JAIC 2001, Volume 40, Number 3, Article 4 (pp. 211 to 231)
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 2001, Volume 40, Number 3, Article 4 (pp. 211 to 231)




Although the conservation field is still relatively young, it has developed fairly well-defined conventions for examining, describing, and preserving collections such as paintings, works of art on paper, material culture, and other media that persist through time as tangible physical objects. These kinds of objects can be exhibited and stored, researched and cataloged, photographed and loaned, monitored and treated; barring disaster or negligence, they will generally survive into the future with little or no deterioration or unwanted change. While knowledge in the conservation field continues to evolve and deepen, conservators nonetheless generally understand why objects deteriorate, how the agents of decay can be minimized or eliminated, and how and when an object's condition is compromised to the point that conservation treatment is necessary. Conservators, along with professional colleagues such as curators and historians, have also developed tools of connoisseurship and technical expertise with which to judge an object's authenticity or to assess how faithfully its condition reflects the maker's intentions.

A conservator confronted with a work of installation art,1 however, may be on unfamiliar ground. An artist often creates an installation at the outset of an exhibition, starting with an incomplete plan that evolves and shifts as the artist works within the site. What is successful or unsuccessful about the outcome may only become apparent over the course of the exhibition, and the artist accordingly may view the “finished”installation as a work in progress, subject to ongoing future revision. When the installation is taken down at the end of the show, its fate remains uncertain. It may or may not be re-created at some point in the future; may or may not be acquired as a finished piece by an institution or collector; may or may not be viewed by the artist as a finished piece; may or may not be adaptable to a location other than the one for which it was first created.

If a piece is in fact acquired, it may be unique or may be an edition; may or may not include the specific equipment such as video recorders, speakers, projectors, and monitors required to present it; may or may not be subject to a sales agreement or contract; may or may not come with the artist's specific instructions or stipulations; and may or may not have been created in the same space where it will be re-created following its acquisition. It may not be re-created at all anytime soon after its acquisition, existing indefinitely only in memory and on paper.

The significance of an installation is also generally unknown at the time of its creation or acquisition. Whether or not the artist is considered an important figure today, the fate of an artist's reputation decades hence can never be known in advance. Furthermore, the defining characteristics of an artist's oeuvre over the course of a career may not yet be discernible. The particular importance of a particular piece in the evolution of the artist's expression must await the wider context and longer view that will become possible only in the future. These considerations differentiate installations from more traditional art forms, for which practical conservation priorities depend as much on a curator's judgment of an object's quality or significance as they do on a conservator's assessment of its condition or vulnerability. With installations, conservators, curators, and others are called upon to participate—actively, and from the outset—in the preservation of works of art whose relative value has not yet been established by the passage of time, history, and criticism.

To complicate matters further, technology-based installations generally include material that is either inherently ephemeral or subject to rapid obsolescence, or both, such as machine-readable media that provides much of the sensory experience of the piece. Examples include videotapes, laser discs, DVDs, color slides, and film and the corresponding playback equipment such as video and disc players, cathode ray tube (CRT) or liquid crystal display (LCD) monitors, amplifiers, speakers, projection screens, computer equipment, and video, slide, and film projectors. Depending on storage conditions and other factors, electronic media such as videotape may remain in acceptable playback condition for only a few years or for several decades (ANSI 1996; Howard and Murray 2000). Even when storage conditions are ideal and the material remains perfectly intact into the distant future, it is almost certain that the original format and playback method will sooner or later become obsolete (Stauderman and Messier 2000) and that spare parts and expertise to repair or maintain original playback equipment will become increasingly scarce.

In the analog realm, migrating obsolete formats to newer formats will lead to repeated “generation loss,” resulting in an increasingly degraded signal and irrecoverable loss of playback quality. Like a medieval painting that has undergone repeated insensitive cleanings, magnetic media, when copied to a new format, becomes more and more remote from what the artist created. Unlike a painting, however—which theoretically can be cleaned with no loss of original material whatsoever—generational loss in reproduced magnetic media is inevitable.

Even when both the original media and the playback equipment are available and fully functional, the appearance of the imagery in a reconstituted installation may vary—not only from one iteration to another but even over the course of a single presentation—and may or may not faithfully reflect the artist's vision. Electronic media are uniquely vulnerable to the accidental jostling of connections, or inappropriate tweaking of dials, or even the slowly changing intensity or color temperature of a projection bulb or cathode projector gun.

Digital media formats, unlike analog media, may be reproduced with no generation loss; nonetheless, they are subject to an ever shortening cycle of market-driven obsolescence. The integrity of a digitally based signal may also be compromised if it is reformatted using inappropriate or incompatible compression formats, further complicating its prospects for preservation. Digital copies, or clones, also require us to modify our conventional under-standing of originality and authenticity, because aside from compression artifacts—which in some cases could prove to be substantial (Gromov 2000; Stauderman 2000)—digital copies are identical to “originals” in content. Proprietary software programs, sometimes used by artists to control an installation's sequences of video and audio signals or slides, are absolutely critical to a correct presentation of the piece but are at least as vulnerable to obsolescence as more commonly used application file formats and operating systems (MacLean and Davis 1998; Rothenberg 1999; Besser 2000; Lawrence et al. 2000).

The virtues of lossless digital reformatting are also somewhat offset by the fact that digital media are much more vulnerable to catastrophic signal damage than analog media. A damaged analog tape can generally be recovered, albeit with some degradation in the signal, while a similarly damaged digital tape might have unrecoverable gaps where the signal is missing altogether.

The role of the audiovisual playback equipment itself varies from installation to installation. In one installation, the playback equipment might primarily be a means to present the imagery and sound (video, film, slides, etc.), either hidden from view or otherwise not considered by the artist to be a meaningful visual component of the piece; only the proper presentation of the audiovisual material itself is important, regardless of the equipment used. By contrast, the equipment in another piece might also play a sculptural or conceptual role that is critical to the viewer's experience and understanding of the piece.

Aside from electronic and media components, there are often other material components of an installation that may or may not be unique and may or may not be replaceable. While it might come naturally to a conservator to regard any material remains related to the installation as sacrosanct and worthy of the highest level of ongoing care, such an approach would in some cases be counterproductively zealous, costly, or labor-intensive. On the other hand, in some instances meticulous conservation documentation and care may be the only way to guarantee a faithful and accurate future rendition of the work. Immaterial components such as live performance are sometimes integral to an installation but not always practical to re-create meaningfully when the piece is reinstalled, however desirable and appropriate it might be to do so.

Copyright 2001 American Institution for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works