How can we be sure that digital art will be preserved for the future?
The ultimate goal of the preservation of digital art is to make it “accessible” in the future against the loss of data, metadata (information about the the art work and the chains of custody), and obsolescence of the software and hardware environment over time. The strategies and methods of preservation of digital art are different from case to case, but the general approaches are as follows:
1. Preservation of data: It should be emphasised that the backup of data alone cannot guarantee the longevity and accessibility of the data in the future. File formats (how data is wrapped and recognised as such) and codecs (how data is packed/coded and decoded) can go obsolete and unavailable in the future, which means that we can still have data bites but not able to read and play. So, converting and migrate the artist-provided files to open source and well-documented file formats and codecs are very important. As far as preservation of “physical” data, it is also important to refresh and check the integrity of the data regularly by checking fixity of the data.
2. Preservation of the information of the digital artworks and the chain of custody: When you think what actually consists a digital artwork is none other than 1s and 0s (except the hardware part), it is important to attach the descriptions of an artwork to the actual data so that what the data is about becomes self-explanatory to the people who will access it in the future. This “information about data” is called metadata. Metadata we collect from and create for a digital artwork includes: the artist info, file info, artwork’s info (title, what is made of, production date, etc). The chain of custody is also important to document here, such as what the conservator did to the file (conversion, creation of derivatives, etc), what kind of hardware and process was involved, and where it is stored, etc.
3. Obsolescence of software and hardware: As all data objects are dependent upon their software and hardware environments to be able to access and play their contents, documenting and preserving them are equally important in a museum context. For example, an interactive digital audio installation will require good documentation and preservation of not only the digital audio file, but also the program (custom code or commercial software) that plays the audio file as well as the program that runs the interactive components, and the computer’s operating system. Sometimes, if the software and hardware used are no longer available, the technique of “emulating” such software and hardware environment is necessary.
Kind regards, Jina, conservator – new media
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