May 8, 2013  |  Behind the Scenes, Conservation
Conserving a Nam June Paik Altered Piano, Part 2

After exhaustive research prior to conserving Untitled (Piano), it was time for reflection. MoMA curators and conservators discussed the difficult decisions ahead. We knew that Nam June Paik playfully changed his works with each installation, and often incorporated new audio and video technologies into his older video sculptures. Should we continue this tradition, or freeze the existing technologies at the moment of his death?

The project that unfolded represents a series of negotiations, always followed by documenting our decisions for future staff and researchers.

First we decided to purchase a full backup set of cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors. Paik preferred this technology even in the face of thin, flat screened models appearing on the market. Two of the monitors no longer worked. For these we purchased used monitors of the same size and swapped their cathode ray tubes with the originals, allowing us to use the original monitor casings. This was carried out by CT Lui and Raphaele Shirley of CTL Electronics. CT Lui worked closely with Paik for many years and still runs a TV repair shop off of Canal Street in New York City where he increasingly works for museums. We also purchased backups for the two security cameras, and extra bulbs for the spot light.

Testing the CRT monitors at MoMA

Testing the CRT monitors at MoMA. Photo: Glenn Wharton

Next came the piano. After further discussion we decided to replace the original 5 ½” floppy-disc player-piano unit, knowing that future repairs and disc replacement would be impossible because of technical obsolescence. Fortunately PianoDisc, the company that made the unit, still exists. They now make wireless units that play encoded MP3 files. We worked with Paul Keogler of Dancing Ivories on Long Island to replace the unit and repair the piano. Our decision was to leave the original floppy-disc player-piano unit on the piano as evidence of the original technology, and install the new MP3 unit hidden away behind it.

Original piano player unit and exposed circuitry under the keyboard

Original piano-player unit and exposed circuitry under the keyboard. Photo: Glenn Wharton

Hopefully future staff will approve of our decision. Of course they can always remove the older unit or rewire the original unit in the future.

The piano itself was in poor condition. The wood was scratched and dented from use, and the mechanical systems were damaged and heavily restored. Once again, our discussion led to nuanced decisions. We decided not to repair the wood, but replace the completely worn hammer shanks and felt pads.

The final phase of the project was to preserve the two videos that were on laser discs. After determining that they were in good condition, we digitized them to create uncompressed files for archiving on our repository for digital collections.

One problem was left unresolved. Now that the videos are in digital format, they can be played from a computer or other digital playback device. Should we hide this device behind a wall and leave the laser-disc play decks on the floor since the artist approved this technology? Should we install little green LED lights to make the decks appear like they are functioning? Or would that be dishonest?

Installing the video sculpture after completing the conservation work

Installing the video sculpture after completing the conservation work. Photo: Glenn Wharton

What would Nam June Paik do? The question haunts us since he did not leave a clear roadmap for decision making in conserving his work. The decision about whether to display nonfunctioning laser-disc play decks will be made by curators and conservators in the future, as they continue to keep the media sculpture alive by retaining old technologies, hiding new technologies, and inevitably change the artwork.

Anthropologists tell us that objects develop social biographies as they accrue new meanings over time. A conservator would tell you that they have material biographies as well. I am reminded of a comment made by the late Stanley Eveling, “An object is a slow event.” Video sculptures must change materially over time as museum staff struggle to keep them operative. Their meanings inevitably change, as society brings new understanding to older technologies and older art forms. Retaining an artist’s vision for the work while managing change is at the core of our work in the Museum. I can’t help but think that Nam June Paik is giggling at our research and negotiation to keep the piano playing and the video rolling.

Nam June Paik. <em>Untitled.</em> 1993

Nam June Paik. Untitled. 1993. Player piano, 15 televisions, two cameras, two laser disc players, one electric light and light bulb, and wires, overall approx. 8′ 4″ x 8′ 9″ x 48″ (254 x 266.7 x 121.9 cm), including laser disc player and lamp. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Bernhill Fund, Gerald S. Elliot Fund, gift of Margot Paul Ernst, and purchase. © 2013 Estate of Nam June Paik