time-based media art

“When time-based media art in private collections no longer functions, who is responsible for conservation?”

The Small Data Industries lab — Ben Fino-Radin, Erin Barsan, Nick Kaplan and I — recently returned from the American Institute of Conservation (AIC) conference. The work I presented represents the “new” stream of my NDSR Art project, Something Old, Something New. My talk, within the Election Media Group (EMG) section, was entitled Conservators in the Wild: Collaboration with art studios, galleries and collectors. It calls attention to the conservation needs of time-based media art (TBMA) that exists outside the walls of institutions (that is, in “the wild”), in the contemporary art market — much of which is still being negotiated and standardized. In other words, the art world is often referred to as “the Wild West” (a phrase which also came up many times in the session).

Over the past 10 months, I’ve immersed myself in these contemporary art spaces — as a contrast to my background in cultural anthropology, ethnographic objects and Indigenous rock art conservation[1]. Although the art world has “practices, rituals and customs” that are unfamiliar to me, the methods are the same: observation and interviews in the field. These are often the only tools an anthropologist has in exploring new cultures in order to create primary source material. Whereas my previous fieldwork was conducted in literal fields and escarpments — here, I was “on the ground” in the contemporary media art world and my interviews were with emerging media artists, gallery owners, and private collectors. These interconnected spaces are what I will refer to as the “ecosystem of contemporary time-based media art”.

Within this ecosystem, I am focusing on the path of a TBMA piece from artist studio to gallery to private collection and looking for the problems it faces at each stop along its trajectory. My work also examines obstacles in the path’s interstitial spaces and the broader ecosystem that grows over many years in terms of obsolescence in private collections, reiterations in gallery spaces and new editions from the artist. As time passes, the spaces between these move farther apart — galleries close and artists retire — while complexities, particularly to the private collector, grow.

The Journey and Interstitial Spaces of TBMA
 Animation by Rachel Ward

This leads to the question: when time-based media art in private collections no longer functions, who is responsible for conservation — the artist, gallery, installation team or private conservation practice (that is, if a collector is even aware of such services)? Within museums, established protocols and processes are in place — but where should one turn without this system of defined support? Artists often pass their work directly from studio, to gallery to private hands. Yet these important, complex media pieces are stricken with the same inherent dilemmas as those safeguarded within institutions: obsolescence, demands for migration, repair and preservation.

The Path of TBMA Obsolescence
Animation by Rachel Ward

To unravel this theme at AIC, I quoted segments from my interviews with stakeholders that operate in mixed spaces in this “ecosystem” — for instance, when an artist’s work enters the gallery — when the collector reaches back out to them if a piece isn’t working — and instances of reiteration for new shows in galleries or museums. Overall, I attempted to include a broad spectrum of viewpoints to construct a more comprehensive view of this ecosystem, from established and emerging artists, to small and investment collectors, to the most serious, professionally managed private collections.

In my interviews with media artists, I realized concerns often stem from their old pieces in private collections that require repair. In these regards, they expressed the need for outside assistance, as well as creating comprehensive archives, documentation and bespoke storage systems based on their medium (e.g., apps, VR, installations). For the galleries, their needs mainly focused on a simple and easy way for them to safeguard their artists’ work, storage that would be synced with the artists’ studios for new versions and updates, and best methods for documenting and conferring artists’ parameters (for iteration, installation and repair) upon sale. Lastly, in my interviews with private collectors, it was apparent they desired a change in the viewpoint that once they buy a piece, they are the sole party responsible — or at the very least, basic instructions. According to one collection manager, “they never even told us to use a write-blocker!”. Finally, they want trust that if something goes wrong, there will be a defined system of support.

A “Healthy” TBMA Ecosystem
Animation by Rachel Ward

In looking forward to collaboratively develop recommendations, I recognized that many of these issues are professionally addressed and standardized in museums, with on-staff AV teams and conservators. But when these problems arise “in the wild”, new strategies must be conceived, often on the fly (as one gallery director put it), to address these urgent and, what could be very expensive, concerns. It seems that needs which occur outside the walls of institutions could be provided as a service, such as an ongoing monthly support model. For current and future collectors of TBM art, there needs to be assurance there is a system of support that will safeguard their investment. If this comes in the form of a service, such as a monthly fee, it needs to be simple and affordable.

It seems time-based media conservators in private practice could provide this support at every entry point along the TBMA path, directly to artists, galleries and private collections. Here, the most prudent and inexpensive solutions would rest in preventative conservation rather than salvage repair. In doing so, it could preemptively safeguard the legacy of artists — and by protecting works in private spaces, it may make TBMA more collectible, in turn, allowing artists to sustainably continue working in this medium for years to come. Importantly, these defined spaces of need may open up new roles and career opportunities for emerging media conservators, in our collective goal to preserve our global artistic legacy — from small art pieces “in the wild” to priceless artworks in institutions.

[1] Although, I am now renegotiating these established canons of anthropological research to that of digital anthropology, media archaeology, artist archives and time-based media art (TBMA)

NDSR Art Visits NYC

The NDSR Art Cohort (2018-19) Visits NYC

by Jean Moylan and Rachel Ward


Last month, we — Jean Moylan and Rachel Ward — hosted the NDSR Art (2018-19) cohort in New York City for a 3-day site visit consisting of tours, presentations, and events. Our objective was to develop a holistic itinerary that reflected both our NDSR Art Projects (Rachel is focusing on the media art ecosystem and conservation, while Jean is exploring digital preservation systems for A/V media). As such, we developed the theme of the “life cycle” of time-based media art by physically and pedagogically tracing the path of the piece from its creation in the artist’s studio, to conservation, acquisition and, ultimately, to preservation and storage in the collecting institution. Here is a look at what we put together:


Day 1: Guggenheim Offices


Tali Han, Manager of Library and Archives, and Jillian Suarez, Associate Librarian, at the Guggenheim Reading Room


Jean: On the first day of the visit, Rachel and I met the rest of our NDSR Art cohort at the Guggenheim offices for a tour of the archives and afternoon of staff-led presentations. We started in the reading room, where my project supervisor Tali Han – joined by Joey Cabrera and Jillian Suarez of the Library & Archives department – gave us an overview of the Guggenheim Museum’s history, tracing from its inception as the Museum of Non-Objective Painting in 1939 to the design and construction of its current, permanent building. Describing various items she’d pulled from the archives, Tali pointed out photographs of Peggy Guggenheim with her much-adored dogs and a shot of the Museum’s first librarians, Barbara Butler and Georgine Oeri. Some other highlights included a set of Ed Ruscha’s artist books and selections from Guggenheim founding director Hilla Rebay’s personal library, featuring zany titles such as, “The Power of Faith Healing: Psychic and the Divine” and, “The Voice of the Logos: The Way to Victorious Living.”


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Jean: In the afternoon session, we heard a presentation on the Panza Collection Initiative (PCI) led by Susan Wamsley (Digital Asset Manager), Cristina Linclau (Manager of Exhibitions and Collections Information), Kristen Tivey (Project Archives Assistant), and Tali. The PCI team formed in 2010 when the Guggenheim received a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to preserve a collection of Minimalist, Post-Minimalist, and Conceptual artworks that the Museum had acquired from Italian collector Giuseppe Panza di Biuomo in the early 1990’s. With this context in mind, we viewed excerpts from the artist interview and advisory committee meeting videos that had been digitized as part of the project, and we learned about the range of other materials (in various formats) that are associated with the Panza Collection. During a hands-on workshop that followed the screening, the cohort and presenters worked together to think through some of the more challenging considerations that have emerged from figuring out how to cohesively represent information about these assets across the Museum’s three main asset management, digital repository and collections information tools (MediaBeacon, ArchivesSpace, and TMS). We used printouts as stand-ins for the collection’s different content categories and placed each example in what we agreed to be its appropriate location, choosing between combinations of TMS, the Museum’s DAM, and its archival repository. While we reached no definitive conclusions (of course), we appreciated the dynamic nature of this exercise and the novel spaces it generated for thoughtful discussions surrounding the integration of digital information systems, a topic I’ve grappled with in the context of my own project.


Day 2: The Whitney and METRO

Rachel: Following an immersive tour of the private Guggenheim Offices and Archives, we spent the following morning at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The panel, graciously organized by Farris Wahbeh (Director of Research Resources) (also my ARLIS/NA mentor), provided a unique behind-the-scenes opportunity — a comprehensive overview of their new Media Preservation Initiative (MPI), a Mellon grant-funded project to implement a holistic preservation framework for the time-based media art works in the Museum’s permanent collection. Small Data Industries, my NDSR host, was hired to consult at the ground-level of this project (detailed by Farris and Ben later that day at METRO). The Whitney presentation included Farris as well as the MPI team: David Neary (Project Manager), Savannah Campbell (Preservation Specialist, Video and Digital), Christopher Bernu (Project Manager), and Brian Block (Research Fellow, Collections Information and Data). They demonstrated the process of implementing this epic, multi-year project through smaller-phased initiatives that systematically liaise the Curatorial, Conservation, Library and Archive Departments. Following this exclusive, erudite opportunity, Farris led us through the Conservation and Media Labs to introduce us to Christine Frohnert (Media Conservator) and Richard Bloes (Senior Technician). They walked us through their media art conservation and preparation process as they acquired new pieces for their current exhibition, Programmed, a momentous journey through the history of media art — an extraordinary, multi-year feat (particularly for the media conservators!).


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Jean: After visiting the Whitney, the cohort made their way over to the far West side of Manhattan to attend “Safeguarding and Activating Digital Video Information,” a panel I co-organized with the Metropolitan New York Library Council (METRO). This being my first experience organizing a public-facing panel discussion, I was equal parts excited and terrified for it to begin, but in the end extremely grateful to have Ben Fino-Radin, Farris Wahbeh, Amye McCarther, and Dave Rice as participants. Even though I’d reviewed the presenter’s abstracts in advance, I was pleasantly surprised at how varied and dynamic the discussion turned out to be. Topics ranged from preservation micro-services at CUNY-TV to born-digital video at the New Museum. Ben and Farris provided yet another perspective in their presentation on the Whitney’s Media Preservation Initiative, in which they talked about the RFP process and the Whitney’s collaboration with Small Data Industries.


Day 3: Small Data Industries

Rachel: On the final day of the Enrichment Session, we traveled to Industry City in Brooklyn to fuse the new physical and digital spaces we learned about on the trip. We designed the day’s experience to trace Cory Arcangel’s work from his studio —> to conservation lab (Small Data Industries) —> to museum acquisition (Christine and Richard’s demonstration) —> to installation (the Whitney’s Programmed exhibition —> to its ultimate home in digital storage (the theme of the Guggenheim, Whitney MPI and METRO presentations). In Cory’s studio, his assistants gave us a behind-the-scenes tour of his current works-in-progress and his older pieces that continue to inspire and shape the historical trajectory of contemporary media art. They also shared the storage system, custom-built by Small Data Industries, that facilitates geographic redundancy and disaster recovery — with the useful byproduct of real-time, remote collaboration among the studio’s distributed team.

Small Data Industries and Cory Arcangel’s Studio (Industry City, Brooklyn)


Visiting his studio granted us access to the “making” of the piece before we walked downstairs to the Small Data Industries lab. There, we introduced the other members of our team: our Operations Manager, Erin Barson (NDSR Art 2017-18), and Nick Kaplan (Winterthur/Delaware Program in Art Conservation) who is spending his third-year internship with us. Nick showed us Cory’s pieces that he is working on, from his early video-game work (currently at the Whitney) to ones that are being maintained and services for private collections. He also demonstrated some unique equipment, such as a UV drawer that erases data and the custom archival housing the team is designing for Cory’s works. We wrapped up the day in Camp David by discussing the manifestations and intersections of everything we had learned and seen and the things that we still hope to learn and see during the second-half our residencies.


Conserving the work of Cory Arcangel at the Small Data Industries lab


(Photo Credits: Rachel Ward)

Small Data Industries in 2018

If you’d like to see what we’ve been up to at Small Data Industries — my host for my 2018-19 NDSR Art Residency — please reminisce with us in our 2018 in Review. Some highlights include working inside Louise Bourgeois’ archive, a collaboration with The Current Museum, a long-term project with the Whitney Museum of American Art and our in-lab conservation of Cory Arcangel’s legendary video game pieces (one of which is on view right now at the Whitney’s Programmed exhibit):



We had the honor of working with thousands of Louise Bourgeois’ sound, video, and film recordings in her archive — preserved in the townhouse where she spent the later decades of her life.


Here I am testing out a work at The Current Museum: an experimental media art acquisition event. We process all of the pieces acquired at these quarterly salons, held at the founder’s loft in SoHo.


We are thrilled to be working with the Whitney Museum of American Art on a long-term project establishing their very first digital preservation/access system. Image from the Whitney’s Programmed exhibition, currently on view.


Cory Arcangel was one of our first clients and there’s been no shortage of new and exciting projects with him. Right now, our lab is filled with many of his famous “Mario Brothers” modification pieces — artworks that are coded and played on vintage Nintendo game cartridges and consoles.