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Preserving “Time-Based Art” – An interview with Jeff Martin, IMAP

posted October 11, 2012

Jeff Martin, the executive director of Independent Media Arts Preservation, is a respected authority on a challenging undertaking: to preserve the fast-evolving works known by such titles – never quite inclusive enough – as “time-based art.”

Moving Image Archive News interviewed him as IMAP’s Archiving the Arts: A symposium addressing preservation in the creative process approaches (it takes place Saturday, 13 October 2012).

Independent Media Arts Preservation is a service, education, and advocacy nonprofit organization that assists caretakers of collections of non-commercial electronic media. Based in New York, its purview is time-based art works that incorporate video or audio, both analog and digital – for example, video art, audio art, new media, and technology-based installation art; independent documentary and community media; and documentation of arts and culture.

IMAP provides archivists, artists, conservators, curators, distributors, librarians, media makers, producers, scholars, and other professionals with guidance on documenting and preserving media collections whose preservation challenges are not fully met by existing practices and efforts.

Jeff Martin; courtesy: IMAP

 Jeff Martin is an archivist and conservator experienced in both archival collections and time-based art. In 2005 he graduated from New York University’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation MA program. In 2007 the Smithsonian Institution awarded Martin a post-graduate research fellowship to assess the time-based art in the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum, where he works as a contract conservator.

In March, 2010, he organized a symposium at the Smithsonian: Collaborations in Conserving Time-Based Art. [Filmed proceedings are freely available online.] He supervised preservation content for the online Media Art Resource developed by Electronic Arts Intermix and Independent Media Arts Preservation, and is the author of entries in The Grove Encyclopedia of Materials and Techniques in Art on magnetic tape, computer-based media, and motion picture film.

Martin’s work has appeared in The Moving Image (the journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists), the Journal of the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, and the anthology Teen Television: Essays on Programming and Fandom.

Before attending NYU, he worked as a television documentary writer and producer, and as footage research director for the WPA Film Library.

He is assessing the audiovisual materials in the archive of pioneering video artist Nam June Paik, and developing a preservation plan for them.

Archiving the Arts: A symposium addressing preservation in the creative process
Saturday, 13 October 2012
9am-5pm, Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Film Center, New York University

What are the major challenges in archiving this kind of work?

If you’re talking about time-based art works in a museum or gallery context, you’ve  got two challenges that you’re dealing with: the technological underpinnings, and the parameters for the installation of the work.

For example, one of the technical challenges which are shared by a lot of moving-image archives, relates to the increasing difficulty of getting 16 mm prints for film installations, because labs are closing and film stocks are becoming harder to get. Because remember, for film installations you need to change out prints at a minimum every of every two to three weeks. That’s an issue that’s shared with a lot of archives doing film-to-film preservation.

But you also have issues like installation specifications, and variability: if a video installation is created by an artist with a certain set of parameters in mind for how it’s going to be shown, or if it’s a film installation or something more complex like a digital or a web-based work, what are the parameters that make it acceptable to the artist, to show it?

In other words, if a video can be shown in any context, projected on a  wall, or a monitor, that’s one case. But another case is a scenario where an artist has set restrictive and defined parameters under which a work can be shown. So the archivist or the conservator is tasked with understanding what those parameters are, because unless you intend to exactly replicate a very specific set of parameters, you have to determine what might be an acceptable way of displaying the work.

What has been the history of trying to do this, at all, and has it been a halting history?

What needs preserving: the set-up for Paul Sharits' "Shutter Interface," 1975, Hirshhorn Museum, Washington DC
In the history of time-based art conservation, one interesting way to think about it is what you even call the stuff. The most widely used term is “time-based art,” because that takes in film, video, audio, video, computer, any art works that evolve over time and involve a commitment of time defined by the artist, to understand them, as opposed to painting or sculpture, which are fixed. These are things that were relatively recently still called “video art” or “new media art” or “media art,” none of which necessarily apply any more, particularly “new media” because today we are dealing now with works that are created and shown on  what is now “old media.”

The discipline of time-based art conservation is still quite new. For example, the Electronic Media Group at the American Institute for Conservation is still relatively new, and is working to draw on multiple disciplines to help shape best practices and agreed-upon ethical considerations for conserving these works. More established conservation disciplines inform ethical questions about how to care for a time-based work, and how to maintain authenticity and respect artists’ intent.

But conserving time-based works also involves drawing in fields like IT and digital-preservation specialists working with archival materials, drawing in technical specialists working with motion-picture film, and video and bringing those disciplines together. It’s still very much in its early stages, which makes it particularly interesting and exciting. People working in this field recognize that we need to collaborate.

What is your sense of how well actual creators of works are bearing in mind issues of archiving?

That’s a interesting question, and as you might expect, it depends entirely on the artist. They’re engaged in very different ways. Some are very engaged with the question of preserving work. Some recognize the challenges of preserving digital art works, in particular. Some artists recognize the ephemerality of their work and acknowledge that it may mean that their works are transitory.

For example, there are artists who have created works that are only to be shown on VHS, in a gallery, and the image degrades over time and  they recognize that this is not a long-lasting format but that’s part  of the piece, and if the piece disappears, it disappears.

Then there are other artists who are genuinely engaged in these issues, and realize that if they create, say, a digital art work that’s based on software that they’ve created, then you they creating something that is very fragile. And some artists believe they have a responsibility to partner with institutions like museums to ensure the longevity of the piece, and are very engaged in that dialogue.

Doug Aitken's "Song 1," Hirshhorn Museum, Washington DC
Then there is the other group of artists who are not thinking about these issues, but are simply in a creative mode and are using tools to express a particular vision. And so, as an institution, a museum, or a conservator is tasked with raising those questions with artists, and some artists, when you broach them are not particularly interested in engaging them. For them, a work that’s completed is a work that’s completed.

Then there are some artists who may not have considered them, but once they are presented they become real partners in the conservation of the work. And you have to lay things out in explicit terms. I worked with a curator and an artist at one point, an artist who’s engaged in these issues. The curator was probing, in an artist’s interview, how they’d handle this work in the future. It was a very complicated work, and the artist said, ‘I can just come in and fix it for you.’ The curator said: ‘But what about when you’re dead? Because you’re going to die, and museums call it the permanent collection for a reason. Their responsibility and their belief is, bring something in to keep alive for as long as possible.’

And you could see the light bulb go on. And that’s my bottom line with this kind of work – that the museums call it a permanent collection for a reason. Once a museum engages with those challenges – the difficulties of caring for these works and putting the resources necessary for caring for these works – they are recognizing the challenges and accepting the responsibility for putting the resources into them that are necessary.

As a field, that is where we stand right now. It’s raising the level of understanding and awareness among museums and institutions about how much is necessary to keep these works alive.

Is that a particularly expensive undertaking by comparison with, say, film preservation?

I guess expensive is maybe not the value I put on it. It’s complicated. Preserving a film installation is only more expensive in that you need a lot more prints than you might need of a feature film, because they’re on continuous view every day, literally continuous.

The Paul Sharits film installation that the Hirshhorn Museum acquired a few years ago [Shutter Interface, 1975] was on view for 6 months, 8 hours a day, 7 days a  week – the film was running through the gate 8 hours a day, 7 days a week. So it’s more expensive to show, but it’s not necessarily any more expensive to preserve.

And that is the more interesting question: it can cost more money to show than institutions might necessarily understand. It  doesn’t cost very much to hang up a painting. But it can cost a great deal of money to show a time-based work. It can cost more money to buy the projector than it costs to buy the art work.

And presumably to keep up the hardware, as well?

Yes, the other thing to keep in mind is that it does cost money to keep on top of display and exhibition technology, which changes very rapidly. And specifications that may have been appropriate for an exhibition in 2008 would not be appropriate for an exhibition in 2012.

The technology may be better, but at a minimum it is different, in terms of the projectors or media players you would buy. There’s a lot of change that happens rapidly. So keeping people who can maintain that level of knowledge is critical and obviously costs money.

Do you think it will be possible to develop standard procedures or is this in some ways an exercise in improvising archival maintenance, where you do the best you can as challenges arise?

Chris Chong Chan Fui's "Black Box," Hirshhorn Museum, Washington DC
It’s very important that time-based art conservators are working with and are cognizant of the standards and practices that more traditional moving-image archivists are developing. It’s critical that that’s understood. Master formats for digitizing video, storage conditions for film-negatives – those parts are critical.
The question of more art-centric standards is still very much open. There have been strong international initiatives on developing protocols and best practices for things like acquisitions, loans, documentation, time based art works etc. Matters in Media Art [Tate Gallery, London] is an essential one. It is a joint project of MoMA, Tate, SFMoMA, and New Art Trust, that are generating best practices and disseminating them for as broad a range of institutions as possible.

So protocols and standards are being developed, but each work  is always going to require rethinking and reconsideration whenever it’s acquired and then any time it’s installed. It’s also important to keep in mind that these types of questions about variability and works that are reinstalled are common to “non-media” art installations. There are plenty of art installations out there with no audio-visual components that are variable and complicated to install and reinstall.

So, just as we’re partnering with moving-image archivists on things like technical standards, we’re also working with art conservators on more complex installation art works, to try to develop tools and ways to approach these things more systematically.

How about the future – this is a moving target, at all times, I take it, and that must pose its own challenges.

Jeff Martin at the Hirshhorn Museum's Collaboration in Conserving Time-Based Art symposium, 2010
A piece that was acquired and relatively easy to install in 1995 may be quite difficult to install now due to technical changes that have happened over the past years. That’s one way I look to the future – the longer these works remain off view and dormant, the more difficult it is to bring them back to their original state, their original installation specs, so to speak.

More traditional archives – say, film archives – are accustomed to passive preservation through carefully controlled storage, etc. But they are now moving into more active preservation scenarios because digital files need to be monitored and migrated regularly.

There’s a close parallel between that and more complex time-based art installations – conservators don’t do passive art preservation in the same way that a photograph, or painting, or a drawing can be conserved by careful storage, alone. That doesn’t apply to time-based art works, any more. And I think that’s the key parallel between the changes that are happening in moving-image archiving and the changes that are happening in time-based art conservation.

– interview by Peter Monaghan

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