In the 1990s a number of artists produced interactive artworks on cd-rom. It was, we thought, the medium of the future: more durable than videotape, cheaper than a book to print, and when used on a personal computer, it allowed the viewer to chart a unique path through layered images, texts and sounds. Mine was six years in the making yet, barely six months after it left the press, Apple’s new operating system no longer recognized the software. The company that made the software was bought by a competitor, the programming language was discontinued and cd-roms soon went the way of floppy disks and key punch cards.
Artists working in digital media regularly face the dilemma of obsolescence, but the problem of preservation concerns all types of new and experimental media. To make this point, the authors of Re-collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory begin by comparing the fate of Eva Hesse’s experimental sculpture Expanded Expansion (1969) with her friend Sol Lewitt’s wall drawings. Lewitt’s work would have been more ephemeral than Hesse’s if he hadn’t happened on to an elegant preservation solution that dovetailed with his artistic program. Instead of making the drawings himself, he gave instructions for others to follow, accompanied by diagrams that served as scores for future interpretations. Hesse, on the other hand, experimented with new materials such as rubberized cheesecloth and polyester resin to make her sculptures. When she died in 1970 these materials hadn’t yet had the time to become opaque and brittle. Today Expanded Expansion languishes in a warehouse, a ghost of its former self, while Sol Lewitt’s wall drawings continue to be realized by gallery assistants the world over.