Media Art Documentation
Managing Inherent Change
The documentation of artworks is essential to their preservation. Across all fields, conservators document the physical composition of artworks, identify artists’ materials and techniques, and describe vulnerabilities, condition, and damage, as well as detail their own conservation treatments.
But the documentation of media artworks—and other contemporary art forms, such as installation or performance art—challenges established documentation methods and standards. Designed to capture more traditional, autographic works of art that feature a unique original, conventional documentation focuses on the physical integrity of artworks. The identity of a media artwork, however, is not necessarily compromised by the damage and replacement of its physical equipment. In fact, its integrity might be more endangered by representing the work poorly—e.g., by choosing suboptimal video compression, by accepting compromising light and sound conditions, or by migrating the piece to a technology that does not provide the artist-intended and work-defining properties.
New Documentation for Media Artworks
Building on recent pioneering developments in time-based media conservation, the Guggenheim’s Conservation Department has developed a documentation system for media artworks that is based on their allographic, two-stage nature. While Installation Requirements represent the core of the work, the Iteration Reports (PDF) capture its various manifestations. The conceptual framework for this approach is that the traditional notion of the “original” is replaced by the notion of the “identity of the artwork,” the integrity of which has to be preserved.
Rather than define the exact make and model of equipment, which may become obsolete soon, the Installation Requirements should identify the meaning and work-defining properties of the artwork’s constituent parts, as well as the work’s aesthetic or conceptual dependence on certain devices or technologies.
Each Iteration Report, in contrast, focuses on one particular iteration and captures its spatial and technical specifics in detail. For example, the report lists the make and model of the equipment that is employed, the file specifications, the furniture that is used, and the wall color codes, and each selection is explained. In addition, the Iteration Report invites conservators to capture the reception of the iteration: Was it a successful representation of the work? Where there any issues that should be avoided in future iterations?
With a continuously growing knowledge of the work’s behavior over different iterations, the Installation Requirements may require updates over time.
Capturing the Decision-Making Process
A particularly innovative feature of the Iteration Reports is their consideration of the decision-making process that leads to a specific iteration of an artwork. While living artists are regularly invited by the museum to be involved in the preparation and installation of their work, there are usually many more players that influence a work’s manifestation and appearance. These decision-makers may include curators, exhibition designers, media technicians, conservators, and external contractors. In tracking these individuals’ reasoning behind their aesthetic, conceptual, practical, or economic decisions, Iteration Reports help generate a deeper understanding of the behaviors of an artwork under different circumstances.
On-Site Documentation During the Install
When media artworks enter the collection, the museum reaches out to the artist to obtain as much information about the artwork as possible. Previous iterations of the work are researched, the aesthetic and conceptual meanings of its technical constituents are explored, and possible future changes are discussed. However, since a media artwork exists only in its installed state, a deeper understanding of its behaviors and limits of variability can be established only on the occasion of its installation. How flexible is the artwork in response to given spatial constraints? How do contingent or venue-specific realities affect the artwork? What is the artist’s response to changing equipment properties?
While it usually takes a media work a number of iterations to fully develop its identity, close monitoring of these first iterations is essential for building institutional knowledge of the piece.
The work-defining parameters are best captured on-site during the install and in dialogue with artists (if available), their assistants, and involved staff, such as media technicians.
Documentation of the Media Elements
To identify and quality assess the information carriers in the museum’s collection, the Guggenheim’s Conservation Department has developed a number of media reports, including the Media Report/Tape (PDF), Media Report/Film (PDF), and Media Report/Optical Discs. For digital files, metadata and checksums are generated and stored with the files. For more information on condition assessment, see Launch of Media Conservation Lab.
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Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
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New York, NY 10128-0173
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