Ethics and practices of media art conservation, a work-in-progress (version0.5)

Author: Gaby Wijers (Netherlands Media Art Institute)

Publication date: August 2010

 

As the Obsolete Equipment project, this essay on changes and challenges facing the conservation of media art – and more specifically, obsolete equipment – is a work in progress. This preliminary version, written in August 2010, is comparable to the first phase of the project, which was dedicated to the preservation of video-based art. The second version, which will be written in August 2011, will, like the second phase of the project, also take computer-based art into consideration.

This essay is divided in three sections. After an introduction, the first section focuses on ethical issues relating to the preservation of media art, while the second section provides further insights into our practical approach to realising our case studies on video-based artworks in public collections in the Netherlands and Flanders.

 

Introduction

 

Since the 1970s, media art has become a category in itself, with a growing number of artists experimenting with technology. We can define and categorise media art in different ways: by its technological and artistic context; in the context of fine art as opposed to film and information and communication technology (ICT); and by its temporal character, as opposed to the traditional understanding of fine art disciplines. We could also define media art as a broader category that embraces various electronic art forms such as video art (the oldest and most well known example), media art installations, computer-based art, (digital) performances, net-based art, etc., and combinations of all these. What all these art forms have in common is their technological nature, which result in specific vulnerabilities in terms of contexts and technologies and a shortened lifespan.

The use of ephemeral materials or of rapidly ageing media technologies affects the material stability and, frequently, the meaning of media artworks. It is characteristic of media art is that there is a carrier (of the signal and the information), which can only be made visible with the help of playback equipment, displayed on or via display devices (monitors, beamers, etc.), and, occasionally, related signal processing or control equipment. In all cases all the components of a media artwork are interdependent: a media art installation can only be displayed if the monitors and the other devices are still functioning. The equipment is thus not only crucial for display, but also for preservation and digitisation; transfer to a different format will be impossible without suitable equipment. Whether the manner of presentation requires specific technical equipment or not depends on the artist. In spite of all (conservation) efforts, all of this technical equipment will eventually become obsolete due to the fragility of its components and ongoing technological advances. This obsolescence of physical storage formats and presentation equipment is the most appealing challenge in the conservation of media art. PACKED vzw1 and the Netherlands Media Art Institute (NIMk)2 focus on this technological dependency in their research during the Obsolete Equipment project2.

 

Since the end of the 1990s, media artworks and the obsolescence of the associated equipment have received considerable attention in conservation research and literature. Two divergent approaches can be distinguished: the ‘purist/original-technology-at-all-costs’ approach, and the ‘adapted/updated-technology-approach’. Both approaches are valid but a suitable approach somewhere between these two has to be found. It would be an error on the part of collecting institutions to give up too quickly on old technology. Decisions have to be made about the value of that technology for the work. Some of the issues involved are:

• What is important to preserve, and how should it be preserved?

• What are the essential aesthetic and technological elements that absolutely need to be preserved if the artwork is to retain any integrity in the future? And how should they be preserved?

• If essential technological elements cannot be preserved, can they be replaced, and how?

• What is essential to establishing the origins and authenticity of the work?

 

Questions covered in the Obsolete Equipment project include:

• Do we have to accept a greater degree of loss than contemporary art conservation is used to if we want to deal with the increasingly ephemeral technological components of media artworks?

• What decision-making models and guidelines are available for the preservation of media artworks that are threatened by the obsolescence of the playback and display equipment, and for the preservation of the necessary equipment?

• What are international best practices for the preservation of media artworks and for the preservation of necessary equipment?

• What are international best practices for the migration and emulation3 of media artworks that are threatened by the obsolescence of the playback and display equipment, and for the preservation of necessary equipment4?

 

1. Ethics of media art conservation

 

In fine art conservation, the main ethical issue is that all conservation activities should be faithful to the integrity of the original art object, respecting both the authentic, original appearance of the work and the artist’s original intention. Most ethical codes specify different kinds of integrity: physical, aesthetic and historical. The first refers to the material components, the second describes the ability of an object to create an aesthetical sensation for the viewer, and the last describes the history that has imprinted on the object5. These concepts of integrity (appearance and intention) are the greatest and most urgent issues confronting the field of media art conservation.

 

Uniqueness and Authenticity

The most widespread conception of a work of art is that it is a unique object. Media art challenges this conception, since the uniqueness of the physical manifestation is not applicable to video art, or to other forms of media art. A media artwork is certainly unique and authentic but its tangible form as such is not – the (analogue) video signal and the (digital) computer code can be copied: video is a technically reproducible medium with masters, sub-masters, copies, etc. Furthermore, most display equipment is mass-produced and is not necessarily unique unless it has been modified by or for the artists. In times of mechanical and digital reproduction the notion of a unique artwork is no longer seen to be relevant by a significant sector in contemporary art, namely media art.

In the case of Das Ende des Jahrhunderts (1985), by Klaus vom Bruch, the video Azimuth included in the work is not only a part of this installation but is also a video work in itself that has been acquired by a number of collections6.

Since the cameras and monitors used in black-and-white... (2002), by Nan Hoover, were purely functional and mass-produced, the function of the equipment could be mapped without discernible change, and since the equipment is hidden from the viewer it could be replaced by equipment having the same functionality7.

While fine arts preservation often deals with objects, material and the notions of authenticity and originality, media art preservation is not primarily concerned with physical manifestation; instead, we deal with increasingly ephemeral technological components and this is reflected in the refreshing strategies that are developed and implemented. Furthermore, the original authentic state often varies greatly, either because variance is sometimes part of the concept, or over the course of subsequent presentations. The question is, what kind of authenticity is preferable: conceptual authenticity faithful to the artist’s intention, or contextual and functional authenticity based on the original context and function of the work? The most common concept of authenticity in fine art conservation is based on physical integrity.

 

The starting point for the research in the case of Project I-’90 (1989–90), by Peter Struycken, was authentic presentation, i.e., a re-installation using identical components to those used in the original installation. This approach to re-installation was not realisable in practice because on the one hand, a significant proportion of the variables relating to the equipment are unknown and, on the other, some of the equipment, specifically the slide projector unit, no longer exists. For a presentation where the media authenticity has to be preserved, (some of) the original equipment is replaced by similar, but not obsolete models. The missing links in the complete authentic version must be determined again – insofar as it is possible, in consultation with the artist – and this information can serve as installation instructions for future presentations. Technically speaking, this version is realisable; artistically there are some problems in establishing the relationship between the deterioration of colour and the meaning of Struycken’s work. While a certain degree of deterioration is acceptable with many other film- and slide-based artworks, it is problematic in this work by Struycken where colour is the central theme. The colours of slides and films in Project I-’90 have to be as close to the original as possible. Using digital techniques to process the original material was the only workable way of restoring the colour balance to the films and slides. Furthermore, the possibility of exactly positioning the images from the slides on the filmstrip was lost during the transfer from analogue to digital production techniques. However, preserving authenticity and meaning while respecting the artist’s intentions has remained problematic. In this re-installed version the work is not defined by its media and associated equipment, but as a projection, regardless of the way in which this projection is realised. In practice this will mean some form of video projection (yet to be tested). Peter Struycken has a distinct preference for this form of re-installation, which is in fact a classic emulation8.

 

For Dennis Oppenheim’s installation Circle Puppets (1994) the support [equipment] was not an important factor in the identity of the work and he considered the TV monitors and DVD players as tools, the originals of which do not have to be preserved (...)9.

Traditional fine art preservation concepts of authenticity and uniqueness are reconsidered for media art preservation. Inspired by the Variable Media Network (VMN)10 and DOCAM11, an entirely new framework and vocabulary have been introduced using notions such as ‘medium independent’, ‘variable’, ‘behaviour’, ‘migration’ and ‘emulation’12. As Pip Laurenson points out, ‘Discussions about authenticity and time-based media artworks will become more prevalent in time'13. A recent alternative to the concept of ‘authenticity’ is the notion of ‘historically informed performance’. Johannes Gfeller is one of the media art conservation researchers who work with this notion14. ‘Historically informed performance’ (HIP, also referred to as period performance, or authentic performance) is a widespread approach, or movement, in music performance. In performance studies it is seen as a discipline related to all forms of authenticity, and it examines how music was performed at the time it was composed15. It is interesting to think about an equivalent approach for media art.

 

Artist’s intention and signature

Closely related to the guiding conservation principles of respecting authenticity and integrity is the notion of the artist’s intention and signature. When replacing (obsolete) equipment it is crucial to deal with issues relating to active artistic involvement, modifications by the artist, and specifications about the equipment used by the artist. During the last decade it is has become common practice to consult and interview artists when preservation problems relating to damage and obsolescence arise. Laurenson advocates redefining the notion of artist’s intention in terms of ‘work-defining properties’: ‘The kinds of things that might act as work-defining properties of a time-based media installation are plans and specifications demarcating the parameters of possible change, display equipment, acoustic and aural properties, light levels, the way the public encounters the work, and the means by which the time-based media element is played back. The artist might explicitly provide work-defining instructions to the museum or designate a model installation from which the key properties of the work can be gleaned.’16

Mon.-Sun. (1996) and Bach Two Part Intervention (1998) by Jonathan Horowitz were made specifically for VHS tapes, which, because they are also a sculptural component of the work, cannot be replaced. The museum should be supplied with files and instructions on how to print out the labels so that by following these instructions the integrity of the work is retained. Of course all the components have to be kept: a ¾” TV from the time the piece was made, the custom-made TV stands, and so on. The equipment is part of the piece. If all of this material is available, it should be possible to make new VHS tapes and labels, but the artist is unsure if all of these are at the museum.17

 

The artist’s interview has become a vital tool in the conservation of contemporary art. It is now best practice to conduct such an interview at the moment of acquisition or when issues relating to obsolescence or re-installation arise18. The artist is consulted ever more frequently and is asked to authorise decisions about re-presentation and conservation. One could even go a step further and state that a growing number of presentations and re-presentations become collaborative projects between artists and the curator and/or conservator and that, in some cases, this collaboration already starts when work on the project begins. As media art is often a collaborative effort, artists should not be seen as being the sole author of the work; the interview should therefore include their assistants, programmers and in the case of co-production, the curators too.

Artists’ intentions and their opinions on conservation are important but not sacred. In practice an artist’s views evolve and current solutions could alter their earlier work, and some artists prefer to conserve their work using methods a conservator might not agree with. It is the role of the conservator to understand what might constitute an authentic media artwork and ensure that such a presentation is possible, whether the artist cooperates or not.

 

Functionality and Significance

As a media artwork can only be full experienced while it is functioning, properties relating to use, context and concept have to be taken into consideration – display without functionality would result in a great loss of meaning.

In the case of Insert Coin (1999), by Hans Op de Beeck, it transpired that an important component of the original installation was missing: the custom-made operating system that controls the incoming and outgoing signals19. The absence of this component meant that the work stopped functioning at a certain point. Hans Op de Beeck updated the entire system (a programmed Flash card player, monitor and electronics) to make the work functional again. Unfortunately, referring to the original version was no longer possible, as the original components are no longer available. In addition, the original version was not well documented by its owner and its caretaker.21 From the case study report by researcher Evelyne Snijders.

For digital works, technologists suggest the ‘solution’ that we merely need to copy a file onto a new physical storage medium before the old medium becomes obsolete. This was already common practice with analogue video and film. Nowadays we can recopy a digital file onto a new medium without any loss of information. This concept of ‘Refreshing’ involves periodically moving a file from one physical storage medium to another to pre-empt the physical decay or the obsolescence of that medium12. The common practices and guidelines that have been formulated over the years as well as experience gained are consulted when translating the video signals. The preservation criteria for display and playback equipment are still being formulated, however. Two key approaches have been suggested to deal with the problem of transferral: migration and emulation.

 

In the case of Panta Rhei (1988), by Ricardo Füghlistahler, the defective monitor can either be repaired, be replaced by exactly the same brand and type of black-and-white monitor, be replaced by a similar type of black & white monitor, be simulated by a similar type of colour monitor, or even be emulated with the aid of modern techniques. Each of these options has different consequences that must be taken in consideration.

Repair: repairing the broken monitor remains true to the original equipment used by the artist. But repairs are not always possible, and even if they are, they can result in a loss of quality or differences when the video material is played back.

Replacement: replacing the broken monitor with exactly the same brand and model remains true to the artist’s intentions. This monitor can be modified in the same way as the original. If replacing the broken monitor with a comparable black & white monitor is close to the artist’s intention, the replacement must be adapted to match the modified broken monitor. In both cases there could be a difference in quality or appearance compared to the other monitor, meaning that perhaps both monitors should be replaced.

Migration: by replacing the broken monitor with a similarly shaped newer colour monitor, you distance yourself somewhat from the artist’s intention. The differences in appearance and the quality of the image displayed on a colour monitor and on a black & white monitor would necessitate exchanging the other (still functioning) black & white monitor as well.

Emulation: replacing obsolete techniques with modern equipment that retains the original look and feel. If there is a difference in quality or appearance, perhaps both monitors should be replaced. In the Panta Rhei case study, the broken monitor could be repaired. There was no loss of quality during playback of the video material compared to the second monitor used in the video sculpture.20

 

Despite all efforts, current technological equipment will wear out and become obsolete, which means that decisions have to be made whether and how to update the equipment. Laurenson proposes an approach that involves assigning significance to display equipment, its relation to the work’s identity based on conceptual, aesthetic and historical criteria, and the role the equipment plays in the work. Identifying functional significance is seen here as an initial step to understanding the importance and use of the equipment.21

 

2. On Changes and Challenges22

 

The only accurate way to test if we have understood, documented and transferred the constituent parts of a work of art and the work itself is by re-installing the work. The general approach, therefore, is to conduct case studies and interviews with artists and other key figures involved in the work. This approach was also adopted for the Obsolete Equipment project, which conducted more than ten video-based case studies and interviews in its first year. Included in the research for the case studies are the artist or culture of production, the collection or work of art (history, creation, context), and descriptions of the anatomy, character and identity of the artwork that are in line with the artist’s intentions. These case studies also define the appropriate approach and the desired result. Important questions that were asked included: How are the problems related to this work defined, what solution/approach is proposed, and what is the result of this approach in relation to the definition of the problem? When answering these questions, areas of special interest such as storage, obsolete equipment, risk analysis and documentation arise. These questions indicated a logical route to follow. Following this route highlights the core problems and areas requiring attention. Fundamental to the route is the full realisation of the character of video and multimedia artworks. This awareness influences the way such artworks are approached during their lifespan, and fosters the awareness that special care is required when it comes to (collecting and) storage, obsolescence, risk analysis, and documentation.

 

Collecting and storing (obsolete) equipment

The importance of collecting and storing equipment has been underestimated for far too long. Although storing is the usual museum conservation approach, it has never been common practice to collect all the related equipment for media artworks. Frequently, all the equipment required for an installation is no longer available and/or the equipment pool is used to display a number of artworks. Furthermore, there is often a lack of proper storage facilities and documentation. Their vulnerability, along with rapid technological changes, makes functioning equipment scarce. Over the last few years the lack of dedicated equipment and knowhow about how to deal with it has been recognised and addressed on a growing scale. It is preferable to collect and store equipment that could be related to the artworks in a collection. Gfeller mentions two approaches to collecting and storing equipment:

• Storing the original equipment;

• Storing generic equipment typically used to present video artworks from a certain time period23.

 

This equipment can be used for presentations and research, as a reference when defining an artwork’s original appearance, and as starting point for emulation. Collecting relevant as well as dedicated equipment is seen as a way to gain more insights into how artworks were produced and presented; this is one of the main questions when it comes to preserving media artworks for future generations. A collection of representative cameras, players, recorders, computers, monitors, etc., is difficult to realise and manage. An important resource such as this has been realised for research purposes and incidental presentations at the Bern University of the Arts (BUA) and the ZKM (Centre for Art and Media) in Karlsruhe.

One could state that all the material belonging to a media art installation can be an inseparable part of the artwork. The visual material itself, the playback and projecting equipment, the original cables, sync devices, plugs and monitors could be essential to its re-installation. It must be possible to link all these component parts together, and register and document each of them with a condition report, which also specifies their location in the depot. This is extremely important, as it simplifies identifying which objects belong to a specific work of art.

The significance of the equipment can be extracted from the meaning and value of the work. The case studies and interviews revealed that, in general, not all the equipment has the same value for the meaning of a work of art. Information carriers, playback equipment and cables can often be replaced. Monitors appear to have the most bearing on the appearance of the artwork.

 

In the case of Bert Schutter’s Mill x Molen (1982) no original equipment was saved. The hanging construction (a metal scaffold) and the documentation were still available but all twelve Sony PVM-2730QM cube monitors and the U-matic syncstarter were no longer part of the collection-owner’s holdings. After the Netherlands Office for Fine Arts (now the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage, ICN) acquired the work in 1990, all the equipment was transferred to Montevideo (now NIMk), after which NIMk transferred all equipment to Beam Systems in the first decade of the 21st century. Problems arose from the incorrect storage of materials, including the scattering and even the loss of several components. Twelve monitors had to be hired for the re-installation of Mill x Molen. It was not possible to hire them from one company; in fact, two rental companies struggled to meet the request. Unfortunately, even if only one of the monitors breaks down it will result in the loss of the visual appearance and experience of Mill x Molen. It is reasonable to expect this to happen within the next few years. The monitors determine both the aesthetic look of the installation and its historicity – the appearance of the installation is determined by the size and position of the monitors within the metal scaffold, as well as by the high quality of the screens. Sony monitors of this type are no longer produced. The best conservation strategy for Mill x Molen is to acquire and store twelve monitors, with a few in reserve. A documented technical analysis of the functionality of the monitors would offer the possibility of safeguarding the functioning of installations in the future, even if the preserved monitors were no longer working24.

 

Collecting equipment includes collecting spare equipment and spare parts, proper storage and regular maintenance. Best practices for storage and maintenance are brought together as part of the Obsolete Equipment project25. The issue of storing equipment is an institutional problem. The participating institutions either have no – or only occasional – opportunities to specialise in this. Moreover, the quantity of necessary equipment will be such that it will exceed the storage capacities of the individual institutions, and the necessary knowhow is only occasionally available. During the Obsolete Equipment project the desire was repeatedly expressed to collectively store (historical) equipment, and preferably in one location. This seems to be the most viable solution at the moment.

 

Obsolescence

Although proper storage and maintenance can extend the natural lifespan of electronic media and equipment considerably, it is probably only a temporary solution, as all equipment will eventually break down. The question is if their lifespan can be extended indefinitely through maintenance and repairs, especially when spare parts also become obsolete. Besides proper storage, maintenance and use as ways to extend the natural lifespan of electronic media and equipment, as well as general preservation practices should be taken in consideration when thinking about conserving media art. Conservators are only just starting to be confronted with this problem but Tate, for example, is interested in managing the way in which artworks using rare equipment are displayed, rather than just packing them away.

They would love to explore if there is an option of having a special exhibition at some point dedicated to works of art that use rare equipment as a way to stimulate more discussion on these issues. For example, exhibit some of the works that use rare equipment for a limited time during the day, for study purposes, or conduct research at weekly events; otherwise it might be very difficult to do. It is preferable that these works are being dealt with and are on display, rather than being in storage. Tina Weidner believes that as long as the equipment is still there, it is better to keep it going6.

 

Media art conservation has fostered new lines of enquiry, such as what is the estimated lifespan of a media artwork, and how can this be calculated? The sense of urgency in dealing with new media preservation was probably best expressed by Richard Rinehart, ‘With digital art, there’s no room for things to fall between the cracks. ... If you don’t do something to preserve it within a span of five years, it’s not going to survive.’26 This statement is especially valid for digital art; the estimated lifespan of video art is a little longer, but not much. Because of the rapid developments dictated by commercial suppliers, the data storage of media art (video, laser-disc, CD-ROM, DVD, software, networks, etc.) as well as it’s presentation technology (monitors, projectors, hardware, etc.) are seldom current for more than ten years. The first step in the conservation of video art installations is usually migrating the video signal to a format suitable for archiving. Once the original visual material from an obsolete carrier or an outdated format has been digitised, the visual material is no longer dependent on the accompanying obsolete playback technology. This migration makes it possible in most cases to replace equipment with contemporary models. However, this is difficult, if not impossible, if the ‘look and feel’ needs to be respected.

 

As, for example, with ‘Oratorium voor een geprepareerde videoplayer en acht monitoren’ (Oratory for Prepared Video Player and Eight Monitors, 1989), by Frank Theys, or Mon._ Sun. (1996) and Bach Two Part Intervention (1998), by Jonathan Horowitz, where the tapes are a sculptural elements too27.

In the case study Das Ende des Jahrhunderts Klaus vom Bruch stated that it is important not to fake the process. He prefers the original equipment but had no objections to updating it. He always wants the old equipment displayed beside the installation, so that viewers can see what the original work consisted of and that it has been updated.28

 

The best approach to carrying out case studies of media artworks and the conservation of equipment were defined based on Inside Installations practice. The possible strategies for the conservation of equipment include:

• Restoring/repairing the original equipment

• Acquiring spare equipment:

• Historical copy: replacing the equipment with the same model or a type from the same period with the same or similar functions.

• New copy: replacing the equipment with the same model or type from a later period, i.e., a more recent model with the same or similar functions.

• Migration: Reconstructing the equipment with present-day technology.

• Emulation: Reconstructing the equipment with present-day technology while retaining the original look and feel.

• Re-interpretation: Replacing the equipment with present-day equipment based on the metaphorical values of the original equipment (the exterior of the new equipment is not per definition the same as the original equipment, but will have the same ‘status’ within the time-frame in which the equipment is used).

• Reconstruction: A complete reconstruction of the work based on whatever information is still available.

 

Identifying functional significance is seen as starting point to understanding the importance and use of the equipment. The key questions are:

• Is the equipment purely functional or not?

• Can the function of the equipment be mapped without discernible change?

• Is the equipment visible or hidden from the viewer?

The general strand in these cases is to replace equipment or components with the same mass-produced model or with equipment having the same functionality. Replacing equipment when the look and feel of visible components and output belongs to a particular historical moment in time, or is related to a particular context, or to contemporary use of that technology, could endanger the aesthetic and historical integrity.

 

The use of modern equipment usually means a change in the appearance of the work compared to the original version. In some cases the original equipment is an essential part of the work; the artwork ceases to exist when this equipment disappears or becomes obsolete. It is therefore important to assess the status of the equipment within the artwork in order to arrive at a conservation strategy with regard to the equipment used.

The case studies show that there is a clear distinction between the significance of playback and display equipment. This issue is raised regularly in interviews. The consensus is that in most cases the playback equipment can be upgraded without causing too many problems. Display equipment is more problematic, however. Johannes Gfeller is quite categorical about this and advises interfering with the display equipment as little as possible. Pip Laurenson is more flexible in this regard and does not consider upgrading projectors as a significant problem, but has doubts about upgrading CRT monitors. Experience, research and the interviews with Pip Laurenson and Tina Weidner, among others, show that we should not rely on manufacturers as sources of vital technical information. The experience garnered by museums themselves is often considerably more important.

 

When it comes to replacing obsolete equipment, conservators and artists do not necessarily share the same viewpoint, and in such instances consultation and respect for each other’s point of view is essential. This can lead to surprising results. The Museum of Modern Art in Antwerp (M HKA) wants to upgrade ‘Oratorium…’ by using digital signals, but the artist is opposed to this and wants to retain the analogue signal. Artists are also happy to help find a solution – Klaus vom Bruch suggested displaying the obsolete equipment of Das Ende des Jahrhunderts, 1985, alongside the new (although quite how this should be done is still unclear).

Upgrading or replacement is not necessarily a negative approach; Peter Struycken, for example, was pleasantly surprised by the new version of Project I-’90:

I was surprised to see this work again in such a comprehensible condition after 20 years. Although all sorts of inaccuracies have crept in over the course of time, I had an extremely good impression of my work. I regard the reconstructed version in the same way you would listen to an old gramophone record. The intention of the performer remains audible despite all the scratches and clicks. And in this reconstruction I can clearly and easily recognise my own intentions.29

In the interview with Pip Laurenson and Tina Weidner, Weidner stated that almost anything is preferable to ending up in a situation where the work cannot be exhibited because those involved cling resolutely to the original equipment. Basically, if something has been lost, it should be acknowledged as such and made clear to the public (e.g., by creating or changing labels). This would thus be a curatorial responsibility.

 

Risk analysis

As risk is defined as the ‘the expected loss of value’, the initial cultural value of an object or collection needs to be established. The greatest threats to media artworks are malfunction, autonomous decay and dissociation. The risk assessment methodology developed for collections of ‘traditional’ art provides a practical route to follow. This methodology was used for the first time during the Inside Installations project to evaluate risks facing media art30.

The core issues in risk analysis are:

• Identifying the risks: what has the past taught us, and what future risks can be expected that will shorten the lifespan of the equipment?

• Time pressure: how quickly should actions be taken to avert the threats or minimise their impact? What are the likely consequences of waiting too long?

• Technical and financial restraints: what is technically possible and what is financially feasible?

• Unpredictability: what can be done about dangers or risks that are difficult to predict at present?

This methodology assesses significance against four primary criteria (determining whether there is any cultural significance) and four comparative criteria (determining the degree of significance). Assessing the artistic/aesthetic values is the first primary criterion, which in contemporary art conservation is often referred to as ‘the heart of the artwork’.

 

In the case study ‘Oratorium voor een geprepareerde videoplayer en acht monitoren’, by Frank Theys, 1989, the equipment, i.e., the modified ¾” U-matic top loader, the 8 identical CRT monitors and the guitar amplifier including the speaker (and, of course, the 3/4” videotape) were regarded as key factors for the risk analysis.

The word ‘Oratorium’ (‘Oratory’) in the title has two meanings: ‘Oratory’ stands for a choral work usually of a religious nature consisting chiefly of recitatives, arias, and choruses without action or scenery, and is also the name for a prayer room with a small altar, in this case a loudspeaker (or, in the first version, loudspeakers) with a video player on top. In this way, Frank Theys uses a video installation to create a sacred space in which ritual and alienation meet. At the same time he also pokes fun at grand emotions such as patriotism and rivalry. The meaning of the work comes, on the one hand, from the use of the exhibition space and, on the other hand, the use of the image as music: the display of the same close-up of a man singing ‘ You’ll never walk alone’ on all of the monitors results in a continuous repetition of sound and image such that the video becomes music and the music becomes video. Because the work is installed in the exhibition space in a transparent way, viewers can understand how this video installation functions. They can walk around the circular installation and observe the videotape running as a loop in and out of the ¾” U-matic player. They can see how this ¾” U-matic player transmits the video signal through a set of cables to the eight CRT monitors, and the audio signal to the audio equipment (and the CRT monitors). The display equipment transforms the signals into image and sound. Through their arrangement in a circle around the video loop, with their screens facing the centre, the CRT monitors seem to ‘encourage’ their own support/carrier. After all, the image and the music cannot exist without the support/carrier (the ¾” U-matic tape).31

 

Historical value, the second primary criterion, was recognised as the (art)historical period in which the artwork was created. ‘Oratorium…’ was created at the end of the 1980s, a couple of years before media art came to maturity in the 1990s. It is also the period that corresponds with the beginning of the obsolescence of the ¾” U-matic format (and with the beginning of the widespread change-over from analogue to digital video).

Of the four comparative criteria (condition/completeness, provenance, rarity/representative and interpretive capacity), condition/completeness is paramount.

The constituent parts of the installation are integral parts of an ‘ensemble’, which should have the same look and feel as the original, even if technical components need replacing. If ‘Oratorium…’ lost its ‘functionality’, it would lose its ‘identity’ as a video installation and its frame would only be a ‘historic document’. The two main values for the total significance of ‘Oratorium…’ are artistic/aesthetic, subdivided into the characteristics that determine its identity: its relationship with the exhibition space, the arrangement of the equipment and its visual appearance…. By considering what would remain if the entire functionality (and thus the experience of the work) failed, it was determined that the ‘remains’ – the sculptural ‘corpse’ of the non-functional components (CRT monitors, video player and amplifier with loudspeaker) – still contributed historic and documentary values amounting to 10% of the total significance.

 

In the next step the abovementioned values were linked to the components determining the ‘look and feel’ of the work.

For example, the experience of sound, image and motion could be directly related to the arrangement of the various installation components in the exhibition space, the free movement of the viewer through the exhibition space, the ¾” videotape driven by a modified ¾” U-matic playback system and running in a visible loop through the exhibition space, the wear and tear of the ¾” U-matic videotape through use, the vulnerability and sensitivity of the entire technical set-up, the volume of the sound created by the guitar amplifier and the eight CRT monitors, and the calibration of the eight identical CRT monitors. Together, all these factors form a complex of interdependencies (both tangible and intangible) that should be taken into account in order to estimate the impact of expected changes in the future.

As shown above, risk analysis can establish significance and describe an artwork’s anatomy and identity. Furthermore, risks can be identified and scenarios can be developed that describe the anticipated future loss of value. Since replacement, migration and emulation are widespread conservation strategies for media art, the possibility of including recoverability of lost value can be explored in the assessment. Compared to the decisions curators and conservators might make based on their individual knowledge and experience, the rational, collaborative and structured risk assessment methodology can provide increased insights into the identity of the work and a ranking of the risks10. But case studies and interviews also show that we will never completely get to grips with the technical aspects. As Pip Laurenson says, you could obtain, for example, the statistics relating to failures from the manufacturers but you will never know what these are based on, and increasing amounts of second-hand equipment with an unknown history will be used32.

It seems that identifying, weighing, and navigating a different set of values for media artworks, such as meaning, function and intention, and how all of them will change over time would be even more appropriate.

 

Documentation

Due to their many variations in technology, effects and form, media artworks tend to follow a dynamic life cycle and require specific documentation. This documentation is at the heart of any preservation strategy for media art. Improving efforts to preserve media artworks will be far more complex without the support of structured documentation about the works and their context. An important task necessary to be able to adequately present (and experience) media art now and in the future is documenting the specific requirements for the presentation of media artworks. This is no easy task, as the ‘optimum’ form of presentation is difficult to define precisely for many such works. Furthermore, the original ‘authentic’ state often varies greatly through the course of different presentations. Thus, not only different presentations but also the various stages in the life of a media artwork (e.g., creation, presentation, guardianship) can supply information and documentation that could be of interest for its re-installation and preservation.

From the DOCAM website: ‘Documentation has been defined as a source of information that can fill many roles, depending on its use and time. First and foremost, from the moment the work is conceived, its documentation serves the artists and their collaborators – the first producers of documentation. As its development progresses, the documentation targets a growing audience – from conservators to curators and art critics – thus playing an important role in the mediation, dissemination and history of the artwork. Next, and often concurrent with this, the documentation is used and expanded upon through a variety of actions and activities, such as the work’s (re-)installation, preservation and restoration. Over time, re-installation and re-contextualization may be carried out. Later still, documentary elements may compensate for various ‘losses’ or deterioration suffered by the work, stemming primarily from the obsolescence of its technology or components. Ultimately, it is the documentation that will survive the work, becoming its historical witness and sometimes supplementing any remaining fragments or relics.’33

 

It is impossible to exhibit a video work or a multimedia work if the original equipment and the information about the components and the whole are lost. A lack of instructions may, for instance, lead to a faulty installation and/or an undesirable effect as a result of the incorrect playback speed, sound volume, resolution or surroundings.

For example, Straggling by Christian Bastiaans was presented in 1997, 2003, 2006 and 2009/2010. In 1997 and 2006 only one of the four audiovisual elements was projected. No documentation exists for the 2003 presentation, but as far as could be established no projection was involved. An artist interview was conducted for the Club Mama Gemütlich retrospective exhibition of Bastiaan’s oeuvre (30 October 2009 – 21 February 2010) and the optimum presentation requirements were documented; the artist states in this documentation that no projection is needed. The 2009/2010 presentation was in line with the artist’s intention.34

And, as frequently happens in performance-based art, theatre and music, the documentation could be the only surviving trace of the work.

The work Mill x Molen (1982), by Bert Schutter, is conceptually connected to time-specific artistic research. If the monitors break down beyond repair and cannot be replaced by others (from the same period), the installation should be declared dead and a reconstruction should be seen as documentation.42

Tina Weidner: ‘I honestly think that this kind of idea has been too overworked. How much more time do you want to spend behind a desk only doing things to replace the work? I think that what is more important is to fight to keep the works accessible, and then you can address the conservation needs to keep them displayable. But I wouldn’t feel comfortable just putting paperwork up in a gallery.... It seems that in such cases everyone wants to exhibit the documentation instead of the actual work, but I haven’t seen an example that prompted me to say “very nicely delivered, it really gave me a feel for the work….” I think that if you are going to do it, you should do it on a wider scale and not just with paperwork.’ Pip Laurenson: ‘For some works you could have a documentary video, for example, which might help future viewers understand what the work looked like. … Although we haven’t had to fully confront this problem yet, I’m sure we will. It came up because we have been thinking about Nam June Paik recently and for many of his works the value and importance of the CRT monitors is obviously very high.’35

 

Since media art works require a proactive approach to care and management, gathering information that will ensure their display and care into the future is crucial at the moment of acquisition. Fortunately, a growing number of museums and other collecting institutions such as Tate, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam and NIMk acknowledge the importance of documentation for future presentations and are prepared to integrate or already integrate a documentation strategy while acquiring the media art works.

 

Last but by no means least: the need for an interdisciplinary dialogue

Many of the difficult decisions faced by conservators of media art that are described in this essay pose highly complex ethical dilemmas, and in numerous instances there are disagreements within the conservation profession on how to resolve conflicting values. Art history and conservation have traditionally relied on the authority that each field brings to an artwork’s meaning and the way it is understood. This has to be re-evaluated when it comes to media artworks. We need an ongoing interdisciplinary dialogue wherein we re-think and revise the traditional and strict role definitions of the conservator, researcher, artist, curator, dealer, and others, as well as develop additional forums to discuss these issues in a cross–disciplinary way36. NIMk and PACKED offer this forum in the Obsolete Equipment project.

 

Appendix 1. Projects, guidelines and best practices in media art conservation

In recent years projects and institutions such as the Variable Media Network and Questionnaire, DOCAM, Inside Installations and Imago Revisited, Tate, Media Matters, Active Archive and NIMk, have developed specific guidelines and best practices for the maintenance and conservation of media art. A selection of projects are highlighted in this essay and listed in this appendix.

 

Variable Media Initiative

The Variable Media Initiative (VMI) was initially supported by a grant from the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology of Montreal, Canada37, which comprises a group of international institutions and consultants, including University of Maine, the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archives, Franklin Furnace, Guggenheim Museum New York, Rhizome.org, and Performance Art Festival & Archives. Variable Media Network (VMN) is recognised for its new preservation approach, which integrates the analysis of materials with the definition of an artwork independent of its medium, allowing the work to be translated once its current medium becomes obsolete. By identifying the behaviour of a work (contained, installed, performed, reproduced, etc.) and strategies (storage, emulation, migration, and reinterpretation), artists, conservators and curators can advance the preservation of new media art. Describing a work of art, not only as a list of components and materials, but also by the way it behaves, is crucial to the Variable Media methodology. The four associated preservation strategies range from traditional to radical. Storage is the default strategy for most museums. For time-based media like film and video, this means keeping original projectors and hardware running for as long as possible, as well as stockpiling old equipment. For these types of works, migration is often seen as a more successful strategy. To emulate a work involves devising a way of imitating the original look of a piece by entirely different means. The term can be applied generally to a re-fabrication of an artwork’s components, but also has a specific meaning in the context of digital media, where emulation offers a powerful technique for running an outdated computer on a contemporary one. By far, the most radical strategy is to reinterpret the work each time it is recreated.

 

The Variable Media Initiative (VMI) organised symposia such as ‘Preserving the Immaterial: A Conference on Variable Media’ in March 200138, and the follow-up to this symposium ‘Echoes of Art: Emulation As a Preservation Strategy’ in May 200439. It also published Permanence Through Change: The Variable Media Approach in 200340, and held the exhibition Seeing Double: Emulation in Theory and Practice in Spring 200441.

Furthermore the Variable Media Questionnaire was developed42, which is an interactive form linked to a database and is designed to assist artists and museum staff when drafting variable media guidelines. The Questionnaire is not meant to be exhaustive, but is intended to spur questions that must be answered in order to capture artists’ desires about how to translate their work into new mediums once the work’s original medium has expired. The Questionnaire asks questions about the inherent behaviour of each artwork that requires preservation. The database to which it is linked is available on request to artists and anyone else who would like to try it.

 

DOCAM

DOCAM (Documentation and Conservation of the Media Arts Heritage, 2005–10) was an international research alliance initiated by the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology. DOCAM included several partners, such as the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the National Gallery of Canada, the Canadian Centre for Architecture, the Canadian Heritage Information Network, as well as departments at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQÀM), Université de Montréal and McGill. Its main objective was to develop new methodologies and tools to address the issues of preserving and documenting digital, technological, and electronic works of art, including the history of technology.

DOCAM conducted a number of case studies. The practical work carried out as part of the case studies produced five guides and tools that are now accessible on the DOCAM website:

• A Cataloguing Guide for New Media Collections;41

• The DOCAM Glossaurus – a bilingual terminological tool;42

• The DOCAM Documentary Model adapted to media art;43

• A Technological Timeline, which includes media artworks and technological components;44

• A Preservation Guide for Technology-Based Artworks.45

 

Choosing from the various conservation strategies is simplified by a series of questions that can be answered using a decision tree developed by DOCAM46. The decision tree is a restoration tool that allows stakeholders to identify the problems and potential solutions associated with preserving works that incorporate technological components. The tool facilitates decision-making by helping users focus on those aspects of a work that relate to its integrity and authenticity, while reflecting on how these aspects are impacted by the work’s technological components. The decision tree is applied to issues that define the roles played by technological components as elements of a work’s meaning. Is the equipment visible? Does it have a particular significance? What is the artist’s point of view? The answers to these and other questions help stakeholders identify the best restoration option from those outlined in the first two sections of DOCAM’s Preservation Guide for Technology-Based Artworks (emulation, migration, storage and reinterpretation).

In addition, a number of educational activities such as the DOCAM seminars and international summits were held and the documentation generated by these events is available on the DOCAM website.

 

Inside Installations

Inside Installations: Preservation and Presentation of Installation Art was a three-year research project (2004–7) into the care and management of installation art47. Over 33 installations, with a large corpus of media art installations, were re-installed, investigated and documented. Experience was shared and partners collaborated to develop good practice for five research topics:

• Preservation Strategies

• Artists’ Participation

• Documentation & Archiving Strategies

• Theory and Semantics

• Networking (Knowledge Management and Information Exchange)

 

In addition to information about artists and works involved in the project, the highly informative Inside Installations website provides general information about the project, access to lectures from project events, e-learning resources, a project bibliography and more. The nature of installation art is distinct from traditional art because it is wholly dependent on display for its realisation. An installation is more than a collection of physical objects – it often includes relationships to the space and dynamic behaviours. It is crucial to establish a full description of the state of an installation in order to understand the significance of the component parts for the installation as a whole. Only then can appropriate preservation strategies be developed and evaluated. The conservator’s preservation activities follow this shift away from a unique material object to an installed event. Conservation has moved beyond minimising change of a physical object to a broader mission to enable the installation of the work in the future in line with the artist’s intention and the historical character of the work. The research relating to Preservation Strategies focused on two main themes:

• Firstly, using risk analysis as a tool for developing conservation plans that addressed the complex needs of artists’ installations.

• Secondly, exploring the changing role of the conservator and curator in response to the preservation and presentation of artists’ installations.

The project was co-organised by Tate, London; Restaurierungszentrum der Landeshauptstadt, Dusseldorf; Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art (S.M.A.K.), Ghent; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (MNCARS), Madrid; and the Foundation for the Conservation of Modern Art (SBMK), the Netherlands, and was managed by the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage (ICN). The project was executed by members of the International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art.

 

Matters in Media Art

Matters in Media Art is a multi-phase project designed to provide guidelines for the care and management of time-based media artworks. The project was created in 2003 by a consortium of curators, conservators, registrars and media technical managers from New Art Trust, MoMA, SFMOMA and Tate. The first phase of the project, on loaning time-based media works, was launched in 2004, and the second phase, on acquiring time-based media works, started in 2007.

The installation of time-based media works requires new skills and new areas of collaboration within museums. Whereas internationally agreed standards exist for the handling, installation and care of traditional works of art, such standards for time-based media works are rare. The project aims to raise awareness about the requirements of these works and provide a practical response to the need for international agreements between museums.

Matters in Media Art developed process diagrams and documents for loans as guidelines and templates for institutions and owners to follow when borrowing and lending time-based media artworks. These documents include sample templates for exhibition budgets, condition reports, facilities reports, installation documents and loan agreements. They seek to update existing practices for more traditional art by incorporating new requirements for time-based media. Because time-based media artworks require a proactive approach to their care and management, it is crucial to gather information that will ensure their display and care into the future at the moment of their acquisition. The process diagram and documents for the acquisition process are grouped into three overlapping phases: pre-acquisition, accessioning, and post-acquisition. Although these three phases are distinct, knowledge about the artwork builds continuously from the moment it is considered for acquisition to final installation and long-term storage. This knowledge informs future decisions about storing, exhibiting, loaning, and conserving the work. In the future the project will also address the needs of computer-based arts48.

 

AktiveArchive

The research project AktiveArchive, is an initiative of Bern University of the Arts (BUA) in collaboration with the Swiss Institute for Art Research in Zurich (SIK/ISEA)49.

This project is dedicated to the preservation and documentation of electronic media and spatially related artworks; this is done by conducting specific case studies. The artwork is treated as a whole, focusing not just on the preservation of the electronic audiovisual part, but also on the other materials used, such as the hardware, and plastic, wood or metal components. AktiveArchive strives to make all the components of the artwork accessible and secure for the long-term by conducting research into restoration and development methods of digital and electronic components combined with documentation and interpretation of the works. In this way it becomes not just a transfer of information to another medium, but an authentic re-enactment or documentation of the piece. The research into the fields of technique, conservation, documentation and art history are passed on to museums, collections and artists of interest.

AktiveArchive has a unique and large hardware pool, containing thousands of hardware components, such as broadcast video recorders and PVM-200 B/W monitors50. This hardware pool makes it possible to view or migrate artworks that would otherwise be difficult to access or maintain.

As part of the research in the digital field, AktiveArchive is proposing virtualisation as a preservation strategy for born-digital artworks. In brief, virtualisation involves preserving the original coding, hardware and operating system and visualising it in a virtual environment.

I would very much like to thank my Obsolete Equipment colleagues. Special thanks go to Rony Vissers for his feedback and Mark Poysden for his editing.

 

Notes

 

 

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