The Internet never forgets anything?
The hell it doesn’t!

Prof. Dr. Tilman Baumgärtel

In fact, digital cultural assets are disappearing every day – websites that go offline, e-mails that are deleted, apps that are no longer updated, files that no software can read, games that no longer run on the new console. If digital relics are not collected in the foreseeable future, the increasing digitalisation of all areas of life means that at some point no documents could be left of our age and our present could be seen as a “dark age” about which future mankind will know little.

Digital cultural heritage

In a workshop entitled Culture Back-Up. On the Preservation of Digital Cultural Assets, media scientists, archivists, curators and artists from Germany, Holland and the USA presented approaches to countering the creeping loss of digital culture. The event was part of the research project “Van Gogh TV. Indexing, Multimedia Documentation and Analysis of Her Legacy”, which the Mainz University of Applied Sciences is conducting together with the University of Bonn and which is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG).

Panel 1: Tobias Steinke & Robert Sakrowski

Panel 2: Tjarda De Haan & Josephine Bosma

Panel 3: Florian Jenett, Tilman Baumgärtel & Julian Weinert

Panel 4: Tina Sauerländer

The media art project Piazza Virtuale, which the artist group Van Gogh TV carried out at documenta 9 in 1992, was the focus of the opening event. The group members Benjamin Heidersberger, Karel Dudesek and Mike Hentz reported on how they developed the television project in just over six months, in which the public could participate in the design of the programme and which can therefore be regarded today as a precursor of social media.

On the second day of the event, Michael Connor, artistic director of, a New York net art organization, presented his organization’s collection, which has been collected since the late 1990s. Not only the works, but also the accompanying software is collected by Rhizome and emulated for new computer systems, so that a work from 2000 can still be viewed online today with the type of browser commonly used at the time. The performance “Blackness for Sale” (2001) by Mendi and Keith Obadike, in which the artists offered their skin color for sale on Ebay, on the other hand, is, according to the artists’ will, only shown as a framed screenshot after the auction has ended.

Risk of commercialisation

Often it are not necessarily large organisations, but rather individuals who, on their own initiative, contribute to the preservation of digital cultural heritage. The Berlin curator Tina Sauerländer, whose work focuses on media art, has, for example, set up Radience, a database for virtual reality art, which now contains the largest international collection of VR works. Previously such works were often difficult to find, but now they can be seen in a kind of virtual gallery on the Internet and can be downloaded by exhibition institutions if they are to be shown.

“Unless digital relics are collected in the foreseeable future, our present may one day be considered a ‘dark age’ about which future mankind will know very little.”

Tjarde De Haan

Net activist Tjarde De Haan saved the early Internet project De Digitale Stad from digital oblivion for the Amsterdam City Museum. But this kind of work needs to be put on a broader basis in the long term. This was also shown in the final lecture by Alexander Zeisberg, who is responsible for the media collection of the documenta archive in Kassel: In the past, large sums of money have repeatedly been invested by the public authorities in projects to preserve digitised culture. But very few of them were sustainable and designed for the long term. So there is a danger that sooner or later it will be American network giants such as Google that will collect such data and help private companies increase their profits.

A documentation of the event can be found on the website of the DFG project Van Gogh TV. Indexing, multimedia documentation and analysis of her estate, carried out by Mainz University of Applied Sciences in cooperation with Bonn University.