An Intent to Document

Taking an idea of preserving a born-digital set of artworks into practice presented a number of challenges and served as a way to examine the themes in this course. My project of preserving the “Transforming” series of digital paintings ultimately focused on documenting how they were made and the public reaction to them.

This decision came out of ideas about documentation of performance and also about social memory. Rob and Nick Carter’s stewardship of the digital objects and their history of creating  time-based installation art made me think that focusing on the works themselves was less necessary. Yet, for all the intentions of the creators to reward a sustained engagement by their audience, no one has really taken the time to understand if it worked.

The Viewer’s Perspective Unfulfilled

In my project, I never reached that point either as I did not get to interview the people who posted about the art from their social media accounts. While lacking the time to do so, it is a necessary step if one truly wanted to understand the cultural impact of these works. Neglecting the public viewpoint and just focusing on the art demonstrated to me the inadequacy of non-active collecting and the failure to create diverse and often contradictory perspectives in the historical record.

Some viewer reaction I did capture, demonstrating a different viewpoint than the loving art critics

This realization helped better define in my mind that digital art is more than just a conceptual work but is made up of the sum total of the platforms, intentions, mechanisms, properties, and personal experiences which all create the challenge of adequate representation. I had to make compromises to realize just a portion of this totality.

Good Intentions

I think one of the most useful parts of this project was the creation of statements of preservation intent. Really understanding what you wanted to do and the “why” behind it was essential once problems arose and compromises needed to be made. They lay bare our biases and continually provide a point to return, reflect, and revise (if necessary) the goals for projects. Doing this project reinforced that reality and that I had to rely on the preservation intent statements to determine where I could make trade-offs.

Everyone’s friend: the three-legged digital preservation stool

The biggest challenge was not having enough time to do everything that I planned the way I wanted to do them. In my project, I planned on using a number of command line tools like youtube-dl and ffmpeg to work with born-digital video, in part because they come recommended by digital preservation practitioners and in part because I wanted to get more experience with using the command line. However, I just didn’t have the time to read the documentation well enough to use these tools and get most of the deliverables of my project done at the same time.

We (archivists, preservationists, etc.) like to opine on the value of open source software but in low resource institutions (whether in time, money, or staff) they are often impossible to implement.  Just as there are trade-offs in regard to authenticity and access, the same goes for resources and digital preservation standards. Perhaps in the future there will be time to return to make additions and create a more robust AIP.


Ultimately, I ended up using a number of tools like ClipGrab and Flash Video Downloader which were not always entirely clear about the quality of the videos downloaded, but at least allowed me to get them all and save them in a standard MPEG4 format. In my preservation intent statements I wanted to save the VFX breakdowns of the videos in the highest video quality so there would be good visual detail for users in the future. Without as much control over this, I had to save things realizing that something was better than nothing. Hopefully through my work someone will understand the “score” of the work and can recreate them later if necessary.


Documentation is essential for understanding more than a surface level of what an artwork is and can be accomplished at varying levels of digital preservation. Digital art preservation (and digital preservation in general) is often not hard because we don’t know what to do at some level, it’s hard because there are not enough resources or support for which to do it. This requires that our intentions be transparent but not so brittle that we cannot adequately adapt to the needs of the situation. Through understanding this reality, I was able to complete my project in a somewhat satisfactory manner, realizing that there is always more work to do and that preservation is not a one-time event.


The Fixity of Transformation

The “Transforming” series are four digital paintings, looping every 2-3 hours, meant to reward the viewer for sustained engagement through subtly changing over the course of the work. To preserve the series, I decided to focus on the conversation around the works and to document the process of their creation as detailed in greater length here and here. In short, the pieces themselves are fairly well taken care of but the supporting documentation gets less attention and will still be useful in the future.


The end result is an Archival Information Package (AIP) divided into the larger sections of Web Articles, Audio and Video, and Viewer Reaction. Each larger section has a text file titled the same as the folder heading but appended with  “_description” describing the content of the folder.

Web Articles

One part of documenting the discourse about these works is through saving the media coverage. Using links available on the creator’s websites and using internet searches, I assembled a list of articles on the internet that covered the works in exhibitions, provided commentary, interviewed the authors, or documented the creation of the works.

After downloading a copy of the HTML for an access copy, I also searched the URL in the Wayback Machine and used the “Save Page Now” option to ensure there was also a preservation copy somewhere on the IA servers. In all, I saved the HTML and related files from 48 articles, of which 16 were not yet saved in the Internet Archive.

Audio and Video

The next section of the AIP contains 21 videos (and some audio) describing artistic themes in the works, how the works were made, visual effects breakdowns, and short excerpts of most of the final products. About half of these files I could simply “save as” from the Motion Picture Company website after inspecting the page source.

The other half of the videos were either on sites like YouTube or Vimeo or were streaming Flash video. I used simple available tools to download these videos, ClipGrab for videos on hosting sites and the “Flash Video Downloader” web extension for the flash videos. There were also two files from an audio tour at a museum that I downloaded as well. While I had pie in the sky ideas about using open source software and command line tools, there just wasn’t enough time to dig deep in the documentation and figure them out.


Once downloaded as MPEG4 files in their highest picture quality, I organized the videos by work or put them in a separate category if it covered multiple works.  I used MediaInfo to generate technical metadata sidecar files for the audio and video, which will be useful to both scholars looking to do research now and in case the video files get corrupted in the future. I exported it as PBCore 2.0 as it was a recommended schema in the FADGI report on preserving born digital video.

Viewer Reaction

In this section of the AIP, I gathered viewer’s reactions not told through articles. I divided the section into  interviews and comments and social media. While I did not end up having the time to do the interviews I planned this is where they would go.

I did save an extensive comment section  through screenshots from one of the web articles that wasn’t saving correctly with the Wayback Machine. I also saved a Youtube video of someone erasing the belly button of the woman in “Transforming Nude Painting.” They claimed that a goddess as depicted in the painting would not have one (in fact this was only one video of many more on this theme in other paintings). The internet is weird…

Final Product


I used the Data Accessioner tool to generate full collection technical and preservation metadata and checksums for each digital object in an xml file. This ensures the ability to check fixity and determine if anything changes in the files in the future. It also provides an easy way to browse the collection in an abstract way as one document.

Finally, I zipped up the AIP and uploaded it to the Internet Archive. You can download it here.

Gone in 6 Seconds: “Transforming” Preservation Intent Statement

The preservation plan for Rob and Nick Carter’s “Transforming,” a series of 4 digital paintings created as an homage to centuries old artworks (detailed here) is, much like the works themselves, more complicated than at first glance.

While I had some concern about legal protections written into these works,  according to an email with Rob Carter, there is no digital rights management, mainly they rely on certificates of authenticity that go along with the 12 editions and 5 artist’s “proofs” (which can be given to museums for display to the public). The certificate also entitles the owner to another copy should anything happen to the original.

The cost of obtaining this certificate and the original work is huge with one “Transforming Still Life” selling for $105,000 and one “Transforming Nude Painting” selling for 100,000 pounds. Even though there are artists proofs, I believe that they are only for display in exhibition. To acquire all of these items and their constituent parts in a permanent collection would be prohibitively expensive for most institutions not even considering preservation or the inability to make these items widely accessible due to copyright.

Beyond the cost, Rob and Nick Carter, and whoever else may be involved, are fairly attentive to their pieces currently.  They have backups in three separate locations and also in a “data safe.” Additionally, they actively upgrade the technology and software to improve display quality and to keep them working into the future. The artists also recently had to upgrade their “Transforming Diptych” work so that it would run on a new OS.

With the works under fairly good control and somewhat unattainable, it seems less pressing and unrealistic to focus on preserving the works themselves (at least the video finished product and the application code). Additionally, there are shortened example versions of these videos available online which I plan to preserve and serve as representative stand-ins. What is more important then is to document the process of creating this new genre of art and the conversation and reaction to these pieces.

At the end of my statement of significance I said that:

“Therefore, documenting “Transforming” means documenting the cultural conversation around media consumption in the early 21st century.”

This was a summation of the Carter’s goal to create works that awarded viewers for engagement beyond the average 6 seconds an average museum patron looks at an artwork. To reach the goal of documenting this cultural conversation, I plan to preserve the various video interviews from art historian Kate Bryan commenting on the themes in the paintings. These videos provide a rich and invaluable context and a present day scholarly perspective on the works which will be valuable to art scholars in the future.

Additionally, there are several video interviews with the artists themselves about what inspired them to create these works. All of these will be essential in preserving the scholarly communication about these pieces and the originals that they were inspired by. I have contacted Rob and Nick once and they are too busy to do an extensive interview, so these will have to suffice.  The information is the key part about these videos, rather than their look and feel. Therefore, it is not that important to ensure their visual quality or that they remain in the same format.

Furthermore, I plan to preserve all of the videos from Motion Picture Company explaining their role in creating the artworks. Their videos provide insight into the technological processes and difficulties behind the scenes that will be valuable to scholars of new media, animation, and design in the future. Because the visual nature is more important in these videos, I will preserve and maintain these in the highest quality formats available.

I plan to reach out to some people that worked on the team to see if they will do more interviews on the challenges and their experiences creating these pieces. I will compile these together as a complete document (most likely as a PDF document) that scholars and future artists will be interested in the years to come. This will further the goal of documenting the creation of this new genre of art without dealing with any concerns of providing access to the original substituent digital objects.


Most of the videos mentioned above are either embedded directly on a webpage or in video players like vimeo or youtube. Thus, I will download them either by using a simple “save as” or by using youtube-dl. In addition, I will use tools like mediainfo to extract technical metadata (most likely in PBCore 2.0)  to accompany these videos. Furthermore, I will use FFmpeg (and this handy ffmprovisor to decrease the learning curve) to generate MD5 hashes for future fixity checks and also transcode any videos that may be in an at risk format.

Much of the online press coverage of these works, whether video or web articles have not been saved in the Internet Archive. I will ensure that these pages are preserved as part of the record of reaction and scholarly communication mainly using the “save page now” functionality of the Wayback Machine. Additionally, I will save a copy of the html as it is delivered to my screen and create a collection that can be accessed in a central location.

Actual viewer reaction is much more difficult to ascertain, with only a few mentions in news articles or in generic postings from gallery attendees saying something similar to “this is cool” along with a picture on social media. In order to preserve the audience’s experience, I will go beyond the limited reactions and try to interview some of these people that posted on social media and see if they will expand further (hopefully they remember!). These interviews, as above, will most likely be saved as a compiled PDF document.

In the end, I plan on uploading all of these objects as a collection in the Internet Archive ensuring long term access.

The Eponymous G.I.F.

guy on jeopardy answering "what is gif?"

What is GIF? Similar to how Band-Aid has been genericized to mean any adhesive bandage and Kool-Aid to mean any sugary powdered drink mix, GIF has become an eponym or kind of like a for the entire genre of silent, short, and looping web animation or film. Jason Eppink says that .gifs have moved beyond a data format to “an ethos, a utility, an evolving context, a set of aesthetics… today ‘GIF’ is typically used to mean an animated GIF file or an otherwise short, silent, looping, untitled moving image.”

Therefore, when someone discusses an animated GIF,  they often could be talking about an animated .svg file, .mp4 video, or anything that can produce that desired effect.  This differentiation may seem pedantic but GIFs are a prime example of screen essentialism at its finest (or worst?), with many users showing no regard to the actual format that underlays this visual performance, which for clarity I will call .gif. This is similar to what Andy Baio described in “‘JIF’ is the format, ‘GIF’ is the culture” but this way we don’t have to fight over pronunciation and different spellings.

Igor saying "It's pronounced I-gor"
Actually, .gif is the name of format, GIF is the monster it created

To what extent can we separate .gif and GIF? Many of the cultural and aesthetic properties are intertwined with the affordances of file format itself and detail why the genre has had such longevity. What is the key part to preserve about these objects? Does GIF the genre require different preservation than .gif the format?

The Aesthetic


As Jason Eppink detailed in “A Brief History of the GIF (So Far)” (link above), there are many genres of GIFs. They began as small animations for websites at a time when space was limited, spawning emojis and later glitter GIFs. Today there are numerous genres of GIFs and many are derived from video. For instance, Eppink curated an exhibit on the reaction GIFs, a genre used to communicate a general feeling or reaction. He described these as a form of gesture, drawing from movies, tv, and memes to better communicate feeling on the internet.

supahot1 supahotbarack supahotham

The communicative nature of these objects are on the rise as more and more social sites are integrating GIFs into their experiences natively. Facebook has a GIF option in messaging and allows GIF-like profile pictures and Twitter has added a GIF keyboard to use when tweeting. Cultural institutions have also started using GIFs to share their collections in fun ways. Clearly there is a social aspect to document here. Can sharing and creative reuse of these items foster social memory and be a tenable preservation strategy for these genres?

More than communication, this image format is also used specifically for art. One genre that often fits both categories is the smoothe or perfect GIF, or one that flawlessly repeats without a sense of break in the loop. GIF artist Sofiya Glebovna has done some research on these GIFs and determined a set of principles that apply to this genre.

  1. The first image must be a logical forerunner to the last image.
  2. There is only a limited amount transformations that one can perform on the object: circular movements, periodic movements, and disappearance.
From GIF artist Cindy Suen
A smoothe GIF by artist Cindy Suen

Her examination of GIFs led her to postulate that there are different types of GIFs based on the context of how they are displayed on the screen and their function on a website but does not to delve into the file format itself.

The Format

.gif began as and still is an open format but for a time it was feared it would not remain that way. It’s openness and small file size, while still allowing animation, fed its popularity. When some users believed they could lose access to their objects due to a company asserting a patent on the compression used in .gifs, the open .png format emerged as an alternative and tried to topple .gif’s dominance. Nonetheless .gifs have remained consistently present in the internet age and are increasingly popular due to the newer GIF genres mentioned above.

Also mentioned above, social media websites are embracing GIFs more than ever and yet these companies predicate the management of these digital objects on the notion that the public will accept GIFs as an aesthetic genre rather than a specific file format (and they’re pretty much correct).

.gif purists might be alarmed with the amount that many social media sites are divesting from the beloved original format with the advent of the HTML5. Imgur converts all .gifs over 2MB into the new .gifv (made in part of .mp4 and .webm video) format it developed. Twitter converts all .gifs uploaded into the .mp4 format but place a label of “GIF” on the image when they appear in your timeline when not playing. From what I can tell, Facebook does the same but only allows embedding through linking, otherwise uploaded .gifs will become static (Facebook does retain the .gif format in messenger keyboard though). Therefore, these two different formats and compression methods are made to seem one in the same. 

fbgif_example twgif_example

Similar to what Jonathan Sterne described in Format Theory about the .mp3, we see the mediality in switching to other formats or creating new ones through the maintenance of many extant .gif features while at the same time trying to minimize file size even more and establish greater control over the files.

Not to mention that this move shifts from an open to a proprietary standard, the new functionality with .mp4 brings up a key difference created in this approach: the much easier ability to control the looping. Looping of .gifs only began with the advent of the Netscape 2.0 browser but has become a cultural mainstay ever since. Does the ability to easily pause, fast forward, and rewind the moving images instead of watching a seemingly uncontrollable endless replay matter? By moving beyond the limitations of .gif files are these companies also violating a significant property of GIFs? Are they breaking the “perfect GIF” described above?

This all goes back to preserving these items. What do we, as preservationists, feel is right? I think this is a similar problem that cultural heritage professionals face consistently over what is the best file format both for longevity and for authenticity and the way closed online platforms are often a barrier to preservation. Also, how does this affect collection decisions like harvesting what’s widely shared on the web versus finding the original? What are some of the other preservation concerns you see for .gifs or GIFs?

Moving Still Art: Rob and Nick Carter’s “Transforming”

A traditional painting is static to the human eye, despite the imperceptable movements of the atoms or the refresh rate of the screen if it displayed or created digitally. The husband and wife duo, Rob and Nick Carter, artist collaborators, looked to challenge the notion of how static these pieces need to be as part of their series called “Transforming.” Delving into a new venture between 2009 and 2013, they worked with the English visual effects firm, Motion Picture Company (MPC), to create a series of computer based digital paintings in a reimagining of still paintings from the Golden Age of Dutch art, Renaissance, and 18th century Germany.

Four of these works are presented as films on Mac screens or iPads with traditional portrait frames, each ranging from approximately two to three hours in length that loop and repeat again. Each piece, slowly and often imperceptibly, changes over the course of the playback, employing databases of insect movements and plant life cycles, algorithms, and traditional computer animation. The intentions of their pieces are to promote sustained engagement with the paintings in contrast to the six seconds on average that a museum goer looks at an artwork.

Transforming Vanitas Painting

Transforming Still Life Painting

Transforming Diptych

Transforming Nude Painting

Significance and Communities

Groups interested in the survival of these works are art scholars across various concentrations. To those studying the original works of inspiration, these new pieces serve as a vital link to understanding the impact and tracing their influence over time. Rob and Nick Carter’s work is also an important example of remixing or reuse and serve as important pieces to document the influence of the original artwork along with the new work itself. Ultimately, preservation of the digital paintings also means allowing for further transformation as the digital files and code are much easier to transform than their analog counterpart. Thus, these works are part of the social memory creation surrounding both the original works and the genres they represent.

Another group that would want these art pieces preserved are those studying new media art and its history. Kate Bryant of the Fine Art Society of London claims that these are the world’s first digitally rendered paintings (old paintings entirely recreated with a computer), making it an important to preserve as documentation of the establishment of a new genre or technique. While the approach of a modern day homage to earlier forms of art was innovative, I believe the work of Rob and Nick Carter is conservative compared to some new media art which can be quite jarring from traditional paintings.

The conventional elements may have made the work palatable to more traditional galleries such as The Frick Collection and The Mauritshuis which exhibited some of these works alongside centuries old still life paintings (in fact it is apparently the first digital work exhibited at The Frick). The works of “Transforming” are therefore important to understanding how the genre of still life is being adapted to contemporary society due to changes in technology and how new media is making its way into older traditions. I think the intersection of old and new is important to document and will be interesting to users in the future.


At the same time, their work is using cutting edge technology in animation, coding, and display, which will interest computer art and design historians. Additionally, since Rob and Nick Carter worked with a visual effects firm, the works also will interest those who want to understand how corporate entities are involved with art, especially those facilitating digital art for those who may not have the technical skills to realize their vision.

Finally, these pieces are part of the contemporary attempts of creators and producers to foster user engagement with media content. With the ever growing amount of exposure to media on a daily level, the public often devote only a small amount of time to the images that pass before their eyes. These artworks represent a response to this moment, a clear commentary on the need to focus, and how undivided attention can be rewarded. Therefore, documenting “Transforming” means documenting the cultural conversation around media consumption in the early 21st century.