Guggenheim Museum, New York, May 10, 2010
Joanna Phillips is the Associate Conservator of Contemporary Art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum> in New York and focusing on the conservation of media artworks. Originally founded on a collection of early modern masterpieces, the Guggenheim Museum is now an institution devoted to the art of the 20th and 21st century. It is at once a vital cultural center, an educational institution, and the heart of an international network of museums (with exhibition sites also in Venice, Bilbao, Berlin and, in the near future, Abu Dhabi). At the Guggenheim Museum visitors can experience special exhibitions of modern and contemporary art, lectures by artists and critics, performances and film screenings.
Joanna Phillips is in charge of the preservation of the video, sound, film and computer-based artworks in the Guggenheim collection. Emanuel Lorrain of PACKED vzw met her to talk about her work in the conservation department and about her approaches to issues related to the preservation and the obsolescence of equipment in media arts.
PACKED: What is your background? How did you become a media art conservator?
Joanna Phillips: I was trained as a paintings conservator in Germany, and worked in that field for several years, before I shifted towards contemporary art conservation. When I moved to Zürich in 2003 to join the Swiss Institute for Art Research (SIAR)1, I first encountered media art conservation. The SIAR was and is engaged in the research project AktiveArchive2, a joint project with the Hochschule der Künste in Berne (HKB)3 that explores the preservation of electronic art. Both institutions had two people involved in the project, in Berne there was Johannes Gfeller4, lecturer for media preservation and project leader of AktiveArchive, and art historian Tabea Lurk5 who specialises in the preservation of net and computer based art. At the SIAR, there was art historian Irene Schubiger6 and myself, adding the perspective of a conservator to the team. When I was offered the position of a researcher, I didn’t quite know what I was getting into, and that I was about to undergo a whole new (rather empirical) training period. At first, I was simply intrigued by the fact that electronic art puts to an extreme the questions we are discussing in contemporary art conservation in general, and I was curious to learn more about it. Then I started to work myself into the more technical details, e.g. the basics of video technology. I never made a conscious decision to change my career, it just happened step by step, as I was reacting to the needs of these particular artworks.
During the three years I worked with AktiveArchive, I was especially involved in two focus projects. The first project was the yet unpublished book & DVD 'Image Errors in Analog Video', which I co-authered with Johannes Gfeller and video conservator Agathe Jarczyk7. We collected about thirty image errors that are due to tape, device or operator errors, depicted them as still images and video sequences, described the image phenomena, listed possible causes and gave recommendations on how to solve the problems. The second focus project was an exhibition of historic video art at the Kunstmuseum in Lucerne, titled ’Reconstructing Swiss Video Art from the 1970s and 1980s’. The research concept was to stage Swiss historic video installations with their historic, “original” equipment and to explore and discuss our perception of these reconstructions in the frame of a symposium and publication. For reconstructing the works, we sourced the equipment according to its availability: if the original device was still around and functional, we would use that. If not, we would either use equipment that was from the same group of models by the same brand, or we would use equipment that was around during the time of the artwork’s creation, to evoke the “look and feel” of that period. The discussions revolved around the historical value in video installations, or electronic art in general, and explored whether artworks installed with historic equipment look antiquated and outdated for today’s recipients, or still convey the meaning of the work in an immediate, true way. In fact, some of the press reactions seemed to confirm that the historic equipment can even distract from the actual artwork if it catches too much attention.
PACKED: Are these two projects what brought you to media art conservation?
Joanna Phillips: Yes, it was certainly the beginning of a process! When I joined the Guggenheim in 2008, I had applied for the position of the ‘Associate Conservator of Contemporary Art’. The job description did not focus on media works in particular, but since all of the other collection works were already covered by the traditional specialties of my colleagues – paintings, objects, works on paper - the media works became the exclusive field I was going to focus on. Meanwhile, I have set up a small media conservation lab, and I am working on establishing procedures for documenting and preserving our media works. To be honest, this is keeping me so busy that I really would not have the time to deal with all the other types of contemporary art in the collection.
PACKED: No one was dealing with media art at the Guggenheim museum before you arrived?
Joanna Phillips: There was no conservator explicitly dedicated to media works, the responsibilities were shared between several departments. The initial impulse for this practice was the Variable Media Initiative8 that took place at the Guggenheim between 2001 and 2004 and the protagonists of which were the former assistant curator Jon Ippolito9, and Carol Stringari10, formerly the Senior Conservator of Contemporary Art and now our Chief Conservator. With the support of Variable Media fellow Caitlin Jones11, this initiative was aiming to provide preservation strategies for all variable contemporary art, not only media art in particular. When it came to the more technical aspects of media art, including format migration and equipment selection or replacement, our former Media Specialist Paul Kuranko12, actually in charge of installing the works, took great responsibility.
As crucial it is to discuss strategies between departments, it is also becoming more and more apparent in art institutions today that competence is needed that unites both the technical understanding of the artwork, and the conservator’s ethical approach to caretaking. Although it might not yet be broadly acknowledged that a media conservator is needed, professionals are growing into that occupation. Depending on the structure of an institution, and the personalities of its staff, different disciplines are leaning towards the practice of media preservation. At the Guggenheim, it is now the Conservation Department that has expanded to take responsibility for the media works in the collection. Although my position is still called the ‘contemporary art conservator’, my activities are really those of a ‘media art conservator’. The only museum I know of in the United States that has created the position of a time-based media conservator, is MoMA13, with Glenn Wharton14 in that position. It is probably the immense size of MoMA's media collection, I think they have around 1,500 or 2,000 media works, that has catalyzed that innovative step. As a reference, we only have between 250 and 300 media artworks. But still far too many to cope with them on my own!
PACKED: What kind of media artworks do you have in the Guggenheim Museum collection?
Joanna Phillips: Most of the works are single-channel15 and multi-channel video works, but we also have around thirty installations based on 16 mm16 and 35 mm17 film. We have rather few computer-based works in the collection. As most other art museums, the Guggenheim started acquiring video more prevalently in the 1990s, and also inherited some media collections. Unfortunately, those collections did not always include the masters for the videos.
PACKED: Does this mean that getting a master copy of all such works is one of your jobs?
Joanna Phillips: Yes, but the larger part of that was already done during the Variable Media Project. Caitlin Jones did a tremendous job on getting back to the donors, or the artists, and asking for master material for our archives. When we acquire a work today, I will always ask for the production format and make the master format we request dependent on that. I have also made the experience that you should never acquire a video without inspecting the master material thoroughly, because most of the time, neither the artist, nor the gallery or post-house will quality-check the master. Some of the videos that entered the collection in previous years displayed cross color effects18, raised black levels19, low bit rates on DVDs20, or weird aspect ratio21 problems - just because the copies weren’t properly made. This is one reason why it was so crucial to set up the viewing station in our Conservation Lab, including a Digital Betacam22 deck, and a BlackMagic card23 to play out video files onto a CRT24 inspection monitor. I always view and condition-assess the video carefully before digitization, or preparation for exhibition, to make sure that the exhibition copy does not compromise the artwork in quality.
Actually, it should be added that not only the video, but also the film works require thorough inspection at the point of acquisition. Even with very renowned artists, we have encountered interpositives25 and internegatives26 that were accidently printed onto acetate27 stock, reference prints28 that were badly timed or vertical image jumping that can occur when the developer in the printing process does not get exchanged regularly. Talking to the artists about these phenomena revealed that they were shocked about the poor quality of the archival material, and that they had simply trusted the expertise of the production companies. The problem with film in particular is that we are dealing with a dying industry and that the quality and expertise of companies is often compromised when they are being downsized or re-structured.
PACKED: Where do you store the equipment for all these works?
Joanna Phillips: It depends on the category of equipment. We divide our playback and display equipment into three categories, non-dedicated, dedicated, and shared obsolete equipment. The majority of equipment belongs to the first category, it is non-dedicated, variable, and gets sold, donated or discarded, when it becomes obsolete. This kind of equipment is stored in a warehouse in Brooklyn. It is placed on stacking pallets and shrink-wrapped to keep the dust out. We keep an inventory on an excel sheet, so we can track the equipment. For example, the LaserDisc29 players can be found on pallet G. Whenever we need equipment, we break down the pallet, remove the devices, re-wrap the pallet and update the spread sheet.
The equipment in the second category is much more valuable, and stored in climatized art storage, along with the other components of the artwork. This dedicated equipment might be modified by the artist, custom-designed or signed, or it is a performance relic and therefore has historical value attached to it. It is unique, and not replaceable.
The third category of shared, obsolete equipment is a smaller, but certainly growing category and has only recently been established. It comprises equipment like slide projectors, 16mm film projectors or CRT monitors that is not being produced anymore, and is increasingly harder to obtain. This equipment needs to be kept and maintained to install certain artworks that are dependent on its specific technology rather than a particular device, or make and model. We have only recently started to hold on to this kind of equipment, forced by the death of analog technologies. In previous times the Guggenheim never really dedicated or stockpiled equipment, partly because storage space is so expensive in New York, but also because the Guggenheim’s nature is rather exhibition-oriented. Moreover, in the past most of the collection care had to be covered by exhibition budgets. This meant, that money could only be invested into the preservation or migration of a work, when it was selected for exhibition. It was hard to finance preservation measures that didn’t pertain to a single artwork, e.g. the purchase of replacement parts or obsolete equipment for the future. Meanwhile, a collection fund has been established, which helps to establish more sustainable strategies.
PACKED: How exactly do you store the classes of more valuable equipment?
Joanna Phillips: Over the years, it has been stored and handled just like other installation components, partly in crates and archival boxes. We are currently working on finding an appropriate storage solution for the dedicated and the shared, obsolete equipment. It is one of our goals to eventually separate the dedicated equipment out of the crates and archival boxes, and to keep it in one place, on shelves, but this will be a long-term project. For now, it is mostly wrapped in bubble wrap foil, housed in Pelican Cases30, or still in the manufacturers' box. Quite recently, we have even started moving some of the formerly variable, class 1 equipment from the warehouse into the art storage. This change happened because the significance of the equipment is shifting; some devices are becoming obsolete and we want to preserve them, just because they are harder to get. Examples are overhead projectors in a Kara Walker31 piece32, or 16mm projectors for Tacita Dean33’s film installations, or CRT monitors for installations by Vito Acconci34 or Marina Abramovic35.
PACKED: How is this equipment tracked?
Joanna Phillips: The undedicated equipment is tracked on an excel sheet, and the dedicated equipment has component numbers and is tracked as “Part of the Artwork” in TMS36, our museum database. I have not come up with a solution yet how to best track the shared dedicated equipment. I would love to track the artworks and exhibitions the equipment has been used for, and thereby indirectly the running hours. I have to work on that.
PACKED: Do you have installations for which you just have the video tapes and not the equipment?
Joanna Phillips: Yes, that is the case for most single-channel works, and many installations, too. This practice is fine as long as the artwork does not depend on a certain technology, or as long as the technology is still around that is needed to install a piece. But we have just experienced recently - in preparing the current exhibition “Haunted”37 - how hard it can be to install a piece dependent on CRT monitors that you have never purchased when they were around! Marina Abramovic's five channel video installation "Cleaning the mirror I" consists of 5 stacked, cubic, dark CRT monitors. The artist is not particular about the make and model, but very precise about the aesthetical appearance. We decided with the artist that the Sony 2030 PVM monitors, very common and omnipresent in museums and galleries over the last decades, are the model we want to go with. But already now, it was really hard to find them! Ebay is certainly too late for CRTs, and in the end we found some very old PVMs that had been discarded by a broadcast company that had gone down. They were very dirty and completely off in terms of white balance, zoom and convergence. We had to take them apart, clean them, adjust them, and even add little magnets to the back of the tubes to correct the convergence, because it was not sufficiently correctable anymore through the preset screws on the circuit boards. It took a lot of effort.
PACKED: Who did all that maintenance and repair?
Joanna Phillips: I worked on the monitors together with Maurice Schechter, Chief Engineer at DuArt Film & Video38 here in Manhattan. I am very grateful for his infinite knowledge and experience, and I am learning from him continuously. He also helped me finding the monitors in the first place. You need good connections, if you are dealing with obsolete equipment.
PACKED: If the manuals exist, are they stored with the equipment?
Joanna Phillips: No, we are storing them separately.
PACKED: Do you always lend the equipment with the work when it goes to another museum?
Joanna Phillips: No, certainly not the undedicated equipment. We give precise equipment specs and have to approve the equipment the borrower proposes to use. However, we do send equipment, when it’s a dedicated part of the artwork, and sometimes, as a courtesy, if the equipment is non-dedicated, but obsolete, and hard to get. Having said that, we seem to be more comfortable with sending slide projectors, or overhead projectors – for 16mm projectors or CRT monitors, we prefer to have the borrower rent or purchase their own equipment, for two reasons: first we want to save the hours on our own obsolete equipment, and second we cannot promise that our equipment will last for the duration of their exhibition. We prefer the borrower to be responsible for the maintenance and replacement, if something fails to run.
PACKED: Do you have spare monitors for Marina Abramovic’s 'Cleaning the mirror' installation?
Joanna Phillips: Yes, we have one spare monitor, and we always plan for replacement devices.
PACKED: If you had to find a manual, how would you do it?
Joanna Phillips: I always try online first. Actually, my engineer colleague Maurice Schechter introduced me to a very interesting series of comprehensive equipment manuals called “Photofact”39. It was published by a group of people who in the 1970’s started to rewrite manuals when the equipment was newly released. Each “Photofact” issue features several different, now historic audio and video devices. The initiative behind this was to create manuals that were easy to understand for the DIY community, with photos of the circuit boards and comprehensive descriptions. These Photofact booklets can be found online, too. We restored Nam June Paik’s40 “Random Access” with the help of a Photofact manual!
PACKED: How are these kinds of manuals related to the work or to the equipment in your TMS system ?
Joanna Phillips: Unfortunately, TMS is still problematic for accommodating data on technology-based artworks. Therefore, until TMS is expanded , we must have a complementary documentation system in place: modular word documents, to be uploaded to TMS as PDFs. On the documentation forms, the equipment gets listed, and a checkbox indicates if there are manuals or extra device sheets existent. The device sheets, tech specs usually printed out from the internet, are kept in the conservation files, which are hard copy paper files. The service manuals are kept in the manual collection.
PACKED: Like a technical library in a TV station or broadcast facility?
Joanna Phillips: Not in size, but yes in principle.
PACKED: Is the rest of the documentation of the work, like the press release for example, in this paper folder?
Joanna Phillips: Yes, and also the entire e-mail correspondence pertaining to the artwork. I’m not happy with this paper system. I would much rather use the benefits of a database and what it offers in terms of sharing and updating information, but TMS does not offer the opportunity to do it yet. At the moment if I ever update something on my documentation sheets, I have to remove the PDF document from the database, change the Word version of this document, make a new PDF out of it and upload it again!
PACKED: Does the equipment get regularly serviced and maintained?
Joanna Phillips: No, there is no regular maintenance. The equipment is only maintained or serviced when it is asked for an exhibition, or sometimes when it returns from an exhibition and seems to be in bad shape.
PACKED: Do you have special exhibition procedures for the equipment during an exhibition?
Joanna Phillips: It depends on the kind of equipment. With older, delicate equipment, like film or slide projectors, we apply weekly cleaning and maintenance during the show. For aged CRTs, it’s beneficial and life-prolonging to never switch off the power for the duration of the show. To save the phosphor, you simply switch off the separately powered video feed overnight. It is crucial to keep the tubes at even temperature, and to avoid the sudden power boost that is triggered when the CRT is switched on. This practice does not only save the tube, but also the preset white balance and other adjustments. For Marina Abramovic’s 'Cleaning the Mirror' we even decided to bypass the power switches to prevent visitors from switching the tubes off. Of course, monitors also have to be cleaned on a regular basis, their electric charge attracts a lot of dust.
PACKED: What would you consider from your experience to be the most problematic equipment or components of equipment?
Joanna Phillips: I think, CRT-based equipment is most problematic. Once the tube is exhausted, you cannot restore it anymore. Other kinds of obsolete equipment, such as open-reel video and audio devices, or film projectors, have more of a chance of survival, even if the original mechanical and electronic parts are not available anymore and have to be custom-reconstructed to restore functions. Of course, video heads are becoming a major problem. Regarding CRTs, we are in a particularly difficult time now, because the CRT production has only just been terminated a few years ago, and they are still very present in our memory and expectation. We have grown accustomed to the boxed image, the sculptural qualities, the aesthetics of the visible video lines, and of course the 4:3 aspect ratio41 that most artist’s video has been produced for up until recently. Many artists insist on CRT presentation, and we simply have to provide them as long as we can. How hard that can be already now, and in particular if you have not stockpiled them in advance, was the lesson I learned when we prepared the Abramovic CRTs. I think in the next few years, a lot of artworks will either have to face a significant, conceptual and/or aesthetical change, or they cannot be shown anymore.
PACKED: How do you preserve your video works?
Joanna Phillips: When we acquire a video work, we ask for an Artist’s Master and an Artist’ Exhibition Copy. For SD42 video, we are asking for Digital Betacam and 10-bit uncompressed43.mov files44. For HD video45, we are mostly asking for HDCAM SR46 (depending on the production format) and 10-bit uncompressed .mov files. We create tape and file clones for redundant storage, and are also step by step digitizing our entire video tape collection to 10 bit uncompressed .mov files.
As a consequence, our rapidly increasing need for server storage space is becoming a real problem, particularly since most contemporary artists have started to exclusively produce in High Definition, which is requiring even more storage space. Together with our IT department, we are working on new storage strategies. One of our conservation priorities is to dedicate a separate server to the artworks, with redundant storage and off-site back-up.
PACKED: How do you finance the digitization of the video tapes?
Joanna Phillips: Whenever a collection work is selected for exhibition, either in-house or at another institution, we have it digitized. We cover this preservation measure by the respective exhibition budget, so to speak as a preparation of the work for this show, and the following shows. The occasion of an exhibition is a good point in time for digitization, because you have to view the material anyway, you might want to produce new exhibition copies, the artist is contacted for the exhibition, and therefore easily available for any outstanding conservation questions. For new acquisitions, we have started to ask for 10 bit uncompressed .mov files, additionally to the tape-based master material.
PACKED: Are the transfers and the copies done in-house?
Joanna Phillips: No, only the previewing and condition/quality checking, the digitization is done at a post-production facility. Our in-house infrastructure is sufficient, but minimal, it includes a broadcast monitor, a vectorscope47 and a wave form monitor to monitor the video signal. A switcher allows me to compare the video input from different source devices. The big advantage of viewing the video in-house is that you don’t have to pay an A/V technician or editor to sit with you, and you can take all the time you need. When viewing video works in a post-production house, I feel a sense of time pressure, and it can cost up to $250/hour to have post-house staff devote their time exclusively to your project.
Here in the lab I can repeat a sequence as often as I need to, and also capture glitches or image errors for documentation. Whenever I come across unfamiliar phenomena, I will seek professional advise from the post-house staff and view the respective sequence together with them.
PACKED: Do you also document the technical aspect as part of the work's documentation?
Joanna Phillips: Yes, I try to document everything necessary to understand the piece. Next to the textual documentation, I am actually in great favor of video documentation. As an example, I made a three minute video of how we prepared the aged PVM monitors for Abramovic’s 'Cleaning the mirror', how we dismantled them, cleaned them and adjusted them.
PACKED: Will this documentation become part of the artwork's file?
Joanna Phillips: Yes, all our conservation images and videos are stored on a server. We add metadata to the images using “Lightroom”49. The metadata for the videos are not embedded in the files, but in a separate textual “READ_ME” file in rtf-format that is stored in the same folder as the video.
PACKED: Do you also acquire the equipment when the Guggenheim acquires a media work?
Joanna Phillips: Usually not, unless of course it’s dedicated equipment. If the work is based on non-dedicated, but obsolete equipment, Conservation will strongly advocate the purchase of the equipment. Unfortunately, these costs are usually not planned for in the acquisition budget, and we might have to wait for the artwork’s first display to cover the equipment costs with exhibition funds. A good example is the slide-based work “In the near future” by Sharon Hayes50 that we acquired a few weeks ago. The piece consists of 13 slide projectors, which are becoming harder and increasingly expensive to get, this applies also to their lenses. The projectors were not part of the acquisition, but the artist has offered a good price for sourcing the equipment for us. Fortunately, we were able to accept this offer, because the piece has been selected for an upcoming exhibition. Otherwise, we would have been in trouble, because we would not have enough slide projectors in our “dedicated, shared equipment” pool to install the piece, and we can expect them to become rarer, and more expensive even in a couple of years’ time.
PACKED: When do you document a work of the collection if it hasn’t been done before?
Joanna Phillips: The best point in time is during the install of the piece, on-site, in close contact and exchange with the artist or artist’s assistant. This is when many important questions are raised, and technical and aesthetical decisions are made and can be witnessed. Again, video documentation lends itself perfectly to this purpose, much better than still photography does. The problem is that I don’t have enough time to edit everything I shoot. Because I don’t want to create a backlog of unedited information, inaccessible or incomprehensible for other people, I had to reduce my recording to a minimum. I would love to delegate the editing work. But since I am on my own for now, and budgets are tight, I have to keep the amount of created information manageable.
PACKED: Do you also make interviews with the artists?
Joanna Phillips: Yes, we are in regular exchange with the artist in preparation of exhibitions, or the Conservation Department is inviting the artist over to discuss particular preservation issues. We video or audio record these interviews, transcribe them and share the transcripts through our database with the rest of the staff.
PACKED: When restoration has to be done whereby you have to change something, is this always done in cooperation with the artist?
Joanna Phillips: If the artist is alive, and available, we always include the artist’s statement and opinion into our decision-making process. However, with contemporary and installed artworks, the changes often happen on occasion of their exhibition, not necessarily in the conservation lab. The artist wants to adjust the piece to the space and its conditions, or “update” the technology for a better show. This is particularly true for the Guggenheim Museum, because the space in the historic Frank Lloyd Wright building can hardly provide the white cube or black box scenario that media artworks are often laid out for. It’s not dark enough, there are no enclosed rooms, the audio is bouncing off the reflective walls and floors and the variability of the pieces is often challenged to its limits. As a conservator, I try to take into account all previous manifestations of the work, and compare the Guggenheim version against this background. The overall picture allows me to better understand the identity of the artwork, and its limits of flexibility. I capture the artist’s voice on the concept of the piece, and ask questions about possible future installations.
If an artist wishes to update his or her work to an extent that alters the meaning or identity of the work substantially, we will negotiate to describe this update as a dated version, even if it will be the preferred version for display from now on. A good example is the video “Sleeptalking” (1998) by Pierre Huyghe51. In the original version, the three minute long video was looped continuously to match a 64 minute long soundtrack that was separately played back from a CD. Now, twelve years after the work was created, Huyghe wanted to combine the audio with the video. When we received the remastered video, we noticed that the image material itself was not looped anymore, but had been reedited to extend to the duration of the 64 minutes. Although this is the way that the artist had always wanted to show the piece, “Sleeptalking” is now dated as “1998/2010 remastered version”.
PACKED: How do you manage all the technical knowledge needed to take care of this collection?
Joanna Phillips: I try to understand as much as possible and to constantly learn more by working with the right experts. But I think it is characteristic for time-based media conservation that you can never become the expert knowing everything, simply because technology keeps changing and evolving so rapidly. The more important it is to create and cultivate a good relationship with engineers, A/V technicians, film timers, and other specialists, to benefit from their expertise and to migrate relevant knowledge to the conservation field.