Art on life support needs a living will

Two recent stories on conserving contemporary art speak to how removed museums and foundations are from the “proliferative preservation” of digital creators. The New York Observer writes about a Whitney Museum taskforce created to police the replication of art via exhibition copies, and their headline says it all: Copy That! Wait, Don’t.

Meanwhile an article from The New York Times, How to Conserve Art That Lives in a Lake?, revisits the conservation issues of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, which following a period of high water levels in the Great Salt Lake re-emerged encrusted with salt.

Authors of both articles raise some fundamental questions about conservation:

“What counts as a replica? Who has the authority to produce one?” (NY Observer)

“And if any conservation plans were to go forward, then the really complicated work would begin: trying to figure out what Mr. Smithson would have thought about it.” (NY Times)

As noted by Berkeley’s Richard Rinehart, these are among the exact questions asked by the Variable Media Questionnaire, whose third iteration is being built by Still Water under the aegis of the Forging the Future alliance.

Rinehart and I are also co-authoring a book from MIT Press with the working title of New Media and Social Memory, which speaks to the issue of proliferative preservation. The New York Times reports that some visitors to the Spiral Jetty “borrowed” some of its stones to make tiny jetties of their own, or in one case to spell out the word BEER.

Regardless of how you may feel about this “contamination” of Smithson’s work by the hands of ordinary viewers, New Media and Social Memory argues that digital media allow a both/and preservation dynamic. If they were digital artifacts, both Bob Smithson’s and Bob Schmo’s version of Spiral Jetty could co-exist peaceably.

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