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Digital performance is a genre whose ephemerality makes it extremely vulnerable to obsolescence and oblivion. Yet in this essay Jon Ippolito argues that the process-oriented character of digital performance makes it a better model for the long-term preservation of much of today's culture. To effect this shift may require preservationists to shift their emphasis from the paradigm of recordings to the paradigm of scores.

First published as "Digital Performance: Damnation or Salvation?" in Kenneth Schlesinger, ed., Theatre Library Association Symposium Proceedings: Performance Documentation and Preservation in an Online Environment (Performing Arts Resources 24) (New York: Theatre Library Association, 2004).

If artistic expression in the 21st century had an Endangered Species list, "digital performance" would surely be found near the top. As the ferocious pace of technological obsolescence in the past decade has proven, anything digital is automatically ephemeral; as if that weren't enough, the ambition of any performance is to reproduce something that resists reproduction.

Yet this most vulnerable manifestation of digital culture may also be its salvation. If we can expand our notion of performance beyond the medium-bound paradigms of classical theater and music, then we have a powerful strategy for preserving new performance genres, such as networked video and textual improvisations, as well as works not normally considered performative, such as installation and Web art.

In the process we may need to redefine the concepts of "performance" and "score."

The difference between damnation and salvation will come down to whether we take a medium-centric definition of performance--it involves live bodies moving on a stage--or a more profound, medium-independent one. Yet in so doing we must also be able to distinguish the essence of performance from other time-based media. What is that distinction?

Although it is not a digital work, Ken Jacobs' Nervous System provides a good example of how the performative aspects of an artwork are usually neglected by conventional preservation methods. This film installation requires the artist to manipulate the film directly as it passes through the projector; a traditional archival focus on the film stock would be at a complete loss to document such interventions.

Meg Webster's installation Stick Spiral (1986) bears no obvious resemblance to a performance such as Robert Morris's Site (1964). Nevertheless, installing Stick Spiral requires not merely re-creating the appearance of the original, but also following a definite procedure--in this case filling a room with recently cut branches from the nearby area pruned for a reason other than the exhibition. In this sense, Webster's installation is performed. While Site is performed by a male and female dancer manipulating plywood boards and other props onstage, Stick Spiral is performed by curators and museum staff in the act of gathering materials necessary to recreate the installation. Both works require archiving instructions or a score for these performances to be reenacted in the future.

Shakespeare and Mozart died, but their *media* didn't. Dramatic scripts and musical scores from these periods are not variable media because a convention already exists for interpreting them in more or less the same medium as the original. The vast majority of musical scores and theatrical scripts presume the same instrumentation as the original (and when someone wants to deviate from that instrumentation--even slightly, as in the case of original instrument performances--there is often violent resistance).

Now what we need is to expand our definition of score to include notations for ephemeral *mediums*. Possible candidates for such notations include metadata for photographic negatives and video masters, 3d rendering data, and programming code.

History has witnessed a seesaw between scores and recordings dominating the transmission of culture. Raw performances--oral stories, songs, and dance--were their precursors. With the alphabet's diffusion from the Phoenician shore, scores--in the form of texts, musical scores, and theatrical scripts--enabled art to be replicated across gulfs of space and time that would have been insurmountable by oral civilizations.

Then, in the 20th century, the *recording* largely usurped the score: vinyl LPs and CDs superceded or obviated musical scores, while film and video replaced novels and theater as narrative media par excellence. Finally, at the turn of the millennium, a powerful new form of cultural transmission--computer code--is poised to swing the media pendulum back to the score once again.

Scores and recordings can be "moving" in different ways. The medium of a score is more static than that of a recording, which is often a moving image or audio segment. At the level of *preservation*, however, scores are more dynamic than recordings. Scores represent potential; scores trigger activity. In the language of variable media, recordings encourage storage and migration, while scores encourage emulation and reinterpretation.

Whether you're preserving recordings or scores, preservation and copyright go together like oil and water. If preservationists don't fight the trend toward closed formats, they'll be left with a black hole in the cultural record of the turn of the millennium. Once the lawyers get involved, you can kiss goodbye to new preservation strategies like distributed storage, migration, and emulation.

A look at the battlefields of contemporary culture suggests that recordings and scores are faring differently in the war of closed versus open formats.

In the realm of recordings, monopolies increasingly control all stages of production and distribution, from recording in the studio to pressing the CD or DVD to manufacturing the player. (Sony's attempt to market Walkman with glued-in CDs is only the most egregious example.) We've seen a few valiant responses to the copyright lockdown of recorded culture--most notably the introduction of Creative Commons licenses--though it's still unclear whether these innovations will be able to reverse the trend.

In the war over open versus closed scores, on the other hand, paradigms for sharing rather than hoarding have been gaining momentum. Copylefted code--the inspiration for the Creative Commons licenses--is waging a war on many fronts against proprietary code. Apache runs 70% of Web servers; GNU/Linux is giving Microsoft a run for its money in the desktop market; and governments from Brazil to Korea are opting for open over closed source software.

This is not to say that copyright holders haven't tried to stem the proliferation of open scores. But such counterattacks often end up embarrassing the monopolists bringing suit. So Microsoft's attempts to paint open code as more expensive or less secure end up sounding more like reflections on the software corporation's own vulnerabilities. In an especially laughable case, the John Cage Trust sued a musician for recording Cage's notorious "unscored score" 4'33" without permission; critics were quick to point out the irony of this attempt to lock down a work by the composer who pioneered the indeterminate score. To judge from these public relations fiascos, public access seems more defensible for scores than recordings, perhaps because the very paradigm of the score implies the possibility that others can re-use it.

Interestingly, the advent of Internet2--an ultrahigh-bandwidth network, now in use by academia, that can carry full-screen full-motion video--may re-inscribe the mode of the recording onto the score-dominated Internet we have now. As Alexander Galloway has remarked, the paradigm of Internet1 is the score--think of such prevalent Web protocols as HTML and JavaScript--but the paradigm of Internet2 is the recording. Even artistic pioneers using Internet2 for sophisticated multicast events can sometimes fall into the "recording" mindset that serves as the default for broadcast media. For example, one of Internet2's more visionary innovators, Tim Jackson of Ryerson University, records the audio and video output of the Internet2 performance Network Touch. Curiously, though, he does not archive copies of the software or of the instructions distributed to the work's dispersed performers.

There are too many unpredictable technological and legal factors to say for certain whether today's experiments in new media will slip into an art historical black hole. But in the struggle over its future, I'm putting my money on performance--because I believe it is scores, not recordings, that will ultimately keep digital culture alive.