Saving digital art from an early death at the ZKM museum

By Jen Copestake
BBC Click

Media caption,
Jen Copestake tours the Laboratory for Antiquated Video Systems at the ZKM in Germany

When a renaissance masterpiece needs restoring, simple paints and brushes can do the job. It's all down to human skill.

But what do you do when a piece of digital art worth over a million pounds and reliant on obsolete technology and old codes breaks down?

The ZKM Centre for Art and Media in Karlsruhe Germany is trying to provide an answer.

It has the world's largest collection of digital art, with over 500 pieces in its collection. It's also the global centre for digital art conservation.

It is a Herculean effort to keep their artworks running in their original form on computers often decades old.

Dump deals

ZKM's staff try to find as much obsolete digital kit as possible. They trawl waste dumps and the auction site eBay in their quest for authenticity.

As part of these efforts, they rent a warehouse outside the city where they store over 1,600 cathode ray TV sets, which are now out of production.

Image caption,
Versailles Fountain by Nam June Paik uses around 40 vintage CRT televisions which need to be carefully maintained

These old-school TVs make up key elements of some of the art works.

For example, Versailles Fountain by digital pioneer Nam June Paik uses about 40 CRT TVs. They are constantly being repaired. In an unlikely alliance, curators at ZKM foster connections with local dump managers who set aside old computers and audio visual machines in exchange for cigarettes.

But keeping all of this obsolete equipment in storage is just a short-term solution.

Bernhard Serexhe is the principal curator at ZKM's media museum and leader of a European Union funded project on digital art conservation. He says the faster technology develops, the shorter the potential lifespan of the art.

"That is why we need a second strategy which is migrating the work, migrating the data of the work to a different platform, or even porting the programme to a different system, to a different computer system which is quite complicated and quite expensive," he says.

"Born Digital"

This is precisely what happened with The Legibile City. Created in 1989 by Jeffrey Shaw, it is considered by Mr Serexhe to be one of the most important pieces of digital art in the world.

When you get on the stationary bike, you can cycle through giant 3D letters in three different cities. The faster you pedal, the faster words describing the city appear on screen.

Image caption,
The Legibile City by Jeffrey Shaw is considered by the ZKM as one of the world's most important pieces of digital art

The problem is it was designed on a Silicon Graphics computer which went out of production 16 years ago. The museum only has 10 left in storage.

The danger is when they are gone the artwork will no longer be displayed. The solution for The Legibile City has been to port it over to a Linux-based operating system. This process took several years and was done in conjunction with the artist's wishes.

"Linux was selected as the target platform for the porting. Linux is a free Unix variant that runs on the most diverse hardware platforms -including on Apple computers - which is constantly being adapted to new hardware, and, current expectations are that due to its origins [Unix], it will have a long lifespan," Mr Serexhe explains.

Digital artworks in ZKM are not switched off overnight to preserve the systems and try to prolong the life of the hardware.

Not everything in the museum is "born digital", a phrase used by Mr Serexhe to describe art that is completely of the digital age. Digitising video art from magnetic tapes is another important part of the museum's work.

Ancient formats

Dorcas Muller works in the Laboratory for Antiquated Video Systems.

Her office is packed from floor to ceiling with ancient tapes and video equipment. She has over 300 machines at her disposal to convert about 50 different formats into digital form.

Image caption,
Dorcas Muller has a collection of laser discs and machines which can play looped artwork

"The most important machines which are completely restored we keep in the laboratory for daily use and we have storage outside the city where we have machines up to the ceiling for future years," she says.

The market for pure digital art is very different from the one for more conventional art. Materials and machines become obsolete while canvas and stone live on.

"There is a certain market but normally these works go from the artists to the collector… there are only very few collectors. In Germany at the moment there is only one private collector of digital art," says Mr Serexhe in Germany.

But there is no consensus on whether repairing digital art is the right thing to do. Some of the artists may have intended their works be shown as a performance, and to cease existing when the technology running it breaks down. The museum's efforts are controversial.

"Either we change our ethical aspect ideas about art, and we would consider digital art as only 'performative', or we stick to the originality and authenticity of the work.

"I think as an important collection we still should preserve the work in its original form and format as long as this is possible," Mr Serexhe says.

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