(image above generated with Midjourney)

Creative Tech, Art and the Afterlife

Blair Neal
13 min readNov 13, 2023

(originally published on my personal site here and re-posted to Medium)

We all gotta go sometime….but our digital work doesn’t have to.

As a fellow mortal, I’ve had a casual interest in this topic of a digital legacy and personal artwork preservation for a few years, but haven’t done a deep dive on it before.

I’ve seen or heard about artists in the creative tech circle passing away early on and then there are sudden logistical questions about what to do about their website, their work, their finished and unfinished work, and, of course, work that was never meant to see the light of day. How is stuff accessed? What should be preserved? While my writings below will focus primarily on artists working with code and digital art making (ie creative technology, new media art, generative art, etc), there may be kernels of takeaways for folks working in other fringes of digital media making as well. There is also the flipside of — maybe you don’t want to be remembered at all.

As for what personally brought this on, my mom passed away earlier this year, and I’ve been going through a lot of old photos and belongings. My mom wasn’t an artist, but still — a lot of feelings get stirred up in terms of what do you keep, what do you pass on, what do you throw away. I also have a young daughter and I often think about what I’d actually want to pass her way in terms of various digital and physical artworks and writings. Physical possessions are hard enough to think about what to pass around (by the way, I highly recommend the book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning on this topic), but if you have a loved one with a lot of artwork, it’s such an odd question. It’s not a super comfortable question to engage with, but it’s a necessary one.

I don’t think that these are topics of preservation and archive are reserved only for the “well-known” artist. In the short timescale of 5–10 years, there is work you have made that might be a huge inspiration to someone you don’t even know. You might have work that could come back in style in a few decades. There are a few pieces out there that I know are fairly small or maybe only a handful of people have seen, but I still think about them every few months. Hell, even if you’re not even close to being dead yet, trying to revisit your work from 2 years, 5 years, 10 years ago can sometimes be completely impossible. Files get corrupted, old software doesn’t run anymore, hardware is unavailable, etc. It doesn’t mean that work isn’t valuable, it’s just covered in some dirt and grime. Some of these topics might eventually be fitting for a sibling article to this one about the professional side of archiving for work and institutions.

The thoughts below aren’t necessarily meant to be a hands on guide about what to do, but rather to open conversation for yourself about how you want your work to be preserved and remembered when you’re either gone (or possibly instantiated as an AI consciousness somewhere). Some notes are even meant as thought experiments, rather than actual things you might do (ie sharing your work publicly on passing). I’d love to add onto this as time goes on if anyone has other topics to add or discuss.

How do I best express my wishes?

Making some explicit document is certainly the best place to start, but I don’t think there are a ton of how-to resources in this regard.

I would personally be curious to work with other artists that read this to make a sort of boilerplate “letter of intent” that any of us could use to put together our wishes. I don’t think having all of us individually go to a lawyer and work this out or form a “trust” is the most efficient route, especially since it would be cost prohibitive for some at certain career stages. At the bottom of this article I have a very rough draft of a letter of intent outline, but maybe eventually I can put it on Github for others to share and modify. I’m guessing a normal will or fairly modern law firm putting together estates also has some provisions for stuff like this as well, but maybe not to the level of detail I’m thinking of.

How do I decide about which work should be preserved or documented?

I personally don’t even know if I have a rough count of all the works I’ve made that I would want to share with others. Do I go back to my college-era artworks? High-school? Is my entire personal photo library and email collection also a relevant part of this collection? It can be hard to judge the importance of an individual piece, or even half finished pieces.

This is also a fine place to acknowledge: not all work is worth keeping or important. I am absolutely a bit of a data-hoarder myself, and can easily find ways to rationalize keeping lots of different small and large parts of projects. Not everything needs to be sifted through in fine detail to recreate the work itself. Not every file version needs to be kept to chart the progress and process of a piece. It’s not all important, but answering what is is probably something we all have to try to best answer for ourselves. Additionally, the amount of data humans are creating every day just gets larger and larger, so the idea that artwork from a single small artist in the early 20th century could still be historically relevant or even identifiable as discrete “artwork” in another 100–200 years is a big question.

How do I keep things organized for others to navigate?

My personal collection is a bit of a mess. I have folders for writing work, old code, music videos. It is spread out on old computers, old drives, the cloud, and locked behind various accounts and passwords. Even finding and determining what the “final_final_v4.mp4” of a project actually is would be an incredible effort, even if it was me doing it. I think a big part of this probably comes back to creating a document that outlines some of the specific works and their specific location. The document could also outline stuff around what you might consider a “finished work” versus something that was a perpetual work in progress or unfinished.

Consider making more complete manuals for your works that have more elements of setup beyond just a computer. Photos, notes, a bill of materials, tricks to get things connected, a statement about the work. These manuals can provide additional context about how to recreate the piece outside of just a pile of software and notes about how to make it fun. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer has shared some really fantastic examples of what detailed technical documentation can look like when you’re at that level — here is one for his Pulse Room and one for Last Breath.

What would I want shared to the public versus shared to my family?

There may be a collection of works that you think are worth showing to the world, but others that might be better suited just for close friends and family. Or everything might just be a big mishmash of files, photo documentation, emails, and assets. My shared work, unfinished work, unfiltered thoughts, disorganized experiments, and just like…work stuff, financial docs and photos and family videos — they all live in close proximity on a drive or two. Trying to separate out the actual work, from the person, from the other contextual elements can be a lot to untangle.

I think calling out unfinished work in a document is probably valuable — I think sketches and aspirations can be just as important to your collection as the finished work sometimes. A family history of this stuff might be fascinating to a future family historian as well — I have an ancestor who was apparently a famous banjo player in the south in the late 1800's/early 1900’s. I have other relatives who paint and do other art making, and its certainly one of those cherished family collections to hold onto. How that all translates to potentially sharing your weird shader art that comments on the politics of 2016 might be a little harder to see as a heirloom, but that’s a personal decision!

For what purpose would I want my works preserved?

There are a few reasons you might want digital artworks to live on.

You may be a mildly successful artist and your work might persist in private collections or galleries, and you might want your next of kin to still be able to guide that path and potentially still make some money from it if necessary.

You might see the cycles of digital art creation and realize that your work might have value to future students and generations of artists. Projects like the ReCode Project capture pioneers of generative and computer art and try to update their code and intention to modern languages and platforms (see also, the recent revival of Design by Numbers). This works well for works that might have been screen or image focused, but starts to get trickier if you rely on custom inputs and other things specific to a machine.

You might just want to pass your thoughts and other things onto your family as a way of preserving some family history around art making.

The hard part of rationalizing this is usually how much time it might take to archive things, and potentially how much it might cost versus the future value of the work. It could take weeks or months to do a decent archival job yourself, but it could be that even some form of documenting is better than a pile of unlabeled hard drives.

For digital assets, how do I even preserve these in a way that might be accessible 10–20–30 years later?

For the young kids, here is what 15yr old code collections can look like

I have vivid memories of being in college in the 2000’s and being in my digital art professor’s offices and just seeing stacks of hard drives (then probably just a few dozen GB apiece, and a firewire 400 or even SCSI interface). Here I am in 2023, and my collection process isn’t all that different — I archive my whole computer every couple of years onto a new drive and throw it in a fire safe or store it physically somewhere else. Cloud storage solutions also allow for additional backup solutions, but it is definitely a personal choice about what you feel is appropriate for potential cloud storage issues and data access versus potentially more secure but volatile physically owned media.

I think it is probably important to look at things in stages of coverage. A 2–5 year prediction (and cost coverage) might be a lot easier to plan than It may feel important to you to have your website persist for a few years, but not 30. A 2–5 year plan is probably reasonable for content that might need to keep running to fulfill contracts or other things, but looking at technology on timescales of 10 years, it can be hard to even plan what text/image/video formats will persist, much less CPU/GPU architecture, dependencies on API’s, networking protocols, and other stacks. Heck, eventually people might have to work out how to get a vintage Kinect V1 to run on a quantum computer with an AI code interpreter. It can also be interesting to look at the approach that the Retro gaming community takes — these are specialized environments that are able to make 30–40yr old code run totally fine on modern devices with some tweaks for latency and input mapping. There are certainly other examples for old Mac and PC emulation systems as well.

It could be that the best way to preserve a more delicate work is through its documentation, but not always the actual experience of it. This might shape the type of work that gets passed on, but some documentation feels better than none at all. It can also be worth considering what aspects of the work feel most critical to its preservation. I feel that work from someone like Nam June Paik is something that more specifically relies on using old CRT Monitors for now while they still exist, but in 50 years it may be almost impossible to show the work in the same form without remaking that piece of tech. I suspect that conversion tools for different video formats will be some of the better supported and widely available tools in the future to get from Quicktime .MOV’s to .mp4’s to whatever h264/h265/HVEC/VP9/etc formats. I can say with impunity that I personally wish I had taken more WIP videos of some of my 2006–2016 projects as just desktop captures (hey, kiddos, it was hard to do performant video capture back then AND run 320x240 videos too, ok?).

What formats might persist the best?

This is a bit outside of the scope of this article because there are certainly better digital archivist resources out there. It certainly feels like plain text files will continue to be fairly standard. I suspect that standard image an video formats will eventually get converters to anything new that comes along. I would avoid anything too esoteric or proprietary as it might require some rebuilding from the original. Projects that use commercial software to run are probably at the biggest risk of being able to run again in 5–10 years time without significant changes or updates to the original code.

How do I keep things private for now, but provide instructions to someone about how to access things in the future?

Some of these questions can be challenging depending on one’s social support network. Having a spouse or children is certainly one way to have a place to share things to, but some folks may not have a network like that. Providing passwords, 2FA, storage access and such takes a lot of logistics and trust. Apple has tools like Digital Legacy that allow family members and trusted people to access iCloud/Apple ID accounts after someone is deceased, and I suspect more and more things like this will pop up, but it is not a straightforward question. Even if you write something down as a password, keeping it updated and doing things like passkeys and two factor might be a barrier. There are also a number of resources out there from more of a Will/legal perspective on how you might do this properly. The main trick is that some of us might have some significant lead time to pass info along, and some might hit something totally unexpected with no time to plan and hand off.

How do I document and preserve my process versus just passing on finished works?

A lot of your work might best be captured in your process and not always in the finished work. However, not everyone (read: no one) has budget for a documentary film crew or the time to even capture this part of the work. There may be no sure fire way to really capture your process, but maybe grabbing some screenshots, some videos, and a few notes along the way and bundling them with your project can be helpful.

Could I just release the entirety of my work online for people and AI models to feast upon?

Related to the question above about what to share publicly, I think it is certainly worth considering some wild or theoretical paths. I think a collective or artists or a small group could certainly build something in the cloud that allows them to place their work for preservation in a sort of group trust/archive that each of them has the responsibility to keep alive and share for the legacy of the others. There are these weird (occasionally problematic) “Secret Societies” like the Seven Society that dont reveal members until they have passed away. I could certainly see groups of friends getting a joint AWS/Dropbox account, putting their work and documentation on S3 glacier storage, and just having a light contract between each other to release/destroy their collective work on their death.

More than ever this year, I think we’ve seen the possibility that in a very short amount of time you’ll be able to ask for “give me an artwork with code in the style of [specific accomplished new media artist 1983–2050] from their 2010 era work” and get a whole piece generated on the fly. I’ll be fascinated to see where this goes when more works are (probably?) eventually released into a large pool of period works and synthesized in the same way we are doing Midjourney/Dall-E mashups right now.

What if I want to just be forgotten?

The vast majority of humanity knew that they would eventually be forgotten, and had to reckon with it in various ways. The ability to have a digital collection of our thoughts, artworks, writings, photos, and artworks is a fairly new capability that we are all grappling with. Maybe you want all traces of your work and digital self to be wiped clean, avoiding any cloning of consciousness later on. There is this concept of The Right to be Forgotten related a bit more to digital privacy, but it can be expanded to what happens after death, and I think we are still in the early stages of understanding what this might be like for people. In the last year or two, tools like ChatGPT have only further solidified the idea that the large chunks of data we create in public environments can and will be used as fuel for improving and tuning AI models. A descendent in just a decade or two will probably be able to have a conversation with your digital twin that is partially based on your actual data and some aggregate of “what people were like back then” but it certainly wont be you. For more well known artists with a large group of work, having an estate or trust that can just keep generating new work from the “brand” or consciousness or an old artist fed new information doesn’t seem too far off.

I don’t have any particular guidance in this area about the best way to go about this, aside from making these kinds of stipulations in your will. It would certainly be a fascinating experiment to create a sort of web environment dead-mans-switch where you must log in once a year or all of your accounts and data get immediately wiped out — or perhaps an decryption key is mailed to someone who might have an encrypted drive from you.


Thanks for taking the time — I’d be happy to add any additional resources or questions that people might have comments about or any notes that might make this more useful.

Other Resources:

See a boilerplate “letter of intent” writeup on my site here: https://ablairneal.com/creative-tech-art-and-the-afterlife



Blair Neal

Creative Technologist/Artist/Writer — www.ablairneal.com (previously at Fake Love and Deeplocal)