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Alain Depocas

Digital preservation: recording the recoding - the documentary strategy

"Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"
TS Eliot (1)


Improving efforts to preserve new media artworks is insufficient without the support of structured documentation. Documenting both the works and the context in which they evolve is a vital part of conservation. In fact, given the huge volatility of certain on-line projects, this documentation may often be the only remaining trace of the work. What will give real value to a collection of digital art is documentation, metadata, contextualization, and guaranteed long-term access to the documentation.

It remains to be seen what the most appropriate approach to documentation is. Especially important is to experiment with different ways to disseminate this documentation, for example through the use of different database interfaces.

These are some of the challenges faced by the Daniel Langlois Foundation's Centre for Research and Documentation (CR+D).

Lesson from the past: 19th century panoramas

Other than eyewitness accounts and documentation, almost nothing remains of the panoramas of the 19th century, those large circular paintings that were probably the first immersive technology. Except for a few specimens, the objects themselves have all but disappeared. So how can we truly experience a panorama today? Merely visiting one of the few remaining relics offers less than we might expect. What is missing is the entire cultural context.

Paradoxically, it is mainly through documentation that we can now grasp what effect panoramas had on the 19th-century public and what the representational issues were. Understanding what the panorama was on a representational level seems at least as important today as viewing the remaining panoramas. (2)

A parallel can be drawn with today's new media art. Indeed, it is not enough simply to preserve such artworks and hope that the equipment for accessing them will still be available in the future. As with 19th-century panoramas, objects and artifacts won't suffice. We also need to record the context. In other words, the best preservation efforts are insufficient without the support of structured documentation.

Panoramas are just one example. Other media have also faced near or total extinction. (3) Sometimes what disappears is a specific use of a technology. Examples here would be works and other cultural activities on the French Minitel such as the one by Fred Forest and Orlan. Of such works, only documentary traces remain.

The importance and challenges of documentation for archiving and preserving new media artworks

Traditionally, documentation involves three types of activity:

1. Research: locating the relevant data.
2. Preservation: perpetuating the data.
3. Dissemination: making the data available.

All too often, only the first activity is carried out. Few organizations today have drawn up real policies for managing documentation and research findings. Research is usually done piece by piece with no effort to adopt methodological structures, preserve the data for future use, or even disseminate the data.

Managing research data effectively is crucial given that documentation supports are increasingly important for art that relies on new technologies. A strict documentation practice is all the more vital since the sources of information on new media art are relatively rare and unstructured-and just as volatile as the works themselves.

We must also offset the fact that organizations producing the traditional tools for art research (periodicals, reference indexes) have yet to embrace cultural activity on the Web. For example, no mention of Rhizome can be found in Art Index. Yet the Web and other digital formats are the main forum for analysis, commentary and even documentation concerning new media art. Still, such forums do not really simplify access to these artworks, at least not in the long term.

In this light, the Daniel Langlois Foundation's CR+D is developing a major collection of documentation that covers the last 40 years of the electronic and digital media arts. The collection, which researchers may freely consult, already comprises such valuable resources as the Images du Futur Collection, the Steina and Woody Vasulka fonds, and the Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) Document Collection. Through multiple cross-indexes, the CR+D's relational database can link data on documents, individuals, organizations, events, concepts and artworks, enabling the information to be seen from many perspectives. (4)

Documenting new media art

First of all, we must accept that most electronic and new media artworks are ephemeral. Archiving and documenting the fleeting may seem a paradox, but this necessity arises when the technologies behind such work make this practice possible.

With the arrival of new technologies of information and digital media, the notions of museum, library, archives and documentation centre will gradually merge. One reason for this merger: the best way to preserve new media artwork will increasingly be to document it and then disseminate both the work and its documentation. Another reason: in this new context, the artwork and its documentation are inseparable. Indeed, they are two faces of the same coin.

The challenge of documenting such artworks depends on the structure of this documentation, for both the data acquisition phase and the dissemination phase. Oddly enough, preserving and disseminating the documentation usually pose the same problems as preserving and disseminating the works themselves.

We must document as many aspects as possible of artistic activities involving new technologies and track the evolution of these new art forms. Some of the main goals are to:

- Create documentation that is open, collaborative, living and updateable in the image of the new media themselves.
- Propose paths, or trajectories, to follow in the structure of the database managing this documentation.
- Rethink how documentation on digital art is presented and disseminated.
- Set up a laboratory to test new interfaces for publishing research data.

Documentation on new media art must not be a mere illustration, but rather an interpretation, an attitude. To reflect this attitude, the documentation must adopt a structure similar to its subject's. The challenge of documenting a network-structured work made up of hyperlinks, non linear in nature, lies in developing a map or interface for exploring the work rather than in trying to capture the work or contain it.

The new nature of the archive

In examining the issue of documentation, we must bear in mind the new nature of the archive. In The Art of Archiving, Geoffrey Batchen states that:
The archive is no longer a matter of discrete objects (files, books, art works, etc.) stored and retrieved in specific places (libraries, museums, etc.). Now the archive is also a continuous stream of data, without geography or container, continuously transmitted and therefore without temporal restriction (always available in the here and now). (5)
The Web forces us to reconsider what we mean by preserve and archive. When everything becomes an archive, when a colossal amount of information is a mere mouse-click away, the meaning of archive shifts from accumulating and storing information to navigating, to jumping between different links, to mapping, and to pinpointing relevant information. In a way, our computer screens resemble Freud's mystic writing pad, the Wunderblock: once connected to the Internet, they can display the entire contents of the Web, though only one page at a time.

An archive exists primarily through its catalogue. This is especially true with the Web. A document or work on the Web doesn't really exist if no link points to it. An analogy would be a drawing posted on a telephone pole. The drawing exists, but only provided someone passes by, notices the drawing, and recognizes it as a work of art.

This example raises the questions: Does a Web work exist without the index linking to it? Do we preserve Web sites, or indexes?

To make accessible – and to access – is to preserve. Remember that whenever we enter a Web site, we archive it unknowingly since the Web page's contents are placed in the cache of our computer's hard drive. Hence, accessing the site ensures its perpetuation.

Conversely, in the analogue world, preservation means less access to the original document. In the digital world, however, information is preserved only through interaction. Preservation and the commitment to long-term access are now inseparable. There is no preservation without dissemination. Moreover, on some sites, the content we access exists only for the moment of access. Thus, in a way, the access itself allows the content to exist.

The specific nature of new media art

To grasp the issues of archiving and documenting, it is essential to define the nature of new media art. Indeed, how we define this nature can considerably change the methods, tools and consequences of archiving. Constructing a typology of new media art helps us to determine the conditions for preserving works and to bear the nature of these works in mind as we preserve and document them.

If, for example, we choose to speak of artistic or even cultural activities rather than static works of art, we shift dynamics from archiving to recording.

Many types of new media cannot be transposed as copies, at least in their entirety, but only as instances (actualization of one of the many states possible). This is true for most Web artworks, particularly those that rely on interactivity. Alternatively, if we define the Web as an event and communication space, we leave the realm of the circumscribed, stable object and enter the realm of mobility. If the Web is a space, it is therefore mappable. But how do we map mobility? Possibly by recording paths.

If a work of Web art is not an object but a phenomenon (as Simon Biggs states in a text published in The Shock of the View), (6) how we try to preserve and document this work is altered accordingly.

If new media art can be ephemeral or continually evolving, then to preserve and document it, we must accept and adapt this transitory or transitional state. Denying this state would mean renouncing the fundamental nature of such artwork. Yet grasping all the consequences of this transitoriness requires a profound paradigm shift.

Unlike other forms of event-based arts such as dance and music, Web art and many other types of new media art are not traceless art forms. Instead, they lie in a hybrid position between the physical art object and the artistic event. The only trace of such works is their documentation, produced with means external to themselves.

Yet how are we to document and archive cultural activities, transitional objects, phenomena and trajectories? Perhaps a model can be found in Jean-Luc Godard's work, particularly his Histoire(s) du Cinéma, which may will be the best memoirs of cinema and which demonstrates the validity of exploring subjectivity as a mnemonic condition. In this light, the question could also be: Do we preserve a film, or do we preserve cinema?

Lastly, our search for the true nature of new media art must not become reductive. We must take into account the great variability and mutability of artistic activities involving new technologies. Naturally, numerous typologies are possible. They serve to show that many artistic intervention strategies exist, each involving a specific approach to preservation and documentation. Through a typology exercise, we might deduce that for some types of work, the challenge shifts from how to preserve to what to preserve. For example, with procedural art, must we collect all objects or occurrences that such projects yield?

One noteworthy case involves Jean-Pierre Balpe and his artwork Générateur de poésie (Poetry Generator). This computer program produced automatic poetry during Les Immatériaux, a 1985 exhibition held at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. The poems were printed, and after the exhibition, the centre's public information library asked Balpe's permission to preserve the work for documentation. Interestingly enough, the centre kept the thousand printed poems but discarded the computer program, which Balpe considered the real work.

Methodological proposals for digital preservation

The fields of archiving and library science have already pinpointed the major problems in preserving digital documents and archives. Research in these fields is of course pertinent given the common challenges in preserving digital documents and digital art.

For digital documents, Margaret Hedstrom offers an interesting recommendation: "Preserve content, context and structure, and maintain the capability to display, link and manipulate digital objects." (7) The second aspect probably represents the greatest difficulty since it entails preserving accessibility to a multitude of software and operating systems. Hedstrom also says, "Complex and expensive transformations of digital objects often are necessary to preserve digital materials so that they remain authentic representations of the original versions and useful sources for analysis and research." (8) The paradox of preserving digital documents lies between the expressions "transformations" and "authentic representations of the original."

Increasingly, specialists are proposing the concept of emulation (9) and contextual envelope among other digital archiving strategies. This concept is a potential solution to the problem of digital documents being dependent on the softwares and, more importantly, hardware needed to access them. With this concept, the full data-handling capacity is also preserved.

This approach involves placing the document, left in its original form, in a virtual envelope containing all the instructions necessary for its retrieval, display and processing. These instructions explain how to link the document to a collection of emulators that act as a bridge between the document, which can remain stable, and the constantly evolving technological context. Thus, instead of trying to modify a multitude of documents, managers of digital archives or collections simply update their emulators.

A data sheet containing key specifications can be incorporated into the document in the form of metadata. This makes it easier to locate documents that will require some sort of intervention to preserve them in the future.

Thanks to metadata, the document description can be included in the document itself. This way, the document becomes its own catalogue card. But there is a drawback: the metadata can end up as large as or even bigger than the document described. This calls to mind the Jorge Luis Borges short story "Of Exactitude in Science" in which cartographers attempting to make a detailed map of an empire ultimately create a map as large as the empire itself-a perfect duplicate of reality.

Another worthwhile approach is to evaluate the advantages offered by a network of organizations that collect and preserve new media artworks in keeping with common criteria. This network could also team up to preserve important documentation resources needed for producing, disseminating and receiving these works.

Through its funding programs, the Daniel Langlois Foundation is already involved in significant projects to preserve digital works and develop methodologies and guidelines. Among these projects are Rhizome's ArtBase (10) and the Variable Media Network (11) , a partnership between the Daniel Langlois Foundation and the Guggenheim museum in New York. This year, the Foundation also launched a new grants program for researchers in residence that will foster research on conceptual, scientific and artistic matters related to preserving digital artworks or works with digital components. As well, the Foundation will soon begin an experimental case study using emulation to preserve an artwork with digital components.


In analyzing the issues of preserving digital and especially Web documentation, we are confronted with an illusion: that we have real control over documentation and the information it contains. Indeed, this very illusion has fuelled our desire to preserve and archive.

Given the tremendous amount of data stored on the Web and offered by new information technologies, archivists must now rely on the notion of route and path in their efforts to preserve. The archivist's role, in the end, may shift from accumulating and preserving to helping forge links.

Faced with the Web's elusiveness and the extensive activity conducted on or with it by artists, theorists and researchers, we would be wise to abandon any vain attempt to preserve everything. Our focus, instead, should be on keeping only what will ultimately yield understanding.

Alain Depocas, Head of the Research and Documentation Centre
Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology

Alain Depocas © 2002 FDL

(1) TS Eliot, "Choruses from 'the Rock'," 1934.

(2) A version of this text, in English and German, has been published in : Depocas, Alain, - "Digital preservation : recording the recoding : the documentary strategy". - Ars Electronica 2001 : takeover : who's doing the art of tomorrow = Wer macht die Kunst von morgen. - Heidelberg : Springer Verlag ; Linz : Ars Electronica Center, 2001. - German version "Digitale Konservierung : Die Aufzeichnung der Neukodierung : Die Strategie der Dokumentation", p. 340-345. - p. 334-339.

(3) Consult the Dead Media Project site:

(4) To learn more about the CR+D and access its database, visit

(5) Batchen, Geoffrey, "The Art of Archiving" in Deep Storage: Collecting, Storing, and Archiving in Art (Munich, Prestel, 1998): 46-49.

(6) Schultz, Sarah, "Simon Biggs Questions Our Questions [Interview]," The Shock of the View:

(7) Margaret Hedstrom, "Digital Preservation: A Time Bomb for Digital Libraries":

(8) Idem.

(9) For more information about emulation as a digital preservation strategy, see Jeff Rothenberg, "Avoiding Technological Quicksand: Finding a Viable Technical Foundation for Digital Preservation," 1998: