EMG Conference Report: Amye McCarther


The American Institute for the Conservation of Artistic Works’ 47th Annual Meeting took place at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Connecticut, May 13-18th, 2019. I had the privilege of attending, thanks to a generous speaker stipend awarded by the AIC’s Electronic Media Group (EMG), of which I have been a member since 2014. This was my first time presenting at the Annual Meeting and my first time attending a pre-conference workshop. The theme of the meeting was "New Tools, Techniques, and Tactics in Conservation and Collection Care." 

The first two days of the Annual Meeting I attended Emergency Recovery of Audiovisual and Electonic Media, a workshop organized by Tara Kennedy, a Conservator at the Yale University Library, and held at the Yale University Library’s new Center for Preservation and Conservation. I was particularly eager to attend as I’ve become increasingly interested in the intersection of preventative conservation and disaster recovery with climate change through my work with the Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan New York (ART) and our support of archivists organization La Red de Archivos de Puerto Rico (ArchiRED) in the wake of Hurricane Maria. I had previous completed coursework on disaster response for photography collections and this was an opportunity to expand my knowledge base to encompass electronic media as well. 

The first day of the workshop was led by Peter Brothers of SPECS BROS., LLC, a consulting firm specializing in disaster recovery of electronic media. The workshop consisted of a training session covering the logistics of disaster preparedness and safety protocols, as well as handling and treatment of magnetic tape, film, optical disks and other digital storage that have sustained exposure to water or smokeThe lecture was followed by a hands-on exercise which simulated how to handle videocassettes and optical disks after a flood that included washing off debris, removing magnetic tapes from cartridges, cleaning and drying affected areas.  


Peter Brothers demonstrating disaster recovery for videotapes during a simulated flood scenario. 

The second day of the workshop began with presentations by Roddy Schrock, the Executive Director of Eyebeam, and Lisa Horsley, Library Services Director, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Each of the speakers described a disaster scenario that had occurred at their respective institutions and the steps they took towards remediation. Following the discussion, attendees were given a presentation on Yale University Library’s Scaling Emulation and Software Preservation Infrastructure (EaaSI) program to enable broader access and use of preserved software and digital objects by Digital Preservation Manager Euan Cochrane and Program Manager Seth Anderson. The workshop closed with tours of the new facilities for audiovisual preservation and digital preservation, after which attendees were treated to a reception at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.  

Workshop attendees touring the audiovisual preservation unit at the Yale University Library Center for Preservation and Conservation.

Emergency Recovery of Audiovisual and Electonic Media workshop inspired me to attend the National Heritage Responders (NHR) Business Meeting. I had the pleasure of meeting Jessica Unger, the NHR Emergency Programs Coordinator, in person, as we’d been in touch over the preceding months after Hurricane Maria as we looked for ways for ART to help with the recovery efforts from afar. I enjoyed hearing about the advocacy activities undertaken by the NHR and look forward to more opportunities to collaborate in the future. 

The remainder of my time was largely spent attending presentations in the Electronic Media Specialty Sessions, as well as concurrent General Sessions on the conservation of contemporary art. The diversity of technical challenges and resourceful approaches presented in the Electronic Media sessions and their applicability to my own practice have always attracted me to these sessions and this year was no exception.  

There were several sessions examining difficulties and opportunities presented by emerging app-based works, as well as augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR). Flaminia Fortunato, Fellow in Media Conservation at MoMA, and Joey Heinen and Morgan Kessler, Digital Preservation Manager and Media Collections Manager at LACMA, presented compelling case studies demonstrating the near-term risks to iOS app-based works with proprietary hardware and software dependencies, and the challenges they present to current strategies for documentation and condition checking. Mark Hellar, of Hellar Studios LLC, and Savannah Campbell, Media Preservation Specialist at the Whitney Museum of American Art, provided an overview of the VR hardware, software, and media, as well as emerging standards for proprietary and open source platforms, and the variety of instantiations they may encompass from video and software-based art, to installations and interactive experiences, and any number of combinations within these categories. The urgency of adapting existing strategies to these ephemeral and contingent technologies was a consistent thread throughout many of the presentations, as was the determination to collaborate across institutions in order understand and address issues as these technologies develop with the recognition that the window of opportunity documentation and preservation can be brief as the evolution of these technologies accelerates. My own presentation, which delved into the affordances of Rhizome’s Webrecorder tool for documenting and capturing highly ephemeral works of net art, drew similar conclusions regarding the need for collaboration between practitioners with specialized knowledge and the immediacy imposed by rapid technological change. 

Savannah Campbell presenting with Mark Hellar on VR in time-based media conservation.


Yet, while some presentations focused on the challenges posed by emerging technologies, others looked to the possibilities these technologies present for documenting and preserving lost and ephemeral works. Sasha Arden, a student in the inaugural cohort of the NYU Time-based Media conservation program, explored the use of AR to virtually preserve the experience of time-based works that may be too fragile or damaged to display, and Yu Hsien Chen and Tzu-chuan Lin of the Taiwan Digital Art Foundation presented a project to reconstruct the experience of a Tao Ya-Lun's immersive solid light work The Ending of Historical Light (2009) in 360 degree VR. 

In addition to presentations focused on emerging technologies, there were several intriguing presentations by conservators working with technologies that have long obsolesced. These included the Standby Program’s Bill Seery and Maurice Schechter’s novel approaches to correcting variable tape speed of open reel videotapes to restore the earliest known recordings of avant garde music and performance art collective The Residents. Media Conservator Dan Finn’s presentation on documentation, analysis, and risk assessment of Nam June Paik’s video wall Megatron/Matrix (1995) and Jenny Holzer’s LED sculpture SAAM (2007) preceding de-installation at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the re-fabrication of the latter, underscored the host of challenges presented by complex works in older electronic media, highlighting tensions that may arise from multiple conceptual valences that manifest in a given work and their implications for conservation treatment as these technologies disappear from circulation 

Dan Finn presenting on the documentation for de-installing Nam June Paik's Megatron/Matrix (1995).


There were many social and networking highlights throughout the conference. I was delighted to reconnect with colleagues at the opening reception in the spacious atrium of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center which, as part of the government of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, promotes knowledge and understanding of the richness and diversity of the indigenous cultures and societies of the United States and Canada. Attendees could wander through the galleries and were treated to a traditional Mashantucket Pequot dance performance. I also enjoyed getting introduced to new acquaintances at the newly formed Contemporary Art Network (CAN!) happy hour, following the EMG sessions. This year, the specialty groups held a joint reception at the Mystic Seaport Museum, national center for research and education on America’s maritime history. One of my fondest moments from the trip was taking a ferry along the Museum’s recreated New England seafaring village on the Mystic River at sunset. It was also a great pleasure to see Mona Jimenez honored with the University Products Conservation Advocacy Award at the AIC Annual Awards Presentation. Those of us working with time-based media recognize Mona’s pioneering work in the field and ongoing advocacy, so it was wonderful to see that recognition echoed in the field at large. 

In all, it was wonderful to engage with and learn from conservators who are grappling the intricacies of conserving complex and variable media and to reconnect with my colleagues from across the country. I feel honored to have had the opportunity to share aspects of my practice at the Electonic Media Specialty Session and grateful for the EMG speaker stipend which made the trip possible. Many thanks to the Electronic Media Group’s Scholarship and Programming Committees and to Small Data Industries for providing this opportunity! I look forward to reconnecting and learning more in Salt Lake City next year.