The Digitization of Eternity: Humans Grow Old and Die, Should Not Art?

Can technology preserve artworks without changing them?

Rothko painted five murals in 1962 for a room on the 10th floor of Harvard’s Holyoke Center. Sunlight and the chemically unstable paints used, caused the paintings to fade. The murals were put into storage in the late 1970s. Using a sixth mural that was never displayed in 1964, and digitally restored Ektachrome photographs, the original colors were recreated. A digital camera took pictures of the current state of the images. Software was developed at MIT that could isolate individual pixels of photographs. A computer was used to compare the two images and create a differential image. A digital projector projects this differential image onto the murals so we see them as they originally looked. Every afternoon, the projector is turned off so you can see the current state of the images.

Based on my own observations the difference is staggering. The digital compensation makes an astonishing difference. I wonder what someone who saw the original images (some must still be alive) would think of the restoration. Traditionally, the restoration or preservation of art works involves physically altering the work itself, often undoing previous restoration or preservation attempts.

Contrast this with my unpleasant experience of visiting the forum in Rome, the Arch of Titus and the Coliseum. Instead of experiencing the fallen grandeur of Rome, or the vanity of human endeavor,   I was in the midst of a museum reconstruction. Does Ozymandias live after all?

Why can’t we let the past just be? Why can’t we let life evolve? Is this the modern intellectual version of hiding from our animal nature? Historians want to preserve everything because they never know what might be useful in understanding the past. Do we want all of life to be a museum? Maybe we could use a HoloLens, HTCVive, or Oculus Rift to create an immersive three dimensional holographic reconstruction around the Roman artifacts?1 We could see them as we think they originally were, and as they are now, just like with the Rothko murals.

All this points to the post modern idea that what matters is not the physical state of the artifact, but the inner state of our senses and mind. To understand life turn not to physics, but to neuroscience. The Surrealists were the first to make this idea explicit and primary in their art. How ironic, our technological society could enable us to make artistic fantasies really come to life.

But what if this is a nightmare?

Sergiu Celibidache insisted that recordings of his performances were meaningless. You had to experience them with the concert hall acoustics and the ambience of the performance itself. He adjusted his performances for the performance and the moment — not posterity.

Preservation is understandable, but what about spontaneity? What about not letting the need for preservation or comparison with the past be a weight on our shoulders? Wasn’t this the idea behind happenings? Isn’t this the idea behind location specific, or temporary installations?

Even with a work of art permanently on display, you will never know when you might ever see it again. View it as a flower, whose transitory nature forces us to appreciate its beauty now. The sight, the smell, the touch, the sound, or even the taste of a work of art may not be the same, or even exist, later.

If art teaches us the truth, should it not teach us the lesson of transience as well?

For more information about the Rothko murals, review the articles in the Harvard Gazette and the New York Times.


1. [A very crude example using OculusRift is  called “Le Musée Imaginaire”. This is the name of a very famous essay by André Malraux that discusses the idea of a museum and how technology (in his case photography) could transform it I discuss this issue in my post Art in the Age of Cloud Computing.]

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