New Objects of Conservation: Web-Based Art and Web-Based Records

Patricia Falcão, Sarah Haylett, and Chris King
Electronic Media Review, Volume Six: 2019-2020


At Tate, we have seen a renewed curatorial interest in digital practices and an increase in the number of software and web-based artworks being considered for and acquired into the collection. This curatorial interest highlighted the need to build on our institutional expertise around web-based art and make some relevant changes to institutional practices. In this context, and as part of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation funded project Reshaping the Collectible: When Artworks Live in the Museum, a team of researchers looked at a series of 15 Internet artworks commissioned by Tate between 2000 and 2011.

In 2008, these commissioned artworks were brought together under their own microsite and renamed Intermedia Art. Alongside a series of contextualizing texts, discussion boards, a series of podcasts and a program of in-gallery events, the dedicated microsite served to better position Internet and software-based art within both the museum and an art historical context. When the commissioning project ended in 2012, the Intermedia Art microsite was moved to a secondary server, where it has remained untouched. The server is scheduled to be decommissioned.

The case study called on the expertise of Time-Based Media Conservation, the Tate Archive, Tate Digital and Tate Technology, among others, to collaboratively understand the intricacies of how to document, conserve and maintain the integrity of web-based art in the contemporary art museum, both as artworks and archival records.

This research supported these different contributors in understanding the context to develop the skills, infrastructure and knowledge required to undertake future Net Art acquisitions and preserve them for the long term. It provided the opportunity for Tate’s time-based media conservation team to build on our existing knowledge of conserving software-based works in the collection. As these works are commissions, and therefore sit outside of the collection, we focused on understanding and documenting the underlying technologies rather than conserving them. Developing a deeper understanding of the technologies involved also means that we are better prepared to preserve these works and can start developing strategies for preservation and access. Parallel developments in web-archiving tools allow for the capture and documentation of websites with a much higher level of completeness, meaning that it was extremely timely to act now to navigate these changes.

Early on in the case study, we discovered that almost all of the institutional records for this moment of practice had been accidentally lost. This meant that we knew nothing of the commissioning process: how the artworks evolved or which artists submitted proposals. While the Reshaping the Collectible team undertook the extensive process of interviewing all of the artists and former Tate staff to rebuild this knowledge, in those first moments the only record we had was the Intermedia Art website itself. It became an integral tool of our research, and archiving the website became part of a wider strategy to rebuild the missing net art records. Therefore, considering this issue and the expiring technologies many of the artworks are dependent on such as Flash, it was vital that we acted in a timely manner.

Tate does not archive its website in-house; as a Public Record Body, this is actively carried out by the UK Government Web Archive at the National Archives which has a number of captures for the Intermedia Art microsite when it was active between 2008 and 2012. The Internet Archive also has a number of captures. However, the web archive crawlers have not been able to capture all of the content such as the videos and interviews. With Flash no longer being supported after 2020, updated browsers will not be able to access many of the artworks or much of the other content via these existing captures. Not having an established infrastructure, or the resources to archive websites in-house but finding a mutual interest in documentation tools, web-archiving and preservation strategies and technologies led to a collaborative utilization of Rhizome’s Conifer tool.

Conifer uses the WARC format, which we know as an open standard and agreed archival format for web archiving. As we began generating these files, we were also interested in the types of metadata they contain, as well as solutions for playback including Conifer’s online and offline players. We also became interested in Conifer’s use of a library of remote browsers to enable support for deprecated technologies during recording and playback. In addition to this, we began to monitor other alternatives for Flash and Java playback, including options that require recompiling from source code. Although we are not at that stage yet, it has been a great opportunity to learn about the current state of play.

This collaborative research has given us an overview of the options for analysis and documentation that we can apply to future works being acquired into the art collection and for web-based objects entering Tate Archive.

The outputs of the research saw Tate establish a working group for online art with representatives across the institution including conservation, technology, Tate Digital, research, public records, curatorial, legal, copyright and a General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR officer. This team oversaw the development of a net art acquisition workflow which specifically addresses how we connect our main website and our online catalog to web-based works, and the creation and maintenance of the servers to host these pages. It also saw the Intermedia Art microsite enter Tate’s public record collection as the first in-house archived website.

In this article, we will share the perspectives of conservation and the archive on how we are changing practices to allow the collection, archiving and display of web-based objects, both as artworks and records of Tate’s activity on the web.