ACMI has been at the forefront of attempts to preserve Virtual Reality artwork since acquiring its first VR acquisition, Ghosts, Toast and the Things Unsaid, in 2016. Following the appointment of Candice Cranmer, as one of Australia’s first time-based media conservators in 2019, the Collections department has increasingly developed long-term strategies for preserving these complex artworks.
What I’ve been doing is looking in more depth at the processes for acquiring the VR works and attempting to map out the steps undertaken to ensure the artwork’s safe delivery to the collection after its initial installation in the galleries.
A bit about me / Amdanaf I
I’m originally from Wales – a beautiful green mountainous country in the UK, with a rich cultural heritage and ridiculously long place names… but I have jumped over the border into England – initially in London where I worked at the V&A, but now residing in Leeds. I am currently a third-year doctoral candidate in the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds. My research interests are in museum collections management procedures, digital collecting, social media and memes.
As part of PhD funding, I am supported to do a one-month project with a non-university institution on a topic that is not directly related to my PhD, but on one that can have some tangible crossovers (I could have also done this project on something completely unrelated, but the pull of ACMI’s exciting collection was just too much). I am generously funded by the White Rose College of Arts and Humanities, supported by the UK Research Institute’s Arts and Humanities Research Council.
Acquisition processes in museums
I’m really interested in the ways museums bring objects into their collections. The process of acquisition involves a lot of information gathering, careful consideration of the museum’s priorities and ability to look after the object in question and finally a serious commitment to the preservation of it for people today and in the future.
I understand acquiring an object as the museum making a statement about the significance of something and signing up to care for it and make accessible to anyone who wants to know more about it. ACMI has been doing this for Australia’s film and moving image heritage for quite some time and has more recently been making a commitment to do the same for videogames and digital culture more widely too.
Museums, throughout their history, have gone about acquiring objects through an array of questionable practices that *some* are starting to address now. Museums partaking in collecting today are generally bound by a Code of Ethics and genuinely want to do so through transparent and open conversations with the people whose cultural and artistic materials are being collected.
The aim of my project with ACMI was to map out the processes undertaken by the Collections department to collect difficult and complex digital artworks like VR experiences in consultation with the creators — committing to preserve and make accessible the works as authentically as possible, and with the creator’s original intent at its core.
ACMI and VR
ACMI’s recent VR acquisitions have come into the collection through a highly active commissioning program. The ACMI Commissioning Program is well established and in 2017 the Mordant Family Commission — a three year long annual commissioning program specifically for VR work — was added to the suite of programs. The aim of the Mordant Family Commissioning program is to support mid-career visual artists to experiment with VR for the first time. The winning artist is chosen by a panel of international industry experts. It has in the past included VR experts and museum curators, and also includes the CEO and Director of ACMI.
The VR works collected through the Mordant Family Commissioning program so far are:
- Bayi Gardiya (Singing Desert), Dr. Christian Thompson (2017 recipient)
- Did you ask the river?, Joan Ross (2018 recipient)
ACMI has commissioned and collected several VR works prior to the Mordant Family Commission being set up. These include:
- Ghosts, Toast and the Things Unsaid, Sandpit and Grumpy Sailor (2016)
- Prehistoric VR, Erth Visual and Physical Inc. (2016)
The winner of the 2019 Mordant Family Commission has been announced as Epiphytes (working title), by Tully Arnot.
During this project, I consulted most closely with Ghosts, Toast and the Things Unsaid, Prehistoric VR and Did you ask the river?
Collecting VR at ACMI
Collecting and preserving VR experiences in a museum and archive context is still an emergent area of practice. Very little has been standardised within VR design and those museums stepping forward to begin collecting the creative ways in which VR is utilised are constantly taking a step into the unknown. ACMI is one of a handful of museums grappling with VR preservation. Other museums like Tate have also been researching preservation strategies for rapidly evolving VR, AR (Augmented reality) and other TBM (time-based media) mediums.
ACMI’s very own Candice Cranmer wrote an excellent blog piece recently outlining some of the big issues with VR preservation after attending a VR hackathon at the iPres 2019 conference hosted by Tate, Rhizome and University of Amsterdam.
So… How exactly does ACMI go about handling a process for acquiring constantly evolving physical / digital hybrid artworks? It isn’t straightforward, but collaboration, openness, documentation and flexibility are central to managing the process.
Here’s a little chart I drew to try and map the process out:
*Full disclosure* This is only a draft and is more of an ideal situation rather than an example of how it is followed every time.
However, attempting to show the acquisition process in this format does a lot to highlight the different steps that need to be followed, the departments that need to speak to each other, the collaborative decisions that need to be made, and also underlines some of the high-level considerations the different parties involved need to take into account. This really helps with the collaboration and openness elements mentioned above.
But let’s turn our attention to some of the findings of my work.
The physical tech
Museums are traditionally places where material culture is collected. Physical and tangible things — rather than digital or virtual. In many cases, museums begin to come into issues when trying to acquire and preserve born-digital material, but ACMI have developed some pretty robust processes to manage their digital content. In the case of VR, some of the more nitty-gritty issues come down to decisions over what departments hold the equipment needed to experience the work (headgear, phone etc).
VR works rely on interactions between physical hardware, digital software and humans. Sometimes the hardware is just a delivery mechanism of the work… other times the hardware is an inseparable piece of the work. Each case is different.
The world of VR is evolving so quickly it is difficult to keep up. In the three works I looked at in detail, they all used different technology, with some that have pretty complex installation and setup processes.
In some cases, the hardware did not make it into the collection at the same time as the digital files. Since acquiring Prehistoric VR in 2016, the Google Daydream headset has already been discontinued. The ACMI AV department had a number of headsets, but the collection didn’t have one. Close collaboration between AV and Collections has meant the work is still authentically accessible. However, despite the collaboration and openness between the departments, there is definitely room for error. Going forward, it would be great if the collection was able to acquire all physical and digital components needed to experience the work together.
Documenting the work
A really important part of the acquisition process for complex works like VR experiences is thorough documentation. ACMI uses an incredibly useful Artist Preservation Questionnaire based on the Media Matters in Art guidelines, which does an excellent job at documenting the artist’s intent, what components of the installation are replaceable or not, and the extent to which the artist is happy with different preservation and future exhibition strategies. These questionnaires are generally completed alongside a recorded interview too, recording the rich discussion that cannot always be captured through a questionnaire.
Equally important is documenting how the installation actually works, fits together (both physically and digitally) and how people experience it.
At the moment the initial installation of the work is handled by the artist, curators and AV teams. All of whom are there to get the work in, generally within a pretty tight schedule. One thing that might be useful as part of the acquisition process is having someone present to document the process visually and with step-by-step written instructions. A room layout is all well and good, but sometimes you just need to see how things actually looked.
An excellent example of this being done was with the Ian Burns In the telling installation in 2013. The fully recorded and documented installation provided the museum with an in-depth guide on how to reinstall — a process that has been done on a number of occasions since. I know this requires extra resource, but it feels like it’ll be so valuable in the long run for so many different reasons.
ACMI have got some exciting VR works in their collection due to them taking risks and being flexible in their processes. With the current development rate of VR technology, many of the works in the collection right now will not be re-creatable with newer technologies. Acquiring both the works and technology that enables them is incredibly important and ACMI are going to find themselves with some excellent examples of artwork from this exciting and rapidly developing period VR is going through right now. Alongside this, documenting the installation process and the ways in which people interact with the artwork will be incredibly important to help authentically re-install the work and see how peoples’ interactions change as VR becomes more widely used.
Acquisition is of course, only the beginning of the digital preservation processes undertaken at ACMI. The museum is developing some innovative approaches to communicating digital preservation, and will be launching a new Media Preservation Lab as part of the renewal project.