In recent years, the Guggenheim has been among the foremost institutions to support and promote the conservation of time-based media artwork. For a museum whose collection includes an ever-increasing number of works that fall into this category, the nascent conservation field is crucial. Yet even though one of its primary concerns—fast-changing technology—is one we all face, few outside the discipline know just what it entails. In this two-part series, we’re talking to Joanna Phillips, the Guggenheim’s Conservator of Time-Based Media, to learn more about what it means to collect and conserve art in the age of new media.
Your focus at the Guggenheim is the conservation of time-based media artworks. Could you explain what time-based media is, exactly?
Among the descriptors identifying a traditional artwork are its dimensions, measured as height by length by depth. With many contemporary artworks, these physical dimensions are variable. Time-based media is a term that we use to summarize those artworks that have duration as a dimension, e.g. “four minutes and 33 seconds.”
What are some examples of time-based media works?
Typical examples of this category are video and sound artworks, film or slide-based installations, software-based art and other forms of technology-based artworks, many of which can also be regarded as installation art. The Guggenheim collection contains several hundred time-based media artworks, including works by Marina Abramovic, Matthew Barney, Bruce Nauman, Nam June Paik, Jason Rhoades, and many other important contemporary artists.
What special conservation measures do time-based media works require?
Time-based media works are unstable by nature: their technological constituents become obsolete, they frequently require adaptation to changing installation environments, and every reinstallation introduces some extent of interpretation. In order to sustain these works in a collection context—and to ensure that their integrity is preserved over time—conservators must monitor and manage the changes these works undergo through every step of their lifecycle.
Our conservation work starts with the acquisition process for a piece. In dialogue with the artist and our curators, we research the concept and components of a piece, outline its variability, understand its work-defining properties, stipulate archival and exhibition copy deliverables, and create comprehensive documentation of the artwork. That documentation serves as a growing knowledge base for present and future museum staff and is an important reference for navigating the piece through its cycles of preservation, storage, maintenance, and display.
A lot of the work I do is not the kind of manual conservation treatment that we know from traditional conservation. Time-based media conservation can involve hands-on wiring, cleaning, or soldering, but most of my work is more conceptual. I analyze the dependencies of an artwork on a certain device or technology, develop a deep understanding of different technologies, and assess the risks an artwork faces. I create migration concepts, supervise digitization projects, work with film labs to create exhibition copies, and collaborate with engineers to maintain obsolete hardware.
I am also part of the cross-departmental decision-making team that prepares works for display in the galleries. Since time-based media works only exist when they are installed and functioning, the moment they appear on a checklist for an exhibition is a major event on the timeline of their collection life. This is when all the stakeholders come together—conservators, curators, technicians, exhibition designers, and often the artist—and make decisions on what the next iteration of the piece will look like—that is, when the change is introduced that we need to capture. I am usually on-site for the install of our collection pieces to document the choices of equipment makes and models, carpet colors, and types, screen sizes, projection distances, and so forth, and also the reasoning behind these choices. This will help future decision-makers to differentiate between previous interpretations and the essence, the identity of the piece.
When did you, yourself, first become interested in time-based media, and how did your concentration in this area develop?
My conservation background is in paintings and contemporary art conservation. Before I started focusing on media art in 2005, I had a long fascination with the questions that are discussed in contemporary art conservation. Our traditional conservation ethics are based on the notion of a unique original that we preserve as a service to humanity, but many contemporary artworks are lacking that original, because their artistic medium is reproducible or ephemeral or performative. Time-based media works take this paradigm of change to an extreme. If conservation does not act immediately and manage the work’s collection life proactively, artworks might be lost within the lifetime of a hard-drive: within three years, or sooner. This sense of urgency and the deep connection that media works have to an ever-evolving landscape of technological development is what really challenges and fascinates me on a daily basis.
My first introduction to media art conservation was during my time as Assistant Conservator at the Swiss Institute for Art Research in Zurich. When the institute launched a joint research project on Electronic Art Conservation, “AktiveArchive,” with the Berne University of the Arts in 2005, I joined the interdisciplinary team as research conservator. We published two books on topics in video art conservation and put on a museum show of historic video installations that we installed with vintage equipment. “AktiveArchive” was a great introduction to the topic! At the institute in Zurich, I continued to practice contemporary art and paintings conservation next to my new focus on media art. Since 2008, when I started at the Guggenheim, my conservation work has focused exclusively on time-based media art.
When and how did this area of conservation practice first come into being in general? And how has it evolved as a discipline over the years?
Time-based media conservation can be understood as a subset of contemporary art conservation, which was first established in the 1990s. International research initiatives and conservation case studies on time-based media have increased over the last decade, but the implementation of time-based media conservation as a practicing profession is still at its very beginning. So far, there are only around 10 museums worldwide that dedicate conservation staff to time-based media art. The Tate in London was the first museum ever to have a Time-Based Media Conservator, and until today, the Tate remains a leader in the field, with a whole dedicated department of nine conservators and conservation technicians. The Guggenheim with its Variable Media Initiative (1999-2004)—a conservation approach that identified the importance of preserving the conceptual values of media-based and performative works and that emphasized the artist’s role in the decision-making process—was another early contributor to the developing field. MoMA hired their first Media Conservator in 2007, the Guggenheim hired me in 2008, SFMOMA dedicated a conservation fellow in 2010, and other museums are now planning similar positions.
It takes wise and visionary museum management to acknowledge that 50 time-based media works might ask for more dedicated staff time than 1000 paintings, if you want to ensure that these artworks are still part of the collection in 10, 20, or 50 years. Currently, the development of new practices and standards really rests on the shoulders of those few pioneering conservators who have the opportunity to work on museum collections. Without proximity to the artwork, and without an intimate understanding of museum workflows and the collection life of time-based media art, it’s almost impossible to ask the right questions and identify the areas that require research.
But the emerging field does not only need development of the demanding market—new positions with new job descriptions—it also requires development of the professional supply: the expansion of our conservation education.
Even today, no conservation program in the United States offers specialized training, neither in contemporary art conservation nor in time-based media conservation. In Europe, the situation is a little different. A number of MA programs have included contemporary art conservation, and time-based media conservation is often an integral part of the curriculum. One MA program at the Berne University of the Arts in Switzerland even offers a five-year, full-time conservation curriculum in time-based media. I have been collaborating with that program for a while and have offered students internships and fellowships at the Guggenheim.
Read part two of our interview, where Phillips discusses the museum’s recently established Media Conservation Lab and the many challenges posed by rapidly changing technology.