Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
"Preserving the Immaterial": A Conference on Variable Media
March 30, 2001

"Introduction to the Variable Media Initiative"
By Jon Ippolito


Thank you Bruce. I have to say I'm a little disappointed in Bruce's pessimistic forecast for digital media. It seems to me that the very fact that the World Wide Web exists should give us hope for a self-sustaining, eternal repository of cultural heritage. And that's why I'm relying on it for my presentation.

The Variable Media Initiative is a radical paradigm for preserving art in new media--What the...? I swear this worked fine this morning. Oh, I see the problem-this is the Lynx browser. My site's not compatible with that particular interface. OK, I'll launch a version in another browser: Whoa, what happened to the images and colors? OK, everything's under control, this is just a different, but equally wrong browser: Opera. My site's not compatible with that. Let's try that again with Amaya. OK, a little better. Isn't there a copy of Netscape on this machine? Here we go-arrgh! No wonder, it's Netscape 3. How about 4...ah, perfect. Well...maybe Bruce has a point. Granted, I deliberately picked some rather esoteric browsers-with the help of Jan Schaumann, the Guggenheim's Webmaster. Yet the vulnerability of Web site display to the nuances of different browser flavors doesn't bode well for the ability of future browsers to re-create the Web we see today.


As a matter of fact, it wouldn't be a bad idea for every museum that collects ephemeral media to have a science-fiction writer in residence-preferably a dystopian one, to help them envision the worst-case scenarios that will inevitably befall the media in their collection. Indeed, in some ways new media preservationists and science fiction writers are in the same business. However questionable our goal of forecasting the future, there is no question that this imagining adds great clarity to our understanding of the present.

For this reason, I see the vulnerability of so much art of the past half-century as both a danger and an opportunity. The danger is that we decide to give up on the ephemeral art forms of the twentieth century, withdrawing into our ironclad citadel of durable Paintings and Sculpture, and watching from the ramparts as hapless masterpieces of video and online art are mowed down by the specter of technological obsolescence. The opportunity, on the other hand, is to craft a new collecting paradigm that is as radical as the art it hopes to preserve. The choice is ours: do we jettison our paradigm? Or our art?

Personally, I vote for the former-and so what you'll see tomorrow is a new paradigm. The Variable Media Initiative encourages artists to define their works in a medium-independent way so that they can be translated into new mediums once their original format is obsolete.


While it is to my knowledge unprecedented among museums and other collecting institutions, the Variable Media Initiative didn't emerge from some art history dissertation or philosopher's musings. It was inspired by the experience of people at work in the front lines of the battle to save art, from Carol Stringari and Paul Kuranko wrestling with fading photographs and skipping videodiscs to Steve Dietz and Benjamin Weil figuring out how to archive ada'web at the Walker. Above all, it is the artists who have shown us the way. In the 1960s and 70s, Conceptual and Process artists like Robert Morris danced, scattered, and bulldozed their way out of the static model of art they had inherited from Abstract Expressionism. Younger artists like John Simon have used digital technologies to create works that live as comfortably on Palm Pilots as on 30-foot videowalls. I'm particularly indebted to my frequent collaborators Keith Frank and Janet Cohen-the former for pushing me to improve the paradigm, the latter for failing in her attempt to persuade me against it. And somewhere in the background is John Cage, the first artist to recognize the value of indeterminacy and hence the patron saint of variable media.

To demonstrate how does the paradigm works, let's start with a quiz: can you spot the artwork in variable media?

Eva Hesse, Expanded Expansion, 1969
Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing #146, 1972

The artists who created these works had a lot in common. Both former painters, Hesse and LeWitt pursued painterly issues in new formats: Hesse made sculptures from latex poured on cheesecloth, LeWitt drew directly on the wall with a blue crayon. Both created expansive works that rebelled against the closed structures of Minimalism. The artists were even the best of friends. Yet one artist's work is now terminally ill--lying in a crate in our warehouse like a patient on life support--while the other guaranteed to last as long as there is wax and white walls. Paradoxically, the artwork that seemed least permanent at the time it was made-since anyone could paint over that wall--has proven to be the true survivor. LeWitt's wall drawings have endured not by being "built to last," but by being variable. For works of this kind, fixity equals death.

In some ways, these two works are beyond the need for the variable media paradigm. We may be too late to save the Hesse, since the artist died without leaving any solution to her work's failing status; and the LeWitt, which is based on repeating a fairly straightforward set of instructions, doesn't really need our help to stay alive. So, for this first conference on variable media, we've chosen eight case studies of works that fall between the extremes represented by Hesse and LeWitt.


These case studies, which we'll examine in detail in tomorrow's sessions, include:
Robert Morris Site, 1964. Performance
Jan Dibbets A White Wall, 1971. Photo collage
Nam June Paik TV Garden, 1974. Video installation Bruce Nauman False Silence, 1975. Audio installation
Meg Webster Stick Spiral, 1986. Installation
Felix Gonzalez-Torres Untitled (Public Opinion), 1991. Interactive Installation
Ken Jacobs Bitemporal Vision: The Sea, 1994. Film performance Mark Napier Net Flag, 2001. Web site

Unlike the one-size-fits-all fixes that technicians tend to promote for preserving different mediums-recommending, say, that celluloid film always be migrated to DigiBeta-the Variable media initiative asks the artist to play the central role in deciding how their work should evolve over time. This approach reflects our faith that the creativity of artists is more enduring than the creativity of technologists.

To assist in our workshops with artists, we've developed a questionnaire meant to stimulate questions that will help capture their intent. The questionnaire is unusual in several ways. First off, the two links you see on the first screen divide the questions into two fundamental partitions: "In its original version, this artwork could be..." and "In later re-creations, this artwork could be..." So right from the beginnings, there is the assumption that the work cannot survive in its present form. Some thing's gotta give.

Let's look at the way we chose to describe the current state of the artwork.

One of the problems the idea of the questionnaire faced early on was: how do you capture information about media that don't exist yet, about future media? Our first categories were going to be "video installation," we'll have "film," "video," we'll have "computer driven," we'll have "online art." Then I realized, those categories won't hack it -- when you have to add another category in the future, your standards will be useless.

Instead, we decided to talk about the artwork as a dynamic medium. What are the behaviors of that artwork? After a lot of wrangling, the behaviors that we considered important were: installed, performed, interactive, reproduced, duplicated, encoded, and networked. These categories are driven from the bottom up, by looking at artworks and asking: what are the pertinent questions?

In its current state this artwork can be, say, installed. But I don't mean installed in the sense of hammering a nail in the wall. I mean installed in a sense of changing every time there is an installation. For example, Dan Flavin's pieces with fluorescent bulbs, where the bulbs are made in set intervals eight foot tall that are supposed to span the height of a ceiling. Well, you can't just put them in any room. You have to put them in room with a ceiling that's eight feet tall, or build a corridor that is eight feel tall for people to walk into.

Other examples of work that need to be installed from the Guggenheim collection include Felix Gonzalez-Torres's Untitled(Public Opinion)-- a bunch of licorice candies thrown in a corner that can also be spread out in a carpet. And Jenny Holzer's famous Truisms installation. What categories do we have for these things? "Space," "dimensions," "access," "lighting," "sound," and "security." People never ask, do you need a guard or do you need a stanchion? But those are questions that curators deal with for anything that is installed.

Another behavior would be "performed." It might seem odd to have this behavior, when the Guggenheim does not yet own a work of performance, but in the collection are artworks that are performed in certain ways. For example, Meg Webster's Stick Spiral is a bunch of sticks in a room configured in a spiral. There is an element of performance that the curators and installers go through to make the piece. It was critical to Webster's work that they be recently pruned, from the local area, and they couldn't be pruned especially for the show. They had to be already scheduled to be pruned. We had to show up just in time with our truck. That clearly presents special problems -- and I found the word "performance" described the kind of variability the project could demanded. The artwork is performed differently in different contexts. It's not something you can store in a warehouse.

Another behavior is "interactive." We are pretty familiar with this concept from electronic media, but there are quite a few physical interactive pieces that we may not be as familiar with. Consider, for example, the replenishment rate for handouts, like the Felix Gonzales-Torres candy works that you can take away. What is it that the viewer interacts with? Sometimes it's other viewers, or performers, or a combination of the two. At the same time, the interface can range from a mouse, touch screen, VR, physical manipulation of the work, etc....

Some artworks can be "reproduced." You'll notice some distinctions here between "reproduced" versus "duplicated" versus "encoded." At first I had a distinction between analog and digital. Then I started to realize that it didn't quite work that way, because there are a lot of things that fit with the video model of master and sub-master. In other words, with digital, you copy it once and it's a clone -- perfect. But in analog, copy it once and there's a level of degradation. I'm using the word "reproduce," but in the sense that there is a degradation involved. So we've got audio, photographs, films, video, where that video is analog, and also original prints.

"Duplicated," on the other hand, we referred to as being cloned -- a perfect duplication, at least while the medium is still viable. Questions come up regarding digital video and digital artworks. But the term also applies, if you think about it, to something like the Felix Gonzalez-Torres candy piece, which has candies bought from a vendor; it's the same whenever and wherever you buy that type of candy. So I realized that some things that were duplicable were not digital.

To jump through the rest of the behaviors quickly, "duplicated" versus "encoded." "Encoded" refers to aspects you might be familiar with from screen- or projector-based art, such as resolution, the fonts, embedded sound. Rhizome partnered with the Guggenheim to try to codify these categories.

Finally, "networked" is things that pertain to a network, or that are actively on a network, including the type of server, plug-ins, and the optimum browser.

How about the "variable" part of variable media? Artistic media may be in a state of flux, bit at least we can measure its rate of flow. That's basically what you see here in the "can vary" pull-down menus: They are rating the variability of the artworks. Somewhat, greatly, not at all. Presumably some artists would go though and pick "not at all." Some are rigid, some are flexible. The more flexible your description, the more likely your artwork is to be propelled into the future, maybe not in the exact form as present, but in a recognizable form. For example, the plug-in for an artwork might be Quick Time, but it doesn't have to be Quick Time. An artist can say, I don't care what the plug-in is, make it whatever plug-in you want.

As the bifurcation of questions on the first screen implied, there will be an unavoidable variation in the artwork when it is re-created in the future, even knowing all the facts gathered about the present state of the artwork. What the artist can do, however, is to choose the best directions for this slippage to take place. That's what these strategy tabs found under the "later re-creations" link, are for. These are different strategies for recreating the work, or preserving the work for the future: in the future the work can be stored, emulated, migrated, or reinterpreted.

Should dedicated hardware such as a computer be stored? Well, that's something a lot of museums are thinking of doing now. I think it's dumb. But it's something that if you have storage space and you live out in a state where there's lots of low cost storage, it's an option for you. Obviously the hardware itself is going to become obsolete, and eventually you are not going to be able to find parts for it. So it's a limited solution at best. How about mass-produced items that go obsolete: should we store quantities of any products in advance of going out of production? We did this at the Guggenheim with Public Opinion, these black licorice candies, and we had boxes and boxes of them surrounding my office. I will never eat licorice again. But there are definite advantages to that approach, because it turns out that candy manufacturers change their labels constantly, in an attempt to lure you with some new product. But it also has the disadvantage of going stale.

Emulation means not storing digital files on disk or physical artifacts in the warehouse, but creating a visual facsimile of them. It looks the same, feels the same, experientially is the same, but it's in a totally different medium. This is a possible solution to obsolete hardware: should the effective obsolete hardware be executed on different equipment such as the samples of Pong running on Windows 95? Obsolete mass produced items: should we custom-make a facsimile of obsolete products? Are we going to take those Dan Flavin light bulbs and get his former assistant Stephen Morse to custom-make a fluorescent light bulb that's pink and eight feet long? Even though part of the motive, the impulse behind Flavin's work, was to deliberately choose something that you could find at Home Depot for three bucks and install it? Or do I custom print candy wrappers so that you can re-create Felix Gonzalez-Torres candy that no longer exists?

Let's go on to other strategy solutions. The premise behind this is not that it's either/or, but that someone can say: I prefer this, but I also think this other option is acceptable. "Migrated" data is from an old version and into a new version, making whatever modifications are necessary. But it's not necessarily as extreme as emulation; it is not going to a totally different medium. You're upgrading it from Netscape 3 to Netscape 4 or 6, or something like that. Obsolete hardware can also be updated, as can candies and fluorescent tubes; however, the further you go in the future away from the original equipment, the less clear it becomes what you should migrated this equipment to, and the mere interpretation is required on the re-creator's part. Which brings us to the last strategy for variable media preservation.

"Reinterpretation" is the most radical of these strategies. With hardware, the question becomes: should obsolete hardware be replaced by different apparatus with the same social or metaphoric function? There are quite a few artists, performers, and choreographers who do this themselves in the case of performance. Others might not. I was informed recently that the Samuel Beckett estate is extremely stringent about performances, and will shut down a show that changes a line from the play, or that has cast a male role with a female actor. In other cases, obsolete mass-produced items, or out of date products, can likewise be replaced with their functional and metaphorical equivalent.

It's impossible to capture every decision artists might make about their work, especially about its translation into mediums that don't even exist yet. Nevertheless, the results of a questionnaire like this can serve as an "aesthetic constitution" to guide the curators and technicians charged with re-creating the work in the future.

Of course, the artist has the option to preclude any variation from the original form of their work. This is fine, but for ephemeral media gives the work an inherent expiration date. However, those artists, and those institutions, who accept the concept of an artwork that can change may find a number of their time-honored assumptions changing along with it. They may cease to view preservation-the conservator's job, as independent from presentation-the curator's job. They may begin to view an artwork not as a singular object but as a series of events. Not as a stony artifact-for stone is brittle-but as a stream of water, which endures by variability.


Water is also the subject of our final presentation tonight: a live film excerpt of Bitemporal Vision: The Sea by Ken Jacobs. A central figure in American avant-garde film, Ken has been tremendously influential both as an artist and as a teacher (most recently as Distinguished Professor of Cinema at SUNY-Binghamton). I like to think of him as the Cezanne of cinema: with the help of an apparatus he'll describe for you, Ken manages to push and pull the picture plane of the silver screen into an extraordinary visual experience for which I know no precedent. Yet, as we'll see in our workshops tomorrow, the world of film preservation has yet to come up with a method for preserving this remarkable hybrid of film and performance.

Ken is going to perform an excerpt live, then replay a video taken here tonight--both to explain how he achieves these remarkable effects, and to demonstrate the compromises inherent in translating this work onto a conventional format.

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