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)




As discussed earlier an inexpensive computer-assisted design (CAD) drawing or very detailed documentation of installations could be done that would eliminate any ambiguity as to how to reinstall the show in each different venue, as Viola (1999) has striven to do in his documentation. Materials could be carefully recorded and documented, sound levels established, and standards determined for monitoring color, texture, and any other measurable aspect of an installation. The tools currently available to conservators make a previously undreamed-of precision in documentation possible. It is, in fact, technically possible to document installation art in a virtual environment that would exactly replicate the installations. I think most artists would feel that this type of documentation would be excessive. Some have found this useful and eagerly embraced virtual venues, but many have serious misgivings.

The logical next step is to view each installation of media art as the equivalent of a performance of an artwork (Viola 1999, 89). However, this approach introduces some disturbing ideas. Imagine a play carefully recorded in a similar fashion. The idea of a Sam Shepard play such as Fool for Love being viewed over and over again, not just with the sameness of video or film but in three dimensions, is somehow repugnant. Arguably, this type of documentation would make it possible to record the play with the playwright in the leading role for posterity, but perhaps such precision is a blight to the arts. Imagine the inhibiting effect on future actors. In theory, we accept this repetitive quality in films, but, in fact, films do change with each showing, and viewing them on video is by no means the same as the way they were originally intended to be viewed. The future holds more interesting issues. At the time of writing this article, Tony Oursler's (b. 1957) The Darkest Color Infinitely Amplified was on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The piece involves high-definition volumetric display technology in which video images seem to float in midair. Undoubtedly, some artists will embrace this technology and use it as a substitute for electronic devices currently being used. The same devices could be used once as props, while the installation is recorded, and then discarded or passed on for other uses.

Millions of people around the world happily listen to exactly the same musical performance over and over again, but music aficionados tend to prefer actual live performance of pieces of music and find digital exactitude tedious and unnatural unless, of course, it captures a superb performance. Technology-based installation art may have a similar fate. It is an open question as to whether this kind of exact repetition would be sympathetic to media art installations. It would certainly make wider dissemination of the work possible. Currently it is hard to imagine that these works would suffer the overexposure of many musical works, but we cannot anticipate future use of artistic works. It seems likely that a model more akin to live music performance or theater would be desirable. However, after the death of the artist, the curator, collector, and museums are thrust into the role of interpreting the work.

Many artists happily embrace the variations presented in different venues. However, conservators and other museum professionals find it easier to work from very precise instructions whenever possible. It is easier to monitor conservation concerns if a very well documented baseline is established. Every professional seeks to rationalize his or her work so that it can be explained to others and passed along in some objective form. The constant introduction of subjective elements into conservation work corrupts the integrity of the work and makes it very difficult to know how to proceed or what the appropriate role is for the conservator, who, after all, is bound by ethical strictures that are supposed to take priority over institutional directives. The challenges of conserving media art cannot be readily reduced to objective formulas and procedures. Some will find this ambiguity intolerable; others will find it challenging. A balance will have to be achieved that does not do violence to the professional ethics and practices of conservators and to the artist and the work of art. Clearly, this balance will not happen overnight, but the process has already begun, and the quality of the dialogue taking place is extremely encouraging.

Copyright 2001 American Institution for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works