Preserving digital art: practical challenges and solutions

Preserving digital works of art involves specific challenges. Careful storage of the essential hardware and software is highly recommended, but sometimes you can still reach a point – despite careful management – where one of the two inevitably gives up the ghost. This means you run the risk of losing a crucial element for displaying the artwork again. The limited shelf-life of the components of digital artworks therefore poses a threat to their long-term preservation. In this practical example, we show you how to deal with this problem by addressing it from the moment the artwork is created.
Galápagos, installation by Karl Sims, in the NTT InterCommunication Center

Preserving digital works of art involves specific challenges. Careful storage of the essential hardware and software is highly recommended, but sometimes you can still reach a point – despite careful management – where one of the two inevitably gives up the ghost. This means you run the risk of losing a crucial element for displaying the artwork again. The limited shelf-life of the components of digital artworks therefore poses a threat to their long-term preservation. In this practical example, we show you how to deal with this problem by addressing it from the moment the artwork is created.


Internet art, media art, video games... these are just a few examples of digital artworks with shelf-lives threatened by the finite lifetime of the hardware and software needed to experience them. We therefore need to find ways to circumvent problems today that will inevitably crop up in future. One important aspect here is that artists need to define the essential characteristics of their artworks. If other people can understand the original intention of the artwork, they can also take better informed decisions to preserve it.


This practical example includes a number of cases that clearly illustrate elements that play a specific role in the preservation of different types of digital and media art.

Internet art by Rafaël van Roozendaal

Rafaël van Roozendaal has been creating interactive internet art since 2001. But his art isn’t necessarily future proof; the shelf-life of hardware and software is too limited for that. So how do you document a digital artwork in such a way that the experience it is originally intended to evoke remains clear, even when the equipment required for displaying it in its original context might no longer be available? First and foremost, nobody is better placed to determine the artwork’s essential characteristics than the artist themselves. They should therefore document their own work, for example using a video to provide context. Van Roozendaal shows how this is possible in the video below (developed in collaboration with the Dutch platform for media art, LIMA).

Interactive installations by Geert Mul

Geert Mul (link in Dutch) is a media artist. He creates interactive installations that are exhibited in museums. His art is digital and physical at the same time, with a certain level of interactivity, and can be experienced (offline) in museums. The question is: how do you save the original experience of such works of art for posterity? And what are the essential characteristics that need preserving?

Claudia Roeck is researching how the experiential value of the Geert Mul’s artwork ‘Shan Shui’ can best be preserved. Geert created this artwork in 2013, and adapted the program code for a large exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum Schiedam (5 November 2016 – 12 February 2017). ‘Shan Shui’ is an interactive video projection that displays digitised Chinese landscape paintings on a display about 9 metres wide and 3 metres high. Every time a visitor enters the exhibition space, a movement sensor triggers a cascade of new paintings being displayed, which gradually eclipse the previous paintings. The video is influenced by how the visitor moves around the space. To be able to reproduce this work, you need a set-up of projectors, speakers, a movement sensor, a computer with customised software and an exhibition space – the technology and content are closely intertwined.

Claudia is looking at the essential characteristics of ‘Shan Shui’ to establish the criteria for preserving this artwork. These characteristics fall into the following categories:

  • interactivity (how the video and audio behave). Consider the responsiveness here – how quickly should images change in response to a visitor’s movement?
  • appearance (the video and audio properties). Consider the colours in the video, the intensity and clarity of the audio, projector resolution, contrast, brightness, etc.

The size of the exhibition space is not an essential feature as such. But the number of projectors (two for ‘Shan Shui’) and the height-width ratio of the projection both are. The projection needs to fit the wall exactly. Geert Mul told Claudia in an interview that he would have liked a longer room than the one in Stedelijk Museum Schiedam. This would have provided space – behind the movement sensor – for observers to then also see how other visitors interacted with the artwork.

A short Q&A with Claudia Roeck (17 February 2017)

:Q: In what way will defining the essential properties help you (and the community) preserve the work (and works alike)?

A: The work will not run on the computer used in the Stedelijk Museum for ever. After some years, it will have to be migrated to another computer as the computer will eventually fail. Although it might be possible to find replacement computers of the same age or model, they will not be functional in the long term. As soon as the work is moved to a different hardware, differences will appear. If you know the significant properties of the artwork, you can decide which discrepancies are acceptable and which are not. These significant properties are not carved in stone; they are a result of previous negotiations with artists and curators, and of its exhibition history, and can extend to the present/future.

:Q: What other steps (besides defining the essential properties) are necessary to preserve the work?

A: The documentation of the work and its context is a precondition. The documentation will have a technical and an art-historical/contextual and an installation part. After having analysed the work, it will be possible to decide about the preservation strategies (migration, emulation, documentation). I am mentioning documentation as a preservation strategy, as documentation of the work sometimes replaces the original work (i.e. a video or photographs of a performance that replace the performance itself). For Shan Shui, documentation as a preservation strategy would hardly be appropriate. Migration or emulation would be the preservation strategy of choice. After the work has been emulated or migrated, one will have to make sure that the significant properties are met. In addition, a disk image of the drive in the computer and copies of operating systems and other software components will have to be made and safely stored in a digital repository. Last but not least, regular maintenance of the digitally stored components will be necessary (integrity checks, rendering capability).

:Q: How will your research go further? When is your research to be finished?

A: My research will not only look into the definition of the significant properties, but also in the success criteria for long-term preservation of software-based artworks. I will carry out another case study (probably on a web-based artwork) and look into case studies that have been carried out a while ago in order to establish their long-term preservation success. My research should be finished by summer 2019.

In 2018, as part of the ‘Future Proof Media Art’ project, the team from LIMA, together with Geert Mul, investigated different methods for documenting and preserving complex software-based and interactive (media) art. They wanted this research to define good practices in a user guide to enable artists to better preserve these kinds of artworks in the future. The results of the research can be found here.

Re-installation and preservation of computer-based interactive installation by Dutch artist Bill Spinhoven Van Oosten

Bill Spinhoven Van Oosten created the computer-based interactive installation I/Eye in 1993. The artwork consists of a video screen, a camera, and a computer with the software required for the installation. The video screen displays a giant human eye – the eye of the artist – which fills the entire screen in black and white. The visitor is essential in this artwork because their movement controls the eye’s movements. The eye doesn’t move to begin with. Then it follows the visitor’s movements as the visitor approaches the installation, so the artist is actually turning the observer into the observed.

Eighteen years later, in 2011, it became apparent that much of the playback and display equipment needed for experiencing this artwork had become obsolete. PACKED vzw therefore went in search of a solution for this together with the Netherlands Media Art Institute (NIMk, Amsterdam, Netherlands).

We started by writing a formal and technical description of the artwork, pointing out its significance and historical context. One crucial step here is defining the artwork’s essential characteristics – in this case mainly in terms of its technical and aesthetic aspects. NIMk’s archive collection, Spinhoven’s personal archive and online sources are all crucial for this. In order to make good preservation and re-installation decisions, you need to check that the original playback equipment is still available (and operational), that operating systems are still functional, and that all the required software components still work properly.

We then investigated to what extent virtualisation can be a preservation strategy for this computer-based artwork. Virtualisation can offer a solution for the problem of obsolete equipment. This involves reconstructing the original experience of the artwork as closely as possible using contemporary technologies.

Finally, we documented the artist’s involvement in the entire project. One principal element of this artwork, for example, is that it’s been installed in different ways in different spaces since it was first exhibited in 1993. The artist himself sees his work as non-static, as a process. So it can and even should change and transform. Over the years, the artist has also adapted the work himself to keep exhibiting it.

Media art and the struggle with obsolete technologies at MoMA

The New York Museum of Modern Art started trying to rescue a Japanese media artwork by Teiji Furuhashi (1960–1995) from the early 1990s. ‘Lovers’ used various technologies and media formats, including 35mm slides, analogue video, robotics, software...

Based on the available documentation, they tried to pull together the necessary materials to re-create the artwork in a test environment. Students from the ‘Moving Image Archiving and Preservation’ course at New York University then started asking a number of questions:

  • What does the anatomy of the artwork look like?
  • How does the artwork function?
  • What condition are the artwork’s various components in?
  • Which components are defective or vulnerable to decay?
  • Where can new or replacement hardware (or spare parts) be found to compensate for any defective components?
  • If some components can no longer be replaced, which ones are essential for the aesthetic experience and which are more trivial?

This risk analysis was then used to set the work up again in an exhibition, but it turned out that lots of crucial information was missing. For example, the documentation didn’t include any details about sound levels, brightness in the exhibition space, etc. Fortunately, however, one of the artist’s associates was able to help with this.

There’s a much more detailed description available on MoMA’s website.

Author: Bart Magnus (Meemoo). Parts of the above text have been taken and translated from the Leren Preserveren (Learning Preservation) course. This course material and the content on this page are available under a CC-BY licence.

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