Time-based media art is still a relative newcomer to art conservation practice. Even at institutions that have embraced the developing theory and practice of conserving time-based works limitations of space and resources can affect this emerging area more acutely than more established areas of conservation. In her presentation at the electronic media session of the AIC’s 43rd annual meeting, Joanna Phillips, associate conservator of contemporary art at the Guggenheim Museum, described how time-based media conservation has evolved within the environment of the Guggenheim, culminating in the recent establishment of a lab devoted to this work. Phillips, who joined the Museum in 2008 and whose contributions to the development of conservation for time-based works includes publications and the organizing of the AIC-sponsored “Tech Focus” conferences of 2010 and 2015, described the new lab as a cross-disciplinary hub that integrates this practice within the larger mission of the Museum and its constituent departments.
Previous to the establishment of the lab the Guggenheim Museum had no permanent space allotted to conserving time-based works. Conservation was achieved on a fluid and ad hoc basis that utilized existing lab facilities, screening equipment and staging areas via coordination with the Museum’s audiovisual technicians and conservators. A movable cart of electronic devices for screening time-based works was assembled so that any space within the conservation and media departments could be used as a staging area for viewing and documenting works. While this arrangement allowed the conservation staff to optimize the use of existing facilities, the cart was a less than ideal solution. And with such limited real estate available to stage time-based works, conservation might also necessarily be conducted in the exhibition space during installation and, hence, was subject to the strictures of the installation timeline. Time-based media art conservation evolved at the Guggenheim through the coordination and flexibility of conservation and technical staff, but the situation posed many disadvantages. Troubleshooting conservation measures under the time crunch of installing exhibitions incurred additional costs and threatened to impact the integrity of the works’ exhibition where compromises were necessary. The existing lab facilities were not built to accommodate the special needs of time-based works and the necessity of constantly relocating equipment and components to whatever space was available hindered the development of documentation and workflows.
The establishment of the time-based media lab addresses the inadequacies of the ‘floating’ media lab that preceded it. The lab is equipped with screening equipment for previewing works. An interchangeable space is devoted to performing mockups of installation equipment, allowing conservators to make side-by-side comparisons of equipment performance to determine the best display method.In this new setting formalized methods for containing and tracking media components have been implemented to differentiate works that may exist simply on a nondescript flash drive and safeguards such as write-blockers have been installed to ensure that the integrity of digital objects is not disturbed during treatment. This devoted space also affords more space and time for creating richer iteration reports regarding the performance of these works and allows for a fuller investigation of custom-built electronics.
Phillips emphasized that, more than simply an amelioration of past inadequacies, the time-based media conservation lab presents opportunities that extend beyond lab work to engage other museum staff and researchers in a groundbreaking way. Describing the lab as a cross-disciplinary hub, she explained that researchers, curators and education staff are invited to engage with works in an authentic way that was previously limited to fleeting exhibition installations. The staging area can also facilitate artist interviews to establish which components and aesthetic features are most integral to a work’s integrity, and how the work might be treated without disturbing its authenticity.
The development of conservation documentation can enrich curator’s and audience’s understanding of the works and their creators which, when shared with audiences outside of the lab, builds awareness of the unique properties of time-based works and the challenges they present to conservators. By interfacing with development and education staffs the lab further increases the profile of time-based works and their conservation, enriching the Museum’s exhibitions and resources.
The time-based media conservation lab itself is a signal of time-based media’s increasing integration within the Guggenheim’s mission, one that opens opportunities for conservators and other museum staff to engage with these works in ways that were much inhibited in its previous time- and space-bound state. And as a cross-disciplinary hub the lab affords a new platform for sharing the development of this emerging practice within the Museum and beyond.