Artists, Conservators and Game Developers: A comparative study of software preservation in three domains

Lead Research Organisation: Goldsmiths College
Department Name: Computing Department


The central research questions for this doctorate are:
How are artists documenting, preserving and maintaining their software-based art?
How do those processes differ from preservation processes within collecting institutions and the gaming industry, and why are they different?
What can we learn from the processes and practices of artists and the gaming industry that might inform the conservation and preservation of these works in an institutional context?

Artists have been experimenting with software since the late 1960s, however in recent years software-based art has developed from being a niche medium seen in media festivals to entering mainstream collections of contemporary art museums and private collectors. Whilst the conservation of software-based art is a new area of practice for contemporary art conservation, conservators in some major institutions, such as Tate, the Guggenheim and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art have started to develop long term preservation strategies for works of art using this medium. This comparative study looking at these institutional efforts alongside current practice by artists and the gaming industry provides a unique and timely contribution to the field.

Within institutions the treatments performed are often based on the technical expertise of an artist and their technicians, which help conservators understand choices made in the production of an artwork, and consequently the options viable for conservation. The conservators place these treatments and choices in the context of conservation ethics, applying concepts like minimum intervention, thorough documentation and visibility of interventions.

A different industry with a similar use case of re-use of software is the games industry. Major games developers, such as Ubisoft or Electronic Arts make large investments in producing games but have also embraced the value of evolving games to new gaming platforms over time. These companies have their own archives and requirements to allow re-use, and these technological production environments are increasingly being used by artists, for instance both John Gerrard and Ian Cheng currently use the game engine Unity to develop their work.

This doctoral research will provide a systematic study of what artists are doing to preserve, document, maintain and conserve their work, and how this relates to their production technologies comparing this to practice within the gaming industry and conservation. The fast-changing nature of the technological context in which software-based artworks must survive means that many artists, particularly those with practices beginning in the 90s and early 2000s have had to resolve the same problems that conservators in collecting institutions are responding to. To describe such interventions, artist often use the language of maintenance, repair or upgrade. This doctoral study will consider these practices of maintenance within the context of studies of communities who modify and adapt technologies, exploring the nature of the ecosystem in which software developers from these three domains operate and their relationship to broader social relationships to technology. This will inform our understanding of obsolescence in the context of the gaming industry, artistic practice and conservation; probing differences of meaning and understanding.

This research will make a significant contribution to theory and practice in the preservation and documentation of software-based art. The comparative nature of the research will make the practices used in these three different contexts visible and will evaluate their applicability across sectors, ultimately supporting the emerging field of the conservation of software-based art.


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