Thirtieth International Congress of the History of Art
Art History for the Millenium: Time.
Digital Art History Time
London, 3-8 September 2000
Kenneth Hamma, Assistant Director for Collections Information, J Paul Getty Museum, Project Director, www.getty.edu, J Paul Getty Trust, 1200 Getty Center Drive, 1000, Los Angeles, CA 90049-1687.
© each author has full responsibility in owning copyright on the texts and on the images they publish on this website
Thank you, first to Art History Web Masters, Computers and the History of Art Group, and Research Institutes in the History of Art for the organizational effort that made his session possible. That two of those three organizations did not exist half a dozen years ago is one of the clearest indications of the speed of change with which we live, the speed of change which is in many ways one of the defining parameters of the projects you are working on and will talk about here today and tomorrow. Who hasn't wondered at some point, 'If only I had a better compression technology, if only I had a more capable database interface,' and then found that you were only a few months or weeks ahead of the market serving you. This is also the current speed of change which confounds expectations, expectations which would and do otherwise inform our current experiences. Being inattentive at a football game, for example, and hearing a sudden cheer might lead one to turn around with the expectation of seeing the aftermath of a great play. Thumbing through a library card catalogue - even if electronically - is done with the expectation that each reference corresponds one-to-one with a printed, online, or other kind of resource in the library. But how often in the world online have you been brought up short with the question - was what just happened what I thought it would be? - was what just happened to me what I would interpret as an 'authentic' experience? Occasionally and it seems to me more frequently as time goes by there is no way to know or to respond to that without answering the question: 'Do I know and trust the source?'
While overseeing a lot of the strategic planning necessary to the creation of sustainable digital resources and their publication, I've been thinking a lot about authenticity on the Web recently - and more broadly authenticity in digital materials. So I simply choose that word, authenticity, some months ago as the title for this talk thinking that would force me to coalesce some thoughts. I am not sure I've been entirely successful, but will charge ahead anyway.
My concern isn't what you might imagine or assume given that I work in a museum. It isn't fretting over museums and others posting hundreds of thousands of images on the Web and then thinking people will see those and not feel they have any need to come and see the real thing, the genuine picture, the authentic object. I would not believe that there could be a museum which is by choice not in cyberspace today because of that concern. Not unlike the availability of printed copies of works of art, the digital image is a surrogate that attracts rather than repels, that creates interest rather than diminish it. This is clear enough. It has become easy to see also, in addition to that fact, that the online experience of clicking through a well-indexed collection is its own kind of experience. That experience is parallel to, but not as good in some ways as visiting a gallery, though better in some ways than the immediate historical antecedent, looking through a well illustrated catalogue. In fact it is exciting to think about the possibilities there when digital media delivered on the Web can reach hundreds of thousands world-wide without the multiple distribution constraints of printed books. What is in the mind of the child who has seen online and assiduously collected images of warm, safe Dutch interiors because of what they say about how life should be - and how does that change when that child for the first time sees a Vermeer? Because we work with that sort of thing daily, an analogy might be more revealing. What is in the mind of a young child who has never been outside an urban environment but thinks he or she knows through digital media all there is to know about rivers and waterfalls in the woods - and how does that change when that child first feels the cold water of a mountain stream?
From a different starting point, my concern for authenticity also isn't concern for the assumed better quality of a more faithful reproduction of a given work of art that a good digital image represents. I remember when I was a graduate student when some of the senior professors grumbled about color photography, preferring black and white because the color was too distracting and probably too dishonest, too inauthentic. How much more, then, might one worry about the digital image carrying a reputation - however unwarranted - of accuracy. That skepticism is healthy, I think, compared to the assumption that the digital image - solely by virtue of being digital - is of higher quality, and so a better surrogate for the authentic by being closer to the original. Here indeed there may truly be a factor of duplicity in the assumed duplication of the work.
In this example, the element that gets my attention is much more the fact that despite the speed of change we do indeed quickly become conversant with our environment and accept it. The digital event gains credence in ways that is perhaps insupportable from the point of view of the recipient of that information who is not ready and who does not have the tools to distinguish genuine from fraudulent.
On Thursday, May 25 th of this year there was an article in the London press about the Tate in connection with the opening of the Bankside Museum entitled, "Has the Tate gone too far?"
How will visitors to the Tate's online gallery feel if they find a hairy black ear replacing substantial parts of a Turner? Or a Constable carved up to let in "Mum's chin"?
The artist the Tate's curators commissioned for their first web project is Harwood, a member of the Mongrel multimedia group. He proposed to make a mock version of the existing Tate website, to which one in three visitors to www.tate.org.uk would be diverted. Clicking through the various categories of the museum's site, visitors would be dropped unwittingly into Harwood's version produced in the same structure and design, but with the "hacked" artworks.
It is clear that the decision makers at the Tate feel uncomfortable with Harwood's work. If the Tate goes forward with Harwood's project, the museum shows it really means its new slogan: "Tate is changing".
You probably all know by now the outcome. The Tate decision makers were uncomfortable and the Harwood Web site is the Harwood Web site and the Tate Web site is the Tate Web site. The ongoing maintenance of that distinction - regardless of how one feels about the original commission being jerked from the Mongrel group - will reside in large part in your minds and in the level of trust you have for the Tate's information providers.
This raised some of the authenticity issues for me, but also challenged some of my own thinking about authenticity moving it from what is the nature of authenticity on the Web to encompass also what is the expectation of authenticity on the Web. This is somewhat easier to address.
Part of this issue - the part over which we have potentially the greatest control - rests on our ability to build digital resources - whether those are text, images, video, audio, three-dimensional models or virtual spaces - and libraries of digital resources based on shared and accepted standards for common expectations in resource discovery. Over the last fifteen years the Getty in the erstwhile Information Institute and all of its other programs was concerned for the newly important standards issues and for common resource discovery that came with large repositories of digital resources. Among the things you may know are the Union List of Artist Names, the Art and Architecture Thesaurus, the Thesaurus of Geographic Names, and the Categories for the Description of Works of Art. These efforts began as cataloguing efforts and have been extended to facilitate the kind of automated resource discovery that the Web and other digital finding tools allow. Although the Information Institute no longer exists at the Getty, our commitment to continued activity is as strong as ever. And we believe that having more closely integrated standards development with their implementation makes for stronger and better standards as well as bridging the implementation gap that was becoming an obvious shortcoming. Current work at the Getty supports the continued development and extension of these tools, and their implementation in resource discovery to increase precision and recall in searching in the visual arts.
Another arena of currently strenuous, I think the word is not too strong, strenuous activity that has traditionally helped satisfy authenticity concerns is in the world of legal protections provided by copyright, trademark, patent and other forms of ownership of intellectual and cultural property. Unfortunately one of the few things that seems to be coming clearer in this arena is that traditional protections of law and the ability to apply them with the traditional expectations are simply insufficient and unable to meet the new and changed conditions that the distribution of digital resources have created. And only recently has technology stepped up to the challenge from companies like C-Safe and Clever Content to help ensure that what you put into the digital pipeline is, for your sake and mine, what I get out. For many projects represented by speakers we will hear from today and tomorrow, on topics like connoseurship, conservation, indigenous cultural materials, and teaching, questions of authenticity are frequently critical in the ethics and activities of the profession, but questions which become obscured when we move into the creation, delivery and use of digital source materials in those areas of professional activity.
Issues of fair use have been something of a battle cry in intellectual property debates in the United States, and these are sure to continue. But I suspect the nature of the discussion will change as completely different paradigms, which the Web for the first time affords, for permanently sharing information from a single best-qualified source begin to have an impact on image management models in universities and schools. Other issues will come to join the 'use' issues particularly around the protection of intellectual property in digital works where there is no traditional and traditionally hard to share work, such as a book or painting or sculpture, to embody the intellectual property. The Getty has in its collection at least one of these works that are nothing more (I mean no denigration in that phrase) than digital. A few months ago John Baldessari created a very large image for an exhibition of work by contemporary Los Angeles artists. This image was based on drawing of a stag beetle by Dürer. This new image, about two by three meters, was shown in the exhibition, hanging at an angle and pinned to the wall with a giant collector's pin directly through the middle of the image, through the middle of the beetle. Like the beetle itself displayed in the case. An amusing comment on 'collecting.' But the image that Baldessari delivered as this work of art was one made with non light-fast inks and created from a digital file. Our conservators immediately saw a potential problem with the survivability of the image and asked Baldessari about it. His response was full of common sense. He handed over the digital file recorded on a CD-ROM and suggested that when the image faded too terribly, throw it out and make a new one. And in that statement, Baldessari moved the notion of the original from the visible print to the invisible digital file and implicated the digital bits in a kind of conceptual art. This must make us rethink at times where the 'authentic' bit of the artist's work resides.
All of you who deal with any of the non-text digital media are also bringing to the larger world of the history of art new variants for the discussion on undetected or undetectable change. There was a time - I pray long past - that the conservators' and restorers' work was meant to be fully undetectable. To everyone's benefit, the Rembrandt hanging on the wall should show, perhaps not in an obvious way, its age: its losses, and its accretions. In digital files are we introducing and additional level of undetectable change which may be in the short term all the more insidious given our willingness to accept the notion that digital equals better quality in images, and with new compression algorithms, also in video and audio. We do not know what happens over time to the digital file stored on a CD-ROM, optical disk or tape. We have seen media files on unexercised tapes, that is tapes left to sit and physically contract as is their nature to do, loose information. The loss is measured in bit rate and file size, but is not visually detectable. If these are visual media stored for use on the site of a dotcom furniture store it is perhaps one thing. If these are visual media stored for future use in any scientific or highly qualified way it is another. The scope of concern can be most clearly seen in the world of satellite imaging where streams of hundreds of thousands of images pour back to a receiver at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, for example all saved - presumably saved - for future analysis.
Even though we don't know how much longer or what the processes of deterioration will be, we do know that digital media last longer than physical media created through chemistry. As an archaeologist I know well the value of old photographs which preserve the look of things long past the deterioration of those things by means of the environment and the intentional destruction during wars and periods of iconoclasm. If digital files are much more reliably long lasting than chemical photography what might we be looking at 100 years hence, and what then our expectation of the digital world we will have created based on the kind of work you are doing?
These are things I am certain we will eventually learn to control for. But there will always be a Harwood out there ready to play havoc for havoc's sake. Are those the words that I wrote on that sculpture, or has the hacker who has finally tired of the Pentagon files gotten into my stuff? Perhaps there is comfort to be found in the Tate's experience, where it seems as though one has to invite the hacker to the party.
On the other side of the authenticity coin - or is simply a related meta-issue of online activity and expectations .. is privacy. I am not going down this road very far, only to notice that museums around the world hear from their audiences - primarily from students and teachers from K-12 through graduate schools - that they do things differently in public than in private. Our willingness to take risks, our willingness to think things through, our willingness to ask critical questions that potentially open us up to ridicule drop dramatically and instantly if we know or suspect that someone is overhearing. In itself this is not surprising. The pervasiveness of the assumption that digital resource access is not private is surprising. Someone is watching in real-time, data is being recorded and so on. As you know this has had known impacts on user-interface development. It has clear and obvious implications for education where trust - based on assumptions about privacy as well as authenticity - is a critical factor in success. In the same way it has implications for life-long learning. I suspect it also has implications for scholarship.
The extent to which all of you are moving forward in digital media, and in large measure thereby moving the media forward for education and scholarship is evidenced by the scope and quality of projects that will be represented here. I know what it is like to be in production, to have a deadline or grant promise to fulfill - the environment in which that most of you find yourselves working. When the deadline for implementation of a production system is looming authenticity and privacy may seem trivial issues. But it is likely that you more than any commercial developer or provider of services will be motivated to direct where we go with these.
Associate Director for Collections Information
J. Paul Getty Museum
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