Take a Picture, It’ll Last Longer…

Last week, early web folklorist, OG net artist, and friend of Rhizome, Olia Lialina wrote a post that dug at Art.sy for how severely their image processing system had mangled an image of her piece My Boyfriend Came Back From The War. Despite (for the lulz) comparing the problem to the recent destruction of a 19th century fresco, Olia is correct: the image of her work, as processed by Art.sy’s system does look pretty bad. This is just one manifestation of an underlying problem I have been pondering lately: how can documentation of works that are screen-based, and inherently low-resolution, exist within systems that are designed specifically for high-resolution documentation of works that exist in the physical world?

For a while now Rhizome has been sharing records and images of works from the ArtBase with a hand full of carefully chosen fine art image databases. It’s a nice thing to see lesser known computer based works alongside more established artists and media, and we like the idea of exposing our collection and the history of art engaged with technology to a broader audience. Every time we begin one of these projects we are faced with the same conundrum: image specifications. Image collections such as ArtStor, Art.sy, and Google Art Project all serve high resolution images of paintings, prints, photographs, and objects. The user experience of these platforms is engineered to best represent documentation of an object that exists in the physical world. However, nearly all artworks in the ArtBase are screen based – be they software, web sites, video, or animated gifs. This means that these works are inherently low-resolution. With compter or screen based works, there is often no finer grain of visual detail than native screen resolution. In documenting these works, we are not faced with the bottomless pursuit of capturing (or exceeding) human perception, as with the documentation of physical works of art; the pixel is the lowest level of detail. Furthermore, when endeavoring to capture images of authentic renderings (i.e. period specific web browser and operating system), the dimensions of the image are (or at least, in some cases should be) limited to the native resolution of displays of the time when the work was created.


Detail of My Boyfriend Came Back From The War


For example, the image of My Boyfriend Came Back From The War we shared with Art.sy (seen here) is a 746 x 436 px lossless PNG screenshot of the website, as rendered by Netscape Navigator 3.0 (1996) running in Mac OS 9.0 (1999) emulated by SheepShaver. Although though the image was cropped to remove the operating system’s graphical user interface, and the outer frame of the web browser, it still possesses inherent historic accuracy and artifactual and evidential quality. The dimensions of the image could have been slightly smaller or slightly larger, but they were defined by what was a comfortable browser window size within the emulation, which was sized to a resolution (800 x 600) appropriate to typical hardware of the time. As well, the images embedded in Olia’s HTML have variable percentage based widths, and adjust to the size of the browser window. This reinforces the importance of the size of the rendering, as modern browsers use a blurry interpolation algorithm, as opposed to the browsers at the time of the work’s creation. The delicate and sensitive nature of screen capture images is significant. Any scaling or heavy handed compression can easily destroy the subtle artifactual qualities that the image was carefully designed to capture. With screen graphics, especially text and images from the early web, the difference of a few pixels can completely alter the feeling of a work.


Detail of My Boyfriend Came Back From The War, as processed by Art.sy


It is unsurprising that Art.sy’s system messed with the image so severely, as it is a system designed for down-scaling incredibly high resolution images, not upscaling low-res images. Here’s a few thoughts on how the system could potentially handle intentionally low-res images of born-digital materials:

1) Do nothing: do not scale the images, use lossy compression with care.
2) Improve the image processing methodology to be adaptive to images that are intentionally low-res. I am guessing that when high-resolution images are uploaded to the Art.sy cms, they derive a set of progressively smaller images that can be fed to the image-zooming viewer. A reverse/mirror image of this process could be developed, where instead of scaling down, the images are scaled up using nearest neighbor interpolation at each level. In theory the original image size would be the smallest, and zooming in the image viewer would appear to provide a strict enlargement of the original pixels.

Speaking realistically, Art.sy is a unique entity among the image repositories we are talking about. They have an in-house team of talented and curious engineers constantly working on improving the platform, which of course is still very new. They are thinking about how they can attack this problem this as I type. I seriously doubt if larger, older platforms with less resources, or a different engineering culture would be able to invest in developing new image processing solutions for what is a very small subset of their content. In light of this, it behooves archivists and conservators of computer based works to consider how we can use documentation strategies that gel with these existing systems. Furthermore, although screenshots are the reigning paradigm in the documentation of computer based works, do they really do the work justice in these contexts? If not – why should platforms invest in accommodating them? A strategy used by SFMOMA when contributing documentation of Miranda July’s web based Learning to Love You More, to Google Art Project, was to tile many screenshots to compose one high-res image.



While on the one hand, this strategy solves the problem of resolution, the result just doesn’t feel right. It amplifies what I feel to be the problem with screenshot based documentation: it denies the work any broader context. While lossless screenshots of computer based works are immensely valuable for preservation purposes, this approach completely neglects the physical aspect of the works. Software is not experienced in a disembodied graphical space – we interact with it though machines. If one of the major driving forces behind sharing with these image repositories is education, it seems logical to employ a documentation strategy that is simple and effective in visually communicating the context of these works, not simply a strategy that meets the image specifications. We are beginning to employ a documentation strategy at Rhizome that will touch all of these bases. It’s quite simple really: take a picture.


Rafaël Rozendaal’s falling falling .com


The above two photos taken (the latter taken with my iPhone) are not suggested to be an example of quality documentation – I just happened to have these on hand. They are, however, exemplary of how instantly readable a still image of a web based work of art is, when it depicts the work from the perspective of the viewer, not the computer. Such documentation does not replace the role of lossless screenshots of authentic renderings, but in the context we are speaking of – image repositories that are designed for handling high resolution content, and which have a diverse audience – they are arguably far more evocative of the work, more educational in terms of historic context and technology, and finally, these images are inherently more durable in terms of image processing and compression. Of course there are significant setup costs involved in producing this type of documentation: camera, lighting, and period specific hardware. In some cases there are software shortcuts that can be taken if hardware isn’t your thing. For example, document the work displayed on a CRT display of the proper vintage, but rather than going to the trouble of setting up a vintage Mac or PC, connect it to a modern computer running a fullscreen emulation. This approach also requires less maintenance – a library of virtual machines is far more stable than a collection of vintage computers.



It will take some time as we go about collecting the hardware, purchasing a camera and lighting, and developing a workflow (computer displays, especially CRTs are a tricky thing to photograph), but Rhizome should be able to start producing documentation under this new rubric (high resolution, photographic, historically accurate hardware [not just software]) in the very near future. Until then, perhaps we’ll see something from Art.sy that does a better job of handling sensitive pixel-perfect historic screenshots.


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  1. Pingback: Class 11: Digitisation - Links « Waving at the Machines / ITP

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