JAIC 2001, Volume 40, Number 3, Article 2 (pp. 179 to 191)
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 2001, Volume 40, Number 3, Article 2 (pp. 179 to 191)




Bill Viola has stated, “As tools of artistic craft, the individual components of media technology are more like musical instruments than implements” (Viola 1999, 89). This perception certainly seems to be a useful model for viewing all the technical components of media art. Registrars have to grapple with the issue of what actual physical pieces of an installation are the art (Gantzert-Castrillo 1999; Laurenson 1999; Michalski 1999). What do they accession? What do they insure? Do they regard the equipment as a disposable, used, expended, and finally discarded? Where does the registrar's responsibility for documentation begin and end in relation to the artist and the conservator? More to the point for this article, what exactly needs to be conserved, and when does the registrar call in the conservator? Viola (1999) also discusses the fact that in most instances the artist does not make the tools used to create and display his or her art. Clearly, there are exceptions to this expectation, but we need not worry about these since this type of technology (i. e., manufacturing of equipment by the artist or a fabricator) more closely conforms to traditional models of curation and conservation. In much the same way that musical instruments must be maintained and cared for and kept in tune, video players, monitors, and acoustic devices and computers used in media art must be attended to. One can push the analogy and speculate that someday some of these devices will be treasured artifacts like violins by Stradivarius and Guarneri, and it is possible to imagine special events in museums housing technology where their individual characteristics are preserved, recreated, and cherished. However, it seems more likely that most such devices will be discarded and forgotten, and future speculation will be similar to the way we speculate today about what ancient Egyptian music actually sounded like. Given the current massive numbers of technological devices, it seems likely that few will be preserved by museums. But perhaps the efforts of registrars and technicians will prevent this outcome.

Nonetheless, the only way to determine what needs to be accessioned and conserved is in a discussion the registrar will have to have with the artist, curator, conservators, and technicians. Institutions will have to develop and articulate policies in this regard, hopefully in concert with other similar institutions. Viola states: “Generally speaking, there can only be exhibition copies of my work. If a disaster occurs and all the physical objects are destroyed, new materials can simply be purchased and the piece assembled” (Viola 1999, 67). Not all artists view their work this way, but a fair number do. Determining how the artist and curator define the work of art becomes essential for each individual work. Their determination must be documented in some form by the registrar, and all individuals in the museum who are responsible for the curation and preservation of the work must have access to the documented consensus. Unfortunately, databases, forms, and procedures currently used by registrars and conservators all over the world are not designed to handle media art and its components. Accommodation for this work must be made at some point (Viola 1999, 90). All too often, the artist is thrust into the position of instructing museum staff in tasks that are entirely new to them and do not fit their existing routines.

Resolution of these problems should not be left to chance. Museum databases are evolving, and a conversation about standards in regard to media art needs to begin that involves artists working in this area and registrars, conservators, and curators. It is quite possible that a system of documentation, usable by all parties, could be developed, working from models such as the encoded archival description (EAD) (Encoded archival description 2000) being used by archivists in conjunction with extensible markup language (XML) (Bosak and Bray 1999). This system would allow the documentation of complex one-to-many and many-to-one relationships and the ability to associate these to collections databases or websites relating to the museum collection. It would also allow documentation of expendables and props and their roles and position in the artwork as well as the actual content-bearing media.

Copyright 2001 American Institution for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works