Naked on Pluto/Preservation

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Naked on Pluto, 2010-2015 – Marloes de Valk, Aymeric Mansoux, Dave Griffiths


Publishing as a Strategy for Preserving Artistic Research[edit]

The starting point for this case study was an invitation by LIMA to document the artwork Naked on Pluto (2010-2015) by Dave Griffiths, Aymeric Mansoux and Marloes de Valk. The heart of Naked on Pluto is an artist-built, open source, multi-player, online video game that had served as an impulse for a wider examination of privacy in the age of social media through exhibitions, workshops, lectures, interviews, books and websites (Dekker 2018b). The change of Facebook policy for its API made the game unplayable, which in turn raises the question of whether the work can be preserved in any meaningful way. Our starting point was the realisation that rather than merely a piece of artistic software, the breadth of the work is much broader. In fact, the artists view the work in terms of discourse it set about. We therefore approached it as a research-based work and a case study to develop a strategy for the preservation of artistic research.

The medium

In general, preservation strategies are determined by the artwork's medium. There exist different strategies for preserving painting, sculpture, for media installations, software-based art, performances, and so on. We also found it necessary to start the preservation process by answering the question about the medium.

The artists behind Naked on Pluto put emphasis on research and their approach was problem-driven. They took a stand on social media companies, highlighting their engagement in insidious practices, operating shadow market with personal data. This was the problem. In this sense, in terms of established artistic media, the framework of conceptual art may feel relevant for this work and its preservation. Conceptual artworks do encompass statements, declarations, in some cases that may be re-executed or re-performed. But on the other hand, Naked on Pluto does not merely make a statement, the problem was just its starting point and the artists deliberatively unfolded it in multiple directions that are as important to the work as the problem itself, especially when we think of participation, whereas the artists involved viewers in the game, workshops and in other ways. The framework of conceptual art might be too limiting for this work. We could similarly contextualise it as process art, a work whose process of development can be inferred by the viewer from its form. This is enabled in this case by making the code and data available. On the other hand, process art is closely affiliated with focus on the materiality of the form like in Richard Morris's felt objects or Eva Hesse's decomposing sculptural works. In the case of Naked on Pluto, the work is not so much medium-centric, it does not rely on exploring attributes of a medium, of software, or of the internet, even though these media certainly are key to the work. It utilizes a range of media and could be framed as a software-based, net-based work and digital art to an extent. But choosing one medium as primary wouldn't do justice to the work. Instead, it appears more suitable to follow the artists' view on the work as discursive, problem-driven, and approach it as such also in developing preservation strategy. This view is inclusive enough to accommodate the conceptual, processual, software, internet and digital aspects of the work in its "object boundary".

In this sense the work does start from a problem and follows an analysis grounded in the domain of its object of study, similar to how scientific research operates. But instead of searching for a solution which could be assessed and reviewed by other researchers, the artists created situations for this problem to be experienced by viewers, who were treated as participants, and the artists explicitly declared it in their essays. So even if the game was no longer functional, the artists could still run workshops where they hacked Facebook API and continue the work.

While the game as a software no longer works and can't be restored, its original code remains available online in a git repository, it is open source, but it is also a relic, an open source relic. Other elements of the work, however, are still very relevant. This includes interviews by the artists, interviews given by the artists, essays and statements, and their research process - they continue to have a potential for change to some extent, especially if they are taken up, activated, amplified by contemporary practice, as findings, proofs, references for current debate.

This makes it apt to affiliate the work with the context of artistic research, or research-based works. A genealogy of these works stretches back to the 1920s as Hito Steyerl shows in her essay (2011), especially if we assume the perspective of conflict and social struggles. She describes as resistant artistic research the practices of Soviet factography and productivism, Tretyakov’s documentary work, and the avant-garde investigations into cine-eye, cine-truth and photomontage. Steyerl also discusses as artistic research photojournalism, essay film, situationist dérive, constructivist montage, cut ups, biomechanics, deconstructive anthropology, counter-information, aesthetic journalism and conceptual art. It is ironic that the legacy of these works and initiatives has been carried on by museums mainly in the form of selected individual objects, maintained as self-contained artworks, taken out of historical and sociocultural context and embedded into medium-oriented subcollections of painting, drawing, sculpture, printmaking, moving image, and so on. We can say that the preservation of artistic research has been largely limited to its by-products. This has to do with the historical specialisation of museums on art, ethnography and other areas, with the increasing convergence of museumification and commodification, and also with the lack of adequate preservation strategies. On the other hand, artistic research has mushroomed since the 1990s and it is becoming a major approach for many artists working today. Developing strategies for preserving research-based works is a necessary step for their continuing legacy.

Relevant preservation strategies

If the medium of a work is research, doesn't it constitute a too ephemeral object of preservation? Naked on Pluto did have an important software component as well as an important exhibition installation. While keeping in mind the broader constellation of the work, we considered a range of existing approaches to the preservation of changing artworks. Since the artists released all the components of Naked on Pluto under copyleft licenses, we drew especially from public-facing strategies advanced in recent years by progressive initiatives.

LIMA has recently introduced a public-facing approach to document digital artworks in its Digital Canon. The documentation relies on a template specifying various elements, attributes and behaviour of a work. In our attempt to use it for Naked on Pluto, it proved somewhat restrictive. The field "artist" presupposes only one role, while we also wanted to attribute many other contributors to the work. The work's date of production is not straightforward either as the game was developed mainly between 2010-2011 but the artists continued to alter the work through workshops and exhibitions and the game continued to be active and subjected to further changes. This could all be solved by extended descriptions and we could also fill in other items such as "Software", "Hardware", "Premiere", "Production", and so on, but our worry was that by simply adopting the form, the resulting overall impression of Naked on Pluto would be that of a defunct software work, what wouldn't do it justice. This strategy needs to be complemented by other elements giving equal footing to all elements of the work.

Another approach, developed by Guggenheim and advanced by SFMOMA, is tailored for artworks changing with iterations, especially media installations (Phillips 2015). This strategy makes a distinction between reporting identity and iterations of a work, while they directly influence one another. While Digital Canon emphasizes the software aspects of the work, this approach emphasizes its installation aspects. Naked on Pluto was indeed a changing artwork, but its changes can't be restricted to (installation) iterations: there were numerous changes to the game engine in the span of several years and various project's manifestations were adapted to given formats such as workshops. Iterativity was there, but it is just a part of the work's story. Interesting for our case is also SFMOMA's experimental implementation of this documentation strategy on its internal museum wiki accessible to contributions from staff from across departments. What is crucial, by adapting the wiki to document artworks, the museum has set to explore alternatives to tabular databases typical for collection management today. The wiki is a digital publishing platform where objects are not represented by forms but articles, whose templates may be adapted to suit particular needs of artworks, contributors may rearrange sections, change headings, embed media files and so on (Barok et al 2019).

Approaching Naked on Pluto as a discursive work brings to mind another recent initiative, Net Art Anthology, realised by Rhizome. In order to preserve net-based works it employs the strategies of emulation, recording and archiving the web in an elegant and effective way. As was said, Naked on Pluto can't be meaningfully restored, but what is inspiring for our case is Rhizome's favouring presentation over documentation. The works are presented in a fleeting, accessible narrative, highlighting key aspects of the works, artists' intentions and contexts, and complemented by effective design. The result is still text-based but it is aimed for general audience and helps to amplify key elements of artworks.

These strategies informed our approach. The SFMOMA wiki suggests the model of digital publishing that can be applied well outside a museum, in the spirit of Net Art Anthology and Digital Canon. This encouraged us to use Monoskop wiki as the site for preserving this work. The practice of LIMA, Guggenheim and SFMOMA offers a range of documentation templates and forms that can be transformed and adapted for research-based works. Finally, the narrative approach of Rhizome’s Net Art Anthology combining preservation and presentation could be productive in translating the work to different audiences.

What still needs to be answered is how the approaches to changing artworks can be adapted to research-based artworks. They do share certain qualities, first of all because they both cannot be preserved under the assumption of material fixity linked to traditional art conservation. Like in the case of installations, performances and digital art, their presentations rely on the interpretation of the work's identity. This is because they are not constituted by singular material objects such as painting or sculpture, but by a range of components and elements with variable relations and dependencies as well as aesthetic and functional roles (Laurenson 2006, Van Saaze 2013). The overarching approach developed over the past two decades to preserve changing artworks has been to produce detailed documentation of an artwork's exhibitions, alongside the storage of its dedicated physical components, digital preservation of its media components and emulation or migration of software components, next to the option of reinterpretation (Matos et al 2015, Ensom 2019, Wijers et al 2017), like in the case of Guggenheim and SFMOMA's documentation strategy and LIMA's Digital Canon. These approaches assume that the trajectory of a changing artwork can be described as a succession of iterations presented at exhibitions.

Research-based artworks, however, are usually manifested in a wider range of ways. They may be centred on a single art object intended for exhibitions, but they may also involve various physical and digital objects presented outside exhibition setting, activities in public and digital space, workshops, publications, accumulation of research material and archives, and so on. These works typically defy not only objecthood associated with painting and sculpture, but also iterativity associated with installations and performances. In this sense their "preservation" relies more on further development and continuation rather than re-creation. In conservation, this has been discussed in especially in the context of net art. Josephine Bosma (2011) talks about "co-producing, supporting or maintaining the 'life' of a work". Jon Ippolito (2014) and Annet Dekker (2018a) talk about "proliferative preservation". Renée van de Vall (2015) assigns these approaches to the processual paradigm of conservation that is distinct from scientific paradigm that aims at material integrity, as well as from performance paradigm in that it can’t fully rely on the work’s conceptual identity that would be expressed as a range of properties and instructions. This is because the works at stake “change and develop according to uncontrollable factors or interventions from inside or outside the work, be it the weather, material decay, visitors’ interactions or participation” (ibid.) Proliferative or processual preservation does not limit its stakeholders to the artist and museum staff, nor is it tied to the spatiotemporal logic of exhibition where the artwork’s change would take place in a controlled manner. Along these lines, the question we ask in case of research-based works such as Naked on Pluto is how to facilitate the future use of materials and context that it brought about.

The approach

Our aim in preserving artistic research was to facilitate its discourse through proliferating key elements of the work. We made a decision to start from the traces left behind the work. This was relatively convenient for this case, because the artists followed an open source attitude in development and documented in detail the process and released the work into public domain. This included a blog, a wiki, a git repository, documentation of exhibitions, and so on. In effect, the majority of the archive of the work was relatively easy to assemble. We assembled it into a page as an inventory. We followed a simple structure: "item name; item type; (URL/source); date; short description;" and contained it inside a sortable table. One notable detail is that it is an inventory of an dispersed archive: the materials are hosted on numerous websites. Why? In postcustodial practice, archiving objects beyond those in custody of an institution shifts the balance of power in preservation. As long as these websites are operational this leaves the materials in their original context: they are indexed but they can be still accessed at their source. The resulting inventory gave as an overview about what is out there and also a ground for further work.

After that, we interviewed the artists at length about what constitutes the work. The aim was to identify the work's object boundaries from the artist's perspective. We learnt that the key component was obviously the online game. But besides it, of importance were also events where issues surrounding the work were discussed, reflected upon in a social setting faciliated by the artists, whether it was in workshops, presentations, essays or interviews. The work was also exhibited on a number of occassion, and in a different configuration. This was also to be recorded. And lastly, we learnt that the artists also consider documentation of the process of research and development part of the work. This includes for example a series of interviews they conducted with a range of experts about social media and privacy. All of this is the work. We grouped these elements into four categories, collected information and references for each of them and wrote summaries that now function as introductions to their respective sections. This forms the core of the documentation page. Other sections include "Artist statement", "Historical context", "Reception", "Credits" where all contributors and supporters of the work are credited, and finally "References" for sources of materials included in this page. Besides these references, every uploaded and embedded image and video have their sources identified on their dedicated pages. Like in the case of the archive, we found it important not to remove them from their original context and make it possible to trace them back.

At the end, we created another section, a page serving as an entry point to the work's folder, directly inspired by Net Art Anthology. It is designed in blocks, yet it is meant to be read from the beginning to the end, as a linear narrative. It could be seen as a somewhat extended wall label, highlighting key aspects of the work in a concise way. They were selected from the Documentation page and also link back to it from various places. The design is meant not to overload the reader with text, nor with audiovisual material, we aimed at one-to-one ratio.

This has resulted in three distinct yet interdependent pages presenting Naked on Pluto differently (four, if you also count this page detailing our preservation approach). The first page is a narrative presentation of the work, the second one introduces components and documentation of the work in a structured way, and the third one is an index, an inventory of the work's archive. This might not be a definite structure, or a preservation solution, but it represents key aspects of the work identified together with the artists. It draws from documentation approaches developed by LIMA, Guggenheim, SFMOMA and Rhizome, yet rather than aiming for future iterations or activations of the work, it is designed to amplify its various elements. To frame and amplify the content are functions of publishing. In this sense, if we consider publishing as an art preservation strategy its aim is to frame and amplify the work, to make current a context, a discourse for discussion that the artists intended to have by doing the work. Here also lies the potential of (resistant) artistic research to challenge the prevalent practices of collecting and museumification.

Dušan Barok, Julie Boschat Thorez, Aymeric Mansoux

July 2020


Preservation of changing artworks
Barok, Dušan, et al. 2019. "From Collection Management to Content Management in Art Documentation: The Conservator as an Editor". Studies in Conservation 64:8, 472-489.
Ensom, Tom. 2019. Technical Narratives: Analysis, Description and Representation in the Conservation of Software-based Art. London: King’s College London.
Laurenson, Pip. 2006. "Authenticity, Change and Loss in the Conservation of Time-Based Media Installations". Tate Papers 6.
Matos, Lucia, et al, eds., 2015. Revista de historia da arte 4: "Performing Documentation in the Conservation of Contemporary Art". Lisbon: Instituto de História da Arte/Universidade Nova de Lisboa
Phillips, Joanna. 2015. "Reporting Iterations: A Documentation Model for Time-Based Media Art". Revista de historia da arte 4, 168-79.
Van Saaze, Vivian. 2013. Installation Art and the Museum: Presentation and Conservation of Changing Artworks. Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam Press.
Wijers, Gaby, et al. 2017. Unfold: Mediation by Re-interpretation. Annual Project Review Report. Amsterdam: LIMA.
Proliferative preservation, processual conservation, networks of care
Bosma, Josephine. 2011. "The Gap between Now and Then: On the Conservation of Memory", in Bosma, Nettitudes: Let’s Talk Net Art. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 164-91
Dekker, Annet. 2018a. "Networks of Care", in Dekker, Collecting and Conserving Net Art: Moving beyond Conventional Methods. London: Routledge, 71-98.
Dekker, Annet. 2018b. "Following process and openness", in Dekker, Collecting and Conserving Net Art, London: Routledge, 99-125.
Ippolito, Jon. 2014. "Unreliable Archivists", in Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito, Re-Collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 155-84.
van de Vall, Renée. 2015. "Documenting Dilemmas: On the Relevance of Ethically Ambiguous Cases". Revista de historia da arte 4, 7-17.
Artistic research and research-based art
Bishop, Claire, 2012. "Former West: Art as Project in the Early 1990s". In Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. London: Verso, 193-217.
"A project in the sense I am identifying as crucial to art after 1989 aspires to replace the work of art as a finite object with an open-ended, post-studio, research-based, social process, extending over time and mutable in form. Since the 1990s, the project has become an umbrella term for many types of art: collective practice, self- organised activist groups, transdisciplinary research, participatory and socially engaged art, and experimental curating." [Note: Further definitions of the ‘project’ (compared to the work of art), amassed during a workshop at Arte de Conducta, Havana (2007), include presentness, possibility, openness to change and contamination, a space of production, unlimited time and space, and a dialogue with the social to reach audiences beyond art.]
Steyerl, Hito. 2011. "Aesthetics of Resistance? Artistic Research as Discipline and Conflict". transversal. Vienna: eipcp.
Distinguishes two kinds of artistic research, one tied to knowledge economy, another rooted in social struggles:
"Actual artistic research looks like a set of art practices by predominantly metropolitan artists acting as ethnographers, sociologists, product or social designers. It gives the impression of being an asset of technologically and conceptually advanced First World capitalism, trying to upgrade its population to efficiently function in a knowledge economy, and as a by-product, casually surveying the rest of the world as well. But if we look at artistic research from the perspective of conflict or more precisely of social struggles, a map of practices emerges that spans most of the 20th century and also most of the globe."
Steyerl, Hito. 2013. "Art as Occupation: What Happens to Knowledge?". In Art as a Thinking Process: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production, edited by Mara Ambrožič and Angela Vettese. Berlin: Sternberg Press, and Venice: Università Iuav di Venezia.
"What used to materialize more or less exclusively as an object, or a product, which was an artwork before, now tends to appear as an activity, a performance, a process, a form of research, or a production of knowledge. The traditional work of art in its form as object has been largely supplemented by these occupational forms of the former work of art."
Naked on Pluto

See Naked_on_Pluto/Documentation#References

Naked on Pluto, 2010-2015 – Marloes de Valk, Aymeric Mansoux, Dave Griffiths