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For over fifty years, many artists have experimented with, used and created various technologies that have rendered the preservation and documentation of artistic practices significantly more complex. Technology-based art, including electroacoustic music, video art, digital art, robotic art, network art (Internet and Web art), the use of media technologies in the performing arts and, more recently, locative art and BioArt, present new problems for traditional preservation and documentation methods.


Initiated by the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science and Technology (DLF) in 2005, a Research Alliance for the Documentation and Conservation of Media Arts Heritage (DOCAM) Project was created to study the factors contributing to the fragility of the media arts heritage and propose solutions and tools to enable museum professionals, collectors, artists and their associates to better document and preserve new media art. The causes of this fragility are varied, but they are beginning to be more readily identified, recognized and taken into consideration. The main cause is the increasingly rapid obsolescence of the technologies used for the artwork. This obsolescence forces us to reformulate the notion of authenticity and integrity for new media art and to acknowledge that these factors are based on variable media. We have become aware that the very essence of a piece of artwork is contained in its behaviour and the effects produced, rather than in its material components. Identifying and understanding what must be conserved requires adaptability, new methods and new tools.


However, it is not unusual for artworks to change from one exhibition to the other, a frequent occurrence for many types of artistic expression, such as dance, theatre and music. But until recently, this phenomenon did not apply to most works of visual art, for which the possibility of modification over time was very low. The only possible and acceptable, though undesirable, changes were those resulting from the passage of time, wear and gradual deterioration. During certain periods, these changes were even appreciated as they confirmed the authenticity of ancient works, as was the case for classical paintings. Conservation and restoration specialists of traditional artwork like paintings and sculptures have long since developed techniques, methods and protocols perfectly adapted to those artistic practices. As long as the two golden rules of documentation and reversibility are respected, we can affirm that the preservation of these works, though a complex feat, does not pose any major problems to the organizations and individuals responsible for the works.


The situation is altogether different where new media art is concerned. The artwork’s true content, its “essence,” rarely rests on a distinct and solid object that, by the simple act of conservation, can ensure the longevity of the work. In some cases, the artwork exists outside the realm of physical objects. For example, it may appear on computer networks, like the Internet, which are themselves in a constant state of flux. Such artwork often contains the conditions of their own instability. Both instability and variability, being intrinsic to new media art, are incontrovertible. They cannot be ignored any more than they can be contained; doing so would betray the integrity of the artwork. In fact, the opposite must be done. New methods for capturing and annotating the changes to the artwork must be developed. To achieve this, it is important to correctly identify and understand the methods, conditions and factors associated with these changes. Among the most significant factors are those linked to technological components. The nature of problematic artwork varies: analogue or digital, mechanical or electronic. Often composed of several media, the artwork may comprise industrial or fabricated mechanisms, software, electronic, hydraulic or electromagnetic systems, as well as non-traditional, and sometimes industrial, materials.


In addition to the accelerated obsolescence of the technological components, these artworks often possess transitory characteristics that create temporary, unstable and constantly mutating phenomena. Furthermore, these artworks are sometimes eventual in nature. These characteristics lead us to perceive these artworks as variable, in the sense that over its lifespan, a work of art will undergo various changes, transformations or mutations. There are many reasons for these changes. Some are inherent to the concept, as is the case for highly participative interactive Web-based artwork, where the work is constantly being modified by “user-spectators.” But the main reason for this variability is that most new media artworks will eventually migrate to other technologies using different components in order to preserve similar effects.


Be it variable, unstable, temporary, interactive, processual, procedural, programmatic, distributed, hybrid, remixed, mutating, migratory, immaterial, collaborative, recombined or non-linear, new media art continues to make us question our documentation and preservation methods and models, which requires us to maintain a degree of openness and flexibility to effectively adapt to the challenges we face.


Documentation and Conservation of Media Arts Heritage (DOCAM)


It is in this context that the DOCAM Research Alliance was formed. This multidisciplinary team gathered many Canadian and international partners from academic circles and from a community of interested parties including research, broadcasting and documentation organizations as well as museums involved in the technological arts. DOCAM comprises a range of partners, such as museums (the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the National Gallery of Canada), documentation centres (DLF Research and Documentation Centre (CR+D)), government organizations (Canadian Heritage Information Network –CHIN), as well as several university departments from Université de Montréal, Université du Québec à Montréal and McGill University. DOCAM is a group of conservators, archivists, information science specialists, computer experts, art historians, curators and technologists. Most of the research conducted by DOCAM members consisted of case studies on new media artwork drawn from the collections of the participating museums. These artworks were created by artists such as Janet Cardiff, Alexandre Castonguay, Max Dean and Raffaello D’Andrea, Stan Douglas, Jean-Pierre Gauthier, Gary Hill, Jenny Holzer, Greg Lynn, Nam June Paik, David Rokeby and Bill Viola.


Five research committees were formed and worked closely together, often co-operating on the same case studies. In order to produce a best practices guide, the Conservation and Preservation Committee focused on several works that were representative of a large range of issues specific to the technologies used. The Documentation and Archival Management Committee developed a documentary model based on the lifecycle of a work that takes into account the main activities for which relevant documents would likely be produced, such as the acquisition of the artwork by a museum, the installation of the artwork and restoration activities. The Cataloguing Structure Committee also examined case studies, in order to improve the methodology used to describe the artwork’s technological components so that it may serve as a complement to traditional cataloguing tools and methods. The Technological Timeline Committee created and updated a sizable resource directory for the many technologies featured in the case studies analyzed by the Research Alliance. Furthermore, this committee developed a technology timeline in relation to the technology’s historical context. The Terminology Committee created a bilingual (English and French) glossary to support DOCAM research and publications.


All the publications and tools produced by the research committees are available online at the DOCAM Web site, as are a number of videos of the conferences and presentations given at the five international DOCAM summits and seminars organized by DOCAM and its partner universities. A bibliography of resources completes the DOCAM project.


Alain Depocas, Director of the DOCAM Research Alliance and of the Centre for Research and Documentation (CR+D)