From Virtual to Reality: Dissecting Jennifer Steinkamp’s software-based installation

Shu-Wen Lin
The Electronic Media Review, Volume Five: 2017-2018


As a pioneer in media art, contemporary artist Jennifer Steinkamp is critically acclaimed for her abilities to weave digital media into large-scale installations that envelop the audience vis-a-vis streams of moving images. In this paper, I use Steinkamp’s animated installation Botanic that was exhibited in Times Square Arts: Midnight Moment as a case study. The goal is to discuss the implications of technological obsolescence; potential loss of quality during file re-formation and data migration, as well as pinpointing underlying threats in each stage —3D modeling, animation, rendering, and post-production—posed by incomplete documentation, missing digital components, and software incompatibility. From creation to completion, the complexity of Botanic not only presents technological challenges but also an ethical dilemma that contemporary conservators have been facing in the past few decades. 

To a certain extent, normalization of proprietary formats and data migration can help increase the sustainability of digital objects. However, the nature of Steinkamp’s Botanic involves CAD (Computer-Aid Design) software applications and computer-generated graphics that require meticulous care. Unless a comprehensive understanding of the born-digital objects and digital elements within the files is established–whether the element was intentionally created by the artist, is an unreproducible result by the system, or was automatically generated from software’s default settings–significant translation errors can occur during file re-formation. Through carefully disassembling the artist’s creation process, I attempt to focus on the internal structure and relationship between Maya, After Effects, scripts, and final deliverables.

For this analysis, I provide recommendations from macro to micro to construct a documentation system that can help future caretakers to fully understand the creation process and the usage of different digital objects. The conservation actions enable information exchange across software and emphasize migration between different versions of the same system. I aim to add a certain level of compatibility to the file; and at the same time, preserve as much information as possible for future conservators to contextualize and make accurate interpretations of the geometric-centric artifacts. I strive to provide a risk assessment that will inform museum professionals as well as the artist herself to identify sustainability and compatibility of digital elements in order to build a documentation that can collect and preserve the whole spectrum of digital objects related to the piece.

Shu-Wen Lin
U.S. National Library of Medicine