Handling Digital Artworks: Acquisition, Registration, Preservation

  • DAN FINN: Alright, we will go ahead and get started here. Thanks, everyone, for coming to this presentation by the Lunder Conservation Center in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution's Time-based Media Working Group. My name is Dan Finn. I'm the time-based media conservator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and here serving as representative for the Time-based Media Working Group. Before introducing our illustrious speaker, I just want to say thank you to the National Collections Program at the Smithsonian, which has funded this presentation as well as lots of presentations, workshops, and time-based media-related initiatives throughout many units of the Smithsonian.

    Today, we are treated with the presence of Ben Fino-Radin, who has recently founded Small Data Industries, which is a private practice dealing with issues regarding the conservation, preservation, exhibition, and storage of time-based media artwork. Before doing that, he was one of the Media Conservators at the Museum of Modern Art. Before that, he was a Media Conservator at Rhizome internet database, an online-only museum dedicated to the collections of net art. With that, I'll just let him take it away. Again, thanks everyone for coming. We are very excited. A big hand for Ben.

    BEN FINO-RADIN: This talk, first of all, was inspired by a really wonderful lecture given by Mona Jimenez last fall at the Conservation Center at NYU. In this talk, Mona gave a kind of oral history and telling of the emergence of the audiovisual preservation community as it emerged from the ‘70s until the early aughts. It was this community that really was the seeds of the time-based media art conservation practice. Picking up kind of where Mona left off, and also, actually, this is very timely. This is the 20th anniversary of the American Institute for Conservation's Electronic Media Group, its establishment. Just this past AIC, my former colleague, Petar Aleksic, organized a panel with some of its founders. We're at this moment where the field is established, and it's kind of at a turning point, so we're going to be talking about a bit of that today.

    It's no secret to anyone, of course, that the 20th century witnessed an unprecedented explosion of new materials for artistic experimentation: broadcast television, analog video, robotics, mainframe computers, electronically synthesized sound, personal computers, video games and software. You name it, and artists have experimented and engaged with it. If you're at this talk, chances are that it is not news to you that this explosion of artistic experimentation with new formats has created the need for a new breed of art conservator. In the industry, most of us call this time-based media conservation. Not only has this new field emerged, but it is flourishing. This year sees time-based media conservators in leadership roles. Major philanthropic support is increasing, and pure metrics demonstrate an ever-growing presence of time-based media art in the commercial art market. Today, I'll be sharing with you an inside look at the evolution and emergence of this brave new world of time-based media art conservation and the people in it.

    The first decade of the development of the field is characterized by key pioneering thinkers in the existing conservation world connecting with allied professions and beginning to grapple with and contend with how to deal with some of what is perceived as the most pressing threats as far as preservation is concerned.

    The year is 1996. Perhaps you were playing with your N64 or feeding your Tamagotchi, but meanwhile in San Francisco, there was an event happening that in many ways would plant the seeds of the beginning of the formalization of the fields. The Bay Area Video Coalition, a non-profit founded in 1976, was hosting a gathering of art conservators, audio-visual engineers, and archivists, and this gathering was funded by the Getty and the Andy Warhol Foundation. As the conference's website puts it, and I should say that this website is still online thanks only to the American Institute for Conservation and their CoOL resource, so if you don't know it, look it up.

    The website says, "For the first time ever, experts from the conservation community and experts from various aspects of the media arts are coming together to build alliances with one another around the common goal of preserving video collections held in museums, galleries, libraries and other repositories throughout the world. For eight months prior to the event of the conference, eight working groups consisting of conservators, curators, video technicians and artists, preservation administrators and archivists”—that’s a mouthful—"are meeting to discuss the vital issues related to the task of preserving our cultural history as told on videotape." So this was really the first time that the art conservation world said, “What are we going to do with these videotapes?”

    At a time when the common preservation practice was still tape-to-tape migration, one contributor to this conference stands out with a very forward-thinking review of the viability of digitization and digital video as a preservation and master format. Unsurprisingly, this outside-of-the-box thinking, or at least outside-of-the-box for its time, came from Paul Messier, a figure that has consistently served as a leader in the conservation world, pioneering a lot of thinking in the world of photograph conservation. Photograph conservation is an area of practice that at this time was still only really emerging itself in the mid-nineties. On the heels of this conference, Paul would be inspired to go on to establish a special interest group within the American Institute for Conservation called the Electronic Media Group. To this day, the annual meeting of the Electronic Media Group is arguably the most important and valuable venue for knowledge exchange among time-based media conservators, at least in the Western world.

    Meanwhile, it's still 1996 now. The Tate was busy hiring their first sculpture Conservator for Electronic Media, as they called it. This was Pip Laurenson. It would really be difficult to overstate quite how ahead of the curve Tate was with this move of hiring Pip. In 1996, it's still more than a decade before any other museum would create a position for a time-based media conservator. Pip will, of course, appear a few times in our narrative. As you all know, she's quite the leader in the field today.

    The year is now 1997. One of the most important conferences in the history of contemporary art conservation is happening in the Netherlands. Titled “Modern Art: Who Cares?”, this symposium was the culmination of a two-year project funded by the Dutch government to study the preservation risks latent in contemporary art forms such as plastics, kinetics, and video. The results of this study and symposium would be published two years later in the form of a book by the same title.

    Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Jill Sterrett, who originally joined SF MoMA in 1990 as a conservator of works on paper and photographs, was co-authoring an article called, “An Institutional Approach to the Collections Care of Electronic Art.” This article stands out as one of the earliest published cases of an institution discussing the holistic stewardship of a time-based media installation artwork. The first conference we saw was looking purely at video art, you know, analog tape. This was the first real, documented, published research on looking at an installation and the more complicated aspects that it introduces.

    Also in the Bay Area in 1997, prolific contemporary art collectors Pamela and Richard Kramlich decide that they would like to do something to help push along the field of conservation, presentation, and public education surrounding time-based media art. They do this by establishing the New Art Trust, which is dedicated to funding and promoting such initiatives. There are a handful of prominent art collectors that have heavily impacted the landscape of time-based media art through their early and visionary support of artists working in this media, and the Kramlichs are among those few.

    Fast forward to 1999. In New York City, Mona Jimenez, who, of course, has been active for decades already in the grassroots audio-visual preservation community, which was very much kind of this hybrid between archivists and artists who had been kind of doing their own thing as far as preservation was concerned for decades. In 1999, Mona founds a nonprofit organization called Independent Media Arts Preservation. IMAP, as it's called, would go on to work on developing shared best practices for the cataloguing of time-based media art.

    Meanwhile, it's still 1999. Although the slide has a typo, and it says 1997, it’s still 1999. The Bern University of Applied Sciences in Switzerland—their conservation and restoration program establishes a new concentration in modern materials and media. This is the first establishment of an actual conservation training program for time-based media art in 1999.

    Now, in the next year in 2000, Mona and Paul Messier would collaborate on conceiving of a symposium called “Tech Archaeology.” This event, again funded by the Getty, was designed to bring together the various stakeholders within museums—conservators, curators, artists, and technical experts—basically all of those responsible for the collection, exhibition, and preservation of these works. This was the biggest gathering of this sort in terms of the first conference that we saw was really about bringing together conservators and engineers and scientists to look at analog videotape. This is the first major conference to say these works are often more complicated than that—they're installations. Jill's paper that she had been working on was in preparation for this conference, where they were looking at more broader forms of time-based media art installation.

    Meanwhile, it's still 2000. Back in New York, a curator at the Guggenheim, Jon Ippolito, had begun developing a term for time-based media artworks: “variable media.” This was a term that he came up with his friends, Keith Frank and Janet Cohen. Originally, they came up with this term to describe creative projects that they were working on together collaboratively as artists, but John found that the term was an apt descriptor of the kinds of complex installation and sculptural artworks that he and his colleagues, Carol Stringari and others at the Guggenheim, were grappling with. Later in 2002, the Langlois Foundation would fund the Variable Media Network, which was a collaboration between the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Franklin Furnace, the Guggenheim, and The Langlois Foundation as well as Rhizome to establish frameworks for documenting time-based media art.

    The most significant development of 2002, however, occurred at the annual meeting of the Electronic Media Group of the American Institute of Conservation. This year at the conference, the Crest Foundation and Stanford funded a panel to discuss education needs for electronic media conservation. In many ways, this panel in 2002 serves as a marker of the growth and maturation that the field had experienced in only six years. In 1996, the field gathered together to begin working on the immediately pressing challenges in conservation, and here they were taking a step back to acknowledge the fact that the existing conservation training programs simply would not help establish the professionals that the field was in need of. One thing that's important and interesting to note here is that nowhere in the proceeding documentation is the Bern program even mentioned. I think that it actually shows in 2002 that the field had not quite yet become internationally collaborative because they're discussing at length how could we shape and form a program like this? Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, one already exists.

    Later that year, as if on cue, NYU's Tisch School of the Arts would found a brand-new program called “Moving Image Archiving and Preservation,” or MIAP. This program, under Howard Besser and Mona Jimenez's leadership, with Howard being the founding director, would go on to become the closest thing to a training program for time-based media conservation in the U.S. for well over a decade. We're now beginning to near the end of what I call the "pioneer days."

    But first, before we close this chapter, back to the Tate. The year is 2004, and Pip has now been promoted from time-based media conservator to establish and lead a new time-based media conservation department. This, again, is displaying Tate's leadership internationally. Still at this point in 2004, not a single other museum has yet created a time-based media conservator position, and here was Tate creating an entire department. Tina Whitener would be Pip's first hire to fill the role of time-based media conservator.

    Later that year, the Tate would be involved in an international project funded by the European Union called “Inside Installations.” This multi-year project brought together several museums throughout the EU to investigate 33 installation-based artworks from their collections in the form of in-depth conservation case studies. Though the outcomes of this highly influential research project would not come to fruition for years to come, the very next year in 2005, Pip would publish through Tate what has come to be a highly influential paper in the field called “The Management of Display Equipment in Time-Based Media Installations.” In this paper, Pip provides a framework for conservators and other stewards to think through the various vulnerabilities of display equipment for time-based media installations.


    The initial meeting in 2005 brought together museum leadership, conservators, curators, audio-visual technicians, information technology professionals, and attorneys from all three institutions to develop shared best practice and recommendations. Since 2005, there have been follow-up phases culminating in a free online resource.

    The early years of the field's development, 1996 to 2005, can be characterized by a few things that we've seen. The emergence of key figures, who would not only pioneer key theory and practice, but who would also go on to serve as leaders in the field for years to come, and several key gatherings of these leaders also happened in order to communicate. Significant activity was seen in San Francisco, New York City, London, Amsterdam, and Bern. Still, as we've seen, the only Museum at this point is—oh, I'm sorry. There's another typo here on the side. That should say 2005, not 2015. That's two decades. But still at this point in 2005, the Tate is still the only program of time-based media art conservation.

    Let's move on to the second decade. While the next phase of the field's development is also rife with conferences and symposia and collaborations, things like this, the most significant and unique aspect of this next era is that we see the emergence of the first major wave of trained time-based media conservation professionals.

    So 2005 sees the debut of three key players, who we will continue to see throughout the field's development. First, the Tate hires another time-based media conservator to join the growing team, and this is Kate Lewis, a conservator who had trained originally as a conservator of photography. Meanwhile, in Zurich, the Swiss Institute for Art Research launches a major collaborative project with the Bern program called AktiveArchive. This project was led by Johannes Gfeller, who was a professor at the Bern program. Johannes hired as a conservation researcher Johanna Phillips. Meanwhile, back in New York City, a conservator who has recently transplanted from Germany after having trained in the program in Bern lands at the Cranmer Art Group, a private practice studio in Manhattan, and her name is Christine Frohnert. As far as I'm aware, Christina was the first conservator trained in the Bern program to arrive in the U.S., the first trained time-based media art conservator in the U.S. In 2006, Johannes, who had been managing the AktiveArchive project moves on from the Bern program and establishes a new masters program, the Conservation of New Media and Digital Information at the State Academy of Art in Stuttgart, so there's now two programs in the EU. Meanwhile, back at the Tate, the time-based media conservation team brings on another audio-visual technician. This is somebody they had already been working with for years, and this is Fergus O'Connor who you see pictured here.

    In this year, 2006, Pip publishes yet another research paper that would go on to become highly influential in the field. You're seeing a trend here. This paper is titled “Authenticity, Change and Loss in the Conservation of Time-based Media Installations.” A real highlight of this paper are the ideas that Pip borrows from the field of musical philosophy and that field's notions of authenticity and performance. The idea here is also introduced that the act of staging artworks such as these are inherently a performance. These performances individually can be thought of as instances of an artwork. Meanwhile, back in the U.S., it's still 2006, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden creates a new conservation Postgraduate Fellowship, the first in the U.S., in time-based media conservation.

    In 2007, Tate holds a conference that, while by its title may not sound relevant to time-based media art, the title being “Inherent Vice: The Replica and its Implications in Modern Sculpture.” At this conference, Johanna Phillips gives a paper called “Reconstructing the Forgotten: An Exhibition of 1970s and 1980s Video Installations, Re-staged with Authentic Technology.” The most impactful development of 2007, though, is that the Museum of Modern Art hires their very first time-based media conservator, Glenn Wharton. This is the first time-based media conservator position we see established in the United States. A key collaborator of Glenn's was Deena Engel, who is the Dean of Undergraduate Studies for Computer Science at NYU. Together, Dina and Glenn would design projects wherein computer science students would contribute to the research and documentation of software-based artworks in MoMA's collection.

    The very next year, in 2008, the Guggenheim creates their very first time-based media conservator position, and they hired Johanna Phillips, who we've seen already, for the job. Here Johanna is pictured at post-production house do art with engineer Maurice Schechter, who would, of course, go on to become an invaluable asset to the museum community. Maurice has now gone on to work in private practice. Meanwhile, also in 2008, a graduate of the Bern program, Agathe Jarczyk, opens her own private practice time-based media conservation studio in Switzerland. As far as I can tell, this is the first private practice devoted to the care and stewardship of time-based media art.

    In 2009, two more new faces enter the stage. At the Tate, Patricia Falcão is brought on as yet another time-based media conservator. In San Francisco, SF MoMA's conservation department begins working with Mark Heller as a time-based media conservation consultant.

    In 2010, despite the fact that the MIA program has been flourishing for almost eight years at this point, there's still not a single art conservation program in the U.S. that offers time-based media art as an area of material specialty. Only two people we have introduced in this narrative so far, Agathe Jarczyk and Christine Frohnert, have actually attended such a training program for time-based media conservation. All the other time-based media conservators we've seen so far have to come to the fields from other specialties—photography, painting, sculpture—and learned on the job by collaborating with key technical experts. In light of this, the Electronic Media Group of AIC recognized that it was time to do something to begin bootstrapping education and the training for conservators being held responsible for time-based media artworks, and so the TechFocus series was born.

    The format of TechFocus was to gather pioneers, experts, and practitioners and, for one day, offer a series of lectures on the history, materiality, and technicalities of a particular medium in time-based media art. The second day would offer a series of hands-on workshops and demonstrations from key experts in the field. This first TechFocus took analog video and digital video art as its topic and featured hands-on demonstrations from Maurice Schechter, who you see here, in his little doctor’s or surgeon’s coat.

    2011 sees the emergence of three new faces. SF MoMA creates their first position in the conservation department dedicated to time-based media conservation. This role was filled by Martina Haidvogl, also a graduate of the Bern program. In New York, meanwhile, a new assistant media conservator position would be filled by Petar Aleksic, a graduate of the MIA program. Petar had already been working extensively with the institution on mass digitization in his capacity as a consultant at Audio Visual Preservation Solutions, known now as AVPreserve. Still in New York but downtown, Rhizome hires me as their first position dedicated to the conservation of their collections.

    Up until now, we've seen three types of people filling time-based media conservation positions as they emerge. Traditional conservators who retrain, the very few specifically trained time-based media conservators—Martina, Joanna, and Christina—but now we see a new kind of professional emerging in Petar and myself, and that's professionals from allied fields, not conservation at all, but who come into the conservation field with kind of technical material expertise who kind of train up on the conservation aspects.

    In 2012, we see the second TechFocus event, this time dedicated to caring for film and slide- based artworks. More interestingly, perhaps, though, in 2012 is the emergence of the very first private practice conservation studio in the United States dedicated to dealing with the conservation of time-based media art. This, of course, is Bek & Frohnert. This sees Christine Frohnert partnering with Reinhard Bek, who for the previous decade had served as the chief conservator at the Tinguely Museum in Basel.

    2013 sees more shifting around of existing players and an increase in the size of MoMA's team. I'm brought on as an addition, and shortly thereafter, Glenn Wharton leaves MoMA to focus on teaching in the Museum Studies program at NYU. To fill this vacant position, Kate Lewis comes over from the Tate. Meanwhile, in Amsterdam, a new organization called LIMA emerges. This service and research-oriented organization was founded under the directorship of Gaby Wijers, who had previously led NIMk, which was founded in 1993.

    In 2014, a new face emerges. Dragan Espenschied, an artist and technologist, is hired by Rhizome to fill the vacant role of digital conservator.

    2015 is marked by the emergence of more new faces in the field. A key player assuming a new leadership role and two major conferences that serve as markers of the field maturing. Here in D.C. at the Hirshhorn, when Gwynne Ryan vacates her role as a conservator to assume the position of chief conservator, the institution brings on Briana Feston-Brunet—I'm sorry, I'm probably butchering Briana's last name—to fill the role of conservator of sculpture and variable media. This is the first case of a conservator trained at the NYU Conservation Center filling the role of a time-based media conservator position. Simultaneously at the Hirshhorn, Sarah Stauderman is appointed as the director of collections. Sarah had been active very early on as a leading thinker in the Electronic Media Group and other initiatives and was trained as a paper conservator in the Buffalo Program. Also in Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian American Art Museum carves out a new position and hires MIA graduate Dan Finn as a media conservator and, clearly, they hired him for his ability to coordinate his outfits with analog video calibration patterns.

    2015 is marked most significantly, though, by two key conferences. First, the next TechFocus is convened—this time looking at the conservation of software-based artworks. This is significant in the sense that, while there had been various papers published and conference talks given on the topic of conserving software-based artworks, up until this point, the field had been very intently focused on issues of conserving analog and digital videos, slides, film, installation, and so this was the first major focus on software. In the second day of hands-on sessions, my co-instructors and I, Mark Heller and Deena Engel, had over 100 "traditionally trained conservators" using the command line and Linux, creating their own sketches and processing, and learning how to track their changes using Git and GitHub. In addition to video of the conference, all of the resources and guides used in this generation of TechFocus are freely available online via GitHub, in case you're interested.

    Later that year, though, in 2015, the field would gather in London at Tate—not because they've hired another media conservator, who happens to be Ana Ribeiro—but rather for the conference “Media in Transition,” a major international conference that was focused on the intersection of media art in technological change over time, again funded by the Getty. You're seeing another trend here. This conference was in many ways modeled after a conference held at the Getty in 2008 titled “Object in Transition.” As we've seen in the telling of the history of the field of time-based media conservation, the field really only began in earnest in the mid-nineties. It may surprise those not in the conservation field to hear that this was true, too, of the field of conserving contemporary art in general. The 2008 “Object in Transition” conference was a moment to take a step back and discuss at a very high level the implications of the needs and practices that had developed in contemporary conservation thus far. This was essentially the same intention of “Media in Transition,” which gathered museum professionals across the whole spectrum of the institution. One of the real major highlights of this conference in my own personal opinion was—it's something that was borrowed from the Electronic Media Group called “the school for seeing,” where we all looked hands-on at various artworks through their various iterations and formats that they had sort of mutated through over the years and looking at them side-by-side, actually seeing this hands-on, rather than theoretically discussed in the conference paper.

    As we leave 2015 and enter 2016, we begin to see key signifiers of the field’s maturity, so let's take a moment to review where we came from and where we're at. The first decade was marked by the emergence of pioneers, key players who led the development of the field and who would go on to assume leadership positions. This decade not only established the organizational foundation but also philosophical roots of the field. The second decade was marked by the blossoming of the field, the emergence of practitioners. Time-based media conservation positions were created at major institutions, key collaborations with technical experts are strengthened, and the corpus of case studies and examples of practice deepens, and the Electronic Media Group makes significant efforts to jumpstart training in the United States.

    2016, just a year ago at this point, will be looked back on, I think, as the year that training for time-based media conservation in the U.S. was truly jump-started in a major way. This is really thanks to the philanthropic efforts of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. In 2016 at NYU, the Institute for Fine Arts was awarded a major grant from the Mellon Foundation to develop a curriculum for adding time-based media conservation among its area of study. This was while under the leadership of Hannelore Roemich and, unsurprisingly, Christine Frohnert, who had been teaching “Art with a Plug” at the conservation center since 2009. This program will accept their first student focusing in time-based media art in, I believe, the fall of 2018. As students emerge from this program over the years, there will be less and less need for retraining existing conservators or filling institutional positions with technical specialists from non-conservation backgrounds. Of course, the field will always remain collaborative and interdisciplinary, but we're seeing now the emergence of a new generation of specifically trained professionals in the United States.

    Also in 2016, the Mellon Foundation would award the Museum of Modern Art a major grant to host a four-year series of fully-funded training workshops with the aim of providing education and training to curators and conservators already working in the field who may need to retrain. The grant supports a series of fellowships, the first of which is Amy Brost, who you see here.

    Looking at the present, we're only halfway through 2017, and already there have been some very interesting, key developments in the field. There are definitely more emerging professionals who are filling institutional roles. It would be impossible to name them all at this point because it's really flourishing. But one of the most interesting developments—I might be biased being a former MoMA employee—but Media Conservator Kate Lewis was promoted to the position of Chief Conservator at the Museum of Modern Art. I just think this is really interesting to see a time-based media art conservator assuming what is arguably one of the most prestigious conservation positions internationally. It's certainly a sign that museum leadership sees the importance and value of this field.

    Meanwhile, if you look outside of institutions, time-based media art is showing more signs of being completely integrated with the rest of the art market. Doing a bit of analysis, if you look at like the top fifty international art collectors, 54% of them collect time-based media art, and that is a number that's been steadily increasing. This has created a major need for the kind of expertise in time-based media conservation that we saw develop within institutions over the previous two decades. It's simply been completely inaccessible to private collectors and smaller institutions who can't afford to hire time-based media conservators. This is really one of the things that's inspired me to leave the institutional world and go on in private practice to establish a business. Unsurprisingly, we're working with a lot of institutions but also private collections.

    This history, in conclusion, is far from complete and is unquestionably biased, as history always is—in this case, probably based on my own geographic location and background. If there's anything you think I've missed, please do let me know. I would just like to follow up by thanking the following people for their invaluable help in parsing through this oral history, or what has been until now an oral history. That's Pip Laurenson, Jill Sterrett, Martina Haidvogl, Mona Jimenez, Paul Messier, Kate Lewis, Glenn Wharton, and everyone you saw mentioned in this presentation who patiently listened to my questions. Also, a huge thank you to the AIC. As I said, their CoOL online resource is invaluable. There are so many electronic resources that would have disappeared over the years if they hadn't been dedicated to preserving them. That's incredibly important for understanding this kind of evolution in history. I will leave it there and open the floor to questions. Thank you.

    Museum of Modern Art Conservator, Ben Fino-Radin, presents a lecture investigating the conservation of media art.

    Media Series