Museums & Net Art: A Critical Collaboration

Researching for this week’s blog, I was often reminded of the modern artist Robert Breer, who experimented widely with film. Many of Breer’s works explored the concept of process vs. product, the practice of viewing art as an experience rather than a static image, and the manipulation of time within the gallery space. One of his most powerful works was a 1955 film piece entitled Image by Images. What made it unique was not the fact that Breer utilized the genre of film–several other artists were already experimenting with the genre–it was the fact that as a result of playing on a nonstop loop, the film slowly but surely destroyed itself [1].

Robert Breer. Courtesy of the New York Times via the Anthology Film Archives

Net/Digital art, or art created with the use of digital technologies such as the internet, certainly do not (for the most part) intend to destroy themselves through the very act of their display. I would imagine that most digital artists are interested in their art becoming as timeless as the paintings and sculptures of their art-making predecessors. Net art’s biggest threat, in contrast to Breer’s self-destructing work, is the world surrounding it. Technology advances by the minute, and as such, the very tools used to conceive the art become obsolete, if not unusable, as they are replaced by models and mechanisms that improve upon the original. So although the genre has been borne out of advances in technology, museums are now facing a monumental challenge in straddling the past, present and future through digital and net art conservation.

It should be of some consolation that several of the most influential art museums in the United States have dedicated efforts to the preservation and longevity of digital art in recent years. In 2002, for example, the Whitney Museum of American Art launched Artport, a database of born-digital art specific to Whitney commissioned works, exhibitions, and collections objects [2][3]. In 2015, the museum officially made the database part of the Whitney’s collection [4].

Screenshot of the super-readable Net Art Anthology web design, courtesy of the New Museum

The New Museum launched the Net Art Anthology in partnership with born-digital art organization Rhizome in October of 2016 [5][6][7]. This anthology has been published in beta mode, allowing users to access each work of net art as it is published to the site. The Net Art Anthology is additionally splendidly easy to navigate and read, increasing accessibility and the likelihood of user dwell time.

The Guggenheim Museum has also realized its responsibility to preserve net art, according to an article by The Creators Project columnist Noemie Jennifer [8][9]. Jennifer reports that time-based conservators are working with computer scientists to coordinate joint efforts to develop a framework of best practices for future born-digital art, but the biggest struggle lies in who should take the lead:

NYU computer science student Jiwon Shin during her internship with the Guggenheim Conservation Department. Photo by Joanna Phillips, courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum and The Creators Project

…who will be best for the job? ‘Should it be a conservator with some knowledge of coding, or a computer scientist with enough understanding of art and conservation?’ wonders [conservator Joanne] Phillips… ‘There is no precedent. We’re creating a new job description.’” [10]

Jennifer also mentions the importance and challenge of preserving not just the net art itself, but its skeleton: the code. The Cooper Hewitt grappled with just such a multifaceted hardware/software/source-code preservation challenge upon their accession of the iPad application Planetary:

As detailed in Seb Chan’s 2013 article, the challenge in preserving code doesn’t simply lie in determining how to save it–paper? Handwritten? Electronically? A shared document? With or without explanation of what each line means?–the challenge also lies in preserving the hardware it was programmed for. Chan’s recount of his team’s reasoning for attempting to use an old, never-before-used iPhone in the museum’s collection to open the app, therefore, is as entertaining as it is troubling [11].

If more museums do not take precautions now to ensure that not only are protocols put in place for preserving both hardware and software, but that compatible devices and computers are maintained in working order so that art and objects can always be accessed. Such initiatives become more important each day. Now, entire exhibitions are built around born-digital art [12]. Net art is more accessible than ever. But access and abundance should not be confused with conservation, especially when all three are linked to evolving technology. It is heartening, therefore, that museums are coming to this realization and are taking promising steps towards ensuring digital art’s future.

Featured image: ‘r/Pizzagate I. An Evening W/ The Podestas,’ inspired by Pizzagate. Courtesy of net artist Michael Green


[1] Uroskie, Andrew V. “Moving Images in the Gallery.” Between the Black Box and the White Cube: Expanded Cinema and Postwar Art. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2014.












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