This text is from the publication Permanence Through Change: The Variable Media Approach, published in 2003 by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology.
This text introduces the philosophy and parameters of the Variable Media Questionnaire, a framework for establishing guidelines for the preservation of ephemeral works of art. (The Variable Media Questionnaire was at version 2 at the time of this writing.)
Muffled music on crumbling audiotape, phantom films on scorched nitrate, vanished images on unreadable 5 1/4-inch floppy disks: the media landscape is strewn with the recent victims of cultural oblivion and technological obsolescence. Overwhelmed by the deluge of endangered artworks, archivists and technicians can barely tally the dying, much less devise a strategy for preventing future casualties.
It is going to take more than manila folders and telecine machines to preserve anything more of our cultural moment than the lifeless carcasses of forsaken mediums. We need artists--their information, their support, and above all their creativity--to outwit oblivion and obsolescence. That is why the variable-media approach asks creators to play the central role in deciding how their work should evolve over time, with archivists and technicians offering choices rather than prescribing them.
To assist in our workshops with artists, the Guggenheim's variable-media task force developed a questionnaire meant to stimulate responses that will help us understand those artists' intent. The questionnaire is not a sociological survey, but an instrument for determining how artists would like their work to be re-created in the future if at all. In contrast to one-size-fits-all technical fixes, this instrument is meant to be applied case-by-case, one artwork at a time. The results of the questionnaire, the variable-media kernel, enter a multi-institutional database that enables collecting institutions to share and compare data across artworks and genres.
When we first conceived of the questionnaire, we tried to work within familiar art historical categories such as photography, film, and video. We quickly realized, however, that medium-specific pigeonholes were as transient as medium-specific artworks; as soon as video became obsolete, so would a video-based prescription for re-creating an artwork. Furthermore, as soon as another medium came along--which happens every ten minutes, it seems, in the age of the Internet--we would have to add a new category. Finally, categories based on mutually-exclusive mediums wouldn't accommodate hybrid works such as Ken Jacob's Bitemporal Vision: The Sea (1994), which merges film and performance. To circumvent this problem, we decided to explore medium-independent, mutually-compatible descriptions of each artwork, which we call behaviors.
Some artworks, for example, must be installed--not in the ordinary sense of requiring a nail hammered in the wall or a pedestal lugged into a corner, but in the special sense of changing every time there is an installation. For example, Nam June Paik's video installation TV Garden (1974) has been installed in rectangular galleries, curved ramps, and indoor swimming pools. For TV Garden, the Variable Media Questionnaire prompts for such preferences as the ideal installation space ("fine art or museum gallery"), lighting requirements ("as dark as code allows"), and distribution of elements ("mass of television and plants should be in a 1:4 ratio").
Other works must be performed. Most of the questions for this behavior whether the props are disposable, where the audience sits assume the work has a theatrical or musical setting. According to the variable-media paradigm, however, the term performed can apply whenever the re-creators have to re-enact original instructions in a new context. For example, to construct Meg Webster's Stick Spiral (1986), the artist asks museum staff to find recently-fallen branches from the local environment; in addition, the artist's ecological ethics require that the branches must have been pruned for some reason other than the exhibition. Stick Spiral's fabricators spend more hours in a pickup truck exploring back roads than in a gallery stacking brushwood. This extra dimension makes Webster's spiral both installed and performed.
The questionnaire also captures information for artworks that are reproduced, duplicated, interactive, encoded, or networked. When the variable-media task force first established these behaviors, we were tempted to divide artworks according to analog versus digital mediums; however, that distinction was too imprecise to account for the variety of formats present in contemporary art. Instead, we chose the term reproduced for any medium that loses quality when copied, including analog prints, photographs, film, audio, and video. For these works the essential questions pertain to who owns the master, regardless of whether it's an etched, copper plate, silver-gelatin negative, or first-generation, U-matic videotape.
In contrast, we reserved the word duplicated for mediums that could be cloned perfectly, such as the Java applets and Web browser required to view Mark Napier's net.flag (2002). At the same time, we realized that nondigital works such as Felix Gonzalez-Torres's Untitled (Public Opinion) (1991) can also be duplicable; a museum could produce two indistinguishable versions of this candy spill simply by ordering identical piles of licorice from the manufacturer. Whether digital or analog, duplicable works beg the question of which forms of distribution are acceptable the focus of this section of the questionnaire.
Both Public Opinion and net.flag are also meant to be interactive; museum visitors can take free candies from the Gonzalez-Torres and online visitors can modify Napier's flag by adding or subtracting parts of the flags of various nations. Among the important questions for interactive behavior is whether traces of previous visitors should be erased or retained in future exhibitions of the work.
A work is encoded if some form of computer programming is used in its construction. Some encoded works, including net.flag, are also networked distributed across an electronic communications grid such as the Internet but others, including Grahame Weinbren's interactive video The Erl King (1985), stand alone as sculptures or installations. The Guggenheim partnered with the online arts resource Rhizome.org to come up with the essential questions for encoded and networked artworks, including optimum screen resolution and whether the programming code is open or closed source.
Partners in the Variable Media Network can choose to extend or multiply these modular behaviors as the need arises. In a recent example, Guggenheim Senior Conservator Carol Stringari raised the point that even paintings and sculptures can provoke prickly questions when some aspect of their construction requires a change. To account for these alterations in otherwise stable mediums, we added a contained behavior to the questionnaire, which asks questions such as whether an oxidized surface should be cleaned or a damaged frame replaced.
The medium-independent behaviors above describe an artwork in its ideal state, but in the real world any new incarnation of an artwork inevitably involves some deviation from this ideal. In the section on preservation strategies, the questionnaire invites artists to choose the best philosophies with which to negotiate this slippage.
Should dedicated hardware such as TV Garden's video monitors be stored? How about Gonzalez-Torres's black licorice candies? Both of these commodities could easily go out of production and become unavailable for future refabrications, and yet both also tend to go "stale" when left in a cardboard box in a museum's warehouse. Storage, the default preservation strategy for museums from the 18th to the 20th centuries, is proving to be of limited value in the 21st.
To emulate an artwork, by contrast, is not to store digital files on disk or physical artifacts in a warehouse, but to create a facsimile of them in a totally different medium. An especially promising application of emulation is when new software impersonates old hardware. Under normal circumstances, the software that powered Weinbren's original The Erl King on a Sony computer in 1982 couldn't run on a Pentium PC manufactured in 2000. Were a computer programmer to write a Sony emulator for the Pentium, however, viewers could then interact with Weinbren's video sculpture on a contemporary PC.
To migrate an artwork is not to imitate its appearance with a different medium, but to upgrade its medium to a contemporary standard, accepting any resulting changes in the look and feel of the work. Artworks can migrate forward in time as when TV Garden's video source is translated from U-matic to laserdisc to DVD or laterally in space as when Webster assembles different branches for an installation in Manhattan than in upstate New York.
In some cases, however, there is no clear industry standard to upgrade to; when hardware is replaced by a different apparatus with the same social or metaphoric function (a teletype becomes a cell phone), or when a performance is recast in a completely different time period and setting (Hamlet in a chat room), we say the artwork has been reinterpreted. This strategy takes the greatest liberties with the original, but also represents the most flexible approach to cultural as well as technical obsolescence.
To take the artists' answers and cement them into an inflexible framework would be like capturing a butterfly alive only to pin it to a wall. That's why we ask interviewees to qualify every question: yes, TV Garden's lighting should be as dark as code allows, but can that vary greatly, somewhat, or not at all? Emulation may be the preferred preservation strategy for The Erl King, but could migration or reinterpretation be acceptable under the right circumstances? It's also why the latest version of the questionnaire allows users to compare multiple viewpoints on the same artwork: the artist's assistant will have a different perspective than the artist, as will curators or conservators with intimate knowledge of the artist's life and work. These qualifications make the variable-media kernel less a set of commandments carved in stone than a matrix of preferences rendered in a fluid digital form, the better to be shared freely among art makers and preservationists.
Of course, no matter how open the questionnaire may be to different options and perspectives, it's impossible to predict every decision necessary to preserve a work, especially regarding its translation into mediums that don t even exist yet. Nonetheless, the results of a questionnaire like this can serve as an "ethical will" to guide the curators and technicians who may be charged with re-creating the work in the future.
In the interests of fairness, the questionnaire also offers artists the option to preclude any variation from a work's original form. For ephemeral mediums, this choice stamps the work with an inherent expiration date. However, those artists, and those institutions, who accept the concept that an artwork can change may find a number of their time-honored assumptions changing along with it. They may cease to view the conservator's job of preservation as independent from the curator's job of presentation. They may begin to picture a lasting artwork not as a stony relic--for stone is brittle--but as a succession of linked events that, like a stream of water, endures by remaining variable.