What comes to mind when you think about conservation? Perhaps you heard about the $177 million restoration of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 2015, the conservation of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi before its record breaking sale at Christie’s in 2017, or maybe you read about the Dia Art Foundation repairing Nancy Holt’s monumental Sun Tunnels in May this year. Projects like these, focusing on traditional forms of art (namely architecture, painting, and sculpture) are led by conservators with corresponding specialisms and can capture the popular imagination, but I would like in this article to expand the common perception of conservators laboring over a microscope, up a ladder, or on a scaffold.
As artists embrace new technology in their practices, conservators have had to adapt beyond their traditional fields, generating a new specialism known as media conservation, for which New York has been a hub. Video art emerged in the 1960s along with audio and software-based art and resides across many institutional and private collections. By their nature, media-based works are dynamic and rely on technology for creation and exhibition. Today we are all too aware of rapid changes in technology that render these works inherently fragile or at least unstable, and their long-term preservation must be addressed sooner rather than later. To list a few examples, media include Betacam SP videotape as used by Susan Hiller, .mov H.264/MPEG-4 AVC by James Richards, Adobe Flash by Paul Chan, Augmented Reality (AR) app by Martine Syms, and live simulation with Unity gaming software by Ian Cheng. Works made in these media are realized for exhibition through a multitude of computers, monitors, projectors, iPhones, iPads, software, and browsers. As artists experiment with these materials, conservators are constantly playing catch-up.
20 years ago conservators with backgrounds in traditional media began to devise broad strategies to tackle the brand new challenges of these works. Last year conservation training in North America caught up when NYU accepted its first two students into a program of Time-Based Media art conservation at the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts. Media conservation is essentially no different to traditional conservation, requiring the same ethical standards, appreciation of artist’s intent and thorough technical understanding of the medium. The latter, however, has obliged dedicated media conservation labs to assemble a panoply of new tools, eschewing microscopes, dental equipment, paintbrushes, pigment analysis, X-rays, and ultraviolet imaging, in favor of oscilloscopes, vectorscopes, waveform monitors, GitHub, MediaInfo, Adobe Premiere, Audition, cathode ray tubes, broadcast LCD monitors, and write blockers.
Media art, along with interactive or experiential art, only really exists when installed, and these frequently complex works have been described as being beyond the static object. Media art requires display technology and electricity to be viewed as the artist intended, in its dynamic state. The approach widely understood for the care of art made from traditional materials calls for a balance between display time in the gallery and storage in dark, climate-controlled environments to minimize the fading of dyes and pigments. Here the stewardship of material-based objects and the majority of media works diverges; for these works conservators are coming to realize they need to chart an almost opposite course. In short, we are advocating for more plugging-in and more switching-on.
All conservation requires time, close observation, and persistent looking, but media works do not sit patiently on an easel or table in a conservation lab. In a museum lab like ours at MoMA you might have 15 paintings undergoing review, but in a media conservation lab there would rarely be enough space to install a similar number of media works, as many of them are room-sized, employing multi-screens and multiple sound channels. Sometimes the only opportunity for a media conservator to condition check an artwork and carry out necessary documentation occurs at the point of exhibition in the gallery. A much loved 24-hour work is The Clock (2010) by Christian Marclay, and the only way to condition check it is to sit and watch it for 24 hours. Fortunately most media works do not run so long, but this demonstrates the challenge.
All art changes over time and the conservator’s role is to help mitigate and shepherd this change, but media works will not be preserved by cushioning display equipment in acid-free tissue in darkened rooms, or simply by storing digital files in digital vaults. If we are to understand how to steward each of these works, as technology ages and evolves they will require regular installation. Exhibition becomes fundamental to their survival.