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Friday, June 1 • 11:00am - 11:30am
(Electronic Media) Revealing Hidden Processes: Instrumentation and Reverse Engineering in the Conservation of Software-based Art

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Software-based artworks possess a curious material status. While rooted in bits stored on a physical medium, they can also be considered performative and ephemeral in that the tangible elements of such works are created on-the-fly when the software is executed. When realised, the artwork is experienced primarily in relation to the experiential elements of the performance (i.e. its inputs and outputs). However, the conservator must also understand the underlying mechanism of code being processed in a technical environment: a challenge which has required the development of new analytical approaches. Source code analysis provides one means of addressing this layer, and has been demonstrated to be a powerful approach to understanding software programs through the close study of the code they were written in. However, this approach might not be suitable in all scenarios. While source code relates closely to the compiled software, the process of transformation involved means that equivalence between the two is not always direct or clear. Where source code presents high levels of complexity, it may not be possible (or even necessary) to find the resources to carry out in-depth source code analysis. In a worst case scenario, source code is simply missing or inaccessible. Furthermore, elements of performance linked to the software's interaction with its technical environment can often not be completely understood or measured through source code alone. In this paper, I explore methods that intercept the software performance and directly address the compiled software in order to derive useful conservation information. In these cases analytical and interrogative approaches from software engineering may be repurposed to reveal hidden computational processes, profile performance, log events and decompile code. Careful analysis of information gathered can yield important insights for conservation, including elucidating complex dependencies, revealing unclear program behaviours and ensuring that significant characteristics of the software performance can be maintained. This paper will report on the application of these approaches to software-based artworks from the Tate collection. In doing so I reach some overarching conclusions regarding the potential and limitations of these novel methods in relation to existing approaches, and argue for their place in the toolbox of the time-based media conservator.

avatar for Tom Ensom

Tom Ensom

Digital Conservator, Tate / King's College London
Tom Ensom is a London-based digital conservator, and is currently in the final stages of his PhD at King's College London, which has been undertaken in collaboration with Tate. His PhD research has developed approaches to the analysis, description and representation of software-based... Read More →

Friday June 1, 2018 11:00am - 11:30am MDT
Briargrove Meeting Room Marriott Marquis Houston