Not Only the Climate is Changing: Adaptation and Mitigation within a Changing Ecology of Conservation

Carl Philipp Hoffmann
Electronic Media Review, Volume Eight: 2023-2024


The Climate Crisis engenders in us, as Earthlings, visceral emotions and a desire to respond. As a complex problem manifest, this existential ecological issue may overwhelm our individual senses and resources; it is a collective issue and so too must be our responses.

In this presentation I suggest we face a similar collective challenge as custodians of electronic cultural heritage and propose some simple characterisations and responses as an exercise in thinking about our electric ecology: As conservators we face technical, informational and organisational challenges in our work when focused on a specific object, collection, or project: Obsolete mediums which complicate access and reproduction; acquiring and retaining knowledge of appropriate techniques; and securing the resources required for execution, are very familiar issues to all of us.

I propose that we can identify where and with what responses our energies can be most sustainably applied in the domain of Electronic Media in this nascent digital age. The problem of conserving “born digital” artworks is a race between emergence and obsolescence; and even more challenging, it is recursive. In my work we manage and extend archives, mostly but not exclusively digital, and yet the very technologies and platforms we leverage are subject to obsolescence, and a lifecycle which demands timely knowledge and yet more resources.

If we characterise 1) Obsolescence, 2) Knowledge Management, and 3) Resource Availability as forces which unfortunately dictate a state of constant triage as our core approach to custodianship of cultural heritage, we can develop strategies to help us address these imperatives. Let us take from the language of Climate Change the two simple concepts of Adaptation and Mitigation, and apply these to the three issues I characterised.

Electronic mediums emerge and disappear faster and faster: The active lifecycle of a Media Art genre may be only a few years, rather than decades or centuries.
Adaptation – Conform our architectures to constant change, rather than a specific medium.

We have a tendency to attempt to capture mature knowledge from the most experienced practitioners; I suggest that in fact knowledge capture is best performed by the learner, not the teacher, as it is in the application of tacit knowledge that it is made explicit and thus able to be preserved.
Mitigation – Reshape the mode of reproducing expertise.

Cultural heritage is too often an afterthought in the allocation of resources. I do not expect this to change soon. The reality of intermittency of resources necessitates incorporating in our planning of works, some consideration of who will be faced with the consequences of our triage.
Adaptation – Every project must deliver an interface to the next, or the one that comes after that.

Just as with the Climate Crisis, I cannot offer a mature, holistic solution: That’s the point of this presentation. However, by analysing our challenges and modes of response beyond any one specific artwork, collection or project, we can iteratively develop some understanding of sustainability in our field and how to get there.