Anticipating Obsolescence

Kiki Lennaert's contribution to V2_'s radio show on Operator Radio of 8 December 2022 is about the challenges around preserving immersive media art.

Big thank you to Arie and V2_ for providing me with this stage to talk more about the embedded research I performed at The Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision. The research builds upon an online resource created by Tate, called the Preserving Immersive Media Knowledge Base, a knowledge hub that helps share information between members of the digital preservation community who are caring for virtual reality, Augmented reality and extended reality. The study Anticipating Obsolescence is the outcome of 6 months of embedded research at Sound & Vision, I will discuss the general findings and recommendations as well as look beyond that research to discuss implications and effects it has on an institutional level.

But first, let me contextualize: 

I would like to set the scene with a quote from one of the most influential media scholars, Marshall McLuhan: “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.” I stumbled upon this quote when the majority of my research was already completed, but it harmonizes so well with the message I proclaim with the study Anticipating Obsolescence. This study provides a set of tools and strategies to preserve immersive media, but can also be applicable to other forms of ephemeral media. McLuhan’s quote reflects on the burden of working in an archive where the main focus is put on artifacts from the past. However, it is getting more acknowledged that new media and digital assets require a different approach as they are subject to constant change. Principles that would be used for traditional and tangible media do not apply anymore, media content demands a vision to the future. Such preservation forward thinking requires those dealing with preservation to break away from the prevailing paradigm and develop practices that reflect the affordances of the medium, like interactivity and inherent mutability as opposed to invariable objects and the singular original.

Media scholars and professionals have been calling for action in the preservation of our collective digital heritage, especially immersive media, as these objects are extremely ephemeral. Scholars agree that unless immediate steps are taken, valuable content might be lost to future generations, this is referred to as the digital dark age. By contributing to the ongoing efforts of preserving immersive media, my research supports the safeguarding of valuable digital heritage, in an effort to consolidate its societal relevance for future generations. The study aimed to be a reinforcement of the relevance of documentation for the preservation of immersive media and similar emerging materials. Currently there might not yet be universally agreed-upon best practices and technological solutions, but we are able to think about what good practices might look like. The challenge of dynamically preserving immersive works is far from solved but the aim to document holistically can facilitate a shift and support institutions in anticipating obsolescence.

New media is used as an umbrella term, capturing multiple forms of media. At the start mainly referring to television and film, but currently the term includes such a wide array of formats that it has lost its value. In addition to this, new media are still perceived as lowbrow artforms by established galleries, libraries, archives and museums which results in a slow process of acquiring new media and in turn in the slow development of preservation strategies for sustainable and long term safeguarding.

My research revolved specifically around immersive media, where according to the Cambridge definition, Media are perceived as immersive when the audience or participant is seemingly surrounded and feels completely involved in an experience. “Immersion arises when perception of artwork and advanced image technology, the message and the medium, converge almost completely” (Cambridge, n.d.).

As the virtual world and the physical world are becoming increasingly intertwined, artists are reflecting upon these developments using similar digital mediums to convey their message. Examples include interactive documentaries, as seen at IDFA Doclab and MIT Open Doclab, and artworks like the AR/XR installation Concrete Storm by Studio Drift or Shan Shui by Geert Mul (XR). The hybrid reality presents issues for preserving artworks that use modern technologies to foster immersive experiences. Institutions in charge of the preservation of immersive media are struggling to keep up with the technological developments and as there are no standardized guidelines yet, they are forced to define their own strategies if they’d like to preserve such an artwork. It is known and inevitable that immersive media will become obsolete, which increases the importance of collaborative research into such topics.

As I mentioned earlier, there does not yet exist a workflow for the preservation of immersive media which is why I presented documentation as an alternative way to capture the essence and experience of a work of art. I regarded documentation as the act of collecting and organizing all information that is relevant in relation to a specific artwork, in order to ensure that the documents form a complete image of the artwork. Documentation as preservation should take the variety of artworks as well as institutions with their respective purposes and missions into account. In doing so, it is necessary to expand the term in order to encompass the different goals and phases of documentation. The idea is making sense of existing practices and choosing the right strategy for your specific case. The ideas of using documentation as a preservation practice and the inevitable fragility of media art are not new, De Digitale Stad is one case that has been resurrected after obsolescence through a collaborative project by Amsterdam Museum, Sound & Vision and Waag. With the research I aimed to affirm documentation for the preservation of immersive media, by identifying what can be gained from esteemed documentation strategies and providing a strategy moving forward.

Documentation will become a vital reference in the future, by informing those working in museums and archives that are in charge of sustaining immersive media. Through the reinterpretation of documentation practices in other fields, documentation for immersive media challenges and draws inspiration from previously established strategies for documenting contemporary art forms, like performance and installation art. Where other standards for documentation are geared towards capturing more conventional works of art in their unique physical form, media art requires a more fluid and flexible approach with less focus on authenticity and a singular original entity. Documentation can facilitate this effort, by representing the work in for example video or photo and capturing the artist intent in an interview, representing the visitor experience could also be of value, as the experience in a particular context might represent the work better than presenting an identical copy (using the same hardware and software) in the future.

My research landed me at V2_, which published leading research nearly 20 years ago. In 2003 the Capturing Unstable Media project was presented, the study provides an approach between archiving and preservation, revolving around the documentation aspects of the preservation of electronic art activities. It was one of the strategies that I highlighted in the study to attempt to anticipate obsolescence by capturing the behavior and processes of an artwork and moving away from the traditional modes of preservation with its focus on the material presence of an object. This allows for future conservators to make weighted decisions about the acceptable change, taking into consideration the artist intent, as well as spatial arrangements and visitor experience. In doing so, holistic documentation can capture the vividity of the immersive medium, allowing conservators to revive it after it has become obsolete. With this research I aimed to advocate for a broader understanding of documentation, not only as the memento of an artwork, but as a multiplicity of tools and strategies that should be implemented sooner rather than later to respond to the rapid increase and development of immerse media content.

The Netherlands Institute for Sound & Vision has a legacy of collecting and archiving audio-visual materials to represent collective Dutch cultural heritage, public broadcasting like radio and television, and it has lately invested additional resources in emerging forms of media to anticipate future developments. Examples of media range from games, websites, webvideo and immersive media. The efforts are the result of the latest strategic preservation policy towards a multimedia future. This policy voices the desire to move from an audio-visual archive to a multimedia, meaning that Sound & Vision will expand its collection to also include online content, video art, interactive productions, games and virtual reality. The rapidly increasing amount of multimedia content reinforces the need for preservation forward planning through research and pilot programs and exploring how practices from other fields can be of use when defining a preservation policy. What complicates this process is that it is unclear who is responsible for collecting and safeguarding the materials, which could lead to the loss of valuable content. Sound & Vision’s main effort to counter this, is to work collaboratively within national and international networks, allowing dialogue and knowledge sharing to be able to span a more complete impression of the content.

This notion is the result of a shift in the field of collecting audiovisual heritage. In the first few decades institutes, such as Sound & Vision, were able to archive a complete overview because the public broadcasters were the only ones creating content. Nowadays this has completely shifted, public broadcasters are no longer the sole creators of content recognized as dutch cultural heritage and heritage institutions are thus burdened with the task of making a selection of the available content.

To conclude, The study Anticipating Obsolescence presents ideas for preserving immersive media. Collecting and preserving new forms of art requires a radical shift in the work of museum and heritage professionals. By selecting documentation for the initial safeguarding of such objects, the strategy proposed in the study echoes established practices in institutions and provides a way forward that allows those in charge of the preservation to take an increasingly experimental approach to anticipate obsolescence.

Kiki Lennaerts, December 2022


This text was commissioned by V2_ for the V2_radio show on Operator Radio of 8 December 2022. Kindly supported by a grant from the Netwerk Archieven Design en Digitale Cultuur (NADD).

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