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.
Previous posts in ECPN’s EMG blog series include interviews with Yasmin Dessem, Alex Nichols, and Nick Kaplan. In this installment we hear from Brian Castriota, a conservator specialized in the conservation of time-based media and contemporary art. Brian holds a Master’s degree in Art History and a Certificate in Conservation from the Institute of Fine Arts at NYU where he graduated in 2014. He worked as a contract conservator for time-based media artworks at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and was a Samuel H. Kress Fellow in Time-Based Media Conservation at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. He is currently a Research Fellow in the Conservation of Contemporary Art at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and is pursuing a doctoral degree at the University of Glasgow within the research program “New Approaches in the Conservation of Contemporary Art” (NACCA) – a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Innovative Training Network.
ECPN: Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
Brian Castriota (BC): My name is Brian Castriota, I’m a conservator of time-based media and contemporary art. I’m currently working on a Ph.D. at the University of Glasgow within the EU-funded research initiative “New Approaches in the Conservation of Contemporary Art” (NACCA).
ECPN: How were you first introduced to conservation, and why did you decide to pursue conservation?
BC: Both of my parents are art historians and my mother worked as a museum curator and director for many years, first at Duke University and later Amherst College. I spent a lot of my childhood backstage in museum storage around artworks and artifacts from all periods, which I think was probably a very formative experience for me. Something resonated with me in the kinds of interactions I observed conservators have with museum objects, their unique expertise about the material fabric and production history of these objects, as well as their profound sense of responsibility in ensuring their continuity.
ECPN: Of all specializations, what contributed to your decision to pursue electronic media conservation?
BC: I think I have always felt a draw towards “obsolete” equipment, media and technologies; I was an avid record collector in my adolescence, studied color darkroom photography in college, and I have a small collection of vintage analog synthesizers. I first became aware of electronic media conservation as a sub-specialism of art conservation after starting in the conservation masters program at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts. Christine Frohnert was of course a big inspiration for me – her enthusiasm and passion for time-based media conservation was absolutely contagious, and she really gave me the confidence to pursue this pathway and specialization. Joanna Phillips was also instrumental in providing me with the practical training to become a time-based media conservator in my fourth-year internship and subsequent fellowship at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
ECPN: What has been your training pathway? Please list any universities, apprenticeships, technical experience, and any related jobs or hobbies.
BC: My training pathway has by no means been straight and narrow. I concentrated in studio arts at Sarah Lawrence College where I did my Bachelor’s degree. During my junior year abroad in Florence, Italy I took a year-long course on painting conservation which confirmed my interest in pursuing master’s-level training in conservation. Upon returning to New York I interned in the Photographs Conservation department of the Met for a summer. After I graduated from Sarah Lawrence in 2009 I worked for a paper conservator in private practice for a year while I completed the rest of my lab science requirements for grad school. During my time at the IFA I specialized in the conservation of objects and archaeological materials. I took every opportunity to work on their affiliated excavations, including three consecutive summers with the Harvard-Cornell Archaeological Exploration of Sardis, and NYU’s excavations at Selinunte and Abydos.
After taking Christine Frohnert’s seminar “Art With a Plug” in my third year I devoted my thesis research to examining the significance of CRT video projectors in Diana Thater’s early video installations. I then split my fourth year internship between the Artefacts Conservation section of the National Galleries of Scotland and the Time-Based Media Conservation Lab at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Upon graduating I was fortunate to work for a few months at the Smithsonian American Art Museum on their time-based media art collection, and afterwards returned to the Guggenheim for a Samuel H. Kress Fellowship in Time-Based Media Conservation before I started my Ph.D. at the University of Glasgow.
ECPN: Are there any particular skills that you feel are important or unique to your discipline?
BC: I find that time-based media art conservation requires a very unique combination of skills: a sound knowledge of modern and contemporary art history and conservation theory, a sensitivity for contemporary artistic working practices, a broad technical knowledge of historic and current audiovisual technologies, a knack for interfacing with many groups of people with diverse skillsets and backgrounds, and an ability to think critically and reflectively.
ECPN: What are some of your current projects, research, or interests?
BC: In my doctoral research I am taking a critical look at how contemporary conservation theory and practice grapple with works of art whose authenticity doesn’t inhere through a fixed or finite physical assemblage, or even a fixed set of rules, parameters, conditions, or properties. There are in existence works whose creation continues after the work is acquired by a museum, works whose rules or conditions change over time or are seen as being variable among stakeholders. This in turn leads to questions about how the continuity of the work’s authenticity can be ensured. I am developing a framework and language to characterize these phenomena and account for them in our practical workflows and protocols.
In conjunction with my doctoral research I am working part-time at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art where I wear two hats. As a researcher, I’ve been examining some of the theoretical and practical challenges posed by particular artworks in and entering the collection. Right now I’m working on an exhibition that includes a number of Susan Philipsz’s complex sound installations involving custom equipment and wireless transmission, which are serving as case studies. I’ve also been lending my expertise as a time-based media conservator to help review their collection care practices around their growing time-based media art collection. Following an initial collection survey and risk assessment we have begun backing-up and condition assessing audiovisual material in the collection, as well as revising and expanding documentation records and acquisition protocols for time-based media artworks.
ECPN: In your opinion, what is an important research area or need in your specialization?
BC: I think one that deserves a bit of focus is terminology. There are a lot of terms that we use in our field, not always with the most consensus about what we mean: emulation, replica, copy, version, authenticity, fidelity, iteration, just to name a few. Some of these terms are borrowed from or have particular lineages within academic discourses in philosophy, ethnography, performance studies, or computer science. In some cases these terms may also have particular meanings in particular industries. These terms also have colloquial usage and connotations. And these are just the English terms. Our field is so international, and there are many terms in other languages that do not have direct translations in English. I have joked for a while that we need to have a “Term Focus” conference – perhaps there will be one on the horizon!
ECPN: Do you have any advice for prospective emerging conservators who would like to pursue this specialization?
BC: Do it, because the need is certainly there. If you are pre-program, the Institute of Fine Arts has developed the first dedicated stream in time-based media conservation training in North America. Also be on the lookout for short Mellon-funded courses and workshops geared towards established conservators wishing to pursue greater specialization in time-based media. Attend digital archiving conferences and workshops, join the AMIA listserv, make use of some of the online resources like Code Academy to learn some programming languages, get a Raspberry Pi or a kit for building a little synth or a guitar pedal. The best way to understand the technical underpinnings of time-based and electronic media is to play around with some yourself. Make something!