Glenn Wharton began with an overview of the conservation of electronic media at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). When he set up the Media Conservation program at MoMA in 2005, there were over 2,000 media objects, mostly analog video, and only 20 software objects. The main focus of the program was digitizing analog video and audio tapes. Wharton was a strong advocate for the involvement of IT experts from the very beginning of the process. Over time, they developed a working group representing all 7 curatorial departments, collaborating with IT and artists to assess, document, and manage electronic media collections.
Wharton described the risk assessment approach that MoMA has developed for stewardship of its collections, which includes evaluation of software dependency and operating system dependency for digital objects. They have increased the involvement of technical experts, and they have collaborated with Howard Besser and moving image archivists.
The presenters chose to focus on project design and objectives; they plan to publish their findings in the near future. Glenn Wharton described the three case study artworks: Thinking Machine 4, Shadow Monsters, and 33 Questions per Minute. He explained how he collaborated with NYU computer science professor Deena Engel to harness the power of a group of college undergraduate students to provide basic research into source code documentation. Thinking Machine 4 and Shadow Monsters were both written in Processing, an open source programming language based on Java. On the other hand, 33 Questions per Minute was written in Delphi, derived from PASCAL; Delphi is not very popular in the US, so the students where challenged to learn an unfamiliar language.
Engel explained that source code can be understood by anyone who knows the language, just as one might read and comprehend a foreign language. She discussed the need for software maintenance that is common across various types of industries, not unique to software-based art projects. Software maintenance is needed when the hardware is altered, the operating system is changed, or the programming language is updated. She also explained four types of code documentation: annotation (comments) in the source code, narratives, visuals, and Unified Modeling Language (UML) diagrams.
Engel discussed the ways that the source code affects the output or the user experience and the need to capture the essential elements of presentation in artwork, which are unique to artistic software. In 33 Questions per Minute, the system configuration includes a language setting with options for English, German, or Spanish. Some functions were operating system-specific, such as the Mac-Unix scripts that allow the interactive artwork Shadow Monsters to reboot if overloaded by a rambunctious school group flooding the gallery with lots of moving shadows. Source code specified aesthetic components such as color, speed, and randomization for all of the case study artworks.
One interesting discovery was the amount of code that was “commented out.” Similar to studies, underdrawings, or early states of a print, there were areas of code that had been deactivated without being deleted, and these could be examined as evidence of the artist’s working methods.
Engel concluded by mentioning that the field of reproducibility in scientific research is also involved with documenting and preserving source code, in order to replicate data-heavy scientific experiments. Of course, they are more concerned with handling very large data sets, while museums are more concerned with replicating the look and feel of the user experience. Source code documentation will be one more tool to inform conservation decisions, complimenting the artist interview and other documentation of software-based art.
Audience members asked several questions regarding intellectual property issues, especially if the artists were using proprietary software rather than open-source software. There were also questions raised about artists who were reluctant to share code. Glenn Wharton explained that MoMA is trying to acquire code at the same time that the artwork is acquired. They can offer the option of a sort of embargo or source code “escrow” where the source code would be preserved but not accessed until some time in the future.