Artists' increased use of multi-media, digital, and internet media since the 1960s has called into question the conventional strategies by which society preserves, cares for, and redisplays cultural artifacts created with or on ephemera media formats. While the most obvious vulnerability of new media art is rapid technological obsolescence, the study of its other aspects that defy traditional conservation--including hybrid, contextual, or 'live' qualities--has provoked investigation into new strategies for preserving conceptual art, performance, installation art, video art, and even to a limited extent painting and sculpture.
The catchall term sometimes applied to such genres, variable media, suggests that it is possible to recapture the experience of these works independently of the specific physical material and equipment used to display them in a given exhibition or performance. As the nature of multi-media artworks calls for the development of new standards, techniques, and metadata within preservation strategies, the idea that certain artworks incorporating an array of media elements could be variable opens up the possibility for experimental standards of preservation and reinterpretation.
Nevertheless, many new media preservationists work to integrate new preservation strategies with existing documentation techniques and metadata standards. This effort is made in order to remain compatible with previous frameworks and models on how to archive, store and maintain variable media objects in a standardized repository utilizing a systematized vocabulary, such as the Open Archival Information System model.
While some of this research parallels and exploits progress made in the practice of Digital preservation and Web archiving, the preservation of new media art offers special challenges and opportunities. Whereas scientific data and legal records may be easily migrated from one platform to another without losing their essential function, artworks are often sensitive to the look and feel of the media in which they are embedded. On the other hand, artists who are invited to help imagine a long-term plan for their work often respond with creative solutions.
Variations on storage include:
The periodic transfer of an audiovisual or digital file from one cassette or disk to another device of identical format.
The cleaning or repair of an existing artifact or file, especially when the new version supersedes or replaces the original.
The use of computers linked by a persistent data loop to keep critical files in circulation or as multiple copies cloned on multiple hard drives.
Based on the premise that some aspects of an artwork's logic or presentation can be considered independently from the physical context and equipment used to display that artwork, the Questionnaire captures information about the following behaviors or medium-independent aspects:
Covers glazing; coating; support/structure/mounting; frame; acceptable change in surface.
Covers space; boundary; access; lighting; sound; security; base/s; distribution of elements; display equipment for inert elements; architectural placement; equipment visibility.
Covers props; set; costumes; performers; number of performers; format of instructions; instructions apply to…; documentation of new performances; audience location; boundary; synchronization of performance.
Covers user input; interaction mechanism; maintenance.
Covers relationship to artist master; location of master; status of master; acceptable fabricators and vendors; acceptable submasters or exhibition copy; permission to create submaster; fate of exhibition copy; permission to compress/digitize.
Covers inert material; physical attributes of inert material; authorized fabricators and vendors; materials duplicated according to…; electronic equipment and hardware; fate of exhibition copies.
Covers screen resolution; color palette; external data source; fonts; source openness.
Developed by Richard Rinehart, Digital Media Director and Adjunct Curator, Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, MANS is described as a ‘formal notation system for media art’ that is in keeping with existing preservation frameworks and vocabularies currently being used to document and preserve other forms of art by museums.
Using the metaphor of the musical score, as a form of declarative and conceptual notation of music, Rinehart likens Media Art to musical compositions that are able to maintain their original integrity while being realized by different instruments or in different arrangements, over evolving time periods; in this sense, scores are considered to be inherently variable. In Rinehart’s view, Media art (in which logical information is considered separate from physical hardware) is able to be ‘scored’ based on the information acquired from a document like the Variable Media Questionnaire to be realized by different media-equipment.
Maintaining the notion of the musical score, the Media Art Notation System is derived as (and has as its underlying structure) an interpretation of computer programming languages, drawing primarily from Digital Item Declaration Language (DIDL), a type of Extensible Markup Language (XML) that allows for greater, more granular descriptions of a multi-component digital object. MANS has three layers; the conceptual model of documentation, the preferred expression format (vocabulary) for the model (the interpretation of DIDL XML) and, its top layer, the score, which serves as a record of the work that is database-processable.
It is hoped that by interweaving the ideas of a declarative language and a more procedural language, MANS is able to act as a backbone to the artwork by being specifically suggestive though not overly prescriptive of how to best delineate and then, later, reinterpret an artwork.
Around this time similar investigations into the preservation of digital/media art were being led on the West Coast by Richard Rinehart, Digital Media Director and Adjunct Curator of Digital Art at the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, who published an article on the subject, The Straw that Broke the Museum's Back? Collecting and Preserving Digitial/Media Art for the Next Century, in 2000. Rinehart had also established Conceptual & Intermedia Arts Online (CIAO) with Franklin Furnace, the New York based performance art-grants giving organization and archive/advocate of performance, 'ephemeral' or non-traditional art under the directorship of Martha Wilson.
Members of the Variable Media Network and CIAO subsequently joined forces with other organizations, including Rhizome.org, an affiliate of New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art, for collective preservation endeavors such as Archiving the Avant Garde and Forging the Future
In 2002, Timothy Murray founded The Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art Named after the pioneering critic of the commercialization of mass media, the late Professor Rose Goldsen of Cornell University. The Archive hosts international art work produced on CD-Rom, DVD-Rom, video, digital interfaces, and the internet. Its collection of supporting materials includes unpublished manuscripts and designs, catalogues, monographs, and resource guides to new media art. The curatorial vision emphasizes digital interfaces and artistic experimentation by international, independent artists. Designed as an experimental center of research and creativity, the Goldsen Archive includes materials by individual artists and collaborates on conceptual experimentation and archival strategies with international curatorial and fellowship projects.
Other important initiatives include DOCAM, an international research alliance on the documentation and the conservation of the media arts heritage organized by the Daniel Langlois Foundation, and the International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art (INCCA), organized by the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage (ICN).