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1999.03.01. - Tilman Baumgaertel, Digital Decay

Subject: Digital Decay
From: Tilman Baumgaertel
Date: Mon, 01 Mar 1999 20:38:17 +0100


This is a brief presentation I gave at the Berlin Media Festival Transmediale ( at the beginning of a panel on the preservation and maintanence of digital culture that I was asked to curate.

Unfortunately (or fortunately? ;-)) the presentations by the other panelists are not available in ASCII...



Digital Decay

Welcome to todays panel on net art. Today we are dealing particulary with the question, how museums can deal with this new art genre, and expecially with how to keep and preserve net art, and what a curatorial approach could be towards net art for people who are involved with museums and other art institutions.

We will also adress a very recent phenomenon that I call digital decay: the desintegration and loss of digital data, that so far has recieved little attention. (unlike the y2k-Problem for example...)

On the panel we have some very distiguished people from international museums:

Barbara London, video and media art curator of the Museum of Modern Art in New York

Benjamin Weill, curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, and founder of the Online-Gallery adaweb, to my knowledge the first net art site on the Internet

Peter Weibel, head of the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie in Karlsruhe

Andreas Lange from the Berlin Computerspiele-Museum, one of the few, if not the only museum that is dedicated exclusively to the history and culture of computer games.

We are going to introduce all of these institutions today, especially their internet activities, and we will adress the issue of how these internet sites and internet art can be preserved by museums. Or if they should be preserved at all? ;-)

I'd like to start this panel by talking a little bit about how I got the idea for today's event. It's a rather personal story, that might not sound like much at first. But it's pretty important for all the things that we will talk about this afternoon, so here we go:

A friend of mine was finishing her studies at the berlin art school, and was looking for a topic for her orals. Since she was a graphic designer who used the computer a lot for her work, she had the idea to talk about the graphic user interface (GUI) of the Macintosh, which had intrigued her since she first encountered it. She asked me for a little help, and I was taken by the idea, because I felt that the graphic interface was very important in making the computer what it is today: not only the 'universal tool', that generations of programmers had promised us, but in fact a pretty much universally accepted tool - at least in the 'Western World'.

We talked about the Mac-Interface, and decided that it would be a good idea to compare the graphical interface of the current Macintosh to older versions to see what the interface designers had changed - to get a clue about what they tried to give to the users. (As most of you might know the Interface of the 'MacClassic' was one of the first full-blown graphic interfaces, and by far the most succesful. It lured a lot of computer-illiterates to the computer, and it was also ripped-off by Microsoft when they designed both Window 95 and Windows 98...)

My friend told me that the Mac was the first computer she ever used. She also told me a story about what happened after she took her first computer class, that I thought was stunning: She wanted to use this incredible, newly-discovered machine after her first computer class. She had never worked with a computer before. She wanted to use it for her first class assignment. But there was one problem: She didn't know how to switch it on. The instructor of the class had told his students how to use the paint programm in great detail. But he had forgotten - nerd that he was - to mention the most crucial thing: were the ON-button was!!!

The reason why I am telling you this kind of story is this: it made me realize all of a sudden that the encounter with a relatively easy-to-use computer like the old Mac had an important impact on a lot of people's life, an impact that I had never realized before. That's why I found the idea so intriguing to look at the old Mac and it's interface again. All of a sudden the old Mac looked like a piece of history - a piece of technical history, but also of a lof of people's personal history.

So my friend and I started to look for an old Mac - the lovely, beige box, that graced so many desktops in the 80ies. We went on a odyssee through the Berlin Art School. And like with any other odyssee we ended up just where we had started: with ourselves and the memory of the 'machine that changed the world', as Time Magazine called the Mac in a birthday article in 1994. We went to a lot of dark, dusty basement rooms and equipment storages that nobody ever looks at. There was always some system administrator or some caretaker who convinced us that there were 'some of those old Macs' just in this room on the other side of the hallway. We never found one.

Older students kept telling us that there were 'only MacClassics' in the school 'just a couple of years ago', but nobody remembered when exactly that was, or where they had disappeared to. After stumbling through a lot of dark back-rooms, it turned out that there simply wasn't any MacClassic left in the whole place.

When we could find any Mac Classic in Meatspace, I started to look on the internet. here is what I found on the Apple website about the Mac Interface:

Nothing. Just nothing.

I wonder what this will do for our understanding of ourselfs and our own history. I guess that by now we are so hooked to computers, that they have become an object of everybody's history - at least in Europa and North America. I think that computers have become artifacts that should be studied and preserved the same way we keep objects from the industrial revolution: the steam engine, the locomotive, the loom. You can look at any of these machines at the Berlin Museum of Technology in Kreuzberg.

In fact: You can also see the machines that powered the post-industrial revolution at the very same museum. They have a MacClassic. They even have a LIZA. You can look at them - at their boxes, that is. If they still work, you wouldn't know. They are behind glass, and nobody is interested if they actually function.

When I prepared this panel I called the computer curator of the Berlin Technology museum. She told me that keeping these machines in good operation condition or to preserve old programming languages was just a waste of time. 'Only programmers are interested in this kind of thing', I learned.

I don't think so. And I don't think that any of these 'thinking machines' should be left behind, because I think that they shape our life. If we don't pay attention, a lot of the things we thought and put into writing will disappear. Simply because we wrote them on computers that will be gone very soon, like the MacClassics are gone from my friend's art school.

When the 'digital revolution' was in full swing, 'computer experts' kept telling us, that information was forever - once it was put into digital format. But now I have a computer that cannot even read the old 5 inch disks anymore, that I 'saved' my master thesis on. 'Saved' - that's actually quite a concept, when it comes to computers, now that I think about it! Almost no computer reads the old disks anymore, not to mention the magnetic tape that programms were stored on before there were disks. Now the new Imac Apple Computer doesn't even have a slot for disk anymore at all!

As far as the hardware is concerned, we now know that magnetic storage media such as ordinary disks won't last longer than ten years in most cases. Optical media such as CDs or CD-Roms might last up to 30 years. As far as computer hard disks are concerned: they were fabricated by your friendly computer manifactures so that they won't last longer than ten years - but only if you don't catch a really bad virus, that is. But with or without virus - they will eventually crash. Be sure about that.

BUT: Even if all the digital data on personal disk drives was safe (which is isn't) - what will happen to the content that now is being put on the web? In this case you don't only have the problem of disintegrating hard- und software - you have the problem of of disppearing content. And so far nobody has started to systematically save and preserve that material.

Do you recall how the first version of the search engine Yahoo was designed? Or the orginal homepage of the Vatican? The Whitehouse website in 1995? The CNN business section last week? And: Do you have a copy of your first homepage saved somewhere? I don't think that anybody can answer any of these questions with YES. To my knowledge almost nobody has really done anything about this problem so far, with the exception of the american software entrepeneur Brewster Kahle. (I get to him in a minute.)

These questions are particulary important when it comes to art. There is a understanding that art is worth of particular attention and preservation, and every museum has it's own preservation department. But with net art, it is almost impossible to make any attempt to save anything so far.

The internet we know now is completely different from what it was like five years ago, and is most likely to be again very different in five years time from now. Software, hardware, protocols change constantly, and it is very difficult to think of any way to preserve all this, especially since a lot of net art deals with specific properties of particular software types. We have seen with video art how a lot of pieces have simply desinterated, and are not available anymore. It might be that the same thing wil happen to a lot of net art.

To finish this presentation I'd like to give a couple of examples of Websites, that in one way or another adress this problem. First of all, there's Brewster Kahle's Internet Archive.

So far, they have saved the websites of the presential election in 1996. Aparently they downloaded the whole internet last year, and gave this file as a present to the Smithasonian, but I don't know more about it. It involves a lot of difficult legal and copyright questions, anyway.

The other example of 'digital preservation' that I won't to hint at is 'Ghostsites of the Web'. It has a rather humerous approach.

It is run by the american journalist Steve Baldwin and his thesis is that 'the Web is being eaten by invisible termites with incomprehensible error messages on their tiny backs.' He indulges in the technical problems that plague older websites, and rates them according to their 'bit rot' by giving them 'Ghosties' as awards depending on how disfunctional the sites are.

Finally I would like to show two internet art projects on the internet that have been destroyed by technologial circumstances already. The first is 'Computer-@ided Curating' by Eva Grubinger, that is located on the server of 'Internationale Stadt' (International City), a Internet Art Server that was started in 1995 here in Berlin. In late 1997 the group, that had started this project and this server, gave up.

But before that they gathered a more or less complete collection of most of the early net art projects from Germany. They also provided the Webspace for 'Computer-Aided Curating', which to my knowledge was one of the very first Web Art projects in Germany. Here is what happens when you go to the site:

You don't even get the idea of the project anymore, because most of it is missing now. There has been a lot of writing about this project by now, but the art work itself is more or less gone.

The other piece I would like to show is by Olia Lialina, and was made of the political group 'Across the Border':

You can't see it now with Netscape 4.0 (the browser software I am using) anymore, but with Netscape 3.0 the words would flicker back and forth over the lines of this tablet. Since the purpose of this group 'Across the border' is to get illegal immigrants over the german border, this was kind of an visual metaphor for what they were doing. But since the piece took advantage of a bug in a early version of Netscape 3.0, that is gone now, we cannot see it anymore, and it just looks like a messed-up web page. As Olia Lialinawrote in an Email to me: 'All my art is a bug in Netscape 3.0.'

I have been writing about net art for the last three years. They used to say that life is short, but art is long, but I am not so sure if this is true for art on the internet. I start to think that my watch will last longer than most of the things I have been writing about in the last couple of years. If we wait for some more time, these problems will take care of themselves when the digital content disappears. The first net art projects are starting to 'bit rot' and 'link rot' right now, and if we want to start to protect computer culture, we need to start soon.

For the time being there is little you can do as an individual. But you should print out every file that you really want to keep and preserve. And if you still have an old Mac Classic - why don't you go ahead and sell it to me?