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Thursday, May 25, 2006

Digital art, swiftly obsolete, is unexpectedly ephemeral

Wired commentator "Momus" has a disturbing article about the swift obsolescence of media and file formats, and what this means for digital art:
The other day I tried to watch a Flash media piece my friend Florian Perret and I made back in 2002 for the L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art's Digital Gallery. It wouldn't play because, according to MoCA's error page, "Suffusia: A Beautiful Life requires the current Flash Player." Flash 8 wasn't good enough for the MoCA website; it wanted Flash 6 or nothing.

Eventually I was able to reach the file by another route. But it made me think about just how quickly formats die these days. I remembered how, back in 2000, blown away by Mumbleboy's Flash work, I speculated that, had this program been around when I was 20, I'd have dedicated my life to making Flash files instead of pop records. After all, we tend to fall in love with media, programs, idioms or formats even before we have anything to say in them.
But nobody at this point knows whether the Flash medium itself is just a flash-in-the-pan. Who's going to think of something like that as a vocation? Who's going to try to be "the Tolstoy of Flash" when we don't know whether Flash will even be around in 10 years, let alone a hundred?

Ten years ago I taught myself to use Macromedia Director (it was release 4.0 at the time) and made a CD-ROM called This Must Stop! I put as much effort into it as I put into my records, but just 10 years later This Must Stop! ... is accessible only to cranks and connoisseurs, members of the "dead formats society" who've invested in the dead tech required to play it.

Momus goes on to talk about Jacques Derrida's idea that "archiving represents both attempting to preserve something to be remembered and leaving out something to be forgotten."

When I interned at the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project at Stanford, the staff was painfully aware that every esoteric detail about King's activities that we catalogued meant that we were not cataloguing an equal amount of information on the broader black liberation movement, which has received surprisingly little basic research attention considering its huge impact on American society.

Unfortunately, big money donors give for research on King far more than they do for research on the movement's poorly-catalogued rank-and-file organizers and marchers. Even in death, King's iconic national image was blunting the movement's effectiveness, something he was widely criticized for within the ranks during the late 50s and early 60s.