43rd Annual Meeting, Electronic Media and Objects Joint Session, Co-Organized by Voices in Contemporary Art (VoCA), May 14, “Beyond the Interview: Working with Artists in Time-based Media Conservation,” Kate Lewis

Kate Lewis, Media Conservator at the Museum of Modern Art, spoke about communicating with artists, a daily practice for time-based media conservators. Time-based media art is inherently dynamic and its conservation requires ongoing collaboration throughout the life-cycle of a piece. Gathering information from an artist is a cumulative process, with opportunities for both formal and informal conversations at multiple stages, from acquisition to condition checking to installation.
The first opportunity for conservators to communicate with the artist is at the point of acquisition. This is a chance to gather information about the media production history and specifications for the technology needed to show the piece. Initial contact generally happens via email; for efficiency and consistency, Lewis has a standard set of questions that she sends to artists.
The next point at which communication with artists happens is during the condition checking phase. This is when all of the media in the piece are examined to ensure that the necessary files and equipment are present and working properly. Gathering information at this point can be a challenge; artists are often busy and may feel rushed, especially if they don’t fully understand the more technical concerns.
It is often at the installation stage that museum staff conducts a formal artist interview. Installation is the first time the staff has a chance to experience the art, and it’s at this point when final tweaking of volume settings and other technical details happens. There are so many people involved and there are many conversations happening between museum staff and the artist, that capturing important snippets of information can be tricky. Lewis likes to audio record whenever possible, in addition to taking notes, and then follows up with more formal questions later on. Post-installation is often the ideal moment for more in-depth conversations with the artist.
Lewis spoke to the importance of revisiting questions with the artist multiple times. A cumulative approach is inevitable, given time-constraints and the nature of these interactions, but it also affords an important opportunity to develop trust and empathy for the artist and the piece. It can take a while to get the artists away from their canned “spiel.” It can also take time for conservators and other museum staff to understand and appreciate, even if they don’t agree with, an artist’s point of view.
Some artists are elusive but exert a lot of influence over their work. Lewis talked about a few artists she’s worked with whose pieces have very specific technological requirements that will face obsolescence in the not-too-distant future, and an unwillingness (at least at this point) on the part of the artists to discuss hardware, software, or format alternatives. Lewis and others in the room speculated that artists don’t always want to talk about how components of their work might change; they might be resistant so that things won’t be changed too soon, forcing conservators to work a little harder to keep as faithful to the original for as long as possible.
Lewis made the interesting point that time-based media art is so new and dynamic that we’re still determining what counts as “patina” for these works; ongoing conversations with artists help us figure out what elements may be altered or replaced and what must be saved in order to retain the authenticity and integrity of the piece.