In part two of our conversation about time-based media artwork, we talk to Joanna Phillips, the Guggenheim’s Conservator of Time-Based Media, about the museum’s Media Conservation Lab and the many challenges posed by rapidly changing technology.
Can you describe recent time-based media conservation projects at the Guggenheim? What were you trying to achieve in the course of those projects?
One project that has really been keeping us busy over the last year is the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative. During this multi-year project, we are collecting and exhibiting contemporary art from different continents. Each of these new acquisitions—many of which consist of time-based media—has to be inspected and documented. We view the moving image and sound material, interview the artists, and discuss the variability of the pieces. In some cases, I have to source obsolete equipment such as tube monitors or slide projectors for the pieces. Working with artworks and artists from Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and other Asian countries I haven’t been involved with before has been truly enriching for me.
In the last two years, I have also worked on more historic time-based media art, e.g. 1970s pieces by Bruce Nauman and Nam June Paik. The older the pieces are, the more research time is needed to investigate the previous history of exhibition and change. This can be a painstaking process, because in the past, prior to conservators’ involvement with time-based media, works were often not fully documented. Understanding the past of an artwork is crucial to projecting its future.
What are some of the greatest challenges you and your team face in preserving time-based media artworks?
Every artwork confronts us with its very own set of challenges, but in general we are struggling with the failure and obsolescence of devices and technologies that our pieces depend on. The change from analog to digital across technologies is a major challenge, because many of our artworks rely conceptually or aesthetically on analog technologies. I am thinking of our slide pieces, for example, or our 16mm and 35mm film installations. With the decline of those analog industries, it’s becoming increasingly hard and expensive for the museum community to manage slide and film duplication for exhibition purposes or to service and maintain the equipment. At the Guggenheim, we produce exhibition copies in advance now and stockpile them in the freezer for future use. We also collect slide and film projectors.
Cathode-ray tube monitors that are no longer produced also pose difficulties. Some of our video installations rely on these monitors, because of their sculptural qualities, their 4:3 aspect ratio, or because the artist modified the device. The equipment also links the piece to its time of creation—contextualizes it in art history. I have been sourcing and stockpiling CRT monitors for pieces such as Nam June Paik’s TV Garden, which consists of dozens of these monitors and cannot be shown on flat screens.
Computer-based works present another major challenge. Risk factors these works are facing include the evolution and obsolescence of programming languages, the use of custom-code or proprietary software, and the changes that are introduced to the experience of the piece when it is migrated to contemporary hardware and software.
You established a Media Art Conservation Lab at the Guggenheim—the first of its kind at a U.S. art museum. What was the motivation to create such a lab? What are some of the lab’s unique features?
Our department recognized the need to expand our conservation lab and add a technical infrastructure that would allow us to apply the same attention and care to time-based media works as we do to our more traditional collection works. A central need that we wanted to address was our ability to condition and quality-control moving image and sound content, not only of the born-digital and digitized works, but all kinds of analog and digital formats in the collection. The master cassettes and other physical information carriers in the collection remain an important reference for image and sound quality. To access the content on these media, the lab features a rack of different video players for all collected formats, including 3/4″ U-matic, VHS, Betacam SP, Digital Betacam, Laser Disk, DVD, and DVCAM. Next to a video-editing station, the lab also contains a couple of workbenches for equipment repair and a film-rewinding table that allows us to inspect 16mm and 35mm film.
It was important for us to truly embed this new specialty into our work as a department and to physically integrate the media lab into the conservation lab. A major risk factor time-based media art is facing in many institutions is its isolation from standard museum practices and workflows as a result of overwhelmed caretakers regarding it as being “so different.” At the Guggenheim, we strive to look at the needs of our collection works more holistically and engage in a conservation discourse that extends across all specialties.
How do you go about working with artists whose artwork is in the Guggenheim’s collection? Is there an ongoing relationship with living artists and communication regarding any technological changes that might affect their work?
Yes, the museum maintains active relationships with living collection artists and artist estates. That is not only true for our time-based media pieces, but all of our contemporary collections.
In the past, prior to the professionalization of contemporary art and time-based media conservation, artists were often approached late in the game to solve a conservation dilemma or authorize the replacement of failed or obsolete technology. Today, artists are included in the discussion as soon as a piece enters a collection, and before it becomes threatened. In order to form short-, middle- and long-term preservation strategies, conservators try to envision future scenarios and spur the artist’s imagination: “In the future, could we show your 35mm slide installation digitally, e.g. as a PowerPoint presentation? What are the significant aspects of the work we would be losing? In which ways are these aspects integral to the work?”
The artist’s voice is especially important when the artwork is still in a stage of “infancy,” and thus still developing. It usually takes an art installation a few iterations in different venues and under different circumstances until it is fully developed. In that process, we closely monitor and document the behaviors of the work in relation to various technical and spatial display conditions, and learn about its identity.
The artist is needed to guide that maturation process: we work closely with the artist to prepare and install the work in the galleries. Formal interviews and informal exchanges with the artist are recorded, transcribed, or otherwise documented. If the artist is not available for close cooperation, we generally ask for approval of our exhibition design. At one point in the life of the artwork, the dos and don’ts of the piece, or, put a different way, the variability and identity of the piece, should be identified. The goal is to establish the institutional knowledge necessary to reinstall the piece in the future—even if the artist is no longer around.
Can you tell us about some of your upcoming time-based media projects?
This year, two major exhibition and acquisition projects will be keeping us busy: the Latin America phase of the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative, and the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation project, a Chinese contemporary art commission.
In addition to our activities for these projects, it is my goal to isolate and dedicate time to the group of approximately 25 computer-based artworks in our collection. Some of these works are relatively historic already—up to 15 years old—and extremely endangered. Conservation usually deals with works when they are requested for exhibition or loan, but in this case they could at any time become untenable for exhibition and we can’t afford to wait until they are checklisted. I am currently working with our development department to conceptualize a research project that will allow us to conduct a survey of these works, assess the risks these works are facing, and strategize and conduct emergency treatments. In addition to this, I want to select a smaller group of case studies that will serve to explore different research areas in the conservation of computer-based art. I am planning to form an internal working group within the Guggenheim that includes representatives of different departments, and to have an advisory committee of external colleagues.
This kind of proactive approach to collection care is essential when you are dealing with time-based media. In a scenario of accelerated change, conservation becomes a highly time-sensitive matter, and postponing our conservation interventions can have the result that we play an active role in the degradation and destruction of a time-based media artwork.