Conservation of Media Arts - With the focus on Case study on Nam June Paik’s Video Art -

Posted on Fri, 04/19/2019 - 14:04


One of the general definitions for an art work is that the work itself is a 'unique object.' Traditional concept of conservation is based on the material perfection of a work, and the judgment on a damage also starts from here. A minor material changes in an art work in the traditional way directly meant a minor damage, and the damage was understood to undermine the material perfection of the one and only object.

However, contemporary art started from reconsideration and overcoming of the past and the impulse for what's new; and thus, materials used for contemporary art are those that deny and replace the things of the past. In particular, contemporary industrial products represented by plastics are actively being used, but the problem is that these materials are highly unstable and susceptible to damages such as discoloration and deformation.

Transience and finiteness of life is a theme that has been endlessly pondered on in every culture throughout the history of men. Art also has extensively dealt with the theme, as seen in the icons of Vanitas that frequently appear in the Western Baroque art. In the past, the images of Vanitas were shown by using traditional materials including oil paints, but contemporary artists depict similar subjects by borrowing the properties of the matters themselves. They use nondurable and highly unstable materials such as fruits, flowers, various foodstuffs, and even ice. Although the works may not represent finiteness, transience, or mental concepts on purpose, video clips, computers, monitors, and diverse ready-made objects being frequently used in contemporary art works are matters which are quite difficult to preserve. In other words, it is impossible to explain and define the concept of conservation of contemporary art works because the concept of contemporary art, which is based on a broad range of aesthetic and philosophical theories, either do not care about the material entity of the works or sometimes even deny it. Time-based works such as video art especially presuppose finiteness and temporariness, and thus, they can hardly be explained in the framework of traditional concept of conservation which deals with material entity of art works. First, before examining the theoretical background and practice methods of the conservation of Nam June Paik's video art, I would like to reconsider Paik's 'artistic intention' and examine some of the recent discussions and cases of conservation of media installation art. Particularly, media installation art often leaves the hands of artists and thrown into exhibition space. Therefore, the existing framework that establishes the standards of conservation and restoration solely based on 'artistic intention' should be reinterpreted.

Artistic Intention

One of the basic principles required by the conservation and restoration circles until today is to interpret 'artistic intention' as a key standard for understanding and making judgments about art works, prior to doing conservation and restoration treatments. This principle was derived from the background in which the scientific analysis methods developed since the 19th century enabled us to recognize what materials the artists originally used, what was added afterwards or what part of work process was altered by the artists themselves, and thus, to objectively document the initial artistic intention.

Kant argued in 'The Critique of Judgment' that the nature of art becomes obvious to us under the assumption that it is based on its will and purpose. An art work is an organism with its own purpose, and the artistic intention is reflection and representation of the true nature of art. Panofsky used the term 'intention' within the boundaries of group consciousness including periodization, aesthetic styles and genres, while Baxandall further divided them and linked the works of each artist to the goals of the styles in each era. In other words, traditional aesthetics and art historical methodologies have described artistic intention as an important entity with unique characteristics which at the same time is manifested through the distinctive style of each era and region.

However, it is extremely difficult or even impossible to interpret numerous works of contemporary art solely based on 'artistic intention,' in the cases when the artists hide themselves or entrust others with the creation and installation processes, or the works were created through the processes of accidental creation and destruction.

Excluding these extreme cases, it is still difficult to define 'artistic intention,' because of the uncertainties in definitions of the nature of art works themselves and the roles that the artists play in the works. Modern analytics proposes a useful methodology for understanding the roles of an artist. Gadamer and Ricoeur further developed the proposition from the former period on the autonomous interpretation and phenomenon of art separated from the artist. Art works becoming independent and autonomous entities from the moment they leave the hands of artists is explained by Ricoeur through the phenomenon of 'distanciation.' The concepts of distanciation and autonomy of art works lead the existence and authority of artists within the works to completely depend on the media, context of art theories, feelings of the viewers, etc. Art works according to modern analytics are the potential scenes of discourse and dependent on the encounters with viewers. Such changes in concepts reflect the general historical trend that is represented by postmodernism and the features of current society depicted and breathed by contemporary art.

From these concepts we can infer that artistic intention alone cannot be the principle of conservation and restoration of art works. In addition, when the artistic intention is expressed through materials, the art work cannot help being dependent on the natural characteristics of the materials; thus, the deterioration from material's aging cannot be interpreted solely based on the original intention.

Most of the artists who deal with media installation works are alive, and therefore, it is possible to ask them about the detailed installation methods, their position on technological changes, limitation in replacement of tools used for installation and their views on what specific parts should definitely be preserved. However, at the scene of installation from where the artist is left out, 'artistic intention' loses its effectiveness and is degraded into a concept for concept itself, because of misinterpretation of installation manual or artist's comments, difference in interpretation, installation space, technical limitations, and accidental factors which arise at the moment of installation. Most works of media installation art including Nam June Paik's video art are handled by exhibition staffs or conservation specialists when they leave the hands of artists to be exhibited or stored, and it is true that the original artistic intention can easily be undermined based on the space, tools, and the ideas of those who install the works. Bruce Nauman said as following.

After a time, you train yourself that once the work is out of the studio, it's up to somebody else how it gets shown and where it gets shown. You can't spend all your time being responsible for how the work goes out in the world, so you do have to let go. What happens is that it starts to become overbearing and I catch myself getting frustrated and angry about the situation. Then I see that it's taken over and then I can let go.

In conclusion, judgment on what should be preserved of an art work, and how it may be done, must be made after thorough consideration of artistic intention, physical and chemical changes in the materials that constitute the work, the possibility of interpretation within the society, etc. The purpose of conservation and restoration activities is not limited within the art work itself, but rather lies in all people materially or mentally related to it, such as the owner, curators, viewers and so on. Conservation and restoration are actually events about men, and this is called by Staniforth as 'Negotiative Conservation' in an IIC publication.

Conservation of Media Installation Art

When considering the conservation of Nam June Paik's video art, what occurs to the mind first are the problems of the durability of the braun tube in CRT monitor and its replacement. Changes following the development of image projection media and generation shift, as curved braun tube is replaced by flat one, and again it is replaced by LCD or other products, cause the production of old media to cease and make it disappear from our time. As a result, it has become impossible to innocently be relieved after merely replacing minor parts such as Braun tube, while maintaining the original monitor casing. It seems that everyone is expecting to see Paik's video images on a new type of monitor in the future and ready to take the fact naturally. In Korea, we already saw an exhibition space where his video images were showing on newly-replaced LCD monitors, and personally, it was a moment stranger to me than when heavy LP turntables and CD players coexisted. Similarly, as we are now engaged in hard thoughts about how to understand, install, and enable extension of the life span of Nam June Paik's works, researches on new media and arts have been conducted since over ten years ago in international conferences and through on-line consortiums, and their exhibition and conservation methods have been actively discussed. Some of the representative international conferences are the international symposium 'Modern Art: Who Cares?' organized by the Foundation for the Conservation of Modern Art and the Netherlands Institution for Cultural Heritage in 1997, and the conference on 'Mortality Immortality? : The Legacy of 20th-century Art' held at the Getty Center in 1998; and on-line networks include '404project,' 'mediaarthistory,' 'inside-installations,' and 'Variable Media Network.' In this relation, Jon Ippolito suggests conservation methodology through storage, emulation, migration, and reinterpretation, as extended ideas for conservation of new media art, among various discussions introduced in 'Variable Media Network(' These four ideas conceptualize practices being carried out until today for conservation or extension of life span of vanishing media tools, or their possibilities, and it can be said that they represent different levels that gradually move away from the physical originality of the work, from storage through reinterpretation. Among these ideas, upgrading monitors in Paik's works can be seen as a case of migration. In fact, Ippolito cited the case of video source upgrade from laser disc to DVD medium in Paik's TV Garden' installation as an example that supports his argument. However, upgrading monitors signifies the physical change of monitors - from curved glass to flat LCD - rather than the replacement of storage medium, and thus, it can also be seen to almost belong to the level of reinterpretation. Media artist Bill Viola made the following statement, which is quite significant.

“I can envision some historical researchers and technicians in the basement of some museum one hundred years from now relearning the art of blowing glass and circuit wiring to recreate CRTs from scratch so the late—twentieth-century Nam June Paik piece in the collection can be presented as originally seen. Whether it will be the adapted/updated technology approach or the purist, original-technology-at-all-costs approach, preserving the hardware, or at last detailed information about it, will have to be considered an essential element in the preservation of these works."

In the case of Nam June Paik's video art works, their various forms, concepts and installation methods seem to make it problematic to apply standardized interpretation and conservation methods. Time-based media installation exists on the ontological continuum somewhere between performance and sculpture. Paik's works show well the premise that media installation art takes the characteristics of temporal art represented by playback or performing, and at the same time, the traits of an object as a sculpture, as well as Paik's works. Therefore, it is necessary to deal with the installation of his works and develop conservation plans by comprehensively considering his video images and the plasticity, installation method, the characteristics of a medium itself as an object, etc., as the conditions for the media that deliver the images. Then, I would like to provide an interpretation of the tendencies of Nam June Paik's video art works by using the conflicting ideas of video art as a type of performing arts and as an object with the quality of a sculpture, and to propose a conservation management scheme.

Paik's Video Art as a Type of Performing Arts

According to Nelson Goodman's definition, in music and dramatic art as artistic forms that can be forged or reproduced, artist's creation is infinitely reproduced and the originality in terms of instruments,musicians, stages, actors, etc. does not significantly matter. There is only the distinction between good and bad works among those revived and reproduced, and it doesn't have anything to do with their authenticity. Thus, there remains just the interpretation through the reproduction process.

According to this idea, if only the images in Nam June Paik's video art are considered as the original creative works, the types or methods of restoration media do not matter much, and any transformation may be allowed in the future. Black monitors with distinct sources as used in Bruce Nauman's 'Good boy, Bad boy' may well be replaced by other similar monitors. If a dark and somber mood is provided for the reproduced images or the showing place for Bill Viola's 'Observance,' and if high-definition images can be shown in a way similar to the artistic intention, the manufacturer or version of video codec, or the frame of the product, isn't likely to matter.

Paik's The ‘More the Better' and ‘TV Garden' are works which were initiated from the artist's ideas and sketches, and they were constructed based on the limitation of space, technical problems, and the judgment and actions of installation specialists at the time of installation; in these cases, the replacement of not only the Braun tubes but also the monitors as a whole may be allowed if the artist's general ideas remain intact.

Stephen Vitiello, who took part in installation of Nam June Paik's numerous works as his studio assistant, told about an episode between Paik and a local curator during his visit to Brazil for an exhibition in 1996. At the time, it was planned to install ‘TV Garden’, ‘TV Fish,' and ‘TV Buddha,' and Paik asked him to get some local fish, their own Brazilian Buddha, and grass for ‘TV Garden' and use them for his works. When Stephen asked Paik how to install the collected objects, he answered smiling as always, "Use your judgment." What he told Stephen was just to play his video work 'Global Groove' when he gets 30 sets of TV monitors, and to play 'Oriental Paintings' when he gets 40 sets.

His works allowed the possibility of varied interpretations just as music scores for performance, and thus, anyone can offer his own interpretation of his works even though they were installed by other people, as long as they followed the basic principles. This coincides with the ideas of the 'Fluxus' in which Paik participated, and we can see that he regarded his works to be similar to music delivered through music scores.

In the case of 'TV Garden,' it is widely known that Nam June Paik's thinking on TV; the existence and future of media which lives and grows like the grass, can be delivered and preserved through various elements such as TV monitors, the space in which the grass is set up - width, brightness, how the viewers may approach the work quality of image resolution, and acoustics. Works in this kind take the same meaning as theatrical scripts or music scores, and in tomorrow's theaters, Hamlet will be played in more varied versions and Beethoven's symphonies will be performed following diverse interpretations.

Paik's Video Art as a Sculpture

Major difference between media installation art and performing arts is that the media that records and reproduces the images and sounds is highly similar to the genre of sculpture. Also, the intervention of artist himself is essential in terms of the methods of restoration and reproduction, and thus, the originality of the reproduction medium takes a great importance.

Gary Hill's 'Between Cinema and a Hard Place' presents an example in which the characteristics of the completely exposed Braun tube as an object is powerfully expressed. Tate Gallery, which currently owns the work, has acquired sufficient extra Braun tubes and circuit boards from Panasonic, is preparing itself to replace them as soon as it becomes impossible to control even minute color changes. However, the Braun tube used in the work is too much of 'an object' as to be replaced by a different product when, someday, it is no longer supplied.

One of the examples that clearly demonstrates the quality of media installed for reproduction of video images as a sculpture is Nam June Paik's 'TV Robot.' In the case of 'TV Buddha,' it would be as difficult to replace the TV set, which strongly shows the quality as 'an object' selected by Paik, like the part of Buddha. In this work, the TV set seems to represent a level of originality surpassing the degree that can be maintained by merely saving the TV casing. Several generations later, when all the Braun tubes selected, touched, and whose circuits were connected by Nam June Paik himself are long gone and have been replaced by newly invented equipment, our descendants will be left to lament and miss the aura that can only be felt from the artist's complete original object. In his numerous works belonging to the same group as ‘TV Robot’, the great impression of curved Braun tubes may be, for some viewers, as intense as that of an ammonite fossil which can no longer swim.

There are cases, among art works created using digital media that has the possibility of complete reproduction, in which the form of a specific work as a vessel carrying the content of the work is judged to be a part of the innate intentions of the work. In these cases, we have to preserve the work itself, and at the moment the manufacturing of the particular type of product stops, the life of the art work should be seen to end. Its complete reproduction may be possible using a different type of product that does not suit the original intention, but then, the result of revival may be as dreadful as that of a cloned man whose life was forcedly prolonged through unwanted cloning process.

Among Paik's works with a strong quality of 'an object', for those with great originality as an object chosen by the artist or historical significance, it would be necessary to reach a decision not to allow replacement of any broken down component through numerous discussions and agreements. If a working object is required as a vivid record of a past masterpiece or for education, a replica may be useful.

Replicas have been used to substitute the original art works for exhibitions and viewers' appreciation from long ago. Marcel Duchamp's 'Fountain (1917)' was criticized by the viewers as blasphemy against art when it was displayed at first, and now the original work is missing. In 1964, a replica was created based on Alfred Stieglitz's photograph and approved by Duchamp himself. In this case, an art work was created by adding the artist's signature and the title on a mass-produced urinal, and the concepts of 'ready made' and artist's intervention, which represent contemporary art, have been transferred to the replica. Considering Duchamp's 'The Large Glass,' its replica was made by restorers at Tate Gallery after the artist's death, and it is being exhibited there as one of his major works.

Replication can be seen as a kind of documentation, and when the original work is in a highly unstable situation or stabilization is impossible, or as a way of experiencing the past vividly, recording the original work through a replica may be the only solution.

Issue of Practices for Conservation of Media Installation Art

Vanishing art works and events are carried on media tools and stored as records. In this case, galleries, libraries, and archives become the storehouses for the cultural discourse on art works and collections. Video recordings or works were newly created in each era, and the conversion of videotaped images to show them on screen is based on complex technology of the concerned period. Video signals are recorded and reproduced in numerous different formats, and thus, in general, digital copy of the artist's master tape is made and stored in the data room. The reason they convert analog signals to digital signals is because digital format will be more compatible with the electronic media technology in the future.

Conservation of contemporary art no longer focuses on the physical repair and restoration of the works, and is gradually moving towards record-keeping, the judgment for change-replacement, and adequate management of such changes. In order to accurately reinstall the works in the future, the attention of conservators need to be extended to various elements of installation works appreciated by the viewers. In this relation, records should be kept on the condition of space and sound, the balance between sounds of different channels, lighting, and how the viewers may approach the installation works. For conservators at contemporary art museums, these factors are as important as the physical and material elements of the works. Thus, the new role of conservators is to check the availability of materials - equipment - when it is necessary to replace the original components of the works, and make sure if the colors, brightness, and sounds are right.

To protect and manage new media art works, it is required to develop new technologies and cooperate with specialists and businesses in areas other than conservation. Conservators should recognize that intangible factors - lighting, sound, etc. - in installation process are as important as tangible components for accurate reinstallation of art works and document them. Also, they need to judge what among these factors may be changed, and understand the meanings and roles of a work to take the best care of each component. For the management of traditional or contemporary art works, conservators at museums should document every judgment he makes. This documentation may include the purpose of creation, creation process, and the artist's opinion concerning conservation, by collecting data on the artist and the concerned work, and in addition, information exchange among curators and conservators around the world as well as education of viewers and management of safety facilities are required.


I have examined the issue of what in Nam June Paik's video art may be conserved, and how it can be done, with the focus on the conservation of immaterial elements in contemporary art. The general conservation method of the present is to retain sufficient amount of original parts such as Braun tube, but this is merely a short-term solution; and if we continue to replace antiquated components following the technological development, the result may be to mass-produce androids with uncertain identities under the pretense of life extension. Even if we discover, from his unpublished records, Paik's specific shape or format, the alteration may not be accepted based on the demands of the viewers who want the original as 'an object' that the artist chose. This is because 'the work is an autonomous entity that is no longer in the artist's possession.'

To prolong the life of Nam June Paik's video art, it is possible, as part of practical efforts, to control the exhibition hours by limiting the duration of viewing and to retain as many Braun tubes and circuit boards. Recording media that carry video art should be regularly copied and if necessary, converted to new formats. During the showing of video, it is necessary to eliminate dust according to the general management guidelines for electronic goods and to take caution for proper humidity level and ventilation so that the heat from the electronic equipments can easily escape. However, when the media that delivers the video images finally breaks down, I propose that 'the objects’ personally selected by Paik be preserved with as little replacement as possible, and if required, creating a replica, by weighing and negotiating between the characteristics of his video art as temporal video art and its quality of an object as a sculpture.


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