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Friday, May 17 • 2:30pm - 3:00pm
(Electronic Media) Monuments in Time: An Analysis of Conceptual Tensions in Media Installations

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In 2017 and 2018 the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) engaged 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 culminated in the de-installation, re-fabrication, and 2018 re-installation of Jenny Holzer’s For SAAM (2007). Systemic failures in the 29-foot tall, site-specific LED sculpture ultimately led to the replacement of all 61,200 of its diodes, as well as the custom hardware and software that animate them. The early 2018 de-installation of Nam June Paik’s massive video wall Megatron/Matrix (1995) prompted months of research, including analysis, documentation, and risk-assessment of the work’s two custom-built video-processing systems that manipulate eight channels of video and PC animations across 215 screens in real-time. The museum is now researching the costs and ramifications that would entail if it sought to replace the works’ increasingly unstable cathode-ray tube monitors with another display technology.
In the case of both of these artworks and many others, conservation intervention has meant replacing elements of the artworks’ underlying technology. The artistic, conservation, and art-historical ramifications of these decisions range from the purely functional to the highly philosophical. As the media conservation field develops, the growing literature has provided methodologies for evaluating the ethicality of these fraught decisions. To oversimplify, conservators identify “work-defining properties”, and then assess treatment based on how well these properties survive across iterations. Complex tensions arise if stewards must choose some properties at the expense of others. Sufficiently complex works, ones that operate across multiple conceptual valances, can amplify those tensions. SAAM categorizes both the artworks mentioned here under its time-based media rubric. This is certainly not the only way to define them. One could ascribe a long list of genre attributions and conceptual frameworks to them, including software-based art, complex media, conceptual art, variable media, light-based art, sculpture, performative media, video art, etc…, all of which would potentially emphasize some of the works’ properties at the expense of others. This paper analyzes case studies wherein the significance of certain properties shifts depending on the lens through which one assesses them. Conservation research, documentation, and assessment must be as sensitive as possible to these multiple valances to ensure an artwork’s evolution remains ethically grounded in appropriate conceptual properties and physical materialities.

avatar for Dan Finn

Dan Finn

Conservator, Time-Based Media, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Dan Finn is currently the Time-Based Media Conservator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. He graduated in 2014 with an MA in Moving Image Archiving and Preservation from New York University. He also worked with the Smithsonian Institution as a contractor for media preservation... Read More →

  Specialty Session, Electronic Media