Beyond a href: Preserving Flash-driven Art


As Digital Preservation Fellow with Rhizome, my work has focused on archiving works of net art from the live web into the ArtBase.  Net art, despite the benefits of being abstract - it rarely gets moldy! - is built on exceptionally fragile media.  A server failure, domain shift, or missing file is enough to effectively destroy a work of art.  As such, to properly preserve the pieces in the ArtBase, I work alongside Ben Fino-Radin to crawl, download, and adjust works for hosting in our archive.  The scope of the ArtBase - from hypertext experiments to Twitter-fed visualizations - brings me in contact with an array of technologies, media, and unexpected use cases.  While nearly every work of net art in the ArtBase founded on HTML, most go beyond it: embedded multimedia is very frequently used for a variety of purposes and effects.  As such, developing a system to download and preserve complex media objects is of tremendous importance to my work.

One of the most common multimedia formats used in the ArtBase is Flash, dating back to its origins with FutureWave and through its development by Macromedia and Adobe.  Of the myriad formats used in the ArtBase’s collection, SWF is the most prevalent and deeply used multimedia filetype: over a third of the archived works are founded on it.  Its combination of power (few formats offer its combination of browser-driven multimedia and interactivity) and ubiquity on audience machines made it the obvious choice for artists looking to go beyond the HTML and JavaScript-driven net art of the late 1990s. Hence, working with Flash is greatly important to Rhizome’s preservation mission.

Splash screen, Inflat-O-Scape (2001)

SWF, as a format, presents a number of challenges for art conservators and archivists.  As a binary format, it cannot be immediately parsed by text-friendly tools (such ...


New in the ArtBase: Twilight Screensaver (1991) for Atari TOS


There is a new addition to the ArtBase's collection that we are rather excited about: TwiLight (1991-1997), a screensaver for Atari TOS by Dragan Espenschied, Alvar Freude, and Peter Scheerer. There are two points to be excited about here: first, TwiLight now holds the crown of being the oldest piece of software in our collection. Second, Espenschied has amazingly completely reconstructed the screensaver's various modules as in-browser simulations, using the original graphics and HTML marquees. On the following page one can see what is a relatively accurate representation of the original software. If you'd like to run the original software in an Atari TOS compatable emulation (or vintage hardware), the orignal software can be download here: LZH (925 kb), ZIP (939 kb). 




Rhizome at the Reasons to be Creative Conference


This Thursday, June 14th, Rhizome's Nick Hasty and Ben Fino-Radin will be speaking about digital preservation and the ArtBase at the Reasons to be Creative Festival here in NYC. Featuring a wide variety of renowned speakers, such as John Maeda, Ken Perlin, Jer Thorp, Zach Lieberman, and Amit Pitaru, the two-day conference will be hosted at the School of Visual Arts. From the website:

Reasons to be Creative is a festival for creative artists, designers and coders. The festival brings together some of the most respected and brilliant minds from the worlds of art, code, design and education to share their passion, knowledge, insights and work. Expect two days packed with talks, networking, inspiration and learning.

Tickets are available here.


Shu Lea Cheang on Brandon


Shu Lea Cheang, Brandon, Bigdoll interface, 1998

In 1998, the Guggenheim Museum launched its first web-based art commission, Shu Lea Cheang's Brandon. Over the course of a year, the collaborative, dynamic piece would look at the complexity of gender, sexuality, and identity through the life and death of Brandon Teena/Teena Brandon, a Nebraska youth who was raped and murdered after his biological sex as a woman came to light in 1993.

Oft-cited in new media art history as one of the first widely recognized pieces of net art, the Brandon site has been offline for the last year or so; the Guggenheim plans to restore the work in the very near future.

I spoke to the artist about Brandon, 14 years after its launch: 

YH: How did you first come to conceptualize Brandon? What were the circumstances for its commission?

SLC: Brandon was conceived at a time that I moved from actual space to cyber/virtual, claiming myself a cyber-nomad. It was around the mid-90s, and there was high hope for a super-highway, for a virtual world where race/gender does not matter any more. (I think it was the ad copy of MCI communications?). Meanwhile, two articles came out at Village Voice, one about Brandon Teena's rape/murder case by Donna Minkowitz and the other Julian Dibbell's A Rape in Cyberspace. I had been experimenting with boundary crossing between the actual (state/nation) and virtual (anonymous/avatars), which needed to take up a durational performative format.

By 1995, I wrote out a proposal which was to be a one-year web narrative project following my feature film Fresh Kill (1994). At the time, I guess it was unusual to conceive a durational web work, to be unfolded by episodes, by staged virtual performance 'events' supported by actual space installation. At the time, David Ross was the director of the Whitney Museum. He had the vision to expand the museum into cyberspace. Curator John Hanhardt (who has exhibited three of my major works: color schemes (a solo show in 1990), Those Fluttering Objects of Desire (1993, Whitney Biennial), and Fresh Kill (1995, Whitney Biennial)) took up the curation of Brandon. By 1998, Hanhardt had moved to the Guggenheim Museum and took Brandon with him. At the Guggenheim, Matthew Drutt, Associate Curator for Research, helped realize the curatorial admist the Guggenheim's venture into the virtual museum with Asymptote Architects...


The Signal Interviews Ben Fino-Radin about Conservation and Digital Art


Barbra Latanzi,  The Letter and the Fly (2002 )

Trevor Owens interviewed Rhizome Digital Conservator Ben Fino-Radin for the Library of Congress blog on digital preservation, The Signal. In the interview, he discusses Rhizome's ArtBase collection, including work like Barbara Lattanzi's The Letter and the Fly (2002) and Lev Manovich's Little Movies (1994). He also talks about the role the collection plays in the Rhizome community as well as his unique job with the organization:

Trevor: Could you tell us a bit about how the collection is being used? To what extent is the audience for the collection artists in search of inspiration? To what extent is it for the general public? To what extent is it for scholars and researchers?

Ben: Currently the collection is used most heavily in academia, and by curators and researchers. Many professors of new media integrate the ArtBase into their lesson plan, designing research and curatorial assignments centered around the students using our members tools to curate exhibitions.

Trevor: I don’t think there are many people out there with the title of digital conservator. Could you tell us a bit about how you define this role? To what extent do you think this role is similar and different to analog art conservation? Similarly, to what extent is this work similar or different to roles like digital archivist or digital curator?

Ben: I drew the distinction with my title for two reasons: 1) I am at the service of an institution that lives within a museum, and 2) the digital objects I am cataloging and preserving access to are not “records” by the archival definition. They are artifacts – and as such require a different kind of care.

I am responsible for the stewardship of intellectual entities that are often inseparable from their ...


Ben Fino-Radin Rhizome's Digital Conservator on Supporting Preservation


Ensuring that a piece of software will always work; capturing the subtleties of aging technology; extracting content from the clutches of closed platforms – none of these are simple feats, yet this is what Rhizome does on a daily basis. Since the ArtBase was founded in 1999, it has grown to become one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of it's kind. Today, the ArtBase is a free collection providing documentation and access to over 2,500 art works spanning nearly two decades. We need your continued support to keep the ArtBase free, open and permanent - Please make a contribution today!

I joined Rhizome this past August, and it has truly been a pleasure to become part of a team that is saving a significant moment in art history from the void. We work hard every day to ensure that future generations will be able to study the work of our time.

Thanks to your support the following is only a tiny selection of what we have accomplished recently:

• Archive and restore lost video assets to Lev Manovich's "Little Movies" (1994)

• Restore access to "VVEBCAM" (2007) by Petra Cortright, after it was censored and removed by YouTube

• Support new additions to the collection, including Travess Smalley, Esther Hunziker, Richard Vijgen, Mouchette, Dave Gerber, Sterling Crispin, and Andrew Norman Wilson just to name a few recent additions

• Begin collaborations with online exhibition spaces to archive and preserve their output

Simply put, we are only able to do this because of your continued support. The fact is we can't do it without you.  Your donation today enables Rhizome to be a greater advocate for the preservation of a unique moment of art history. With your support, we can take bigger steps toward solving the complex challenges posed by preserving digital ephemera. On behalf of everyone at Rhizome, and on behalf of the artists whose work we preserve, I hope you will consider making a contribution to our Campaign today!



Keeping it Online


Today I am pleased to announce the publication of a paper that documents the past, present, and future preservation practices of Rhizome's archive, the ArtBase. This paper is the synthesis of years of research conducted by Rhizome and other leaders of digital preservation, in and outside of art institutions. What follows is an attempt to summarize a few key points. The paper in its entirety is available here: Sustainable Preservation Practices and the Rhizome ArtBase

"…if nobody sees a museum piece, what’s the point of having it or keeping it? Museums exist for a social purpose, for us humans."
Bruce Sterling, keynote address at “Preserving the Immaterial: A Conference on Variable Media,” Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2001.


What happens when an institution acquires a digital work of art? How does one preserve and ensure the longevity of an art object that is inextricably tied to infrastructure built and controlled by neither artist nor institution? How can a work that exists in a social space, or makes use of real-time external data sources, be documented? These questions have long plagued collectors, conservators, and collecting institutions, as well as artists themselves. At Rhizome we face these challenges daily in our effort to preserve and ensure access to a multi generational practice and legacy of work produced by the communities we are built upon. The first line of Rhizome's mission statement reads: "Rhizome is dedicated to the creation, presentation, preservation, and critique of emerging artistic practices that engage technology." Of these tenets, one that perhaps occupies the least public awareness, yet constitutes a significant portion of our labors ispreservation. It is at the core of Rhizome's mission of support.

Since it's inception in 1999, the ArtBase has undergone numerous stages of evolution. What began as a simple place for sharing links has grown into a comprehensive archive adherent to international archival standards, containing over 2,500 works. Parallel to the archive's evolution, we have witnessed the aging of these works, some dating to 1994. From broken links to obsolete plugins, we have seen it all. Slowly but surely we are migrating works to host on our servers so that we may provide stable URLs, understand the digital objects that a work is composed of, and create stable versions of works that will remain unharmed by technological innovation. We are on a deep level working to ensure true longevity for these works, that 30 years from now they will be accessible and functional. Rhizome is 100% committed to providing permanent, free, public access to this collection and its cultural context...