The preservation of, and especially the presentation of, complex, non-linear digital objects such as digital art or ancient computer environments has traditionally been a domain reserved for experts. Digital culture, however, is a broader phenomenon. In the instance of digital art, it could and should be easily accessible — however, this is often restricted by too much emphasis on traditional aura and exclusivity. Echoing the impact of digital technologies in many areas of culture, digital art has become an attractive prospect for young artists, due to the wide availability of digital tools, emerging theory, and new advancements in technology. Some of the prevailing values of this emerging field are that of participation and inclusivity - that anyone should be able to make work and further its discourse. However, when it comes to preserving this work with longevity and accessibility, it is quite difficult for these artworks to survive in the swiftly changing technological landscape. In response to this, Rhizome (a leading art organization to support art and technology, affiliated with the New Museum in NYC) and the University of Freiburg have developed both concepts and technology to tackle this problem, by publishing the artwork, contextualizing it, and providing access to a large web audience without losing control of the original object (the object or parts of it cannot be copied, altered, etc.).

The artist Cory Arcangel often works with digital found footage or digital material that can be considered the “folk art” of regular computer users. ln 2005, he bought a used computer model from i993, later realizing that the previous owner used it to create a very crude video game called “Bomb lraq”. There is not much one can do in the game except flip through a virtual deck of cards depicting a hand-drawn missile hitting a clipart map outline of Iraq. To the artist, it was an intriguing find — both brutal and casual at the same time — in particular the visual ambiguity of the “home” icon, which was depicted as a house with the bomb missile looming above. It is likely that until Cory found the computer, this software was never witnessed before by anybody except the computer’s owner. ln his 2005 solo exhibition ‘Breaking and Entering: Art and the Video Game’ at Pace Wildenstein Gallery in New York, Cory exhibited Bomb Iraq as a readymade.

However, the artwork quickly deteriorated, and although the data on its hard disk has been preserved, the technical and techno-cultural context that allowed the work to be shown, exhibited and, most importantly, understood, quickly vanished.

The restoration uncovered specific aspects of the artefact that needed to be considered. Bomb Iraq performs best as an artwork when it can be embedded in the full context of the system it runs on —which emulation is able to almost fully capture. While the focus of the artwork, and the user’s experience, is the found Bomb Iraq video game, the emulation of the whole system is crucial to its impact and was made available for audiences to explore.

Cory and Rhizome’s Digital Conservator Dragan Espenschied worked to remove all the files that could identify the computer’s original owner, moving the focus to an afterglow of this person, driven by inscriptions in the system’s configuration. Letters, photos and some of the game’s high score entries bearing the owner’s full name had to be deleted. Yet the arrangement of icons, the software installed, the modified system font and desktop background—which once made sense to its original owner—demonstrate the narrative power of a computer system’s ambience.

During the first two days of its publishing, more than 1000 visitors explored the emulated computer and artwork, with an average session time of about l5 minutes. Furthermore, the exhibited artwork can be easily shared and embedded in blogs or third party web-sites using the HDL citation link ( l270/b2b77ab9-4055-4f‘8c-982l-9a58f02a3225). However, neither third-party sites nor their visitors are able to copy or modify the artefact. The artefact remains property and is controlled by its owner.

Using Emulation-as-a-Service, a technology developed at the University of Freiburg, and adapting it for the specific case of an artwork in Rhizome’s collection (called the ArtBase, a comprehensive collection of nearly 2000 pieces of digital art, including the Bomb Iraq piece), it was possible to give access to this artwork again and re-present the computer as a readymade piece of art on the open web. lt was an important collaboration between a cultural organization and research institution, in order to create cultural narrative and context using a newly-developed preservation tool. In the process, the preservation project served as a starting point for the wider discussion about obscurity and rarity in the digital age-—with implications for the broader field of digital art and indeed, digital culture at large.

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