EVOLVING EXEMPLARY PLURALISM: STEVE MCQUEEN'S DEADPAN AND EIJA-LIISA AHTILA'S ANNE, AKI AND GOD—TWO CASE STUDIES FOR CONSERVING TECHNOLOGY-BASED INSTALLATION ART
MITCHELL HEARNS BISHOP
When initially encountering issues related to the preservation of media art, conservation professionals often become alarmed and despondent and indulge in group hand-wringing. The problems presented are often well outside the expertise of the conservators charged with the care of this material and are not discussed or covered in the curricula of conservation programs. In fact, sometimes the issues involved test the limits of groups of experts convened to discuss problems in this difficult area. It is my contention that alarm quickly passes and a more realistic attitude sets in. Better communication, a clearer definition of roles, and greater precision in documentation and registration can aid this process, although they are no panacea. These improvements will not happen overnight, however, and we need to look to other models of working that may be initially unfamiliar or uncomfortable. While the model of fine art conservation is of limited use with this type of artwork, other models in the conservation profession are far more useful. The worlds of film and video preservation, architectural and archaeological conservation, natural history collections, industrial and technical museums, archival conservation, and finally digital preservation can all provide models and guidelines in this area. Pioneering work has been done by many individuals and institutions regarding the preservation of modern art and contemporary art. Several important international conferences addressing the general problems in the area of contemporary art, video art, and media art have taken place, such as Playback '96(Fifer et al. 1998), Modern Art: Who Cares? (Hummelen and Sillé 1999), and Mortality/Immortality(Corzo 1999).
A great advantage for conservators interested in technology-based installation art is the active interest and participation of the artists themselves, many of whom are articulate, thoughtful, and interested in the issues that confront conservation professionals. However, the conservation of media art is a new and evolving area and definitely not a one-size-fits-all environment. Complexity and ambiguity play a greater role than they do in more conventional conservation settings, but even the most exotic dilemmas often feel oddly familiar. Collaboration with other professions, teamwork, and a consensus-seeking process take on an even greater role than they ordinarily do in conservation. However, this trend is true for conservation as a whole, which is becoming more complex and ambiguous in response to the social context in which it takes place. Similarly, documentation plays an even more vital role. The purpose of this article is to discuss these issues and trends in the context of two works by Steve McQueen (b. 1969) and Eija-Liisa Ahtila (b. 1959). Both present fairly typical examples of the issues involved.