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Collaborations in Conserving Time-Based Art A Summary of Discussion Group Sessions of a Colloquium Co-organized by the Lunder Conservation Center Of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait
Collaborations in Conserving Time-Based Art A Summary of Discussion Group Sessions of a Colloquium Co-organized by the Lunder Conservation Center Of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery And the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden May 2010 Office of Policy and Analysis Washington, DC 20013 Foreword In January 2010, the Office of Policy and Analysis (OP&A) was approached by members of the Time- Based Art Working Group to assist with conceptualizing and facilitating a series of group discussions attached to the planned symposium Collaborations in Conserving Time-Based Art. OP&A was also asked to provide a written report summarizing the main points raised in these sessions, which brought together curators, conservators, artists, archivists, and other experts from the Smithsonian and external organizations to ponder the emerging challenges of acquiring, documenting, displaying, and preserving art created in non-traditional media such as film, video, and computer software. For several years, and especially since the arrival of Secretary G. Wayne Clough in the summer of 2008, the Smithsonian has been ramping up efforts to address the evolving opportunities and challenges posed by the digital age. Many, although not all, of the issues raised in the Collaborations in Conserving Time-Based Art colloquium closely parallel those raised in wider pan- Institutional discussions of digitization and digital access: how to ensure adequate storage space for growing digital assets; how to recover information recorded on obsolete (digital and non-digital) platforms; how to systematize workflows and communications across technical and content areas that have traditionally operated at arm s length; how to train new generations of specialists with combined content and technical skills; how to deal with new legal and ethical issues of accessibility, now that the Web has made it possible to share Smithsonian assets with the world at practically no marginal cost. Many individuals are owed thanks for contributing to the successful conduct of these discussion sessions and the completion of this report. The members of the Time-Based Art Working Group Anne Goodyear of the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), Jeff Martin of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (HMSG), Sarah Stauderman of the Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA), Eleanor Harvey of the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), Gwynne Ryan and Susan Lake of HMSG, and Allison Jessing of NPG put in many hours planning the event and reviewing drafts of the report. Senior Social Science Analyst James Smith and Research Scholar Claire Eckert helped the Working Group to conceptualize the sessions; collected and analyzed the resulting notes and recordings; and wrote the report. They also facilitated discussion tables at the event, along with their OP&A colleagues Whitney Watriss, David Karns, Lance Costello, and Jarrid Green. Finally, thanks go to the dozens of colloquium discussion participants who openly shared their concerns, experiences, and recommendations, and whose insights are reported in this document. Carole M.P. Neves Director, Smithsonian Office of Policy and Analysis 2 Executive Summary From March 17 19, 2010 the Lunder Conservation Center (overseen jointly by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery) and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden coordinated a symposium titled Collaborations in Conserving Time-Based Art. It addressed a growing concern within the Smithsonian, and in the field of contemporary art more generally, about the need for long-term preservation strategies for time-based art. The symposium was attended by approximately 200 people, and during its webcast on Thursday, March 18, 4800 people viewed the proceedings online. To organize this event, a team of curators, conservators, archivists, and technical experts joined forces to create the Smithsonian s Time-Based Art Working Group. While cognizant of the activities of the Smithsonian s Digitization Program Advisory Committee (see, the Working Group believes that current digital data preservation plans at the Smithsonian have not fully integrated concerns related specifically to the preservation of time-based art. The Working Group feels strongly that a pan-institutional standing committee to study the preservation of time-based art should be formed. Further, it sees an opportunity for the Smithsonian to develop an interdisciplinary center of excellence that can serve as a resource and model for our colleagues both within and outside the Institution. The Working Group recommends the following: Creation of a pan-institutional Standing Committee on Time-Based Art, comprised of curators, conservators, and technical professionals and with representation from each artcollecting unit, to address resources needs and protocols for the long-term preservation of time-based art. This Committee should be responsible for the implementation of the other recommendations. Establishment of Institution-wide protocols for collecting time-based art. Such protocols might mandate: o o o The completion of questionnaires documenting the work at the time of creation/acquisition; Interviews with artists by curatorial, conservation, and exhibition staff for example, to determine artistic intent and expectations for long-term preservation and display; The creation of adequately budgeted plans for long-term maintenance of such art; and 3 o Other requirements developed by the proposed Standing Committee. Implementation of an Institution-wide survey of time-based art to evaluate the condition, risks, value, and preservation needs associated with individual works. Creation of a pan-institution time-based art storage plan that adequately addresses both physical and digital storage needs. Creation of digital curator positions 1 hybrid professionals with expertise in both art and technology who can oversee digital preservation activities (including, but not limited to, emulation and migration efforts) with an eye to ensuring continued artistic and technical integrity. Commission of a study on whether and to what extent the preservation needs of time-based art can be accommodated by current Smithsonian Digital Asset Management (DAM) systems, and in what ways new strategies might be developed to accommodate these needs. 1 The term digital curator has come into widespread use in this field and will be used for convenience in this report. However, the Working Group considers it an imprecise and perhaps misleading term that may be in need of rethinking. 4 I. Introduction A series of discussion groups were held on the afternoon of Friday, March 19, 2010, the last day of Collaborations in Conserving Time-Based Art, a two-and-a-half-day colloquium co-organized by the Lunder Conservation Center (administered jointly by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery) and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. These discussions explored the challenges of conserving time-based art, with a particular emphasis on technologybased media such as film, video, and digital/computer art. While other parts of the colloquium were open to the public, the Friday afternoon proceedings were by invitation only. They brought together a wide range of Smithsonian and external curators, conservators, registrars, archivists, exhibitions personnel, technology specialists, and artists. The afternoon consisted of three sessions that lasted approximately one hour each. The first two sessions were conducted in small break-out groups seven groups with 6-8 people in each, plus an Office of Policy and Analysis (OP&A) facilitator. The final session brought everyone together to report on their break-out group discussions and informally share insights. OP&A worked with the colloquium planning committee to structure the afternoon s discussions and to facilitate debate and dialogue. This report is a summary of the lively discussions that took place. 2 At the outset, the issue of terminology should be briefly discussed. The term time-based art refers broadly to works that are dependent on time for the maturation or completion of the experience. Relevant media include film, video, digital, audio, Web, performance, and installation art, and some types of kinetic sculpture. The term does not precisely fit the subject of the discussion sessions, which did not cover performance art or kinetic sculpture. Other terms in common use that might be considered substitutes for time-based art as conceptualized in the colloquium include variable art, time-based media art, and electronic art. However, the discussants recognized that the issue of terminology is problematic; the same term might be used differently by different speakers and understood differently by different listeners. In this report, we will use the term time-based art for convenience. 2 The presence of a particular point in this report means only that the point was raised by one or more participants. It does not imply endorsement of that point by the colloquium s organizers, the other participants, or the Office of Policy and Analysis. 5 II. Activity Areas Participants were asked to focus on four specific areas of activity in the time-based art life cycle: Acquisition; Documentation; Installation, display, and access; and Preservation. In practice, of course, these areas are fundamentally integrated at many levels, and cannot be addressed in isolation. Their presentation as distinct categories should be seen as a convenient fiction for structuring both the colloquium discussions and the results presented in this report. 1. Acquisition Time-based artworks have often been acquired by museums without adequate planning and budgeting for their long-term maintenance. With some works, particularly software-based art, a museum must expect to spend as much or more on maintenance as it does on initial acquisition. As one participant put it, when you buy a work of software-based art, you are buying a [living] world, not a dead object, and it requires feeding. Without such feeding, an artwork can quickly become non-functional. At present, a large disparity exists between funds devoted to the acquisition of time-based art, and funds devoted to their conservation. This may to some extent reflect a lack of awareness of the maintenance needs of such artworks; but it also reflects donors and funders priorities. As one participant noted, it is difficult to sell maintenance to funders: I gave you the money to keep this artwork alive is not as sexy as I gave you this artwork. One participant suggested that because of this bias, the responsibility to ensure that maintenance needs are considered at the time of acquisition may ultimately fall to the community of artists itself. Artists may have to establish norms for the expected long-term treatment of their works; they may have to individually and collectively mandate that sales and gifts are contingent upon the existence of funded plans to keep their works functioning. On the other side, museums may simply have to start thinking in terms of acquiring less art, and maintaining what they do acquire to a higher standard. Given that artists will not be available indefinitely to answer questions about the meaning, preservation, and display of their work, it is advantageous, when possible, to create a primary source record of artists intentions at the time of acquisition. For example, what is fundamental to the 6 artwork to maintain its integrity? To create such records, participants recommended that the artist, or individuals who have insight into the artist s practice, be formally interviewed at the time of acquisition by conservation, curatorial, and exhibition staff members. In such interviews, openended questions, perhaps about the message and essence of the artwork, should be privileged, as it is difficult to foresee what information will be relevant to future generations. 3 Asking the artist to fill out a questionnaire to clarify artistic intent, use of materials, and the message of the artwork was also suggested. Information obtained at the time of acquisition should not pertain only to artistic intent, but should also cover the technical nuts and bolts of a work the technologies used, the source codes for software, the specifications for replacement parts, and so on. This may involve interviews or discussions with artists technical assistants, as well as with artists themselves. This will enable the acquiring organization to have the knowledge and documentation necessary to keep the work functioning as intended. 2. Documentation Appropriate documentation is crucial to all aspects of time-based art conservation and accessibility. However, specific documentation standards for time-based art do not currently exist, and the major collections management systems now in use 4 are geared toward works in traditional artistic media, and do not explicitly reflect the needs of time-based art. Participants were unsure whether it is realistic to strive for uniform documentation standards for time-based art. So much diversity exists in the time-based art world that it may be too much to expect any given set of documentation fields to cover it all; some critical documentation for some works will probably always have to be recorded as qualitative annotations appended to an object record. 5 However, there was more optimism that useful standards might be devised within relatively small communities of practice where a relatively high degree of homogeneity exists. For example, organizations that hold works by a particular, significant artist might work together to devise documentation standards that adequately capture the essential information for her works. 3 One participant suggested that Smithsonian art museums might consult with the National Museum of the American Indian on this process, as the latter has considerable experience with such interviews (albeit with an emphasis on cultural rather than artistic context). OP&A also has extensive experience with qualitative interviewing in a variety of contexts. 4 Such as the TMS system used by Smithsonian art museums. 5 Some participants were surprised (but pleased!) to discover in the course of the plenary session that TMS allows users to append word processing documents to collections records, presumably to deal with this issue of critical information that does not fit within the standard TMS schema. 7 Participants agreed that art museums must avoid insularity when developing systems of time-based art documentation. Even if ultimately every museum must deal with a unique set of artworks and documentation needs, all can learn from the experience of other museums that have confronted similar issues. Art museums might also look to other fields for models and lessons. For example, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) has successfully confronted astronomical imaging documentation issues that may overlap to some extent with the time-based art challenges faced by art museums. Colloquium participants included both archival specialists and art museum staff, and the issue of archival versus art museum documentation standards was raised. Participants agreed that the two fields have fundamentally different documentation challenges, which make archival documentation standards somewhat problematic as models for time-based art. The primary difference is that archivists deal with large quantities of relatively homogeneous objects, while art museums deal with individual, highly unique objects. Workable documentation standards for time-based art need to reflect the specific needs of the latter. Documentation standards developed for time-based art in Smithsonian collections need to be translatable into the TMS collections management system used by the Institution s art museums. One participant provided the group with an update on the status of TMS development, noting that Rosemary Fallon of the National Portrait Gallery was representing the Smithsonian on a Conservation Committee formed by Gallery Systems to develop the next version of the TMS conservation window, and would be the person to contact to pass along concerns or suggestions. Participants noted that while TMS certainly has shortcomings for documenting time-based art, so does any other off-the-shelf collections management database. These systems were simply not designed with such non-traditional artwork foremost in mind. 3. Preservation Long-term preservation was an acute concern for some participants, who noted that time-based art typically needs constant attention and care. The neglect often suffered by works in storage can quickly lead to a loss of functionality. For example, an undisplayed work may be rediscovered only after its storage medium or format code has become obsolete, and recovering it may require technical skills or technologies that are difficult to access. In some cases, artistically relevant elements of the original may be lost. In extreme cases, the work itself may not be recoverable at all. To avoid this fate, either ongoing migration to new technology platforms or maintaining the capacity for emulation is necessary. 6 6 Migration refers to the ongoing transfer of data to new platforms as old ones become obsolete. Emulation is more complex. To use a definition by conservator Caitlin Jones: To emulate a work is to devise a way of imitating the original look and feel of the piece through completely different means. The term can be applied 8 Far too often, preservation involves retroactive efforts to repair or reconstruct works that have already suffered some loss of functionality, rather than pro-active efforts to manage risks and limit initial damage. This is because, as noted below, care tends to be event -driven, rather than dictated by strategic priorities. As a short-term corrective, one participant argued that a systematic assessment of Smithsonian, national, and international time-based art collections is needed, to evaluate the risks, condition, and value associated with individual works. The point of such an exercise would be to compile a strategic list of endangered works that could be prioritized for conservation treatment. In the longer run, there must be a shift toward thinking of conservation as an ongoing, pro-active process. At regular intervals, each work, whether in storage or on display, should be systematically assessed to determine the risks that it faces. Strategies can then be devised to limit any threatened loss of functionality before it happens. Participants also stressed the diversity of time-based art media, and how they need to be addressed on their own terms. Software-based digital art, while coming in many varieties and difficult to generalize about, was on the whole considered to be more of a challenge than film- or video-based works, in light of software s relative complexity and of rapid changes in formats, operating systems, computing hardware, and the software itself. Art that incorporates three-dimensional technologies such as CRTs and projectors presents a different set of challenges. Maintaining the functionality of hybrid installations that may combine equipment no longer commercially manufactured with data in obsolete media may be the ultimate preservation challenge. Digital data management was singled out for specific comment. Participants complained that every Smithsonian unit seems to approach this area in a different way, and with minimal coordination. One participant suggested that the minimum requirement for digital data preservation should be to get data off storage media such as hard drives and CDs and into a secure server environment. Another argued for the creation of digital curator positions hybrid professionals with expertise in both art and technology who can oversee digital preservation activities (including, but not limited
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