Electronic Media Group Session, Determining the Status and Replaceability of Technical Equipment in Electronic Art

Joanna Phillips’ fascinating presentation explored the different ways in which museums must look at objects that have moved from being purely functional to being inherent parts of an artwork: electronic display equipment.

From the 1960s onward, artists created moving-image and sound works that were dependent on current technology for their display in the museum. Once that technology becomes obsolete, however, conservators face a choice: maintain old equipment of often-dubious functionality, or migrate the work to new technology that may not have been available to the artist at the time of creation. Critical to this decision: determining whether equipment is merely an accessory to the artwork – something akin to a pedastal or a vitrine – or an essential component of the work.

Phillip, conservator for time-based art at the Guggenheim Museum laid out the ways in which playback equipment can change over time from accessory to essential component. The Guggenheim, like many museums, maintains a pool of video playback and display equipment that can be used for multiple works: one DLP projector, for example, could be suitable for any number of projected video works. But as equipment becomes obsolete, what was once common and easily available technology becomes rare and difficult to obtain. When this happens, equipment that is critical to maintaining an artist’s vision of a work may be assigned to a specific artwork to insure that it will be available for that work’s display in the future.

The most striking example given by Phillips is a video installation by Marina Abramovic, Cleaning the Mirror I (1995). The piece consists of five video channels played back on a stack five color cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors. When the piece was created, CRT monitors were common and plentiful. The artist did not require specific sizes or models for the monitors, only describing their approximate size and appearance. The technology was so commonplace that further specificity didn’t seem important.

Within the last few years, however, CRTs have become almost completely obsolete, and are increasingly difficult to obtain. New monitors using LCD or plasma technology have a completely different aspect ratio – 16:9 vs. 4:3 – that would change completely the appearance of the work (anyone who has suffered through an old movie that has been “stretched” to fill a 16:9 monitor understands the damage this change could cause to a video artwork.)

Phillips laid out the detective work necessary to find five monitors suitable for installing Cleaning the Mirror I, and the complex technical process required to bring them up to optimum performance. These five monitors will now be dedicated to the work, insuring that it can be displayed according to the artist’s specifications – for now. But as Phillips pointed out, these monitors can only be maintained for so long.

She also described an early work by Korean-American artist Nam June Paik – Random Access (1963/1999) which consists of strips of ¼” analog audiotape glued to a wall. Nearby is a modified audiotape playback deck with a detachable head. Philips also described an early work by Korean-American artist Nam June Paik – Random Access, (1963/1999) which consists of strips of ¼” analog audiotape glued to a wall. Nearby is a modified audiotape playback deck with a detachable had. Viewers can run the playback head over the tape to hear what’s on it. As with Abramovic’s CRT monitors, Paik’s analog audiotapes were extremely common technology when the work was created. Today, however, the equipment is extremely difficult to come by.

Complicating the conservation history of the work is the fact that the modified deck that the Guggenheim acquired with the work was actually modified by Paik’s studio (as opposed to Abramovic’s monitors, with which the artist had had no direct content.) Phillips explained the categories that the Guggenheim assigns to its equipment: “Artist-provided,” “Artist-approved,” or “artist-specified.” Paik’s audiotape deck falls into the first category. Phillips highlighted the peculiarities of the deck in question: it had been crudely modified by the artist or his studio – at one point, when electronic circuitry needed to be replaced, rather than unscrew and open the deck, someone knocked a hole in the back and hot-glued in the required capacitors. The clear hand of the artist and his collaborators marks this particular piece of equipment as an essential part of the work.