Preservation and Documentation of Time-Based Media Art at the Reykjavík Art Museum

Sigga Regína Sigurthorsdottir and Edda Halldorsdottir
Electronic Media Review, Volume Six: 2019-2020


In recent years, the Reykjavík Art Museum has been establishing new workflows and improving documentation regarding electronic and time-based media art in the museum’s collection. The process was jump started with the exhibition project titled Bout (Hrina) in 2017, where the majority of the 75 time-based media artworks in the collection were exhibited. The museum had identified gaps in the documentation of its time-based media art and so the project was conceived as a response. The installation of these pieces provided an opportunity to examine these gaps further and address them with assistance from the artists.

A series of public artist interviews were conducted by conservation, collection, and curatorial staff as part of the project, and the documentation for the works profoundly grew. Using the setting of a public interview to address the museum’s documentation and the artists’ priorities and intent provided an opportunity to engage the public and simultaneously harness their interest during the sessions. In some cases, the artists could even look to members of the audience when memory failed regarding some specifics in dates and technology.

Audience questions provided an insight into the pieces’ reception and generated a further dialogue. This summer, the institution continued the project with the Icelandic Rannís innovation and research grant. A researcher was hired to perform a survey of the time-based media artworks in the collection, assess the storage conditions specific to the media, and bring documentation from the Bout exhibition into context with findings from the survey.

The specific needs of various media formats were addressed, as well as the more theoretical grounding for various preservation practices, which were different for every piece following the artists’ intent and the requirements of the media. One example of a piece from the collection examined as a part of the survey was Steina Vasulka’s Tokyo Four, a multiscreen moving image piece originally projected from LaserDiscs but currently stored and projected using Blu-ray discs. The transfer and display of this piece on a new media, as well as the storage on a format not intended for preservation, bring up a bounty of questions regarding the nature of the original, the digital display taking over from analog (LaserDiscs are an analog medium), the issues brought on by technological development, and the importance of documentation that deals with all of these issues.

This is just one example of the many interesting cases found in the collection. The collection can always be examined more thoroughly, and striving to meet individual pieces’ needs takes evaluation and reevaluation, interpretation and reinterpretation, and installation and reinstallation. In this presentation, we will discuss the results of the survey, as well as the results of the reinstallation and artist interviews conducted as a part of Bout, delving into how the public became engaged in the ongoing preservation research for the collection, the steps already taken, and the work yet to be done for the collection.