Pericles project
Promoting and Enhancing Reuse of Information throughout the Content Lifecycle taking account of Evolving Semantics

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Art & Media - Software-Based Art Scenario



Art & Media - Software-Based Art Scenario

Long-term display and the potential for virtualization of an artwork

Tate define Software-Based Artwork as any for which software is the core medium. The first acquisition of a Software-Based Artwork (SBA) took place in 2003, with Michael Craig-Martin’s Becoming (2003) and currently there are eight SBAs in Tate’s collection and one in the process of being acquired. The number of works acquired is increasing slowly but steadily, and the processes in place for ingest and medium-term conservation care are sufficient at the moment, but need to be further developed to sustain the artworks over a longer period of time and to document their history and evolution thus ensuring their sustainable reuse as a part of a national collection.


Software-Based Artworks are most frequently composed of software and hardware elements combined to form a bespoke system. This system performs the actions needed to achieve the vision of the artist. Often this process involves a programmer or technician that is responsible for translating the artist’s vision into a technological construct.


The software aspect of the system is often created for a specific artwork and it may comprise fairly simple executable files or more complex assemblies of different software, using a range of libraries, scripts and databases networked and accessing the internet. The 8 works already in Tate’s collection use a wide range of operating systems including Mac OS, Windows, and Linux, as well as different programming languages such as Delphi, Lingo, and Java. The peripherals required include, among others, a Morse translator, video cameras and till printers.


For some artworks the hardware used can be replaced, but in some cases it is highly valued by the artist and becomes a priority for conservation. An example is hardware visible in an installation, like the desktop computer in Jose Carlos Martinat’s Brutalism: Stereo Reality Environment 3.


Image: Brutalism (Tate collection # T13251) - Jose Carlos Martinat Mendoza. Image © Jose Carlos Martinat Mendoza


It is the museum’s role to ensure that an artwork remains displayable over time. For SBAs this will usually mean changing or replacing the system so that it performs the same actions. However, the initial system is not only a reflection of the artist’s intent but also of the state of the technology and its limitations at the time an artwork was produced. So, even if one must introduce change to that original system in order to maintain access to the work, it is the Museum and the relevant conservator’s role to ensure that any change is reduced to the minimum, and that whenever a change is inevitable that the change is recorded as part of the history of the work.


What seems to be specific to SBAs is that often the software will be changed when the work is installed. Having the artist’s programmer involved, to ensure that everything is working properly, means that very often the solutions include changes to the code to accommodate a specific situation or space.


During the ‘acquisition’ phase for an artwork into Tate’s collection the artist and the museum staff work together very closely. The artist has an expectation that the work will be shown in a way that reflects the artistic intent. The museum staff want to be able to show the work over time and demonstrate good custodianship. Additionally visitors want to be able to experience the artwork in the galleries and scholars want to be able to study it. Addressing the considerations of these various stakeholders in the life of the artwork as well as accounting for change in the objects environment is complex. The preservation of Software-Based Art has only started being discussed in the last 10 years, and given the uniqueness of the artworks and their dependency on complex and variable systems they become an excellent case study to understand how best to document and sustain complex systems over time. Within this context a scenario for the project derived from the case studies sought to focus on the following key issues:

  • Understanding the significant properties of these works, how to identify and measure them, and test replicating them in different systems.

  • What processes and tools are already available to document and test this software?

  • How do we track the risk of specific technologies for a specific work, specifically in relation with issues of obsolescence?

  • What new skills do the keepers of these works need to develop?

  • How do we adapt the museum’s current tools to accommodate these work’s specificities?


The scenario created describes the process leading to the virtualization of a Software-Based Artwork. In virtualisation the original software and software environment are encapsulated so that they become less dependent on the underlying hardware. Hardware failure is one of the highest risks for the preservation of this type of artwork, and virtualisation significantly reduces the risk. Tate is now starting to implement this process in both the SBAs already in the collection and new acquisitions. The process towards achieving virtualization of an artwork involves the initial documentation and analysis of the artwork, creation and test of virtual machines running the artwork’s software and finally defining parameters for storage and tracking. The clearest challenge identified in the process was how to define all the relevant significant properties, and where relevant, how to measure these. This issue is a key research topic for the project and research outputs such as the PERICLES Extraction Tool (https://github.com/pericles-project/pet) provide mechanisms by which these challenges can begin to be addressed.


Patricia Falcao, TATE - Time-Based Media Conservator (patricia.falcao@tate.org.uk)

November 2014

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