Interview with Pip Laurenson (Tate)

Tate, London, March 22, 2010


Pip Laurenson is the head of Time-Based Media Conservation at Tate in London. Emanuel Lorrain of PACKED met her to speak about the management of equipment that is part of the media works in Tate's collection. This interview addresses issues of cataloguing, maintenance, storage, technical know-how and the strategies employed by her team to deal with the obsolescence of the playback and display equipment. During the interview Pip is briefly joined by her colleague Tina Weidner, Time-Based Media Conservator at Tate.


PACKED: How did you arrive at the Tate and more generally how did you get involved in the conservation of time-based media art?

Pip Laurenson: I did a three-year conservation course in polychrome, wood and stone. I then came to Tate as a sculpture conservator under the Henry Moore Foundation1 internship. It was while I was doing this internship that I started working with time-based media works. At the time Tate had just acquired Bruce Nauman’s ‘Violent Incident’.2 When I began to work on this acquisition I realised that we didn’t really have a plan regarding how best to deal with such works. That’s how my research started and I was lucky enough to win a travel scholarship from the Gabo Trust.3 From there, a post was created: at the time the job title was for a Sculpture Conservator for Electronic Media. Later in the run-up to the opening of Tate Modern two other posts were created, one additional conservator and one technician. Time-based media conservation officially became its own conservation section within Tate’s conservation department in 2004.


PACKED: What are your missions at the Tate?

Pip Laurenson: My work as the head of Time-Based Media Conservation is to manage the team of conservators and technicians who are responsible for designing preservation strategies for the time-based media works in Tate's main collection, and also for delivering the programme. By programme I mean the work we do for displays, exhibitions, loans, acquisitions and caring for the collection.


Packed: How many people does the Time-Based Media Conservation section involve?

Pip Laurenson: Apart from me, there are two other time-based media conservators and one conservation technician. Tina Weidner deals with exhibitions and displays as well as some collection care and acquisition work, but her main responsibility is to support exhibitions and displays in time-based media conservation. Patricia Falcao, who is covering Kate Jennings who is currently on maternity leave, is responsible for acquisitions and loans. Patricia was our intern and will go back to being so for just under a year when Kate Jennings returns. There is Lee Cavaliere who is our conservation technician. On top of that, we have Frederico Fazenda Rodrigues who is currently working in a freelance capacity on recent acquisitions. Processing new acquisitions makes up approximately 50% of our work. It’s a very large part of what we do.


Packed: What amount of artworks are you in charge of?

Pip Laurenson: We currently have nearly four hundred works. Tate didn’t acquire single channel pieces;4 historically we have acquired more complex installations. We have quite a small collection but it’s one that tends to involve complex works.


Packed: How is the video content preserved?

Pip Laurenson: Our collection is migrated. A migration programme has been in place since 1994. It’s currently all on D5.5 At the end of next week, we should have Ingex system6 set up so we can start testing this as a future migration route. This system has been developed at the BBC7 and we are hoping to build on this for the heritage sector. We are working with the Electronic & Electrical Engineering Department at University College London. This system will be able to hold uncompressed video8 wrapped in a MXF9 open file format10 and it will be stored on LTO.11


 The storage shelves for videos. (Photo: PACKED vzw).


Packed: How do you manage the equipment for all these complex works?

Pip Laurenson: On top of the conservation team for time-based media, there’s also a specialised installation team that works with us. They are the people on the ground dealing with display maintenance. They also work with the exhibitions team and curatorial department on new commissions and works which are loaned in, often from the artist. We have two pools of equipment for Tate. There is a pool of equipment that is used for loans in, and there’s the collection's equipment pool. The collection equipment is divided into three categories as each work will have a different relationship to its technology; understanding this relationship so we can manage it appropriately is a very important part of our role. The very generic equipment, DVD players12 for instance, can be used for a number of different works. The very specific items of display equipment have often been modified by the artist, for example Gary Hill’s13 monitors in ’Between cinema and a hard place‘ and they are dedicated to one work.14 Then there’s a group of equipment between these two categories that tends to include things like slide projectors or film projectors; equipment that’s used for, and is absolutely essential to, a group of works. For example it’s very important for James Coleman’s15 works such as ’Charon (MIT Project)’16 that a particular type of slide projector is used. These pieces of equipment are dedicated to a broader group of works. It is possible that the generic equipment can become more important and more key to a group of works as time passes and that technology becomes rare. If a piece of equipment is totally generic at the time the work was acquired but then becomes more significant to a group of works as it becomes obsolete, we can take the decision to dedicate that item only to that group of works. It is a flexible system which helps us to make decisions as to how the equipment should be managed.


Packed: The highest end is the equipment dedicated to a work?

Pip Laurenson: Yes, I guess we can call it ‘level one’ or something like that. It is the equipment that we would never use for another work. ‘Level two’ is when we use equipment for a specific group of works for which it’s very important, and maybe that equipment is becoming rarer. And then ‘level three’ is totally generic.


Packed: Even the ’level three’ equipment is only used for the display of works in the collection, not for another purpose like transferring tapes for example?

Pip Laurenson: No. We might use it if we need it to check a work. If we need an SDI17 input for example we might use it temporarily, but it’s not used in the education department or anything like that. It’s just used within the context of the collection. It is also the case that if the installation team needs to borrow an extra DVD player, for example, for a loaned-in work they can borrow these. There is a great deal more flexibility with this group of equipment.


Packed: You talked about the equipment used for the loans in. Could you describe it more?

Pip Laurenson: Yes, we have a pool of equipment used for works which Tate borrows. Although we lend a lot of works to other museums, we borrow very few from other collections. The works we borrow are often directly from the artist and sometimes they are commissions. The team that deals with these works has its own pool of equipment. And because they’re not looking at the long term, in terms of preservation, it gets managed differently.


Packed: And when you lend a work do you always lend the equipment with it?

Pip Laurenson: We lend quite a lot of time-based media works to other museums. It depends on the work and the nature of the loan as to whether we lend the equipment with it or not. We try not to because it’s time-consuming for us. But obviously sometimes works have very specific equipment and it’s not possible for people to hire it locally. It may also be that the equipment has been made or modified specifically for that work and has to be lent. It really depends on the type of equipment and on the work. Within the UK we have something called the National Partnership. This is a group of museums that have a special relationship with Tate, and our agreement is to support them to show more challenging works. In this case they may need us to lend equipment.


Packed: Could the fact that you have to provide the equipment be a reason to refuse to lend a work?

Pip Laurenson: It’s all part of the negotiations that are part of responding to loan requests. The first thing that happens in the loan process for Tate is that the institution who wants to borrow the piece puts in a request six months in advance. It’s the same for all works in the collection. These requests are considered at a meeting of the loans group. If there’s an agreement to support the loan and lend the work, then it’s always discussed in principle. At that point we would clarify the terms. It’s just the start of the negotiation. In some cases it is probably cheaper for the borrower to hire display equipment locally because it’s very expensive to ship equipment around the world. We just need to make sure that they can get the right equipment and that they have the means to support the loan in a sensible way. At the end of the day we are responsible for making sure that the work is displayed as the artist designed it to be.


Packed: What type of space do you use to store the equipment?

Pip Laurenson: It is stored within the art stores which are approximately 45% RH18 and about 18 degrees °C.


 The TATE's art stores. (Photo: PACKED vzw).


Packed: And the shelves?

Pip Laurenson: It is stored on metal shelves.


Packed: Are these the best storage place and conditions you could imagine for the equipment?

Pip Laurenson: Yes, I think so; unless we start thinking in terms of very sophisticated packaging such as oxygen free packaging. Some items could do with better flight cases.


Packed: Is the equipment stored with other parts of the installation?

Pip Laurenson: No, our collection management system allows us to track each element separately with the location of its components number. What we do is to give equipment its own collection management number. They have EQ numbers19 rather than component numbers for the artwork because they might be used for different pieces, depending on what their status is.


 Equipment on shelves in the art stores. (Photo: PACKED vzw).


Packed: Even if they are part of this ’level one‘ group of equipment?

Pip Laurenson: ‘Level one’ equipment is somewhat borderline. Sometimes they’ll be listed as components as well as equipment. Listing all equipment items as EQ numbers is important in terms of maintenance. It is something we need to resolve to be consistent.


Packed: In the case of long-term storage would you consider removing some parts, like the rubber belts or springs in video players for example?

Pip Laurenson: The only thing that we remove at the moment is batteries because we know that they create a problem. We are interested in developing a more detailed strategy around maintenance, for example ensuring that certain equipment is fired up annually. But we haven’t had any problems with rubber belts. We don’t have a lot of video players because for the playback equipment of the video works we use external facilities houses. We don’t have the tape decks here. The historic playback equipment is mainly LaserDisc20 players, and I think we also have a few VHS players.21 There are only a few works which require a specific historic playback device. For example, we have two ¾” U-matic players22 that are part of an artwork. They are more important for their sculptural properties than because they are U-matic players. The artist would agree to have the video played back from a different source, for example a flash drive concealed in the U-matic deck. Where we have a number of rubber belts is in the film projectors, and I actually have to say that film projectors get used all the time at the moment but that might change. Maybe we should get more sophisticated about that.


Packed: Do you have an accurate inventory of the equipment?

Pip Laurenson: We do. And we’re proud of it because it’s hard work! It’s part of Tate’s collection management system: TMS, The Museum System.23 MoMA24 uses the same system; it’s a quite common collection management system. We have got 1.623 items in the EQ category. Various pieces of information are held about the equipment on this system, for example the current location of a projector and a location history etc. We have a number of searchable fields: the manufacturer, the model, the dimensions packed and unpacked, shared accessories, etc.

We hold both operation and service manuals for the display equipment. In some cases we attach these documents to TMS but in other cases that’s not possible, for example in the case of the D50 CRT projectors25 where the schematics are in a big binder. Where we have electronic copies, we link them to TMS.


Packed: The hard copies of the manuals and the schematics are linked to the equipment. How can you find them if they are not digitised?

Pip Laurenson: By the EQ number. We have created folders for each EQ item. They contain all the files for the equipment, hard copies of the service manuals and also documentation. This information should be kept in the folder. The records of examination are the most important information.


Packed: Does it contain a maintenance log?

Pip Laurenson: Yes. Anytime anything happens, it’s logged and we also keep more detailed information about servicing. If a repair is done, we register it.


Packed: How do you manage maintenance?

Pip Laurenson: Every time something comes down from display, it is serviced so that it’s ready to go when we need it again. That's fundamental. Our displays tend to be up for about six months to a year, usually a year. It’s quite a long time. We have to hold spares for all displays. During that time it’s quite likely that equipment has to be regularly swapped out for maintenance. There is an ongoing maintenance regime whilst a work is on display which has to be carried out before the gallery opens. This is planned as part of the display planning. Most of our maintenance happens around the use of the equipment. What we’re looking at now is what we should be doing for equipment that’s in storage; whether we should be firing up CRTs26 and things like that.


Packed: Who’s in charge of this? Is it someone at Tate or is it someone external?

Pip Laurenson: Our team manages it. Lee Cavaliere, our conservation technician, is the one responsible for that. If Lee can’t do the servicing or repair in-house, we might send it to a company externally. For example we had a problem with a Pioneer DVD player that stopped looping properly. Something like that we would send to Pioneer and we would just pay for it to be repaired externally. Most of the companies are represented in the UK; that’s the advantage of being in London. Either we can send it back directly to the company, if it’s not very far from London, or they have designated a company to deal with their repairs. But we’re doing more and more repairs in-house. Where I think our expertise has really improved in the last couple of years is in the maintenance of slide and film projectors. Lee Cavaliere and Tina Weidner are incredibly knowledgeable about slide and film projectors. It's quite rare that we send them out for repair. The day-to-day maintenance in the galleries is a joint effort but largely carried out by the installation team.


 The folders containing the artworks files. (Photo: PACKED vzw)


 The folders containing the artworks files. (Photo: PACKED vzw)


Packed: What about CRT monitors?

Pip Laurenson: We’ve had a few CRT experts, who’ve worked for the major companies and are now retired, come and help us. We ask them to come in for a day or two to work alongside our staff, thanks to which our conservators and technicians have been able to increase their knowledge. There was a point where we had the expertise to change tubes in-house for CRT projectors.27 We wouldn’t want to change tubes for a monitor but changing tubes for a projector is a bit more straightforward. Now this expertise is a bit borderline because we don’t do enough of that kind of work to be very comfortable with it. There was a point where people felt relaxed enough about doing such work because they had enough CRT tubes that needed changing and enough CRT projectors to keep their skills honed. Probably if we needed to do it now, we’d bring somebody in to bring everyone up to speed again. This is a problem with older technologies; we quickly lose our familiarity with handling it.


Packed: What is the equipment that requires the most maintenance and is the most at risk?

Pip Laurenson: I would say that 16 mm28 film projectors are the equipment that fails the most; probably because we’re using them a lot at the moment. But it’s also because a film projector is a mechanical thing and it needs to be very precisely adjusted to work well. Then slide projectors are also a bit of a ‘labour of love’ because again they require a lot of maintenance. Both film and slide projectors are, at the moment, well supported by small companies and individuals who are very knowledgeable and many of the spare parts are, remarkably, still available. What we are most worried about at the moment are 4:329 CRT monitors, in fact any kind of 4:3. 4:3 LCD30 monitors are also becoming rare now. Works that require CRT monitors and works that require 4:3 aspect ratio on a monitor are the big problems.


Packed: Because projectors will be easier to replace?

Pip Laurenson: In the majority of cases yes, because then you don’t have the aspect ratio issue. Concerning CRT projectors, I think a lot of artists who are very attached to that technology will move on to some of the different hybrid projectors31 that are coming out now. CRT was often loved because of the wonderful contrast they could produce; they are one of the few projection technologies which can really produce black. But recent technologies are improving in this regard and in their rendition of colour. I think that it’s actually the monitors that will bring the biggest problems because they have their own sculptural presence which is sometimes valued. You can’t show a 4:3 work on a 16:9 monitor without adding black bars on the sides or altering the picture in some fairly drastic way.


Packed: Do you collect a lot of spare equipment and spare parts?

Pip Laurenson: We do collect spare parts. We also collect spare items of equipment. For example for Gary Hill's work ‘Between Cinema and a Hard Place’ we have a spare set of CRT monitors because these are very important for the work and the work includes a range of very specific size monitors. We’ve probably got the most comprehensive set of spares for film projectors, partly because we have built up the most expertise in-house in terms of dealing with them. We simply had a great deal of film works on display in the galleries for a long time. This enables us to build expertise in terms of what will fail and what needs to be replaced. In terms of other technologies we are very interested in doing a test where we look at different methods for reconditioning CRTs.


Packed: How is the knowledge about equipment distributed from one person to another in Tate?

Pip Laurenson: We try to host study days if there’s maybe a big issue that we all need to understand more about, or simply think or talk about what we should be doing. For these we might bring somebody else in to help us talk through or learn about an issue or a technology. That’s one way we try to keep learning as a team. When we were using a lot more CRT projectors and a new member of staff joined the team, we would bring someone in with specialist expertise to provide a training day. Everybody would have a chance to talk to him and have a bit of a refresher on how to re-align32 a CRT. The person we work with is very good at explaining how to line up a cathode ray tube projector and all the ins and outs of their maintenance. We’re not a very big team. We have regular weekly meetings and we also meet with the installation team downstairs and talk about technology changes.


Packed: That’s also how the different departments interact with each other?

Pip Laurenson: Yes, and we would like to do more of it. There are always new things we need to know more about. For instance we’re interested in knowing more about Surround Sound33 at the moment, about High Definition Video,34 etc. There are external courses that we go to. Most of my team have been to a course called ‘Understanding Video Technology’ that was run by a company named VET in Hoxton Square London. There was a day on HD with Mites in Liverpool at FACT (the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology).35

Usually our trigger is what we’re acquiring in the collection and what we’re showing at a particular time. Tina for example has been installing Gustav Metzger’s36 ‘Liquid Crystal Environment’, which consists of modified slide projectors where there’s a glass slide that has liquid crystal in it. Basically the voltage varies, making liquid crystal warm up or cool down, creating different patterns on the wall. She’s been working closely with this work for a long time and has built up an enormous amount of expertise around it. Expertise increases, and we all have a responsibility to document it. If we fall under a bus, somebody else needs to be able to install the artwork. Documentation is really important. I guess there are different sorts of questions here: How do we share knowledge within the team? How do we share knowledge between the different teams and departments at Tate? How do we keep up-to-date with emerging technologies? How do we learn more about older technologies for example film projectors? How do we document this knowledge?


Packed: There's no video department in Tate?

Pip Laurenson: No, within Tate there is a team that deals with the education material and supports different staff needs across Tate related to audio visual material – setting up projectors for meetings or helping people to manage their audio visual assets. There is also Tate Media which is largely organised around the web site. Staff within Tate Media have video skills, and they prepare material for the web including webcast events and also shoot and produce video programmes. There are different people actually across Tate who have quite a lot of technical knowledge. But we also have a number of people who we rely on outside Tate who have a great deal of technical knowledge. We consider it really important to stay in touch with such contacts. They vary from people in commercial companies, to people in universities, to people who run their own small companies from their garage. Finding people who have empathy for the artworks and for the kinds of problems that we are faced with on a day-to-day basis is very important to us, as are people who have got good skills in electronics!


Packed: When you acquire an installation, is the equipment also acquired from the artist?

Pip Laurenson: Not very often. When we consider a work for acquisition at Tate, it goes to something called the ‘collection committee’ before the trustees actually agree to it. At that point we write a report. We identify the cost of archiving and whether it has any special equipment needs that we can’t already cover using the pool of equipment we have. It’s very rare that we acquire equipment as a package with the artwork. There are a few artists who provide their works as complete systems; artists such as Gary Hill, Bill Viola37 or Stan Douglas38 have this type of special expertise in their studios. Their works might often contain bespoke systems that have specific computer control elements for example. For this kind of artwork we might get the equipment as part of the work, or perhaps some of the equipment. But usually because of warranties, etc., it’s not a good idea to get equipment from the artist. The other thing is that galleries will often try to sell you their equipment because they bought it to show the work and they don't really want to keep it. But then again, it might not be the ideal equipment, we wouldn’t have the warranties, it might not be very well maintained, etc. We try to avoid equipment coming as a package, unless it’s actually a good idea and useful or necessary in some way.


Packed: Or unless it’s really hard to find?

Pip Laurenson: Yes, unless it's hard to find. Although artists will specify hard to find equipment without supplying it and we spend time finding it on eBay. Sometimes elements might be specially fabricated such as the units which are used in Metzger’s ‘Liquid Crystal Environment’ or it might be that the artist’s studio has the expertise in-house to build a system.


 Objectives and lenses for projectors in a storage box. (Photo: PACKED vzw)


Packed: Do you also buy spare equipment at the moment of acquisition?

Pip Laurenson: To be honest, the actual purchasing usually happens when the work goes on display. If an artist wants to use equipment that is going to become imminently obsolete, or hard to get hold of, then we will try to buy it when we acquire the work. Otherwise we usually wait until the work is on display. And when we display a work, we always have a spare. We have to because the galleries are open for such long hours. That’s when we tend to do the buying.


Packed: When you’re looking for rare equipment, do you mainly use eBay or do you have any other way of finding it?

Pip Laurenson: No, eBay. Sometimes we get hold of it through other people (we have some specific suppliers for some things), but mostly through eBay.


Packed: In one of your writings39 on ’Between Cinema and a Hard Place’, the work by Gary Hill, you wrote that you had contact with the manufacturers about the spare parts. I was wondering what they told you and what kind of collaboration you think is possible with them?

Pip Laurenson: Actually it was pretty good for that work. Most manufacturers have been really helpful. Although at that point I was also interested in things like mean-time-between-failure-rates, and here manufacturers turned out to be less helpful. They’ll provide you with the data, but they won’t provide the background to that data. If you’re trying to work out what the failure time is, they’ll tell you the final failure rates, as they’ve done all the testing, but they won’t tell you how they tested it. To be honest, the experience we’ve built up here as a team from running equipment for long hours is probably more valuable than any theoretical data. This is why we are careful about our documentation so we keep that data. Anyway, I did talk to manufacturers quite a lot for the Gary Hill piece. What was most helpful was that they put me in touch with a group of people that were responsible for servicing the broadcast monitors for the BBC. One of the issues with Gary Hill’s work is that you have to calibrate the monitors to match the colour, contrast and brightness each time it is displayed. I was trying different tools to do that and I was having a really hard time. I got all the particular CRT readings to match on a colorimeter for CRT’s but the picture still looked different. So I went to speak to this team, as the BBC uses similar monitors to those in the Gary Hill work to find out what I was doing wrong. They said, "yeah, we do that and then we tweak it until it looks right”! It turns out you can’t replace a good eye. Also, Sony did a sponsorship-in-kind deal with us early on which gave us access to expertise. Quite often what happens is that through building special relationships we can get access not to the consumer level distributors but to people who distribute to the sales people. We then have access to a more knowledgeable group of sales people. We can have technical discussions and they can provide us with service manuals, etc. We can also get spare parts from them directly, until they don’t have any spare parts left. Manufacturers have been pretty good, I think, given that we are a very small concern for them. Of course at the end of the day they want to sell large numbers of their products and we are a minuscule - although interesting - part of their market.


 Gary Hill, Between Cinema and a Hard Place. Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 1993. (Foto: Mark B. McLoughlin, Courtesy of the artist and Donald Young Gallery, Chicago)


Packed: About the management of the equipment during the exhibition, how do you take into account the lifetime of the equipment? Do you consider for very rare equipment that there could be a display schedule, for example that the projected work should run just once an hour?

Pip Laurenson: Tina has just come up with that idea.

Tina Weidner: We are only just starting to face this problem but we are keen to manage the way in which works with rare equipment are displayed rather than just packing them away. With the opening of Tate Modern coming up, we would love to explore whether there is an option to have a special display at some point dedicated to works of art that use very rare equipment to prompt more discussion on these issues.

Pip Laurenson: And would you show some of the works that use very rare equipment just for a limited time during the day?

Tina Weidner: I think it should be either just for some kind of study or for a once a week event; otherwise it might be very difficult to do. It is good to have these works being dealt with and on display rather than being tucked away from our immediate radar.

Pip Laurenson: You mean to be viewable, rather than to be in storage?

Tina Weidner: Yes.

Pip Laurenson: We’ve got some lovely Technicolor 8 mm projectors that came with Dan Graham’s40 work ‘Two Correlated Rotations’.41 I always thought that we might do a little performance with the original equipment, but the reality is that it would never have worked very well. These projectors wouldn’t have synced up. The projectors in this work are supposed to sync up, and Dan Graham said at the time that he thought it should be shown on 16 mm anyway. Tina has been working on this with Robert Miniacci and we now have a system to synchronise 16 mm projectors that’s been happily on display for quite a long time. I think there’ll be a time with some pieces when people will want to come and look at the original equipment alongside what is being currently used. I think there might be an interest in seeing equipment such as Tony Oursler's42 projectors, for example, that make a big difference to the look of a work. But whether we’d actually get a gallery display I am not sure... it is important that we don’t undermine the artwork by displaying them in this context. Certainly for Tinguely's43 kinetic works44 we limit the amount of time they are active. I think they’re on for five minutes every hour, and there’s a little note on the board explaining when they'll be switched on.


Packed: Is it possible that documentation of the work might replace the work when it’s not running?

Tina Weidner: I honestly think that kind of idea has been too overworked. How much more time do you want to spend behind a desk just doing things to replace the work? I think that what is more important is to fight for the works to be accessible, and then you can address the conservation needs to keep them displayable. But I wouldn’t feel comfortable just putting paperwork up in the gallery.

Pip Laurenson: But for some works you could have a documentary video for example which might help people to understand in the future what the work looked like.


Packed: To save the lifespan of the original equipment…

Tina Weidner: I honestly think as long as the equipment is still there, it is better to keep it going. It seems that everybody wants to show the documentation instead of the actual work in such cases, but I haven’t seen a case where you would say "very nicely delivered, it really gave me feel of the work…” I think that if you want to do it, you need to do it on a sort of wider scope and not just with paperwork.

Pip Laurenson: We have a nice example that I think is interesting. We have an artist, Ceal Floyer,45 who in her work ‘Carousel’ uses a record player and a vinyl record, and when we can no longer keep the record player going, she doesn’t want us to play a trick and play the sound as a file. The record contains the sound of a carousel slide projector. Instead of cheating, she wants to create the documentation herself which marks the next phase in the life of the work. Here the artwork includes the documentation of its own history - which is a bit different. But I think that’s quite nice.

Tina Weidner: At the end of the day the artwork is what is important. It becomes problematic if you take the main focus away from the work of art towards something educational simply to justify why the work doesn’t work anymore - making that the sort of highlight... Everybody seems to be heading down that road at the moment.

Pip Laurenson: I think our answer is probably that we haven’t got any works where, apart from the Ceal Floyer, the artist or the curator would prefer us to provide documentation of the original work as it was first delivered to us rather than having it migrated through different technologies. This is either because where the look of the original equipment is significant we can still show that installation with the correct display equipment because of the conservation work we have done and the spares we have gathered etc. or the identity of the work is flexible enough to allow new technologies to be used without loss. So we haven’t fully hit this problem yet; I’m sure we will. It came up because we have been thinking about Nam June Paik46 recently and for many of those works the value and importance of the CRT monitors is obviously very high.


 A work in a process of restoration using a CRT monitor. (Photo: PACKED vzw)


Packed: When the original equipment fails, breaks down, or is not available and you can’t find the same as the original one, what are the main criteria for replacement?

Pip Laurenson: It really depends on the work. I guess the first thing we think about is the importance of the equipment to the artwork. If it was purely functional, then we just need to make sure the function is still available. If it’s visible, if it’s part of what you see, obviously there are going to be different criteria.

I guess the three principle criteria are: the function and the quality of what it produces; if it’s visible, the way it looks and whether that is important; then also any relationship to how the work was made or any cultural references that the equipment may have that are relevant to the piece. And I think the questions that are in the paper that I wrote on display equipment47 are probably still pretty current. They're the questions we ask. We always involve the artist, and discuss the relationship between the technology used and its significance with them.

Sometimes these conversations take us by surprise. For example with Tony Oursler we had a really interesting conversation because we were looking for a replacement for the CPJ-100s.48 They’re these lovely round-shaped projectors that sat on the floor. They were visible. They produce quite a distinct picture. I think they had a halogen lamp in them, which produces quite a yellow image. And that kind of projector went quite nicely with the manikins49 in the piece. We showed him the different options for possible replacement projectors, and it turned out that we were much more concerned with the aesthetic of the image than he was. We wanted to keep the same sort of yellow tint, and for this we used neutral density filters and different tints to recreate and basically match the tone of the original projector. The newer projectors were very bright and whiter, and a bit garish in comparison. He could see that we were interested in that, but actually we were more interested in the aesthetic than he was in that case. But it was a good conversation, and he appreciated our care and concern and was happy with this option. We work closely with artists, or their technicians, when we have to change equipment.


Packed: When do you think about getting the artist involved?

Pip Laurenson: Before we acquire the work. A part of our process in thinking about the work being considered for acquisition is to understand what the relationship is to the technology in the work, so that we can then decide what it is we’re trying to preserve.


Packed: Are there sometimes problems with artist’s wishes that might come into conflict with what you, as a conservator, has or wants to do.

Pip Laurenson: Not so far. One of the things I think that I have become really quite conscious of is that, wherever possible, you have to involve the current stakeholders; the current curators, and artists, etc., but we don’t know what people are going to be interested in the future. There will be future curators who may be a lot more interested in the original equipment or a lot less... But we as conservators for a collection need to plan for future curators and whatever they might be interested in. If a decision is made to use a particular technology, this might have a major impact on how the work looks. We need to have good documentation about how the work has been presented at different phases of its life for those curators and conservators in the future who are going to be interested in how a work has been displayed. Maybe there will be curators who will be interested in performances with the original equipment for example, and we need to be able to serve their needs as much as the curator who isn’t interested in that. That’s why we hang on to old equipment.

One of the things I find is that when we have a chance to show a group of curators, art historians or artists the impact of different projection technologies and how an image looks, they’re shocked and amazed by what a huge impact it can have. We have a big flexible space where we can show the same source with different projector technologies, and it’s something they have never seen before because how could they?

On the whole the conversations we have with artists are fruitful. If they made a piece during the mid-nineties, and you say "you know what, it would probably look really horrible if you put it on the latest super bright DLP projector50", they understand that. But we will also show it to them so they can see for themselves what it will look like.

I think one of the skills that conservators for contemporary art generally need is the ability to know how to enter into these dialogues with artists without things getting totally out of control and the situation becoming full of doubt. Conservators need to know how to manage that process. It’s definitely a skill; it’s a diplomatic skill that’s really quite an important part of what conservators do. But I also understand how difficult it can be when an artist has a different opinion than the conservator. One of the things I find useful is to remind artists that their work has art historical importance. We need to remind them that if they upgrade everything to a point where it all looks as if it was made yesterday, there'd be no sense left for the visitor in the museum about the progression of the work and how their work might have changed.


Packed: How do you manage the budget and the cost of equipment?

Pip Laurenson: It's wonderfully complicated. The acquisition budget pays for buying any additional equipment needed for the display of newly acquired collection works.

Tate is made up of four museums; Tate Britain, Tate Modern, Tate Liverpool and Tate St Ives. If they show a collection work, we ask them to pay for consumables like projector lamps. If there’s any specific external servicing cost, we’d budget that. All the costs go into a form which basically outlines all the costs for the display. This gets agreed by the budget holder before the beginning of the display. And then we give them updates such as "we’ve bought six bulbs, and we’ve got three to go" in order to inform them about the budget over the period of the display.

We also have a budget that pays for any major upgrade or display because we don't ask the sites to pay for that. If a piece of equipment totally fails, we use a specific conservation budget to pay for its repair or buy a replacement. We don’t ask the sites to pay major costs for repairs or to buy a replacement. That budget also pays for spares . It’s quite complicated but it is valuable complexity as it spreads the cost across lots of different budgets which makes it all possible.


Packed: Does it have any influence on the strategy about a work?

Pip Laurenson: It did with LCD projectors. They were becoming incredibly expensive to run and incredibly difficult to get properly maintained, because of the effect of the operating hours on the LCD panels and the speed at which they deteriorate. The last time we seriously used a set of LCD projectors was for ‘Mapping the studio’,51 the Bruce Nauman work. That was partly because at the time single chip DLP projectors couldn’t manage colour very well and they hadn’t bought out the inorganic LCD or the hybrid technology projectors yet. The organic LCDs discolour very quickly and also dust gets trapped in the optics. If you look on our website, Time-Based Media Conservation,52 you will see a project describing this work by Nauman and discussing its conservation and display. There’s actually, buried in there, a whole discussion about projector maintenance. Huge amounts of work. We bought a number of replacement panels. We worked with a specialist company and it was really difficult to get them to do a good job, to get the right balance, to get the colours to look good. It was just an enormous amount of work. The management of colour for other types of projector technology has improved. When we show that work again, we won’t use LCD projectors because technology will have developed in ways which mean we won’t have to. It was just really hard to get the projectors not to look really horrible very quickly, because of the discoloration of the panels and the dust. A lot of our works from the nineties used a single panel organic LCD. It’s really interesting to look at those images and compare them to what we’re using now. They’re very different, quite painterly.


Packed: What are your expectations for the future of these works?

Pip Laurenson: I think that the 4:3 aspect ratio is a big issue, and slide technology is going to be a bigger problem than film in the next few years because it will become obsolete sooner. Slide-based works are one of our biggest priorities. But in general I think being optimistic is good. I remember being told in 2001 by a museum director (not from Tate) that it was no longer possible to show film in galleries. Of course it’s possible; we still do it. It’s hard work, but if you’re committed to it you can make these things possible.

I think that people are leaping a bit too quickly to a situation where they are giving up on old technologies too fast. There’s no point making a big song and dance about keeping an original technology if it doesn’t actually hold any significance for that artwork. But I think some people have made the mistake in thinking all technologies are insignificant for all time-based media artworks. In some cases the display equipment is really significant, whereas for another case it’s really not.

I think you need to make a judgment about the value of that technology for the work. And once you’ve made that judgment, then you’re basically saying that if you can’t maintain the relationship of the technology for the work, you’re going to lose something important. Then you have to decide how hard you’re going to work to stop that loss. It's the same as people working really hard with their collections of paintings to prevent the loss of bits of paint or to minimize the fading of a watercolour. It is important to know where to put your energies, what the important things are to try to maintain. That comes with experience but you should not give up too quickly. We know we’re going to have major problems with CRTs, so we will work pretty hard to collect spares, to find people who recondition tubes, to find that expertise, etc.

One gallerist said what we need is a sort of time capsule. In a worst case scenario when we all have to accept we have reached the end of the line because it's really become unsustainable and we can’t afford to show the works in the way we would like to, then we have this time capsule which we just open for plan B. But don’t leap to the plan B first. Bill Viola made the comparison to a predella that might be the last remains of an altar piece. In some cases we will lose very important aspects of our artworks when we lose their connection to a particular technology.

We should acknowledge that we have lost something important if the technology was important, and maybe we’ll have alternatives and other ways to show a work. But for some artists this will be very problematic. Tacita Dean53 is adamant that she never wants her films shown in digital form. We’ll have to find a way of still having light passing through the transparent material creating an image on the wall. These are the conversations that we’re having with artists now about how important the technology is to them and their work. And they will all have to determine their position in relation to that. It is very important that curators also fully engage in these difficult decisions. We’ve come a long way in how we manage film and other older technologies, however, the longer I’m in this business, the more challenging it becomes.





  • 1. The Henry Moore Foundation is a registered charity, founded by the artist in 1977 to encourage public appreciation of the visual arts, and in particular the works of Henry Moore. Its main responsibilities are preserving Moore's legacy at his home in Hertfordshire and through exhibitions worldwide; funding exhibitions and research at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds; and awarding grants to arts organisations in the UK and abroad. The research department of the Henry Moore Institute runs the Institute's residential fellowship programme and has strong links with the University of Leeds' School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies, as well as having established relationships with academic departments around the UK. See:
  • 2. Bruce Nauman (° 1941, Fort Wayne, Indiana) is an American artist. His practice spans a broad range of media including sculpture, photography, neon, video, drawing, printmaking, and performance. After having earned a reputation as a conceptual pioneer in the field of sculpture and having worked with film, he produced his first videotapes in 1968. Using his body to explore the limits of everyday situations, Nauman explored video as a theatrical stage and a surveillance device within an installation context, influenced by the experimental work of Merce Cunningham, Meredith Monk, La Monte Young, Steve Reich, and Phillip Glass.
  • 3. The Gabo Trust was founded in 1988 by the family of the sculptor Naum Gabo (1890-1977). Aware of problems with new materials in modern and contemporary sculpture, they intended that the Trust should increase resources for sculpture conservation in institutional collections, and support for the further education of professional conservators. See:
  • 4. The term ’single-channel‘ refers to video or media work that involves a single information source (such as a DVD), a single playback device (such as a DVD player), and a single display mode (such as a flat-screen monitor). To cite a familiar example, when you play a DVD and view it on your television at home, you're watching a single-channel work. Source:
  • 5. D-5 is a professional digital video format introduced by Panasonic in 1994. Like Sony's D-1 (8-bit), it is an uncompressed digital component system (10-bit) but uses the same ½” tapes as Panasonic's digital composite D-3 format. D-5 standard definition decks can be retrofitted to record High Definition video with the use of an external HD input/output box. The HD deck conversion does not allow for any error correction that exists on standard definition recordings, as the full bandwidth of the tape is required for the HD recording. A 120 min D-3 tape will record 60 min in D-5/D-5 HD mode. Source:
  • 6. See:
  • 7. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is the largest broadcasting organisation in the world. The BBC was the world's first national broadcasting organisation and was founded on October 18th, 1922 as the British Broadcasting Company Ltd. The preservation department looks after the BBC's TV and radio collections. See:
  • 8. Video compression refers to reducing the quantity of data used to represent digital video images, and is a combination of spatial image compression and temporal motion compensation. Most video compression is lossy — it operates on the premise that much of the data present before compression is not necessary for achieving good perceptual quality. Uncompressed video files don’t use compression, and are often large files. The fact that no data is lost is one of the requirements for good digital archiving.
  • 9. Material eXchange Format (MXF) is a a "container" or "wrapper" format for professional digital video and audio media defined by a set of SMPTE standards. It supports a number of different streams of coded "essence", encoded with any variety of codecs, together with a metadata wrapper which describes the material contained within the MXF file.
  • 10. An open file format is a published specification for storing digital data, usually maintained by a standards organisation, which can therefore be used and implemented by anyone. For example, an open format can be implementable by both proprietary and free and open source software, using the typical licenses used by each. In contrast to open formats, proprietary formats are controlled and defined by private interests.
  • 11. Linear Tape-Open (or LTO) is a magnetic tape data storage technology originally developed in the late 1990s as an open standards alternative to the proprietary magnetic tape formats that were available at the time. Seagate, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM initiated the LTO Consortium, which directs development and manages licensing and certification of media and mechanism manufacturers. The most recent version (LTO-5) was released in 2010 and can hold 1,4 TB in one cartridge. Since 2002, LTO has been the best selling "super tape" format and is widely used with small and large computer systems, especially for back-up.
  • 12. DVD stands for Digital Versatile Disc (or Digital Video Disc) and is an optical disc storage format. DVDs are made up of a reflective aluminium layer, a polycarbonate substrate, a dye layer and a clear lacquer. DVD is not a suitable archival format for video mainly because it uses a lossy form of compression – MPEG-2. Many artists use DVD as an exhibition format and this has replaced LaserDisc as a popular display format for many museums and galleries. As an exhibition format DVD tends now more and more to be replaced by MPEG-2 files played from a flash card player.
  • 13. Gary Hill (° 1951, Santa Monica, California) is an American artist and one of the pioneers of video art. He is one of the most important contemporary artists investigating the relationships between words and electronic images. His inquiries into linguistics and consciousness offer resonant philosophical and poetic insights, as he explores the formal conjunctions of electronic visual and audio elements with the body and the self. With experimental rigour, conceptual precision and imaginative leaps of discovery, Hill's work in video is about, and is, a new form of writing. Source: . See also:
  • 14. ’Between cinema and a hard place‘ (1991) is a work by the American artist Gary Hill that comprises twenty-three video monitors of various sizes (stripped of their casings): twelve 13” colour, five 9” black-and-white, and six 5” black-and-white. See Pip Laurenson's essay on Gary Hill's installation:
  • 15. Although the Irish artist James Coleman (°1941, Ballaghaderreen, County Roscommon) has worked with film, video, photography and theatre since the beginning of the 1970s, he is best known for the installations in which he uses different projectors to project slides in synchrony with a soundtrack. With photographic and film media, he redefines the traditions of representation and of the creation of images which are primarily associated with painting.
  • 16. See:
  • 17. Serial Digital Interface (SDI) refers to a family of video interfaces standardised by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE).
  • 18. RH stands for Relative Humidity, a term that is used to describe the amount of water vapour that exists in a gaseous mixture of air and water vapour.
  • 19. EQ numbers are equipment numbers.
  • 20. A form of optical media that, unlike DVD, stores video as a composite analogue signal. The LaserDisc was first introduced by Philips and MCA in 1972, and has been on the market since 1978. LaserDiscs can be glass or plastic. There are essentially two types of LaserDisc: those mastered for constant linear velocity (CLV) and those mastered for constant angular velocity (CAV). CAV discs store approximately 30 minutes of video, can be controlled in a frame-accurate way and can be still-framed. CLV discs can store approximately one hour of video but cannot be controlled frame-accurately and cannot be still-framed. Once a popular display format for many artists, the LaserDisc has now largely been superseded by DVD. LaserDiscs could not handle saturated areas of colour, and would produce artefacts appearing as herring bone patterns. CAV discs did, however, have the advantage of frame-accurate external control. Source:
  • 21. VHS (Video Home System) is a consumer-level video standard developed by the Japanese company, JVC, and launched in 1976. A VHS cassette contains a ½” wide he magnetic tape and holds a maximum of about 430 m of tape, giving a maximum playing time of about 3,5 hours for NTSC and 5 hours for PAL at "standard" (SP) quality. Several improved versions of VHS exist, most notably Super-VHS (S-VHS).
  • 22. ¾” U-matic is an analogue video format that was developed at the end of the sixties and consisted of a ¾” video tape in a cassette. It was the forerunner of the analogue Betacam
  • 23. The Museum System (TMS) is a collection management system developed by Gallery Systems. See: and
  • 24. MoMA stands for Museum of Modern Art (New York), one of the most important museums in the world for modern and contemporary art.
  • 25. Sony introduced the D50 CRT projector in 1997, together with the higher end G70 and G90 models. The D50 are small and quiet sets with 7" ES focusing tubes, 800 lumens, digital convergence, on screen menus (and lots of built-in test patterns), video, s-video and component inputs. 64 Khz scan rate makes them 720p/1080i (HDTV) compatible.
  • 26. The Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) is a vacuum tube containing an electron gun (a source of electrons) and a fluorescent screen, with internal or external means to accelerate and deflect the electron beam, used to create images in the form of light emitted from the fluorescent screen. The image may represent electrical waveforms (oscilloscope), pictures (television, computer monitor), radar targets and others.
  • 27. A CRT projector is a video projector that uses a small, high-brightness CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) as the image generating element. The image is then focused and enlarged onto a screen using a lens kept in front of the CRT face. Most modern CRT projectors are colour and have three separate CRTs (instead of a single, colour CRT), and their own lenses to achieve colour images. The red, green and blue portions of the incoming video signal are processed and sent to the respective CRTs whose images are focused by their lenses to achieve the overall picture on the screen. A main advantage of CRT projectors is the superior black level compared to LCD and DLP based projectors. But compared to LCD and DLP based projectors they are larger and heavier, they require far more time to set up and adjust and the absolute ANSI brightness achievable is lower.
  • 28. 16mm film was introduced by Eastman Kodak in 1923 as an inexpensive amateur alternative to the conventional 35mm film format. 16mm refers to the width of the film. The format was initially directed toward the amateur market and was often referred to as sub-standard film by the professional industry. But 16mm has been extensively used for television production, and is still used by experimental filmmakers and other artists. The two major suppliers of 16mm film today are Kodak and Fujifilm.
  • 29. The aspect ratio of an image is the ratio of the width of the image to its height, expressed as two numbers separated by a colon. The 4:3 ratio for standard television has been in use since television's origins and many computer monitors use the same aspect ratio. 4:3 is the aspect ratio defined by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as a standard after the advent of optical sound-on-film.
  • 30. A liquid crystal display (LCD) is a thin, flat electronic visual display that uses the light modulating properties of liquid crystals (LCs). LCDs have displaced cathode ray tube (CRT) displays in most applications. They are usually more compact, lightweight, portable, and less expensive. They are available in a wider range of screen sizes than CRT and other flat panel displays.
  • 31. Here Pip Laurenson refers to hybrid LED projectors that are developed by Casio and that use a hybrid of LED and Laser technology (in combination with a processing of the image with a DLP chip) which allows for a significantly brighter image than all other projectors using LED technology.
  • 32. Because most recent CRT projectors have three separate CRTs (a separate CRT for red, green and blue instead of a single, colour CRT), and their own lenses to achieve the overall picture, one must each time again re-align the projector so that the projected image does not exhibit colour halos and the colours are mixed correctly.
  • 33. Surround Sound encompasses a range of techniques for enriching the sound reproduction quality of an audio source with audio channels reproduced via additional, discrete speakers. Surround Sound technology is used in cinema and home theatre systems, video game consoles, personal computers and other platforms.
  • 34. The term High Definition (HD) today refers to video formats which have a higher resolution than the Standard Definition (SD). Today, there are two resolutions for HD: 1080 or 720 picture lines.
  • 35. FACT is a Liverpool-based cinema, art gallery and the UK's leading organisation for the support & exhibition of film, art and new media. See:
  • 36. Gustav Metzger (° 1926, Nuremberg) is an artist and political activist who developed the concept of Auto-Destructive Art and the Art Strike. Together with John Sharkey, he initiated the Destruction in Art Symposium in London in 1966. Metzger was also involved in the Fluxus movement and famously declared an Art Strike from 1977 to 1980. Concerned with environmental issues in art already in the 1970s, many of his projects are now seen as astonishingly prescient. ‘Liquid Crystal Environment’ is a mixed media work made in 1965, and remade in 2005.
  • 37. Bill Viola (°1951, New York) is an American artist who is regarded as one of the pioneers of video art. His work has contributed to the recognition of video art as an important form of contemporary art and to the expansion of the scope of video art in terms of technology, content and historical reach. Viola’s video installations – spatial environments which immerse the viewer in image and sound – are characterised by the use of the very latest technology, but at the same time they also stand out for their direct simplicity and precision. See:
  • 38. Stan Douglas (°1960, Vancouver) is a Canadian artist who is best known for his film and video installations and his photographic works. He has been praised for his enlargement, in both a sensual and intellectual way, of the experience of the cinematic and museum space. With recourse to the intellectual, cultural and ideological traditions of modernity, his works exemplify a critical revision of Western history, past and present. The failure of modern utopias and the “ghosts” they spawned form the central themes of his work.
  • 39. Pip Laurenson, The Management of Display Equipment in Time-based Media Installations, 2005,
  • 40. Dan Graham (° 1942, Urbana, Illinois) is a conceptual artist working in New York City. He is an influential figure in the field of contemporary art, both a practitioner of conceptual art and an art critic and theorist. His film and video works address the questions of time and space.
  • 41. See:
  • 42. Tony Oursler (° 1957, New York City) is an American multimedia and installation artist. He animates non-living objects with the use of projectors. Classified, along with Bill Viola, Bruce Nauman, Gary Hill and other such artists, among the most outstanding video creators, he has employed this technique in a totally different manner. In his works, a motion picture filmed with a video-camera is projected with a projector functioning on a laterna-magica basis as in 19th-century theatre. The viewer does not stare at a rectangular screen, rather, s/he can see before him or her enlivened flowers, giant eye-balls, or puppets - talking, swearing at one another, quarrelling, and using coarse expressions. The contrast between the immovable, 'dead' bodies of the dolls and the aggressive, vulgar language not spared by their 'talking heads' create an unexpected dramatic power. Source: . See also:
  • 43. Jean Tinguely (1925, Fribourg - 1991, Bern) was a Swiss painter and sculptor. He is best known for his sculptural machines or kinetic art. See:
  • 44. The word kinetic means relating to motion. Kinetic art is art that depends on motion for its effects. Since the early twentieth century artists have been incorporating movement into art. This has been partly to explore the possibilities of movement, partly to introduce the element of time, partly to reflect the importance of the machine and technology in the modern world, partly to explore the nature of vision. Movement has been produced either mechanically by motors or by exploiting the natural movement of air in a space. Source:
  • 45. Ceal Floyer (°1968, Karachi) is a British multimedia artist working in video, sound and light projection, works on paper, and sculpture. Her work examines the dialectical tension between the literal and the mundane, and the imaginative construction of meaning. The deceptive simplicity of her work is informed by her particular sense of humour and awareness of the absurd; her use of double-takes and shifting points of view forces the viewer to renegotiate his perception of the world.
  • 46. Nam June Paik (1932, Seoul –2006, Miami) was a Korean-born American artist. He worked with a variety of media and is considered as one of the most important video artists. His works often comprises sculptures and installations with TV sets and modified CRTs. In 1969, he created the Paik/Abe synthesizer with the artist/engineer Shuya Abe. See:
  • 47. See:
  • 48. The CPJ-100 is a LCD projector that was produced by Sony until 1997. Its design is very unusual, with almost all of the electronics and projector components built inside a cylindrical housing. It was attached on one side to a stand, that allows it to rotate through 90 degrees and project an image for example on a ceiling. The projector can handle both PAL and NTSC formatted signals, from composite or S-Video sources.
  • 49. The artist Tony Oursler is known for using manikins in his works, on which videos are often projected.
  • 50. Digital Light Processing (DLP) is a trademark owned by Texas Instruments, representing technology used in some TVs and video projectors. DLP is used in DLP front projectors (small standalone projection units) and DLP rear projection television. DLP is also one of the leading technologies used in digital cinema projection.
  • 51. Bruce Nauman made ‘Mapping the Studio II with colour shift, flip, flop, & flip/flop (Fat Chance John Cage)’ in 2001. It is a seven projection installation where he takes his own studio as a subject. See:
  • 52. See: , and
  • 53. Tacita Dean (° 1965) is an English visual artist, living in Berlin. She is trained as a painter and now works in a variety of media, including drawing, photography and sound but is best known for her compelling 16mm films. Static camera positions and long takes are characteristic of her films, creating a sense of stillness in their moving images. She has also made works about the mechanics of production, which reveal the artifice of cinema. Source: and
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