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The Guggenheim Museum and the Daniel Langlois Foundation

The Variable Media Network

Grahame Weinbren and Roberta Friedman, The Erl King, 1982-1985
Grahame Weinbren and Roberta Friedman, The Erl King, 1982-1985 Grahame Weinbren and Roberta Friedman, The Erl King, 1982-1985 Grahame Weinbren and Roberta Friedman, The Erl King, 1982-1985
The variable media concept was developed in 1998 (1) by Jon Ippolito, an associate curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

This concept suggests considering the description of works independently of the media used to create them. Rather than list a work’s physical components, the variable media approach is to understand the work’s behavioural characteristics and intrinsic effects. It’s up to artists to describe their work using these characteristics and effects, which tomorrow’s curators and restorers must respect and reproduce. In this way, artists themselves define the limits of the interventions later carried out on their work. Those favouring the variable media approach wager that it will better preserve works containing certain unstable elements. Such works are broad in nature and include performance, conceptual art, installations and, of course, artwork incorporating technological elements or relying on structures or networks that are themselves very unstable.

The variable media concept has quickly spread among many specialists who work to preserve contemporary art or oversee museum collections. Several of these specialists attended a conference (2) on variable media at the Guggenheim in New York in 2001.

Case studies presented at the conference helped explore and further expand the concept. Among the works examined were a video installation by Nam June Paik, a film performance by Ken Jacobs, a photo collage by Jan Dibbets, an interactive installation by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and an on-line work by Mark Napiers. (3)

A key element of the variable media concept is a questionnaire in which artists describe the characteristics of their work and choose the most appropriate preservation strategies. These characteristics help determine whether the work is installed, performed, reproduced, duplicated, encoded, interactive or networked. Once these characteristics are defined, the artist is invited to select the most appropriate preservation strategies. Such strategies may range from simple storage to reinterpretation, emulation and migration.

These last two techniques have of course developed out of a technological context but can also be understood more broadly. In a computer context, emulation entails replacing an obsolete hardware layer with software emulating this layer on modern equipment and forcing the software to behave like the former hardware layer. This strategy provides access to old computer files without the need to modify them. By extension, emulation involves finding a way to imitate the original aspect of a work or certain of its components through completely different means. Migration, in its strictly technological sense, entails transferring a video signal or even computer code to a new medium, format or encoding. Migrating therefore implies upgrading the equipment, signal or source code while trying to keep how the work behaves intact.

In 2002, the Daniel Langlois Foundation teamed up with the Guggenheim Museum to develop and further promote the variable media concept. One aim of this partnership is to forge an international network of organizations with a common goal of devising useful methods and tools. To this end, several projects, events and publications have been or will be launched:

– A fully bilingual book, Permanence Through Change: The Variable Media Approach, has been written and is available on-line at the variable media site. (4) This publication contains many texts clarifying the concept and its challenges. Some of the texts were in fact prepared for the New York conference held in 2001. The works studied include those mentioned above along with Grahame Weinbren and Roberta Friedman’s The Erl King. Bruce Sterling, John G. Hanhardt, Carol Stringari, Nancy Spector, Jeff Rothenberg, Richard Rinehart, Steve Dietz, Thomas Mulready and others also share their views on the variable media concept.

– In 2002, the Foundation helped nurture the variable media concept within a major museum by creating a research fellowship in variable media preservation at the Guggenheim. Caitlin Jones, the recipient of the fellowship, has come to a better understanding of the consequences of such an approach. Over 2003, she’ll share her new knowledge with organizations that join the network.

– As part of its researchers in residence program, the Foundation called on the services of Jeff Rothenberg, a computer researcher and emulation specialist. Mr. Rothenberg will draw up a case-study model to help better understand how to use emulation as a preservation strategy.

– A Web site (5) now keeps people updated on the development of variable media. The site includes the book Permanence Through Change: The Variable Media Approach along with texts outlining the main aspects of the concept and full transcripts and video excerpts from the 2001 conference. In addition, video interviews with artists and answers to the questionnaire will later be added.

– An experimental database is available to members of the Variable Media Network. This database helps store and share information from the questionnaire that artists are invited to fill out. A version of this database is downloadable from the variable media site.

– An event will present the public with works relying on computer code in their original version and in an emulated version. The exhibition Seeing Double: Emulation in Theory and Practice, organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim in partnership with the Daniel Langlois Foundation, will be presented from March 19 to May 16 2004 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Seeing Double was curated by Carol Stringari, Senior Conservator, Contemporary Art; Caitlin Jones, Variable Media Specialist; and Jon Ippolito, Associate Curator of Media Arts. To appraise the success of emulation in its case studies, the museum will solicit feedback from preservation experts, the original artists, and the lay public in comparing emulated and original renditions. This feedback will be aired in Echoes of Art: Emulation As a Preservation Strategy, a public symposium held in the Guggenheim's Peter B. Lewis Theater on May 8, 2004. The program is intended to prompt a discussion of the role emulation might play in keeping digital culture alive for future generations. A follow-up to the Guggenheim's acclaimed symposium Preserving the Immaterial in March of 2001, Echoes of Art will examine the lessons learned in Seeing Double's case studies and probe the role that emulation and technological nostalgia have played in contemporary art, currently play in computer gaming and youth culture, and will play in future preservation efforts. Participants will include artists Mary Flanagan, Roberta Friedman, jodi, John F. Simon, Jr., and Grahame Weinbren; and preservation specialists Tilman Baumgaertel, Jean Gagnon, Francis Hwang, Caitlin Jones, Christiane Paul, Jeff Rothenberg, Jill Sterrett, and Carol Stringari.

Alain Depocas © 2003 FDL

(1) Ippolito, Jon. “The Museum of the Future: A Contradiction in Terms?” Artbyte. Vol. 1, No. 2, June-July 1998. Under “Crosstalk.” p. 18-19.

(2) Preserving the Immaterial: A Conference on Variable Media, Guggenheim Museum, New York, March 30-31, 2001.

(3) The works are respectively: TV Garden (1974), Bitemporal Vision: The Sea (1994), A White Wall (1971), Untitled (Public Opinion) (1991), and Net Flag (2001).