Monuments in Time: An Analysis of Conceptual Tensions in Media Installations

Dan Finn
Electronic Media Review, Volume Six: 2019-2020


2017 and 2018 saw the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) engage in long-term conservation projects for two of the most iconic artworks in its collection of time-based media art. A years-long collaborative effort between museum staff, the artist’s studio, and a fabrication firm drove the deinstallation, refabrication, and 2018 reinstallation of For SAAM (2007), by Jenny Holzer (b. 1950). Aging and failure in the 29-foot-tall, site-specific sculpture’s light-emitting diodes necessitated replacement of the 61,200 diodes as well as the custom hardware and software that animate them. The early 2018 deinstallation of the massive video wall Megatron/Matrix (1995), by Nam June Paik (1932–2006), prompted months of documentation, including analysis, documentation, and risk assessment of the work’s video-processing systems that manipulate eight video channels in real time.

In both artworks, conservation treatments have included replacing elements of the underlying technology. As the media conservation field develops, practitioners have developed methodologies for evaluating the ethicality of these fraught decisions. Stakeholders identify work-defining properties to assemble an artwork’s overarching identity, assessing treatments and exhibitions based on whether these properties persist. However, the relative significance of any given property can potentially shift depending on the conceptual framework one uses to understand the artwork. The artworks mentioned here are examples of computer-based art, but also of conceptual art, sculpture, video art, etc. This article analyzes case studies in which the significance of certain properties shifted depending on the lens through which one assessed them. As time-based media artworks necessarily evolve, collecting institutions must accept responsibility for continuing change and record the rationale behind their decision-making. Thorough documentation and collaborative assessment ensure that an artwork’s evolution ethically reflects its significant conceptual properties and physical materiality.


Dan Finn
Conservator, Time-based Media
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC