Conservation Surveys for Time-based Media Art Collections

Mona Jimenez
The Electronic Media Review, Volume Five: 2017-2018

ABSTRACT

Conservation surveys of time-based media art collections can point caretakers to artworks with urgent needs; they can also lead to improved policies and procedures as part of an organization’s commitment to preventive conservation. However, time-based media collections are typically largely heterogeneous, making it difficult to compare the needs of one artwork or set of artworks against another. In addition, organizational norms and practices—particularly in such areas as classification, description, storage, and staff roles and communication—affect the health and longevity of these artworks. A proposed survey framework, a work-in-progress, was presented by the author at the AIC 46th Annual Meeting. The framework sets out an overall structure for investigation and data collection for surveying at both the macro (organizational) and micro (artwork) levels.

INTRODUCTION

Conservation surveys provide data to enable conservators to mitigate risks to art collections and to set priorities for item-level conservation going forward. Surveys are essential tools to identify works with urgent needs, but assessing an entire collection of time-based media (TBM) artworks can be daunting. These collections can exhibit great variations: obsolescent analog and digital magnetic tapes; a multiplicity of film gauges; file-based works in numerous formats, often still stored on removable media; multichannel projections/installations; software-based works; and works relying on networks or databases, to name a few. An in-depth examination of each individual artwork is usually not feasible within the parameters of a survey.1 Given such a wide diversity of works, how does a conservator identify vulnerabilities, both shared and individual? With so much variation, how does one know which of the works have the greatest needs and, thus, how does one prioritize conservation actions?

The following extended abstract summarizes the framework to date; it is still a work in progress. The overall goal of the framework is to help caretakers and cultural heritage organizations understand their collections and their current systems and practices so that they can take action: formulating new or improved collection management policies and procedures (preventive conservation) and performing in-depth examination and treatment of individual artworks as needed. Thus far, the framework includes approximately 25 areas of investigation. These areas have been identified to structure observation and data collection on both the organization and status of the artworks. Each area of investigation contains a set of questions drawn from conservation standards and best practices.2 Taken together, data from this information can be used to develop a plan that includes actions on both fronts. In other words, the framework emphasizes practical pathways for inquiry and data collection that allow caretakers to compare organizational and artwork characteristics to community standards that support the sustainability.

ORGANIZATIONAL ASSESSMENT

Like many works of contemporary art, TBM works have not meshed easily with traditional collection management and art handling practices and, in many cases, are not given the same care as other art objects. These works are often very challenging to the various caretakers who must assess, track, install, document, and conserve these works. They have demanded changes in classification, description, storage, and departmental roles and responsibilities, as well as the way staff communicate and collaborate. These changes are particularly urgent, as management must be carried out in both physical and virtual domains, since artists increasingly work digitally and digital files have become the target format for preservation of older media formats.

The framework proposes two key areas for organizational assessment: roles and communication, and policies and procedures. Roles and communication are investigated as follows:

  • The roles and responsibilities of various caretakers
  • The degree of clarity regarding roles among the caretakers
  • What documentation is created by each caretaker
  • Existing systems for sharing documentation, if any
  • The nature of the participation of conservation professionals

Policies and procedures include the following:

  • The degree of alignment of practices for the care of TBM works to an organization’s overall collection care policies and procedures
  • The state of description—specifically, the categorization of various elements and the tracking of artist masters3
  • The state of storage and management of file-based artworks
  • The state of categorization and management of hardware/software elements

In each of these broad areas, specific questions are needed. For example, for the storage and management of file-based artworks, assessment questions can include the following:

  • Are the artist’s masters replicated in multiple locations for redundancy?
  • Are the duplicate files stored in different geographic locations?
  • If remaining on removable media, is the museum using different brands of media storage for backup copies?
  • Are the masters stored according to standards for organization and arrangement?
  • Is minimal information recorded in an associated spreadsheet or catalog and stored with the files?
  • Do the files have unique identifiers?
  • Have the files been validated and is there a practice of checks for file integrity?

ARTWORK ASSESSMENT

For artworks, the framework recognizes that all TBM works are in and of themselves systems; that is, at its simplest, any artwork involves one or more sources or inputs, at least one process or energetic change, and one or more outputs. (Many artworks involve more than one manifestation of this system of input-process-output.) Thus, we may think of the analysis of any given artwork as an analysis in three stages: the input being the sources (i.e., the artist masters); one or more processes that play back or execute sources; and output devices, such as displays (monitors, projectors), speakers, and other means of viewer experience or interaction (fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Inputs, Processes, and Outputs categories.
Fig. 1. Inputs, Processes, and Outputs categories.

Risks to the longevity of the work can lie in one, two, or all three parts of the system. Thus, the status of each part is necessary. Describing a TBM work as a system not only encourages conservators to think holistically about the care of its parts but also provides an organizing principle for its analysis (fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Examples of parts of the system of a TBM artwork for which data should be collected.
Fig. 2. Examples of parts of the system of a TBM artwork for which data should be collected.

The framework suggests that, at a minimum, data should be collected for each artwork to determine the following:

  • The status is artist’s masters
  • The status of hardware, software, and communication protocols necessary for an artwork’s processes and outputs
  • The status of preservation masters, if any

In addition, for complex works, one should do the following:

  • Write a brief functional description of the artwork, which identifies and places its components in the three system parts.
  • Evaluate the status of instructions for installation and other forms of documentation.

As with the organizational assessment, one must delve into several subareas, each with its own set of questions. For example, for artists’ masters, questions should revolve around the following:

  • Whether each master is identified and classified
  • The quality and sustainability of the master
  • If the master has an associated carrier dependency and, if so, an assessment of its condition
  • The existence and state of underlying production elements for the master, if needed for future reconstruction

Each subarea leads to further questions. For example, an analysis of quality and sustainability leads to questions such as these:

  • How close is the master to the highest-quality version of the work?
  • Does the master fall within the museum’s preferred formats for acquisition, if any?
  • Is the software or programming language that created the master in current use?
  • Is the master format proprietary, open standard, or open source?
  • Is the creation software or programming language associated with the master proprietary, open standard, or open source?

It is likely that at least a portion of the TBM works can be grouped together, as they share underlying material characteristics and technologies, processes, or artist working methods. For example, most multichannel media installations of a particular era will share similar technologies for controlling and synchronizing the display of the numerous sources (artist’s masters). In addition, the framework calls for identifying file-based artist’s masters according to three sub-categories: audio/video files (such as QuickTime files or MP3s), compiled files (executables, self-contained files, or software), and uncompiled files (source code or scripts). Separation in this way allows the assessor to make observations about the relative sustainability of file-based artworks within the collection as a whole.

NOTES ON RISKS AND PRIORITIES

The original abstract for the AIC talk reflected an assumption that the framework would start with a set of risks—such as technological obsolescence, artist’s use of proprietary software or hardware, or the lack of managed digital storage—and articulate a method for quantifying and thus determining the relative risk of works in the collection. Risk assessment has been found to be a useful methodology for the examination of individual TBM works (Laurenson 2007, Falcão 2011-2012), following on the work of Jonathan Ashley-Smith (1999), and has been foundational to traditional conservation surveys (Waller 2002, 2003). Given additional time and research, incorporating current theories of conservation surveying (a rich field of study) and correlating a comprehensive lists of risks and input-process-output components may be possible.  

The original abstract for the AIC talk reflected an assumption that the framework would start with a set of risks—such as technological obsolescence, artist’s use of proprietary software or hardware, or the lack of managed digital storage—and articulate a method for quantifying and thus determining the relative risk of works in the collection. Risk assessment has been found to be a useful methodology for the examination of individual TBM works (Laurenson 2007, Falcão 2011-2012), following on the work of Jonathan Ashley-Smith (1999), and has been foundational to traditional conservation surveys (Waller 2002, 2003). Given additional time and research, incorporating current theories of conservation surveying (a rich field of study) and correlating a comprehensive lists of risks and input-process-output components may be possible.  

At this point, the framework makes preliminary suggestions about how artworks might be prioritized before and after a survey from a subjective and common sense vantage point. For example, at the beginning of a survey, one might examine the following:

  • Individual TBM works or categories of works that are the oldest (assuming that the older the technology is, the more problems there will be attempting to use it)
  • Those works containing multiple processes (assuming that the more processes it contains, the more likely there is a possibility for failure and errors of timing/communication)
  • File-based works with no backups (assuming that loss could occur at any time)

Data collected through a survey could identify works with one or more of the following characteristics, which indicate substantial risks:

  • Works with unidentified and/or unclassified masters, and those for which the organization does not hold complete master materials or components
  • Works with file-based masters, particularly for which
    • there are no backups of master files;
    • the masters are compiled files (particularly those dependent on external media and/or extinct software); and/or
    • the masters are of low quality and/or unsustainable file formats.
  • Works with multiple processes, in particular, in combination with
    • reliance on extinct software/hardware;
    • a lack of understanding and documentation of timing, signal/data communication/flow, computation, and other critical processes; and/or
    • those dependent on custom-designed software/hardware (especially for which the programmer/inventor is unengaged).
  • Works of audio/video demanding priority:
    • Laser discs, open-reel audio/videos, and rare and nonprofessional audio/video
    • Small-format audio/video.

It is critical that methodologies for conservation surveys of TBM works are discussed, shared, and tested. The presentation of this work in progress was made in the spirit of the creation of workable surveying models. Feedback is welcome; please send to mona@materiamedia.com.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I am deeply grateful for a 2018 Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) fellowship for time to research and conceptualize the framework, with special thanks to Joel Taylor, Anna Duer, and Tom Learner. I am also especially appreciative of my conversations with Martha Singer, Patricia Falcão, and Pip Laurenson, and for the feedback and support from my much-valued colleagues at University of California Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Museum of Art.

ENDNOTES

1. The author’s experience—and, thus, her orientation—is with consultant surveys of 1 to 3 weeks on site, where the endproduct is a report with basic collection data, observations on organizational systems, and a set of short-term and long-term recommendations. It is expected that this framework could be scaled to occur over a longer period of time and could be done by a consultant, staff, or a combination of the two.

2. The questions are derived from literature and published standards, such as ISO standards for the storage of media and film, but also from the work of many generous colleagues, as presented in such resources as Matters in Media Art (http://mattersinmediaart.org/), the Smithsonian TBMA Working Group (https://www.si.edu/tbma/about), the Library of Congress Digital Preservation (http://www.loc.gov/preservation/digital/), and TechFocus and other programs of EMG (http://www.conservation-us.org/specialty-topics/electronic-media-group).

3. Terminology varies for the source materials provided by the artist—media, film, files, scripts, and so on—that are key elements in the processes enacted in time-based works. For the purposes of this abstract, the phrase “artist’s master” is used. Other common terms are “artist-provided master” and “artist archival master.”

REFERENCES

Ashley-Smith, J. 1999. Risk assessment for object conservation. Oxford, UK: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Falcão, P. “Risk Assessment as a tool in the conservation of software-based artworks.” In The Electronic Media Review, Volume Two: 2011–2012, ed. Briana Feston, Jane Klinger, Sarah Norris, and Jeffrey Warda. http://resources.conservation-us.org/emg-review/volume-two-2011-2012/falcao/ (accessed 08/22/18).

Laurenson, P. 2007. “Research on preservation strategies, part 1: risk assessment.” In Inside Installations: Presentation and Preservation of Installation Art, ed. Tatja Scholte and Paulien ’t Hoen, 42–45. Amsterdam: Instituut Collectie Nederland and Foundation for the Conservation of Contemporary Art. http://www.sbmk.nl/uploads/inside-installations-kl.pdf (accessed 08/08/18).

Waller, R. 2002. “A risk model for collection preservation.” ICOM Committee for Conservation preprints. 13th Triennial Meeting, Rio de Janeiro. London: ICOM (1): 102–107.

Waller, R. 2003. “Cultural property risk analysis model: development and application to preventive conservation at the Canadian Museum of Nature.” PhD dissertation, University of Goteborg.

Mona Jimenez
Lead Consultant, Materia Media
105 E. 16th Street, 2H
Brooklyn, NY 11226
mona@materiamedia.com