Ethics and Practices of Media Art Conservation

[beginPage: Foreword]

Gaby Wijers, Netherlands Media Art Institute, August 2010

Version 0.5


As the Obsolete Equipment project, this essay on changes and challenges facing the conservation of media art – and more specifically, obsolete equipment – is a work in progress. This preliminary version, written in August 2010, is comparable to the first phase of the project, which was dedicated to the preservation of video-based art. The second version, which will be written in August 2011, will, like the second phase of the project, also take computer-based art into consideration.

This essay is divided in three sections. After an introduction, the first section focuses on ethical issues relating to the preservation of media art, (Ethics of Media Art Conservation), while the second section provides further insights into our practical approach to realising our case studies on video-based artworks in public collections in the Netherlands and Flanders (On Changes and Challenges).

I would very much like to thank my Obsolete Equipment colleagues. Special thanks go to Rony Vissers for his feedback and Mark Poysden for his editing.[endPage]


[beginPage: Introduction]

Since the 1970s, media art has become a category in itself, with a growing number of artists experimenting with technology. We can define and categorise media art in different ways: by its technological and artistic context; in the context of fine art as opposed to film and information and communication technology (ICT); and by its temporal character, as opposed to the traditional understanding of fine art disciplines. We could also define media art as a broader category that embraces various electronic art forms such as video art (the oldest and most well known example), media art installations, computer-based art, (digital) performances, net-based art, etc., and combinations of all these. What all these art forms have in common is their technological nature, which result in specific vulnerabilities in terms of contexts and technologies and a shortened lifespan.

The use of ephemeral materials or of rapidly ageing media technologies affects the material stability and, frequently, the meaning of media artworks. It is characteristic of media art is that there is a carrier (of the signal and the information), which can only be made visible with the help of playback equipment, displayed on or via display devices (monitors, beamers, etc.), and, occasionally, related signal processing or control equipment. In all cases all the components of a media artwork are interdependent: a media art installation can only be displayed if the monitors and the other devices are still functioning. The equipment is thus not only crucial for display, but also for preservation and digitisation; transfer to a different format will be impossible without suitable equipment. Whether the manner of presentation requires specific technical equipment or not depends on the artist. In spite of all (conservation) efforts, all of this technical equipment will eventually become obsolete due to the fragility of its components and ongoing technological advances. This obsolescence of physical storage formats and presentation equipment is the most appealing challenge in the conservation of media art. PACKED1 and the Netherlands Media Art Institute (NIMk)2 focus on this technological dependency in their research during the Obsolete Equipment project.3

Since the end of the 1990s, media artworks and the obsolescence of the associated equipment have received considerable attention in conservation research and literature. Two divergent approaches can be distinguished: the ‘purist/original-technology-at-all-costs’ approach, and the ‘adapted/updated-technology-approach’. Both approaches are valid but a suitable approach somewhere between these two has to be found. It would be an error on the part of collecting institutions to give up too quickly on old technology. Decisions have to be made about the value of that technology for the work.

Some of the issues involved are:

- What is important to preserve, and how should it be preserved?

 - What are the essential aesthetic and technological elements that absolutely need to be preserved if the artwork is to retain any integrity in the future? And how should they be preserved?

 - If essential technological elements cannot be preserved, can they be replaced, and how?

 - What is essential to establishing the origins and authenticity of the work?
Questions covered in the Obsolete Equipment project include:

 - Do we have to accept a greater degree of loss than contemporary art conservation is used to if we want to deal with the increasingly ephemeral technological components of media artworks?
 - What decision-making models and guidelines are available for the preservation of media artworks that are threatened by the obsolescence of the playback and display equipment, and for the preservation of the necessary equipment?
 - What are international best practices for the preservation of media artworks and for the preservation of necessary equipment?
 - What are international best practices for the migration and emulation4 of media artworks that are threatened by the obsolescence of the playback and display equipment, and for the preservation of necessary equipment?5



1. PACKED vzw (Platform for the Archiving and Conservation of Audiovisual Art) was founded as a platform for the development and dissemination of knowledge on the cataloguing, conservation and distribution of audiovisual documents relating to art. Link:

2. Netherlands Media art Institute (NIMk). Continuing to build on its extensive experience in producing, collecting and presenting video and installation art, NIMk has – since 1992 – conducted an ongoing research programme into the preservation and documentation of media art. NIMk facilitates research into video art, installations and live art/performances in order to identify and understand which components of a media artwork have to be preserved, and the new methods, tools, language and services that have to be developed to deal with this. Link:


4. In this essay the terms ‘migration’ and ‘emulation’ refer to updating technology with present-day equipment; the original look and feel of the work is retained with emulation, but not necessarily with migration.

5. Clearly this essay builds on a large body of work already done in this area. Examples of research projects are included in the appendix.


[beginPage: Ethics of media art conservation]


[beginPage: On Changes and Challenges]


[beginPage: APPENDIX]


In recent years projects and institutions such as the Variable Media Network and Questionnaire, DOCAM, Inside Installations and Imago Revisited, Tate, Media Matters, Active Archive and NIMk, have developed specific guidelines and best practices for the maintenance and conservation of media art. A selection of projects are highlighted in this essay and listed in this appendix.

Variable Media Initiative

The Variable Media Initiative (VMI) was initially supported by a grant from the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology of Montreal, Canada, which comprises a group of international institutions and consultants, including University of Maine, the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archives, Franklin Furnace, Guggenheim Museum New York,, and Performance Art Festival & Archives. Variable Media Network (VMN) is recognised for its new preservation approach, which integrates the analysis of materials with the definition of an artwork independent of its medium, allowing the work to be translated once its current medium becomes obsolete. By identifying the behaviour of a work (contained, installed, performed, reproduced, etc.) and strategies (storage, emulation, migration, and reinterpretation), artists, conservators and curators can advance the preservation of new media art. Describing a work of art, not only as a list of components and materials, but also by the way it behaves, is crucial to the Variable Media methodology. The four associated preservation strategies range from traditional to radical. Storage is the default strategy for most museums. For time-based media like film and video, this means keeping original projectors and hardware running for as long as possible, as well as stockpiling old equipment. For these types of works, migration is often seen as a more successful strategy. To emulate a work involves devising a way of imitating the original look of a piece by entirely different means. The term can be applied generally to a re-fabrication of an artwork’s components, but also has a specific meaning in the context of digital media, where emulation offers a powerful technique for running an outdated computer on a contemporary one. By far, the most radical strategy is to reinterpret the work each time it is recreated.
The Variable Media Initiative (VMI) organised symposia such as ‘Preserving the Immaterial: A Conference on Variable Media’ in March 2001, and the follow-up to this symposium ‘Echoes of Art: Emulation As a Preservation Strategy’ in May 2004. It also published Permanence Through Change: The Variable Media Approach in 2003, and held the exhibition Seeing Double: Emulation in Theory and Practice in Spring 2004.
Furthermore the Variable Media Questionnaire was developed, which is an interactive form linked to a database and is designed to assist artists and museum staff when drafting variable media guidelines. The Questionnaire is not meant to be exhaustive, but is intended to spur questions that must be answered in order to capture artists’ desires about how to translate their work into new mediums once the work’s original medium has expired. The Questionnaire asks questions about the inherent behaviour of each artwork that requires preservation. The database to which it is linked is available on request to artists and anyone else who would like to try it.


DOCAM (Documentation and Conservation of the Media Arts Heritage, 2005–10) was an international research alliance initiated by the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology. DOCAM included several partners, such as the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the National Gallery of Canada, the Canadian Centre for Architecture, the Canadian Heritage Information Network, as well as departments at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQÀM), Université de Montréal and McGill. Its main objective was to develop new methodologies and tools to address the issues of preserving and documenting digital, technological, and electronic works of art, including the history of technology.
DOCAM conducted a number of case studies. The practical work carried out as part of the case studies produced five guides and tools that are now accessible on the DOCAM website:

A Cataloguing Guide for New Media Collections;
• The DOCAM Glossaurus – a bilingual terminological tool;
• The DOCAM Documentary Model adapted to media art;
• A Technological Timeline, which includes media artworks and technological components;
• A Preservation Guide for Technology-Based Artworks.

Choosing from the various conservation strategies is simplified by a series of questions that can be answered using a decision tree developed by DOCAM. The decision tree is a restoration tool that allows stakeholders to identify the problems and potential solutions associated with preserving works that incorporate technological components. The tool facilitates decision-making by helping users focus on those aspects of a work that relate to its integrity and authenticity, while reflecting on how these aspects are impacted by the work’s technological components. The decision tree is applied to issues that define the roles played by technological components as elements of a work’s meaning. Is the equipment visible? Does it have a particular significance? What is the artist’s point of view? The answers to these and other questions help stakeholders identify the best restoration option from those outlined in the first two sections of DOCAM’s Preservation Guide for Technology-Based Artworks (emulation, migration, storage and reinterpretation).
In addition, a number of educational activities such as the DOCAM seminars and international summits were held and the documentation generated by these events is available on the DOCAM website.

Inside Installations

Inside Installations: Preservation and Presentation of Installation Art was a three-year research project (2004–7) into the care and management of installation art. Over 33 installations, with a large corpus of media art installations, were re-installed, investigated and documented. Experience was shared and partners collaborated to develop good practice for five research topics:
• Preservation Strategies
• Artists’ Participation
• Documentation & Archiving Strategies
• Theory and Semantics
• Networking (Knowledge Management and Information Exchange)
In addition to information about artists and works involved in the project, the highly informative Inside Installations website provides general information about the project, access to lectures from project events, e-learning resources, a project bibliography and more. The nature of installation art is distinct from traditional art because it is wholly dependent on display for its realisation. An installation is more than a collection of physical objects – it often includes relationships to the space and dynamic behaviours. It is crucial to establish a full description of the state of an installation in order to understand the significance of the component parts for the installation as a whole. Only then can appropriate preservation strategies be developed and evaluated. The conservator’s preservation activities follow this shift away from a unique material object to an installed event. Conservation has moved beyond minimising change of a physical object to a broader mission to enable the installation of the work in the future in line with the artist’s intention and the historical character of the work. The research relating to Preservation Strategies focused on two main themes:
• Firstly, using risk analysis as a tool for developing conservation plans that addressed the complex needs of artists’ installations.
• Secondly, exploring the changing role of the conservator and curator in response to the preservation and presentation of artists’ installations.
The project was co-organised by Tate, London; Restaurierungszentrum der Landeshauptstadt, Dusseldorf; Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art (S.M.A.K.), Ghent; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (MNCARS), Madrid; and the Foundation for the Conservation of Modern Art (SBMK), the Netherlands, and was managed by the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage (ICN). The project was executed by members of the International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art.

Matters in Media Art

Matters in Media Art is a multi-phase project designed to provide guidelines for the care and management of time-based media artworks. The project was created in 2003 by a consortium of curators, conservators, registrars and media technical managers from New Art Trust, MoMA, SFMOMA and Tate. The first phase of the project, on loaning time-based media works, was launched in 2004, and the second phase, on acquiring time-based media works, started in 2007.
The installation of time-based media works requires new skills and new areas of collaboration within museums. Whereas internationally agreed standards exist for the handling, installation and care of traditional works of art, such standards for time-based media works are rare. The project aims to raise awareness about the requirements of these works and provide a practical response to the need for international agreements between museums.
Matters in Media Art developed process diagrams and documents for loans as guidelines and templates for institutions and owners to follow when borrowing and lending time-based media artworks. These documents include sample templates for exhibition budgets, condition reports, facilities reports, installation documents and loan agreements. They seek to update existing practices for more traditional art by incorporating new requirements for time-based media. Because time-based media artworks require a proactive approach to their care and management, it is crucial to gather information that will ensure their display and care into the future at the moment of their acquisition. The process diagram and documents for the acquisition process are grouped into three overlapping phases: pre-acquisition, accessioning, and post-acquisition. Although these three phases are distinct, knowledge about the artwork builds continuously from the moment it is considered for acquisition to final installation and long-term storage. This knowledge informs future decisions about storing, exhibiting, loaning, and conserving the work. In the future the project will also address the needs of computer-based arts. 1


The research project AktiveArchive, is an initiative of Bern University of the Arts (BUA) in collaboration with the Swiss Institute for Art Research in Zurich (SIK/ISEA).
This project is dedicated to the preservation and documentation of electronic media and spatially related artworks; this is done by conducting specific case studies. The artwork is treated as a whole, focusing not just on the preservation of the electronic audiovisual part, but also on the other materials used, such as the hardware, and plastic, wood or metal components. AktiveArchive strives to make all the components of the artwork accessible and secure for the long-term by conducting research into restoration and development methods of digital and electronic components combined with documentation and interpretation of the works. In this way it becomes not just a transfer of information to another medium, but an authentic re-enactment or documentation of the piece. The research into the fields of technique, conservation, documentation and art history are passed on to museums, collections and artists of interest.
AktiveArchive has a unique and large hardware pool, containing thousands of hardware components, such as broadcast video recorders and PVM-200 B/W monitors.2 This hardware pool makes it possible to view or migrate artworks that would otherwise be difficult to access or maintain.
As part of the research in the digital field, AktiveArchive is proposing virtualisation as a preservation strategy for born-digital artworks. In brief, virtualisation involves preserving the original coding, hardware and operating system and visualising it in a virtual environment.3



2. Gfeller, Johannes, ‘The Reference Hardware Pool of AktiveArchive at the Bern University of Arts. A Basis for a Historically Well-informed Re-performance of Media Art’ in: Reconstructing Swiss Art, 1970–1980. Zurich: JRP/Ringier 2009, p. 166–74.

3. Lurk, T., Virtualisation as Preservation Measure. A Contribution to Handling of Born-Digital Media Art. AktiveArchive – BUA, Bern University of the Arts. Link: