45th Annual Meeting, Electronic Media, “The Ballad of Little Bill: Collaboration in Time-Based Media Conservation,” Ariel O’Connor and Daniel Finn

In the abstract for their paper, Ariel O’Connor, Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) objects conservator, and Dan Finn, SAAM media conservator, write that this presentation “aims to present a case study that is exemplary of the wide range of expertise that time-based media conservation can require, and the collaborative approach that it necessitates.” Their talk certainly demonstrates this, as it presents a myriad of challenges, from documentation tasks and working with living artists, to what to do when a massive cable failure occurs just minutes before the museum director is coming to see the work in action.

The paper discusses the kinetic sculpture titled “the willful marionette,” by Brooklyn-based artists Lilla LoCurto and Bill Outcault, and the piece incorporates sculpture (a 3-D printed, blue poly(lactic acid) biodegradable plastic marionette with strings made of fishing line), software (Puppet Master), and electronics. The custom software is designed to interact with its audience, responding in real time to recognizable human gestures with gestures of its own. Meet the artists and get a glimpse of the marionette, affectionately named Little Bill, in this short video.

O’Connor and Finn outline the documentation process they employ at SAAM, making us all realize how incredibly detail-oriented the documentation of time-based media works really needs to be. This includes a testing and acceptance report, an identity report, various iteration reports, documentation photographs, artist interviews, copious notes, and organization and storage of all files, such as the STL files that can be used to reprint the sculpture in the future, if need be.

The authors candidly recount stories about working with this exciting and challenging piece and getting it ready for the museum director to review. For instance, an issue with Little Bill not blinking properly was fixed by the good old “CTRL-ALT-DEL” method. But when the 80-lb. line that mainly held up the sculpture spontaneously snapped, they had to be resourceful and quick-on-their feet, looking to the facilities crew for the right tools needed to remedy the situation.

Future challenges for this work are similar to many time-based media works, including what will happen to the proprietary software that Little Bill is operated on, as well as storage considerations for the plastic sculpture itself.