Skip to main content

Interactive Digital Media Art Survey: Key Findings and Observations

In February of 2013, Cornell University Library in collaboration with the Society for the Humanities began a two-year project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to preserve access to complex born-digital new media art objects. The project aims to develop a technical framework and associated tools to facilitate enduring access to interactive digital media art with a focus on artworks stored on hard drive, CD-ROM, and DVD-ROM. The ultimate goal is to create a preservation and access practice for complex digital assets that is based on a thorough and practical understanding of the characteristics of digital objects and requirements from the perspectives of collection curators and users alike. Digital content that is not used is prone to neglect and oversight. Reliable access mechanisms are essential to the ongoing usability of digital assets. However, no archival best practices yet exist for accessing and preserving complex born-digital materials.  Given our emphasis on use and usability and our recognition that we must develop a framework that addresses the needs of future as well as current media art researchers, we developed a survey targeting researcher, artists, and curators to expand our understanding of user profiles and use cases. The purpose of this article is to summarize our key findings of the survey.

About the Project

Despite its “new” label, new media art has a rich 40-year history, making loss of cultural history an imminent risk. Experiencing a media artwork requires machines that are themselves vulnerable to technological obsolescence. This is especially true of digital art, which requires hardware and software support and is often stored in fragile formats. Although the NEH-funded project uses the Library’s Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art as a testbed, our ultimate goal is to create generalizable new media preservation and access practices that are applicable for different media environments and institutional types.

Many of the artworks in our test collection were created for computer operating systems that are now obsolete.  This vintage iMac is an important component of the project’s digital workstation.

Many of the artworks in our test collection were created for computer operating systems that are now obsolete. This vintage iMac is an important component of the project’s digital workstation.

Named after the late Professor Rose Goldsen of Cornell University, a pioneering critic of the commercialization of mass media, the Goldsen Archive was founded in 2002 by Professor Timothy Murray (Director, Society for the Humanities, Cornell University) to house international art work produced on portable or web-based digital media. The archive has grown to achieve global recognition as a prominent collection of multimedia artworks that reflect aesthetic developments in cinema, video, installation, photography, and sound. We estimate that about 70 percent of CD-ROM artworks in the Goldsen collection already cannot be accessed without a specialized computer terminal that runs obsolete software and operating systems. Because of the fragility of storage media like optical discs, physical damage is also a serious danger for the Goldsen’s artworks on CD-ROM and DVD-ROM, many of which are irreplaceable. Even migrating the information files to another storage medium is not enough to preserve their most important cultural content. Interactive digital assets are far more complex to preserve and manage than single, uniform digital media files. A single interactive work can comprise an entire range of digital objects, including files in different types and formats, applications to coordinate the files, and operating systems to run the applications. If any part of this complex system fails, the entire asset can become unreadable.

Project team at work, from left to right, Dianne Dietrich, Mickey Casad, and Desiree Alexander

Project team at work, from left to right, Dianne Dietrich, Mickey Casad, and Desiree Alexander

Survey Results

In January 2014, we announced the questionnaire on several preservation, art, and digital humanities mailing lists. We had a total of 170 responses, 122 of them responding as an individual researcher or practitioner and 48 responding on behalf of an archive, museum, or a cultural heritage institution. Out of 170 respondents, 80 fully and 32 partially completed the survey and 58 of them only took a quick look without responding. We are not sure if the incomplete survey rate is due to time limitations of the respondents or indicates unfamiliarity with the program area. We did not observe any significant differences in the responses of these two groups (personal and institutional responses), probably due to the fact that even at an institutional level, new media projects and collections are led by small teams or sometimes individuals. Respondents held multiple roles and characterized themselves as artists (48%), researchers (47% researchers), educators (25%), and curators (20%).  Almost 24% identified themselves as archivists, conservators, project managers, digitization specialists, or technical developers.  The scope of digital media art collections they worked with was also broad, including digital installations, digital video and image, interactive multimedia, raw audio files, born digital artwork, 3-D, video art, and websites. Genres emphasized in their media art research included installation/performance/media sculpture, video/cinema, and interactive artists portfolios. Respondents were interested in several platforms, the most common ones being personal computers/devices, locative media installation/sculpture performance, web-based art works, and hardware peripherals. Among the countries represented were the US, Germany, France, UK, Australia, and Argentina.

We posed an open-ended question to inquire about the research questions that guided respondents’ interactions with media works. It is difficult to characterize or summarize their broad range of involvements, as the research frameworks referenced were almost equally distributed among the contextual categories of artistic, social, historical, cultural, aesthetic, and technical. However, some of the noteworthy research angles mentioned in the responses included:

  • Social change – how technologies are assisting exploration of political stories, strategies to mitigate problems of born-digital to work towards a system of advocacy and lobbying, implications of social identity (for example, gender) in digital media artworks
  • Digital divide – accessibility of digital art for individuals with lower socioeconomic backgrounds and artists’ role in reaching out to a diverse population
  • Role of technologies in supporting and stimulating community and researcher engagement, presentation of news and actual events through art
  • Interpretation of artists’ intentions – what is being communicated through the artwork, interactive power of technologies, imaging future use – e.g., how will the art object be used/viewed in 20 years?
  • Historical perspectives – how certain technologies have been used in art, evidence of art-science collaboration – synergy
  • Affordances of digital media and digital spaces – if and how digital works explore something further than the analog approaches, embodied and social user interactions.
  • User-response oriented analysis – the role of viewers’ background in interpreting digital art work and interactive narratives, effects of image and sound on audiences, social and political effects of technology.
  • Characteristics of influential artworks  & relation of historic art work to present-day questions, searching for works of art for classroom teaching
  • Long-term preservation challenges and requirements for retrieval and documentation of digital art works for research and learning from users’ perspective. Sustainability of digital content and role of crowdsourcing
  • Device requirements for accessing and experiencing the artwork – role of viewing environments (e.g., if an artwork is meant to be seen on an old TV set)
  • Authenticity and documentation: How can documentation capture the essence of highly interactive works, for instance live performances?

Respondents cited a number of serious impediments encountered in conducting research involving new media art. These impediments were technical, institutional, and cultural in nature.  For example, respondents mentioned lack of documentation, technological challenges such as migration and emulation, costs and lack of understanding of costs, legal issues and access limitations, missing connections between similar archives (lack of unified discovery & access), digital divide, insufficient metadata, and hardware and software dependencies. Several of the respondents expressed their unease about the disappearing web-based art and ubiquitous broken links. One respondent noted, “In a society that is rushing headlong into the future, it is vital that we preserve the efforts of those who have early works in this new culture.” One of the respondents pointed out that due to a general “disinterest in preserving the cultural artifacts of the digital age,” there was a lack of understanding of the importance of these objects for cultural history. Another comment was about the infrequent access requests and therefore difficulties in justifying investment in preservation efforts for future use.

The respondents who use new media collections in support of teaching and learning listed several impediments such as vanishing webpages, link rot, poor indexing, gap for works from the 80s and 90s, and the lack of quality documentation. One of the respondents wrote, “Some work becomes very easy to make when the technology evolves and the students don’t understand how it was important, or how it was a challenge to produce at the time.” This statement underscores the importance of documenting cultural context to situate the work from artistic, historic, and technical perspectives

We inquired about respondents’ documentation needs and preferred strategies in cases where full interactive access is not possible. Again, there were several suggestions:

  • Providing textual description of content
  • Capturing video documentation of use such as walkthrough video with voiceover
  • Recording audience perspectives, interpretations, and reactions
  • Maintaining artists’ notes
  • Offering blogs such as the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme to build awareness about the threats to digital archives
  • Describing the technology in context to its time to understand and appreciate the available technological and artistic tools
  • Collecting contextual materials – exhibition announcements, brochures, resumes, etc.
  • Capturing metadata including MANS (Media Art Notation System), OAIS, PREMIS, TOTEM (the Trustworthy Online Technical Environment Metadata Registry)

When we asked the respondents about the preservation measures undertaken for their own art work, again we again received a combination of different strategies. Some were common ones such as archiving hard drives, keeping backups of software, and maintaining redundant storage. They also mentioned maintaining a blog with information about the art work, web publishing for open and broad access, videotaping user interactions, taking screen shots, and creating short videos about the work. Several respondents made reference to the fact that some of their early works no longer existed or worked.

For practicing artists, there were several concerns about longevity of their creative expressions. One individual expressed doubts about the inability to sell works due to the fact that they may become obsolete within a year. They worried that it was difficult to archive immersive installations, interactive Flash pieces, and work with dependency on external files. They also mentioned copyright issues as a significant impediment. There were also several comments such as the following ones articulating anxiety over future use:

[My work] will stay forever in storage and will never be re-activated.

I am worried about context and artistic intent – how do we retain authenticity in the long term?

The question about which archiving and access practices affected respondents the most in their creative and professional work also generated thoughtful responses. Here are some examples:

Access to past works are incredibly valuable to me –  understanding works not just for their message but also for their technical [aspects] help new media artist evolve the area of practice.

I think museums tend to see my books as a treasure when they were created to be used.

Knowing where artworks and their documentation are kept. Individual sites that do not often appear very high up in search engine results.

What is complex media object?  If it is performed or presented, it can be power point or a photo essay.

For curators, the following comments illustrate the biggest concerns:

Probably the biggest impact is in teaching. One is continually trying to explain a work that one has seen in the past without the ability to actually show it.

I know [the art works] will become obsolete as running objects so the best thing I can do is push as much data about them out onto the Internet as possible.

Allowing original context of the artwork in the audience experience

Only twenty-four of the respondents indicated that their institutions include born-digital interactive media artworks and artifacts in its holdings. Several of the respondents indicated that they don’t include born-digital interactive media in their holdings because such materials fall outside of collection scope.  In some cases, they noted that procedures for providing access are too complex or unsustainable, or cited technological challenges and lack of local support.

Twenty respondents answered the access and preservation related questions on behalf of an archive, museum, or a cultural institution. Only one organization mentioned having a sophisticated and integrated web-based discovery, access, and preservation framework. The others indicated that access needed to be arranged through a special arrangement such as setting an appointment. They indicated that a full range of users are supported – students, faculty, researchers, artists, hobbyists, and general public such as museum visitors. They mentioned a range of preservation strategies they rely on including migration, creation of search and discovery metadata, maintaining a media preservation lab, providing climate control storage, collecting documentation from the artists. They named several challenges to preservation, many stemming from lack of resources or difficulties associated with executing artist interviews. The conservation measures were sometimes triggered by exhibition plans and some indicated that they were working on clarifying policies. They also noted that the measures taken to secure access, preservation, migration rights varied from case to case.

Key Conclusions

The data we have gathered further strengthened our opinion that identifying the most significant properties of individual media artworks will require direct input from artists. This confirms our belief that we need to push the integration of archival protocols as far upstream as possible, to the point of content creation and initial curation. We plan to adapt pre-existing conservation-oriented questionnaires to our emerging data model and our growing sense of media art “classes” with distinct preservation and access needs.  We plan to solicit the contributions of artists in the test collection for this specific NEH-supported project. We will simultaneously revisit our rights agreements with the artists, which never anticipated access strategies based on emulation.

A reoccurring theme in our findings involved the difficulties associated with capturing sufficient information about a digital art object to enable an authentic user experience. This challenge cannot and should not be reduced to the goal of providing a technically accurate rendering of an artwork’s content. So much of new media works’ cultural meaning derives from the users’ spontaneous and contextual interactions with the art objects. Reproduction of an artwork’s digital files does not always ensure preservation of its most important cultural content. It is essential that we anticipate the needs of future researchers and acknowledge the core experiences that need to be captured to preserve these artifacts. For a work to be understood and appreciated, it is essential to relay a cultural and technologies framework for interpretation. Some works that come across mundane now may have been highly innovative trailblazers of yesterday. Given the speed of technological advances, it will be essential to capture these historical moments to help future users understand and appreciate such creative works.

The preservation model to be developed will apply not only to new media artworks but to other digital media environments. Therefore we are hoping that this project will inform digital preservation services at libraries, archives, and museums to support future uses in learning, teaching, research and creative expression by scholars and students. We will further elaborate our findings in a future article. Stay tuned!

Oya & Mickey

On behalf of the project team:

Timothy Murray & Oya Rieger (co-PIs), Mickey Casad (Project Manager), Dianne Dietrich, Desiree Alexander, Jason Kovari, Danielle Mericle, Liz Muller, Michelle Paolillo, & AudioVisual Preservation Solutions


6 Responses to “ Interactive Digital Media Art Survey: Key Findings and Observations ”

  • Cathy

    This is such an interesting and useful survey. Thank you. Congratulations on so many responses and such rich ones. Plus, that old like iMac is adorable!

  • Karen

    Have you proactively contacted individual artists who work in multimedia and actively have shown their work in museums and major galleries (as opposed to waiting for responses to your survey), for their input and ideas about preservation? Especially early pioneers like Woody and Steina Vasulka and Bill Viola?

  • Oya Rieger

    Thanks for your kind remarks, Cathy!

  • Oya Rieger

    We developed the media arts survey targeting researcher, artists, and curators to allow better understanding of user profiles and use scenarios. The responses represent a cross-section of disciplinary perspectives and allow better understanding of user profiles. The variety of responses to our questions about access confirmed that, in order to identify artworks’ most significant properties for access versions, we must solicit direct input from the artists wherever possible. We have added this as a new goal for the second project year. We appreciate your comment, Karen.

  • Richard Suertudo

    Great work, if we don’t save it, we’ll lose it.
    Thanks for the informative presentation, please keep us informed of similar efforts.
    Richard Suertudo
    The ipi House

  • Jon Ippolito

    Given your plan to “adapt pre-existing conservation-oriented questionnaires,” you may want to look at the Variable Media Questionnaire. In particular, its recently added Packages feature may help you quickly identify and document media art “classes” with different preservation and access needs.

    Good luck with this important project!