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An Interview with Professor Deena Engel, of NYU’s Department of Computer Science, on Working in the New Field of Software-Based Art Conservation

In May, Engel and her students completed the restoration of the Guggenheim's first web art commission. 


Shu Lea Cheng's Brandon after its 2016-2017 restoration. Image courtesy of the Guggenheim. 

MF: What exactly is software-based art? Is it the same as digital-born art?

DE: There’s a lot of different types of art within digital-born art. For example, if you take a digital photograph and manipulate it on Photoshop and then you print it on very heavy paper and watercolor over it, it becomes a digital watercolor. That would not be software-based art. By the same token, if you use Illustrator to create a drawing and print it out, it would be considered digital-born but not software-based art.


Software-based art is what we call “art with a plug,” meaning you need software not just to create the work, but to run the work, to see the work, and to exhibit the work. In fact, there are some pieces exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art where the medium is listed as ‘processing,’ which is a programming paradigm.


With technology changing so quickly, what are conservation issues that come up with these types of artworks?

There are huge conservation issues. Think about a word document that you wrote for a class project in third grade, you probably can’t open it anymore. The mandate for museums is to be able to exhibit the artwork in perpetuity, but what do you do with software-based art? There are many challenges and many risks. Works of software-based art that are built in rarely used languages or on custom hardware will be harder to conserve than works of art that use standard technology where there can be migration of lots of objects.


She compares it to the conservation of photography, which led to the development of a new field of conservation when it emerged in the mid-19th Century.


There is a lot of inquiry into the field of conservation of software objects. But conservation of works of art is the most complex of all because we have to consider aesthetics. We had a work of art at the MoMA that we were able to successfully run on a new Mac, but the processor on the new computer was much faster so the piece is ultimately not the same. And that has to be evaluated. What I think is most important to think about in this type of conservation is that conservators and computer scientists need to work together in the same way as a material scientist or a chemist would work with a conservator to restore an 18th Century sculpture.


Do you see more museums incorporating software-based art into their collections?

A few years ago there were maybe a handful of the bigger museums: the MoMA, the Guggenheim, the Whitney, the Tate Modern in London, SFMoMA in San Francisco. Now, there are many more. Our Institute of Fine Arts here at NYU has a double master’s degree in art history and conservation. It has a track in objects and sculptures, a track in painting, and now they are accepting applications for students matriculating in Fall 2018 for a track in time-based media art conservation. It’ll be the first program in the United States to offer it.


Deena has collaborated with the MoMA and the Guggenheim on major conservation initiatives. Shu Lea Cheang’s Brandon, was commissioned by the Guggenheim in 1998 and is widely considered among the first major works of web art. But over the years, fast-evolving technologies caused a number of Brandon’s features to fail, rendering the piece impossible to exhibit. In collaboration with the Guggenheim, Engel and her students in the Department of Computer Science restored it over the course of several semesters.

















What was that process was like?

It’s a very complex work with many, many different files. A number of different programmers worked on it because it’s composed of so many different segments. This is an important piece to the Guggenheim collection, both the artist and curators very much wanted it to be brought back. So as one of the research projects that I worked on with my students we did source code analysis of Brandon, looking at the software to determine what programming languages were used, how many files, what kind of files, all to understand what the fragility and risks to the piece were.


In the following semester, my students built prototypes of how they would recommend fixing certain problems while working in conjunction with the conservator to see if it would meet conservation guidelines and ethics. We finally presented the proposals to the artist, who is living and was very excited. She gave the go ahead and now the piece is running again. It was the first major restoration of a software-based work of art.


Do you have any suggestions for artists who are working with software-based art now to make their work easier to conserve in the future?

It goes a long way when artists document their work well. Putting comments in the code, writing an installation manual, providing original media files uncompressed, specifying the equipment and the software it was developed on, an keeping the source code neatly organized in some medium makes the analysis of the work so much easier.


The other thing that is super helpful is for museums to ask the artist what he or she wants the museum to record for future conservation. Museums that collect software-based work will now typically ask to interview the artist when they acquire a work of art in order to understand what the artist considers most important in the future, like how comfortable they would be with a higher image resolution or a faster processing speed. Most artists are very accommodating and gracious. It also helps them to envision what the piece might look like in the future.

Video courtesy of the Guggenheim. 

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