On Changes and Challenges

[beginPage: Intro]

This title is derived from the chapter ‘On Changes and Challenges’ in Vivan Van Saaze’s Ph.D. thesis ‘Doing Artworks: Presentation and Conservation of Installation Artworks’


The only accurate way to test if we have understood, documented and transferred the constituent parts of a work of art and the work itself is by re-installing the work. The general approach, therefore, is to conduct case studies and interviews with artists and other key figures involved in the work. This approach was also adopted for the Obsolete Equipment project, which conducted more than ten video-based case studies and interviews in its first year. Included in the research for the case studies are the artist or culture of production, the collection or work of art (history, creation, context), and descriptions of the anatomy, character and identity of the artwork that are in line with the artist’s intentions. These case studies also define the appropriate approach and the desired result. Important questions that were asked included:

How are the problems related to this work defined, what solution/approach is proposed, and what is the result of this approach in relation to the definition of the problem?

When answering these questions, areas of special interest such as storage, obsolete equipment, risk analysis and documentation arise. These questions indicated a logical route to follow. Following this route highlights the core problems and areas requiring attention. Fundamental to the route is the full realisation of the character of video and multimedia artworks. This awareness influences the way such artworks are approached during their lifespan, and fosters the awareness that special care is required when it comes to (collecting and) storage, obsolescence, risk analysis, and documentation.1



1. Formulated in the Imago Revised project (2009), an ICN/NIMk project that developed guidelines for case studies and obsolete equipment.[endPage]  

[beginPage:Collecting and storing (obsolete) equipment] The importance of collecting and storing equipment has been underestimated for far too long. Although storing is the usual museal conservation approach, it has never been common practice to collect all the related equipment for media artworks. Frequently, all the equipment required for an installation is no longer available and/or the equipment pool is used to display a number of artworks. Furthermore, there is often a lack of proper storage facilities and documentation. Their vulnerability, along with rapid technological changes, makes functioning equipment scarce. Over the last few years the lack of dedicated equipment and knowhow about how to deal with it has been recognised and addressed on a growing scale. It is preferable to collect and store equipment that could be related to the artworks in a collection. Gfeller mentions two approaches to collecting and storing equipment:

- Storing the original equipment;
- Storing generic equipment typically used to present video artworks from a certain time period.1

This equipment can be used for presentations and research, as a reference when defining an artwork’s original appearance, and as starting point for emulation. Collecting relevant as well as dedicated equipment is seen as a way to gain more insights into how artworks were produced and presented; this is one of the main questions when it comes to preserving media artworks for future generations. A collection of representative cameras, players, recorders, computers, monitors, etc., is difficult to realise and manage. An important resource such as this has been realised for research purposes and incidental presentations at the Bern University of the Arts (BUA) and the ZKM (Centre for Art and Media) in Karlsruhe.

One could state that all the material belonging to a media art installation can be an inseparable part of the artwork. The visual material itself, the playback and projecting equipment, the original cables, sync devices, plugs and monitors could be essential to its re-installation. It must be possible to link all these component parts together, and register and document each of them with a condition report, which also specifies their location in the depot. This is extremely important, as it simplifies identifying which objects belong to a specific work of art.

The significance of the equipment can be extracted from the meaning and value of the work. The case studies and interviews revealed that, in general, not all the equipment has the same value for the meaning of a work of art. Information carriers, playback equipment and cables can often be replaced. Monitors appear to have the most bearing on the appearance of the artwork.

Photo: Bert Schutter and Ramon Coelho in front of projecttion of Mill x Molen  1982 - video still from interview 19-11-2009 - video: Dierck Roosen (NIMk)



In the case of Bert Schutter’s Mill x Molen (1982) no original equipment was saved. The hanging construction (a metal scaffold) and the documentation were still available but all twelve Sony PVM-2730QM cube monitors and the U-matic syncstarter were no longer part of the collection-owner’s holdings. After the Netherlands Office for Fine Arts (now the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage, ICN) acquired the work in 1990, all the equipment was transferred to Montevideo (now NIMk), after which NIMk transferred all equipment to Beam Systems in the first decade of the 21st century. Problems arose from the incorrect storage of materials, including the scattering and even the loss of several components. Twelve monitors had to be hired for the re-installation of Mill x Molen. It was not possible to hire them from one company; in fact, two rental companies struggled to meet the request. Unfortunately, even if only one of the monitors breaks down it will result in the loss of the visual appearance and experience of Mill x Molen. It is reasonable to expect this to happen within the next few years. The monitors determine both the aesthetic look of the installation and its historicity – the appearance of the installation is determined by the size and position of the monitors within the metal scaffold, as well as by the high quality of the screens. Sony monitors of this type are no longer produced. The best conservation strategy for Mill x Molen is to acquire and store twelve monitors, with a few in reserve. A documented technical analysis of the functionality of the monitors would offer the possibility of safeguarding the functioning of installations in the future, even if the preserved monitors were no longer working.2



Collecting equipment includes collecting spare equipment and spare parts, proper storage and regular maintenance. Best practices for storage and maintenance are brought together as part of the Obsolete Equipment project.3 The issue of storing equipment is an institutional problem. The participating institutions either have no – or only occasional – opportunities to specialise in this. Moreover, the quantity of necessary equipment will be such that it will exceed the storage capacities of the individual institutions, and the necessary knowhow is only occasionally available. During the Obsolete Equipment project the desire was repeatedly expressed to collectively store (historical) equipment, and preferably in one location. This seems to be the most viable solution at the moment.



1. From the interview with Johannes Gfeller by Rony Vissers and Emanuel Lorain.

2. From the case study report by researcher Evelyne Snijders.

3. http://www.packed.be/en/projects/readmore/obsolete_apparatuur/


[beginPage: Obsolescence ] Although proper storage and maintenance can extend the natural lifespan of electronic media and equipment considerably, it is probably only a temporary solution, as all equipment will eventually break down. The question is if their lifespan can be extended indefinitely through maintenance and repairs, especially when spare parts also become obsolete. Besides proper storage, maintenance and use as ways to extend the natural lifespan of electronic media and equipment, as well as general preservation practices should be taken in consideration when thinking about conserving media art. Conservators are only just starting to be confronted with this problem but Tate, for example, is interested in managing the way in which artworks using rare equipment are displayed, rather than just packing them away.


They would love to explore if there is an option of having a special exhibition at some point dedicated to works of art that use rare equipment as a way to stimulate more discussion on these issues. For example, exhibit some of the works that use rare equipment for a limited time during the day, for study purposes, or conduct research at weekly events; otherwise it might be very difficult to do. It is preferable that these works are being dealt with and are on display, rather than being in storage. Tina Weidner believes that as long as the equipment is still there, it is better to keep it going.1

Media art conservation has fostered new lines of enquiry, such as what is the estimated lifespan of a media artwork, and how can this be calculated? The sense of urgency in dealing with new media preservation was probably best expressed by Richard Rinehart, ‘With digital art, there’s no room for things to fall between the cracks. ... If you don’t do something to preserve it within a span of five years, it’s not going to survive.’ 2This statement is especially valid for digital art; the estimated lifespan of video art is a little longer, but not much. Because of the rapid developments dictated by commercial suppliers, the data storage of media art (video, laser-disc, CD-ROM, DVD, software, networks, etc.) as well as it’s presentation technology (monitors, projectors, hardware, etc.) are seldom current for more than ten years. The first step in the conservation of video art installations is usually migrating the video signal to a format suitable for archiving. Once the original visual material from an obsolete carrier or an outdated format has been digitised, the visual material is no longer dependent on the accompanying obsolete playback technology. This migration makes it possible in most cases to replace equipment with contemporary models. However, this is difficult, if not impossible, if the ‘look and feel’ needs to be respected.


As, for example, with ‘Oratorium voor geprepareerde videoplayer en acht monitoren’ (Oratory for Prepared Video Player and Eight Monitors, 1989), by Frank Theys, or Mon._ Sun. (1996) and Bach Two Part Intervention (1998), by Jonathan Horowitz, where the tapes are a sculptural elements too.

From the case study report by researcher Dieter Vermeulen.

Photo: Frank Theys Oratorium



In the case study Das Ende des Jahrhunderts Klaus vom Bruch stated that it is important not to fake the process. He prefers the original equipment but had no objections to updating it. He always wants the old equipment displayed beside the installation, so that viewers can see what the original work consisted of and that it has been updated.

From the case study report by researcher Dieter Vermeulen.


The best approach to carrying out case studies of media artworks and the conservation of equipment were defined based on Inside Installations practice. The possible strategies for the conservation of equipment include:


Restoring/repairing the original equipment

Acquiring spare equipment:

          - Historical copy: replacing the equipment with the same model or a type from the same period with the same or similar functions.

          - New copy: replacing the equipment with the same model or type from a later period, i.e., a more recent model with the same or similar functions.

Migration: Reconstructing the equipment with present-day technology.

Emulation: Reconstructing the equipment with present-day technology while retaining the original look and feel.

Re-interpretation: Replacing the equipment with present-day equipment based on the metaphorical values of the original equipment (the exterior of the new equipment is not per definition the same as the original equipment, but will have the same ‘status’ within the time-frame in which the equipment is used).

Reconstruction: A complete reconstruction of the work based on whatever information is still available.

Identifying functional significance is seen as starting point to understanding the importance and use of the equipment. The key questions are:

- Is the equipment purely functional or not?

- Can the function of the equipment be mapped without discernible change?

- Is the equipment visible or hidden from the viewer?


The general strand in these cases is to replace equipment or components with the same mass-produced model or with equipment having the same functionality. Replacing equipment when the look and feel of visible components and output belongs to a particular historical moment in time, or is related to a particular context, or to contemporary use of that technology, could endanger the aesthetic and historical integrity.

The use of modern equipment usually means a change in the appearance of the work compared to the original version. In some cases the original equipment is an essential part of the work; the artwork ceases to exist when this equipment disappears or becomes obsolete. It is therefore important to assess the status of the equipment within the artwork in order to arrive at a conservation strategy with regard to the equipment used.

The case studies show that there is a clear distinction between the significance of playback and display equipment. This issue is raised regularly in interviews. The consensus is that in most cases the playback equipment can be upgraded without causing too many problems. Display equipment is more problematic, however. Johannes Gfeller is quite categorical about this and advises interfering with the display equipment as little as possible. Pip Laurenson is more flexible in this regard and does not consider upgrading projectors as a significant problem, but has doubts about upgrading CRT monitors. Experience, research and the interviews with Pip Laurenson and Tina Weidner, among others, show that we should not rely on manufacturers as sources of vital technical information. The experience garnered by museums themselves is often considerably more important.


When it comes to replacing obsolete equipment, conservators and artists do not necessarily share the same viewpoint, and in such instances consultation and respect for each other’s point of view is essential. This can lead to surprising results. The Museum of Modern Art in Antwerp (M HKA) wants to upgrade ‘Oratorium…’ by using digital signals, but the artist is opposed to this and wants to retain the analogue signal. Artists are also happy to help find a solution – Klaus vom Bruch suggested displaying the obsolete equipment of Das Ende des Jahrhunderts, 1985, alongside the new (although quite how this should be done is still unclear).


Upgrading or replacement is not necessarily a negative approach; Peter Struycken, for example, was pleasantly surprised by the new version of Project I-’90:

I was surprised to see this work again in such a comprehensible condition after 20 years. Although all sorts of inaccuracies have crept in over the course of time, I had an extremely good impression of my work. I regard the reconstructed version in the same way you would listen to an old gramophone record. The intention of the performer remains audible despite all the scratches and clicks. And in this reconstruction I can clearly and easily recognise my own intentions.

From the interview with Peter Struycken by Gaby Wijers, 2009.


In the interview with Pip Laurenson and Tina Weidner, Weidner stated that almost anything is preferable to ending up in a situation where the work cannot be exhibited because those involved cling resolutely to the original equipment. Basically, if something has been lost, it should be acknowledged as such and made clear to the public (e.g., by creating or changing labels). This would thus be a curatorial responsibility.



1. From the interview with Pip Laurenson and Tina Weidner by Rony Vissers and Emanuel Lorain, 2010.

2. Interview for the article ‘How to Preserve Digital Art’ by Kendra Mayfield, in WIRED, 2002. Link: http://www.wired.com/culture/lifestyle/news/2002/07/53712. Although Rinehart focused on digital art in the interview, this statement applies to all media art forms, even early video art.


[beginPage:Risk analysis] As risk is defined as the ‘the expected loss of value’, the initial cultural value of an object or collection needs to be established. The greatest threats to media artworks are malfunction, autonomous decay and dissociation. The risk assessment methodology developed for collections of ‘traditional’ art provides a practical route to follow. This methodology was used for the first time during the Inside Installations project to evaluate risks facing media art.1


The core issues in risk analysis are:

Identifying the risks: what has the past taught us, and what future risks can be expected that will shorten the lifespan of the equipment?

Time pressure: how quickly should actions be taken to avert the threats or minimise their impact? What are the likely consequences of waiting too long?

Technical and financial restraints: what is technically possible and what is financially feasible?

Unpredictability: what can be done about dangers or risks that are difficult to predict at present?


This methodology assesses significance against four primary criteria (determining whether there is any cultural significance) and four comparative criteria (determining the degree of significance). Assessing the artistic/aesthetic values is the first primary criterion, which in contemporary art conservation is often referred to as ‘the heart of the artwork’.

In the case study ‘Oratorium voor geprepareerde videoplayer en acht monitoren’, by Frank Theys, 1989, the equipment, i.e., the modified ¾” U-matic top loader, the 8 identical CRT monitors and the guitar amplifier including the speaker (and, of course, the 3/4” videotape) were regarded as key factors for the risk analysis.
The word ‘Oratorium’ (‘Oratory’) in the title has two meanings: ‘Oratory’ stands for a choral work usually of a religious nature consisting chiefly of recitatives, arias, and choruses without action or scenery, and is also the name for a prayer room with a small altar, in this case a loudspeaker (or, in the first version, loudspeakers) with a video player on top. In this way, Frank Theys uses a video installation to create a sacred space in which ritual and alienation meet. At the same time he also pokes fun at grand emotions such as patriotism and rivalry. The meaning of the work comes, on the one hand, from the use of the exhibition space and, on the other hand, the use of the image as music: the display of the same close-up of a man singing ‘ You’ll never walk alone’ on all of the monitors results in a continuous repetition of sound and image such that the video becomes music and the music becomes video. Because the work is installed in the exhibition space in a transparent way, viewers can understand how this video installation functions. They can walk around the circular installation and observe the videotape running as a loop in and out of the ¾” U-matic player. They can see how this ¾” U-matic player transmits the video signal through a set of cables to the eight CRT monitors, and the audio signal to the audio equipment (and the CRT monitors). The display equipment transforms the signals into image and sound. Through their arrangement in a circle around the video loop, with their screens facing the centre, the CRT monitors seem to ‘encourage’ their own support/carrier. After all, the image and the music cannot exist without the support/carrier (the ¾” U-matic tape). 

Historical value, the second primary criterion, was recognised as the (art)historical period in which the artwork was created. ‘Oratorium…’ was created at the end of the 1980s, a couple of years before media art came to maturity in the 1990s. It is also the period that corresponds with the beginning of the obsolescence of the ¾” U-matic format (and with the beginning of the widespread change-over from analogue to digital video).


Of the four comparative criteria (condition/completeness, provenance, rarity/representative and interpretive capacity), condition/completeness is paramount.

The constituent parts of the installation are integral parts of an ‘ensemble’, which should have the same look and feel as the original, even if technical components need replacing. If ‘Oratorium…’ lost its ‘functionality’, it would lose its ‘identity’ as a video installation and its frame would only be a ‘historic document’. The two main values for the total significance of ‘Oratorium…’ are artistic/aesthetic, subdivided into the characteristics that determine its identity: its relationship with the exhibition space, the arrangement of the equipment and its visual appearance…. By considering what would remain if the entire functionality (and thus the experience of the work) failed, it was determined that the ‘remains’ – the sculptural ‘corpse’ of the non-functional components (CRT monitors, video player and amplifier with loudspeaker) – still contributed historic and documentary values amounting to 10% of the total significance.

In the next step the abovementioned values were linked to the components determining the ‘look and feel’ of the work.

For example, the experience of sound, image and motion could be directly related to the arrangement of the various installation components in the exhibition space, the free movement of the viewer through the exhibition space, the ¾” videotape driven by a modified ¾” U-matic playback system and running in a visible loop through the exhibition space, the wear and tear of the ¾” U-matic videotape through use, the vulnerability and sensitivity of the entire technical set-up, the volume of the sound created by the guitar amplifier and the eight CRT monitors, and the calibration of the eight identical CRT monitors. Together, all these factors form a complex of interdependencies (both tangible and intangible) that should be taken into account in order to estimate the impact of expected changes in the future.

As shown above, risk analysis can establish significance and describe an artwork’s anatomy and identity. Furthermore, risks can be identified and scenarios can be developed that describe the anticipated future loss of value. Since replacement, migration and emulation are widespread conservation strategies for media art, the possibility of including recoverability of lost value can be explored in the assessment. Compared to the decisions curators and conservators might make based on their individual knowledge and experience, the rational, collaborative and structured risk assessment methodology can provide increased insights into the identity of the work and a ranking of the risks. 3 But case studies and interviews also show that we will never completely get to grips with the technical aspects. As Pip Laurenson says, you could obtain, for example, the statistics relating to failures from the manufacturers but you will never know what these are based on, and increasing amounts of second-hand equipment with an unknown history will be used.4

It seems that identifying, weighing, and navigating a different set of values for media artworks, such as meaning, function and intention, and how all of them will change over time would be even more appropriate.



1. Brokerhof, Agnes W., et al., ‘Installation Art Subjected to Risk Assessment – Jeffrey Shaw’s ‘Revolution’ as Case Study’, forthcoming 2011.

2. As described by Rony Vissers.

3. Brokerhof, Agnes W., et al., ‘Installation Art Subjected to Risk Assessment – Jeffrey Shaw’s ‘Revolution’ as Case Study’, forthcoming 2011.

4. From the interview with Pip Laurenson and Tina Weidner by Rony Vissers and Emanuel Lorain, 2010.

[endPage] [beginPage:Documentation]

Due to their many variations in technology, effects and form, media artworks tend to follow a dynamic life cycle and require specific documentation. This documentation is at the heart of any preservation strategy for media art. Improving efforts to preserve media artworks will be far more complex without the support of structured documentation about the works and their context. An important task necessary to be able to adequately present (and experience) media art now and in the future is documenting the specific requirements for the presentation of media artworks. This is no easy task, as the ‘optimum’ form of presentation is difficult to define precisely for many such works. Furthermore, the original ‘authentic’ state often varies greatly through the course of different presentations. Thus, not only different presentations but also the various stages in the life of a media artwork (e.g., creation, presentation, guardianship) can supply information and documentation that could be of interest for its re-installation and preservation.


From the DOCAM website: ‘Documentation has been defined as a source of information that can fill many roles, depending on its use and time. First and foremost, from the moment the work is conceived, its documentation serves the artists and their collaborators – the first producers of documentation. As its development progresses, the documentation targets a growing audience – from conservators to curators and art critics – thus playing an important role in the mediation, dissemination and history of the artwork. Next, and often concurrent with this, the documentation is used and expanded upon through a variety of actions and activities, such as the work’s (re-)installation, preservation and restoration. Over time, re-installation and re-contextualization may be carried out. Later still, documentary elements may compensate for various ‘losses’ or deterioration suffered by the work, stemming primarily from the obsolescence of its technology or components. Ultimately, it is the documentation that will survive the work, becoming its historical witness and sometimes supplementing any remaining fragments or relics.’ (http://www.docam.ca)

It is impossible to exhibit a video work or a multimedia work if the original equipment and the information about the components and the whole are lost. A lack of instructions may, for instance, lead to a faulty installation and/or an undesirable effect as a result of the incorrect playback speed, sound volume, resolution or surroundings.

For example, Straggling by Christian Bastiaans was presented in 1997, 2003, 2006 and 2009/2010. In 1997 and 2006 only one of the four audiovisual elements was projected. No documentation exists for the 2003 presentation, but as far as could be established no projection was involved. An artist interview was conducted for the Club Mama Gemütlich retrospective exhibition of Bastiaan’s oeuvre (30 October 2009 – 21 February 2010) and the optimum presentation requirements were documented; the artist states in this documentation that no projection is needed. The 2009/2010 presentation was in line with the artist’s intention.

From the case study report by researcher Evelyne Snijders.

Photo: Christiaan Bastiaans in front of ‘Casing’ Straggling - video still from interview Kroller Muller Museum 12 02 2010 - video: Frans Elbertsen (KMM)  foto credits: Evelyne Snijders

And, as frequently happens in performance-based art, theatre and music, the documentation could be the only surviving trace of the work.

The work Mill x Molen (1982), by Bert Schutter, is conceptually connected to time-specific artistic research. If the monitors break down beyond repair and cannot be replaced by others (from the same period), the installation should be declared dead and a reconstruction should be seen as documentation.1

Tina Weidner: ‘I honestly think that this kind of idea has been too overworked. How much more time do you want to spend behind a desk only doing things to replace the work? I think that what is more important is to fight to keep the works accessible, and then you can address the conservation needs to keep them displayable. But I wouldn’t feel comfortable just putting paperwork up in a gallery.... It seems that in such cases everyone wants to exhibit the documentation instead of the actual work, but I haven’t seen an example that prompted me to say “very nicely delivered, it really gave me a feel for the work….” I think that if you are going to do it, you should do it on a wider scale and not just with paperwork.’ Pip Laurenson: ‘For some works you could have a documentary video, for example, which might help future viewers understand what the work looked like. … Although we haven’t had to fully confront this problem yet, I’m sure we will. It came up because we have been thinking about Nam June Paik recently and for many of his works the value and importance of the CRT monitors is obviously very high.’ 2

Since media art works require a proactive approach to care and management, gathering information that will ensure their display and care into the future is crucial at the moment of acquisition. Fortunately, a growing number of museums and other collecting institutions such as Tate, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam and NIMk acknowledge the importance of documentation for future presentations and are prepared to integrate or already integrate a documentation strategy while acquiring the media art works.



1. From the interview with Bert Schutter by Gaby Wijers, 2009.

2. http://www.packed.be/en/resources/detail/interview_met_pip_laurenson_deel_2/interviews/#47


[beginPage:Interdisciplinary dialogue] Last but by no means least: the need for an interdisciplinary dialogue
Many of the difficult decisions faced by conservators of media art that are described in this essay pose highly complex ethical dilemmas, and in numerous instances there are disagreements within the conservation profession on how to resolve conflicting values. Art history and conservation have traditionally relied on the authority that each field brings to an artwork’s meaning and the way it is understood. This has to be re-evaluated when it comes to media artworks. We need an ongoing interdisciplinary dialogue wherein we re-think and revise the traditional and strict role definitions of the conservator, researcher, artist, curator, dealer, and others, as well as develop additional forums to discuss these issues in a cross–disciplinary way.1

NIMk and PACKED offer this forum in the Obsolete Equipment project.



1. http://getty.museum/conservation/science/modpaints/CIMCA_meeting_jun08.pdf