My research interests and professional experience surround the conservation, preservation and documentation of software-based art, computer/video games and other kinds of complex digital thing. I am currently completing my PhD in the Department of Digital Humanities at King's College London, through an AHRC-funded Collaborative Doctoral Partnership with Tate, which addresses challenges in the conservation of software-based art.
Conservation of software-based artworks, computer/video games and other forms of complex digital thing.
New methods for ensuring long-term digital preservation of and access to born-digital cultural heritage. Particular interests include the repurposing of approaches from computer science and software engineering, the use of emulation and virtualisation to encapsulate software artifacts, and use of targeted information extraction tools to analyse and verify software performances.
Use of software as an artistic and creative medium, both as a historical phenomenon and as a continually evolving practice, particularly emerging applications of real-time 3D and simulation.
Modelling, metadata and ontologies as tools in support of digital preservation and documentation.
My PhD research seeks to address challenges in the conservation of software-based artworks, particularly their effective documentation. This research is funded by an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership Award between King's College London and Tate. I am currently in the process of writing up this research, but in the mean time you can find a provisional outline of the thesis below. The working title is: Method, Purpose, Use and Value in the Analysis and Description of Software-based Art.
Provisional Thesis Outline
The term software-based art has emerged from museum conservation practice over the past decade to describe a group of artworks for which software forms the primary artistic medium. Software-based artworks are complex entities and may involve many inter-related (and potentially bespoke) software and hardware components to realise particular behaviours or properties. The nature of this underlying complexity may not be apparent from the tangible elements of the work, being obscured as compiled software embedded in a specific technical environment. These characteristics present considerable challenges to those engaged in the long-term care of such works.
In this thesis, I address these challenges through the development of theory and practice in tandem, building toward a comprehensive understanding of potential approaches to the analysis and description of software-based art in a conservation context. The two core research questions I address are:
How can software-based artworks be effectively documented in a conservation context, given the variety of purposes documentation might hold (for both human and machine agents) and the different layers of the work and its realisation (including concept, compiled software and source materials)?
How can software be understood as an artistic medium, what unique conservation considerations do its properties raise for its treatment and care, and how we might begin to develop notions of technical art history for software-based artworks?
The two aims have clear synergies and are investigated in parallel, through a novel synthesis of knowledge and methodological approaches from digital preservation, art conservation, software engineering and other related domains. The research is particularly guided by the close study of a set of software-based artwork case studies from the Tate collection, the cultural organisation partner in this project. Taken together, the results support the specification of a foundational model for the creation of documentation for the conservation of software-based art. The model takes the form of a set of design patterns: reusable principles and methods that can be applied individually or in conjunction to effectively document artworks with variable technical and conceptual characteristics.
The conservation of software-based art is a relatively new activity for museums, and has so far only received limited attention in research and published literature. This thesis represents the first major study of documentation strategies within this emerging practice. This research may have implications for a number of related research domains, including the preservation of other forms of complex born-digital artifact such as video games and scientific simulation.
Digital preservation: forensic disk imaging; emulation and virtualisation; software analysis and profiling; fixity checking; file format identification
Information science: metadata and ontology design; systems modelling; collection management systems and cataloguing; digital repository systems
General software: Office packages; content management systems (WordPress, Drupal); image editing and manipulation; data cleaning and statistical analysis; web development (HTML and CSS); basic code literacy
Writing and dissemination: presentation to a range of audiences; technical report writing; blogging and non-technical writing; manuscript editing and preparation; reference management
Experience and Education
2014 - present, King’s College London and Tate: PhD Student. Thesis working title: ‘Method, Purpose, Use and Value in the Technical Description and Analysis of Software-Based Art’
2015 - 2016, King's College London: PERICLES Research Assistant
2011 - 2014, UK Data Archive: Research Data Management and Producer Support Senior Officer
2010 - 2011, UK Data Archive: Data Services Officer (Environmental and Geospatial)
2009 - 2010, Imperial College and The Natural History Museum London: MSc ‘Advanced Methods in Taxonomy and Biodiversity’ - Pass with Merit and Diploma of Imperial College
Digital Preservation Coalition (2013) Who's Who - A 60 Second Interview with Tom Ensom, UK Data Archive. Published by the DPC and available online
Rechert, K., Falcão, P., & Ensom, T. (2016). Introduction to an emulation-based preservation strategy for software-based artworks. Published by Tate and available online.
Ensom, T. (2015). Collecting and conserving software-based art (outside the institution). In Proceedings of the Conference on Electronic Visualisation and the Arts (EVA '15), EVA London 2017, BCS London, UK. Available online.
Ensom, T., Holden, R., Corti, L. and Beedham, H. (2013). UK Data Archive Training Manual. Web resource published by UK Data Archive and available online.
Van den Eynden, V., Ensom, T. and Corti, L. (2013). Research Data at Essex Final Report. Report for JISC-funded project published by UK Data Archive and available online.
Ensom, T. and Van den Eynden, V. (2012) Unlocking the geospatial potential of survey data. In Proceedings of the GIS Research UK 20th Annual Conference, Vol 1 Presentations, GISRUK 2012, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK, 11-13 April 2012. available online.
Ensom, T. (2017). The Slippery Materiality of Software. Material Matters Study Day, National Gallery, London, October 2017. Event web page.
Ensom, T. (2017). Technical Narratives: Documenting Software-Based Artworks. Future Proof!? Transformation Digital Art 2017, Stedelijk Museum Schiedam, Netherlands, February 8 - 9 2017. Event web page.
Ensom, T. (2016). Technical Narratives: Documenting the Lives of Software-based Artworks. Pratt Summer School, Drury Lane Campus, King’s College London, July 6 2017.
Ensom, T., Hedges, M., Laurenson, P. (2015). Technical Narratives: Novel Approaches to the Analysis and Technical Description of Software-based Art. Digital Humanities 2015, University of Western Sydney, Sydney, Australia, 29 June - 3 July 2015.