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System restore: how archivists salvaged 1,500 volumes of digital art from Sandy's floodwaters

Eyebeam Hurricane Sandy recovery [Courtesy of Eyebeam]

Hard drive crashes and corrupted files repeatedly instruct us on the importance of keeping media backups. But when data loss looms as the result of massive physical damage from a major natural disaster, finding better ways to digitally archive our history suddenly becomes a moral imperative.

As countless tri-state area residents were left without power, heat, and even their homes in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, art galleries and studio spaces in New York City wrestled with problems of their own. Like many other spaces in Manhattan’s gallery-friendly Chelsea neighborhood, non-profit art and technology lab Eyebeam sat well within high-risk "Zone A" when the superstorm made landfall last October. But despite preparations, the space became completely submerged, leaving its archive — comprised of various storage media containing over a decade of artworks — to drown in three feet of floodwater.

They had to act quickly. In just a few hours, the storm’s contaminated waters would start to corrode the vulnerable media beyond recovery. Fortunately, New York’s art and archiving communities came to their aid — over the next four days, a team of volunteers including restoration specialists from AV Preserve, MoMA, Rhizome, and others were able to salvage 1,500 DVDs, VHS cassettes, MiniDV tapes, and other digital and analogue storage media containing irreplaceable artworks and documentation dating back to 1997.

Curated by Eyebeam fellows Lindsay Howard and Jonathan Minard, Eyebeam Resurfaces: The Future of the Digital Archive, the limited-run exhibition that followed, documented the lessons learned from their close shave with data disaster. But it also spotlights rare works rediscovered after the storm that might’ve not seen the light of day otherwise — and perhaps most importantly, provokes an urgent discussion about the tricky task of preserving media in the digital age.

"We believe that universal access to information is the most compelling evolutionary strategy."

"It's not realistic to store data in a dark vault, and then hope it's readable in 50 years," Howard and Minard say in an email. Just before the storm, the Eyebeam staff was in the process of finding a digital archivist to begin the process of converting legacy media. "We believe that universal access to information — creating a shared archive — is the most compelling evolutionary strategy for preserving digital media. The unexpected silver lining of Hurricane Sandy is that it’s accelerated the process of digitizing Eyebeam's archive, which will allow us to eventually make all of our content freely available online."

The potential fruits of those labors can be seen in the newly rediscovered works selected for Eyebeam’s short-lived post-Sandy showcase. A short video featuring video game hacker and art prankster Cory Arcangel documents a video game design class held in 2002; Wave UFO, an installation by Mariko Mori commissioned under Eyebeam’s Moving Images Studio sent participants on journeys into a massive, computer-generated forest; and a series of visceral analog tape distortions showcases past work from audiovisual duo LoVid, to name a few examples.

In the long-term, there’s a good reason for all this besides "free stuff," and no one knows more about it than Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle. In Archive, a work-in-progress documentary by Minard screened during the exhibit’s opening reception, Kahle explains that the best way to preserve digital media is to make sure it’s constantly in use. Video codecs, for one example, change regularly, and files need to be kept on-hand to update for modern players (Kahle says Internet Archive, which now stores over 10 petabytes of data, has had to convert its entire video collection five times).

Cataloguing and indexing is also an essential ingredient. Top hat-wearing digital archivist Jason Scott, an employee of the Internet Archive since 2011, commented to me afterward that he was astounded to discover how many of these tasks are automated in Kahle’s system: even in obscure formats, compressed files uploaded to the website get broken apart, thoroughly analyzed, and sorted — all without human interaction.

"The problem with libraries is they burn — they’re burned by governments."

But even when well-maintained, Kahle — who Minard interviewed from the pew of a converted cathedral that’s home to Internet Archive servers — says the biggest problem with most archives is the fact that they’re centralized. "The problem with libraries is they burn; they’re burned by governments, and that’s not a political statement, it’s just historically what happens." He imagines an alternate history where the Library of Alexandria got its own backup somewhere in India — something which seems feasible today when looking at Google’s ambitious (and controversial) book-scanning initiative.

The ideal solution, Howard and Minard agree, is a distributed archive which exists as multiple copies existing in a variety of physical locations. Kara Van Malssen and Chris Lacinak of AV Preserve, who played a large role in the media recovery, say that ultimately an archive is about "a set of preservation policies enacted over time" — a living, breathing system rather than a static, physical vault. "We think of preservation as continued access," says Lacinak. "Not just now, but 40, 50 years from now."

Additional images courtesy of Eyebeam / Jonathan Minard

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