Please wait a few moments while we process your request
Please wait...

Jean Gagnon

Research at the Foundation: Between prospective and retrospective inquiry

The lines of research pursued by the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology should be viewed as strategies for defining a field of investigation and creating the resources needed to study this field. The field being explored is of course media arts, which are practices that rely on analogue or digital technologies for artistic expression.

Through its assistance programs, research activities and Centre for Research and Documentation, the Foundation is at the crossroads between prospective and historical research regarding new technologies used in the cultural arena. At this multi-layered junction, the central question we pose through our programs (despite the post-humanity that some describe or desire) is this: How does technology remain human or favour humanity?

The Foundation probes new forms and new languages in visual and other art, kinetics, music and sound through its assistance programs, especially the program aimed at researchers and individuals. This program's goal is to foster research, experimentation and exploration, all activities that suppose a method but not necessarily a known outcome.

Our international programs assist artistic and cultural research and projects that showcase the many trends in contemporary media-art research. Some projects focus on biotechnology and scientific visualization systems. Others investigate computer-memory systems and databases, examine projection apparatus with a view to revitalizing traditional cinema, or look at interactive forms of cinematic fiction. Still other projects draw inspiration from Buckminster Fuller and his geodesic dome in Montreal (1) or promote telematic concerts and performances-dance events, in particular-that explore space, movement, energy and communication systems.

The Centre for Research and Documentation (CR+D)

The CR+D documents cutting-edge research in art and technology (files on artists and organizations, audio and video material, catalogues of recent or past exhibitions, etc.). In addition, the CR+D aims to provide a historical perspective and solid cultural and philosophical foundations by reviewing the history of art and science. Only by linking a historical and a forward-looking approach can we foster artistic uses and practices that attempt to define the present, or even the future.

The CR+D was established to fill gaps observed in the study of media arts. First, in museum and traditional cultural institutions, as well as film libraries, and in the arts and cinema, little attention is paid, either in Montreal or elsewhere, to works created using new digital media. Although they are sometimes the subject of university studies, such research has little contact with the actual artistic practices. This situation leads to an ignorance of current practices and their history. And second, students and researchers have few resources for studying the media arts in depth.

Through its programs and mandate, the Foundation is able to assemble an exceptional collection of documentation from around the world. We continually receive project proposals and related material, and acquire documents, books, catalogues, CD-ROMs and DVD-ROMs, and image banks. We also obtain special collections from individuals or groups that have played a historical role in different fields of interest to us. Since its founding, the CR+D has acquired the Images du futur Collection, the Steina and Woody Vasulka fonds, the Inter Society for Electronic Arts (ISEA) Collection, a Collection of films on Frank J. Malina, and a Collection of documents published by Experiments in Arts and Technology (E.A.T).

We have also set up a program of grants for researchers in residence to encourage comprehensive research in our archives. The first to receive this grant is Gerald O'Grady, Ph.D., for his project Early History of Electronic and Digital Art in New York State (working title). This project, which delves into the Vasulka Archives, will put Steina and Woody Vasulka's work in its proper historical context. Dr. O'Grady is an important academic who, starting in the late 1960s, helped found several departments of media studies, notably at the State University of New York at Buffalo. The faculty at SUNYAB has included such eminent artists as the Vasulkas, Paul Sharits and Hollis Frampton.

Documenting the Present

One of our goals is to document both current and past practices. We develop customized methods of documenting our chosen projects while they are under way and once they have been completed. To this end, we work jointly with the artists, art organizations and cultural agencies. For our goal to be achieved, these groups must fully grasp the importance of documentation and the methods used, and we must emphasize the need for proper documentation based on sound preservation methods and standards.

This effort to collect the past and present enables us to study the attitudes that prevail during one period in light of circumstances in another. One of our points of comparison in the cultural arena is indeed the history and vestiges of other periods. Hence, one of the CR+D's principal aims is to provide access to unique, significant, primary and secondary documentation on the practices that concern us, namely practices associated with technologies.

Video has spawned similar reflections. In video's infancy, we were already wondering how to write its history. (2) The irony is that the law of media acceleration makes the writing of history even more pressing given the shift to digital technology with their accelerated obsolescence. The irony is also that this acceleration implies documenting the present to preserve the past. In a roundabout way, preserving the past through documentation obliges us to prepare for the future. Before we can write history, we must first assume the colossal task of preserving access to electronic and digital works, or at least to the documentation needed for their understanding (in other words, access to a hermeneutics of media-art practices).

Strangely enough, this leads us back to prospective inquiry. Indeed, in a hundred years, what will remain of our software packages, plug-ins and operating systems when everything we know today has become obsolete or changed? Preserving the hardware would be absurd over the long run. Transferring data between generations of hardware and software is a monumental, long-term task. Using systems that run outmoded programs by emulating their computer environment is one hypothesis still to be tried. These three preservation strategies are the subject of lively debate and extensive research by archive specialists. So far, however, few are tackling the new situation of artworks with digital components.

As a result, the Daniel Langlois Foundation and the Guggenheim Museum in New York are teaming up for the research project Variable Media Network. The Foundation's goal is to draw up guidelines and standards to address the preservation issue, which encompasses artistic, conceptual and technological facets. Our commitment to seeking methods, practices and standards required to preserve digital works or works with digital components will translate into a pilot restoration project that uses emulation as a theoretical model. This will also mean developing the databases and metadata needed to restore works on every level: technical (hardware and software), aesthetic and conceptual.

This project compels us to examine a wide range of issues. For example, proprietary operating systems and software require consideration of legal matters related to copyright, trademarks and patents. Also, we need to bear in mind the great idiosyncrasy of artists' software, systems and works. This is especially true when the work relies on dynamic systems, databases and interactivity. Another area to look at is the obsolescence of not only the hardware but also the supports for storing data.

Meanwhile, a second Grant for Researcher in Residencehas been awarded to Jeff Rothenberg of the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California. Mr. Rothenberg specializes in preserving digital archives and is a consultant to many national archives, including those of the Netherlands. In our project, he will act as senior researcher in preparing our emulation test case.

Web Publishing

A further goal of the Foundation and the CR+D is to develop on-line resources for research. Through Web publishing, we want to provide access to research data and documents. For now, we are impeded by Canadian copyright laws, by an ambiguous legal framework respecting Internet content, and by technological limitations affecting the transmission of bulky content (such as lengthy works or high-definition video). Our ambitions are therefore fairly constrained. The Foundation's Web publishing is not an "e-zine," but rather a means for the CR+D to make documentation, databases, and research tools and findings accessible.

In 1999 at Ex-Centris in Montreal, the Foundation kicked off its activities by organizing The Body of the Line: Eisenstein's Drawings, an exhibition that moved to the Drawing Center in New York in 2000. I believe Sergei Eisenstein to be essential for anyone interested in the use of new media in art. Recently I was delighted to come across a quote from Eisenstein's journal dated August 5, 1929:

"Writing books is hard because they always have two dimensions. I'd like this book [a project titled Méthode] to somehow escape the bidimensionality of printed works. This requirement is twofold. First, the essays must not be collected together linearly. I want them received simultaneously because ultimately, they are all different sectors of different fields assembled around a single central point that defines them: method. Second, from a purely spatial perspective, I want each text to be in contact with its neighbouring text. . . . Only a spherical book could allow such synchronicity and such a reading of the texts. But unfortunately, books aren't written on spheres. . . . We can only hope that this book, written according to the method of infinite mutual reversibility, will be read according to the spherical method." (3)

May we allow Eisenstein's reflections to guide us in how we use the Internet for electronic publishing.

Jean Gagnon © 2002 FDL

(1) The American Pavilion at the Expo 67 world fair in Montreal. The pavilion is now the Montreal Biodome.

(2) "Video has been plagued by the notion of its own history. Attempts to define the medium have shadowed its growth from the very beginning. Bill Viola recalled: In 1974, people were already talking about history, and had been for a few years... Video may be the only art form ever to have a history before it had a history. Video was being invented, and simultaneously so were its myths and culture heroes." Marita Sturken, "Paradox in the Evolution of an Art Form, Great Expectations and the Making of a History," Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art, eds. Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer (Denville: Aperture; San Francisco: Bay Area Video Coalition, 1990): 102.

(3) Oksana Bulgakova, "Comment éditer Eisenstein? Problème de Méthode," Cinémas (Montreal, Spring 2001): 29. [Our translation.]