The preservation of digital content is not a new subject, however, parallel to this discourse has been the evolution of best practices for preserving artworks that employ technology or exist digitally. For two decades, art institutions have spawned new preservation practices, restorative strategies and institutional collaborations. One result of these collective efforts is Rhizome’s ArtBase.
Rhizome is an internet-based nonprofit organization founded in 1996 by artist Mark Tribe. It aims to support contemporary art that deals with digital technologies, and to foster a richer, more critical digital culture.
The ArtBase was created in 1999 as an online archive of digital art by Rhizome’s specialists. It contains over 2,500 artworks, employing diverse forms, including software, code, website, moving image, game and browser.
The mission of the ArtBase is two-fold: provide free, open access to a public collection of new media art objects, and preserve these works in a sustainable archival format.
There are four phases to the ArtBase process:
Selection: significant artworks enter the archive through either artists’ submissions or commissions and special invitations by Rhizome’s curators.
Storage: a copy of the original artwork is created and stored on Rhizome’s servers. A descriptive record is created, including data about the work’s technology content and context.
Maintenance and Restoration: works are checked before and after storage for technological obsolescence. If repairs are needed, Rhizome’s experts create another copy of the original to perform necessary fixes.
Publication: the artwork is hosted on the ArtBase. Free access online is provided 24/7 and records are shared on a regular basis with other institutions to promote the artworks and foster research in the field.
Rhizome’s ArtBase is an artist-driven organization. Thus, the staff always seeks permission and notifies the artists both when artworks have been selected for the archive and once repairs are needed: the goal is to fully respect the artist’s intent and wishes. As to property rights, Rhizome provides artists with the option either to assign a Creative Common license to their artwork or to prominently display that all rights are reserved.
Rhizome’s ArtBase is not the only online database of digital art. Other examples include the Archive of Digital Art funded by the Austrian Science Fund, and the Database of Digital Art by the University of Bremen.
The uniqueness of ArtBase lies in its capacity for communication, outreach, and interaction with a very broad audience. In fact, Rhizome provides support to new media art in a variety of different ways, including the publication of an online journal, artists’ commissions, online exhibitions and collaboration with the New Museum in New York. Updates on Rhizome’s activities are also published on social media. Additionally, the ArtBase allows audiences to interact directly with the artworks. Visitors can select their favorite pieces and create their own collections and exhibitions. They can also browse the database according to different categories and tags.
The ArtBase by Rhizome represents a relevant example of the active preservation and promotion of digital art. Conventional museums used to store traditional media artworks in a basement. Optimal preservation conditions were (in most cases) maintained, but only museums workers could see them. The ArtBase actually improves on this model, by both effectively preserving digital art and keeping it alive and accessible for everyone through the Internet.