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Caitlin Jones

Surveying the state of the art (of documentation)

Introduction

"History is composed of documents, because the document is what remains."
Jacques Le Goff, History and Memory

This quote by French historian Jacques Le Goff refers to the centrality of documentary evidence in the writing of history. In the case of art history, this evidence is most often based on the art objects themselves. However, in cases where the object no longer exists or is altered from its original state, the document is, as Le Goff suggests, what remains. Documents related to an artwork can provide us with invaluable information about the production, provenance, exhibition and evolution of the work throughout its life and into the future, and curators, conservators and other researchers rely on it heavily. While this is certainly true of more traditional media, such as oil paint or marble, in the field of new media art — where works of art are prone to obsolescence — documentation serves an especially vital function. And because it provides information such as the original technological context or artist's intent, it is unfortunate that due to a lack of consistent documentation in the past, we know far too little about many of the landmark works of new media.

As members of the Variable Media Network, both Paul Kuranko and I have been deeply involved in issues surrounding media art exhibition, preservation and documentation — myself as a curatorial and conservation researcher, and Kuranko as Media Art Specialist at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Through our involvement with a variety of institutions, we have had the unique opportunity to hear firsthand and participate in preservation and documentation initiatives undertaken around the world. While these institutions vary in their perspectives and approaches to issues such as technological obsolescence, artist intent, and deteriorating materials, the importance of good and thorough documentation is unanimously cited as essential by the major artists, conservators and curators in the field.

For our residency at the Daniel Langlois Foundation in the fall of 2007, we proposed a series of documentation case studies included in the exhibition e-art: New Technologies and Contemporary Art at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts: David Rokeby's The Giver of Names and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's Subtitled Public. Before we began with our documentation process, we felt it important to look at the field of new media art preservation and the major players and proposals and learn from the many models that have been both put forward and put into practice. Given the particular scope of our research, we were obliged to narrow our focus to those projects we felt were highly developed on both a theoretical and practical level. As a result, this is far from an exhaustive list of projects in the field (as many new initiatives have yet to publish results or make their process publicly available).

What follows is an unscientific analysis of the issues — a personal assessment of what constitutes good, thorough documentation — and a study of the practical realities of documenting artworks with time and budget constraints. For each initiative, we examined the theoretical and methodological underpinnings in combination with practical applications, tools and any other relevant deliverables that emerged. As a result, our assessment takes the form of a working document that tracks, for each example, what proved most useful to us in our particular task of creating a documentation case study.

Caitlin Jones © 2008 FDL

This essay is also available as a printer friendly PDF file:
http://www.fondation-langlois.org/pdf/e/surveying-the-state.pdf