Media conservation is responsible for the audio, 35mm slide, performance, software, video, and film-based artworks in MoMA’s collection, caring for them in collaboration with colleagues across the Museum’s departments including Audio Visual, Curatorial, Information Technology, and Registrar. The first conservation position at MoMA was created in 1959 for a paintings conservator, and since then the Conservation Department has evolved to include specialists in sculpture, paper, photography, conservation science, and most recently media, in 2007.
By their nature, media-based works rely on technology for creation and exhibition. Today we are all too aware of its rapid changes that make these works inherently fragile or at least unstable, and their long-term preservation problematic. The core role of media conservation is to help manage these changes over time while respecting the artist’s intent. Although no artwork is ever the same and an artist’s opinion can differ from one work to another, conservators working with these complex objects have over the last two decades devised broad strategies to tackle the challenges of these works.
Today, when a newly acquired media-based work arrives at the Museum, most commonly what we receive in the “box” is some type of media carrier (external hard drive, tape, optical disc), a certificate, and a set of installation instructions. In the case of Ten Thousand Waves (2010) by Isaac Julien, an epic nine-channel video work, we simply received two 8-terabyte hard drives at acquisition. In short we receive the essence of the work.
As conservators it is our job to take these raw ingredients and ensure that not only are they fresh and in good condition, but also, to extend the metaphor, that they perform as expected when thrown into the pot at exhibition time.
Broadly speaking there are three main strands to our approach. Starting with the tangible media element we gather as much contextual information as possible, such as how it was created, recorded, produced, or programmed. Then we carefully watch and listen to the entire duration of each media element. Once these have been assessed and documented, like any collection work, appropriate storage conditions are required.
Second, we review the installation guidelines, which outline how the media and the artist’s intent should be translated and realized through display equipment in the gallery space.
The display equipment is no less important than the media, and for some works the equipment also functions as sculpture, as in Berlin Startup Case Mod: Rocket Internet (2014) by Simon Denny. Here the artist incorporates a 40” LED flat screen monitor, specifically the UE40F6500 model manufactured by Samsung.
Older and contemporary works often employ “vintage” technology such as Sorry (2005–12) by Luther Price consisting of 80 handmade transparencies displayed with a 35mm slide projector.
There are also works where the technology is not noticeable to the casual viewer, but the artist may for example have specified that the video be projected with a cathode ray tube projector, an obsolete piece of equipment which can only be supported as long as supplies last. This is the case for Deadpan (1997) by Steve McQueen. Understanding the fundamentals of technology, its historical context, how it works, troubleshooting, maintenance, and storage of the equipment—all these challenges sit alongside the preservation of the actual media.
Recently I was struck by a comment made by my colleague Lynda Zycherman, a sculpture conservator at MoMA, during a talk she gave about a series of sculptures by Pablo Picasso, one of which is in MoMA’s collection entitled Glass of Absinthe (1914). Art historical research and scientific analysis had helped to unlock clues regarding the sculptures’ original state, materials, and construction. But one question remained: Which bronze-casting foundry had produced them? Lynda exclaimed, “If only the artist was still alive I could just ask him!” Since the majority of media-based works in MoMA’s collection are contemporary, we in Media Conservation are in the fortunate position of being able to do exactly that most of the time, and a significant part of the job involves communicating with artists and their representatives. In this sense, we work in reverse and attempt to anticipate such questions by de-constructing, researching, and documenting as much as we can now in order to save future colleagues from the frustration that Lynda described. This is our third angle. It is of course futile to imagine that every aspect of every work can be fully documented, but records of e-mail correspondence, telephone calls, and conservation-based interviews with the artists themselves play a central role in our efforts to maintain the integrity of their art. Media works are complex and multifaceted and it is the sum of these different strands, together with the voice of the artist, which enable us to maintain their authenticity now and into the future.
Interested to discover more? This is the first of four blog posts looking at the work of Media Conservation, which over the coming weeks will look in detail at some of our activities including the migration of tape-based works to digital video files by Assistant Media Conservator Peter Oleksik, and the design and build of our digital art vault, by Digital Repository Manager Ben Fino-Radin. Stay tuned!
In the meantime, here are some links for additional information on media conservation:
Matters in Media Art
Time-Based Media Conservation at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
Electronic Media Group of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works