Media Art History International

Coordinators: Sean Cubitt (UK), Oliver Grau (Austria), Ross Harley (Australia)

Advisors: Jon Ippolito (USA), Christiane Paul (USA)

All media, and all artworks, decay. Electronic media are especially vulnerable; as a result of both the decay of magnetic and optical storage and rapid changes in technology, major works made even 10 years ago can no longer be shown or are disappearing without a trace. Our immediate concern is with the imminent loss of both artworks and the technological infrastructure they depend on. Sustaining magnetic and optical media and the platforms they depend on is the acid test of preservation: advancing work on them will have spin-off benefits for all forms of digital archiving. An equally pressing issue is that much of the knowledge about their creation, dissemination and impact is in the possession of a generation of pioneers, still living, but in old age. To date, systematic global preservation and documentation campaigns do not exist. At a second level of urgency is the necessity to construct networks of scholars, researchers, curators, collectors and archivists to ensure that the resulting archives can be shared internationally. This infrastructure requires the formation of an association, the development of technical strategies for sharing information and knowledge, and the creation of new interpretive systems. Many important online documentation and research projects are also disappearing from the web. As they falter, we risk losing their valuable material forever. Contemporary scientific research relies on access to shared data. The same is true of the Arts and Humanities, which lack a concerted international policy for sustainability and support of the digital heritage, such as exists partly in the natural sciences. As recently expressed in an international declaration (, signed by more than 350 scholars, curators and artists, there is urgent need to create a stable international platform of interoperable archives, of expertise and support for important regional histories, and to internationalise research, modes of interpretation and shared resources to document and preserve, to promote study and appreciation, to create a permanent resource for future scholars, artists, curators and creative engineers, and to make major interventions in the understanding of media as the basic functioning of society.

Media art history can provide powerful evidence and arguments to correct common presuppositions and influential recent theses, and to develop new models of interpretation. To do so we need to combine the dispersed practices of our network of collaborators into a unique new network of research and dissemination by combining complementary areas of art history, image science, new media studies and semantic computing required to bring this high-gain project to fruition.

Questions to address

  • How much is the Media Art of the 20th and 21st century related to previous art forms and where are there qualitative and quantitative discontinuities?

  • What significant role do technological innovations play in the creation of new image worlds and what function has the artistic drive in the formation of new technologies?

  • What significant new theorisations of the formation of diverse social, economic, political and cultural forms does comparative study of the evolution of image media and its technologies enable?

  • What are the effects of using the semantic tools and technological infrastructure the project seeks to provide on scholarly work on images?

  • What kind of documentation on the technologies of media arts are needed for systematic and concerted preservation?


• National funding agencies understandably fund national projects, but the history of media arts, involving as it does scientific, technical and cultural movements, has a strongly international formation. Collections and knowledge about them tend to be distinctly national or at best regional, with a bias towards Western Europe and North America to the exclusion of immensely important histories of media arts in Latin America, Asia, Australasia and to a smaller but significant extent in Africa.

• The challenges of interoperability and of handling large quantities of mixed data (including different visual media, different languages, schematics and 3D documentation of devices and installations) in integrated and evolvable open platforms are too great for one discipline. It is vital to learn from current projects across science, engineering and the humanities, and where relevant to integrate our models with those pioneered by scholars assembled around SEAD and similar projects

• Some selection from the vast quantity of media artworks is inevitable, given the experience of film and television archives and increasingly of libraries. At present, that selection is extremely ad hoc, based only on the interests and criteria of a single generation of scholars and curators, and lacking any institutional criteria. In many instances, national art collections do not include media art works, or have only recently begun to acquire them, leaving the task of archiving and critical assessment to initiatives reliant on ephemeral funding and projects with very specific goals and orientations. Two approaches are possible: developing shared criteria; or refusing to accept the canon-formation implicit in it. However, since not all works can be stored (or indeed restored), open debate on these issues is vital, but as yet has no platform.

Goals and Objectives of Research

Two visual art forms have been pioneered in living memory: video and digital art. They share with older mechanical arts, notably prints, photography and cinematography, qualities of archival vulnerability, low status, and now the risk that the pioneers of these forms may die before their works can be saved and the story of their struggles and achievements recorded. As media evolution accelerates, the electronic arts are especially vulnerable to decay, both of individual works and of the devices they were designed to play on. Therefore encouraging the development and maintenance of collections is our first goal. The profusion of invention associated with media arts has immense potential for future innovation. The systematic overview which diachronic database configuration allows is vital to preserving this inherited ecology of innovations.

To achieve these goals, we need new tools for online access, search and comment capable of integrating different kinds of archive. These tools need to combine digitization of pre-digital media and technical artifacts and integration of archives reflecting the range of holdings germane to media art historical enquiry. We refer to this program of work as theInteractive Archive of Image Media (IAIM). Both in order to establish this, and to reap the benefits of it, we need a long-term sustainable network of interpretation and discussion which will promote interest in and therefore support for the media art heritage.

While art history has a standard lexicon of historical movements and trends, these have not often been articulated with the technical forms of media, while media historians and historians of technology have rarely ventured into the field of aesthetics.

The goals and objectives we want to achieve with MAHI:

  • encouraging the development and maintenance of collections

  • developing new tools for online access, search and comment capable of integrating different kinds of archive

  • building a long-term sustainable network of interpretation and discussion

  • constructing new models for media art historical research

  • sharing expertise with colleagues across disciplines in developing, maintaining and evolving systems for handling diverse mass databases

  • building bridges to existing art institutions, technology collections and the public