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Machines, Neon, Bologna, 2004

Maurizio Bolognini
Digital work, immateriality and preservation
Conversation with Cristina Pontisso, on the occasion of her graduation thesis in the History of Art and the Protection of Historical-Artistic Heritage, 'Alta Definizione. Questioni di storia, classificazione e conservazione delle installazioni video-mediali', University of Tuscia, Faculty of the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, Viterbo, 2010 (from Maurizio Bolognini, Machines, Postmedia Books, Milan, 2012, pp. 106-109)

CRISTINA PONTISSO. Right now, the international debate on the preservation of new media art is focused on the idea of preparing questionnaires in which artists are asked to document each of their works in great detail, to express the functional and aesthetic value of all its component parts and to describe how it has been set up. What do you think of this?

MAURIZIO BOLOGNINI. It's an attempt to address some of the problems connected to the increasing immateriality of artistic production which flows directly from the new technologies but ultimately from conceptual research, performance, installation, interactivity. People have been talking about the dematerialization of the art object since the 1960s, emphasizing the shift of interest from the formal qualities of the work to its conceptual dimension. More recently, attempts to define immateriality have multiplied with the spread of the internet and new media art. Among the most interesting points of view with regard to the question of preservation is the observation that in aesthetic research only what eludes "form" and manifests itself solely as "flow" is truly immaterial. If you accept this premise, the question may then become: is it possible to conserve/preserve the technological flow and what is the point of doing so? It's self-evident that this makes no sense – and indeed that it is the negation of neo-technological poetics. Nevertheless, one can try to preserve the technological part (hardware and software) of the "device" that must be activated to make the flow possible (a generative process, communication performance, etc.), taking into account of course that the device is more than its mere technological part but may entail other elements and, in interactive works, may also include the actions of the participants. I think that the documentation efforts undertaken by projects such as the Variable Media Approach are interesting when applied to the preservation of the technology used by the device and when addressing issues relating to its obsolescence, the fact namely that the work depends on tools that in time will no longer be available and will therefore be replaced.

C.P. Obviously the goal of museums and international institutions is to ensure the transmission of the work and the artist's intentions to future generations. Apart from the question of institutional preservation, have you thought about how to transmit your works to the future or do you think they are destined to die?

M.B. It depends on the time frame. Over a sufficiently long period of time, all art, even the most traditional, is destined to disappear or be replaced by its own documentation; at some point, perhaps, it might even become possible to make indistinguishable copies of artworks. But I think that artists who are dedicated to the new media are not interested in this and the question only arises when there is pressure from collectors.

C.P. The programs you use today will probably not be compatible with computers in the decades to come. Given this, would you accept the emulation that is the object of so much discussion, for example, in the Variable Media Approach?

M.B. This has already partly happened. The first machines I made that were programmed to generate flows of ever-expanding images, now dating back twenty years, used DOS, which was marketed until 2001. A DOS subsystem (NTVDM) is part of the various versions of Windows, although it is not part of Windows Vista, which also does not support the full-screen mode needed to run most DOS programs. This means that the generative software I used then could run on a machine with Windows Vista only through an emulator. Of course, today this is not necessary, but the result would not be satisfactory, at least with the currently available emulators, where flow velocity varies continuously depending on the characteristics of the image, with accelerations and decelerations that are not faithful to the original work.

C.P. Your Programmed Machines involve projection and can be defined as site-specific works, since the work occurs in a given context. Does that mean that their exhibition is documented? And once the event is over, what becomes of these devices?

M.B. The conclusion I came to about this was that in these series my work is the machine, programmed and running, and then, if it is not 'sealed', in other words if it can be hooked up to a monitor or a projector, the operation can be carried out by anyone (a curator, a collector, etc.) and according to any criterion. Once programmed, the machine is self-sufficient and how it is used is no longer any of my business. Of course, there are also cases where I personally use some of the machines to make video-projections and this gives rise to more specific situations that can be documented.

C.P. In your interactive works, such as your CIMs, the relationship with the public and collective participation are essential elements. So is it possible to talk about the performative - in a sense unrepeatable - character of the work? From this perspective, each work is different, elusive. What are your thoughts on this?

M.B. In these interactive works the unpredictability of the generative software and of the participants come together, and the device (the system) is not simply 'used' by the public, it includes the public, establishing rules of functioning not only for the generative machine but also for the interaction. In the CIMs - a work at the intersection between generative art, public art and mobile e-democracy - the public interacts, through the mobile phone network, with a machine programmed to generate random images which are projected on a large scale on to a building. In this way the images change over time depending on the input coming from the public. But I never thought about installations like this in terms of performance. They are 'devices' which as such are destined to live independently after the artist has established the rules of operation by means of the software. The most interesting thing you can do with a self-sufficient device is to let it work in different situations, producing unpredictable results.