Please wait a few moments while we process your request
Please wait...

Caitlin Jones

Surveying the state of the art (of documentation)

Surveying the field: Existing paradigms for documenting media art

The projects we chose to look at most closely were: The Daniel Langlois Foundation's DOCAM project, V2_'s Capturing Unstable Media project, The Variable Media and Archiving the Avant-Garde consortiums, the Media Matters consortium, INCCA and its Inside Installations project, and the curatorial resource CRUMB.

a) DOCAM (Documentation and Conservation of the Media Arts Heritage)
The Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology
Montreal, Canada

Project goals and methodology
The DOCAM project is a multi-institutional, multidisciplinary research project spearheaded by the Daniel Langlois Foundation. As stated in its mission, the main objectives of the DOCAM project are to "conduct multidisciplinary research into the science, techniques and practices needed to resolve the problems of preserving the works and heritage associated with technological and electronic art in the domains of the visual and performing arts (theatre, dance and performance) and architecture." The DOCAM project is divided into a number of subcommittees that include Preservation, Pedagogy, Publications and, particularly interesting to us, the Documentation subcommittee.

As part of its research, the Documentation subcommittee has taken on a number of case studies and identified an exhaustive list of key document types, which it (currently) calls the "Artwork Digital File/Dossier" (to be publicly released by DOCAM at a later date). This dossier identifies a wide range of materials that those compiling documentation should endeavour to capture, including the artist's original documentation for a work (e.g. models, simulations, interviews, etc.), documentation related to hardware (e.g. equipment manuals, vendors and suppliers), exhibition parameters (e.g. physical space, budget), and environmental parameters (e.g. acoustics, paint colours). Most importantly however, each document in the DOCAM file is attributed to a source, be it artist, curator, technician or conservator, so that future researchers have a reference for the source of each document.

Our assessment
DOCAM's Digital Dossier is extremely valuable, both practically and theoretically. Theoretically, by not imposing a strict structure, it recognizes the flexibility needed to deal with highly variable works of art; practically, it provides a realistic and comprehensive list of documentation types to look for. DOCAM's emphasis on document attribution is an often overlooked but increasingly important part of the documentation process. Because much of the documentation in our case studies (particularly in The Giver of Names Documentary Collection) was created by us as researchers and not by the artists themselves, an explicit acknowledgement of this is integral to the future understanding of a work. In addition, DOCAM's arrangement of materials according to each specific installation mirrored our concerns with documenting differences between iterations of a work.

b) Capturing Unstable Media
V2_ Institute for the Unstable Media
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Project goals and methodology
In 2003, V2_ published an extensive research project entitled "Capturing Unstable Media." Initiated by researchers Sandra Fauconnier and Rens Fromme, the project clearly delineates its intent to create a structure that "captures" details about works of art rather than proposing a preservation strategy. By outlining broad document types and physical elements, the researchers created a complex yet intuitive structure through which the documentation of digital objects and performative projects can be described, arranged and accessed.

The V2_ team created the Capturing Unstable Media Conceptual Model (CMCM), a clear model capable of describing both the work as a whole and specific iterations of the work so that changes can be easily tracked over time. The highly prescribed format and interoperable data structure is intended to allow for sharing across platforms and institutions. Documentation types fit into the following broad categories: occurrences (documents related to the establishment of the time and place of the performance or installation), components (documents related to installation parameters, hardware, software, network, content, system design, moving image and sound formats), user interaction (documents related to input and output), and artists/makers (documentation related to the artist or artists).

Our assessment
While the CMCM was never fully implemented, it serves as an extremely thorough study of the key issues. By formally delineating the notion of the occurrence, the CMCM sets a clear and important distinction between the documenting of a work as a whole, each specific installation of that work, and the contextual information surrounding the work.

Highly prescribed and detailed, the CMCM may be somewhat complex for broad use, but the questions it raises, the document types it outlines, and the structure it suggests are highly relevant for anyone working in the field.

c) Variable Media Network - Archiving the Avant Garde - Forging the Future

Project goals and methodology
The Variable Media, Archiving the Avant-Garde, and Forging the Future projects are a loose affiliation of institutions (under different names for funding reasons) working together to create and support scholarship and tools in the area of new media and contemporary art conservation. The Variable Media Network grew out of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s preservation strategies for the conceptual, installation, video and new media art in its collection and evolved into a large multi-institutional project. One of the major contributions of the Variable Media Network was its introduction of the notion of "behaviours" as a means to describe an artwork. By asking an artist to describe his or her work as a series of behaviours, (such as "installed" or "duplicated"), rather than strictly according to its medium-specific attributes, the paradigm allows conservators and curators to record a broader range of preservation options should the specific media cease to be available in the future. In addition to numerous and noteworthy exhibitions and conferences, the Network has created and promoted a number of tools and structures specific to the documentation of media art. Two tools of particular note are the Variable Media Questionnaire (VMQ) and the Media Art Notation System (MANS).

Variable Media Questionnaire.
The VMQ is a database designed to assist artists and museum staff in writing preservation guidelines (according to the Variable Media standard of behaviours) for a work of art once its current format is no longer viable. While the VMQ was originally a FileMaker Pro database, the Forging the Future project is currently working on an online version that will be openly available.

Created by Richard Rinehart, Digital Media Director and Adjunct Curator, Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, MANS is similar to V2_’s CMCM. A formal notation that delineates between the work as a whole and its specific iterations, MANS attempts to function as a "score" for future re-creations of a work. Based on an XML structure, MANS also allows for highly detailed levels of description and interoperability between platforms and institutions, theoretically allowing a greater degree of access.

Our assessment
Through our direct involvement with the Variable Media Network and its partner projects, we have found this paradigm to be the most closely related to our understanding of the issues of preservation and documentation. While our overall experience with these projects provided a general background to the issues, the VMQ and MANS were particularly helpful in developing our case studies. Although not used as an input device or database, the VMQ is an invaluable guide for conducting artist interviews, as the medium-independent line of questioning often elicits highly descriptive responses to questions about a work's past and future incarnations. Similarly, Richard Rinehart's MANS provided a framework for reflection on the logical arrangement of collected elements. Both tools are highly prescribed in their structures — too much so, in our opinion, for a realistic and easily repeatable documentation project — but the theoretical underpinnings of both are highly valuable and informative.

d) Matters in Media Art (formerly Media Matters)

Project goals and methodology
Media Matters is a consortium of three major museums and the New Art Trust. Curators, conservators, technicians and registrars from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Tate Modern have joined together and established best practice guidelines for the acquisition, loan and care of time-based media works.

In keeping with their intent that "others will not only benefit from this information but will also contribute over time to the further refinement of the methods of care for these works of art," the team has made all of the documents in this landmark project public (although not yet participatory). Through its sub-sections Acquisitions and Loans, the site provides access to process diagrams, workflow charts and a wide range of downloadable templates (such as condition reports and standard loan and purchase agreements).

While the project is aimed at museum and gallery professionals, many of these templates provide important information for anyone documenting a work of art. In particular, the template "Installation Documentation Guidelines" provides a lengthy list of details that will ensure proper installation of time-based media. These details include, but are not limited to, general description, format details (e.g. media format and standard), equipment lists, installation space parameters (e.g. entrance, exit, traffic flow, screen sizes, acoustic specifications), spares and necessary backups (e.g. backup lamps, etc.), artist statements, and general notes.

Our assessment
While the group’s primary audience is comprised of other museums or institutions that are custodians of media artworks, its templates and tools are universally applicable. Like DOCAM’s Digital Dossier, its Installation Documentation Guidelines provide an invaluable list of documentation elements to consider for collection. From an access perspective, Matters in Media Art is an excellent resource with a highly usable Web page that contains clear and practical information for the reinstallation of an artwork.

e) INCCA (International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art)
Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Project goals and methodology
INCCA is a network of professional conservators whose prime mandate is the sharing and distribution of knowledge within the international conservation community. Begun in 1999, it has continued to grow, establishing tools and funding publications and conferences in the field of contemporary art conservation.

Highly relevant to our project was INCAA’s leadership on the initiative Inside Installations: Preservation and Presentation of Installation Art []. This project involves more than 25 European institutions and a multitude of case studies on installation artworks; to date, 33 case studies have been made public through its Web site. In addition to these individual case studies, the Research section of the website consists of a number of useful "how tos" for the documentation of specific elements of an artwork. For example, texts can be found on the proper recording of light and sound levels as can a very useful tutorial on how to create clear, practical moving image documentation for installations. In addition, a simple template entitled Document Structure, co-published by the Tate and S.M.A.K in Ghent, Belgium, provides a straightforward, flexible list of necessary document types from an institutional perspective.

Our assessment
Having been involved with INCCA over the years, we have learned a great deal from many of its members. The case studies from the Inside Installations project afforded us numerous examples of the range of forms that case studies can take. We pored over these for similarities and differences that would contribute to our approach, both from a structural and content standpoint. For example, the Tate’s case study on Bruce Nauman’s MAPPING THE STUDIO II with color shift, flip, flop, & flip/flop (Fat Chance John Cage) was an inspiration in terms of presenting a completed case study to the public in a usable form. This being said, the way it is presented is neither flexible nor easily expandable, as the work changes over time.

As previously mentioned, the Research section of this site, despite a few technical glitches, contains many highly useful and practical guidelines.

f) CRUMB (Curatorial Resource for Upstart Media Bliss)
University of Sunderland
Sunderland, United Kingdom

Project goals and methodology
CRUMB is an academic resource dedicated specifically to issues surrounding the curating of media art. Based out of the University of Sunderland and headed by Beryl Graham and Sarah Cook, CRUMB's highly read discussion list tackles the curatorial challenges involved in exhibiting works of media art. Concerned with the broad issues of curating, one particular item that has been continually raised over the years is how the process of documentation has increasingly become an integral part of curatorial practice.

While CRUMB does not propose any models or paradigms for documentation, my reason for including it comes from a purely theoretical perspective that is missing from some of the other models. Issues of representation (distinctions between an artwork and its documentation), the subtle differences between documents that are created rather than collected, and the distinct roles of the artist and curator in the documentation process are just a few of the theoretical concerns that CRUMB’s discussions have touched upon. Practical matters that have also been raised include how to finance documentation, where the responsibility for documentation lies, and how to provide access to it once it has been completed.

Key strengths
In 2008, I visited Sunderland to consult with CRUMB and lead a workshop entitled Documenting New Media Art, a presentation and discussion with a group of curators, artists and arts professionals. The discussion addressed not only the broader issues of creating meaning by how we choose to document, it also underlined the very real concerns about financing, working with artists and providing access to materials.

One of the most enlightening things to come out of the CRUMB workshop and its subsequent work in the area was the use of public photo and video sharing sites such as Flickr and YouTube. While these sites are facing many difficult issues in terms of longevity, proprietary formats, copyright and proper representation, they should not be discounted as highly valuable resources. As we, as a culture, increasingly document our own experiences, these channels are becoming a growing source for documentation.

g) Other models and institutions

As previously mentioned, many other institutions and organisations around the world are working on this issue from a number of different perspectives. Some related institutions and programs worthy of note and further examination include:

The InterPares Project
School of Library, Archival and Information Studies
University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada

This long-term international research project "aims at developing the knowledge essential to the long-term preservation of authentic records created and/or maintained in digital form and providing the basis for standards, policies, strategies and plans of action capable of ensuring the longevity of such material and the ability of its users to trust its authenticity." InterPares2 (the second phase) dealt specifically with artistic records and documentation. The Mustica Project [], is one of the most engaging partners in this project. Its project looks specifically at the documentation of musical performances, and like CMCM and MANS, its structure allows for a separation between a work of music as a whole and specific performances of that work. This highly relevant and detailed project is currently being expanded upon.

Ludwig Boltzmann Institute Media.Art.Research
Linz, Austria

The objective of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute Media.Art.Research is to undertake innovative research into the history of media art and create new strategies for the documentation, description and conservation of media art. With partners such as Ars Electronica and the Lentos Kunstmuseum in Linz, the LBI and its network of scholars have so far produced excellent scholarship in the area and promise to produce much more in terms of new theories and tools for documenting media art.

Netherlands Media Art Institute: Montevideo Time Based Arts
Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Montevideo has been involved in numerous initiatives to preserve and document video and installation-based art over the course of its long history. It is a founding member of INCCA, was a leading participant in the Inside Installations project, and has been a key partner in a number of other European preservation and documentation initiatives (including OASIS [] and Inside Movement Knowledge, an upcoming project on the documentation of dance). A leader in the field and highly knowledgeable about all of the associated issues, its contributions, while often incorporated into larger initiatives, are always noteworthy.

Electronic Arts Intermix: EAI Resource Guide
New York, United States

In 2007, EAI created a Resource Guide aimed at helping museums, galleries and artists address the complicated issues surrounding the collection, exhibition and preservation of media art. This very useful and informative site provides links to work done in the field, extensive glossaries, budgets, format guides, and many other case studies and articles related to single-channel video, video installation and computer-based art.

Caitlin Jones © 2008 FDL