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David Rokeby, The Giver of Names (1991-)

Documentary Collection

Introduction to the Collection, by Caitlin Jones and Lizzie Muller

Between real and ideal

At the beginning of this collaborative project we reflected on the relationship between our two different research perspectives. Caitlin’s approach, based on the tools of the Variable Media Network, focused on locating the artist's intent as a means to aid future conservation considerations. The key principle of this approach is to record information about the essence (or “kernel”) of an artwork, independent of the media in which it manifests. It privileges the relationship between the conceptual aspects of the work (the philosophical ideas behind the artists intentions) and technical aspects of the work (encompassing the decisions the artist has made in regards to the physical components, software, installation and environmental factors of the work). Lizzie’s approach focused on the experiential aspects of the work – how the artwork "occurs" for audience members in the real world - and emphasized the argument that artworks (particularly interactive installations) exist primarily in human experience, rather than as discreet objects. The strategy of this approach is to create a lively portrait of the work as it actually occurs through in-depth interviews with real audience members. The background, rationales and methodologies of these two approaches are detailed in these two publications.

As we began to gather documentation we were faced with an apparent conflict between our perspectives; whilst Caitlin’s approach sought to identify an “ideal” form for the work through an exploration of a work's 'medium independent' qualities, Lizzie’s approach emphasized the “real” experiences, which were often very far from the expected or desired description given by the artist. The gap between artists’ intentions and audience experience is not a new realisation in terms of art theory. The poststructuralist critical revolution of the last century has established the authorial position as only one privileged but not definitive perspective on the interpretation of an artwork. However this gap remains a problem for documentary and preservation strategies in ephemeral art where, in the absence of a clear, discrete and material art-object, the artists intentions have, in many cases, provided the touchstone for how a work will be preserved, restaged and described in the future.

We recognized a productive tension forming between our approaches, and between the "real" and "ideal" versions of the artwork that motivated them. Both approaches challenge the authority of the other in a useful way, and each offers the other complementary information – creating a richer, deeper and more complex overall picture. The Variable Media Network approach is designed to capture detailed information about the artist’s intentions and the degree of variability of technical components of the work. This notion of the ideal version of the work usually grows from the artists experience through numerous installations or ‘versions’ of a work. By looking for consistencies and difference in these versions, this approach gives conservators a clearer picture of what elements of a work are important, in the eyes of the artist, to preserve over time. It therefore constructs an idea of the work that has often never existed in the real world. The experiential approach, on the other hand captures real world experiences that provide a rich and detailed picture of the reality of the work as it existed, but does not provide essential technical information about how and why it was achieved.

While our approaches were never mutually exclusive of each other, explicitly recognizing the tension between real and ideal provided us with a strategy to solve problems within our individual approaches and develop what we believe to be a useful holistic approach to the documentation of variable media artworks. In our combined approach we have sought to draw together both ideal and real accounts of the work – without erasing or smoothing over their differences. Rather, in this collection we have tried to preserve and exploit the tension in several ways; Firstly in our methods of creating documentation including our interview with the artist and our interviews with the audience, secondly in our approach to structuring and ordering data within the repository, and thirdly in the creation of “signposts,” which link together information describing aspects of the ideal version of the work with records of its actual manifestation.

Caitlin Jones & Lizzie Muller © 2008 FDL