Obsolescence – Part 1: The preservation and restoration of electronic media

New digital media are rendering their old analogue counterparts obsolete. Innovations have of course always resulted in the replacement of old technologies. But the current changeover from old to new is especially far-reaching, because the acceleration of product life cycles is virtually an essential feature of digital media. The technical term used to describe an outdated product being pulled out of circulation is obsolescence. In film and media production, both software and hardware are affected by accelerated obsolescence. Obsolescence prevents us not only from continuing to use products, but also from being able to see or read works produced with them. This means that there is a great deal at stake here! In the following I outline some strategies for preserving works stored on obsolete media. In a second part, to follow in a later issue, I will then look at counter-movements that deliberately rely on obsolete technologies.

Obsolescence takes various forms. The most common form in the field of electronic media is probably so-called functional obsolescence. This means that, although a product itself still works, it is nonetheless rendered useless by new requirements in the environment in which it is used. This happens when complementary technologies are modified so as to prevent certain products from performing their function in the altered environment. A classic example is the dependence of “old” software on certain operating system versions.

We speak of planned obsolescence when a manufacturer deliberately builds vulnerabilities into a product to make it prematurely obsolete. However, most of the cases where consumers are forced to buy a new product lie in a grey area, where the upgrade is attractive because it offers improvements or functional enhancements over the older product. And, often enough, consumers allow themselves to be pressured into replacing a still functional product with a new one of the latest generation. This is then called style or aesthetic obsolescence.

Obsolescence and digital media
Bruce Sterling, who has been dealing with this topic for years and posts new cases of obsolescence almost daily in his blog “Dead Media Beat” on WIRED, believes that obsolescence is built into all electronic media. Back in 1995 he already wrote in his Dead Media Manifesto: “It’s a rather rare phenomenon for an established medium to die. They usually expand wildly in their early days and then shrink back to some protective niche as they are challenged by later and more highly evolved competitors … but some media do, in fact, perish.” [1]

The actual data for a digital work produced with obsolete technology can be copied and stored, but this does not ensure the work’s readability – and certainly not with its original characteristics such as colour qualities, sound nuances or its overall look and feel. All electronic media have this handicap. It is part of their nature, because not only specific software, but also specific hardware is needed for “translating” the algorithms. Because this translation or conversion step is necessary for making sounds and images visible and audible, it is of little use that the underlying code, a sequence of zeroes and ones, can always be copied loss-free and preserved – probably for eternity. Unlike a text carved into stone or printed, and unlike a picture painted with pigments, the algorithms underlying an electronic work do not contain any traces of its appearance.

This means that in order to experience digital works as they are meant to be experienced, we need not only their code but also the historically contemporary software and hardware. Even algorithms can fall victim to obsolescence when the language in which they were written is no longer supported. For example, information written in the first standardized high-level programming language, FORTRAN II, is today already lost.

Some older digital documents can only be deciphered with the help of forensics. What was once the domain of criminologists and intelligence agencies is increasingly a skill set needed by archivists and media art collectors. Professional help is already forthcoming in this field, for example an American project that is developing forensic methods for institutional collections, which has adopted the curiously apt name of “BitCurator”!

Initial experiences: restoration and conservation of media art
The problem of obsolescence turned up very early on in the field of media art. The very first electronic media, which were still analogue, were already quickly swept aside by a steady stream of newer, improved products. Those affected by these developments were, and still are, museums, collections and exhibition organizers, but also artists who are no longer able to show their works.

As a case in point, the first portable video cameras were still relatively new on the market when problems were already encountered with the medium of videotape – from squealing tapes, to sticky tape syndrome, to errors in the magnetization. The hardware was likewise short-lived: in just a few years, a number of video systems, such as Portapak, U-matic and VHS-video, had become obsolete.

Examples in Germany
In Germany, the ZKM (Center for Art and Media) in Karlsruhe was probably the first institution to be affected by these problems and to start searching for solutions. Among the challenges it faced was the restoration of “Infermental” (http://www.infermental.de/), the first international short film magazine on video cassette, initiated by Gábor Bódy in 1980. 10 years later, it encompassed more than 600 video works from 36 countries. In order to conserve this important collection for the benefit of video-art history, the tapes had to be digitized. They were finally made publicly available on an interactive playback station in 2006. However, the technology used, storage on interactive CD-ROMs, is itself now obsolete, and the works can today be viewed only on site at the ZKM.

The ZKM has in addition maintained since 2004 a set of more than 300 devices in what it calls the “Laboratory for antiquated video systems”, in order to be able to play and digitize various obsolete video formats. In 2009, the ZKM launched as a further attempt in this direction the project “RECORD > AGAIN!”, this time to conserve 40 years of German video art (http://www.record-again.de/).

The Inter Media Art Institute (imai) in Düsseldorf, whose collection comprises nearly 1,500 audiovisual works, examined from 2006 to 2011 as part of a larger research project the problems involved in conserving and re-enacting media art installations. Included were case studies on works by Studio Azzurro, Gary Hill, Nan Hoover, Bill Seaman and Katharina Sieverding. The results of the research project were published in a book [2] . The introduction says that, “Although media art as a  genre is but a few decades old, its conservation already presents curators and conservators today with enormous challenges (…) The technology evolves so quickly that devices and storage media must be renewed at regular intervals in order to maintain the functionality of the installations.” Among the conclusions reached from the case studies is that there can only be individual solutions, and that it is crucial when choosing a conservation strategy to first work out which core aspects are critical to the authenticity of a given work. The resulting strategy might be a re-enactment, a replica, or an attempt to present the work using the original equipment. The artist should also have a say in which strategy to opt for.

Strategies for the conservation of digital media – born digital and then?
The conservation of analogue media, whether film or video art, with the help of digital technology is already difficult and problematic enough. What is perhaps surprising, though, is that conserving works on digital media is an even greater challenge. Art museums in particular are rising to this challenge and looking for creative solutions.

At the Variable Media Conference, which took place in 2001 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Jon Ippolito, co-founder of Still Water presented four different strategies, thereby attracting international recognition: storage, emulation, migration and reinterpretation. [3],

“Storage” means that a work is stored and maintained on the original data media together with all the original equipment from the time of its production. This strategy pursues above all the goal of physical authenticity and preservation of the look and feel of a work. The presentation of the work is only possible as long as the carrier medium and its technical environment are preserved intact. The latter can possibly be ensured for some time by keeping the necessary equipment and spare parts on hand. Storage is however not a sustainable strategy against obsolescence, because damaged data media would make it impossible to ever present the work again, while at the same time each presentation or performance hastens its obsolescence – a problem that is all too familiar to archivists of analogue films too …

“Emulation” [4] means embedding obsolete software in current software and hardware platforms. The emulation strategy focuses on preserving both the original code and the functionality of the work. It is very complicated and expensive, because in each case special, and sometimes even unique, software must be written for the simulation on new devices. On the plus side, however, experience relevant to emulation already exists on the computer scene (e.g. the emulation of old operating systems in order to play historical but popular computer games).

“Migration” is an alternative strategy to emulation. Digital information is transcoded to prepare it for presentation using current software or contemporary hardware. At the heart of this strategy is preserving the functionality of the digital works. Whenever the technical environment changes, however, the migration must be repeated. There is thus a risk that with every new generation more and more characteristics of the original are lost. An example of a migration chain is the transfer of a video film from a Portopak reel to DigiBeta tape, and from there onto BluRay disc, etc.

“Reinterpretation” is an attempt to reproduce the original artistic intention using current technology on a completely different or new platform. It dispenses entirely with preserving the original code, the authentic data medium and authentic hardware. As they can be repeated relatively simply and without encountering technical problems, reinterpretations are affected least by obsolescence, but on the other hand the results are also the furthest removed from the physical original. Reinterpretation is therefore not only the most flexible, but also the most radical of the four strategies.

Variable Media Questionnaire
Some of the foremost institutions and initiators involved in media conservation in the USA have launched the joint project “Forging the Future”. Members of the consortium include the Whitney Museum, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive at the University of California, Rhizome.org and Still Water at the University of Maine. The goals of the project are ambitious and far-reaching: standards and instruments are to be developed for the conservation of electronic media, even for media that do not yet exist!

On the shared platform “The Variable Media Network”, the consortium proposes a conservation strategy based on investigations into how works of art can survive past the end of the life cycle of their original medium. The Variable Media Questionnaire was developed for this purpose, incorporating the above-described strategies proposed by Jon Ippolito (URL: http//variablemediaquestionnaire.net/).

With the help of the Variable Media Questionnaire, the consortium hopes to develop guidelines for transferring works whose original medium has become obsolete onto new media. The undertaking differs from existing approaches and recommendations for the cataloguing and preservation of works in that the questionnaire is addressed mainly to the artists and producers of the works, who are asked to describe not technical details or specifications, but rather the main substantive functions that should be preserved. Certain losses (“slippage”) must be expected, but the artists themselves should decide how to handle this. They are hence asked what – in their opinion – might be appropriate preservation strategies: “storage (mothballing a PC), emulation (playing Pong on your laptop), migration (putting Super-8 on DVD), or reinterpretation (Hamlet in a chat room)”.

This approach aims at integrating an analysis of the material aspects of an artwork into its definition, regardless of the media technology used, hence driving the preservation of new media art. Furthermore, the results of the questionnaire can serve as a kind of ethical will by the artists that puts authorized guidelines in the hands of curators and technicians who may find themselves working in future on an exhibition or restoration of the works in question.

The conservation and restoration of works of art is as old as art itself. It is the responsibility of conservators and curators. The currently fashionable job description of the latter will in future need to be oriented more on the original task of preservation of the artwork and its exhibition within a meaningful context.


Lifelong recopying
Recopying and transcoding digital media will be a lifelong task in the future. The German conservator Andreas Weisser wrote in this connection: “Our experiences in the analogue era should be a lesson to us. Just as it is not enough to put a tape containing video art on the shelf and forget about it, in the digital era it will hardly suffice to simply to “save” a copy on some sort of data medium. Constant monitoring, refreshing, migration and updating are necessary. This applies to the data medium, the integrity of the files, the software and the hardware, as well as keeping track of whether file formats become obsolete.” [5]Incidentally, this also applies to digital conservation strategies for analogue films. It is almost paradoxical that, even if there should one day be no more film projectors, the individual frames of an analogue film strip can still be seen with the human eye. Once digitized, this visibility is lost! The digital copy of an analogue film is actually a new original, which is then subject to the laws of obsolescence affecting all digital media.

It may be the case that digital documents can be copied nearly perfectly and seemingly loss-free. But it is an unfounded, albeit widespread, myth that digital information lasts forever. This also applies, by the way – which is somewhat comforting – to the statement that the Internet forgets nothing!

PS: The second part of this article on obsolescence will include a look at the following topics: avant-garde film, circuit bending, media zombies, open source, and DIY as a counter-movement


[1]  Bruce Sterling’s Dead Media Manifesto: http://www.deadmedia.org/modest-proposal.html

[2]  Media Art Installations. Preservation and Presentation. Materializing the Ephemeral. Edited by Renate Buschmann and Tiziana Caianiello; Berlin (Dietrich Reimer Verlag), 2013; German-English: http://www.imaionline.de/content/view/216/74/lang

Variable Media Conference: http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/press-room/releases/press-release-archive/2001/687-march-15-variable-media-conference

[4] The emulation solution was first suggested by Jeff Rothenberg
in: Avoiding Technological Quicksand: Finding a Viable Technical Foundation for Digital Preservation (1998) URL: http://www.clir.org/pubs/reports/rothenberg/contents.html

[5] Andreas Weisser quote: http://www.faz.net/asv/blinkvideo/videokunstwolken-12160747.html
Website of Andreas Weisser: http://www.restaumedia.de/

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