by Lozana Rossenova


Design Exploration and Specification Phases 2018–2019


Net art resists the established metadata schemas and ontologies which focus overwhelmingly on the description of physical objects held within archives and museums. Following the move of ArtBase data to a linked data ecosystem (Wikibase), it was possible to rethink the entire metadata model for the archive. This new model carefully considers the processual, performative and networked characteristics of net art works whose material properties cannot be fully expressed within a few, limited descriptive metadata fields.

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A table depicting the data model for artwork records in the ArtBase.

Artwork record model

A net art work evolves over time into various instantiations—either because of intentional actions by the creator(s) of the work, intervention by institutional staff working to preserve or exhibit the work, or due to structural changes in the software or network components of the work. Rhizome refer to these multiple instantiations as ‘variants’. A key component of the artwork record model thus is the potential to link a work to all of its variants (provided that these have been recorded in the ArtBase either as archival copies, web archives, or external links).

A table depicting the data model for variant records in the ArtBase.

Variant record model

The variant record model makes it possible to document a range of changes in a work’s technical properties and user-interaction requirements. It also provides space to express the reasons for those changes, which may be due to an active intervention by the artist, or caused by a contextual event outside their control, such as a component becoming obsolete. Preservation activities which result in the generation of new variants, for example the addition of a web archive or an emulation instance, can be recorded alongside information about the agent(s) who carried out the action. Variants generated through such actions are associated with the archival institution, rather than the artist. The relationship of attribution to the artist can be inferred via the connection of the variant to the main artwork record.

A table depicting the data model for actor records in the ArtBase.

Actor records model

Artworks in the ArtBase operate within the context of a community-specific networked culture, which emerged alongside the mainstream spread of accessible network connections in the late 80s and developed further through the 90s and onwards into the beginning of the 21st century. This cultural context presents a challenge to the traditional (Western) archival and curatorial understanding of the artist as a sole creator of a unique object. It is common in net art for multiple actors—ranging from artists and programmers to audience members—to play different roles and offer varying levels of contribution towards a work. So multiple actors, as well as multiple variations of the artworks (involving some or all of those actors), need to be accounted for by the new ArtBase data model. Additional descriptive information can be attached to individual actors in the network, as and when needed. The possibility to link out to external authority control or linked data databases enriches the data model further.

A table depicting the data model for texts or events linked to an artwork in the ArtBase.

Descriptive text and event records model

This data model also accounts for variation in the natural language descriptions of works, such as artists’ statements or curatorial summaries, which cannot be translated simply into structured data. Contextual events can also inform the history of an artwork and its variants, from an exhibition reperformance to a citation in an important bibliographic resource. Within the framework of the data model, every piece of text or event associated with an artwork is identified as a unique item in the database. Specific structured data can then be associated with individual items, and also queried by date, time, actors involved, etc.

A table depicting the data model for preservation and provenance related metadata in the ArtBase.

Preservation metadata modeling

This data model facilitates the description of generation activities associated with preservation. These activities may include the creation of a web archive or emulation instance, or the drawing up of an archival plan, which describes interventions carried out by the archive team in detail. Additional software-preservation-related records describe specific environments or software applications, which are required for the generation, (re)performance and preservation of variants. The overarching conceptual principle connecting these interdependent elements in the new ArtBase data model is not any particular metadata standard, but the principle of archival provenance. The term ‘provenance’ is used here to encompass the dynamic processes involving multiple human and non-human agents by which archival records are created, produced and interpreted over time. This definition of provenance goes further than its traditional usage which refers to an object’s chain of custody.

A diagram depicting key metadata elements of the PROV model for provenance data.

PROV case study

In a research case study carried out in collaboration with art historian and researcher Dr Karin de Wild between 2018–2019, we argue that PROV—a model developed by the Provenance Working Group at W3C to express the provenance of digital data on the web—is applicable to the case of net art works. Unlike other provenance standards, which focus on a single entity (the art object) and its history of ownership, PROV describes entities, agents and activities in terms of their derivation, generation and association:

“The PROV model not only captures the creation of the artwork, but also how various actors contribute to or influence the work over time. For instance, these may include individuals or institutions who commission, acquire, transfer or modify the work. Furthermore, PROV-DM can capture the different variants of a single artwork, even when these are preserved across various institutions. A single Internet artwork can be included in multiple (museum) collections and (Web) archives, whilst being part of the live Web.”

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