Singular Forms Singular Forms

The presentation and preservation of ephemeral artworks, from fluorescent lights to candy spills, latex curtains to Web sites, is a challenge facing contemporary art museums. Technological obsolescence, deterioration of materials, and varied installation requirements give curators and conservators pause as to how best to preserve the integrity of an artwork: both the physical materials and the artistic intent.

Conservators have explored many traditional and experimental strategies for dealing with ephemeral works. Among these strategies has emerged a promising way to replicate obsolete or unavailable materials and hardware—emulation. To emulate a work is to devise a way of imitating the original look of the piece through completely different means. The term can be applied generally to any refabrication of an artwork's components, but it also has a specific meaning in the context of digital media, where emulation offers a powerful technique for running a program from an out-of-date computer on a contemporary one.

As part of a larger program called the Variable Media Network, the Guggenheim has investigated a series of case studies to formulate creative preservation strategies for endangered works. One work chosen to test emulation is Grahame Weinbren and Roberta Friedman's video piece The Erl King (1982–85), a combination of obsolete hardware, artist-written software, and custom-made components. Heralded as one of the first works of interactive video art, The Erl King invites the viewer to control the work's narrative structure through the use of a touch-screen monitor. Still functioning in its original form, The Erl King is presented side-by-side with its emulated version and other variable media works, allowing both preservation experts and the public to compare directly the different versions and put emulation to the test.

Grahame Weinbren and Roberta Friedman, The Erl King, 1982–85 (still). Interactive video installation; dimensions vary with installation. Collection of the artist.