Ephemeral Art

AE Interviews Jean Gagnon
May 27, 2005

The preservation of digital media, whether music or image, is becoming a crucial question to art historians, musicologists, and others involved in the electronic arts. Converting artworks from analog to digital media, and finding ways to retrieve digital information as new technologies develop and formats change, are difficult issues. Jean Gagnon, Executive Director of The Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology, has been particularly concerned with these problems. We asked him for some clarifications.

AE What exactly do mean by archiving? Do you file the works themselves? Or documentation about the works? How would you differentiate an archive from a museum?

JG The first thing is to establish distinctions and clarify our vocabulary. I would like to distinguish between two terms: archive and collection.

An archive is normally an ensemble of documents (in whatever medium or media, whether paper, or analog or digital material) that are gathered together, with the ensemble defined by a particular circumstance, for example the life of a person and his or her work, or the life and activities of an organization. Normally, archiving would come at the end of the process that saw the creation of the documents that comprise the archive.

A collection is more often due to the conscious efforts of a person or an institution to gather objects and documents pertaining to a given subject or field of interest. Someone collects coins, for example. And in the process of collecting, decisions are made by the collector as to the desirability of one object over another in relation to the whole of the collection.

So the big difference between an archive and a collection is that the former is more passive than the latter. On the other hand, once an archive is in the custody of an organisation like The Daniel Langlois Foundation's Center for Research and Documentation (CR+D), a sequence of diverse operations is typically initiated, such as physically removing documents from their original container to put them in a stable container, migrating the material from an analog format to a digital one, analysing and describing the material, and indexing it in a database.

The foundation does not collect media art works. We archive documentation about the works. We also acquire archives from people and organisations.

JC How do you choose what is archived at The Daniel Langlois Foundation?

JG Given what I just explained, I would reformulate this question: How do you choose what is documented by the foundation? How do you choose what archives to acquire?

When we give a grant to an individual to do a project, the works and activities of this person become a documentation priority for the CR+D. So we make particular efforts to find books, catalogues, and so on, that exist about this person and his or her work. We also develop, through the granting and reporting process, a relationship with this person and we very often receive his or her communiqués, invitations, and other information. We monitor certain email lists in order to gather additional information on all of the recipients of our funding.

Concerning the acquisition of archives, our field of interest has been defined as the documentation of the history and practice associated with interaction between art, science and technology. It is then a mixture of opportunity and our knowledge of the field and its history that allows us to identify and choose archives to become included in the foundation's collections. This being said, one has to keep in mind that one will never cover everything or be in a position to acquire everything.

AE I understand you have a substantial archive of electronic music from South America. Is the music available to researchers? What are the components (i.e. tapes, historical information about the music) of that archive?

JG We have in our holdings the Latin American Electroacoustic Music Collection that Ricardo Dal Farra came to digitize at the foundation as a researcher in residence. Thirty pieces are now available online. Although this is a collection that Dal Farra gathered over a period of twenty-five years, part of the work done here at the foundation was archival work, such as migrating the music from analog media to digital storage with care for conservation in the process. All of the collection, in total some 1,500 pieces of electroacoustic music, are available to researchers on the premises of the foundation.

AE What are the other major archives that you've acquired?

JG One archive, that of Sonia Landy Sheridan, is not yet listed on our website because we just acquired it. But an otherwise complete list of our archives is available on our site.

AE I believe you've referred to electronic art as 'ephemeral'? What is ephemeral art? What are your solutions for keeping artworks alive?

JG Terms that are employed to talk about the fleeting nature of media works are, for instance, 'unstable media' or 'variable media', and actually, there is quite a bit of research on the question of preserving such media. The foundation has begun a major research project. And some of our past or present partners have also done remarkable and serious research on these issues.

Capturing Unstable Media

Variable Media Network

AE Why have you devoted so much energy and thought to archiving? Many people view archiving as an urgent and important thing to do to preserve art in a time of changing technology. Do you agree? Is it urgent? Important? Why?

JG Archiving, done seriously, preserving and conserving materials, can be a costly longterm activity. What we need, in my opinion, are collections, managed by museums, or other such organizations, or new institutions yet to be defined, that acquire media art works. We need to document our own age, to gather information about what is going on in order to foster future understanding of our era, yet at this time, because there is so much happening in digital media, the difficulties and unknowns of preservation are serious. Even if we begin to formulate what would be strategies in dealing with our burden of preserving digital media at a time of changing technology, there is still a lot to be learned. And with faster and faster technological evolution, we have interesting times ahead of us!

© 2005