Interview with Gerard Alberts (UvA)

Nederlands Instituut voor Mediakunst, Amsterdam, May 30, 2011

 

Gerard Alberts teaches history of computing at the University of Amsterdam, and at the Preservation of New Media program at the Akademie der bildenden Künste in Stuttgart. His current research endeavours include leading the European Science Foundation Eurocore project 'Software for Europe' and the 'Stichting Historie der Techniek project De geest van de computer; geschiedenis van software in Nederland'.

He has been an advisor on exhibitions and an advisor to SCEN, Stichting Computer Erfgoed Nederland, on several projects, most recently on a program valuating objects and establishing a register of computer heritage in The Netherlands1. His historical interest in the culture of computer use and his close involvement with computer heritage projects have led Gaby Wijers and Jason Langdon (NIMk) to contact him in the framework of the Obsolete Equipment Project.

 

NIMk: Can you tell us how you got involved in the conservation of computer-based art?

Gerard Alberts: I'm a historian of computing. I started out studying mathematics to get a good sense of our technological culture. You couldn't study computer science at that time - in the 70's. It only became possible in 1981. I always thought I was going to be a philosopher, but once I looked into archives for historical research, I was lost. I've become a historian since, and took my PHD in history on a study of rationalisation in Dutch society in the 1950s.2 That makes me a cultural historian. Within that range of cultural history I keep coming back to computers, ICT culture and mathematics, partly because nobody else dares to go there.

As a cultural historian, I'm interested in what people actually did with their machines, how it changed their behaviour, and how it changed their culture. My interest in such machines means that I'm an exception amongst historians of computing because I actually want to see and touch the machines. That's why I got in touch with the museum people in the Netherlands and in 1992 we started the Werkgroep Verzamelbeleid Computerhistorie, a working group on collection policy computer history’. We started as a completely informal working group, and focused not on the preservation of things, but on collection policy. Indeed our entry point into the whole field of collecting old computers was rather abstract.

 

NIMk: And from which museums or institutions did these people come?

Gerard Alberts: The main drive came from the tax and customs museum, Belasting en Douanemuseum, because it consisted of this quaint little museum in Rotterdam which got overrun by a collection of equipment from the actual tax data processing establishment in Apeldoorn –by tradition one of the largest data factories in the country. So from one day to the next they went from a quaint customs museum, with objects relating to smuggling etcetera to owning a whole collection of obsolete computer and punch card equipment that was thrown upon them. They had to decide how to deal with a cumbersome problem.

Other participants in the working group were from the Techniekmuseum, the museum of technology, in Delft, from Scryption, the museum of writing equipment in Tilburg, from a private collection with a background in accountancy, the Stichting Moretgroep Collectie. Little by little, people from the private collection Stichting Computermuseum, then in The Hague, and from the Computermuseum at the University of Amsterdam joined the working group.

I had developed a keen interest in all this kind of old equipment and suggested an exhibition at Scryption of punched card systems sponsored by the Stichting Moretgroep Collectie.3 And I have a weak spot for private collectors: for those individuals who find it difficult saying goodbye to their old machines. These were the same people who provided me with the details of how to work a machine; why a certain notch was there; in which order the button were pushed. I'd be interviewing them when all of a sudden their hands would go up in the air and start manipulating, showing me how they would insert the first words when booting up the computer. It’s set in the memory of their muscles. Those are my greatest days, when I can really touch on their memories.

The working group had existed for 12 years when we applied for more money to do some larger projects. The funding organisation, Mondriaan Stichting, said: “Ok, we've supported a smaller project, but in fact we don’t want to spend money on a working group. You will have to become a legal entity”. That is why we changed from a working group to Stichting Computer Erfgoed Nederland (SCEN, Foundation for Computer Heritage in The Netherlands). The founding partners were the official museums involved –“official” meaning museums in the national museum register. By consequence I was no longer part of it; I have been an advisor to SCEN since then. We felt that we were in danger of losing the connection with private collectors. So from the start of SCEN we established a platform meeting twice a year with everyone involved, choosing its venue both at museums and private collections. Over the years, SCEN has been on excursions to places like Bletchley Park (Milton Keynes, UK) and the Heinz Nixdorf Museumsforum (Paderborn, Germany). With SCEN, museum professionals and private collectors, we have travelled everywhere, to local private collections as well as international museums.

I've got to know the field inside out. I did the first inventory. Not as an inventory of machinery, on the level of objects, but as an inventory of where the collections are located, resulting in this little booklet Collectie Nederland Oude Computers.4 The first thing one notices is that the moment one thinks one's finished, the field starts changing dramatically. You may think you've developed something of a common policy of collecting, i.e., you give people the ability to trust that they can throw away or give away certain objects because such items will be in other museums as well. You make it easier on museums to deselect. However a major part of collectors are private collectors and whatever they may have on their mind, they never think of giving away an object. To them it's hardly helpful having a common collecting policy, but never mind. We have them all listed here according to the situation in 1999. The other thing you notice is where policy is being made for real: at home and in the museums, and certainly not at some working group table where the directors of the very same museums sit discussing policy. It may soothe one's conscience to suggest that a working group discussing at such a level made it easier for them. What really happened was that the co-operative transfer of large parts of collections from one museum to the other never passed via the table of this working group. Indeed it should not have done.

The founding partners of SCEN were the Belasting en Douanemuseum, the Techniekmuseum Delft, the Scryption, and the Universities of Groningen and Amsterdam for their museums. You can see the ephemeral fate of museums these days. Techniekmuseum Delft is no longer a museum but a collection at the Technical University of Delft. Scryption lost its funding and has ceased to exist as a museum. One of the worlds finest collections of pens and typewriters is now stored in a depot. So a lot is going on in this field. Despite the firm basis one thinks is established: even the two major private collections have merged since. Stichting Computermuseum, an enormous collection of early personal computers from the 70's or 80's, has moved from The Hague to Apeldoornn and joined forces with the computer games museum in Epe, Bonami. In this field everything is moving, merging.

 

Collectie Nederland Oude Computers, Gerard Alberts. Tilburg: Werkgroep Verzamelbeleid Computerhistorie (Scryption), 2000.

 

NIMk: What is the time frame of the collection? Are people interested in changes in computers nowadays or do they focus on the sixties?

Gerard Alberts: There is a general loss of interest in recent machinery, after 1990 lets say. There is a keen interest among personal computer collectors in details of machines from the 70's and 80's. There are specialized Amiga clubs and Apple clubs, trying to maintain the culture that grew around these machines at the time.

 

NIMk: It has become an online presence as well hasn't it, for example in forums?

Gerard Alberts: To me as an historian it's horrifying, because one can no longer distinguish between original machinery and software or emulation software, remakes of that software. I wouldn't even know where to start. At the moment I have no partiular interest in knowing such details. But I do know that between now and 10 years' time, I will be interested and I can predict my own despair at this point.

The case of the 50's and 60's is relatively easy. There are about a dozen machines in the Netherlands, each of them unique and representing its part of the pioneering spirit. It is easy to have an overview, to access the remnants of such machines, and to be sure that none of these machines is ever going to work. And in terms of Software (which is the field of my present research interest) all one has are the instruction booklets. Incidentally someone may have kept a pile of memory dump, but practically, even if they have a foot high pile of computer printout that does not count for me as accessible.

Yet, as a cultural historian I am keenly interested in how people worked with these machines and I have different entries. One of my favourites is looking for the sound on these machines. Because that means that you're looking for one specific item amongst all these machine buttons and handles -which happens to always be down on the left hand side, so that's an easy task. Once you start to recognize one entry to the machine, you start to recognize the rest. So for my own historical research it has been a good point of entry into the panel, into the desk of the machine. But far more important than that, far more important than my little apprehension of the machines and their consoles has been this item as an entry point to ask people how they actually worked with the machine. If it makes a sound and it's a warning sound, the key question for a whole range of new interviews becomes: who has the authority to stop it making that sound? Because if a machine is on an alarm one wonders: 'Oh, what's happening? Who is responsible?' If you are able to reconstruct that, you gain a lot of insight into the power structures around the machine and you start to understand how people trust and work with it. So from a historical perspective, it has been a very useful entry point for me.

 

NIMk: When you talk about sound in this sense, you're specifically relating it to on board sound. It's not the sound that you can create with a computer?

Gerard Alberts: No, it's really about on-board sounds that are part of the handling of the machine. So it's part of the machine’s interface. That is what makes it so interesting, that's what makes it culture. It has been a very useful entry point and has provided novel access to the memories and tacit knowledge of the people who worked with them.

 

NIMk: You interviewed these people on such points, but also about how they dealt with their collection?

Gerard Alberts: No, at that point I was doing interviews for my historical research. It was not so much about their collection, but on the other hand, when I visited collections the knowledge of sounds gave me an entry point into recognizing parts of certain machines. And no, the sounds are primarily related to machines from the pioneering age of the 1950's, one or two dozen.

The majority of private collections one visits is made up of machines from a whole new pioneering age, the 1970's, when people started to build micro computers into hobby computers and pc’s. Collections of these more recent micro computers are far from stable. They have been merging together.Until recently the Stichting Computermuseum in The Hague was like a beach on which many smaller collections were stranded. This ever expanding collection lacked the expertise and the funding to be really described and disclosed. It's an enormous collection, a huge pile of old equipment, which has just been moved to Apeldoorn in an effort to join forces with the Bonami games museum.

 

NIMk: How can one translate this to the art scene? Do the majority of computerbased artworks date from the 80's?

Gerard Alberts: Well Peter Struycken was pretty early. His earliest work with the changing light colours was from the late 60's. He was one of the pioneers, but judging from the computer art books, there were more. There were enough people working in this field to produce books.

And if you look what was done at the time, one striking phenomenon is that designers and engineers played around with the machines and were fond of making connections with the world of art. They liked making music with machines or writing programmes that would produce a composition. I have a plastic record of a violin concert composed on a machine, i.e., a programme was written to do a composition, but violin players did the execution of the composition. So people played with the machines in just about any way you can imagine. And there is a parallel tradition that has little to do with digital computers, of musicians playing around with analogue computers. Steim, with which you are no doubt familiar, has been around for a long time in The Netherlands. It is a separate tradition, because it is technologically separate, but its intent is not so different from that of working with digital computers.

 

NIMk: At the moment we are investigating the quantity, the number of museums and installations, and the exact definition of the problem, i.e., quality, typology and status of digitally born artworks in Dutch collections and making an inventory.5

Gerard Alberts: That's what we did about 10 years ago with computer collections. We've come quite a bit further on from then, since founding SCEN. I must say that the platform really functions very well. And by having it as a platform without the other formalities, you avoid the natural tensions that occur between professionals and amateurs. With amateurs, the private collectors, there's a tension between them which is twofold. The private collector wants to own and collect, while on the other hand, they want recognition. So there is a natural tension –or jealousy if you want to call it that – between the cultural recognition that museums get and what private collectors feel they too are due. This immediately pops up when the issue of funding a project arises. It's not so much about the money, but about the recognition and the status, which can create jealousy. In order to cope with this twofold problem, being a foundation with a platform works really well.

We're working on a transition to the latest fad in heritage world, which is creating towards a heritage community. But to do so I've warned the people of SCEN, we are bound to have to pay the consequences and find our own sponsoring. A heritage community, from the point of view of politics, is a community that no longer needs funding. That's the other point of view. One is to form a community that develops its identity around the notion of heritage, of objects of heritage. But the government is fond of this principle because to shows one's right to exist would also mean that one shows that one can generate one's own funds. Because one has this community. Which community wouldn't support it's own heritage, they would ask, what kind of community is that?

 

NIMk: We're looking for ways to connect people working in the institutions or museums, for instance the Stedelijk Museum, like Gert Hoogeveen, and people like Tjebbe van Tijen who has a big storage department, and is also an archivist. He used to work at the IISG, and has collected equipment and still has it stored. He's also a great enthusiast. And there are more. How can we create a platform, and find a ‘ structure’ in which we can somehow keep track of what there is still out there in terms of computerbased artworks, equipment and how to deal with obsolete equipment? On the other hand we are looking for access to knowledge on how to use the equipment or how it was used. What is the most significant or unique piece, what are the selection criteria…?

Within the museum collections of the Netherlands, the basis is formed of computer artworks from the 80's which are obsolete, replaced or declared dead. We must come up with a plan on how to deal with such a situation. Of course this is a big issue that we can't entirely solve. Our desire is to find a way to create a network or a platform combining knowledge, cases, equipment, artists, institutions and so on. Especially within the amateur/enthusiast sections within which there is so much knowledge and passion, and in the field of hacking - it would be useful to combine it all. This is why I find SCEN's approach very interesting and I'm not sure if we should do something similar or, if possible, connect with SCEN. That would be even better I think.

Gerard Alberts: This search for knowledge, and in particular the tacit knowledge of how one actually works with these machines, is my point of interest. When it comes to approaching the community as a historian, that's what I want to know.

Now let me continue on the point you made in passing, about the different areas of computers and these different styles of collecting that go with it. There is a pioneering age of the 50's and early 60's of which these two dozen machines remain. We may approach these machines individually as far as there are remnants of them and if we are lucky, we can interview some of the users. That's just about it. Then there is a next generation of what are called mini computers. We will find a DEC PDP-11 in just about every collection –highly uninteresting machines. If you talk to the owner of the machine, he will be fascinated by the capacity or by a technical feature of that machine.

Now comes the approach of SCEN, which changes the perspective. These PDP11 minicomputers played a major role in the computerization of laboratories and research institutes and at a later stage, computerization of data processing. The machines had a considerable societal impact, and SCEN set out to pinpoint this with the help of the collectors and their expertise. This is what we did: we gathered a number of collectors (private collectors and museum professionals) around the table with the pioneers of such machines. With their help we were able to designate the interesting transitions in the machines. By looking at the question in such a way, they would tell us which machines were interesting and I just kept asking why.

Well, as it turned out, within this whole range of PDP11 machines there is one type embodying the technical transition, making it appropriate for data processing as well: PDP11-45, available from 1972. You can actually trace the transition of the machine, through the places in which you can find back specimens of this very machine. From the 11-45 onwards you may find PDP11 machines in collections of the greater data factories. This interesting conclusion is reached by combining the points of view of collectors and historians. Keeping in mind that the heritage object should be significant in some way or another to Dutch history, as part of the Dutch history of automation or Dutch history in general, this machine stands out.

The interesting point for our discussion here is the innovative approach developed by SCEN. We created a roundtable situation including all the expertise available, from various backgrounds, and continued until significant conclusions were reached. Indeed, without realizing, we moved into the direction of a heritage community.

 

Portrait Gerard Alberts.

 

NIMk: Is SCEN also willing to do this? And to go and look for the expertise of the art from the 80’s or 90’s?

Gerard Alberts: Yes, but in a far more radical way. And that is the more substantial side of a transition to a heritage community. You can do this for a variety of reasons and call yourself a community instead of a platform. The community includes many subgroups, each with their own expertise and their own passions.

The word passion inspires me to introduce a footnote on keeping collections. I’m against dragging machines around the country. If a machine is somewhere and kept in storage at a company or in a private space, it sits there, because someone cared for it. Whatever you may create institutionally, you have to work hard to care for that machine on a level with the passionate collector who keeps it at a specific place. So before you gather old equipment parts in a central depot, think hard about what you destroy in terms of passion. Do it only if you are sure you can take with it the passionate care that people have put into looking after it. I as a historian have a keen interest in keeping such knowledge alive. So every day a man or a woman touches a certain machine is a good day for me.

 

NIMk: Maybe we can pay some attention to the subject of storage and maintenance, because this is one of our questions and research topics in the Obsolete Equipment project. I don’t think we’ll ever get to a central storage point and I’m not sure if it would be the best solution. I believe more in networked storage. But during all the interviews and cases we did, we were looking for storage and maintenance requirements. Did you arrive at such a thing? Do you have a protocol?

Gerard Alberts: No, there are no protocols, but there are good purposes.

 

NIMk: Are they written down? Could we find them?

Gerard Alberts: Not that I’m aware of.

 

NIMk: We have discussions about whether or not we should plug in the equipment once a year or not. All these kind of straight forward, typical discussions.

Gerard Alberts: There are, not in the Netherlands, but in the UK and US, well-documented resurrection efforts for obsolete computers. There are networks of information about specific old machines. There are all these very early machines like the relays, the clikketiclack-machines, from the 30’s and 40’s, which are relatively easy to run because they are not very sensitive compared to computerized machines. And from the 60’s also, if you isolate the power supply from the rest of the machine, you’ll be safe from the point of view of personal safety. Still, you want to reflect on what you are doing. What many people restarting a machine from the 60’s do, is replace the power supplies and capacitors. Strictly speaking, if you do that, it’s no longer a machine from the 60’s, because the insufficient and untrustworthy power supplies that these machines had were an essential part of the practice of working with them. What if a notion like “mean time between failures”, a standard expression in the 1960s, suddenly lost its meaning?

The people at the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester, told me their experience in reconstructing the famous “Manchester Baby Computer” – the 1948 pilot model of a stored programme computer. Negotiating the project, asking permission to purchase vacuum tubes for the contraption, they were told by the Museum's director: ‘Well, go ahead, but I don’t want to get any bills for very expensive parts over the coming decades’. So they collected what they could get on vacuum tubes. They were state-of-the-art in 1959, ten years on from the time when the original machine was built. Over these ten years the average lifetime of the vacuum tubes had considerably increased from the say 3000 hours they would have had in 1948. Given the number of tubes in your machine, you can actually count the average amount of minutes that you have before breakdown. But these very same vacuum tubes, from the very same factory ten years on were so much more reliable, that breakdown problems had vanished. So one of the essential experiences of working with these very early computers was lost, i.e., the experience that it could break at any second, and they were actually making counts of average time between failure of hardware. This is no longer relevant. So you lose an essential part of the experience of working with that machine. However good and conscious you are in making your reconstruction, you will always come up against this fact.

 

NIMk : Yes, you are gaining something, but losing something else which is quite significant. This relates to emulating the equipment of media artworks and all issues around how to mimic the original and document the differences.

Gerard Alberts: Indeed, I’ll finish the story about episodes and come back to the subject of emulation.There is another part we should talk about which is heritage.

As a prelude to the theme of heritage: we’re so much focussed on the technical equipment and the material remnants that we tend to overlook the rest of heritage. Heritage is formed by the material remnants of past practices. That doesn’t mean that we have to restrict ourselves to these technical components. There are other material objects: paper, etc.

Back to episodes. The problem of valuing an object presented itself differently for different episodes in history. Seemingly, for the early episode you have a sort of clear-cut problem: These are the top items, take care of them well. Which museum will accept that and say: “Ok, here are our two dozen icons from the 50’s. Done.”? With the help of these experts, we opened up our expertise and started asking questions like, ‘is there a story to it?’. This resulted in some very interesting situations.

We sent out a form to all the collectors (both professional and private collectors) asking them to fill out what kind of machines they have, what it had been used for and asked for a short biography of the machine. Now here was the difficulty. When you say “biography”, you want to know who purchased this particular machine and for what purpose, when was it used and by whom. However, the answers we got from private collectors were detailed specifications of how the machine was designed at the factory and from what date to what date the specific type had been manufactured and how many of them were produced. It never entered their mind that we wanted the biography of that specific piece of machinery. What they would give instead was a description of the production type.

 

Stichting Computer Erfgoed Nederland, www.computer-erfgoed.nl/

 

NIMk: Something you would be able to get from the manufacturer?

Gerard Alberts: Yes. This misunderstanding is very significant for the conceptual problem that we are dealing with here. Like I explained before for the second episode of the minicomputers (1965-1980), we included different approaches of expertise, but we held on to the idea that there would be one consensus and one authoritative voice deciding on the value of the object. Continuing in this direction of increasingly opening up the expertise as well as the fore for a variety of inputs, it does not converge any more tino one concept belonging to one machine. Consider the next episode of micro computers, from the mid 1970s onwards. Not only do you have many perspectives on one machine, but the sheer number of different brands and different types of machine is simply overwhelming for us - it's far too much. So that gave us a good reason to leave behind the idea of one evaluating committee with one kind of expertise and one authoritative voice if there are as many stories. Every narrative of expertise….

 

NIMk: ...It’s a matter of consensus, of formalizing common knowledge, isn’t it?

Gerard Alberts: Yes. And in order to formalize common knowledge, you have to take away the idea of an authoritative body.

 

NIMk: It becomes all-inclusive.

Gerard Alberts: Yes. And this is what we are trying for the next step. We are actually in the process of laying the basis for that.

 

NIMk: Will the Amiga Club and the Apple Club join SCEN?

Gerard Alberts: Yes. Not as the Amiga Club, but Amiga collectors are part of our collectors and we’re trying to mobilize them and bring in the expertise from the Amiga Club. And that’s the crucial part. Are we able to mobilize not just that 10% of Amiga adherents who collect one or two pieces, or 2000? So that defines the third stage of establishing what the heritage is.

 

NIMk: If we take this comparison to the museums, this is exactly the point we're at now, how to mobilize them? Some museums have bought some computer-based artworks. They will have to maintain them for the next hundred years, but they don’t yet have a strategy on how to do it.

Gerard Alberts: It’s worse, they are in a crisis, because they have no clue of what to do.

 

NIMk: Museums are looking into conserving media artworks in the same way that they handle objects: considering what elements might belong to the artwork; if replacing parts would harm the authenticity; if together with the work the related equipment should be bought; if the equipment should be hired, can it be updated or not? What does this mean? Of course there are also, within the museum world, good practices such as DOCAM, Inside Installations and the Variable Media Network and so on, for which guidelines, decision making models and case studies are researched. In practice they are applicable to individual works and are based on conversations with individual artists. There are some clues, but no general approach and network.

So, how can such an obligation or task be met? How to select? How to handle the amount of work? NIMk, for instance, has around 100 computer-based artworks. We’ve always had a policy in which we collect the documentation and let’s say the moving image together here at our premises and the artist him/herself takes care of the equipment. That is the way we’ve dealt with it. The museums have dealt with it in a different way. Some of them have collected and dedicated certain computer equipment, included software and everything related to one specific artwork. Others have collected equipment, which they share, using them for several artworks; some don't buy equipment, etc.

Gerard Alberts: …what the heritage is supposed to be. We are running straight into this paradox. Of what it is you're actually doing when you start to emulate. You also need to take into consideration the very fact that causes all these paradoxes. It was new and people did things, stringing the pieces of equipment together that they had. Which is not only far easier to do today, but also it is very hard to reinstate what they could do at that time. I remember my children showing me a moving image on a website. That was totally new. Not the screen of the computer, not being filmed line by line, or even the conventional imaging. I wasn’t over the horror of the impact of playing DOOM yet, but they were fascinated by the 3D imaging.

Those were moments of fascination. If you zoom out, what you have to work hard to preserve is that fascination with novelty. And then you see that you want to preserve, if possible, a working copy. The fact that artists were experimenting with the same thing, or protesting against the same thing. Who are those artists again who mess up on purpose?

 

NIMk: Jodi, we have some of their works in collection.

Gerard Alberts: They see what’s possible and they remind us that it's all just code. They mess up the code and show you what happens, so they really are confronting us. That’s what they are trying to bring across. Zooming out is easy. If you zoom in and say ‘oh, here is this artwork; how do I preserve it?’, then you are at a loss. Because then the matter arises on how one can emulate messing up the code. I find that such a marvellous example of the paradox of reinstating a work of art. Because the work of art itself is involved in messing up. If we can solve that example, I think we can solve a lot. But you can’t solve it if you zoom out and say ‘ok, this is a piece from the 1990’s (or whatever the date is)’. The example stands for the whole category of the booming game business; for the early examples of online gaming; for the category of artists reflecting on that and throwing this reflection in your face. That is the important thing. Whatever you do, it is that experience that you should want to preserve.

 

NIMk: Within the Inside Installations project that was found to be an important topic. We all basically agree on this. And within all the restoration and conservation research the artwork is researched within its context. For media artworks and especially computer-based works there is a specific technical, social and critical context. Alongside this, artist interviews are common practise. Sometimes even the audience/participants are taken into account. This is also done with performances.

Gerard Alberts: There is some memory left and people can still tell you. When I interview people, I find their muscles have memories. People who saw performances in the Stedelijk Museum in the 70’s can vividly recount what aspect most shocked them then.

 

NIMk: This is within the realm of the documentation of interactive art and performance based art. In terms of restoration, conservation, re-enactment or reconstruction, on the other hand, the focus is more on the physical object issue.

Gerard Alberts: I must say I was totally abhorred by the idea of re-enactment in the first place. Today I admit that when it comes to software, you have to go down that lane. And you have to do a re-enactment of the software. There is a re-enactment of the hardware and it has to be done for the software as well. And now comes the tricky part. If you talk of software in the 1950’s, then I have a historical notion of it as a historian. The word came about because they wanted to describe creating such machines. People were in fact making layered programmes. The novel style of programming was of programmes making programmes, emulation, and simulation. Anyway, there are several expressions relating to the experience of what is actually being done if you want to perform preserving practices like emulation. So what do you have against emulation? Again at that point I would be inclined, as a historian, to say ‘Let’s leave it there. We zoom out, what were they actually doing?’ But I’m fascinated enough to want to keep my hands on the actual practice of emulation as well.

 

NIMk: The artwork has a value. An economic value as well. And to change it, to update a piece, can change the value. All these issues are of course related to each other.

Gerard Alberts: There is a final point here. Heritage is about identification. I’m trying to bring in the narrative aspect here, because the whole notion of heritage is that you can present heritage all the time –present also in the sense of presenting, making present. And in the age of “real existing post-modernism”, what can heritage mean? As a cultural historian I find it's my duty to sit back and think what can heritage mean at all in this era when we do not have any fixed identity. In this horrific prospect of looking into the history of games, this dilemma of heritage, which I described in abstract terms, stares us right in the face. There are these old games, vintage games, but can you tell which is the original? There is no trace of authenticity or identity to it. Moreover the original games are drowning amongst the multitude of emulations being marketed – often as “vintage”– today. Tell me then, with which object we would identify it and make it heritage? And to which cultural identity may it be connected? Or how could I “identify” with it? This is a serious problem. And we are not just talking about the technical notion of heritage; we are seriously rethinking it. Philosophers like Derrida help us not to fear about the whole heritage issue exploding. But it’s being put into perspective, it’s losing firm ground. That’s all fine and you can call it heritage, but you should be very much aware that it is no longer the heritage it used to be.

 

NIMk: Yes, and we should be really transparent about it. This idea that we emulate things and try to recreate things. In a sense it's of great importance that there be some kind of heritage. But then again, one must do it convincingly because everything is changing culturally around us by the minute. All of the experiences we are having now are influencing what we’re watching…

Gerard Alberts: Yes, and more than that, it's biting its own tail. What we appreciate in these artists so much is that they are sensitive to these fundamental motions in culture, more than others.

Philosophers like Deleuze or Derrida help us put the issue into a broader perspective. I feel that this literature should be studied in relation to the theme of heritage, even if a project like Obsolete Equipment will hardly offer the time for it. My own most intensive involvement with this literature was with Martijn Stevens in Nijmegen. He wrote his dissertation on Digital Art and its Preservation. (Radboud University, 2010)6.

 

NIMk: Thank you, this has given us a good overview of the things you’ve been involved in and how it relates to our research. It feels like an invitation to find people to join your camp and to see how we can go there. Even the vocabulary is similar.

Gerard Alberts: Perhaps we are talking about the heritage of the “born digital”?

 

 

Notes:

 

  • 2. Jaren van berekening; toepassingsgerichte initiatieven in de Nederlandse wiskunde-beoefening, 1945 - 1960, G. Alberts. Amsterdam: AUP, 1998
  • 3. Het meest gelezen gaatje; De ponskaarteninstallatie in de administratie (Scryption 1993/4).
  • 4. Collectie Nederland Oude Computers, Gerard Alberts. Tilburg: Werkgroep Verzamelbeleid Computerhistorie (Scryption), 2000.
  • 5. http://nimk.nl/nl/conservering-mediakunst-collecties
  • 6. Martijn Stevens, Virtual Memory: Art Museums in a Digital Culture (PhD Radboud University, 2010)
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