New Media Museums Proceedings, 2022

On the Silver Globe: From a Vintage Print Photography to a Complex Media Installation. Re-contextualization as Preservation Strategy


The issue of archiving and preserving media art is a great challenge that is constantly raised within the practice of WRO Art Center. The concept of Active Art Archive evokes the idea of keeping archives alive and open to continuous research and exploration, which also means treating archived content as a set of building blocks for further artistic creation. One result of this approach was the creation of the installation series On the Silver Globe, based on Zygmunt Rytka's archival photograph from our collection. This case study of a constantly evolving artwork also has in the background the notion of the life and death of media art, creating graveyards for obsolete concepts and reviving zombies from outdated technology. We pose questions rather than provide answers, but they all stem from WRO's experience in experimenting with reimagining and disenchanting media art archives.

Perspectives on archiving media art on the example of the WRO collection

From the very beginning of the WRO Biennale, a festival of media art in Wrocław organized since 1989, the subject of special concern accompanying the substantive program of the festival has been its adequate documentation - of individual exhibitions, events, installations, concerts, performances, lectures. The event, initially referred to as the Sound-Based Visual Art Festival [PL: Festival Wizualnych Realizacji Okołomuzycznych (WRO)], became a platform for building a documentary collection of contemporary art. It also created favorable conditions for the establishment in 2008 of the WRO Art Center, an institution operating at the intersection of art, communication and technology, which became the guardian of the legacy and organizer of the WRO Biennale.1)

The WRO Archive is not only a space for documentation, preservation, and records, but also a way of thinking about the collection strongly correlated with the re-contextualization of its contents - the presentation of documentation of events that originated in a specific context, but as a result of recording on the medium have been transferred from their original temporality into another. This changes the conditions of presentation, the accompanying artifacts, but also the ontic status of the original artistic gesture - for example, a performance turns into a video recording, and a video recording becomes a component of an installation.

However, the WRO Archive is not only a collection of ready-to-use, properly edited video materials, but also objects from performative actions and special events. These include Piotr Wyrzykowski's VHS tape with drops of his blood from the performance Ucieleśnianie [Embodying] (1994) or vintage Gameboy consoles that served as musical instruments for the Gameboyzz Orchestra Project art group. In addition, several historical raw recordings are still waiting in the archive for processing. Turning to exact numbers, the WRO's inventoried collection currently (as of June 2022) contains 7091 videos (edited clips), of which 1946 are recorded on VHS tapes, 633 on Betacam, and 14 on U-Matic. Next to it there is the extensive (and still developing) collection of photographic documentation - negatives, prints and digital files, as well as objects and installations, including algorithmic works.

The backlog includes another more than 5,000 recordings and documentation in S-VHS, MiniDV, CD, DVD, VCD, SVCD and Audio CD formats. To this should be added digital material – stored on computers, external drives, servers and clouds.

The collected videos have been made since 1989, with the first WRO Festival, but they are not limited to Wrocław. Among them are documentations made at the ZKM in Karlsruhe or the Ars Electronica festivals in Linz. Among the semi-amateur materials we can also find professional recordings, including registrations and television programs made in collaboration with Polish Television in the 1990s and 2000s. Also an important part of the collection are the original video works submitted as part of open calls to the WRO Biennale, as well as works donated or entrusted by artists, mainly in the form of physical media (tape).

The documentation forms a basis for further activities in the form of printed and electronic publications, installations and exhibitions. WRO Art Center publishes the WIDOK [The View] series dedicated to the history of media art.2) These are multimedia publications (texts+videos) based mostly on our materials, in some cases also on video fragments acquired from other collections during documentation process. Individual volumes of the WIDOK series included thematic collections, with articles on art, visuality and cultural theory, and a catalog of historical works of video installation, as well as issues devoted to specific artists (Nam June Paik, Istvan Kantor). The construction of such a corpus of issues is inherently endemic, and the projected narrative does not claim universalism, but rather creates space for polyphony, describing phenomena from a specific perspective by authors associated with the Biennale and the WRO Art Center, an institution that is an extension of the Biennale and at the same time a base for its organization.

The WRO Archive is a source for curating/creating screening programs, so-called thematic paths, as well as for exhibition elements. We aim to make it widely accessible to the public, including professional audiences (curators, art historians, etc.). During the 19th WRO Media Art Biennale 2021 REVERSO, we launched the beta version of the new incarnation of Media Library as an online platform collecting a range of documentation of exhibitions and activities, lectures and artist interviews.3) It is a base for those dealing with the thematic areas of the archive, but also for anyone looking for references and inspiration for their own creative or research activities. It is also a space for media and educational activities, such as presentations of works during art classes at universities and academies.

Active Art Archive or (Re-)Contextualization as a Preservation Strategy

The term “active archive” emerged in reference to the practice of re-contextualizing historical artifacts and documents in the context of the preparation of two comprehensive exhibitions on the history of video installation and interactive installation, curated by Piotr Krajewski and the WRO team in 2012.

The exhibitions and related events, prepared in the context of the then approaching 50th anniversary of media art, were dedicated to the origins of video art as one of the most important currents setting the rhythm of modernist, postmodernist and postmedia transformations of contemporary culture and art. Both shows brought together original works and their contemporary revisits, dialogically developed by Pawel Janicki, Bartosz Konieczny, Michal Szot, and others, as repetitions of their characteristic historical idioms, forms and strategies, using original analog equipment, as well as contemporary algorithmic techniques. Many of the presented works paid tribute to the prominent creators of early media art, proposing a kind of transfer of its essence to the present day.

Here we would like to refer to Japanese artist Yae Akaiwa of the exonemo group. At the 2nd International Symposium for Media Art organized by Arts Council Tokyo and Japan Foundation Asia Center in 2018, Akaiwa offered an inspiring metaphor for the preservation of art in changing social, political, cultural and technological conditions. She linked art preservation to a ritual practiced at Ise Jingu, one of Japan's holiest Shinto shrines. Every twenty years, beginning in the 7th century, the old temple is torn down and a new one - of the same dimensions - is built right on an adjacent site. Even though the building has been a copy of a copy for centuries, new wood and modern tools are used each time. To renew the connection to the deity (concept/software), it is moved to a new building (technical infrastructure + time context/hardware). The performative process of updating the past in the present takes about eight years of various rituals. This metaphor seems particularly apt for time-based media art. It also shows that art has always been about negotiating meanings, dealing with specific settings, codes and filters, all of which change over time.

Another stimulating thought in this regard comes from Erkki Huhtamo, a media theorist and archaeologist, who in his talk at the 2018 symposium on art and science Future Mind 2 organized by Kyoto University described art in general as a stream of recurring “concepts trying to find their contexts.”

Both conceptual inspirations are helpful in presenting another example of preserving the essence of media artworks rather than their physical forms, which become obsolete for various reasons. The exhibition Reincarnation of Media Art [RoMA],4) curated on behalf of WRO Art Center by Agnieszka Kubicka-Dzieduszycka, was originally conceived and co-curated by Japanese, New York-based artist duo exonemo (Yae Akaiwa, Kensuke Sembo) on the occasion of the 15th anniversary ofYamaguchi Center for Arts and Media (YCAM), a vibrant venue for the production and presentation of media art in Japan, where it premiered in 2018. Exonemo, who themselves have experienced the obsolescence of their own digitally born artworks, created a unique environment to reflect on the limited lifespan of media art and its potential future beyond the impermanence of their materiality. The exhibition includes a selection of “still life” works by artists who have worked with YCAM in the past: Koichiro Eto, exonemo, Masaki Fujihata, Toshio Iwai, Kazuhiko Hachiya, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Nam June Paik, Tadasu Takamine, Nao Tokui and Tetsuya Umeda. These now-defunct artworks were displayed in burial chambers inside a massive Mausoleum of Media Art resembling a burial mound. Video interviews with these and other artists provided different perspectives on the role of art as a transcendent vehicle for concepts traveling in time and finding new appropriate forms of expression. An additional layer of documentation and contextualization was provided by the audio guide, which could be played on a variety of historical devices (ghetto blaster, walkman, CD player, minidisc, etc.). Most importantly, the approach to preserving media art through documentation and (re)contextualization was indicated by the situating the exhibition in a burial mound, a culturally encoded object, commonly associated with the impermanence of life and death, which served as a platform for researching and documenting local media art histories in other regions as well.

When Agnieszka Kubicka-Dzieduszycka visited the RoMA exhibition at YCAM, preparations for the 30th anniversary edition of the WRO Media Art Biennale 2019 were already well under way. She immediately wanted to realize this unique exhibition formula to look back at the history of the WRO festivals through no-longer functional media artworks from the archives of both institutions: WRO and YCAM. The presentation at the WRO Art Center was the first - and so far the only - successful attempt to create a living archive of “dead” artworks enriched with local content, thus expanding the scope and timeframe of the RoMA exhibition.

Together with exonemo and the YCAM team (coordinated by curator Kazuhiko Yoshizaki), thanks to special support from the Japan Foundation, we prepared a regional iteration of the show by arranging the burial chambers inside a gallery at the WRO Art Center, the entrance to which resembled a path leading to a burial mound with walls made of clay and straw. In such a setting, we decided to exhibit several dead artworks from the original exonemo selection (Koichiro Eto, Masaki Fujihata, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Nao Tokui) together with works by Piotr Wyrzykowski, Anna Plotnicka, Gameboyzz Orchestra Project, and Lukasz Szalankiewicz (aka Zenial) that have been created/produced/presented by WRO in the past.

In keeping with the original concept, which paid special tribute to Nam June Paik (two special burial chambers for Paik's dead works from the collection of the Nam June Paik Art Center in Seoul), we were also able to show two unique remains of his works from the private collection of Paik's former student and technical assistant. One of these was a CRT television screen recording from an installation of Zen for TV in 1976. Paik then made it on site for an exhibition at Kunsthal Charlottenborg in Copenhagen. Parts of the old television were replaced in 2001-2002, according to the artist's instructions, when another CRT was placed in the original Danish case to play the recording. This version of Zen for TV was later acquired by the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

An important element of the exhibition was a Wrocław-specific audio guide, which explained the various reasons why the objects on display - traces of past artworks - had become dead, without losing the meanings they had accumulated over time. This curatorial commentary provided insight into the more universal aspects of media art history, while a series of video interviews with Polish artists allowed reflection on the life and death of time-based art. These interviews were displayed within the burial mound of the RoMA exhibition and can still be viewed on the WRO's Vimeo channel, adding further layers of meaning to the - seemingly dead - artworks, keeping their essence active despite the passage of time.

On the Silver Globe: From vintage print photography to a complex media installation

Among the archive-based artworks of WRO, which are the result of our archival-activating approach, we would like to draw special attention to the installation On the Silver Globe as an example of an action taken around an original physical artwork from the collection (a photogram) giving rise to a new work (installation), activating other meanings of the original work in a new context.

Two photographs by Zygmunt Rytka (1947-2018), a Polish pioneer of conceptual time-based art, donated by the artist to the WRO collection, served as the inspiration and starting point for the work. When 20th -21th July 1969 he photographed the TV screen during the broadcast of the first manned moon landing, Poland was the only Warsaw Pact country where this first global media event was available live on television. The Moon broadcast became a testament to humanity's drive in the 20th century for “space exploration” and the power of the developing media technology. The event inspired artists around the world and went down in television history. Rytek's photograph showing the board: “The transmission from the moon has ended” [PL: Zakończyliśmy transmisję z Księżyca], published by Polish Television, however, had political rather than cultural overtones at the time. From the perspective of the harsh everyday life in a totalitarian regime lauded by communist propaganda as a glorious utopia, the moon landing - an achievement of a hostile political system - seemed an irrational event in a galaxy far from reality. The Apollo 11 mission was a strong point in the arms race, but also a significant blurring of the official glossy image of an advanced socialist world.

In 2012, Piotr Krajewski and the ephemeral creative collective WRO center Group created a tribute to Rytka’s work consisting of an original framed print of a photograph and a video projection on a historical convex CRT TV monitor, showing a clip posted on YouTube of astronaut Neil Armstrong's first walk on the moon. The recording of this television broadcast, once a phenomenal media sensation, now functions as a meme circulating on the Internet.

The installation updates the original context of Rytka's work, highlighting how media technology and cultural phenomena can be used as raw material for art. Later, another two, interactive versions of the work, were created. Viewers were able to manipulate the video signal with their own internet-connected mobile devices through the original interaction system. With image processing software, the video component could be transformed into a pixel matrix generating a live 3D image, allowing viewers to control their viewing perspective and literally adding a new dimension to the archival footage. In addition, these subsequent versions made use of another cultural artifact: one of the earliest films of the sci-fi genre, Georges Méliès' A Trip to the Moon, a classic not only in terms of cinema, but also in terms of the history of the human imagination. Méliès' original film, a treasure guarded in the archives, is at the same time widely available on the Internet in countless copies (files), reflecting the changing notion of an original work of art and its value.


As the example of On the Silver Globe demonstrates, WRO’s strategy is not an example of museum preservation, where the overriding rationale is to preserve the artwork in its original state and condition. Rather, this practice is taking off the white gloves to allow the freedom of creative reconstruction, and approaching the original work as an open-source base for further queries and development. The weight of historical preservation and maintaining the evolution of the artwork shifts to the process of documentation and opening up the archives to the wider public and researchers. Camera recordings are limited in some ways, especially in terms of user experience and interaction, but they are partially immune to the problem of media obsolescence and the limiting factors of exhibiting actual artworks, such as time and space.

In a sense, we are also returning to the origins of media art: the counterculture and the volatile nature of time-based media. From the very beginning, media art was not intended to be shown in museums, focusing rather on the continuous process of expression and anarchistic exploration of new devices emerging from the dark blessings of capitalism. Artistic practices based on the re-contextualization of content were, in a sense, possible forms of freeing artworks from institutional preservation and allowing them to live, die and reincarnate freely.

Reflecting on the pros and cons of this perspective, the issue of intervention and modification and the notion of authorship naturally come to the fore. The remix culture and deep immersion in the online community can serve as anecdotal evidence of the contemporary free flow of ideas and content. As well as disobedience to the concept of ownership and copyright, even in the “official” art market with the NFT at the forefront. However, internet-driven culture with its anarcho-hacker background does not erase legal issues for museums and art galleries. In the case of On the Silver Globe, the issue was quite simple, as the original artwork (a photograph by Zygmunt Rytka) was preserved in its original state as part of the installation. What was manipulated was the context resolving around it. And even more: at one point the original photograph simply disappeared from the installation and remained only as a disembodied concept, which led to the process of creating On the Silver Globe in its various incarnations.

At this point, there are more questions than possible answers when it comes to issues of possible preservation of media art in the process of its re-contextualization. However, despite its drawbacks, this strategy also has some promising features, especially when it comes to obsolete systems and devices. A possible remix of an obsolete interface brings the artwork back to life, even if the original program is no longer supported by the app store or has been destroyed by a media failure, for example. Based on text, photo and video documentation, such an “active conservator” would be able to restore the original interface using modern devices. However, emulation is also not a 1:1 restoration process and requires much more modification than re-contextualization alone. By letting in the creative aspect, it can open up the possibility of keeping fresh, living ideas resolving around technology, rather than reviving technological zombies speaking a language no one understands anymore.

In this sense, an art institution can become a time travel machine for concepts and contexts. Because both technology and ideas can become obsolete. The goal of the WRO Active Art Archive, therefore, is to provide tools and content to reconfigure visions and inventions that are not seen in isolation from the history and development of media art. The preservation process is based on re-play rather than freezing an artwork at a specific point in time and space. Even though the original artwork may sometimes be lost in the process, the growing layers of possible contexts do not allow it to die. It simply brings it to another level of historical continuity.

However, many issues related to re-contextualization are yet to be determined. Despite years of experience in creating an active media art archive, we can only pose some questions that other institutions might consider when building media art collections and archives. The case study describing the installation On the Silver Globe is an example of how a single collection item can initiate a whole complex process of redefining collections/archives as graveyards, and it also underscores the need to create a new, forward-looking imagination for each new acquisition that feeds the growing collections of art institutions.