The First Stewards: Digital Preservation in Artist-Run Platforms and Galleries

Colin Post
Electronic Media Review, Volume Six: 2019-2020

Artists have long used digital and networked technologies to experiment with both new methods of artistic production and new means to disseminate artworks. Digital artworks often circulate outside of traditional gallery and museum spaces: on artists’ websites, online platforms, and other experimental networks. For example, Dispersion (2002–ongoing) by Seth Price (b. 1973) is an artwork in the form of an essay about systems of information distribution [1]. The piece exists as a Portable Document Format (PDF) file that the artist has updated and added to over time, but the artist has also prepared printed versions of the work displayed in gallery spaces. As with other kinds of files disseminated online, the work proliferates, taking on many forms and exhibiting slight changes across different versions.

Whether by the conscious choice of the artist to skirt these typical exhibition contexts or due to myriad other factors, many of these artworks will never enter institutional collections. Greene (2000) suggests that art created for online contexts has existed in tension with arts institutions from the outset, as many artists have taken up digital and networked technologies with the express intention to explore contexts for artistic production outside of traditional art world spaces, and as early efforts to integrate “net art” into museums have struggled to translate art made for computers into physical gallery spaces. Even as arts institutions have developed more sophisticated strategies for collecting and exhibiting digital artworks (Graham 2014), artists continue to explore alternative platforms and networked gallery spaces to create and share digital artworks. This research considers how artists who are currently creating digital and new media artwork for artist-run platforms and galleries approach the ongoing care of these artworks.

Over the past two decades, curators, conservators, and information professionals have advanced approaches for the ongoing preservation and care of digital artworks that attend to the inherently dynamic nature of both the artworks and the underlying digital technologies (Rinehart and Ippolito 2014). Recent work to preserve Brandon (1998–1999) by Shu Lea Cheang (b. 1954) provides a good example of these efforts. The piece, which details the life of Brandon Teena, who was tragically killed in an act of transphobic violence, was commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum and featured both web-based and installation components. Working with the artist, an interdisciplinary team has recently migrated the web-based components of the artwork, which included Java applets and other features no longer supported on the web so that it functions in current browser environments (Engel et al. 2018).

However, as Biggs (2014) observes, only a slim minority of digital artworks will enter into the custody of cultural heritage institutions, and even those artworks that do eventually make their way into arts institutions will have likely faced preservation issues shortly after the point of creation (24). Long before these artworks receive professional conservation attention—if ever—artists and the curators of alternative exhibition spaces serve as the first stewards. Although there is a fairly robust body of research on artists’ information practices for many facets of their creative and professional practices (Hemmig 2008), little research has been done on the challenges and issues artists face in caring for artworks and related materials in their custody. Preserving a robust cultural heritage representative of the full breadth of artistic practices requires research that advances digital preservation tools and methods across institutional and artist-run exhibition and collection contexts [2].

This research involved a case study of Paper-Thin [3], an artist-run platform that has included online virtual reality (VR) exhibitions, as well as a site-specific installation. A curatorial project initiated by the artists Cameron Buckley (b. 1992) and Daniel Smith (b. 1990), Paper-Thin creates a space for artists to experiment with new technologies and explore new modes of artistic production and dissemination. Rather than an online gallery space presenting discrete and bounded artworks, Paper-Thin falls under a more expansive definition of art platforms offered by Goriunova (2012) as assemblages of human and machinic agents organized over and through networked systems in ways that are plugged into processes of subjectification and creativity (6).

In this research, I conducted semistructured interviews (n = 27) with the Paper-Thin curators, artists who contributed work to the platform, and additional individuals identified by the artists who have played some part in the ongoing care of their artworks. These individuals included artistic collaborators, collectors, and curators of other alternative platforms and galleries, all contributing to a rich depiction of the shifting nature of the art world for digital and networked artworks. I applied methods from constructivist grounded theory (Charmaz 2014) and situational analysis (Clarke, Friese, and Washburn 2018) to understand how the experiences of these individuals fit within dynamic social worlds and were shaped by a range of sociotechnical factors.

The aims of the research were twofold: (1) to characterize the preservation practices, challenges, and approaches of artists and curators of alternative platforms and galleries, and (2) to understand the information practices of these individuals as they gained skills and learned techniques necessary to care for their artworks and related archival materials. Among the key findings, this research highlights the importance of the cooperative activities of artists and curators in the care of artworks disseminated through these platforms and galleries. Departing from the articulation of art worlds by Becker (1982) as social worlds constituted by the cooperative activity of many diverse actors, I sought to describe the nature of those social worlds relevant for artists creatively engaged with digital technologies, and to understand how the care of digital artworks is a necessarily cooperative undertaking.

This caretaking work begins at the point of creation and exhibition, as the Paper-Thin curators collaborate with the participating artists to address technical difficulties encountered in the initial staging of works. For the first two iterations of Paper-Thin, the curators recruited artists to contribute 3D digital artworks to be integrated into a shared VR exhibition space. The curators constructed this VR space using the game engine Unity and embedded this VR environment directly into a web browser, first using a Unity-supported plugin and then using the recently developed standard WebGL. However, the curators had to coordinate this effort with the artists, many of whom created their works in disparate software environments not directly compatible with Unity. To even get the artworks functioning in the first place, Buckley and Smith had to negotiate technical issues with the artists that had direct aesthetic impacts on how the artworks were experienced in the VR environment. Dekker and Tedone (2019) describe this as “networked co-curation,” or how artworks presented online are necessarily shaped by the decisions of many individuals working in concert with the constraints and possibilities of various technologies. Notably, the nature of the interaction between curators and artists for online platforms like Paper-Thin differs substantially from interactions involved in staging exhibitions in physical gallery spaces.

Both artists and curators face challenges after the point of creation and exhibition. The Paper-Thin curators continue to maintain the archives and associated documentation of the platform as a whole, whereas the individual artists maintain documentation of their contributions as part of their own artistic archives. In these activities, the curators and artists draw on a wide range of information sources and participate in communities both inside and outside the art world. Importantly, the artists and curators supplement their formal arts educations with tutorials, forums, and documentation for both open-source and commercial technologies. Online arts communities intersect with software communities more generally, as the artists and curators find information to support the ongoing care of their artworks and archives through YouTube videos and software development message boards, among other online sources.

This research also highlights the precarious nature of the ongoing efforts by artists and curators to care for these materials in their personal archives. Although several artists in the study are represented by commercial galleries or have had works acquired by museums, the study participants widely remarked on the difficulties of attracting interest from private or institutional collectors for digital and new media artworks. Despite growing attention paid to these kinds of artworks, they remain at the periphery of museum collections and art markets. Artists working in this area are faced with the dilemma of whether to continue putting active effort into maintaining digital artworks or to place these materials onto an external hard drive and let benign neglect take its course.

This research has several implications for professional conservation practice. Conservators can study the novel repertoires developed by these first stewards, as these practices stand to guide the ongoing care of artworks in institutional contexts. Additionally, arts institutions can find ways to support the preservation work of artist-run platforms like Paper-Thin, which are dependent on the volunteer labor of artists and curators with limited resources. The research demonstrates the potential for post-custodial and community-driven efforts, such as providing shared storage infrastructure or developing open-source digital preservation tools and resources.


I would like to express utmost gratitude for the artists who offered their time, energy, and insight. Their generous contributions drove this research. I would also like to recognize the members of my dissertation committee (Cal Lee, Denise Anthony, Amelia Gibson, Cary Levine, and Ryan Shaw), who offered invaluable feedback, support, and encouragement from inception through to completion.


  2. The entirety of this research, with full details on the methods and findings, can be found in my dissertation, which is available from my website:


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Colin Post