Emulation Generation

iroThe first time I got an emulator to work, it was to play Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town. I was probably 13 or so. Really, it was more out of curiosity than anything. I already had the game for my Gameboy Advance and had put in almost 50 hours at it (and married Karen to save her from turbo nerd Rick). I had most of the items and buildings. Still, I was intrigued as to how some of the members of the forum were able to post such clean screenshots, push their stats and cash absurdly high, and peek into the code of the game itself. It was a brief dabbling, I liked the feel of the console in my hands more and restarting a game I had put so much care and effort into just to bulk up my farmer to perfection that would have required weeks, maybe months of grinding, wasn’t too compelling. I deleted the emulator program and the files from the family PC and forgot about them for a few years.

A few weeks ago, my parents got rid of their CRT television. The huge old black box was purchased shortly after we moved in to the house, when I was 5. I just turned 23, so that means the TV was 18 years old. If it was a human it’d be able to drive, vote and buy cigarettes. I asked my mom what she had done with it, remembering that many art museums were desperate to find CRT televisions. Unfortunately, my dad had only decided it was time to give it up when the screen itself had become erratic and busted. To electronics disposal it went. It took 18 years of regular American TV watching to kill the thing, and that seems incredibly long if the life cycles of electronics two decades later is any indication. While few wept for the end of CRT production (though some did, what about those museums searching desperately for them?), they are almost gone now, and take with them a very particular aesthetic and technology. This will only keep happening faster as tech life cycles are shortened.

I bring up both of these anecdotes, separated by about 10 years, for a reason. One shows the obsolescence of a type of technology that at one point seemed ubiquitous. The panic over conserving Cathode Ray Tubes that were part of important artworks and artifacts (for example, a large portion of the oeuvre of Nam June Paik) only came when they began being phased out of production, not when flat screens started appearing. By the time CRTs stopped being mass produced, it was already too late. Museums who hold works that rely on the aesthetic look or even technological traits of CRTs are now scrambling as screens fade, burn, and die out. The only two options seem to be calling on the public to assist with finding and hoarding as many of the remaining CRTs as they can find, or emulating the “look” of CRT, by converting the video signals to a digital format and fitting curved glass over a flat screen TV. Of course, this is hardly ideal, but it retains the appearance (if not format) of the original piece as well as can be done without starting up the manufacture of CRTs all over again.

When emulation is seen as a last resort, as it was with Paik’s CRT works, the emulation process is always done in a rush, as the old technology is dying out. On the other hand, with other forms of technology, emulation is a race from the instant it comes out. Think about dSLRs, which greatly improved upon the quality and flexibility of digital cameras by figuring out ways to emulate their analog predecessors. Likewise, game emulators often appear long before the system they emulate is out of production. in these cases, emulation is seen as a boon, something that makes a game or artistic medium we enjoy that much easier to work with. Game emulators enable piracy, of course, which is a primary motivation in developing and downloading them, but they also allow for fan patches, and easier access to screenshots and in-game assets.

So why do museums only seem to think of emulation when the artwork’s survival becomes a pressing issue, and not as soon as they acquire it? If it needs a certain piece of technology, like a VCR, CRT, or so on, research and conservation plans on how to emulate that feature down the road should be a priority immediately. Even in the case of net.art and media art objects, digital files aren’t forever. If a file format falls out of common use, or the piece was written in a version of Flash or JavaScript so old that important parts of the code have become obsolete, the work could be inaccessible indefinitely unless emulation plans are made. Even though we’ve been told it’s long dead, those of us in the arts still have an infatuation with the aura of the original, which makes emulation seem like a necessary evil we should put off for as long as possible. Changing our attitude towards emulation to one more like that of the gaming or tech communities will not only result in better emulation techniques which can be deployed before dire situations, ensuring the accessibility and longevity of more works of art, but it will also force curators and conservators to learn more about electronics, telecommunications, file formats, and so on, in a very direct way, hopefully moving the position of digital and media art away from its currently rather marginal position alongside other mediums.

IMG_1413Douglas Gordon’s current piece at the Glasgow GoMA, Pretty Much Every Film and Video Work from about 1992 until Now (1992-2006) is a rare artwork that embraces emulation, especially the messier and less precise versions of it, by collapsing Gordon’s film and video work of over a decade, usually shown in installations of big screens and projectors where a single work takes up the whole room, into a pile of 100 TVs, each running a miniature version. The effect is a little overwhelming, not unlike walking into a pawn shop with all of the secondhand TVs running on different channels. However, because this wildly different method of emulation, which makes no attempt to be aesthetically similar to the original, has been executed by the artist himself, it raises interesting questions for museums about how to best preserve and adapt new media pieces for technological developments and new audiences. How can this piece be executed again when the resource of donated CRT televisions dries up? Is a convincing fake the ultimate priority, or is there something to gain by adapting it to the technology of the time, whatever the future may bring?

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One thought on “Emulation Generation

  1. I’ve done a fairly comprehensive lit review on preservation in games. and a lot of people mention historical “distortions” through emulation, and somehow believe that hardware can wholly mitigate this, which i don’t agree with. there’s a rather strong argument being made across the board, for emulation (Lowood’s white papers, and a ton of other papers by scholars)… the quest for “autheticity” in an interesting one, because no matter the technology context (original hardware or emulation), the context for an environment for playing these games, will never be wholly reproduced. without the rec rooms of the 70s, or bedrooms of the 90s recreated in exacting detail, we will alway experience games differently than they once were (a retro-historical objects rather than contemporary consumer objects).
    heh. yeah. i’ve been thinking a lot about this. thanks for the post! 🙂

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