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Reflections on an internship in TIME-BASED MEDIA at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamāki

Distribution of time-based artworks in the Auckland Art Gallery and Chartwell Trust collections

In 2015, the time-based media collections of the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamāki were given a thorough survey by Marylyn Mayo Intern, Brooke Randall, who assessed nearly 300 items and developed protocols to ensure that these and future collections would be adequately cared for.

One of the main problems is the rapid obsolescence of different technologies, as well as over-use and storage conditions. Ensuring that the work operates as intended by the artist is also an issue. During her internship, Brooke was completing a Master of Cultural Materials Conservation at the University of Melbourne, but prior to that she was a practising artist working in sculpture with audio-visual and/or electronic components. Brooke is the third Mayo intern in conservation since the scheme was started. The Marylyn Mayo Internships at the Auckland Art Gallery are awarded every year and offer projects at an advanced level for a 6–9 week period. Winning an internship is a competitive process and projects are generated by different Gallery departments. 

Sarah Hillary, Principle Paintings Conservator at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamāki, New Zealand, asked Brooke some questions about her internship:

At what stage were you able to formulate your approach to the project? My first task at Auckland Art Gallery was to scope the collection of time-based art. This involved searching the Gallery’s collection database and discussing specific artworks with registration, photography and conservation staff. Once a comprehensive list was established I was able to break down the collection into years (production and acquisition) and categories (analogue, digital, sculptural with an electronic component etc.). Once I fully grasped the extent of the collection I was able to formulate my approach to the project. This included developing documentation methodology and assessing individual artworks.

What were the most useful resources, in the literature and otherwise, for this process? I primarily relied upon online resources. ‘Media Matters’, formed by individuals from the New Art Trust, MoMA, SFMOMA and Tate, has produced seven condition report templates, each documenting a different form and/or constituent of time-based art. The International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives (IASA) provides useful information regarding ethics and principles; the International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art (INCCA) regarding artists’ interviews; and the Australian National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) regarding magnetic media and film. Stuart Fuller, sculpture conservator at QAGOMA, was also kind enough to share documentation used by him and his team. Read more here: http://www.tate.org.uk/about/projects/matters-media-art/condition-report-guidelines

What were the greatest challenges? The greatest challenge was by far the time frame. The Gallery cares for close to 300 time-based artworks. Each work required consideration in order to fully understand the challenges and risks facing the collection. It was also hard leaving the Gallery at the end of my internship. As with any project of this size there is still plenty of work to be done.

Would you have approached it differently in retrospect? Although I believe the project was successful, I would have liked to refine the documentation methodology developed in association with the registration, photography and conservation departments. I would have also liked to interview a number of artists, particularly those with multiple works in the collection.

It was a challenging project – do you think that it was a good choice for an advanced internship? Yes, definitely. We are at an important juncture in Australia – and in Australasia. If resources are not directed towards the conservation of time-based art many important works may be lost. If an institution does not have the resources to hire a conservator with a background in time-based art they may consider establishing an internship of this nature.

How would you characterise the colection? The Auckland Art Gallery and Chartwell Trust collections are primarily composed of sound and video work stored on analogue and/or digital media and small to large-scale sculptural work with an analogue, digital, electronic or light component. Like many institutions the Gallery has yet to acquire performance, computer or internet based artwork. When the Gallery chooses to collect such work the acquisition and conservation process will require modification.

Has the project had any impact on the direction of your Masters thesis? During my time at Auckland Art Gallery I became interested in the work of artist collective et al. et al. regularly incorporates sound, video and obsolete technology in their installations. Their work is complicated by the performative nature (the adoption of various pseudonyms) and the fluidity (the artists regularly take items from one installation and insert them into another) of their practice. As part of my thesis I would like to document the installations cared for by Auckland Art Gallery and interview the artists/those familiar with their work. I am particularly interested in exploring et al.’s former pseudonyms, particularly L. Budd, who is now, for all intents and purposes, deceased.

Can you give us your views on the following?:

Restoration of original tape and film - Restoration of original tape and film can take two forms: physical and digital. As with any object, physical restoration should be kept to a minimum. Unlike physical restoration, digital restoration is dependent on the context in which a document was created and the context in which a document is to be displayed. While an organisation may choose to limit restoration, producing a document that is both historically accurate and registers the passage of time, they may choose to restore or ‘enhance’ a document and in doing so re-contextualise the work for a new generation. In the publication 'Audiovisual Archiving Philosophy and Principles' (2004), Ray Edmondson states ‘the difficulties of contextual integrity . . . need to be held in tension with a contrasting reality. Audiovisual works presented in a contemporary environment can often speak for themselves in new ways.’  To read more: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0013/001364/136477e.pdf

Migration and storage/maintenance of analogue media - Although efforts must be made to preserve analogue media in usable condition for as long as feasible (that is by storing them in a stable environment and conducting cyclic maintenance), long-term preservation can only be achieved via analogue to digital migration. As stated in the publication 'Safeguarding the Audio Heritage: Ethics, Principles and Preservation Strategy' (IASA, 2005) ‘optimal retrieval of the signal on analogue recordings can only be achieved by modern well maintained equipment of the latest generation.’ Although an organisation may choose to migrate content in-house, those with a relatively small analogue collection, such as Auckland Art Gallery, may wish to outsource migration to a qualified company or organisation. To read more: http://www.iasa-web.org/tc03/ethics-principles-preservation-strategy

Maintenance of analogue hardware/ or hardware associated with an artwork-  When acquiring an artwork dependent on technology it is important to determine the “status” of equipment employed (i.e. how closely the meaning of an artwork is tied to the equipment used during creation and/or display). The status of a piece of equipment directly related to the amount of resources and expertise directed towards its maintenance in the future. For example, Slave Pianos (of the Art Cult),1998–99 by Michael Stevenson, Danius Kesminas, Neil Kelly and Rohan Drape features a QRS Pianomation system, Playola key top player, Yamaha MIDI data filer and motor.The equipment directly relates to the historical time and place in which the work was made and is therefore the Gallery’s responsibility to maintain. To read more: http://www.aucklandartgallery.com/the-collection/browse-artwork/8150/slave-pianos-of-the-art-cult

Cloud and other storage - There is no ideal storage solution (physical or digital). While institutions with small collection may require minimal storage and can therefore reason storing digital material on CD/DVD or removable hard drives, institutions with large collections may require a server, either established in-house through their information service department or through a third-party, such as a cloud service. In the publication 'Feet on the Ground: A Practical Approach to the Cloud' (2014) Seth Anderson, consultant at Audiovisual Preservation Solution, outlines nine factors to consider when assessing cloud storage. These include exploring the service’s adherence to basic preservation principles (i.e. data is backed up across two geographical separate locations) and ensuring sensitive information is handled appropriately and is safe from unwanted human intervention. To read more :http://www.avpreserve.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/AssessingCloudStorage.pdf

Digital preservation of born digital media - There is a plethora of born digital media (originally digital) being created every day (from academic papers and net-based artworks to social media updates and blog posts). If we are acting under the assumptions firstly, that born digital media is valuable and requires preservation and secondly, not all born digital media can be preserved, then we need to consider who decides what is and is not preserved and how it is preserved. Initiatives such as the Library of Congress Twitter Archive and Rhizome’s Artbase are starting to ask these questions. While the Library of Congress aims to preserve every public tweet made since Twitter’s inception in March 2006 and, as a result, capture public opinion, Rhizome acts as a depository, hosting software, code and browser based artworks. To read more: http://blogs.loc.gov/loc/2010/04/how-tweet-it-is-library-acquires-entire-twitter-archive/ http://rhizome.org/artbase/?ref=header

Preservation of software-based media via source code capture - Although I believe it is important to acquire source code when possible, source code, like all forms of technology, becomes obsolete in time (that is when a new operating system or programming language is developed). Conservators at the Tate are currently undertaking research into the use of virtualisation as a preservation tool. ‘The virtualisation process copies the original operating system and artwork software to a form independent from the existing aging hardware’ (Falcão, Ashe & Jones, 2014). By identifying and documenting the significant properties of the artwork and the artwork software, and by ensuring that the virtual version is an exact copy of the original, the Gallery can use the virtual version of the artwork to compare any new version that may be created. To read more: http://pericles-project.eu/uploads/PERICLES_iPRES_Virtualisation-Paper_Oct14_TATE.pdf

This seems to be very cost and labour intensive? At present, a large disparity exists between resources devoted to the acquisition of time-based art and resources devoted to its conservation. This may reflect a lack of awareness of the maintenance needs of such artworks and/or donors’ priorities. Institutions including Auckland Art Gallery, must expect to spend as much or more on maintenance as they do on initial acquisition. To read more: http://www.si.edu/Content/consortia/Time-Based-Art_Report.pdf

What about collaboration with other trades/professions?  The complexity of technology and material employed by artists ensures no one person can know everything there is to know about the conservation of time-based art (or art in general). It is therefore paramount that conservators working in the field are able to communicate effectively with media and information technicians, engineers, electricians, and exhibition designers. This means understanding the language and terminology employed by these professions in order to convey conservation concerns and explore issues regarding long-term preservation. By building successful relationship with other trades and professions conservators specialising in time-based art will be able to develop creative solutions to unique problems.

Sarah also spoke with Brooke’s supervisor on the project, Objects Conservator, Annette McKone Objects Conservator.

What was your experience of the internship? The internship was a wonderful opportunity to address our growing time-based collection and its particular and varied needs. My knowledge of technology is limited so it was wonderful to have someone who understood the workings, limitations and terminology of such a broad range of equipment and media. Brooke was able to concentrate solely on this project and therefore her research and recommendations have been extremely useful and object specific.

How are things progressing since it was completed? Once a project like this is completed and reports written, it is tempting to think it’s all fixed! However, registration, photography and conservation all have ongoing roles to perform, both moving forward as we acquire new works and retrospectively to those already in the collection. These include migration (transferring data to a new system environment) and creating storage boxes. One of the most important things that we need to ensure from now on is that we get all appropriate information at acquisition. To this end, registration now requires a specific time-based media acquisition form to be completed by the artist or dealer. Our first use of this was a resounding success with more information supplied than we asked for!

What issues do you see in the future? I think the issues we have now (such as obsolescence) will continue with each new phase of technology. Having the appropriate skills to address these is becoming increasingly important.Here in New Zealand, we have no time-based media conservators and I see this as a growing issue. As Brooke has pointed out above, no one person can know everything there is to know about the conservation of time-based art. Traditionally trained conservators, such as myself, know even less. As artist’s media continues to grow into such realms as computer technology, we need conservators who can at least understand these ‘languages’. More information available about Brooke’s internship: http://aucklandartgallery.blogspot.co.nz/2014/06/time-based-art-at-auckland-art-gallery.html

First posted INCCA-AP website February 25, 2015 by Sarah Hillary 

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