Prior to 2020, the world of net art existed, for the most part, outside of the bounds of institutional spaces and white cube galleries. Due to the closure of physical arts spaces in compliance with Covid-19 health and safety standards, many public galleries and artist-run centres created new partnerships with net artists. Galleries, museums, and DIY spaces commissioned digital projects that offered more accessible arts programming during a time of isolation and unease. In so-called Canada and elsewhere, this recent turn toward the institutional support of net artists represents a pivotal moment in contemporary arts for the presentation of net art. Consequently, it also introduces a series of questions and possibilities concerning how galleries and net artists might work collaboratively towards preserving these historically significant net art projects. Because the field of Internet art is defined by an ability to fluctuate and evolve over time, net artwork presents challenges within classical arts conservation and archiving. Which aspect of the net art can we archive? Should we be archiving every iteration of an expansive digital artwork?
While archiving and preserving net artwork raises questions of authenticity, artists and institutions additionally face obstacles finding sustainable methods of conserving digital artworks which exist online, as our use of digital infrastructures and technologies are often linked with extractive energy consumption and e-waste. The creation of new websites to host digital archives online, for example, means that a computer must host the server long term. An expansive digital archive is intrinsically linked to a large data set and a larger data set means more energy extraction to support its storage in a server or data centre. Therefore, the visual information of a net art object held in a digital archive, that is, the number of pixels held in a subsidiary’s cloud software, is data heavy. This method of archiving using cloud-based digital infrastructure is therefore connected to an environmentally unsustainable conservation approach. Digital conservation is unreliable in that it threatens its own future through its existence within a problematic structure.
In order to resist the draw of cloud-based digital infrastructure and data centers, we might look to artist networks using the sun’s rays to power their own community driven virtual networks. The Solar Protocol Network is a distributed solar powered website powered and hosted by six servers across the globe. The website and collaborative network was founded by Tega Brain, Benedetta Piantella, Alex Nathanson, and Keita Ohshiro. When the user navigates to Solar Protocol, they are greeted by a large chart encompassing two-thirds of the screen. This chart is composed of a series of concentric circles and intersecting lines, along with blocks of colour and text that track the source and energy production of the solar-powered network. Beside this graph is a title and text reading: “A naturally intelligent network,” along with information about which server is currently powering the site and how much juice is in the server’s battery. This site and global network are distinct from other projects in that they gesture towards a new mode of thinking about our relationships to the digital world, in terms of both design, utility, and connections with the Earth and the solar system. Solar Protocol critiques our predominant modes of using the Internet and digital space through offering new sustainable ways of interacting with technology. In their manifesto, the Solar Protocol collective states that the intelligence of their network is controlled by “earthy dynamics,” just as our daily lives are impacted by “weather, seasons, tides and atmospheric conditions” in many ways, from behavioural shifts, how we move through our environments, food production etc. Their model can be classified as “naturally intelligent” because the network’s signal is reliant on the sun’s rays. There is always the potential for the site to go offline if access to this natural resource decreases. Piantella and Brain, the creators of Solar Protocol stress the importance of digital networks which engage with the natural instead of existing outside of it.
As Internet Art and digital media become more central in interdisciplinary artistic practice, we must prioritize the development of digital archival strategies which do not participate in extractive models. The Solar Protocol artists are not archivists per se, but they are doing important work in reshaping the ways in which we interact with technology and the Internet. Perhaps, by building Internet servers which operate in tandem with our solar system and the Earth, we might propagate virtual archives which are connective forces between the digital and the natural world.
See the work here: https://icefollies.ca/imogen-clendining-2023/
 Pendergrass et al., “Towards Environmentally Sustainable Digital Preservation,” 165-206