left behind, but I am
>> finding that this is creating a shift in the kind of work that I do…
>> avoiding the works that involve more idiosyncratic and complex systems,
>> which are, indeed, what my career and reputation are largely built upon. So
>> I am in a period of reassessment… For an artist like me without a
>> professorship, and as a mid-career artist with a family to support, in a
>> country that is particularly good at supporting emerging artists, and not
>> so sure what to do with older ones, figuring out this quandary is
>> fundamental to keeping my practise sustainable for the next couple of
>> David Rokeby
>> 135 Manning Avenue
>> Toronto, Ontario M6J 2K6 Canada
>> (416) 603-4640
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