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These scientists help rescue ‘broken’ digital art

Author: Kathiann Kowalski / Source: Science News for Students

“Unfolding Object” is a piece of online artwork by John F. Simon Jr. It had stopped running on most modern computers. But a new digital fix lets viewers interact with this artistic creation again.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — To see most art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, you’d have to travel to New York City. But you only need to go online to see one of the museum’s works: “Unfolding Object.” It’s a 2002 web-based work by artist John F. Simon, Jr. As viewers interact with it, they affect what it looks like. For several years, the art stopped working on updated computers. But thanks to innovative restoration work, computer scientists have put this piece and others like it back in action.

At first, “Unfolding Object” looks like a simple square on your screen. Click on any of its edges and that side unfolds. Click on another edge, and it unfolds. You can repeat the process over and over. Or, go back to the first square or another shape, and click a different edge. As you go, lines appear on each shape. These hatch marks tally up previous viewers’ clicks. The directions represent ones, tens, hundreds and thousands of interactions with viewers. The color of the object and background also change throughout the day. Playing with the work can keep you clicking — again and again and again.

a screen capture of
The colors and shapes of the restored “Unfolding Object” depend on where someone clicks and what time of day it is. Here’s how it looked when our writer played around with it late one night.

But there came a time when the program wouldn’t work on many newer computer systems.

Such digital — or online — art can’t break in the same way that an ancient vase might shatter. But the art is still quite fragile, says Deena Engel. She’s a computer scientist at New York University in New York City. Recently she and her students worked with Joanna Phillips, a former conservator at the Guggenheim, and others there. A conservator is someone who repairs and preserves artworks. Together they restored “Unfolding Object” art. Engel described how they did it at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on February 17.

“It’s very difficult to run software from maybe 15 years ago on a current Mac or a current PC,” Engel explains. Operating systems change. Computer programming platforms can change. Hardware gets updated. Old equipment breaks and parts may no longer be available. Other changes affect how colors show up on a screen. All of that can affect what people see in a work of computer art.

“If you can even get it to run at all, it’s most likely going to run differently,” Engel says. “Even things like code for black and white [may] get flipped.”

But fixing broken computer art takes more than a new program that does pretty much the same thing. After all, a copy of the Mona Lisa isn’t the same as the original. And the goal here is to restore the…

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