We All Digress with Digital Artworks

Imagine holding an exhibition of digital artworks that we have carefully collected, say, in five years? What would you put down on the artworks’ label?


I ask because these questions help me reflect on some of the points we collectively mused on during our class meetings this semester, as we digressed from our readings. My reflection covers these points precisely because they remain formative, and I would like to hear your thoughts on them.

Cultural Institutions 2.0

First point has to do with three types of cultural institutions and their conventional and altering practices. Museums, libraries, and archives—institutions most likely to be in charge of curating digital artworks—have traditionally valued their collections differently. As Rinehart and Ippolito explain in their Re-Collection, the difference can be generalized as follows. Museums were mostly in charge of unique objects and took care of conservations, as needed. Libraries and archives were traditionally in charge of documents. Generally, libraries held the mass produced resources and circulated them accordingly. Archives, in addition to the published works, held unpublished resources and rare items, often in association with the published authors. Archives rarely circulated their items.

To a certain extent, the distinction among three types of cultural institutions seems to be reflected to some of the theoretical frameworks we have encountered. For instance, museum and archival tradition of valuing the uniqueness of an object can be seen among the approaches of Kirschenbaum (media archeology), Arcangel (Warhol files), and Reside (Jonathan Larson’s Word files). How libraries circulate copies of the published work can be seen in Rinehart and Ippolito’s approach (dissemination/reinterpretation).

But here is the rub: the Library of Congress now has a Flickr collection. Because, let’s face it, technically speaking, uploading pictures on the Internet is a form of publishing and mass production? No doubt such image corpus would be helpful. In the short run, people can learn about the usage of an online publishing platform. In the long run, the corpus can be a window to the 21st-century way of lives.


Other readings further suggest how the conventional cultural institutions’ delegation model would be blurred. Historical research of hardware, software, and file formats—such as that of Montfort & Bogost (platform studies), Ball (CAD), Manoich (Photoshop), and Eppink (GIF)—demonstrate how artworks that utilize a digital device at any stage of their production is essentially codependent on the nature of such devices.

To be fair, material conditions of artwork have always had an influence long before the digital age. What is new, perhaps, is that we are now aware of 1) how the digital production devices are historically located and that 2) the pace of their obsolescence is fast and furious. That means, without a preservative effort, we would lose the access to the digital artwork. By access, I mean, the access to the digital artwork itself and the access to its historical significance.

An interesting mash-up approach, perhaps, is MITH’s classic computer collection which showcases six classic computers: KAYPRO 4, Apple IIe, Macintosh SE, Vectrex, Amiga, and Macintosh IIci. What is unique is how on the Vectrex (a standalone video game console with a vector-based image interface) sit instructions and books that can help us understand how the machine works and how sensational Vectrex was when it first appeared. When we play Vectrex’ cartridge games on the machine, moreover, we are reminded of the invincible score of its former owner (as we inadvertently add our marks to the machine’s storage device, altering the object). It is such an assemblage of library items and archival/museum objects that enables me to interact with and appreciate a classic computer.

Yes, the alteration of the object may make archivists and museum folks wince and squirm, but, hey, there is an emulation method to save the rare object from the deterioration. Yes, the question of scope is always there, but can we think big for a moment to envision what the best practice may look like?

The biggest takeaway for me out of this musing is this: don’t get our thinking limited by the conventional institutional practices, and seek cross-institutional collaboration as necessary, for the best curatorial approach of digital artworks. Collaboration may come in forms of human resources and/or modes of operation.

Cultivating Digerati via Digital Artworks

The second point is the educational roles cultural institutions can play as they curate digital artworks. I am particularly interested in the idea of curatorial show and tell exhibition of digital artworks. Going back to my prompt of artwork label, I think the kinds of information we assembled for archival information package should go into the label.

Why? My answer is two-folds: 1) to showcase what kind of documentation is needed for preserving digital artworks, and 2) to make the artworks’ invisible technological aspects visible.

The former would be an investment for the future collaboration with the artists, making them take into consideration how to compile documentations for the longevity of their work (should sustainability of the work be agreeable to the artists). The latter has to do with the promotion of information literacy among the audiences via digital artworks. Times and time again, we’ve been reminded that the most successful technology is invisible. But as the media studies scholars such as Elizabeth Losh strive to show, such invisibility can lend a hand to an abuse. Sharing archival information package with the audience can be an antidote. Moreover, public education, as Rinehart and Ippolito show, is in harmony with the traditional role of cultural institutions. Besides, I trust a hard work of archivists can be beneficial when exposed to the public eyes.

What do you all think?

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