The celebrated Denver Art Museum has embraced the next stage in the evolution of contemporary conservation. The variable media program benefits from the enlightened goals of Kate Moomaw, assistant conservator for modern and contemporary art at the Denver Art Museum. In creating a program to preserve media such as film, audio and in general art using technology takes collaboration between artists, conservators and museums. The physical fragility of film, the technology challenge and the transforming experience of the Internet are taken into consideration by art collectors and curators in how, if at all, to maintain variable media. Within modern and contemporary conservation, accounting for electronic elements has proven to be much more complex than the more established traditional methods. And so, a look behind the scenes at the Denver Art Museum with Moomaw is both formative and exciting. ICOSA: What prompted the creation of the variable media program?
Moomaw: The Denver Art Museum (DAM) has rather organically collected a number of variable media artworks in the past few decades, and at the same time, awareness of the complex preservation needs of works like these has grown within the art conservation community. There are now specialists in the conservation of variable media working in museums such as the Tate, the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim, and there is even a master’s program dedicated to this specialization in Bern, Switzerland.
A few years ago, it had become clear that the museum had amassed a small but rich collection of video, audio, light, sound and kinetic artworks and that (1) these works from the collection could make up a compelling exhibition and (2) we needed to convene a group of staff with a number of skill sets to prepare them both for exhibition and their long-term life in the collection. The results were the exhibition “Blink! Light, Sound and the Moving Image,” which was on view at the DAM in 2011, and was curated by Jill Desmond, and the formation of the variable media task force, made up of curators, registrars, collection managers, information technology specialists and conservators. The process of preparing works for “Blink!” brought to the forefront the complexity and fragility of this class of artworks, and the success of "Blink!" made it clear that our collection would continue to grow. Thus the task force has carried on to put in place protocols for processing newly acquired works, and ensuring that works already in the collection will be exhibitable down the line.
ICOSA: What roles do you have in the program?
Moomaw: I am the museum’s conservator for modern and contemporary art, and I focus on the conservation of modern and contemporary sculptures, three-dimensional objects, and those works that fall under the variable media umbrella.
As a conservator, my first concern is for the long-term preservation of the works of art under my care. I have some training in the archiving of film, video and audio materials, and am working now to determine which works in the collection are highest priority for this type of preservation work. For these materials, preservation often means migrating, basically copying, the content of video or audio recordings onto a new tape format, or increasingly, into a digital file that is stored on a server. Migration is necessary as the tapes themselves can degrade over time, putting the content at risk, or types of tapes can become obsolete as playback equipment and parts are no longer manufactured.
I rely on our associate collections manager, Julie Brown, and her expertise in storage protocols to store our tapes and playback equipment properly, and I also work closely with Julie and associate registrar, Sarah Cucinella-McDaniel, to ensure that these artworks are documented carefully on our collection management database. Documentation of the original state of these artworks (through photography, technical descriptions, visual descriptions, charts, diagrams, etc.), of the artist’s views on the works and their changing states and of all migrations or changes made to the works over time is essential to our understanding of them now and in the future.
ICOSA: Are you a practicing artist?
Moomaw: I am not a practicing artist. However, Andrew Edwards, one of our IT specialists on the variable media task force, is pursuing his master’s degree in digital arts at the University of Denver and brings to the table an artist’s perspective along with technical know-how in digital video.
ICOSA: What is variable media at the DAM? What processes and practices are included when determining what artwork will be recreated?
Moomaw: To us at the DAM, this class of artworks includes video, audio, software-based, electronic, kinetic, installation and other types of artworks that have special preservation needs that depart from the traditional preservation paradigm. Preservation of traditional artworks aims to bring deterioration or change to a halt, and to keep the object in the most static state possible. On the other hand, variable media artworks either change as a part of their nature, or must be physically changed in some way in order for them to remain viable and exhibitable. Many such works need to be remade, or copied into a new format, to address technological obsolescence. Some are designed to be remade each time they are exhibited. Some may change in dimensions or arrangement for each new exhibition location. Information about all of the various forms of these artworks must be carefully created and retained to understand the work as a whole, and to ensure the works’ authentic existence in the future.
The process of determining the preservation needs of an individual artwork is driven by a number of different things. At present, I am conducting a survey of the video artworks in the collection to determine which works are most at danger of loss or damage from degradation or obsolescence of the tapes. Those most at risk will be higher priority for migration to new formats, by experts in video postproduction.
Some changes to artworks are necessitated by exhibition. When a variable media artwork is exhibited, conditions may have changed since the last time it was displayed. For example, we have one work in the collection by the artist Nam June Paik called “Electronic Fish” that originally relied on analog TV signals for it to function. However, these days all TV signals are digital, so a digital to analog converter had to be installed in this work in order for it to operate.
In the world of variable media preservation, it is often said that the best way to maintain these types of works is to put them on display. This is when realizations are made about changes in technology that affect the artwork or when playback and display equipment can be assessed for condition problems. Frequent exhibition of these works assists in addressing these problems before technology has completely outpaced the artwork, and while parts for old playback equipment and knowledge of repair are still available.
ICOSA: What artwork have you found challenging to preserve?
Moomaw: Some of the most challenging artworks to preserve are those that are unique objects made out of ephemeral or unstable materials. Though some artists create works from materials like cut flowers, chocolate, or even ice, and intend them to change, or fall apart over time, other artists choose ephemeral materials because they are at hand, inexpensive, easy to use, or they simply like their unique material properties. One such artwork that I worked on at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., was the sculpture “Fishman” by Paul Thek. “Fishman” was made from a mold of the artist’s own body and was cast in latex rubber. One can speculate that Thek liked the skin-like elasticity of the rubber when it was new and its ability to pick up the fine details of the mold, the fine hairs, the pores of his skin and the like. Unfortunately, latex is a fairly unstable material and degrades quickly with exposure to air—the only way to significantly slow down deterioration is to place it in an oxygen-free environment. “Fishman” was made in 1968, and by the late 1990s the latex had become hardened, distorted, brittle and much darker in color. I made several repairs to “Fishman” in 2010, and it went on display at the Whitney Museum in the Paul Thek retrospective. However, it was clearly much changed from its original state, and in this case, for a number of reasons, making a copy was not an option. For artwork like this, there is a fine line between the work living to convey something of what it originally was and simply lasting on as a mere relic. The difficulty lies in making this call and providing the interpretive context in which a much-altered work might succeed.
For variable media works, we do often have the opportunity to migrate media onto new formats and keep ahead of physical deterioration like that of “Fishman.” However, technological obsolescence may eventually have a big impact on certain works that rely on very specific types of equipment. For instance, “Looker II”by Alan Rath in the collection of the DAM is a sculptural video work with small CRT monitors that are the work’s eyes. CRT monitors are no longer made, and it is becoming harder and harder to find replacement parts and knowledgeable repair technicians. There may very well come a day when the CRT monitors of “Looker II” can no longer be repaired or replaced. What happens then? Do we try to use a different type of monitor, thus changing the appearance of the work significantly, or do we let it go? These are the really tough decisions.
ICOSA: What is it like to collaborate with artists when trying to preserve their artwork?
Moomaw: Every artist and every situation is different, but to me, it is always an edifying process. Artists and conservators often look at artworks from very different perspectives. One classic case is the conservator who is trying to preserve an older work in its original state and the artist who sees a conservation treatment as a chance to improve or fix the work. The conservator typically looks at a work of art from a historical perspective—the point is to freeze that authentic moment in time—while the artist may see the work as a living thing, part of his or her continuing practice, perhaps something to be revisited again and again. In these situations, in order to maintain a productive relationship between the parties, I think it’s important to keep in mind that neither viewpoint is “wrong.” There is value in both perspectives and siding with one or the other—which ultimately may have to happen—necessitates some form of loss.
Artists and conservators also tend to have overlapping but ultimately different bodies of knowledge of materials and techniques. I have learned a lot from artistic approaches to materials, and when it comes to digital, video and other electronic media, in my case, the artists are often the true experts!
Thus, the process of collaboration involves quite a lot of back and forth communication, trying to learn what the other person knows and what his or her outlook is exchanging knowledge, and trying to come to consensus, or at least understanding, about how to best approach preservation.
In the past decade or so, there has been a great deal published in the conservation community about techniques for interviewing artists, and for recording and interpreting such interviews. We all hope that this material will help curators and conservators in the future, who are tasked with interpreting these artworks after their makers are gone. One of the challenges of interviewing variable media artists is anticipating changes to artworks that may be necessary in the future, as well as asking questions about details of artworks that may seem inherent and obvious in one state, but may not be so after a work is migrated. For instance, a film-based work may be shown with the film projector running in a gallery, producing the humming and clicking sounds that film projectors make. Should it become necessary to reformat the film to video, the film projector goes away as well as the sound it makes. The question is whether that sound component is actually an important part of the artwork or not. And if it is an important part of the work, should it be artificially reproduced in that scenario? Or is the work not really the work without the actual film projector in the gallery?
ICOSA: Are there any artists you particularly admire?
Moomaw: One artist I particularly admire for her intense level of dedication to her work is the performance artist Marina Abramović. In many of her works, she has tested the limits of her body and mind through actions like prolonged immobility, cutting or whipping herself, binding herself to her former partner Ulay, or making herself totally passive and vulnerable to an audience of strangers. In recent years, she has taken an interest in reviving past performances by other artists, and in 2005, she performed seven such works over the course of seven nights at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Performance art is now being collected by museums and is perhaps the most intangible of variable media types. Marina has been a real trailblazer for the field of performance art preservation through her writings, talks and performances.
A great majority of art collectors and museums will need to restore variable media. Finding opportunities in the approach and solving problems are striking when stories behind the restoration are told. When viewing variable media or any artwork, consider what has made it possible to be displayed, what materials were used and how it might relate to you, and that will illustrate in part why the artwork is at the museum. Conservation of variable media may sometimes be admonitory, but is always inspiring.
For more information about the Denver Art Museum, visit www.denverartmuseum.org.