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Art in the digital age

Artexte inaugurates an open-access database

Since the early 1980s, Artexte has been an archive organization of the printed word in Canadian contemporary art. After a recent move to the Art Actuel building at 2 Ste. Catherine East, Artexte launched e-Artexte, an open-access database, research platform, and online repository for contemporary art publications since 1965.

The physical Artexte collection is impressive in its breadth. It includes critical essays, exhibition catalogues, magazine/journal articles, conference papers, and artist-initiated publications – along with 22,000 monographic, visual, audio or digital documents, roughly 9,000 Canadian and international contemporary art exhibition catalogues, 7,300 artists’ files, and 3,000 files on Canadian and international cultural organizations.

The digital e-Artexte collection will exist as a complement to the paper-based collection. It will make the contents of the collection searchable through Google and Google Scholar, as well as through federated search engines (such as WorldCat) that assemble content for scholars in diverse fields of study. E-Artexte will thus facilitate the tasks of writers, researchers, and publishers interested in contemporary art on a global scale by making it easy to access and search a vast amount of content using the internet.

E-Artexte is based on open-access principles. The open-access movement believes that scholarly literature and research results should be freely accessible for unrestricted use, in the interest of advancing global scholarship and knowledge. Most universities offer their faculty and students the opportunity to self-archive dissertations, journal articles, and other writing within institutional repositories. These repositories are freely accessible via university websites. E-Artexte takes this standard model a step further by creating a repository that can be freely accessed by anyone.

Those opposed to open-access include publishers and university presses who fear they would be losing money by making ‘their’ publications available for free. They see publishers as part of the scholarly information chain and view a pay-for-access model as necessary to ensure that publishers are adequately compensated for their work. This is important in order for journals to continue to maintain a scholarly reputation, arrange for peer review, and edit and index articles. According to publishing houses, these tasks require economic resources that are not supplied under an open access model.

One needs to be a member to deposit works to e-Artexte, which requires publishers to pay a fee based on their revenue. Individual artists can become members for free. Not all artists are welcome: to be eligible one must be considered part of the contemporary Canadian art scene and not just a “Sunday painter,” according to John Latour, information specialist at Artexte.

Having an online database for art brings to the fore the issue of the internet as a medium for art, as not all artworks can be captured fully in digital format. For instance, Annie Descôteaux’s collage book, entitled AD NAUSEAM, is made from coloured cardboard shaped into the figures of perverse fables where creatures, foodstuffs, and organs trade roles. Originally a physical book, Descôteaux subsequently set up AD NAUSEAM as a website and as a digital file on e-Artexte. According to Descôteaux, all three different versions of the work express the same idea, even though the electronic version yields a different artistic experience than seeing the physical book would, because the digital version of the work does not reveal that the book is made using scissors, cardboard, and glue. This example is relevant because it illustrates the process of digital reformatting works must undergo in order to be made available on the internet. Naturally, this often erases the traces of the artist’s personality. From their work, and imposes constraints on how it is viewed.

So, the digital repository of art is a great way to grant wider access to easily digitized art criticism, art works, and texts. However, digitization has some restrictions and doesn’t perfectly represent all forms of art. It could be the case that open-access repositories will give greater visibility to digital artworks at the expense of works which do not conform to the frame of technology, but perhaps this change is not necessarily bad.

Although this has the potential to give greater visibility to digital art at the expense of those works that don’t transfer well into cyberspace, the prospect of open-access digitization of Canadian contemporary art will be welcomed by all those who have an interest in the subject.