Notes on Rinehart and Ippolito’s Re-Collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory

“The secret to longevity lies not in a medium’s technological sophistication but in the work’s relation to that medium.

– Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito, 6

Eva Hesse, Expanded Expansion. Fiberglass, polyester, resin, latex, and cheesecloth, 10 feet 2 inches x 25 feet overall. Left, 1969. Right, 2010.

Brief Summary

Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito’s Re-Collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory (2014) explores the daunting challenges presented by the preservation and conservation of new media art from both practical and theoretical perspectives. Ultimately, Rinehart and Ippolito argue that the vulnerabilities of digital media are propelling today’s culture towards total obsolescence. In other words, the authors claim that cultural objects like movies, mp3s, installation art, and interactive games will all be lost if we do not work harder to identify the underlying factors affecting preservation. Thus, the goal of Re-Collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory is to slow the disappearance of obsolete culture by inspiring readers to reexamine and improve the ways that social memory serves contemporary and future societies.

For the purposes of discussion and as addressed within the syllabus, this response will focus on the chapters titled “New Media and Social Memory,” and “Only You Can Prevent the End of History.”


Structure and Important Terminology

Throughout Re-Collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory, Rinehart and Ippolito diagnose and investigate three threats to the preservation of new media art and, in turn, twenty-first-century creativity:

  1. Technology
    • New media art relies on rapidly changing software and hardware. This can often speed up processes leading to obsolesce.
  2. Institutions
    • Insitutions apply the same preservation methods that were developed for more traditional mediums to new media art. This often proves inadequate.
  3. Law
    • Complicates access with intellectual property constructs. With new media art, intellectual property is often the only property that is recognized.

Significantly, Rinehart and Ippolito note the complicated relationship between technology, institutions, law, and ephemeral artifacts. That is to say, these elements often oscillate between being ardent allies and the worst of enemies. As a result, understanding the full rippling effect of each threat can prove quite difficult.


In discussing the complicated threats posed by technology, institutions, and law, Rinehart and Ippolito refer to the following four strategies for rescuing cultural genres and gadgets from extinction:

  1. Storage
    • Default preservation strategy for many cultural institutions.
    • Stored culture remains in suspended animation.
    • Longest term preservation strategy for traditional media, shortest term preservation strategy for new media art.
  2. Emulation
    • A cultural object is preserved by creating an audiovisual facsimile.
    • This facsimile looks the same, feels the same, and even behaves the same.
    • The object employs a different medium to function properly.
  3. Migration
    • Upgrading the technology of the cultural object to the current industry standard.
    • The look and feel of the object can increasingly depart from the original as upgrades continue.
  4. Reinterpretation
    • Most radical and powerful of the four preservation strategies.
    • Sacrifices a cultural work’s appearance in order to maintain its original spirit.
    • Replaces the obsolete with their functional or metaphorical equivalent.
    • Often witnessed in performance based art.

2: New Media and Social Memory

Rinehart and Ippolito define social memory as both what societies remember as well as how they seek to remember. In expanding this definition, the authors identify two forms of social memory:

Formal

  • Canonical
  • Stewarded by culutral institutions like museums, libraries, and archives.
  • Similar to a computer’s memory bank.
  • Concerned with the form of the object of preservation.

Informal

  • Characterized by folklore and distributed.
  • Popular form of remembering.
  • Preserves social memory by “making it a moving target” (15).
  • Concerned with the working function of the object of preservation.

In summary, formal social memory often prioritizes the preservation of a cultural object in its original form as a way to ensure that it maintains a certain degree of historical accuracy and integrity. In contrast, those that engage with informal social memory strategies will often look to update and recreate the cultural object as their primary mode of preservation.


“Security in media preservation comes not from fixity but from variability and mutation, and with digital media works we no longer have to make a choice between indexical (historical) accuracy and use-friendly fecundity.”

– Rinehart and Ippolito, 24

New media art includes artworks that are designed and produced by means of media technologies. Due to the nature of new media art, this medium often involves complex curation and preservation practices that make collecting, installing, and exhibiting the works harder than most other mediums.

With this, new media art often interacts with social memory, ultimately impacting it in one of two ways:

  1. Changes the object of social memory –> Artworks, literary texts, census records, etc.
  2. Changes the means of social memory –> Documentation, storage, records, etc.

Rinehart and Ippolito take this a step further by drawing a line of distinction between digital art, artwork that is born-digital, and digitized art, artwork that is created using traditional media that is later transferred to a digital space like ArtStor.


13: Only You Can Prevent the End of History

Here, Rinehart and Ippolito offer readers an optimistic view of the issues plaguing preservation through their own 12-step approach. Of course, the authors’ intention is not to provide specific solutions for every potential scenario, instead, their main objective is to provide professionals with a strategy that will effectively work towards ensuring the survival of new media culture. The “Twelve Steps to Future-Proofing Contemporary Culture” are listed as follows (222-233):

  1. Curators: Update Your Acquisition Policy
  2. Conservators: Move out of the Warehouse and into the Gallery
  3. Archivists: Modernize Your Metadata
  4. Collection Managers: Renovate Your Database
  5. Institutions: Start Collecting New Media
  6. Programmers: Connect Data across Institutions
  7. Lawyers: Help the Arts Find Progressive Approaches to Copyright
  8. Creators: Save in as Open a Format as Possible
  9. Dealers: Invent New Economic Models
  10.  Sponsors: Fund the Preservation of Born-Digital Culture
  11.  Academics: Educate, Engage, Debate
  12. Historians: Challenge Conventional Wisdom about Social Memory

“Anticipation of the future, rather than codification of the past, is a necessary attribute of the contemporary curator’s function.”

– Howard Foc, 233

Additional Questions to Consider

  1. What assumptions about preservation did you have prior to reading Re-Collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory? Were those thoughts supported by Rinehart and Ippolito? Or, did they present you with new ideas to consider?
  2. How, as emerging historians and public historians, can we best integrate the ideas presented by Rinehart and Ippolito into our own work? What is your biggest takeaway from Re-Collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory?
  3. Thinking of your own work and previous class experience, how have you seen new media impact social memory? How does this compare to Rinehart and Ippolito’s analysis?
  4. How does Re-Collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory fit with the other works we have read over the course of this semester?
  5. Which aspect of Rinehart and Ippolito’s 12-step approach surprises you the most? Why?
  6. If you were to write an updated version of this work (2014), what elements would you add?

14 Replies to “Notes on Rinehart and Ippolito’s Re-Collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory”

  1. Hi Sam!

    Your post is really great and definitely helps to outline the big points! Thank you! I do have a question for you. While you were reading I was wondering if any of the “Twelve Steps to Future-Proofing Contemporary Culture” really stuck out to you as being the most important one. I think the one tat stuck out to me the most was for creators to save their work and content as open formats. Not only is this easier to preserve, but it is also really inclusive and helps for people who may not be able to afford to go to a museum or institution the same access as others. I think they are all really important, this one just got my brain thinking a lot.

    Great job, Sam!

    1. Hi McKenna!

      What a great question!

      Yes, I do have to agree with what you have said about #8 “Creators: Save in as Open a Format as Possible”— it was definitely one of my favorites since it seemed among the easiest to implement both in terms of cost and effort. If, for whatever reason, I could only pick one of Rinehart and Ippolito’s steps to implement I would most likely choose a mixture between #11 “Academics: Educate, Engage, Debaate” and #12 “Historians: Challenge Conventional Wisdom about Social Memory.” Of course, steps #11 and #12 would be far from the most fast-acting, but I truly believe that implementing education and discussion around these issues could potentially alter the most entrenched of institutional policies. Maybe steps #11 and #12 would naturally usher in some changes mentioned in the other steps!

      That being said, what I love most about Rinehart and Ippolito’s approach is its interdisciplinary and interwoven structure— many steps would not be as effective without the others. By including steps like #7 “Lawyers: Help the Arts Find Progressive Approaches to Copyright,” and #9 “Dealers: Invent New Economic Models” Rinehart and Ippolito are sending a clear message that the issues plaguing new media are not the fault of one professional field alone. So, it is necessary for everyone to examine their approach to have a successful cultural future!

      Ultimately, I have to agree with you! This approach would not be nearly as effective if it was any less comprehensive. I guess the only questions left now are: 1) Is this 12-step approach practical? 2) Does this 12-step approach need updating? In what ways? These are big questions that I don’t necessarily expect anyone to answer, just throwing them out there!

  2. Hi Sam!

    Thanks for the succinct yet thoughtful analysis. Rinehart and Ippolito’s definitions of formal and informal social memory remind me of some of the discussions around broader archiving, particularly in relation to Native American culture. The choice of formal and informal seems to suggest a certain power dynamic and idea of legitimacy. It seems like the primary difference between the two ideas is the temporal situation in which the object is preserved. However, by associating formal social memory with institutions, the authors add a certain element of separation.

    1. Hi Carol!

      Your point about legitimacy is something I didn’t really think much about but is striking nonetheless! So if cultural institutions are finding performance-based new media art illegitimate that would definitely influence whether or not they find new media art worth preserving to begin with…

  3. Hi Sam, this is such a thorough and thoughtful explanation of the major themes of this book. I really resonated with the informal vs. formal types of social memory, and I do sometimes worry about the preservation of the informal, particularly in terms of folklore and oral history. These types of social memory seem so fleeting, and so vulnerable to negative mutation, or appropriation. I hope that some of the lessons in Ippolito and Reinheart’s book will allow current and future historians to maintain and improve upon best practices for preserving informal social memory, while also paying attention and honoring the communities for whom this social memory has the most meaning.

    1. Yes exactly! I have to admit, I was very interested in what your thoughts were regarding how theatrical-based art like dance/figure-skating would fit in with all of this. Personally, I was thinking a lot about the way that a performance of (ex:) “The Nutcracker” has definitely changed from its original premiere in 1892. That is to say, dancers aren’t wearing the same exact costumes worn by the original 1892 dancers, dancing equipment is modern (new shoes are even worn multiple times a day depending on the role), choreography has evolved, etc. Yet, the original spirit of the piece is definitely intact. To me, this is definitely something that seems to fall under the informal category. I would love to hear what you have to say about the relationship between the reading and dancing/figure-skating!

  4. Hi Sam,

    I’m interested in Rinehart and Ippolito’s four strategies for preserving new media – Storage, Emulation, Migration, Reinterpretation.

    The authors seem to see storage as the worst of these – but the problem of short-term mitigation can be fixed by providing the original systems that the media were presented on (e.g. a VHS player and monitor for VHS tapes). Although I can see how this could be untenable for archives/collections, especially if they’re small or don’t have much storage space.

    I’m a big fan of emulation – I think video games have pioneered this. You can get emulators of old Nintendo games, for instance, and play them with $10 usb controllers that function like the originals. The problem here is that most game emulators – as far as I know – are not sanctioned by the original creators.

    Migration seems to be the ideal solution, but – along with reinterpretation – might be the hardest to implement.

    Interested to hear your thoughts – out of the authors’ four strategies, do any stand out to you as particularly useful or problematic?

    1. Hi Jessica— thanks for your comment!

      I completely agree with what you have described. I also think there’s something to be said for the way that the authors describe storage as an object being in a state of “suspended animation.” This, in turn, makes me question the purpose of keeping an object in a climate-controlled vault far away from the public eye. Of course, this is not always the case when it comes to storage, but the possibility of such a reality puts it closer to the bottom for me.

      Your statement about the already limited physical space of an archive was illuminating!

      I too am a big fan of emulation. I’ve seen countless Nintendo emulators where you can play for free in an iPhone browser (the iPhone doesn’t even need to be jailbroken). You are definitely correct in your claim that most emulators are not sanctioned by the original creators. Although, it is very clear that this has definitely not stopped anyone! I feel like the market for emulators even BOOMED over COVID…

      I had similar thoughts went considering migration and reinterpretation. I think the feasibility of those two options, like many other things, comes down to 1) availability of labor/time 2) funding. This is more anecdotal, but I feel like technology is evolving so rapidly that either option would require a fair bit of attention on both fronts. That being said, I am sure that if an institution were to commit to migration or reinterpretation their collections would definitely reap the rewards!

  5. Hi Sam!
    I think that this was an excellent post laying out the challenges with preservation of culture and items that we currently face today. One need not look further than the recent example of Adobe Flash to understand why we as historians need to pay more attention to preservation on a digital scale. One thing that you did well is that your post was clear and laid out the important terms in a way that was easy for me to understand. I also like how you broke down what challenges there were to preservation and what we each could do to protect our history on a digital level. One question that I would be interested in hearing more on is the section on the law. Specifically, how does copyright end up being our ally and enemy as it comes to preservation? Is there anything other than copyright that falls under the law that you think we should focus on as historians in regards to preservation?

    1. Thanks Bryce!

      I think something the authors did a great job emphasizing is that artists should consider the legal disposition of their works (like licensing), but what I thought was most interesting is that law can most definitely be an ally to preservation! Specifically, in how artists can provide written guidelines for how they want their work preserved. In my opinion, something like this would definitely ensure that the spirit and intention of the original author/artwork is preserved. Check out page 226 for more. Here the authors really dig into how a liberal view of copyright law can be beneficial.

      I can’t say there’s anything I thought was missing regarding their descriptions of law— but that’s really because I have no experience in that field! That being said, it is important to emphasize that the law is all about interpretation and precedence, so it isn’t until professionals begin to step away from dominant views of digital copyright that things can change!

  6. Great work with this analysis of Rinehart and Ippolitos. Like some of the other respondents I was interested in the ideas of formal and informal memory that they talk about. Unlike others however I am less concerned about the loss of informal social memory over time. I kind of think that this is a somewhat natural process and that it will happen regardless of what we do. Trying to preserve the memory of a thing or event at a fixed point in time may not even be possible in the long run. History does eventually fade into myth despite the intervention of technology to preserve it.

    1. That’s a really interesting point! I see what you mean about informal social memory’s natural progression into obsolescence…

      Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel like a lot of what you have described sounds similar to the issues of formal social memory as well. People who are preserving a cultural object in terms of formal social memory are looking to maintain the object in its original form (specifically attempting to preserve it as it was in a fixed point in time).

      On the other hand, informal social memory is oftentimes evolving all on its own (like folklore; disseminated throughout popular memory). Those that preserve objects with informal social memory in mind are hoping to keep the spirit/functionality of that cultural object alive, not necessarily the object itself. I think a great example of this are the candy spill artworks. They are often recreated using completely new material, but really it’s all in an effort to emulate the feeling of the original piece. Dance and theater performances go through a similar process as well. They produce variants to survive. Cultural objects protected under formal social memory are much more reliant on the museums, archives, and libraries that have vowed to protect them.

      With this in mind, I think informal social memory may have a good chance at surpassing the lifespan of formal social memory. I think this also all gets back to the idea of informal social memory operating like a moving target!

      Thanks for your comment! It really got me thinking…

  7. This is a wonderfully engaging post. Considering your first question, I think going into this I assumed that most of preservation took place in the physical landscape. The digital landscape, as we have discussed it in class, is still this vague field that is constantly growing and evolving, so it is hard to imagine how the physical and the digital might overlap from the position of preservation. This article really emphasized that in order to preserve digital media we have to go beyond traditional means, and expand how we think about digital conservation and preservation.

    1. Thanks so much!

      Yes, I think you’re completely right— and I think that what you are describing is precisely what the authors want you to take away.

      Also, I think you make a great point in identifying the digital landscape as a “vague field that is constantly growing and evolving” because, personally, I feel like the digital landscape isn’t going to all of a sudden become identical to more traditional mediums. So all we can do is push forward and reexamine what we know about preservation!

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