Contemplating digital ruins with Sabine Himmelsbach

How to preserve complex digital artworks for the future? And what parallels can we draw between media art and performance art? Our recent conversation with Sabine Himmelsbach, director of the Haus der elektronischen Künste Basel (HeK), has led us to explore the institutional afterlives of performative artworks in a broader sense.

Thirty years ago in 1991, the Swiss artist Andres Bosshard organized a complex three-day long performance taking place simultaneously in three different locations between Switzerland and New York. Telefonia (1991) was created on the occasion of the 700th anniversary of the founding of Switzerland. This event connected live performances and concerts in Winterthur via satellite and telephone with performances and concerts taking place in the Hall of Science in New York and with a weather station situated on the Säntis mountain. At the intersection of traditional performance and media art, Telefonia recently entered HeK’s collection as a variety of archival materials such as sound and video recordings, photos, plans, scores, sketches and texts that document the original live event. The institution worked closely with the artist in order to make these material leftovers from the 1991 event accessible online and to expand them to a new level beyond their value as archival documents. Andres Bosshard has thus realized a new generative sound and video composition that allows a performative immersion into the historical material, which he calls a “fluid archive”, presented as a multi-layered web platform called Telefonia—2021—1991—1291. The performance stream of the Telefonia fluid archive is always active, continually generated from elements of original video recordings of the historical performance. These archival elements can also be consulted individually in the more traditional “static archive” section of the website that describes and documents the original event.

Screenshot from the original video recorded during the performance of Telefonia in the New York Hall of Science May 31 and June 1, 1991, directed by Stella Varveris. Click to view the video on the website of HeK. Jon Laxdal der Weltensänger live in New York. © 2020 HeK.

This emblematic example, among many described to us by Sabine Himmelsbach, illustrates the level of engagement that the media artworks in HeK’s collection require. Often entering their institutional lives in the form of complex documentation, schemes, and interacting components, media artworks have to be evaluated in order to define what constitutes the work of art in itself and what is being collected, and to envisage different presentation possibilities. To overcome the rapid obsolescence of their technological parts, digital artworks typically undergo constant processes of change, restructuring and reinterpretation in order to remain accessible and experienceable for future audiences. Therefore, Himmelsbach understands the role of conservation in a flexible and creative manner: it is not about keeping things “as they are”, but rather about developing forms of collaboration between the artists and the institution in order to keep the work alive, and to avoid ending up with “digital ruins”, works that are no longer functioning or comprehensible. In this process, the curatorial and conservation practices become entangled, co-creative practices that shape the future of the work and that require working hand in hand with the artist from the moment of acquisition. She emphasizes the importance of the acquisition process as a defining moment: the time to ask questions that the artist never thought of before and, thinking about preservation, to ask the artist what about the work should be carried into the future.

Sabine Himmelsbach (bottom right) told us about the challenges of preserving digital art at HeK.

Looking at the new practices of care for electronic and digital art that HeK is establishing reveals many similarities with performance art. Indeed, we can think of media artworks as performative artworks, because the media content is being performed by a machine in a form of non-human performance. A code can be      executed by a computer in a similar way that a score, script or a notation are interpreted by a human performer. Often digital artworks also involve human interaction and sometimes the machines imitate human performance, as we see with more and more evolved forms of robotics and artificial intelligence.

Besides their performative aspects, media artworks share other characteristics with performance: both digital art and performance art rely heavily on forms of documentation and mediation and one can observe a comparable tendency for the documentation to come to represent the work over time. Furthermore, preservation and activation (in the sense of making the work happen again) are merging together as interconnected and collective activities, involving artists, conservators, curators, technicians and other specialists to work together. Performative artworks are different every time they are activated, and Sabine Himmelsbach distinguishes a learning potential in the changing manifestations of the work over time, nourishing the work’s history and archive and informing future modes of transmission. Thinking of Telefonia as both an archive of a past live performance and a performative web artwork that reactivates the original material in a completely new form perfectly demonstrates the complexity and entanglements of performance (in a broad sense) and its documentation.

Questions remain open about how far a work can be reinterpreted before becoming something else, or becoming a “ruin” when too much meaning, material or context is lost. But even when media artworks become digital ruins, Himmelsbach believes that they can teach us something about the artistic, socio-cultural and technological practices of their time and that it remains our duty to pass them on for future generations to contemplate.

Featured image: HeK (House of Electronic Arts Basel), Photo: Christoph Oeschger.

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