TAXONOMEDIA INTERVIEW: MEDIA ARCHIVING AND CONSERVATION: WHAT’S AT STAKE?

by Raquel Herrera


A look at Brian Mackern’s vintage computer, “toothless”, which he sold in a performatic move.

Taxonomedia is a project and collective that called my attention a few years ago. For one thing, because they’re based in Barcelona, where I live, where very few projects focus on both the practical and theoretical aspects of so called “new media” (or media in general, for that matter), and because its members, Consuelo Rozo and Vanina Hofman, hail from Latin American countries which I’m sure have influenced their views on media and media conservation. Their activities seem to have expanded, to Argentina mostly, and have reached local important institutions such as the Macba (the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona), so I decided it was high time I interviewed Taxonomedia about their past, present, and future activities.

1) For starters, I’d like to ask you, of course, how Taxonomedia was founded. If my memory serves me right, I assume you guys met while studying at MECAD (a state-of-the art media school in Barcelona). What were your first intentions and priorities when you first thought of this project?
We decided to start this project in 2006 when we attended a seminar on conservation organized by MECAD, where we were studying a Master in Curating and Cultural Practice in Art and New Media. The name of the seminar was Specialization course on the conservation of artistic heritage and the use of new technologies. It was a very long name, but it also aroused our interest on the fact of whether it would actually be possible to explore artistic works of the already existing history of art in “new media”. After listening to the variety of problems regarding this subject and the case studies exposed by guests, like Gaby Wijers from the Netherlands Media Art Institute, Tina Weidner from Tate Modern, Johannes Gfeller from Active Archives and Rudolf Frieling who was working at ZKM at that time, we realized how complex that question really was. It encompassed other questions such as what to conserve? And how to do it? and many others whose answers are even more slippery. Most of those reflections are issues we are still trying to elaborate in our day: Should we conserve what’s ephemeral? What does it mean to conserve media art? How to conserve within the software and art markets? Who’s taking charge of this task and what strategies are they adopting for that purpose?

2) What aspects did you take into account when trying to make your project international, both regarding your home countries and the international sphere in general?
As we hail from Colombia and Argentina and are living in Barcelona, Taxonomedia has become international by birth. This circumstance allows us to access very different sources to research how this problem is tackled in museums and institutions in these countries and specialized centers in Europe, as well as to generate exchange spaces and debates regarding that matter. With this purpose in mind, our activities have involved museum curators, teachers and researchers as well as archivists, artists and media spaces’ staff, visual arts and museology students and the general public.

As happens in many other fields, we need to count on a minimal infrastructure, both physical and economic to look for strategies about how to conserve media art, and this perspective is different in every country. The money devoted to culture in some European countries has nothing to do with the money devoted to the same thing in Latin American countries, and even then we shouldn’t generalize talking about “Europe” as a homogeneous totality, not even in the network of museums of a same country. In the particular case of Latin America, we find a vast artistic production, despite which the possibilities of exhibition (diffusion), support to production and even more of purchasing works by museums, archives and media spaces still remains a far-off objective.

When Taxonomedia started four years ago there were very few specialized centers and museums dealing with this issue [of conservation] in a specific way, although the problems were general (Langlois Foundation in Canada, Ars Electronica in Austria, Netherlands Media Art Institute in Holland, among others). Even today there is an overabundance of institutions devoting their budgets to research about this issue, although it is obvious that the interest in it is growing exponentially.

We consider it especially important to engage in some discussion within all spheres and professions involved in contemporary art, as well as to spread the contents of the developed projects and allow that information to circulate so that it can be used according to each one’s possibilities.

3) How did you start approaching institutions, or did they approach you? What did you learn/are you learning from working with them? I assume you freelance in these contexts, what are your thoughts on internal chief curators or media curators, do you think your work resembles theirs, or it doesn’t?
We ourselves have contacted the institutions we consider might be interested in exploring this issue, and, in parallel, we are looking for other support to be able to carry out each one of the activities. This varies depending on the place. In Argentina, for example, we’ve worked with artistic and cultural institutions; in Colombia, with the university, in Barcelona with a museum and a think-tank. In every case, the institutions put their network of resources at our disposal, which brings about great benefits. In general, resources are very limited, but we’ve achieved very satisfactory results and the relationship with the institutions has been positive. We must also say that we don’t have any kind of support whatsoever to keep Taxonomedia going.

Our work is more similar to diffusion, production of activities and research than to the work of an exhibition curator, although there are obviously some common aspects. When we started Taxonomedia we thought it might turn into a curatorial work, but in time we’ve chosen to develop a diffusion profile, which is closely related to the urgency of debating this issue. Anyway, this doesn’t mean we can’t get involved in curatorial projects in the future.

4) You have presented your work as concerned with “documenting, archiving and preserving” media art. What were and are for you the main distinctions among these concepts and which one, if there is only one, is bothering you the most?
To think the conservation of a production necessarily entails the need to reflect on its documentation and archiving. Likewise, these elements force us to think in terms of conservation. We could say these three perspectives belong to the same problem, although each one of them has its specificities and if the time comes –due to several reasons and circumstances–one of them could be privileged over the others.

We, in Taxonomedia, regard documentation as a privileged tool to explain an important artistic production which hardly could be conserved through other kinds of strategies. On the one hand, because of the essentially economic questions we have previously mentioned. The conservation projects that suggest solutions such as emulators and migrations are beyond the scope of most museums and media spaces, and probably their efforts in that direction are not sustainable in the medium or long run. On the other hand, there are expressions within art based on technologies that don’t “allow for their conservation”, and if presented with this situation, the artist’s intention must be respected. Finally, also, through their documentation and subsequent availability, the work might be able to survive as a concept and be recreated in other works. Projects like Variable Media delve into the conservation of the integrity of the work regardless of its medium, clearly considering media art within the field of conceptual art, emphasizing a perspective which many would find inadmissible, but is interesting to us.

5) As a researcher myself, I’ve recently come across the dilemma that I might not be able to devote part of my future Ph.D. thesis to analyze The Intruder, a web work that no longer “works” because it was programmed in Director and Flash and the software doesn’t seem to have been updated for some time now. How do you position yourselves regarding this matter? Should we “let go” of things which are meant to be ephemeral?
Finding a working created in the nineties and being able to explore it effortlessly is fascinating, but impossible most of the times. One of our first encounters with that “reality” was through the project Arqueología Digital (Digital Archaeology), wherein we had some pieces developed in the nineties, mostly CD-Roms, and also floppy disks, and our first intention was to find a way to visualize and store them (not all the pieces were artistic works, but also online or interactive magazines about exhibitions). There were many reasons why we didn’t succeed in our initial proposal, but we focused on documenting part of the material and the project was transformed: we became partially disenchanted with what happened, but at the same time it was a strong experience in this field.


Anne Marie Schleiner’s PLAYLEVEL Heaven711 CD-ROM (1996) has been studied by Taxonomedia.

To be able to access this material as it was in this day represents a huge time investment, a specific budget, provided also that the artist wants to work on that again. In some cases this might mean counting on programmers and developers to generate platforms that allow the piece to work seamlessly in current environments. We have translated a paradigmatic case undertaken for the exhibition Seeing Double (Guggenheim Museum) about the work The Erl King by Roberta Friedman and Grahame Weinbren. Examples like these are feasible if there’s an institution like a museum, a specialized archive or a project that might take charge. It is also possible, if the artist was willing to undertake it herself, as could be in the example you mentioned. She might add some ideas to the piece she didn’t include in the past and the technology she might have to use might also alter the particularities of the work. So we can imagine The Intruder might be different if manipulated, although we leave this aspect at the hands of the artist.

Reinterpretation and documentation are ways of contact with many of the previous works, but unfortunately the experience is hardly repeatable.

6) Tell us also about the seminars you’ve organized. You’ve recently held your second international meeting in Buenos Aires. Which aspects have become prominent this time? Which aspects do you think will become prominent in the future?
Our assessment of the meeting on conserving digital and electronic art CONSERVAR, DOCUMENTAR, ARCHIVAR is really satisfactory and we believe these kinds of events always work as a thermometer of a specific time and place.

As in 2008, we detected a split between our approaches (and therefore those of our keynote speakers) and the difficulties those attending the conference are facing day after day in their work routines in museums, archives, media spaces, etc. This difference is a clear sign of the work we still have to do and of the need to keep generating these kinds of spaces. Regarding the models or strategies undertaken, this pressing need of enlisting more staff and more resources arises, as well as a minimal stability in the institutional politics which results in the specific possibility of being able to tackle a conservation and archive project. There are cases, such as that of the media space in the Facultad de Arquitectura y Diseño of the Universidad de Buenos Aires, whose representatives are aware of how precarious the current situation is, but nonetheless are in favor of “being ready” for the time when, someday, resources arrive. From this place, they’ve managed to increase the audiovisual space they’re leading and have grounded the basic aspects and conservation and archiving criteria for the future. They have reflected, along with their team, on what a public institution is to keep, which might be one of the more complex problems they’re facing (even more than their budget limitations).

Following this line of thought, it is also remarkable that this year’s meeting included, on purpose, talks on technological poetics and politics and about digital heritage. Two different stances –but by no means the only possible ones- to approach and contextualize the problem of conservation in media art, avoiding its isolation and trying to get it closer to the general problems of contemporary art and digital goods.

7) And last but not least, due to the variety of contexts you have the opportunity to deal with (the local context of Barcelona, the Latin American contexts and the international scopes), would you mind sharing your thoughts on how do you see the media/new media arts scene is going to develop?
To project a future for media art is a tough question because of the vertiginous speed at which the world seems to be turning. The intersection between art and other fields of knowledge, such as the different sciences and education, accounts for the need to get back to a phase of multidimensional knowledge in a specialized world that has kept sciences separated from humanities for more than a century, as if they were conflicting universes. Probably, this approach will be highlighted and gain depth as it deserves, in a “round trip” of technological advances. What we undoubtedly expect is a development of better diffusion and exhibition scenarios in our respective countries and a real multiplicity of voices in the field of media art.

LINKS

Taxonomedia (general)> http://www.taxonomedia.net
Arqueología digital> http://taxonomedia.net/arqueologia/
The Erl King
> http://www.grahameweinbren.net/ErlKing/Erlkoenig.html
Conservación del arte electrónico, ¿qué conservar y cómo conservarlo? http://taxonomedia.net/seminario/
CONSERVAR, DOCUMENTAR, ARCHIVAR> http://www.taxonomedia.net/encuentro2010/programa.html