On the Platform’s Ruins: Practicing a Poetics of Obsolescence

Abstract (in English): 

Visual artists, writers, and other cultural producers have long leveraged networked technologies to establish platforms that circulate cultural products in participatory contexts intentionally distinct from cultural institutions. As technologies change over time—including deprecated plug-ins, changes to HTML, and linkrot—these platforms fall into various states of decay. In this paper, I examine an example of a platform, the Net Art Latino Database (1999-2004), an effort to document net-based artworks vulnerable to obsolescence that overall stands as a precarious monument to an earlier era of digital culture. As the platform slowly falls out of joint with current web technologies, the Database illustrates practices of cultural production that respond to the decay of the very technologies being used.

The Net Art Latino Database was initiated by the Uruguayan digital artist Brian Mackern to compile examples of net art activity by Latinx artists, working at the periphery of English-language dominant net art communities. The Database functions as an art platform in the sense offered by Olga Goriunova: a dynamic configuration of people and technologies amplifying new kinds of creative activities that push beyond the boundaries of existing categories of cultural production. As Goriunova’s theorization of art platforms suggests, the lines between categories like ‘net art’ and ‘electronic literature’ are often blurry, as artists and writers deploy the same technologies and pursue similar aesthetic strategies to circulate digital cultural production online.

While the Database catalogs principally digital visual artworks, it is instructive to think about this platform in the context of electronic literature specifically. First, the Database documents works that function expressly as electronic literature, including listings for e-zines. More fundamentally, though, the Database can be read as a work of electronic literature. Coded by hand in HTML, Mackern’s work exemplifies the scribal practices that were the foundation of early Web culture. The text-based work consists entirely of descriptions of other artworks and links to other projects. These sites are frequently located under the top-level domains of Central or South American countries, though many are no longer active, and these defunct sites are rarely captured in public web archives. As such, the Database serves an ekphrastic function, evoking multimedia artworks that no longer readily circulate online—and may no longer materially exist beyond this description.

I approach this analysis from the discipline of library and information science (LIS). A deeper understanding of Mackern’s artistic and curatorial practices can help to shape professional perspectives on the preservation of net art, electronic literature, and digital cultural production more generally. Unlike a traditional institutional repository, the diverse artworks included in the database are documented as part of a living, interconnected media ecology. Rather than adaptively preserving individual works through migration to new technological environments, Mackern’s Database enacts a poetics of obsolescence, carefully stewarding works on a platform built with the recognition of its own fragility.

Databases/Archives referenced:

Titlesort descending Organization responsible
netart latino database

ELO 2021: Platforms & Software 1, May 26, 2021

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Milosz Waskiewicz