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Abstract

This paper aims to focus our attention to the cultural and educational importance of finding the reliable solutions for archiving, preserving and representing the emblematic line of generative digital art practices in the early 21st century, whose cultural vulnerability stems from both their conceptual sophistication and their technical complexity. It was expanded from the lecture I made at Question of Memory conference at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Vojvodina in Novi Sad on 28 May 2016.

Keywords: Computer Technology, Creative Coding, Digital Art, Digital Culture, Generative Art, Hardware, Information Technology, Software, Software Libraries.

Introduction

Technical solutions in the first wave of systematic institutional curation, archiving, preserving and representing digital art—with Paola Antonelli, Christiane Paul, Charlie Gere, Wolf Lieser and Oliver Grau among its most notable proponents—have been predominantly dealing with the software/hardware dynamics of the 20th century. These efforts have been facing the conceptual challenges of new media art being perceived as somehow less object-based and more participatory, processual, temporal and transitory than the traditional fine arts.[1] This required new understanding of the museum as a cultural institute, establishing new curatorial models and collaboration with the artists, new representational strategies and audience engagement.[2] Concurrently, they had been confronting a number of technical obstacles stemming from the inherent technological impermanency and obsolescence, for example with esoteric analog computers, mainframes, plotters or film printers that the pioneers of computer art used in the day. Although a number of works by the computer artists in the 1960’s and 1970’s had been lost for technical reasons, many were preserved as program code so they can be emulated in modern programming environments, rendered and materialized with modern hardware. Some can be formally interpreted and reconstructed even without the original code by reverse engineering the final imagery, for example in projects such as ReCode (initiated in 2012 by Matthew Epler),[3] Digital Art Gallery (2014) by Joachim Wedekind,[4] and Pattern Recognition (2017) by Martin Zeilinger.[5]

Entanglement

Intentionally or unconsciously, contemporary generative artists tend to work in technologically diverse bricolage style, building their creative methodologies upon multilayered interconnections between software protocols, libraries, meta-libraries, APIs, platforms and services that run on networked hardware with much higher degree of entanglement and pace of change. We consider these technical elements as ubiquitous, guaranteed layers of cultural infrastructure, but they are highly unstable because they evolve according to the unpredictable changes in economy, technology and politics. Their functionality is primarily focused on satisfying the narrow windows of current technological requirements and commercial demands, with relatively small margins for backward or forward compatibility.[6] Many generative artists often find it difficult to keep their own older projects running when the hardware/software environments change. Furthermore, most contemporary generative artworks are time-based and continuous (not having one distinct outcome) which is essential for their proper experience and for their poetic identity. Consequently, it is difficult, often impossible, for these artworks to exist without the functioning of all their external interdependent technical layers. Some of these layers are informative, interactive in nature and require a (sometimes critical) number of people to be using certain systems casually in real-time of exhibiting the artwork.

One partially satisfactory response to this new technological challenge reflects the solutions of the first wave of digital art museology: keeping the original hardware/software systems well preserved and operational, and/or continuously maintaining and updating the libraries, platforms and other software components, and/or developing software emulators for running the archived artworks on modern hardware. However, many generative art projects since the beginning of the 21st century rely on complex software and hardware systems with the specific intention to engage the social and political consequences of ephemerality, and to address the fragility of information technologies by emphasizing their performative and transitory character. Some of these projects have been anticipated by the artists and produced as both the event and its own documentation which relevantly represents the poetic identity, for example Google Will Eat Itself (2005) by Übermorgen, Paolo Cirio and Alessandro Ludovico,[7] Face to Facebook (2010) by Paolo Cirio and Alessandro Ludovico,[8] or American Psycho (2010) by Mimi Cabell and Jason Huff.[9] Some other can be emulated or satisfactorily archived for all practical purposes, for example Luke DuBois’s generative videos Acceptance (2012)[10] and Acceptance 2016 (2016).[11]

However, the projects whose generativeness emerges from real-time transactions between networked intelligent agents can, at this point, only be archived as documentation while their generative functionality cannot be emulated but only simulated. For example, Matthew Cherubini’s generative installation Afghan War Diaries (2010)[12] which relies on the real-time “deaths” of the players in the online video game Counter-Strike, Nicolas Maigret and Brendan Howell’s generative video installation The Pirate Cinema (2012-2014)[13] which relies on the real-time peer-to-peer file sharing on the Piratebay, or !Mediengruppe Bitnik’s installation Random Darknet Shopper (from 2014)[14] which is generated by the software robot that pragmatically exploits the web anonymity platform Tor.

Hypothetically, this kind of projects could be emulated by a networked structure of highly sophisticated and resource-demanding software layers, including a number of AI programs trained to imitate the generative effects of the intelligent participants’ emergent behavior. From the current perspective this would be unreasonably expensive or technically impossible for most artworks but, with sufficiently detailed specifications of each project’s functionality, it could be achievable in the future.

Having been produced roughly since the mid-2000’s, this wave of conceptually and technically advanced but museologically troubled generative art ironically preconditions the post-digital, post-media and post-Internet art in which the artists also utilize various digital technologies and thematize the phenomenology of digital paradigm, but mainly produce their works as interventions and aestheticizations in conventional materials and non-interactive media. Therefore, they conform much smoother to the conservativism of the mainstream art world, and most of their works are easier to exhibit, preserve and sell.[15]

Universal Instability

But the conservational risks and cultural uncertainty haunting contemporary generative art are only seemingly exceptional. They arise from the asymmetry between artistic inventiveness, anticipations and technological resources, and are as old as the arts. Although the arts, in general, rely on complex production and presentation technologies, require multifaceted contextual knowledge for deep understanding and appreciation, the artists often do not envision their works to be conceptually timeless or to be materially future-proof. Weather they just enjoy communicating with their close surroundings or they are driven by the ambition to reach the indefinitely remote spatiotemporal continuum, nothing meaningful is forever in the entropic universe. In that sense, the evasiveness of reliable solutions for the archival and representation of generative art confronts us with the ultimate impossibility of unconditionally preserving the artefacts, events and other cultural products that carry symbolic value.

Exploring the human universals such as concepts of time, death and vanity, the artists have also appreciated the cultural porosity of art in different ways, as concisely verbalized by Marcel Duchamp: “…I believe that a picture, a work of art, lives and dies just as we do.”[16] Material robustness notwithstanding, not all artworks are of equal aesthetic values, emotional powers or cognitive potentials, they are not equally interesting or engaging, so the transience of artistic mental worth approximates, in a way, the key principle of science as the prime epistemological asset of our civilization: testability rather than trust or authority appeal. It also reminds us on the reduction-based physiological (perceptive and processual) economy of the conscious experience, which suggests that transience and forgetting may be evolutionary adaptive.

Prevail

But transience and forgetting are not necessarily beneficial for the evolution of culture. Cultural preservation and memory are essential for learning, for intellectual empowerment, for deepening our understanding of what it means to be human, and for improving the sense of our place in nature. They build the infrastructure for progress, development and betterment of civilization.

Since the pioneers of computer art in the early 1960’s, digital generative art has been proving itself culturally valuable despite its frequent disregard and marginalization by the mainstream art world.[17] Conservationally challenging, museologically tricky and sidelined as it is, contemporary generative art is a unique, rich repertoire of fascinating critical thinking and creative practices that provide crucial insights into the digital paradigm and our (digital) culture. Often incomparable in elegance and depth to the well-accepted layers of contemporary art, it is worthy of the highest cultural and institutional respect, academic recognition and financial support with all the unforeseeable technical efforts and demanding solutions this may require.

  1.  Gere, Charlie. New Media Art and the Gallery in the Digital Age. London: Tate Research Papers, 2004. Accessed September 17 2018, http://www.tate.org.uk/file/charlie-gere-new-media-art-and-gallery-digital-age.

  2.  Paul, Christiane, ed. New Media in the White Cube and Beyond: Curatorial Models for Digital Art. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008.

  3.  “ReCode,” accessed September 17 2018, http://recodeproject.com/.

  4.  “Digital Art Gallery,” accessed September 17 2018, http://digitalart.joachim-wedekind.de/dag/.

  5.  “Pattern Recognition,” accessed September 17 2018, http://marjz.net/works/.

  6.  Castells, Manuel. The Information Age Vol. 1: The Rise of the Network Society. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010: 169-180.

  7.  “Google Will Eat Itself,” accessed September 17 2018, https://paolocirio.net/work/gwei/.

  8.  “Face to Facebook,” accessed September 17 2018, https://paolocirio.net/work/face-to-facebook/.

  9.  “American Psycho,” accessed September 17 2018, https://www.mimicabell.com/#/american-psycho/.

  10.  “Acceptance,” accessed September 17 2018.

  11.  “Acceptance 2016,” accessed September 17 2018, https://vimeo.com/179101658.

  12.  “Afghan War Diaries,” accessed September 17 2018, http://mchrbn.net/afghan-war-diary/.

  13.  “The Pirate Cinema,” accessed September 17 2018, http://thepiratecinema.com/.

  14.  “Random Darknet Shopper,” accessed September 17 2018, https://wwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww.bitnik.org/r/.

  15.  Paul, Christiane. “Collecting the Digital — Materials, Markets, Models,” Media Art and the Art Market Symposium, LENTOS Kunstmuseum Linz, 2016. Accessed September 17 2018, http://interface.ufg.ac.at/blog/media-art-and-the-art-market-speakers/#Paul, Video recording, accessed September 17 2018, https://vimeo.com/192670584.

  16.  Baudson, Michel. “An interview with Marcel Duchamp.” Edited transcript of the interview with the artist, filmed by Jean Antoine in 1966 (translation Sue Rose). The Art Newspaper No. 27, April 1993. Available online at The Art Newspaper (published on 29 March 2013), accessed September 17 2018, http://ec2-79-125-124-178.eu-west-1.compute.amazonaws.com/articles/An-interview-with-Marcel-Duchamp/29278.

  17.  Taylor, Grant D. When the Machine Made Art: The Troubled History of Computer Art. New York and London: Bloomsbury Press, 2014.