Establishing New Practices
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The Development of a New Conservation Specialty
For many years, the Guggenheim Museum has played a pioneering part in advancing the field of contemporary art conservation, particularly with its protagonist role in the Variable Media Initiative, which was based at the museum from 1999 to 2004. Building on the accomplishments of this research project and other recent international developments in contemporary art conservation, the Guggenheim’s Conservation Department has added the new specialty of time-based media conservation to address the specific needs of media artworks in the collection.
With the appointment of Joanna Phillips, Associate Conservator of Contemporary Art, in 2008, the Guggenheim joined the growing number of art museums worldwide that dedicate specialized conservation staff to the media works in their custody. With this ambitious new focus, the Guggenheim is working to develop and implement the best practices for media art conservation, and is devoted to sharing and exchanging its expertise with art professionals internationally.
What Does Time-Based Media Conservation Do?
Time-based media conservation aims to determine and monitor the acceptable degree of short-, middle-, and long-term change that an artwork may undergo in response to different display environments, technological developments, curatorial and exhibition-design concepts, or technicians’ preferences. To understand and preserve a work of media art, the responsible conservator considers the artist’s intention as well as the work’s technical components and analyzes the relationship between the two. Whether and how a device or technology can be exchanged will depend on its significance to the individual artwork. To make an informed assessment, the conservator must fully understand the function and characteristics of involved technologies and identify their specific impact on the artwork’s aesthetic, conceptual, and historical identity.
While certain tasks have to be delegated to respective experts, such as media technicians, video engineers, programmers, film-lab professionals, service technicians, and similar specialists, the responsibility for the artwork should never be outsourced. The active communication of conservation goals and the close supervision of all specialists’ services are essential for preserving an artwork’s integrity.
Striving Toward Best Practice
Over the past decade, a number of renowned international research initiatives—most of them based on particular case studies—have explored strategies in media art conservation. While these approaches are invaluable for the emerging field, actual hands-on practices are underdeveloped and are pending implementation in collections. To address this, pioneering conservators are working collaboratively across institutions to expand their expertise and on-the-job experience, and to further develop the profile of time-based media conservation as a specialty within contemporary art conservation.
Highlighted below are a few of the practices that have been implemented by the Guggenheim in recent years.
Guiding the Acquisition Process
When a media artwork is acquired into the collection, Guggenheim Conservation reaches out to the artist and gathers information about the technical production process and format(s) of the work, its parameters of installation and variability, and its exhibition history, as well as the meaning of the devices or technologies for the artwork. The physical components that enter the collection must include an artist-provided master and an exhibition copy of the work; in some cases, additional artist-approved reference copies (e.g., for film- and slide-based works) are also included. The conservator stipulates the formats of the deliverables—based on the specific production workflow and format—and assumes responsibility for checking the quality and condition of the incoming media elements. For more information, see The Importance of Viewing and Condition-Checking Media and Documentation of the Media Elements.
Supervising the Migration and Treatment of the Image and Sound Content
Even if the information carriers provided by an artist are not yet obsolete, they require duplication or digitization for their protection and for storage redundancy. In the case of video works, a changing display culture may also require the production of high-quality files.
For archival purposes, standard- and high-definition videos are currently migrated to 10-bit uncompressed .mov files and stored on a server with redundant storage and highly limited access. The files are checksummed and described with metadata. In addition, tape and disc duplicates are generated. All artist-provided and owner-generated copies require quality control by the conservator (see The Importance of Viewing and Condition-Checking Media and Documentation of the Media Elements). To conduct in-house quality checks of various historic and contemporary video formats, Guggenheim Conservation has assembled a viewing station (see Launch of Media Conservation Lab).
Categorizing and Managing the Artwork's Equipment
The playback and display equipment that is purchased, stored, and used in the context of an art collection can be categorized according to its significance for collection works, taking into account the degree to which the equipment can be replaced. At the Guggenheim Museum, three equipment categories have been established: (1) dedicated equipment; (2) shared, obsolete equipment; and (3) nondedicated, generic equipment. The first category describes equipment that is dedicated to a particular artwork due to unique features (e.g., the equipment may be artist-modified or designed). The second category comprises obsolete equipment that might be generic and unmodified but that has become increasingly rare and therefore more valuable. Rather than being dedicated to a single artwork, equipment in this category is shared by a group of collection works that rely on a particular type of equipment or technology. Typical members of this group include cathode-ray-tube monitors and television sets, slide projectors, 16 mm film projectors, and 35 mm slide projectors. The third category covers the large quantity of undedicated exhibition equipment that is generic and exchangeable. These devices are donated, sold, or discarded when they are no longer useful and do not necessarily have to be stored, tracked, and handled using standards that apply to art components.
Exhibition: Preparation, Documentation, and Maintenance
The scheduled exhibition of a media artwork is a critical call for conservator action. Because media artworks exist only in their installed state and their assembly can usually be funded only by exhibition budgets, conservators depend on this opportunity to gain a deeper knowledge about a work and its vulnerabilities against the background of an evolving technological landscape. In addition to conservators’ immediate involvement in the preparation of an exhibition—e.g., the generation of representative exhibition copy material or the selection of technologies and equipment—they take a broader look at the work’s past and future life in the collection: Are all necessary archival elements in place, or do new elements have to be created? Have work-defining technologies become obsolete, and does any respective equipment need to be stockpiled? How do contemporary playback and display technologies affect the work’s appearance? What is the artist’s opinion on these changes?
Facilitation and Supervision of Loans
A loan request is also a significant event in the life of a media artwork. For the conservator, the request is an opportunity to compile all available information on the work, review its constituents, and reassess its relationship to earlier and new technologies.
On-Site Documentation During the Install is not always possible to accomplish for loan requests, but the conservator can focus on preparing the work prior to the loan. To ensure a noncompromising representation of the work, it is preferable to keep the decision-making processes in-house. The borrower should be provided with high-quality exhibition copies that are compatible with the selected playback system. If equipment is not included in the loan, the borrower should be provided with a predetermined equipment list, or, if the work allows for negotiation, a range of work-defining properties or equipment models that are acceptable. Prior approval is usually requested for site-specific decisions that cannot be made remotely. Retaining such control over media artworks that are to be loaned is key to adequately managing their inherent change.
Advancement through Discourse
New and best practices can be established only by actively sharing innovations, exchanging ideas, and encouraging critical discussion among conservation professionals. The Guggenheim is dedicated to contributing to this discourse by continuously presenting advancements and inviting discussion with professionals from various disciplines. As part of this commitment, the Guggenheim co-organized and hosted the groundbreaking workshop and symposium TechFocus I: Caring for Video Art, the inaugural workshop of a series of educational events on media art conservation organized by the Electronic Media Group of the American Institute for Conservation.