Posts Tagged ‘Documenting media art’

Informal Documentation (2)

Monday, July 2nd, 2012 | Posted by Florian Wiencek

In the project in progress „Transformation of Experience“ (see Wiencek & Lauke 2011), Stephanie Sarah Lauke (KHM Cologne) and myself are currently working with an informal approach to documentation. We are developing an approach to (re)mediate the aesthetic experience of a video installation into a digital display by developing a simulative and a transformative display model, which should highlight the experiential possibilities of the installation, with the goal of offering a meta-experience or at least a mental representation of possible experiences of the installation. Thereby our research focuses on the theoretical implications and limitations of a translation of experience and strengthens the interpretative component of these transformations. The aim is to create an understanding of the possible experiences in a specific installation and to find a workable solution, which can be used in everyday documentation work. In the project we develop a simulative approach, where we use virtual 3D space as target display for translation of a moving image installation, whereas in a transformative approach we attempt to adapt and actualize the structure of installative works towards the language and affordances of the target medium for documentation, while attempting to enable a meta-experience for the user. In this project the subjectivity and transformation of the experience is an interpretative process, where we have to make assumptions based on our own subjective experiences and the knowledge of the artistic concept.

In my previous post I defined informal documentation – in relation to what I called „formal“ documentation – as a subjective point of view, a personal interpretation and expression, where the sum of individual perspectives can lead to a broader image of an art project. In this post I want to explore some other aspects of informal documentation of media art projects.


informal – inform – in formation – formation – form


Looking at the word informal more closely, several attributes, which describe the characteristics of documentation, come to my mind. In the following I will walk you through my thoughts about this little wordplay.

Let me start with the aspect of information. A documentation informs the recipient about an art project through communicating an abstract, mental representation of it. But following Claus Pias’ (2003) notion of information theory, information „is not about what is said, but about what could be said“ (Pias 2003, 1, translated by the author); a concept which strengthens the potentiality of the documentation. Following on this, an informal documentation should go beyond the factual surface and should affect the viewer, talk to our senses, convey a meta-experience, i.e. a mental representation of what the experience of a project could be like. This is especially important if you can’t experience the project directly, but have to rely on a (re)mediation of it. This also means that such a documentation should involve the documentarist’s own as well as other visitor’s personal experiences and therefore, as shown in the project „Botaniq“, the documentation becomes a subjective, (co-)creative expression; a work in its own right which maintains a relation with the documented art project.

As I have already mentioned in my previous post, an informal documentation is a starting point rather than an endpoint in the sense of Jon Ippolito’s description of a label in his text „Death by Wall Label“: “Wall labels are the pins that fix the butterflies of new media to museum walls.“ Instead of trying to fixate an art project, any documentation of a media art project (also a formal one) should always be in formation. In the same way in which the documented projects are process based – and therefore they are constantly evolving or, at most, they reach a temporary endpoint – their documentation can never be finished, but can only be a work in progress if it wants to capture the processual nature of the project. But even more, if one takes the notion of documentation as a starting point for re-experience, conversation and active interpretation seriously, documentation should ideally evolve and get richer through the engagement of the users and by them adding to it. This follows the concept of critical art mediation („Kritische Kunstvermittlung“) of Carmen Mörsch (2011), which advocates for producing new knowledge together with the visitors and fostering their personal reflection and interpretation of an art project. According to Eva Sturm an artistic project can serve as a source for inquiry, and for the exploration of the project artistic methods can be employed or the artistic process of the project in question can be taken up (cf. Sturm 2011). This process of knowledge production needs an open and co-creative environment.

However, a documentation is also formative in the sense that it forms the recipient’s view on a project. It is a construction, something formed in itself, shaped for example by decisions about what to include or exclude, by archival politics, or by it context of production and presentation. Any documentation is also formed by decisions regarding the representation of the data. This includes the materiality and mediality of the documentation, i.e. the characteristics of a medium itself, which in itself constrains its accessibility and affordances. If the documentation is digital or it is presented in a digital form, the software and the interface determines our perception of the data or the media artifacts as well as our possibilities to interact with them. Software in turn is a cultural product itself, based on decisions made by software developers (cf. Manovich 2011), and interfaces have their own grammar of actions and metaphors (cf. Manovich 2001). They shape the „inbetween“ between the user and the documentation. At the same time these factors shape the creative possibilities and production of a documentation and can be creatively employed when thinking about documentation as creative expression, as interpretation and as translation. This is especially true for art projects, where interfaces play an important role, which have to be translated to provide a meta-experience.

Another interesting aspect with regard to mediality is the indexicality of documentation, especially if the latter is created by using an automated process. How „real“ is the image that a documentation delivers? If one looks for example at the indexicality of photography (in the sense of semiotics), its direct connection to the depicted seems to be evident at first sight in that photography is regarded as a mechanical reproduction of the real world. But if one thinks of staged photography, where – as A.D. Coleman (1983) defines it – the photographer intentionally creates events to photograph them, for example by interfering with real events, and something happens which would not happen without the action of the photographer. That way the image rather depicts the inherent reality of the image (Bildwirklichkeit), which is created with and for the image. Even if the process of capturing might be regarded as „objective“, the inherent staging and framing makes for a subjective point of view. Therefore it doesn’t refer to actual, but to a potential past, leaving it up to the interpretation of the viewer to complete the image (cf. Blunck 2010, 14/15). This strengthens the role of imagination in forming an image of an art project in the recipient’s head. To enable this imaginative process, it is important to leave space for the own interpretation of the viewer. Norman M. Klein (2009) argues, when writing about database novels, that the use of disruptions in the exploration of data creates gaps and absence to be filled by the imagination of the “user”. These gaps foster mental interactivity with the narrative and are the spaces where new knowledge can emerge by fostering the active interpretation of the recipient. This opens up documentation for co-creative knowledge production.


To summarize: an informal documentation should go beyond informing about formal aspects of a project towards taking up its formative potentials and convey a meta-experience of a project by employing the formal qualities and affordances of a documentation creatively. Informal documentation should be an evolving co-creative process of knowledge production involving visitors, documentarists and artists, acknowledging the multiplicity of „potential pasts“ (quoting Sheila Dillon, Duke University), leaving spaces to mentally involve the recipients and fostering their own interpretation to complete a mental image of an art project.



Blunck, L. (2010). Fotografische Wirklichkeiten. In L. Blunck (Ed.), Die fotografische Wirklichkeit. Inszenierung – Fiktion – Narration (pp. 9-36). Bielefeld: transcript Verlag.

Coleman, A.D. (1983). Inszenierende Fotografie. Annäherung an eine Definition [amerik. 1976]. In: Kemp, Wolfgang (Ed.): Theorie der Fotografie III. 1945 − 1980. München : Schirmer/Mosel. 239-243.

Ippolito, J. (2008). Death by Wall Label. Retrieved January 8, 2010, from

Klein, N. M. (2009). Spaces Between: Traveling through Bleeds, Apertures and Wormholes inside the Database Novel (pp. 137-152). In: P. Harrigan & N. Wardrip-Fruin (Eds.). Third Person. Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives. Cambridge, MA; London : The MIT Press.

Manovich, L. (2001). The language of new media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Manovich, L. (2011). There is only Software. WRO 2011 Reader – 14 Media Art Biennale WRO 2011 – ALTERNATIVE NOW. Retrieved April 13, 2011, from

Mörsch, C. (2011). Allianzen zum Verlernen von Privilegien: Plädoyer für eine Zusammenarbeit zwischen kritischer Kunstvermittlung und Kunstinstitutionen der Kritik. In N. Lüth & S. Himmelsbach (Eds.), medien kunst vermitteln (pp. 19-31). Berlin: Revolver Publishing.

Pias, C. (2003). Das digitale Bild gibt es nicht – Über das (Nicht-)Wissen der Bilder und die informatische Illusion. Retrieved June 15, 2009, from

Sturm, E. (2011). Von Kunst aus spucken. Vermittlung und (von) Medien/Kunst (aus). In N. Lüth & S. Himmelsbach (Eds.), medien kunst vermitteln (pp. 62-70). Berlin: Revolver Publishing.

Wiencek, F. & Lauke, S. S. (2011). The Remediation of Experience. A Case Study. Proceedings of the ISEA 2011 conference.

Informal Documentation (1)

Friday, May 18th, 2012 | Posted by Florian Wiencek

Looking at the editorial of the exhibition „informal“, Marialaura Ghidini and Gil Leung define informality as „an absence, a removal, a slackening but not to the point of complete difference“, leaving more room for personal expression. When thinking about art projects and their experience, the authors point out that „ [a] work is rarely experienced only formally, its value, why it matters, it is in the relation between it and you. More so, this relation is not only in the encounter with the form but with all the disseminated representations of this form. This is why distribution is not just about the transportation of a form – it is about the set of social relations around a form. It is about the discourse around an object and about the thing-in-itself, the object.“

I want to take this as a starting point, to think about the topic of „informal“ documentation. What does informality mean in relation to documentation, what does distinct „informal documentation“ from other approaches? Therefore I will focus on the documentation of „media art“. This post will set the stage to further delve into the topic.

Thinking about projects, we casually summarize under the (not unproblematic) term „media art“, sharing an ephemeral, process- or context-based character, it gets clear that many of these works are designed as experiential, often rule-based spaces. For the specific form of „interactive art“Arjen Mulder describes a shift from objects to the action a project evokes in the user as carrier of artistic value and meaning. „As an object, interactive art is nothing. […] But as an action, it is everything. Then, it allows you to know something you can understand only by doing.“ (Mulder  2007, 54) Also Christiane Paul underlines in her essay „Myth of immateriality: Presenting and Preserving New Media“ „[t]he potentially interactive and participatory nature of new media projects – which allow people to navigate, assemble, or contribute to an artwork in a way that goes beyond the interactive, mental event of experiencing it […]“ (Paul 2007, 254). If one thinks about preserving and documenting these artworks, one comes to the question of how to capture and preserve an inherently subjective experience? A feature many current methods and models of documentation – which I, for the sake of distinguishing them, would call „formal“ – are lacking. This becomes even more important when thinking about the fact that many older works, due to the fast decay and evolution of computer hard- and software, can’t be exhibited anymore or at least not in their historical state. In those cases documentation is the only method of preservation. Besides the important function in digital cultural heritage, documentation is tantamount in research and teaching, as Dieter Daniels argues in his mediation paradox (Daniels 2004), as it can solve the challenge of accessibility of these projects. Thus to mediate media art, the first and foremost task is to make the works accessible. This can happen through an adequate re-presentation of the works or through documentation, which should  give an understanding of the potential experience of a project and as well as its configuration and media qualities (cf. Daniels 2004, Wiencek 2009), preferably using digital media and the web as a distribution platforms (see e.g. Daniels 2004, Wiencek 2009). „What will give real value to a collection of digital art is documentation, metadata, contextualization, and guaranteed long-term access to the documentation.” (Depocas 2001)


The Nature of Documentation

Documentation can first and foremost be seen as translation. It translates a project into data about the project and meta-data, which on the one hand describes the data but also further contextualizes the project, or in short into information. But it is also a translation into another medium (chosen for documentation), into other modalities. This is following the definition of remediation of J. David Bolter and Richard Grusin (1996 & 1999) as „representation of one medium in another“ (Bolter & Grusin 1996, 339), which for them is a characteristic of digital media. But it has to be noted that this translation process of an art project into an archivable format comes with a loss of the information of space, temporal components, interactivity, potential as well as actual user-experience.

Alain Depocas argues in his text „Digital preservation: recording the recoding“ (2001), that documentation is mainly about contextualizing the artwork. Only through enrichment  and linkage of the data about an art project with additional illustrative material „for thematic connectivity and possible discursive linkages, i.e. to place it in a context on the Internet itself“ (Stemmrich 2005, 48), a deeper understanding of the project is possible. Basic context levels are for example the production or reception context of a project (see e.g. Müller 2008), other context levels might be added depending on where the documentation of the work appears. If it appears for example in a database, the other material in that database contextualizes the documentation and influences the interpretation of the material. If the database is accessible online, the Internet itself contextualizes the database, as well as search results – be it based on content analysis, meta-data, semantic relations – in which the data appears, provide a temporal context for the data. In short the software used to access and display the documentation plays an important role in the meaningmaking of the work. Understanding an artwork just through a description of its formal character is merely impossible.

Moreover a documentation can be seen as a representation of an art project. „[T]he artwork and its documentation are inseparable. Indeed, they are two faces of the same coin” (Depocas 2001). Following Boris Groys, a documentation of art is „per definitionem not art, it only refers to the art and makes clear that the art is not present and immediately perceivable anymore, but rather absent and hidden“ (Groys 2003, 146, translated by the author). But if one takes the word „representation“ seriously, it is also a another presentation of a project, in a translated form and in another kind of display. It enables ideally a meta-encounter with the art project. Moreover it inscribes the project and its existence into history (cf. Groys 2003, 152). Jean-Marc Poinsot describes the task of a documentation of ephemeral works, which include besides process oriented works also performative works, as embodiment of memory of the project until its re-realization. Therefore a similarity to a musical score is evident, which can be described as formalization or an abstraction of an art projects, representing different projects in the same formal language.


Formal Documentation

This brings me to the topic of „formal“ documentation. When thinking about „formal“ documentation two terms come immediately into mind: standardization and objectification. Formal documentations are often based on conceptual documentation models, trying to standardize the data, using for example formalized vocabularies (taxonomies) or questionnaires (e.g. Variable Media Questionnaire, Oral History of Media Art by Lizzie Muller), which results in a coordinated data collection and thus makes the data comparable, retrievable and enables for example data mining, enabling the creation of new knowledge and finding patterns around the documented art projects on basis of the collected data. The standardization and comparability – and therewith the attempt of objectivity – are inherent to scientific approaches. Some examples of formal approaches are the following:

Example of the description of „A-Volve“ (1994) by Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau on uses an extended notion of documentation. „The traditional concepts of art and documentation were substantially oriented towards the work as an object and harmonized in large parts with static documentation models, whereas the works of contemporary art today are processual, ephemeral, multi medial, interactive and essentially dependent on the context. Because of this fundamentally different structure they need a modified, an extended notion of documentation“ (Grau, 2004, translated by author). Oliver Grau’s documentation concept does not only include conventional core data about a work, such as artist’s names, title, year or description, but also technical configuration, interface design, software, visual displays, inventions of artists, graphics of the installation setup, interviews and reports by visitors, information about technical staff, institutions of media art, digital visual documents, as well as awards.  Therewith technology is recognized as an important component of the work. But also the exhibition contexts of a project, publications about it as well as (audio)visual documentation material contribute to the contextualization of the project. Moreover uses a standardized thesaurus for describing and categorizing the projects, which formalizes the projects and reduces them to certain formal characters regarding aesthetics, genre, topics and technology.

The goal of the project is to „provide an overview of the rapid development in the area of virtual art and all its sub-genres and to contribute to its preservation“ (Grau 2004, translated by the author).Therefore the conceptual approach aims to document the work within the context of complex information while allowing quick access to granular data. „Beyond static, quantifying analysis and technical documentation the database should enable the depiction of personal relations and economic data, which – so the idea – expose interests and dependencies“ (Grau 2004, translated by the author), allowing for example conclusions about gender, movement of technical staff between labs, art-technical inventions, streams of public and private research funds, reminiscences of Virtual Art to other media forms and their predecessors. In other words the database of richly interlinked data should allow to paint a bigger picture about the field of virtual art. „[…] documentation is altered from a passive archiving of core data to a global interdisciplinary and actively devised process of knowledge transfer“ (Grau 2004, translated by the author). The data  is aggregated by experts of the field in cooperation with established media artists, researchers and institutions.


Capturing Unstable Media Conceptual Model (CMCM)

The „Capturing Unstable Media Conceptual Model“ (CMCM) was developed by V2_ Institute for the Unstable Media, Rotterdam, NL  as a conceptual model for documenting and describing  „electronic art activities in a generic way, by using a structure of typical concepts“ (Fauconnier & Frommé 2003a) – a concept defining one specific (abstract) entity, which can be used for capturing the art project (e.g. project, component, person), which can be further described by attributes. Therewith CMCM is an ontology derived from studying projects in the V2_ archive, building up a object-relation structure of core concepts about electronic art projects, describing their interdependencies within the project, from production to reception, which can be used to document an electronic art project as process, taking amongst others into account the nature of distributed authorship of a project, technical behavior of components and more. This abstract model presents a standardized instrument, which should allow a variety of institutions to use it, ensuring comparability of descriptions, of exchangability of data and therewith ideally archival interoperability of institutions.


The Media Art Notation System (MANS)

Richard Rinehart proposed a notation system for media art inspired by the idea of a musical score, which should allow the reinterpretation of an artistic project. A notation should take the character of a media art project as activity or event into account, and „should be able to describe the work as set of parameters manifested as a product or occurrence“ (Rinehart 2007, 183). For his implementation Rinehart describes three levels of implementation: 1) the record of the work, 2) the machine-processable representation of the work and 3) the machine-processable model / manifestation of the work. Rinehart sees this score as „media-independent logical backbone for the Work that relies on the original files to provide detailed functionality and appearance. This feasible level of implementation would create an interoperable record of the work, a guide to re-creation, and a way to maintain the integrity and cohesion of complex works into the future“ (Rinehart 2007, 187). This system hints to another important point in terms of standardization, namely the machine-readability / processability of information, which is tantamount for current trends towards a „semantic web“, which ideally would enable more complex, meaning-based queries, which require a semantic „understanding“ of the data.


The three summarized approaches of „formal“ documentation all focus on the formal aspects of projects. The idea of a score describes a double bind:

On the one hand there exists the desire to fixate the core of the work, to make it objectively analyzable, comparable and readable.This notion of fixation is not unproblematic, because how do you capture something which is ephemeral and constantly evolving without creating only a snap-shot in time, a momentum out of the project? Also the notion that one could potentially grasp and describe a project objectively, which is based on subjective experience and action of the user, is questionable. Going back to Dieter Daniels (2004), a experience based work can only be described subjectively from a point of view of a particular role, which the author of the description had in the project (cf. also Stemmrich 2005). Moreover Daniels notes, that a textual description can never replace a direct experience. The impossibility of an objective point of view challenges moreover the model of a master narrative or an expert view on the work. Rather multiple subjective points of view and subjective personal expressions – capturing individual experiences – are needed to make sense of the artistic project in a process of collaborative meaning making.

On the other hand a score can serve as starting point for re-interpretation of a project and therewith a starting point for an ongoing process, which makes a deeper engagement with the project and its possible experience and even a re-experience possible. This calls for a transformation rather than a translation of media artworks.


Informal Documentation

These thoughts lead me to the idea of „informal documentation“, which strengthens the importance of the experience of an art project, leading back to the thought put forward in the editorial of this exhibition, that what matters in an artwork are not so much its formal attributes, but what happens between the project and the visitor. This „inbetween“, which in my opinion is a very important aspect also for art mediation, needs to be captured. Alain Depocas (2001) calls to „[c]reate documentation that is open, collaborative, living and updateable in the image of the new media themselves.“ „Documentation on new media art must not be a mere illustration, but rather an interpretation, an attitude. To reflect this attitude, the documentation must adopt a structure similar to its subject’s“ (Depocas 2001). In a way this is a call for a distributed, living information space that is open to artistic interference – a space for exchange, collaborative creation and presentation and personal expression that is both permanent and flexible.

One important quality of informal documentation is subjectivity of the documentation, capturing either a subjective experience, a personal interpretation, which in sum with other individual points of view can lead up to a broader image of an art project, as well as a personal expression about the project. There are different mechanisms of subjectivity at work, when it comes to documentation: one can be a human subjective interpretation, an individual expression of experience. But also technology is acting as an important agent in documentation, which has its own subjective point of view. Each technology has its limitations what it can capture. It never delivers a 1:1 copy of whatever it is capturing, always leaving out information. Most apparent are these losses once errors or glitches occur. Moreover the technology captures data according to the point of view of the user, where human subjectivity comes into play again. Subjectivity allows interpretation in a documentation, strengthening its speculative nature and making clear the uncertainties and assumptions the documentarist made when creating the documentation. Usually informal documentation follow a case specific approach, where the methods of capturing and the way, certain aspects of the work are captured, are not (completely) standardized, which allows for a reaction to specific needs in capturing the essence of a work.

The informal documentation approach also doesn’t restrict the authorship to a small group of experts, but rather opens it up to all interest groups who want to participate and contribute their point of view, from visitors and students to researchers and artists. It moreover is open for the interaction between the different interest groups, which can create a broader discourse about a work and has the potential to democratize the documentation by ideally involving the critical mass into the meaning making process.

One project, which follows this paradigm, is „Botaniq“ an „Archive of experiences with Media Art“. The project, initiated by Gabriel Vanegas, a media artist and researcher, „is a media art database made by a community which explores ways to archiving contemporary art based on their own experiences, based on their own personal diaries“ (Vanegas 2010). Vanegas compares the questions raised with the documentation of media art with the challenges, the conquerors of America faced in the 16th century: how to show all the species found on the other continent to the people in Europe without having the ability to bring them over on the long ship? How to preserve for example the taste of a pine apple? The only way was „to keep the spirit, the essence and the reinterpretation of what they saw based on their own experience“ (Vanegas 2011). „[…] the notations and the diaries of the members of the expeditions went from being  just a documentation or a copy to become the reality itself“ (Vanegas 2010).

In the same spirit Botaniq is exploring documentation of contemporary media art works through visitors, who, as witnesses, express their own experiences in a creative way in a personal diary, which presents the project through a subjective description of a specific moment in time of the art project. The interpretation is influenced by the background of the documenter as well as by the journey through the exhibition, which is usually the starting point, before choosing a specific work. These documentations are usually produced in workshops held in a specific exhibition or an art event, where each participant is responsible for documenting a specific work. The participant can use any medium to express his or her experience creatively. The diary entries contain a description of the work as the visitor encountered it, of sensations while experiencing the work – for example the soundscape in the room or movement – and thoughts the work triggered while encountering it. Oftentimes the first encounter of a work is influenced by the journey through the exhibition, triggered by a certain point of attraction, which also reflects back into the diary-entry. The documentation is done either in English or in the mother-tongue of the person documenting the work, which adds another subjective and personal component to it. The documentations use all kinds of creative modes of expression beyond a mere description – starting from the use of the general layout, typography, illustrations, photography, video (either self produced or found footage), collages and mixed media, to create a notation of the art projects and convey a mental representation of their personal experience. Isabella Haaf, for example,  transforms an aspect of the work in her notation of „A-Volve“ (1994) by Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau  into an analogue representation of the basin, where the user of the analogue documentation could playfully reenact part of the art project, where creatures, who were created based on shapes drawn by the visitors, interact in a water basin and can be influenced by the actions of the visitors.





Extract of a documentation of „A-Volve“ (1994) by Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau, documented by Isabella Haaf, Arts Santa Mónica, Barcelona, Spain, June 2011. Isabella Haaf uses amongst others found footage material, collage, illustration and the transformation of part of the interactive experience into an analogue format as tools to document her experience and to describe the project she encountered. Source:


The documentations are compiled in an encyclopaedic physical publication and a digital version, which is uploaded to the Botaniq-website, which allows to explore the work of art through its reinterpretation. These documentations in themselves open up interesting questions on remediation, as they are translations of the projects into another artistic expression, but also work with remediation in the sense of Bolter and Grusin (1999 & 1996). For example in Stephanie Sarah Lauke’s documentation of „One Hundred and Eight“ (2010) by Nils Völker the material sample is only hapticly accessible in the analogue representation, whereas in the digital version it is reduced to an image, while the silent video she produced is only accessible in the digital version, and was transformed into a number of film stills chosen by the documentarist, which should represent the video in the analogue version. The same happens for the „interactive“ part of Isabella Haaf’s documentation, which in the digital version becomes a photograph showing potential interaction, and therewith is itself a documentation of the documentation.

„Botaniq preserves art across notations, synthesis of the experiences of the unknown observer and interactor, as a form of spiritual communion, where the notation of the artistic experience becomes the work of art itself“ (Vanegas 2010). Through a workshop format, open to be conducted by anyone, as long the results feed back into the Botaniq-website, the community can become a place where potentially anybody interested can become part of the meaning-making process of media art and can contribute his experience, but it can also become a tool for art institutions to archive their exhibitions in realtime together with their visitors.

After setting the stage for „informal documentation“ in this post, I will further explore aspects of the topic in later posts.



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