Home Technological Timeline

Introduction to the Technological Timeline


From the beginning of the DOCAM research initiative, we have been concerned with the relationship between technological invention and artistic creation. Artists are not always the first to make use of new technological tools, but they have often led the way in revealing their unsuspected potential. The history of media technologies includes key artists like Nam June Paik, who explored the artistic potential of the new Sony video Portapak right after its release, in 1965. That same history, however, includes those music composers of the 1950s who experimented with tape recording several years after it had been introduced for industrial or commercial purposes. While some artists have been quick to adopt new media technologies, others have been slow and skeptical in accepting new inventions launched in the consumer marketplace. Artists may run ahead of the broader social acceptance of new technologies or lag cautiously behind.


The DOCAM Technological Timeline is designed to show, in clear and graphic form, the ways in which art history and the history of technological invention run alongside each other. It is not an exhaustive history of all technologies used by artists to produce or exhibit their work. Rather, it has been designed to show how the artworks chosen as case studies by the DOCAM team fit within a broader history of media technologies. Made and shown at specific points in the history of technology, these works all pose challenges to the conservators who work to maintain them or the curators who wish to exhibit them anew.


The Technological Timeline is intended to contribute to the fulfillment of the Main Objectives of the DOCAM Research Alliance. Based on multidisciplinary research, the Timeline draws together multiple forms of expertise in a tool designed to promote the transfer of knowledge across multiple sectors, from the academy to the professional worlds of artists and museum personnel. As a publicly-available resource, we hope that it will help to sensitize others to the complex relationship between the history of technology and the development of media-based art forms.


There are many existing timelines that show the history of media technologies, and others that trace the history of art. (Two of the best, in our view, are the on-line Media History Project and the Timeline of 20th c. Art and New Media ). Ours is one of the few that sets individual artworks against the backdrop of the broader technological history of which they are a part. Drawing on the work of other DOCAM project teams, and on research conducted by the Technological Timeline committee, our timeline shows how different artworks were conceived, produced and exhibited at specific moments in the history of technology. We show, as well, how artists have adapted individual works over time to take advantage of technological change or resolve the challenges of technological obsolescence.


The history of art is, at least in part, a history of the tools and materials with which art is made.

The life of an artwork is shaped by what happens to its materials, by the extent to which these materials decay, become obsolete, or cease to communicate in a meaningful fashion. Media-based artworks, which often require elaborate technological assemblages for their exhibition, are particularly sensitive to the fate of the materials with which they are made. A software-driven artwork made in 1983 raises a host of problems when it is re-exhibited 25 years later – when the monitors, processors and storage media with which it was originally made may no longer be available in reliable form. Artists and curators must decide whether to seek out these tools in their original form, design new ones to replicate their function, or adapt the content of the work to present-day technologies.


At the same time, the Timeline is intended to serve a larger audience. Since its inception, the DOCAM research initiative has been interdisciplinary in character and ambition. In addition to museum conservators, archivists, information professionals and specialists in media technologies, DOCAM has included critics and historians of art, curators, and scholars in media history. Our Timeline addresses the specific challenges posted by media-based artworks, but it invites us, as well, to reflect on the meaning of technological change. It shows, for example, that technological invention rarely incites revolutionary change in the making of artworks, but, rather, inspires the gradual artistic acceptance of new technologies over time. It suggests, as well, that media technologies considered to be failures in the commercial marketplace (such as the Laserdisc) remained important tools of artistic creation over periods lasting several years.


Our Timeline is intended to assist art and museum professionals in their work, but we hope that it will be of use to teachers and students engaged in studying the histories of art and media. Neither art nor technology drive each other’s history in any direct sense, but each acts upon the other to open up certain possibilities and restrict others. Rather than suggesting a history of straight, unbroken technological progress, our Timeline reveals the ways in which artists may either slow the disappearance of a technology or rapidly develop its potential application. In this respect, we suggest, artists should be granted an important place within the history of technology, alongside the military and industrial actors who are typically assigned its leading roles. Likewise, curators and museum conservators, who more and more must deal with questions of technological invention and obsolescence, have become key figures shaping the social uses and meanings of media technologies. The art museum itself now stands as an institution whose own history is ever more intertwined with the history of technology, and not only with that of artistic forms and styles.


To see artists, curators, conservators and art museums in this way requires that we understand the histories of technology and art in their close relation to each other. The DOCAM Technological Timeline was designed with this objective in mind.


Dr Will Straw, President of Technological Timeline committee