Two days before the 47th meeting was fully underway at Mohegan Sun, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston hosted twenty-one participants for a workshop on the assessment and documentation of complex (multi-component) electronic media works. Supported by the Electronic Media Group, the workshop was led by Mona Jimenez (Materia Media) and Jeff Martin (New Art Trust) and facilitated by Flavia Perugini (Associate Conservator, MFA).
For any readers who may be unfamiliar with the term, time-based media is described by the Guggenheim museum as “Contemporary artworks that include video, film, slide, audio, or computer technologies are referred to as time-based media works because they have duration as a dimension and unfold to the viewer over time.” Over time is intended to mean a duration that is stated as part of the description of the work or can be immediately perceived by the viewer when the work is fully installed.
Participants came from a broad range of institutions, both geographically and in organization type. We were a mix of conservators, collection managers, curators, and a few also introduced themselves as practicing artists in electronic media. All had signed up to learn more about assessing and documenting works and interpreting documentation, but many were also interested in understanding how that documentation could be integrated into workflows, namely acquisition or exhibition. There was also a strong interest in how this practice can cultivate a holistic view of a complex work, understanding how an artwork’s components work together and thus more effectively plan for obsolescence of those components.
The workshop was structured around two case studies, both acquired by the MFA. The first was Catherine Sullivan’s Ice Floes of Franz Joseph Land, 2003 and the second was Cerith Wyn Evans’s "Flicker" by Ian Sommerville (1959), 2004. Ice Floes is described as a 16mm film transferred to digital media, black and white with sound. In exhibition, it has been presented as a 5-channel installation. A single channel edit with excerpts from the work can be found on the artist’s Vimeo profile. Flicker is much more complex, Consisting of a heavy chandelier programmed to blink on and off in a Morse code pattern. That pattern is based on a short essay about the effects of flickering light on the brain. The text is converted to morse code via a software program that runs on a PC. In addition to the chandelier hanging from the ceiling, the software application running on the computer is also presented to the audience on a small monitor nearby.
Prior to the workshop, Jeff and Mona kindly provided publicly available reading and video resources to help us familiarize ourselves with the two artworks. I hadn’t been aware of either work beforehand, and I’ll admit I found Ice Floes easier to grasp than Flicker. We also received an overview of the fundamentals of media elements and audiovisual systems on Day 1, and on the fundamentals of computer systems, both hardware and software, on Day 2.
The documentation practice was focused on identifying these works’ significant properties and concisely describing the equipment and related technical processes that comprise them. Significant properties consist of ideas, behaviors, and aesthetics, and may also include concepts such as interactivity or timing. The identification of technical processes involves looking at the anatomy of a work, understanding the parts and structure, and finding the processes, relationships, or interdependencies that exist within the fully realized artwork.
In order to illustrate the method above, it may help to describe current, comparable approaches for documenting time-based media artworks. One popular strategy is the Documentation Model for Time-Based Media, an identity and iteration reporting model, established by Joanna Phillips, formerly the Associate Media Conservator while at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Each installation of an artwork is documented separately in an iteration report, which also captures the decisions made during the process, as well as their justifications. Changes to the media or its installation can be captured and compared over time. The Identity Report describes the significant properties of the artwork, notes the range of variability allowed in each iteration, and identifies dedicated media or other requirements for display, as well as inherent risks. It is informed by instructions or input from the artist or the artist’s studio or estate, but also subsequently revised by past iterations, so the two report types ultimately inform one another.
Another TBM documentation model is the technical narrative, developed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art under the leadership of Jill Sterrett, former head of Conservation and Collections at SFMOMA. The technical narrative provides a high-level description of a work as a whole, identifies distinct components which are evaluated upon acquisition, and includes an analysis of the potential concerns or risks to the work and its components. An excellent description on the structure of the technical narrative can be found in a recent article by Mark Hellar, technology consultant for SFMOMA, in the Spring 2019 issue of Voices of Contemporary Art online journal.
These practices, among many others that have been developed over the last twenty years, have generally similar approaches: describe the work as a whole, noting significant qualities, then break the work down to its parts, assess the risks to the parts, and determine where/how a loss of the parts (due to obsolescence or damage) will affect the significant qualities. Most of the differences between the strategies are in how the information is organized and where it lives–i.e. is stored and accessed–within an institution. My place of work has adopted the identity/iteration report model, but i have recently added a field called Normal Operating Behavior to our cataloging system and iteration report template, a term i’ve borrowed from my colleagues at The Thoma Foundation. This field is used to describe what the viewer should experience when all elements are completely installed and all equipment is working properly. It ultimately can function as a technical description of significant behaviors.
For me, one of the highlights of the workshop was digging our mental fingers into the case studies. I’m incredibly grateful to Flavia and the MFA for providing the workshop attendees with samples of documentation and correspondence related to these works. Naturally, we weren’t permitted to keep this internal documentation, but I saw many comparable examples of documents for TBM works that my own museum has accumulated over the years: incoming condition reports on equipment, email correspondence between the museum and galleries, studios, or artists, and texts on past exhibitions of the works. We divided into groups of 4-5 people to analyze the information provided to us, then gathered back together as a large group to discuss questions or conclusions that arose. Flicker raised all kinds of questions for us! Along with the documentation, Flavia and her colleagues brought the computer system and all the equipment for the artwork into the workshop space (with the exception of the chandelier, which was still located in a nearby gallery space from a recent installation of the work). While we didn’t power on or connect all of the equipment, the organizers were able to operate a PC loaded with the text-to-morse code translating software and display it for the group. It was noted that a new computer had replaced the one that arrived in the acquisition. This spurred questions about any potential change in the aesthetic presentation of the software on the new operating system or monitor, whether or not there was a change in processing speed (did the lights flicker at the same speed or faster now?), if the computer still worked with the rest of the equipment, among many other points.
Overall, the discussions were a crucial aspect of the workshop. In-person dialogues with instructors and fellow attendees are the reasons most of us attend workshops in the first place: face-to-face interaction is still the most rewarding and efficient form of communication, even when there are plenty of resources available online. The structure of dividing us into smaller groups then bringing us all together again is also a tried and true workshop design–those who aren’t comfortable speaking in a large group have the opportunity to do so in smaller groups. We did meet as a large group more often, and it was a great opportunity for participants to ask questions to the group about practices or strategies and potentially receive feedback from nearly 25 people at once.
Jeff and Mona noted this was the first instance of this workshop and that they intend to continue developing it, possibly for AIC or for other venues as a standalone workshop.
* I would also like to note that at this year’s conference, Mona was awarded the David Magoon-University Products Conservation Advocacy Award. The award recognizes the accomplishments and contributions for conservation professionals who have advanced the field of conservation and furthered the cause of conservation through substantial efforts in outreach and advocacy. Congratulations Mona!
#AICmtg19 #timebasedmedia #ElectronicMediaGroup #documentation