Ben Fino-Radin Interview
Something that comes up a lot in my conversations with artists is the importance of perceiving and utilizing what Dave Hickey once termed a “useable past” – the basic idea being that in pushing their work into fresh territory, artists can look to the figures and objects of art history as prospective allies, readily available to be consulted, cited, intermixed, and (mis)appropriated in the hopes of addressing present concerns. It’s an approach centered on the belief that for author and viewer alike, the experience of art is enhanced by our being able to contextualize works within a field of precedents. It also embraces the notion that while circumstances and authorial intent might be obscured over time, the works themselves remain evergreen, untethered to particulars and ripe for rediscovery. Though each extant artwork is subjected to the whims of fashion, even the most presently disfavored item remains viable as a potential resource for some future conversation; though an object may be deemed out of style, it need never be considered obsolete.
Of course, in order to engage with history this way, one must be assured access to works of art in their most natural state, whether it be as a preserved artifact or some form of purposeful documentation – and it’s on this point that a growing number of artists face a very real dilemma. For while it’s one thing to deny obsolescence as a function of fashion, artists working with digital materials must contend with the fact that as technology advances, the programs and platforms that support their art will eventually become inoperable – thus rendering many of the works themselves literally obsolete. What’s more, the rate of this forced antiquation has grown exponentially over the years; as each wave of new technologies enjoys an increasingly shorter lifespan, so too do the artworks that rely on those technologies as technical, conceptual, and aesthetic frameworks. In terms of retaining digital art’s useable past, then, the implications here are grave: with works falling ever more quickly into obsolescence, entire threads of art historical precedence can effectively vanish, inaccessible to succeeding generations and absent from future discussions.
In response to these challenges, there has emerged in recent years a small but tight-knit community of practitioners dedicated to establishing open, long-term access to technology-based works of art and design. Fusing traditional conservation practices with inventive technical strategies, the members of this nascent field find themselves tasked with lending some sense of permanence to an environment in constant flux, developing policies and procedures geared at restoring items once lost to technological obsolescence – and ensuring that the same fate doesn’t befall works being produced today.
Among the more prominent voices within this burgeoning conversation has been NYC-based conservator Ben Fido-Radin. A self-described “media archeologist, archivist, and conservator of born-digital works,” Fino-Radin has spent the past few years splitting his time between developing a digital cataloging system for MoMA and maintaining Rhizome’s ArtBase archive of digital artwork. (He since left Rhizome to focus on his tasks at MoMA full-time.) His practice encompasses a variety of activities, ranging from the painstaking documentation of contemporary artworks to salvaging content which lay dormant in outmoded materials – a skill which, at the time of this writing, had most recently led to his involvement in the New Museum’s ”XFR STN”, a media-archiving project/exhibition offering artists the chance to digitize and display items otherwise confined to archaic formats.
Last August, Persiscope spent an afternoon with Ben, visiting him at his lab at MoMA Queens before traveling together to New Museum to walk through the exhibition. Articulate, enthusiastic, and eager to make relatable what can at times seem a prohibitively technical conversation, Ben spoke at length on a range of topics, offering considerable insight into the ideas and concerns that drive his practice.