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Digital objects – what are they and why should we manage them?

Published on
24 Aug 2017
Written by
Laura Molloy

In my project, I’m talking lots about “digital objects”, and the part they play in the workflows of visual artists. This is a way of talking about many different types of digital files without indicating specifically a video, text, database, digital image, piece of code or anything else.  Here, I introduce the notion of digital objects and the need to care for them in specific ways.  And I attempt to do it all whilst avoiding technical vocabulary!

Digital Objects: what are they?

A digital object is ‘an object composed of a set of bit sequences’ (CCSDS, 2012).  This basically means that if the material can be manifested by a bitstream, and appears to the user as a digital file, it can be thought of as a digital object.  Some digital objects can be simple, like a text file.  Video, being composed of multiple elements (video track, audio track, container file and possibly others) may be considered a complex digital object.

It’s worth pointing out that in my current project, I’m not specifically interested in whether the artist is making a digital artwork.  I’m at least as interested in people who paint, sculpt or draw in analogue ways.  My theory is that in current everyday life, visual artists of any kind are now very likely to be using digital technologies in their working practices.  What I aim to do is understand where the digital objects arise in the workflow of individual visual artists and what value they carry to that artist.

For visual artists, digital objects may be material supporting the research and development of art work, materials used in the production of art work, and/or documentation of a finished work.  Digital objects in the arts encompass a wide variety of file types (text, images, video, audio, etc.) and formats (TIFF, DOC, GIF, PDF, JPG, MP3, etc.) created and used by artists.

Why do we need to care for our digital objects?  Digital stuff lasts forever, doesn’t it?

Contrary to popular belief, digital objects are actually very vulnerable to damage. This can occur in two main ways.  Firstly, digital objects can become physically damaged through degradation over time.  Damage can occur through processes such as ‘bit rot’, or damage to carrier media such as water damage or shock.  Some carrier media such as CDs and DVDs do not have proven longevity even if carefully stored.

Digital objects can also become unavailable through loss of access.  There are a few ways that can happen.  For example, if your digital material is on carrier media such as USB sticks or portable hard drives, these can easily be lost, damaged or stolen. Cloud services can close and online storage platform passwords can expire or easily be forgotten.

Another access issue is software or hardware obsolescence.  For example, it’s clear that if you store valuable footage on Betamax tapes or floppy drives, it’s tricky to play these now.  Notwithstanding the effects of age on the carrier media themselves, it also may be difficult to get the drivers or software that you need to access the stored information.

So digital objects require pro-active intervention to remain findable, accessible and understandable (DPE, 2006) and to retain their authenticity. An authentic digital object can be understood as one which is ‘the same as it was when it was first created’ (DPC, 2016).  This is why we need Digital Curation, which is a set of processes and activities that involves maintaining, preserving and adding value to a digital object throughout its lifecycle (DCC, n.d.)

Where do digital objects appear in art making?

It can come as a surprise to artists how important digital objects have become in their workflow. To provide an example here, I’ve been thinking about what types of digital objects occur in my own working processes for creating a painting. These are:

  • I search for, view, and sometimes download digital images and text online.  Sometimes these are my own work in places like Flickr, and sometimes they are part of looking up people, places, artwork or other things online to get more information (e.g. on techniques, on historical eras…) and / or visual references.
  • I also make my own digital images via my phone and camera.  These include photographs of models, objects, and other people’s work in galleries.
  • I make digital images in the studio: photography of my work in progress on the easel and of the palette for a particular painting.
  • I make digital images of the ‘finished’ piece and place these online (my website and sometimes Instagram) and offline (on my phone and laptop) to promote my work, to enter exhibitions to describe my work when talking in person with someone else.
  • I create digital text documents including my artist’s statement, and emails regarding my practice.
  • I created a spreadsheet that documents each finished work including its name, size, a brief description, media and price/destination if sold.

It would be great to know whether this sounds similar to your practice – or whether you make, receive and keep different digital objects. Let me know in the comments!


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