The Variable Media Initiative

Meg Webster, Stick Spiral, 1986

Meg Webster, Stick Spiral, 1986. Branches, dimensions vary with installation. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Panza Collection, Gift, 1992

The most ambitious and widely known preservation project undertaken by the Guggenheim Museum is its Variable Media Initiative, a nontraditional, new preservation strategy that emerged in 1999 from the museum’s efforts to preserve media-based and performative works in its permanent collection, and which later spawned the Variable Media Network (VMN). Initially supported by a grant from the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology in Montreal, Canada, the VMN now comprises a group of international institutions and consultants, including University of Maine, the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archives, Franklin Furnace, Rhizome.org, and Performance Art Festival & Archives. VMN is recognized for its ground-breaking methodology, which seeks to define acceptable levels of change within any given art object and documents ways in which a sculpture, installation, or conceptual work may be altered (or not) for the sake of preservation without losing that work’s essential meaning.

The Variable Media approach integrates the analysis of materials with the definition of an artwork independently from its medium, allowing the work to be translated once its current medium becomes obsolete. By identifying the work’s behaviors (contained, installed, performed, reproduced, etc.) and strategies (storage, emulation, migration, and reinterpretation), artists, conservators, and curators can advance the preservation of new-media art.

The idea to describe a work of art, not only as a list of components and materials, but by the way it behaves, is crucial to the Variable Media methodology. The behaviors are not permanent or fixed, but they give conservators and curators guidelines for discussing the more ephemeral qualities of a work of art. To say that an artwork must be installed implies that its physical installation is more complex than simply hanging it on a nail. Are its dimensions fixed? Should it occupy the space alone? These questions cannot simply be recorded by a set dimension or simply “dimensions variable” in a collections management system. Does the work have a performative element—not simply in the traditional notion of dance, music, theater, and performance art, but also for a work in which the process of creation is as important as the product? A medium is reproduced if any copy of the original master of the artwork results in a loss of quality. Such media include analog photography, film, audio, and video. Alternately, if a work is duplicated, it is implied that a copy could not be distinguished from the original by an independent observer—applying not only to artifacts that can be perfectly cloned, as in digital media, but also to artifacts comprising ready-made, industrially fabricated or mass-produced components, including computer hardware or playback devices.

Behaviors commonly, although not exclusively, applied to film, video, and new-media art are interactive, encoded, and networked. Interactivity also describes installations that allow visitors to actively engage, manipulate, or take home components of a physical artwork. To say that a work is encoded implies that part or all of it is written in computer code or some other language that requires interpretation (e.g. dance notation or a musical score). A networked artwork is designed to be viewed on an electronic communication system, whether a Local Area Network or the Internet. The concept also can be applied to a piece of mail art. In addition, even paintings and sculptures can provoke difficult questions when some aspect of their construction alters or requires an intervention. Such works are contained within their materials or a protective framework that encloses or supports the artistic material to be viewed. Most contemporary art practice is a combination of two or more of these behaviors. Examination of these, in combination with careful notation of the physical components and their function, will lead to suitable strategies for preservation.

The four associated preservation strategies as defined by the Variable Media methodology range from traditional to radical. Storage is the default strategy for most museums. In its most basic definition, it means to put the work in a climate-controlled environment. For time-based media like film and video, this means keeping original projectors and hardware running for as long as possible, and stockpiling old machines. For these types of works, migration is often seen as a more successful strategy. To emulate a work is to devise a way of imitating the original look of a piece by completely different means. The term can be applied generally to a refabrication of an artwork’s components, but also has a specific meaning in the context of digital media, where emulation offers a powerful technique for running an out-of-date computer on a contemporary one. By far, the most radical strategy is to reinterpret the work each time it is recreated.

In March 2001, the Guggenheim Museum hosted "Preserving the Immaterial: A Conference on Variable Media," a two-day symposium that publicly introduced and discussed the Variable Media paradigm. Participants included artists Ken Jacobs, Robert Morris, Mark Napier, and Meg Webster, as well as preservation specialists Jennifer Crowe, Steve Dietz, Jon Gartenberg, Richard Rinehart, Jeff Rothenberg, and Benjamin Weil. The panel discussions presented the issues and challenges with preserving reproducible, performative, interactive, and duplicable artworks.

Exploring and testing the Variable Media methodology, the Guggenheim focused on a selection of case studies, including Ken Jacobs’s Bitemporal Vision: The Sea (1994), Mark Napier’s Net Flag (2001), Robert Morris’s Site (1964), Nam June Paik’s TV Garden (1974), and Meg Webster’s Stick Spiral (1986) (see photo above), among others.

Meg Webster is an artist who creates site-specific installations that are conceptual in the sense that she relies on local natural materials to create the work. Although Webster accepts change, she establishes very concrete parameters for her works. For example, Stick Spiral should reflect the unique circumstances of the surrounding natural environment. Thus the twigs are not stored but gathered for each new site. The artist creates a documentation package, a box that contains a certificate of authenticity and a “score” for the installation with drawings, photographs, and instructions. She requires recently pruned branches that bear foliage, scent, or fruit from the current season, which have been cut for other purposes. She does not wish to destroy nature to create art, thus the process of creating the work takes on equal importance to the final aesthetic. One of the fixed parameters of the work is a spiral into which one enters and out of which one is able to see at some points. Webster is often there to choreograph the piece, but of course that will not always be the case in the future. Thus the documentation that the artist provides becomes the means for preservation of the work that respects the artist’s wishes.

In collaboration with The Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology, the Guggenheim Museum published Permanence Through Change: The Variable Media Approach. The book includes excerpted transcripts from the Preserving the Immaterial conference and features essays by members of the Variable Media Network presenting the various emulation test cases to preserve digital work. Available free online at variablemedia.net, the publication was integral to the project’s goal of sharing information and directly involving communities and institutions concerned with preservation.

The Guggenheim Museum later presented Seeing Double: Emulation in Theory and Practice, an exhibition in Spring 2004 that highlighted a number of case studies that were fully researched and completed by the Variable Media team. This popular exhibition showcased a series of original artworks with their endangered media installed side-by-side with their emulated versions (recreated doubles in newer media), offering visitors a unique opportunity to judge whether the emulated works captured the spirit of the originals.



Grahame Weinbren and Roberta Friedman, The ErlKing

The Erl King as installed at the Guggenheim Museum as part of the exhibition Seeing Double: Emulation in Theory and Practice, 2004

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Guggenheim Museum hosted the second Variable Media symposium, Echoes of Art: Emulation as a Preservation Strategy, in May 2004. Artists, conservators, and media specialists debated the value and role of emulation as an option for preservation.

The conference focused on the elaborate process required to emulate one work in particular, The Erl King (1982–85), an interactive computer-generated video installation by Grahame Weinbren and Roberta Friedman, and took a broader look at the impact of emulation culture.



Grahame Weinbren and Roberta Friedman, The Erl King

The Erl King as installed at the Whitney Museum of American Art in their Biennial exhibition, 1987

Participants compared the strategies available to artists for resurrecting obsolete technologies and analyzed the Seeing Double survey for signs of consensus from the experts and the lay public on the success of emulation. Participants examined the retro-movements motivating emulation among players of computer games and the importance of a decentralized and de-institutionalized process for the preservation of digital culture.



Grahame Weinbren and Roberta Friedman, The Erl King

The Erl King as installed at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles in their exhibition MOCA and The Temporary Contemporary, 1986–87

Download the PDF of the treatment report by Isaac Dimitrovsky.

Download the PDF of a text written by artist Grahame Weinbren about The Erl King.

Visit the Variable Media Network Web site for more information.

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