Case Study - Geert Mul, "The Library of Babel" (2003)

The Library of Babel is a born-digital generative interactive installation that invites the viewer into the visual space of the internet. Drawing from a database of 100,000 images taken from the internet around 2003, the artwork is activated by a viewer stepping on 1 of 9 floor plates laid out in a 3 x 3 grid. When a floor plate is activated, this prompts the software to select a pool of like images using 18 image criteria parameters, that are then projected onto the floor tile from above the spectator, but appear as if they’re coming from below their feet, as if a well of images were bubbling up.

Through presenting the artwork at the Stedelijk Museum Schiedam retrospective, it was discovered that the artwork was restored and refurbished in this context using a different version than intended, which was not discovered until the work was installed. Through retracing the history of the artwork by conducting an in-depth artist interview and by reviewing earlier video and photos of the artwork, it was discovered that the software used to set-up this new presentation of the work was the oldest version and likely taken from the code repository of Mul’s programming collaborator Carlo Prelz, as opposed to from the original computers the artwork had been shown on, and that were likely tweaked and updated on site to create a different version during the work’s original presentation. As such, the pools of images that are revealed when the work is activated only slightly bleed outside the frame of the tile stood on to activate it, as opposed to spreading out further past the bounds of the activated tile. For Mul, the ideal version has the images spread out quite significantly across the other tiles, because, when two people are activating the artwork by standing on different tiles, it creates a stronger visual powerplay between the two spectators as the two tiles activated seem to be challenging against each other for more space than the other. The interactivity script developed acts as a record of the intended function and behaviour of the artwork, documenting the current version installed as well as the ideal version. In addition, the interactivity script details the behaviour of the artwork and how it responds to 1, 2, 3 and more participants standing on the floor panels. Such documentation helps understand in what version the artwork is and whether it is functioning as intended.

The key to the preservation of The Library of Babel is maintaining the ability of the software to run, which requires compatible video card, motherboards and operating systems. For Mul, one wouldn’t change the software, but rather make sure there continues to be a compatible computer system available to play the work. Furthermore, the safety of the database is key as the specific image pool is integral to the work because it reflects a specific moment in the history and culture of the internet. Both the artwork itself and the images it presents are from 2003, and as Mul says “as the work gets older, it will likely become more and more visible that the images are old and important to the work”. Thus, safe storage and backups of the software and related database is key to ensuring future presentations, as well as securing the availability of compatible technology to run this. These are currently being stored with LIMA for preservation.

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