ECPN Interviews: Electronic Media Conservation with Nick Kaplan

To promote awareness and a clearer understanding of different pathways into specializations that require particular training, the Emerging Conservation Professionals Network (ECPN) is conducting a series of interviews with conservation professionals in these specialties. We kicked off the series with Chinese and Japanese painting conservation, and now we are focusing on practitioners in AIC’s Electronic Media Group (EMG). These conservators work with time-based media, which can include moving components, performance, light or sound elements, film and video, analog or born-digital materials. We’ve asked our interviewees to share some thoughts about their career paths, which we hope will inspire new conservation professionals and provide valuable insight into these areas of our professional field.

In our first interview from the EMG series, we spoke with Nick Kaplan, a graduate fellow in the Winterthur/University of Delaware class of 2019. Nick is pursuing a major in objects conservation and has a special interest in electronic media conservation.

ECPN: Please tell us a little bit about yourself.

Nicholas Kaplan (NK): I have just begun my second year as a graduate student in the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation where I am pursuing a major in objects conservation and a minor in preventive conservation. In 2009, I received my BFA with a concentration in sculpture from Washington University in St. Louis. Between 2009 and the start of my graduate education, I worked as an intern and held various positions at The National Archives and Records Administration, Art Conservation and Restoration LLC., and the Smithsonian Institution’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden respectively.

Nicholas Kaplan, graduate fellow in the Winterthur/University of Delaware class of 2019.
Nicholas Kaplan, graduate fellow in the Winterthur/University of Delaware class of 2019.

ECPN: How were you first introduced to conservation, and why did you decide to pursue conservation? 

NK: I was first introduced to the field of conservation by my high school chemistry teacher. I didn’t think about it too much at that time, but then a few of my undergraduate professors reiterated the idea of pursuing a career in conservation. I had been studying fine art and chemistry independently up to that point. Despite my love of art, I think I knew that I didn’t really want to pursue it professionally. As I began to look in to art conservation more seriously, it became apparent that it was a good blend of my interests. So, I tailored my remaining time as an undergraduate toward the aim of attending one of the graduate programs in art conservation.

ECPN: Of all specializations, what contributed to your decision to pursue electronic or time-based media conservation?

NK:  When I began my pursuit of a career in conservation, I hadn’t actually heard of electronic media conservation as a unique specialty, and I had planned to focus on the conservation of contemporary art more generally. Modern and contemporary art has long been my favorite area of study, and its conservation seemed to present the most diverse range of areas for exploration. The number of unanswered and perhaps unanswerable questions appealed to me, as did the ethical and philosophical considerations of an artwork’s conceptual nature versus the material reality of its constituents. When I was introduced to the specialty of electronic media conservation, the issues that had initially drawn me to contemporary art conservation became magnified. The phrase “time-based media,” denoting a particular artistic genre, was also new to me, but it quickly became apparent that all of my own artwork fell solidly into this category. So, given my interests and previous familiarity with the materials and media, specializing in electronic media conservation seemed a very natural fit.

Image of Nick Kaplan conserving a computer that is part of the artwork, Neither There Nor There (2005), by Siebren Versteeg. [Photo: Alexandra Nichols, courtesy of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institute]
Image of Nick Kaplan conserving a computer that is part of the artwork Neither There Nor There (2005) by Siebren Versteeg [Photo: Alexandra Nichols, courtesy of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden]
ECPN: What has been your training pathway? Please list any universities, apprenticeships, technical experience, and any related jobs or hobbies.

NK:  As an undergraduate in the Sam Fox School of Art and Design at Washington University in St. Louis, I took classes in video production, circuit design and fabrication, and the use and manipulation of A/V feeds and playback equipment. At the time, all of that was geared toward my own artistic practice, which I continue to pursue independently. When I began to enter the conservation field, however, I was incredibly fortunate to get a position at the Smithsonian Institution’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden where I began as a pre-program intern in the conservation department. I was eventually hired as the Collections Assistant in the museum’s collections management department. While I was there, Gwynne Ryan, now chief conservator, enthusiastically encouraged my participation in the museum’s artist interview program, its internal time-based media team, and the Smithsonian Institution’s time-based media   working group. Thus, I was able to take part in workshops, learn tools for media analysis and playback equipment from experts, and work with colleagues across the Hirshhorn Museum and the Smithsonian Institution.

This helped me to build a comprehensive understanding of the various considerations surrounding the conservation of electronic media. Now as a graduate student in the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, my advisors and instructors are very supportive of my decision to pursue electronic media conservation and have helped me to hone my education through independent studies and specialized projects. I have also had the opportunity to work with Christine Frohnert and Reinhard Bek as an intern at Bek & Frohnert LLC.

ECPN: Are there any particular skills that you feel are important or unique to your discipline?

NK: Like any conservation specialization, I think it’s important to have a familiarity with the material and media of the works being treated. For electronic media the specific information that might be important to familiarize oneself with can range from physical media to various coding languages to formats, codecs, and color spaces, as well as hardware and playback equipment. The list could go on and on, but I don’t think it is necessary to have an encyclopedic knowledge of all the video formats that have ever existed, for example. I think it is more helpful to look at these all as systems and be familiar with the parameters, their relationships, and how they come to define specific characteristics or aspects of a particular work. I also think it is important to be familiar with the tools and safeguards of examination. Again, these can vary but the list might include write blockers, checksums, activity logs, programs for metadata extraction, analog and digital scopes, multimeters, and imaging tools.

I think that possibly one of the most important things when working with electronic media is knowing the limits of your own knowledge and being comfortable reaching out to professionals in related fields to ask for help and advice. Given the breadth of materials that fall under the umbrella of electronic media and the speed with which that material changes, there will always be people who are more familiar and knowledgeable about particular areas. This may include professionals in IT, cyber security, video production, exhibitions, the library and archives community, electrical engineers, and other areas of computer science. I think it’s crucial that the conservation community be able to engage with people outside our field to draw on their expertise and the resources allied professionals can provide.

Image of Nick Kaplan and colleague evaluating Horizontal by artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila. [Photo: Andrew Doucette, courtesy of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garnden, Smithsonian Institute]
Image of Nick Kaplan and colleague evaluating Horizontal by artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila. [Photo: Andrew Doucette, courtesy of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden]
ECPN: What are some of your current projects, research, or interests?

NK: Recently, I have become increasingly interested in exploring processor-based control systems as well as 3D printing software and technology. I am also interested to see how consideration for the materiality of legacy equipment and components becomes increasingly relevant in the face of obsolescence. Obsolescence is obviously an ongoing concern for the conservation of electronic media. As stockpiles of replacement equipment are depleted I see more treatment focusing on the retention of as much of the original equipment as possible with a focus on the inherent aesthetic qualities that anchor this equipment to particular moments in history. I hope to pursue research in this area with a focus on CRT monitors in the near future.

ECPN: In your opinion, what is an important research area or need in your specialization?

NK: Electronic media conservation is, in my opinion, still in the early stages of development, and there are any number of avenues for future in-depth research. One such that caught my attention recently had to do with the consideration of artwork that exists on social media platforms. I also think that with the increasing availability of things like virtual reality (VR) technology, which have given rise to more interactive pieces, it will be important to focus research and preservation efforts on aspects of designed user experiences.

ECPN: Do you have any advice for prospective emerging conservators who would like to pursue this specialization?

NK: I would recommend that emerging conservators interested in pursuing electronic media conservation not be daunted by the scope of knowledge and information that may be relevant. I would encourage them to try and gain as broad of an understanding of the types of media and materials as possible from inside the conservation field but also through practical experience working with the medium. A large portion of my knowledge of electronic media came out of my interest in learning how to make it. I would suggest that people try writing a program, assembling a controller, or shooting, editing, and producing a video. It doesn’t necessarily have to be focused on conservation but just as a way to build a foundation of knowledge of how these things actually work.