Conserving and Exhibiting the Works of Nam June Paik Symposium: Talk with Curator Michael Mansfield and Conservator Hugh Shockey
Hugh Shockey is an objects conservator in the Lunder Conservation Center of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where he performs treatment on electronic media and modern and contemporary works, in addition to the vast variety of materials in American Art’s collection. He is a graduate of the Winterthur/University of Delaware program in art conservation, and is past president of the Washington Conservation Guild. He has worked in the collections of the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Park Service, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Elvis Presley’s Graceland. I’ll leave it to you both.
MICHAEL MANSFIELD: Great. Welcome, thank you very much. This is a real privilege for me to be able to geek out on some of this stuff with you. I want to give a brief overview of the film and media arts initiative here at the museum, because I think it goes a long way to describing how we handled the installation of this exhibition, and then I’m going to talk a little bit about the installation of “Global Visionary” and some of the challenges that we faced in organizing the exhibition space and developing the program that we have for exhibiting and maintaining the artworks. And I will transition a bit into some of the individual pieces, specifically in the archive and my collaboration with Hugh Shockey and our conservators here on staff in preparing pieces for exhibition and how we handled some of the various problems that we’ve had over the course of the exhibition. And by problems, I mean challenges. Sorry. And then I’m going to talk about one of the pieces in our permanent collection that has been a real point of interest for me, which I think will give you some sort of insight into how we handle this kind of thing.
But I will start with a picture of our “Watch This!” exhibition space. The museum underwent an extensive renovation in 2000, was closed for about six years, and in 2006 it reopened and the renovation included a great deal of electrical work and fiberoptic running and that sort of thing, and really gave us a fairly decent foundation to work from in establishing a media arts program, because as you all know, exhibiting this material can be kind of difficult. And under John’s guidance, after his arrival, we began collecting really in earnest. The collection dates back much earlier, I think our first true media arts piece was acquired in the early 1990s, but the program really—the film and media arts initiative didn’t really start until John arrived and we really began collecting in earnest. And in 2010, after several years of working with individual pieces in the exhibition spaces, we established the “Watch This!” media arts gallery, which is a gallery space permanently dedicated to electronic, moving-image artworks. And what this entailed was hollowing out the floorboards and creating wire chases in the walls and in the ceiling, as well as developing a brain closet just sort of hidden inside one of the walls that can hold some of the hardware that’s required to exhibit pieces like this. But it gave us the ability to work very flexibly with a quite large space, to rain down power and data to anywhere in the gallery space that we wanted to install work. So, we can regularly rotate pieces in and out from our permanent collection or on loan, and manage and maintain them. We worked with our conservation department to really determine how we would handle exhibiting electronic works for long periods of time. The first—we’re on our third installation now, sort of a series that we’re working with at the moment, and we plan on continuing to work in this space for years to come.
The—whoops. It’s getting away from me. This is—one of the first pieces that we installed in the “Watch This!” gallery was “9/23/69: Experiment with David Atwood,” which, as John mentioned earlier, was restored for the Guggenheim exhibition in 2000, and in order to prepare that piece for exhibition, we located a television from the Nam June Paik archive, and sort of refurbished it with the help of our certified electronics technician, Dan Meyer.
HUGH SHOCKEY: Who’s here today.
MM: Who’s here today, somewhere out here in the crowd. He’s right there. He’s covering his eyes, embarrassed. But we were— you know, this is a quite early television, somewhat reminiscent of what the piece would have been viewed on initially, with that piece, so this was sort of our first dive into exercising the archive. And again, this was in 2010.
In addition to establishing the infrastructure for that space, we developed with our colleagues at the National Portrait Gallery, specifically Alex Cooper and our A/V technician Grant Lazer, we created a digital show control system for the entire building. And it’s a software package, basically, that reaches out and communicates to all of the electrical outlets and artworks that we have. It controls them on a scheduled basis so we can turn the artworks on and off and it’s been sort of growing over the past several years, so we can communicate with the projectors as well as other hardware to verify and confirm that artworks are turned on, that they have power, that they have lamp life and filters and things that they need in order to operate, and if something goes wrong, it tells us immediately, so that we can access—this has been a really valuable undertaking.
HS: And so that they’re not on when people aren’t in the galleries.
MM: What’s that?
HS: And so that they are not on when people are not in the galleries.
MM: Oh, exactly. You know, we don’t turn the artworks on until just before the museum opens. We don’t have to have—and this is a large museum—we don’t have to have someone go to every single artwork and flip them on. We can do gallery checks individually to make sure that they’re operating properly.
In addition, we have some large-scale, site-specific pieces. This is Jenny Holzer’s light sculpture called “For SAAM.” It’s an LED column. But working with this piece from a really—it sort of codified our working relationship between the curatorial and Hugh as an object’s conservator. It requires a lot of maintenance and he’s—I was really able to witness first hand his skill with a soldering iron, which you’ll see later, but that has been a real growing experience for us. It helps us work quite a bit better by working with this material. This is another picture of him soldering one of the columns, or one of the stands on the column. You can see how good he is.
HS: And for those out there, to give you a sense of scale, that’s twenty-eight feet from floor to ceiling.
MM: Yeah. So, he can solder in place while he’s on the lift. It’s quite exciting.
This is—so, I wanted to give you that background because it sort of informed the way we approached this exhibition. We did not organize the exhibition chronologically, which wouldn’t really make sense with Nam June’s work, as you heard earlier. It made much more sense to arrange the exhibition thematically. And John really—both Johns—really identified the areas of focus for the exhibition, and then we—I went about sort of arranging works with our exhibit designer, David Gleeson, and sort of shaping the exhibition and the materials that were going to be in the space.
This is just basically a plan view with little maquettes of what artwork’s going to be where, but that led to this document, which is a picture of the power grid and the data grid for the exhibition space. The exhibition space is about fifty-five-hundred square feet, and with the location of artworks, we created a checklist of hardware and material that might be included with each individual artwork. So, it’s not simply a television set, it’s a television set that has a media player of some kind, possibly a modulator or a video distribution amplifier, as well as other small devices that may be required to run one particular artwork. So, we have to ensure that we have the proper amount of electricity—controlled electricity—as well as data, and we use—and by data, I just mean a Cat 5 cable or Cat 6 cable that can connect to an outlet that we can control. So, at each location, we pinpointed data and electric. We brought in eight circuits, I think for “TV Garden” right there in the center. You can also see—is there a laser pointer on here? You can also see in this area, probably you can’t see it very well, but there are five projectors that make up the hardware for moon projection, but there’s also a video distribution amplifier and a number of media players that are required for that piece, so we had to locate all of that material here. So we basically had to plan this out for years in advance and then plug this system into our show control system, our show control software, in order to manage the exhibitions on-and off-schedule. I’ll also say, just as a side note, this is where “TV Garden” goes. There’s a descriptor right here that describes the number of lights and hardware, but it also describes the relationship between the grow lights that are required to keep the plants alive and how they turn on at the end of the day when the museum closes, and then turn off at the beginning of the day before the museum opens. And it’s all sort of controlled electronically.
This is—I just want to give a shoutout on this screen for Grant Lazer, our A/V technician, who’s designed this. This is a touchscreen panel that he’s connected to our show control system that allows you to see which artworks, where they are, here’s “TV Clock,” there’s a start and a stop button, if something goes wrong, he can hit “stop” in the closet, or an untrained technician can hit “stop” in the closet, and it will turn the artwork off. So, it also tells us whether it is on or off, so if something is going wrong, the green light is not green, it’s red. And this is true for each artwork. The “TV Crowns” here, which I know Joanna Philipps is going to talk about later, is one of the more complex installations in which we control individual outlets to power the fan and cooling system separate from the cathode ray tube in order to protect the artwork. We can cool it down and make sure that it’s properly turned on in the correct sequence. And that is all controlled through the show control system, so it’s pretty cool.
I don’t know if it’s going to change.
This is the entrance to the exhibition with “TV Clock”. If you haven’t been up to see it yet, I really encourage you at the end of the day to go see the show, but this is where it enters. There’s twenty-four television sets here as you enter.
This is “TV Garden.” Again, this is three-hundred and fifteen living plants and sixty-five television sets of varying sizes playing a single-channel video tape. So, there are a number of video distribution amplifiers and power supplies and whatnot buried beneath the living plants, and you can see on the left, the archive wall, which is also represented here. So, you’re seeing over the garden to the projector, to moon projection, and you’re also seeing to the left, the archive, a representation of the material that’s in the archive that really supported the exhibition.
And that brings us, since I’m talking so much, to the archive and just how important that was to informing how we handle all the material in the exhibition space. We have really an extraordinary team of registrars and research people who have organized this material, and I just can’t say how lucky we are to have such dedicated, professional people working on this, organizing this for us so we can actually find the stuff that we need. It includes papers and hardware. These are just a couple of slides. It’s not advancing fast enough. They’ve taken all of the hardware that we have and organized it so that we can find it. You can see on the left is what it looked like when it was in his studio space, and on the right is what it looks like in our storage facility out in suburban Maryland. This is Hannah and Claire. They’re very important people. Handling the materials, organizing it, creating checklists, taking photographs, putting it into a database so that we can search it digitally, not just our staff but also researchers and scholars around the world.
Now, hidden in the archive, when we brought it to the museum in 2009 were a number of—it’s an enormous volume of material, and there are several pieces that were very easily identified as completed artworks. They were completed artworks in need of conservation, but they were indeed completed artworks. And two of these pieces were small robot assemblages dating from the 1990s. This one— when we identified them in the archive, we—they did not have the proper electronics. They were sort of fitted for electronics, but they did not have all the material they needed to be exhibited. But we did—in my conversations with John Huffman and my research into the archive—we did recognize that these were functioning artworks at one time that, much like many of the other pieces that Nam June made, he likely cannibalized some of the components to use in other artworks when he didn’t immediately let these leave the studio space. So, in order to illustrate them in the exhibition space, we—I engaged our—Hugh in our conservation department to find a way to install or to prepare these for exhibition.
And now I’m going to shut up and let—actually, I’m not going to shut up yet, hold on. So, I just wanted to—these robot assemblages are from a long line of works that he was creating, dealing with the humanization of technology and how connected we are to this. So, the “Family of Robot” dating back to “K-456”, which John described, and then, “Family of Robot” and then, this is “High-Tech Baby,” from the Art Institute in Chicago, which underwent an extensive conservation treatment with the team there at AIC. Sarah Moy as well as their electricians as well as their electricians in New York: C.T. Lui and Rafael Shirley, who I believe is here as well. But it’s really—it was an extraordinary undertaking that they took to prepare this piece, so when you’re up in the gallery space, definitely take a look at it. It’s really fantastic. But these robot assemblages are in that vein of works, and so we spent a good deal of time working on them. And now I will let Hugh speak for a quick moment.
HS: Sure. So, like Michael said, there was, as part of developing the show and the archive wall, which is a really important part of the show, John and John and Michael had identified the robots. We knew that they should have had some sort of video component, quite obviously. There was the question of “Well, what type of video components are we going to have to this?” and when I say video component: display device. What sort of screen? And this is what I found very interesting as a conservator and listening to the dialogue between the curators, particularly John Huffman, talking about how, you know—and this has already been touched on this morning—that Paik would have, and there’s a number of different documents that support this, you know, was not averse to updating technology, which I was very happy to hear, because initially it was sort of suggested that we would put CRTs into these sort of carcasses of robots to display them. And my first thought of concern as a conservator is, well, exactly how are we going to stabilize the CRT into a carcass or a case that’s not necessarily intended for it, not to mention the weight.
You can see the robot here is legs-up, because the legs are just cases—plastic cases—from radios, unable to support any sort of weight. So, it had to be stored upside down, because of course, the TV that is attached to them above it as the middle point in this piece is made out of steel, so already you have a problem of it supporting its own weight. Luckily, in the curatorial conversation it was identified that we could actually use components like LCD screens. So, Michael set about finding the right size LCDs, and I sort of thought and turned over in my mind a way to stabilize an LCD screen inside of these cases. And I’m just going to sort of flip through some slides, and I came up with an idea of really sort of wedging these LCD screens, small monitors, in place using anti-static polyethylene foam as a way to sort of minimally impact the already-existing cases. The robots, of course, were very dirty, so they needed a good cleaning, both on the screen, of course having to be very careful not to remove any of the original paint applied by Paik.
Here we are, we’ve already run some cables, both for power and for signal, taking measurements to be able to start cutting the foam so that it’ll fit properly. We’re starting with a giant plank, whittling it down to try and get to the right size and literally just pressure fitting these monitors into place. It actually worked very well. We were also able to use the foam to do things like make sure the power buttons were going to stay on permanently, since we were controlling the power remotely. And Michael and I worked obviously very closely together on these two robots that you will see upstairs as part of the archive wall. Each robot took approximately a day for us to, in a sense, retrofit with video signal. Of course, in grand Paik style, what do you do whenever you have a perfectly functioning monitor? Well, you take it out of its case and get it down to the components that you really need, which is what you see over here, the backside of the center monitor. Of course, documenting everything as we move forward. Now you notice, Michael and I are featured in these images together, and that’s because our social media team here at the museum was very keen on documenting this whole process, and “Paik Bot,” as this particular robot assemblage became known, was actively tweeting during its entire process of conservation
MM: During its surgery.
HS: Yeah, during surgery, during the entire process of installation, all the way on its transit to the museum, and then when it was finally installed here in the exhibition hall.
So, this is another slide, you can see the “Paik Bot” up there with “Paik Bot Sr.,” as we call it and then “Paik Bot Jr.” What you can’t see, and I’ll see if I can get the laser pointers—I’m going talk about another, more traditional sort of treatment, because as my dear curator over here, Michael’s fond of saying, Paik was very agnostic in his medium that he wanted to convey his idea about the moving image, technology, film, to the public. And what you see, that you can see barely behind the reader rail, is actually a dollhouse. What’s kind of interesting about this dollhouse is that it’s actually a work of art, “Aimez-Vous Jimmy Stewart,” and what’s interesting about it, in all of the windows of this dollhouse are stills taken from “Rear Window,” Alfred Hitchcock film, that I learned from John Huffman, would’ve been created—these stills would’ve been created on a device that as Paik was watching it, he would’ve pressed a button, and out would’ve come a sort of screenshot from that point. Unfortunately, not all of the images that needed to be in the windows were with the piece. There was a photograph from a previous installation, and poor John Huffman had to go through, watch “Rear Window,” and take screenshots on a modern computer and output for us some of those things, some of the missing images, to the right scale, and it was my job to get them to stay in place, which, you can see, Paik was very fond of electrical tape, which was good for him, but not so good in a conservation sense. It’s very difficult to get these images to stay inside, because this is a very well-constructed dollhouse in that it’s got all the moldings and everything. Nothing smooth inside. So, I came up with another—well, if wedging works for electronics, let’s see if it’ll work for images. And so, I was able to wedge the images into place minimally, leave Paik’s taped images into place and just sort of reinforce them so you ended up with the finished works.
We’ve also had a couple of instances where during the exhibition we’ve had hardware fail. This is one piece, this is “Zen for TV,” this is from the Odenbach collection that’s upstairs
MM: I’m going to interrupt only for a quick second
MM: Just to say that we knew in advance of the exhibition that the length of the exhibition was going to be a challenge for some of the works, but that we were completely prepared to handle any electronic failures that we had. We knew that they were going to happen and that we would—it was not a frightening prospect for us, which I think may be an issue for other institutions, but we were, because of our experience with other works in the collection and with sort of dealing with this material, we knew that there may be instances in which something might drop out, so we had a plan in place to handle it in advance. So, when these things started happening, we were able to very quickly deal with it. Now, we’ve been very fortunate in that we really haven’t had too many problems.
HS: Not at all, and the problems that we have had have actually been with hardware that is tube-driven, which means they’re heat-related failures that would’ve naturally occurred as a result of that. And the plan, for those who want to know, is Dan, who is our electronics technician who has a very long history of working with electronics from a wide era of electronics. This is a piece in the lab waiting for Dan to arrive, sending him some information about the model so that he can look up, trying to understand what the circuitry traces might lead us to. Here, Dan’s doing a little soldering work, general practices, you know, looking particularly at areas where the solder might have been cracked or weakened as a result of heat, particularly from vacuum tubes. Here you can see, Dan’s actually put in place an over trace with another conductor between two components to make sure that that electrical conduction is there, so we won’t have that failure in the future. We also had a similar issue with “TV Cello,” and this is in the collection of the Walker. This one had to be—this treatment, if you will, a repair had to occur in the gallery because of the complexity of the installation. Dan’s very meticulous, so you know, sort of a very methodical way that you approach servicing one of these pieces. And again, what we discovered after sort of cleaning whatever soiling there was, cleaning the vacuum tubes, is again, we found an issue where there was a broken solder joint that had to be repaired. Very similarly repair, adding a new conductor to make sure that it’s not going to fail at the same location in the future. That was really it. Over to you.
MM: I know we’re running out of time, so I’m going to go very, very quickly through this, because I think it’s an important—these were all issues that we had during the exhibition, but we also prepared several pieces for the exhibition. We spent a great deal of time in advance, planning things out.
This is “Megatron Matrix,” which you’ll see on the third floor. It’s part of our permanent collection. It’s two hundred and fifteen television screens driving eight channels of video through two computer processors, as well as two channels of audio, so it’s quite a monster. But it’s an incredible artwork in its complexity in all of the areas that it touches. This gives you a sense of the scale of the artwork. It was installed—or it was reinstalled, I should say—at the reopening of the museum in 2006, much in the same way it had been installed previously, where it’s very loose in the back end, but on the front it’s quite composed. But the back end of the piece, at the time, looked a bit like this, which, if you’re really familiar with the material, you can navigate this without much of a problem. But there are heat-related issues in which the piece would heat up over the course of the day and then cool down at the end of the day, and there’s a certain physical stress that happens with that as it expands and contracts. And then there’s a—if it stays too hot for too long, there’s a chemical stress that affects the piece because it stays at a high temperature. I learned this from Hugh, so.
But we went through—we have a steward for this piece, Adam Rice, who’s on our exhibits team, has really been with it since the beginning of its life here at the museum, and he spent a good deal of time installing fans that you can see there, but we really thought we needed to take a much closer look at preparing this for its extended life during this exhibition and beyond. So, I identified a few sources of revenue, and this is a picture of the video distribution amplifier out of one of the computer processors for the “Matrix”. You can see it’s quite disheveled. The cables are all taped, but because they were original cables, the ends were receding in them and it was—the signals were dropping out a little bit more regularly than we would’ve liked. This is the back of the larger processor. It was also very dark back there. We did have lights, but they had to be very focused. These are pictures of the cable system on the back.
Basically, what we wanted to do was address all of these issues to make it much more manageable. And Adam said about—we actually sat down together and designed a new cable chase system and an organization for the back end. We drew it out very specifically. Adam set out de-cabling the artwork, maintaining the original cables in the archive. We built a—this is what it looks like de-cabled. We also replaced all of the—we actually cleaned all the electric. We unstacked the artwork, which was kind of an ordeal. There it is in the space. We covered it up. We built a shelf system and cable chase to hold the weight of the cable. If you noticed on the previous pieces, the BNC cable, which is quite heavy, is hanging on the back of the TV sets and that puts a lot of stress on the boards. So, we wanted to take that weight away, so we used this cable chase in the back here, which we designed in-house—actually, Adam designed in-house—to hold the weight of the cables. We also engaged our Dan to help us clean the boards and refocus and maintain the TV sets individually when we had them on the ground. There’s Adam Rice working on focusing. This is the cable chase. We also installed lighting, so that we could work on the piece while it’s on view. We installed an electrostatic matting on the floor. We restacked the artwork, and this is what the new cabling looks like. It’s much more organized. It’s color-coded so we can trace cables as they move along. But basically, this was—we reduced—by a significant amount—we reduced the number of failures we had in the work on a monthly basis, and the picture quality is actually quite a bit better. It’s clearer, somehow, although that’s difficult to verify. That is the artwork. Oh, there’s a before and after picture so that you can see what it looks like before and after. And that’s it, on view, so go see it. I’m sorry I ran over by two minutes.
TD: Oh no, that was great.
Talks from the symposium "Conserving and Exhibiting the Works of Nam June Paik" on June 26, 2013 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Michael Mansfield, Associate Curator of Film and Media Arts, Smithsonian American Art Museum & Hugh Shockey, Objects Conservator, Smithsonian American Art Museum The Collaboration between Curator and Conservator in Preparing and Presenting the Nam June Paik Exhibition.