Carmen Winant’s My Birth, a collection of approximately 2,000 prints, photographs, and newspaper clippings depicting pregnancy and childbirth, appeared in last year’s New Photography exhibition. The images are taped up together, blanketing two walls from ceiling to floor. But unlike the standard frames and meticulous devices that might normally house and hang photographs at a museum, Winant chose blue painter’s tape to assemble and affix her work to MoMA’s walls.
What does blue tape, typically used to prepare and paint galleries for exhibitions rather than in artworks themselves, signify for the artist, and for the team tasked with conserving this work? In our latest Materials article, in which we explore the unexpected or unconventional building blocks of art, we asked Winant over email to discuss her choice, and we spoke to conservators Krista Lough and Erika Mosier, who led the extensive effort to remove it from the printed images after the exhibition closed.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity.
Why blue tape? Where do you get it from?
Carmen Winant: I go through rolls of that tape a week in the studio. It is standard painter’s tape, which I buy in my local hardware store, and can be bought in any hardware store (where I buy the majority of my supplies). I use it in my work for the same reason I use it in the studio: it holds images up. It is made to be quite adhesive, and also to peel off surfaces easily, and without residue. I discovered a long time ago that I needed to be able to see as many images at once—rather than having them all tucked away in drawers—and this was the system I arrived at. I probably borrowed it from other artists’ studios. The tape is a practical solution, in other words, but it also references productive labor of all kinds.
My Birth on view in MoMA’s Being: New Photography 2018 exhibition
Can you explain how and when you use blue tape in your work at large, and in My Birth specifically?
CW: For years, I removed the blue tape as work left my studio and went into the world; I feared that it looked too clumsy and unsophisticated. I think I was worried about appearing too “crafty,” which retrospectively I understand to mean “feminine” (inculcated sexism is not so easy to overcome). It took me a long time to figure out that this—the feeling of urgency, the energy that attends experimentation and impermanence—was actually the most vital component of the work. Or at least, a critical complement to the content of the images. It remains hand-ripped for this same reason, each piece, rather than cut, which is faithful to studio life. To your question specifically: as I dealt with thousands of images depicting birth, I felt, now more than ever, I need to show process as work. I need to show the mess, the system, the skin of the thing.
Can you talk a little about all the materials that make up My Birth and how they go together?
CW: I sourced the material over the course of many months—about nine months, as funny as that now sounds—without the clearest sense of how they would live in the gallery. As ever, I used blue tape, on their fronts and backs, to move them around the walls, maneuvering them from day to day. The tape became a part of the work in this way: I rarely saw the images without it. In fact, I was working with an assistant at the time who used to tell me that he dreamt of blue tape, so great was his daily contact with it (poor guy).
In a compositional sense, it also helps to score the work, as you might in ceramics. It is critical that the installation read as a cohesive (if explosive) single unit, rather than a series of photographs. I am really mindful in installing to create arrangements that allow the eye to be in perpetual motion, never stuck in any one place. The tape helps to this end; it vibrates the images, it moves the gaze.
Video by Rose Liu
From a conservation perspective, can you speak a little bit about My Birth and when you realized you’d be taking on this project?
Krista Lough: The first time I became aware of My Birth was when it was being installed in the galleries by the artist. Just before the exhibition closed, we learned that the work might be acquired by the Museum, so we had to swiftly make a plan for addressing the massive amount of tape which was used in the installation. We had four days to get it off the wall.
Erika Mosier: We quickly realized that tape removal of any sort was not possible during deinstallation. That’s how we came up with the box and the silicone-release Mylar sheets to transport the work. The tape doesn’t stick to the Mylar, so it can easily be removed again later. We would put a Mylar sheet down, fill it up with the parts, put another sheet down, fill it up. Once all the sheets in a box were filled with images, we’d start a new box. So, that works very well.
KL: I think one of the things that makes this piece really challenging is that it’s not just photographs. It is printed material from a wide variety of sources. There are artists that sometimes use tape to install their prints to the wall. What’s complicated in Winant’s project is that some of its papers are degraded newsprint or pieces from books or magazines, and it’s not straightforward to remove the tape from those objects.
EM: The papers respond differently with the adhesive of the tape, which was very interesting. We hadn’t really anticipated this, but once we started doing some removal tests, we realized papers that are filled with pigment, like magazine papers—the clays in them actually imbibe components of the adhesive and become transparent.
Does the age of the paper affect how the tape reacts to it?
EM: Definitely. Especially for the newspapers, because they become so brown and brittle. It’s much more fragile when we’re trying to do anything with it.
KL: For example, if we try to remove this tape, it would just rip a hole right through this piece.
Is blue tape easier to remove than other types of tape?
KL: Blue tape is an acrylic-based adhesive. Some other pressure sensitive tapes use a rubber-based adhesive. The bond on acrylic-based adhesives increases with time, so the longer you leave it on an object, the harder it is to remove. In rubber based-tape, there’s an induction period of around one and a half to two years, and then it starts degrading. So, I would say for a short-term use of tape, maybe a rubber-based tape would be a little easier to use.
EM: Blue tape is meant for finishing painted lines, and not meant to be left on for any length of time. I will say that one advantage to acrylic adhesive over rubber-based is that when it’s on paper long-term, it’s not going to discolor the way a rubber-based tape is. We actually decided to leave tape on some of the photographs and papers for many reasons. It will not stain like rubber. When you see tape stains that are yellowing and crusty, that’s a rubber-based tape. This isn’t going to do the same thing if left on for years and years.
Photo: Rose Liu
When you come across works on paper or photographs that are torn in other conservation projects, do you tape those or are there different, preferred methods of adhesion?
EM: We never use tape. There is not a manufactured, pressure-sensitive tape out in the world that we would recommend people use or say they should even consider using.
KL: We often use a Japanese tissue, which is a high-quality, very long-fibered paper and wheat starch paste, which we make and mix up ourselves. We control the ingredients that we’re using to make our own mending tissue.
EM: But if we want something like a pressure sensitive tape, we can make that ourselves with adhesives that are available for conservation purposes. So, we could take Japanese paper and use an acrylic-based adhesive. We can brush that on, let that dry, and it acts like a tape with conservation-approved ingredients.
How long did it take for you to finish this project?
KL: After the work was formally acquired, we had to figure out what we were going to do and test different things, and that took a while. I think that initially, even we were totally unaware of how complicated this process would be, but we knew it was essential. It’s taken months to actually remove the tape we wanted to, and we did it as a group.
We’d do a day a week, every other week. I think we did 12 days total with three people, so that’s really 36 days. We can’t do it too many times in a row because doing this type of repetitive action is really challenging for your hands.
EM: For your everything! I would get up every half hour and just walk around the room. Cutting all day for eight hours is not something you should be doing many days in a row. We need our hands for our jobs so we don’t want to stress them out.
What kind of tests did you conduct?
EM: We had decided that our course of action would be to remove the tape where it was actually staining the filled papers. But then we were thinking, “We’ve got to put this up again sometime. How are we going to do that?” Considering the amount of time it took to remove the tape and that we needed a way to go forward in the future, we decided that we would actually reduce the tape to be just a barrier.
KL: We cut off the sticky part and left part of the piece as a barrier. In the future we can put tape on that and peel it off easily because it’s not on the paper.
Each of the images are numbered. How did you approach numbering them?
KL: The numbering was done by Tasha Lutek, who is the Museum’s Photography collections specialist. Basically, we kept these in the order the work was installed in this exhibition, and divided by sections. We deinstalled the pieces from the entire top section of one wall, to the middle section of one wall, then the bottom section of one wall. They’re numbered top to bottom, wall one, and then wall two. Apart from that, it’s kind of arbitrary within that section.
EM: It seems like in the future, the images do not need to be installed in the same order or on the same length walls. We might not have two walls in the future.
Erika Mosier and Krista Lough. Photo: Rose Liu
What have you learned from this process?
KL: In conservation, we have a code of ethics, and we try to be very true to it. The code sets forth the principles that guide conservation professionals. It includes the tenet that all actions of the conservation professional must be governed by an informed respect for cultural property, its unique character and significance, and the people or person who created it. In terms of installing works in the future, it’s a good idea for us to be able to communicate with many people—including artists, curators, art handlers—and really get everyone involved so we can make sure that we can care for the work when it’s on our walls and when it’s removed. We want to make sure we are being true and careful with all of the objects in the museum.
Is there anything else that you found particularly challenging or exciting about this project?
KL: Winant talks a lot about how she felt that people didn’t really ask her about her experience giving birth. She wanted to do a project to encourage a discussion. While I’ve been working on this project, many people have told me, unsolicited, about their birth experiences, which was really surprising to me. I would describe the project and people would say, “Oh, well let me tell you about this.” The artist succeeded in getting people to talk about this subject, in my experience, and it probably happened in the galleries, too, while My Birth was on view.
Does tape’s use take on different meanings depending on where the work is installed?
CW: Like anything, work and its constituent parts shift with and between contexts. In the US, blue tape belongs to the country of home improvement and its labor. It was invented by 3M for autoworkers (for the same reason I now use it: it is both sticky and gentle, not to mention cheap) and is most commonly used by house painters for masking. I sometimes see it used to hold broken window panes in place, and so on; this is tethered to social class, to work, to the households we strive to maintain. I’m certain this meaning would shift with place and in time.