July 2020 meetup: Time-based media

Art Gallery of New South Wales and DAMsmart: A collaborative project in time-based media preservation

Settle in, this one's a long one!

July's meeting was looking at the case study of Art Gallery of New South Wales and DAMsmart: A collaborative project in time-based media preservation with Asti Sherring, a time-based art conservator at Art Gallery NSW, and Andrew Martin from DAMsmart. Due to copyright requirements around the art this meeting was not recorded but hopefully this blog will pique an interest and lead to further conversations!

Asti and Andrew came in with a wonderfully colourful and collaborative presentation starting with defining what we mean when we say "time-based media art". What is "time-based media art" and how do we approach it differently to traditional conservation? Asti pointed out that internationally there are a variety of different terms for what the Art Gallery of NSW refers to as "time-based media art". All these different terms essentially are referring to a specific type of artist practice that includes duration as an element - be that performative, instructional, song, film, sound, or other software-based media.

What does this means for time-based art conservators like Asti? Basically there is A LOT OF MATERIAL! Lots of different types of artworks ranging from video-based work to ephemeral, site-specific pieces. There are also often lots of different elements within one specific piece of art and sometimes the only piece we have is the documentation of the work itself.

Asti went on to explain how the specialisation of "time-based art conservator" within the larger preservation profession is slightly different to the needs of your "standard" conservator. We should think outside the more traditional concepts and methods of traditional art conservation - though not entirely removed from it. Essentially we need to consider different approaches when looking at time-based art conservation vs. traditional art conservation. This includes different collection management principles, different conceptual frameworks, and different skill sets for the conservator.

To illustrate how a work can define a conceptual framework, Asti gave an example of an art piece made up of three distinct elements - each requiring conservation:

  • the media carrier (in this instance a VHS tape) where we could encounter physical deterioration, obsolescence, playback issues etc.
  • the physical components (cello and TV sets) a sculptural element which requires a more classical conservation framework
  • the performance (a cellist playing the TV cello in the Art Gallery NSW vestibule) this piece was created for performance, not as a static piece. The performance was being recorded and played back at the same time.

In relation to collection management principles and the aspects to consider when talking about time-based media art - in traditional art conservation the artwork that the museum or gallery is (generally) complete and there is a definitive work: this is the artwork as defined by the artist before the museum or gallery acquired it. When it is being conserved by the gallery or museum the pieces of the artwork (frame, canvas) get treated separately and then brought back together and are the same as they were when initially deposited. It is a linear process where the artwork moves through established workflows. With time-based media art... well, that's a different story altogether.

The example Asti uses for discussing collection management principles in time-based media art is a 13 channel digital video with 36 channels of sound synchronized over a networked system. The artwork comes together at different times to have these moments of synchronicity. But it's not just this that is the artwork. It's the installation space and the layout and how people move through the space - all of it *is* the artwork. Looking at this piece of artwork through traditional lens would not be correct as it would then just be the USB that contains the media files. The USB (in this case) is not THE artwork but is a carrier that HOLDS the artwork. How do we document, record, and engage with a large installation that changes EVERY time it goes on display?

Looking at the technical skills and knowledge base that are needed when dealing in this area, Asti mentioned that we (AusPreserves) are well aware of the technical skills needed for time-based media preservation. The same skills that are required in a lot of different digital preservation fields are present here, and the same misconceptions exist here too! Haven't we all heard "digital is easy" and "can't we just get another copy?"

We, as information professionals, need to look further than where current conservation studies are looking.

DAMsmart and Art Gallery New South Wales Collaboration

The first thing Asti did when she began at Art Gallery New South Wales was to ask "What do we have? What do we want? What do we know?". To do this Asti looked at a number of important questions like "what media carriers do we have in the collection?", "How many works require digitisation or migration?", "How many works meet international digital preservation standards?", and importantly, "What happens if we do nothing?". Researching and answering these (and other) questions allowed for Asti to engage with the institution and say "here is the data, here are our stats, how can we move forward in this area?"

An early step that they took was to re-imagine their collections management database to include the more conceptual models that Asti spoke about earlier. They felt that before beginning to work with DAMsmart they needed to work out what the objects they were aiming to preserve were. What are the objects conceptually, historically, physically, etc. before moving forward.

Asti here spoke about the importance of collaboration, something that is brought up a lot in AusPreserves and the wider digital preservation field. No one conservator can address ALL the different digital preservation needs for ALL the different media works. AGNSW began a collaboration with DAMsmart to try to begin the process of preserving some aspects of their collection and, in doing so, establish specific standards and guidelines for moving forward in this space - together.

Andrew began by mentioning that not everything that exists within the AGNSW collection and National Art Archive could fit into one approach. They decided to separate them out based on what type of artwork they were and where they were.

The standards they defined are based on international standards and can still be recognised as international standards while also meeting the different preservation (and exhibition!) requirements of the art gallery itself. The exhibition requirements are an interesting area to look at as, as Asti pointed out, sometimes based media art was stored in the national art archive which is outside the collection. It is important to preserve these performative works as artworks not as documentation - these pieces need to be preserved to exhibition-ready quality. These standards were also informed by what the Tate has been doing over the last twenty years. Asti mentions how generous the Tate were, as well as MoMA and people within the gaming community - again focusing on the importance of collaboration and knowledge-sharing.

Written by Ali Hayes-Brady

For more on this topic, see Saving Art from Obsolescence, Art Gallery NSW

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