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Basics of Born-Digital Preservation

Dragan Espenschied, 29 Jun 2021

Artifact → Performance → Object

A “digital object” is oftentimes described by physical boundaries of the media it is stored on—for instance “disks” or a “computer”—or with digital simulations of traditional media—such as “digital file”, “folder”, ZIP “archive.” However, these artifacts, usually produced by an artist in one way or another, can only be considered pieces in an assemblage of performative digital environments, in which many other artifacts, most of them not produced by an artist, need to be aligned.

Any object needs to be defined by its boundaries, by its differentiation from anything else that exists. This is also true for works of art. However, where a painting on stretched canvas may have apparently clear boundaries between the artwork and its surroundings, digital artworks often require decisions about how the object boundary is drawn.

Whenever a work of art is moved, for instance from one exhibition gallery to another, from one computer to another, or through time via preservation or restoration, its well-understood objecthood makes these activities possible and successful. A misconception of an artwork’s objecthood will make these activities impossible or cause them to fail in the future.

Digital object boundaries must be proactively defined, and are unlikely to emerge “naturally.” This characteristic creates issues for the preservation of digital art, and henceforth its collection and its usefulness for building careers for artists.

It is helpful to remember that most things that appear to happen inside a computer are staged to make them accessible at all. For example, a digital image visible on screen is not an image but rather the result of a string of symbols interpreted as one. A digital file appearing on a computer desktop as a single unit that offers object-like manipulation can actually be distributed across several local and remote storage devices, which in turn might be abstracted and virtualized. Even the famous “Zeroes and Ones” that are supposed to be the smallest, truthful thing in a computer are merely assigned to two otherwise meaningless symbols so that binary numbers can be more easily imagined when using a computer to do math.

Only through layers of staging something that is inside the computer can be perceived and understood as any kind of “object.” Once the computer is turned off, the object is gone. The main consideration for the preservation of a digital object is not so much that it can be “stored” or “located” (as metaphors from archival practice suggest), but that it can reappear when the system is turned back on. This means that computer performance needs to become 1) reproducible and 2) portable—or simply put: not tied to a specific computer or class of computers.

No matter what “types of data” an artwork is composed of—such as JPEG images, HTML pages, Perl scripts, Java appletes, or Win32 executables—Rhizome treats it all as software. In between being actively used, so, when the system is turned off, these elements are stored as artifacts, in the form of disk images, web archives, or file system trees. The performance required to make the objects appear again is provided by a range of open source tools, from simple web servers that host files, to web archive access systems, Linux container frameworks, single emulators, to simulated networks that can contain and connect any number of these items.

Rhizome runs and maintains cloud computing infrastructure that manages and orchestrates these technical processes.

Further Reading