While the web archiving discussion tends to focus on subject- and Internet-scope efforts, the other end of the scale – small item-level archives – has also developed its set of techniques and tools. Based out of the New Museum of Contemporary Art, Rhizome is the leading nonprofit dedicated to supporting emerging artistic practices that engage technology. Part of our broader preservation mission is the continued conservation and access of artworks engaged with technology; as such, with 2,000 works, the Rhizome ArtBase is home to the world’s largest collection of its kind. As an art collection, we approach digital preservation as a challenge of conservation instead of archiving. Hence, our tools, philosophy, and methodologies differ from most web archival programs, as our goal – preserving a small art collection perfectly – requires techniques and perspectives not found in broader-scale collections.
Compared to more general archival collections, the works in the ArtBase present a number of technical and contextual issues that resist industrial-scale crawling. Digital artists tend to work on the edge of what is technically possible, finding creative uses for the most powerful tools available. As such, works are rarely trivially crawlable; an artist may run their site through a variety of closed formats, dynamically- and responsively-generated content, and external services. Despite this, given the demands of conservation, Rhizome must recreate both the file-level data and structure-level operability of each artwork in the ArtBase. This friction between archive and archivist has shaped Rhizome’s web archiving program from the beginning. In addition to issues arising from works-as-artifacts, a variety of issues stem from the nature of works-as-art. The aesthetic environment and context of a work must be identified and documented, to preserve the artist’s intended experience; viewing Form Art (1997), for example, changes considerably as one moves forward in computer history.
Despite the individual care that we can afford each work in the ArtBase, not all works can be crawled and stored as static objects. Many of the works in our collection are driven by server-side processes, ranging from early CGI and Perl scripting to sophisticated live data manipulation. John Klima’s The Great Game, for example, consisted of a Java applet that pulled daily artist-generated data from a central server. In cases such as this, no amount of crawling and quality control can create a functional copy of the work on Rhizome’s servers. Instead, we directly contact the artist and request the necessary material to archive their work, as well as documentation to preserve its functionality. This way, the ArtBase can ingest a completely functional copy, as well as ensure that the necessary technical documentation is present for potential future restoration. In addition, by working with artists through the archival process, we raise awareness of the preservation needs of digital art. By combining two conservatorial approaches – behind-the-scenes preservation and direct work with artists – Rhizome has found success in its archival mission.