We recognise that emulation is new for many people. We’ve prepared a FAQ to help explain what we’re doing in this project.

Q: Why are we doing this project?
Media obsolescence has made digital media artworks from the 1990s virtually unplayable because of the reliance on vintage computer environments. We are trying to develop a good set of solutions to these problems to preserve media artworks. Our case studies come from the archives of dLux media arts, Experimenta media arts, ANAT, and Griffith Artworks, now in the custody of our partner cultural institutions.

Q: What is emulation and what’s it got to do with it?
Much of the activity that our digital archivist undertakes is with the emulation solution that we’re using, Emulation as a Service (EaaS). Emulation simulates the function of obsolete computer systems and is recognised as a key digital preservation strategy for keeping complex digital artefacts accessible. What we emulate is the computer environment, so that files and applications can run in their native environment on a contemporary computer. Much of the digital archivist’s effort is directed towards building the environments, so that the digital artefacts display correctly.

E.g. Let’s say you have a word processing file that requires Windows 95 and Word 7 to open. Our digital archivist — using software ‘imaged’ previously — builds that environment, by installing Windows 95 into EaaS, and then Word 7. She sees an actual Windows 95 start up screen on her contemporary laptop, along with all the standard utilities. Then she loads Word followed by the file, and clicks ‘Open’ on the relevant tab, just as users did back in the day when they wanted to open a file. The word processing file opens up on screen, within Word, the same as it looked back in 1995. It is the same file, running in the same computing/software environment.

Many of the works in this project are CD-ROMs, often created in Macromedia Director. For such artworks, we emulate the operating system, e.g. OS9. Emulation allows us to install the operating system on a contemporary computer. We boot it up and then instead of inserting the CD-ROM in the drive as we would have back in the day, we ‘mount’ the disk image in the virtual CD drive. Such artworks play in Macromedia Projector, which is on the CD-ROM.

Q: What else is involved in preserving an interactive digital artwork?
We also put effort into getting the digital artefact ready for emulating. This involves e.g. locating a copy of the artwork, making sure we know what computer environment artworks were created in, and that we have the right equipment to handle getting data off disks perfectly, to preserve it.
We make ‘disk images’ of optical media or floppy disks. A disk image is a bit-perfect copy of a disk. The disk image contents are identical to the contents of the original disk, except that this is now a file on a computer (in the CD-ROM example, typically an .ISO), rather than on an external storage medium. Log files are produced to verify that the disk image is the same as the CD-ROM itself.

Q: Does this change the artwork on the disk?
The artwork on the disk is not altered in any way. There is no rebuilding or selection of files or any such interventions. The effort and skill of the digital archivist is in configuring the virtual vintage computer environment. We often use the information provided in Readme files to configure the emulation environment. We also use other forensic clues to configure the environment, such as dates and file formats. The user interacts with the emulated artwork as they did when it was new, maintaining full interactivity.

Q: What else are you doing to make sure the artwork is the same?
We are comparing the artworks running in emulation with them running on original hardware, and making documentation of this. The Digital Heritage lab at Swinburne contains many different vintage computers, which allow us to run artworks on original hardware. We want to show artworks running to artists as obviously they know their work best, and we want to get their perspective to help us ensure we have configured the environment in the best way, preserving its significant properties.

Q: Ok, so why are you talking about emulation possibly changing the artwork?
We are taking the step of inviting artists who’d like to, to author a statement about the emulation of their work, following the process developed in this Cornell University project. There have been changes in monitor technology which we can’t control and a contemporary flat screen looks different from CRT screens. For some artists, the appearance of the work on a particular generation of computer might have been particularly important, and we recognise that they might wish to note this. Some other scenarios artists might wish to provide comment on include:

  • works might have had specific hardware controllers or other peripherals which are no longer present;
  • net.art works that called up websites that no longer exist;
  • reflections on the relation of the preserved, emulated work to the work when it was first completed;
  • the ways in which their vision was shaped/constrained by the technology that was available at the time of creating the work; or
  • other ways in which their art was shaped by the technologies of its historical moment.

Such reflections are very valuable and we want to support their collection.

Below: Installing Windows 98 SE operating system in Emulation-as-a-Service.