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)




In current practice, conservators facing the challenge of providing for the preservation of technology-based installation art might begin by posing a series of questions, such as:

  • In what ways is an installation more like a performance than an object? The preservation of performances is somewhat different from the preservation of objects.
  • In what ways might an installation change in future iterations, while at the same time retaining its authenticity? What is the “heart” of the piece, and how can its survival be guaranteed? In some cases reinterpretation of a piece using other than its original material components might be the best way to preserve its “heart. ”
  • Can re-creations or “repeat performances” or iterations of an installation be thought of as a vehicle for preservation, memory, and connoisseurship?
  • What risks to the future integrity of an installation should be anticipated? In addition to the risks commonly understood in the preservation of conventional objects, installations are especially threatened by technological obsolescence and amnesia.
  • What resources (staff, material, expertise, space, facilities, utilities, services, funds, etc.) will be necessary to preserve a piece? The cost of ownership should be understood from the outset.
  • What are the appropriate roles of artist, conservator, curator, and others in the creation and preservation of a piece? Installations are particularly dependent upon the artist's participation, the interdisciplinary collaboration of various professionals, and the sharing of accumulated knowledge and experience.
  • What existing methodologies in the conservation and preservation of other kinds of objects can be applied to the conservation of an installation? Fine arts conservators may look to conservators of other materials such as architecture, science and technology, and library and archives for some guidance.
  • What technical expertise outside the conventional museum community will be required both to create and to maintain an installation? Conservators must be able to communicate effectively with others to whom preservation ethics are not a given.
  • How can a piece be documented in such a way that both its tangible and intangible elements are captured? What documentation techniques should be used? Should the creative process itself be captured? Who is responsible? The documentation of installations involves recording both what should not be changed as well as what might be allowed to change, and how.
  • Who has control over the future of a piece? Is the ownership of the piece and its components established in such a way that it is favorable to the piece's longterm preservation? Total artist control may interfere with an owner's ability to preserve a piece.
  • When is intervention, or treatment, indicated? Which aspects of an intervention, if any, should be executed by the conservator? Which should be performed by other experts? With no established specialization for treatment of this kind of material, each case requires careful analysis and interdisciplinary cooperation.


Unlike most static works of art, installations frequently include the dimensions of experience, movement, sound, and time that also characterize the performing arts, such as dance, theater, and music. The video artist Gary Hill (b. 1951) has stated that just as there are good performances and bad performances of a piece of music, in the same way an installation could be “performed” well or poorly, depending upon the sensitivity and awareness of those responsible for its re-creation (Laurenson 1999b). Bill Viola (b. 1951) has voiced a similar notion of the installation artist as composer, leaving a “score” (set of instructions) for future “conductors” (curators). The quality of the conductor's “orchestration” and interpretration, including how well the conductor orchestrates the choice of equipment, its placement and adjustment, the architecture, the lighting, and other environmental factors, will determine how successfully the performance renders the artist's original idea (Viola 1999). Viola's decision to work with Peter Sellars, a stage director in theater and opera, as co-curator of his recent retrospective underscores this point (Viola 1998).

The idea of considering works of visual art primarily as performances is not entirely new. The “happenings” produced by artists of the Fluxus and Nouveau Realistes movements beginning in the 1960s are good examples (Futurist Productions 1995–2001). The artist Yves Tinguely (1925–1991), for example, created self-destructing exploding sculptures that left behind no trace of their original “performance. ”The very idea of preservation in such cases is the antithesis of the work itself.

Considering installations as events rather than as static objects would predicate a somewhat more fluid interpretation of exactly what is to be preserved, wherein the work of art as an expressive medium is essentially distinct from its specific material components (van Wegen 1999). This interpretation also pertains to conceptual art by such artists as Sol LeWitt (b. 1928), whose wall drawings exist primarily as a set of instructions that can be reiterated in multiple ways.

3.1.1 The Performance Model: Change Versus Authenticity

Preservation of installation art, like preservation of other performance-based art forms such as dance, theater, and music, may allow for the idea that each rendition or “performance” of a piece may be different. Indeed, in the fields of theater and music especially, though less so in dance (Keens et al. 1998; Acocella 2001b), a performer's interpretation of the original is both implicit and frequently encouraged. In music there has emerged, relatively recently, an 216 approach to performance practice based strictly on historical accuracy, using only historically correct medieval instruments, for example, and taking literally a composer's omission of scored musical notations such as crescendi or diminuendi. Nonetheless, most musicologists would agree, for instance, that Bach, whether performed on a harpsichord, a piano, or even a Moog synthesizer, and whether performed with or without cresecendi or diminuendi, is still Bach, though there would be considerable and passionate disagreement about whether a particular performance is good or bad.

In theater, there is an even wider latitude for contemporary performances of historic plays. It would be absurd to suggest, for example, that Shakespeare must be performed only in Elizabethan English and only within a precise re-creation of the Globe Theatre, or Aeschylus in ancient Greek upon the ruins of a 5th-century B.C. amphitheater. To do so would be in a sense to “embalm” the work and make it inaccessible and irrelevant to contemporary audiences. In the same way, an installation that is measured and defined too narrowly risks becoming frozen, contrary to the spirit of evanescence, temporality, and change inherent to the medium.

Conversely, in the field of fine arts there is a strong ethic of authenticity, originality, and historical accuracy that does not fit well with the ephemeral nature of installation art. In all but extreme cases, the original object is sacrosanct; facsimiles are taboo. By contrast, in a re-created installation, nothing “original”may survive through time: the architecture, lighting, projection surfaces, props, electronic components, and even the media bearing the image and sound may all be replacements or copies or approximations (Gantzert-Castrillo 1997). It is unlikely, given the pace of technological evolution and obsolescence, that future audiences will have the same kind of “authentic” experience of a work of media art that audiences today might enjoy in a performance of Bach on a 17th-century harpsichord (although there are other less-tangible elements of an “authentic” musical performance beyond the particular instruments used). On the other hand, it is conceivable that in the future there will be access to museums or repositories of “period” playback equipment and media that could be deployed in a recon-stituted installation to evoke the particular historical era in which the installation was first created.

A challenge to the idea of reinterpretation and change, if it should be decided that such change is allowable or desirable, is that, unlike theater and music, an installation rarely has a text or score that can be safely regarded as the objective starting point for any subsequent re-creation. This situation presents a philosophical problem for museums, collectors, curators, artists, and conservators that appears to have no easy solution (van Wegen 1999) and can be considered only on a case-by-case basis.

For example, an artist might view a particular piece as a work in progress, subject to ongoing modification, while the owner of the piece could justifiably resist such change, preferring instead that it retain an unquestionable permanence and authenticity. Conversely, an artist's or owner's stated wish for the permanence of the electronic components of a piece may prove to be impossible to honor due to the inevitability of future technological obsolescence.

A particular artist might accept, embrace, or even wish for future change, such as the substitution of the original presentation equipment or media with whatever is the best available equipment and media at any given point in the future. However, a future curator might choose to go to great lengths to present a piece as belonging to a particular moment in history, requiring that the original equipment, or something plausibly close to it, be used. For example, a piece by Reinhard Mucha (b. 1950), Auto Reverse (1994–95, Collection of Pamela and Richard Kramlich), includes a 16 mm film projector that is central to the work's themes of nostalgia, memory, the passage of time, and retrospection (Riley et al. 1999). These qualities could easily be undermined if the medium and projector were to be replaced by more contemporary formats. On the other hand, while for us the experience of the projector may be imbued with nostalgia, it is impossible to say what kind of technology will evoke a similar response in a future viewer, to whom a 16 mm film projector may be so remote, archaic, and unfamiliar that the point is lost (Danto 1999). Hence, in theory, it may be possible to present this piece faithfully in the future with different equipment and media, so long as its essential spirit and experience are preserved, albeit at the expense of historical accuracy. In this hypothetical example, the preservation approach clearly crosses the line from considering the installation primarily as object to considering it primarily as performance.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are cases in which details that appear to be agonizingly trivial might turn out to be important to the artist and critical to a correct presentation of the piece. For example, when James Coleman's (b. 1941) installation INITIALS (1993–94) was first installed in the exhibition Seeing Time at SFMOMA, the artist noticed something wrong about the appearance of the projected slide images. After ruling out all other possible variables, it was finally discovered that the projector bulb, though otherwise identical to the one specified in the installation instructions, was rated for 30 hours rather than 75 hours, a difference that was visible to the artist (Vitale 2001). At first glance one might dismiss the importance of a detail that only the artist can perceive; however, Coleman is an artist who intuitively orchestrates subtle effects of light, color, sound, and space to control a viewer's experience of the work. That the resulting experience might be beneath perception or description by even an attentive viewer does not negate the reality of the experience or of the means the artist used to create it. Here is a case where erring on the side of memorializing every detail would be the more appropriate approach to preservation. At the same time, what is at issue is very much related to the notion of the work as a performance, in the sense that the artist has designed not so much an object as an experience.

At the same time, it could be argued that the question of apparently minor changes, such as in the projector bulbs, in the height or width of a projected image, or in the image-bearing medium or format, is already to some extent familiar to conservators of more conventional objects. Obvious examples include a change in the frame of a painting or the use of contemporary lighting technology to illuminate an object as opposed to a historically “accurate” light source. These changes will certainly have a significant impact on the object's appearance, on the experience of anyone looking at it, and on our ability to perceive the object as the artist would have wished, and yet for the most part we accept such changes as a matter of course. In practice, with a few exceptions, we do not regard these aspects as materially a part of the work of art, and we seem able to accept on faith that the work of art is robust enough to retain its essential impact despite the inevitable “flaws” in the way it is presented. Even changes of relatively cataclysmic scale, such as the transplantation of a medieval Italian altarpiece from the chapel for which it was painted to a modern museum gallery, do not for us overwhelm the fundamental authenticity and spirit of the original object, even as we realize that we are seeing it in a way the artist could never have imagined or accepted.

Whatever the essential elements of a piece, and whether and to what degree future change is acceptable, it is critical for the conservator to enter into the “spirit” of the piece and to thoroughly anticipate future risks to its successful presentation. In many ways this approach is no different from the approach to the conservation of object art: the conservator has to envision what might go wrong, how it will affect the piece, and, whenever possible, take preemptive measures. With object-based contemporary art, conservators have come to understand that, as with installations, change is sometimes an integral part of the work and need not be uniformly prevented in all cases (Albano 1996), although conversely, the acceptance of or desire for change does not necessarily make such change inevitable (Coddington 1999). What might be different is that in the case of installation art, while many of the details are straightfor-ward and mundane, the conservator may have to work rather hard at extracting information that the artist might consider self-evident and not at all worth mentioning. If the conservator does not fully grasp a piece's essential qualities, it will be impossible to fully identify the risks to its future presentation or to comprehend which aspects of the piece may change and to what degree. With objects, conservators are adept at looking for and documenting what is wrong and how to fix it, whereas with contemporary installations, the task is primarily to record what is “right” and take pains to preserve that quality for a future that may be technologically very different from the present. Finally, beyond the usual physical risks that installation art and its components may share with object art, there is the added dimension of memory. The future will recall of an installation only what has been recorded and documented; there may be no original physical object or other evidence to act as a guide.

3.1.2 Connoisseurship and Memory: “Repeat Performances” as Preservation

Aside from documentation (see sec. 3.3),“repeat performances” of installations are perhaps the best guarantee for survival. Unfortunately, this variable is impossible to control and is entirely dependent upon the perceived current value of the artist's work. Bill Viola, for example, was fortunate enough to have a major retrospective of his work within his own life-time, including versions of many of his most significant installations. In preparing for the exhibition Viola discovered that some of his early tapes had become nearly unplayable. He had archival masters made of his work up to that point in digital Betacam format (Viola 1998, 1999). Had Viola's reputation as a preeminent video artist emerged a generation later, it may have been by then too late to recover much of the material. As an additional benefit of the retrospective, Viola created dossiers on each piece, with extensive documentation including full sets of architectural drawings, decibel-level readings, lighting specifications, and so on.

It is almost inconceivable to the contemporary Western mentality to consider repetition as a form of preservation, but there are many interesting historical examples. For example, the Shinto temple at Ise in Japan has been reconstructed every 20 years since the 7th century and appears today almost exactly as it did originally, in every detail, even though the material itself is no more than 20 years old (Asahi Shinbunsha et al. 1965; Viola 1999). Tibetan Buddhist sand painting, medieval monastic scribing of Latin texts, and the oral traditions that preceded Homer are other relevant examples. In every case, the faithful repetition of a given practice depends upon how central that practice is to its own culture. Paradoxically, in every case, authenticity persists even as the original itself disappears.

Similarly, it is possible to imagine establishing a “track record” for an installation: each time it is installed, its essential characteristics continue to clarify and are understood and experienced by more people, adding to the collective connoisseurship of that artist and piece. This exposure can only increase the odds of that piece's survival. Conversely, an insensitive re-creation of an installation could have the reverse effect of validating mistakes as part of the piece or of emphasizing and memorializing insignificant details. In this eventuality, a re-created piece risks becoming a caricature of itself.

It is also possible to imagine that in the future, re-created installations might be presented not as works of art but rather as historical depictions (Stringari 1999) or facsimiles, much in the vein of period rooms or Civil War reenactments, which retain a certain claim to historical accuracy but lack the authenticity implicit in living traditions such as the Ise recon-structions and Tibetan sand painting. Similarly, it is possible to envision the presentation of “exhibition copies” of the original work as reinterpreted by later curators, much as works of theater are reinterpreted by succeeding generations of directors (van Wegen 1999)


Understanding the essential qualities of a piece and, by extension, planning for its future preservation require the collaboration and input of various disciplines, particularly artist, curator/scholar, conservator, owner/custodian, and technical expert. The idea that the work of art's survival depends upon a healthy “ecosystem” consisting of shared knowledge, philosophy, expertise, and ethics among allied professionals concerned in one way or another with the preservation of art (Norris 1999) may be unfamiliar to conservators who are accustomed to thinking of the conservation perspective as the only really legitimate or defensible one. With installation art, like the blindfolded men of the Chinese proverb trying to describe an elephant by touch alone, we and our colleagues alike cannot know a piece fully from only one particular 219 point of view. To get at the essential understanding required to preserve a piece, conservators may find themselves playing the role of agent provocateur, challenging colleagues to envision a very different future many decades hence and posing “What if?” questions to extract responses that might otherwise remain unspoken. This role is not so different from the approach to conservation of other kinds of contemporary art, except that in the case of installation art, there may frequently be no tangible object left behind to reveal intention and meaning.

The active participation of conservators and curators in the actual creation of a piece and its subsequent preservation may come at a price: without the usual distance between maker and custodian, a standard of scrupulous objectivity—an unquestioned principle in the conservation of more conventional art forms—may be more difficult to maintain.

The kind of discussion and collaboration required was exemplified by the recent symposium TechArchaeology (Sterrett 2000), at which working groups consisting of artists, conservators, technicians, curators, media professionals, and registrars were charged with examining a group of technology-based installations and considering their preservation for the future (Bishop 2001; Laurenson 2001; Messier 2001; Vitale 2001).

3.2.1 Application of Conservation Methodologies outside the Fine Arts

It has been noted by Michalski (1999), among others, that some of the conservation dilemmas commonly ascribed exclusively to contemporary art in general and installation art in particular are in fact dilemmas confronted regularly by conservators and other professionals who care for architecture, science and technology, and archival and library materials. In this sense, many of the difficulties in preserving installation art are actually only unprecedented to conservators experienced primarily in the traditional fine arts. For example, the methodology for describing and preserving structures and spaces, such as those containing installations, has been rather well-developed by conservators of architecture. Architectural conservators are also accustomed to dealing with material that is not necessarily “original” or without consequence to a structure's formal or functional attributes, yet is no less a part of the structure's historical fabric than material that is literally original. Professionals engaged in the preservation of library and archival materials have grappled for some time with the difficulties of ephemeral and obsolescence-prone contemporary media such as videotape and digital media, also present in much technology-based installation art. Systematic protocols and standards for reformatting, storing, and describing such media have begun to emerge (see sec. 3.6) and will be useful to conservators dealing with the same kinds of materials within an art museum context. Similarly, conservators of industrial, science, and technology collections have significantly more experience than fine arts conservators in dealing with the preservation challenges of moving parts, motors, and other functioning equipment that is also found in many installations.

3.2.2 Relationships with Technical Experts

Many conservators already possess the communication skills to work with professionals in other disciplines, including architects, mechanical engineers, fabricators, photographers, and others who may be unfamiliar with the requirements and ethics of conservation and preservation. In the same way, conservators who are responsible for the preservation of installation art, and in particular technology-based installations, must communicate effectively with audiovisual technicians, commercial video engineers, equipment service personnel, and others whose ongoing services will be required to maintain electronic components and media and who are not in the habit of thinking in terms of long-range preservation mandates or conservation ethics. Maintaining good relationships with nonconservators will remain a key component of installation art preservation practice and should be addressed in graduate school curricula, unless or until conservation treatment of electronic media and components becomes a specialization within the field.

3.2.3 Participation of the Artist

As the example of the Coleman piece (see sec. 3.1.1) illustrates, it is critical to involve the artist in a re-created installation whenever possible. Installation artists, however, may resist the idea of spending significant time traveling from place to place to install older pieces—time better spent creating new work. Conservators and others representing institutions or collectors may be disturbed that the future viability of an installation should depend so heavily upon the presence of the artist: what, then, is to be done after the artist's death? On the one hand, the marketplace and the conventions of collecting do not easily allow for work that dies with the artist; on the other hand, from an ethical point of view, institutions or collectors should make some effort to allow for an artist's participation when it is so often clearly an important factor in faithfully creating the work. Conservators and curators of more conventional art forms, such as paintings, do in fact deal on a daily basis with decisions about how to present the work without the artist's direct input. However, they have the advantage of having a tangible object created by an artist at a particular moment in time and passed down through history, with major or minor interventions, directly to us. Like conceptual art, installation art often leaves only a paper trail or a memory; unlike most conceptual art, the “original” in technology-based installation art may quickly be swept away—made impossible, in a sense—by the rising tide of obsolescence.

The solution, if there is one, seems to be a combination of strategies, including involvement of the artist whenever possible, development of collective interdisciplinary experience and connoisseurship through repeat re-creations of a piece during the artist's life, careful documentation, and delegation of responsibility to trustworthy individuals or institutions. It is important to acknowledge that once a piece is acquired by a collector or institution and thus becomes a part of the historical record, the artist's own view regarding how the piece is to be preserved or how it might change, while important to know, is just one of many factors and not necessarily the predominant one.

As an example of the concept of delegation, the artist Suchan Kinoshita (b. 1960) has spoken of the idea of appointing “godmothers” responsible for the ongoing care of an installation when the artist is not available. The artist educates or trains the “godmothers,” who in turn assume responsibility for appointing and training successive “godmothers,” and so on into the future (Berndes 1999).

It is important to test future scenarios against the artist's stated intention, in conversation with the artist, to confirm what is essential, how it might change, to what extent the artist accepts or wishes for such change, or how the artist would envision adapting a piece to a future set of conditions. In this conversation, which might involve individuals of various disciplines (conservators, curators, technicians, etc.), it would be important to learn why the artist made certain choices of media or equipment and how he or she might choose differently in the future when the original choices are not an option. In the absence of a crystal ball, this information is very difficult to elicit from the artist and harder still to record in a meaningful way. In some cases the artist's choices will turn out to be based primarily on convenience, availability, familiarity, cost, and other apparently mundane factors that are unrelated to the aesthetic intention of a piece. However, once the piece is created, the artist may be able to perceive and articulate qualities produced by particular media and equipment that he or she would want to emulate in the future. In other cases the choice of media and equipment is consciously and directly related to the calculated effect of the image and sound the artist wishes to produce or to the equipment's sculptural or conceptual role in the piece.

3.2.4 Shared Resources

As experience and connoisseurship in the preservation of installation art continue to grow, it will become critical to find ways to share information among institutions, galleries, conservators, scholars, artists, exhibition designers, technical experts, and others. This imperative is not unique to installation art and has been suggested and implemented for other kinds of works of art. However, in the case of installation art preservation, which depends so thoroughly upon the collective memory, connoisseurship, and record keeping of those involved with its creation, shared knowledge is essential. As living artists continue to create new work, it will be increasingly unlikely that they will have the time or inclination to answer the same kinds of questions about their work time and time again. Curators working on an exhibition will want to know which other curators and institutions have had significant experience working with a particular artist.

The World Wide Web seems a natural tool for networking this kind of information and making it accessible to the widest audience. Exhibition catalogs of installation work might include short essays addressing the artist's intent and aspects of long-term preservation (Stringari 1999).

Institutions, galleries, and artists might also consider sharing inventories of electronic components and even staff expertise in component repair, component installation, media treatment, and media formatting. For example, the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg operates a rental company for technical equipment and repair serving a network of museums, similar in concept to the regional centers in the United States (Balch 1999).

Proper environmental storage of preservation masters and original media is another costly requirement that invites sharing of resources among institutions and collectors.


Within the limits of time, money, and energy, any means possible to document both the physical and experiential qualities of the work should be used. This is no easy task; it is a little like trying to define and document the experience of eating an apple or creating a time capsule that would give the future a reasonably accurate idea of what it is like to live today. Although we can never know what future curators and conservators (if they even exist) will want to know about a piece created today, we must try to imagine and use the best means at our disposal to clearly record our thoughts and observations. Depending on the installation, documentation might include floor plans, schematics, wiring diagrams, lighting diagrams and reports, artists' preliminary notes and sketches, photographs, video, video interviews of artist, curator, and others (Mancusi-Ungaro 1994), written records of those involved with the installation, instrumental characterization of video and audio levels and quality, computer-assisted design (CAD) files, and virtual reality (VR). The way that sounds and images in multiple installations in an exhibition like Seeing Time inform—or compete with—each other might also be described and documented as a fundamental part of the historical record. The artist Gary Hill has commented that some documentation, such as a photograph, might sanctify and accentuate some minor detail that is actually irrelevant to the piece (Hill 2000), underscoring the need for multiple documentation formats and techniques incorporating multiple points of view. On the other hand, it sometimes happens that the documentation of a vanished work of art or performance eventually becomes its surrogate, such as the photographs of Joseph Beuys's (1921–1986) Actions by Ute Klophaus and Caroline Tisdall, which serve an interpretive as well as a documentary purpose (de Leeuw 1999).

Of course, any documentation created electronically will be subject to the very same preservation challenges as the original media itself. To the extent that future re-creation of the original depends upon this documentation, it should be cared for with the same collections management principles that apply to the original media, adding to the cost of ownership.

3.3.1 Recording the Decision-Making Process

Almost every installation involves making innumerable small decisions as the work evolves in the space. It may be that the artist has arrived at a site with only a sketchy idea of what the final product will be or that the artist is re-creating a previous work in a new location. In addition to aesthetic or artistic reasons, decisions are made because of more mundane concerns. For example, a particular DVD player or video projector is on back order; a safety code prohibits making the space as dark as the artist wishes or requires an illuminated emergency exit sign; an architectural feature of the building alters the effect of light or sound within a piece, requiring last-minute mitigation; the exhibition budget runs dry, preventing implementation of a finishing touch. It is important to capture as much of this process as possible, either during the installation process or in a sort of “postmortem” meeting. Capturing the process is especially difficult because invariably there are impossible deadlines to meet, too few people to share in the work of gathering information, and too much exhaustion after the installation is complete to have a clear-headed discussion. It is almost never practical to expect the artists to fulfill this role even though they alone may be party to every key decision along the way. Larger institutions might consider appointing a documentation coordinator during an installation process, as proposed by Stringari (1999). Galleries and artists might contract with one of a growing number of independent arts management firms specializing in technology-based installations (Balch 1999).

3.3.2 Standardized Terminology

The world of media and installation art is full of technical terminology, jargon, and proprietary product names and model numbers. Just as the conservation field has worked hard to sort out conventions for the terms used to describe conventional works of art and their treatments, so too must there be standards in the technological area. For example, for conservators it is a given that a proprietary name alone (for example, Paraloid B-48) may not be too helpful in the future when the product of that name is no longer made or is not the same formulation as the one referred to. Similarly, for example, a description of a James Coleman installation that includes “one Audio Visual Laboratories Dove X2 control unit, one Sony CDP500 compact disc player, four JBL Control-5 loudspeakers, one Samson Servo-120 amplifier, and one Alesis M-EQ 230 stereo equalizer” (Riley et al. 1999, 177), though admirably rich in particulars, may not be enough for future scholars to adequately re-create the piece. Conservators should attempt to learn from artists and technical experts what characteristics of an electronic playback component are important to record. For example, it might be important to know of a DVD player its chip set (type, manufacturer, and specifications), whether the player is a progressive scan or standard interlaced model, whether the model is capable of passing below-black information, etc. It would also be important to know how these characteristics relate to the artist's desired result, how they might be measured, and how they might be altered when displayed in a different space composed of different materials.

The Variable Media Initiative of the Guggenheim Museum has recently proposed a set of terms to describe installations and the practices involved in their preservation. According to a set of “behaviors,” an installation may be “installed,” “performed,” or “interactive,” and its media components may be either “reproduced” (reformatted from analog originals with some loss in quality) or “duplicated” (copied from digital originals with no loss in quality). Similarly, a set of preservation “strategies” are defined, including “storage” (traditional preservation of original components),“emulation” (imitating the appearance of lost or obsolete original components with different means), “migration” (substituting lost or obsolete original components with newer materials), and “reinterpretation” (reformulating the piece according to an updated understanding of its conceptual and metaphorical aspects). The term “variable media” also embraces the idea that preservation of installations must accept the possibility of change or variation over time (Ippolito et al. 2001).

3.3.3 The Cost of Ownership

One way for a conservator to ensure the future preservation of a work of installation art is to develop the cost of ownership of the piece, over its projected life, as part of a preservation plan (Laurenson 1999a). Such a plan might include, for example:

  • the cost of producing archival masters of audiovisual components
  • the cost of future periodic migrations of the masters to newer formats
  • the cost of producing successive generations of presentation media formats
  • the cost for acquisition of successive generations of presentation playback equipment
  • storage costs (for example, cold storage) for the archival master, possibly off-site
  • the cost for acquisition of redundant equipment for later use as spare parts or replacements
  • the cost of in-house or outside expertise for diagnosis and repair of electronic components
  • re-installation costs (design, construction, electrical, etc.)
  • the cost of bringing in the artist or artist's representative to participate in future re-installations
  • the cost of in-house expertise to maintain the piece while it is on view, for example, to periodically recalibrate CRT displays and replace nonfunctional presentation media
  • other in-house staff costs, such as attendants required for certain interactive pieces
  • the cost of special documentation required to present the piece accurately in the future (video, production and recording of artist interview, CAD, VR, spectroradiometry, decibel levels, etc.) and the cost of maintaining the resulting information (storage, migration, etc.)
  • maintenance costs for any software (such as proprietary monitor-switching software or frame buffers), including re-programming or program emulation in the future if necessary

If an owner fully understands and accepts, at the time of acquisition, the economic requirements for shepherding a piece intact into the future, the chances for that piece's survival are much enhanced. Collecting institutions, led by the Tate Collection, have begun to allocate acquisitions funds for the ongoing costs of preserving these kinds of works (Laurenson 2000). Some institutions, such as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, have embraced the need for permanent staff technical expertise in the installation and maintenance of electronic components (Graham and Sterrett 1997; Roosa 1998). In the Carnegie International 99/00 exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art, the activation and maintenance of the many technology-based works in the show required the assistance of two full-time technicians. Museums that are building media-intensive collections should plan for adding appropriate technical staff and should look to one another for the sharing of knowledge and the development of ongoing professional development and training in this highly specialized area.


There is no consistent standard so far for determining who will retain control over the ongoing preservation and reformatting of the image-and sound-bearing media components of an installation. Some installation acquisitions come with acquisition agreements or contracts that permit the purchaser to produce preservation masters, from which current “presentation” formats can be made to keep pace with equipment obsolescence. In other cases, the artist wishes to retain control of any future copying or reformatting. For example, the artist James Coleman makes multiple camera originals of the color slides he uses in his installations and stores them in multiple locations in archival conditions (Vitale 2001). A museum owning a piece by Coleman is contractually obligated to purchase a new set of slides from the artist once the original set has faded. This practice may not be a problem during the artist's life, especially if the artist, like Coleman, takes his responsibility for preservation seriously. But a collector or institution will want to take a longer view. Under prevailing art world custom, in practice ownership of this kind of work of art is more akin to a licensing arrangement, and the owner has no real control over the destiny, or preservation, of the piece. In the dance world, the case of the modernist master Martha Graham illustrates the point: less than 10 years after her death, her dance school and company have been dissolved and her works are rarely performed; some suspect that the artist wished—indeed, planned—for her work to die with her (Acocella 2001a). This outcome points to a crisis in the preservation of dance (BAVC et al. 1997) that could apply equally to visual arts said to exist primarily as “performances”or events.

On the other hand, an artist or artist's estate has a legitimate interest in how ephemeral components are handled by an owner. Aside from the obvious copyright issues, which grow more complex as more artists turn to digital media in their work, consider, for example, an institution that either fails to make replacement presentation media (such as slides in a Coleman piece) or fails to use adequate quality control, resulting in copies that poorly reflect the artist's intentions. It should be possible for artists, dealers, and the owners of installations to negotiate agreements that give the owners sufficient control to guarantee the survival of the piece, while at the same time reassuring artists that the quality of ephemeral media will be adequately monitored and that any copying or reformatting will meet mutually satisfactory and measurable standards of quality, in addition to adhering to copyright restrictions. For example, an institution could monitor and limit the total amount of time a color slide is projected and employ standard densitometric monitoring to determine when the slide has unacceptably faded (Wilhelm 1993). Allowable measurable densitometric variation limits could also be established for the production of duplicates from the masters. Similarly, standard measurable quality control parameters could be determined for video signals reproduced from masters (Feeley 1999). Once the criteria for a particular piece are agreed to by both owner and artist, both could submit to the conclusions of a third-party testing service to determine whether the standards have been maintained.


Any intervention—such as replaced components, parts, or media—will change the piece in some fundamental way, a concept that applies equally to works of art in more conventional media. For this reason, an intervention should not be undertaken lightly and should take into account the views of the artist and scholar as well as those of the conservator.

The following examples of intervention—actual or potential—illustrate how difficult these decisions can be and how dependent they are on a consideration of multiple points of view:

A series of acetate-based 16 mm films by Marcel Broodthaers (1924–1976) in the exhibition Seeing Time(Riley et al. 1999) performed poorly as a presentation medium. The film began to break down along the sprockets after only 50 hours of projection (Biederman 2000). A polyester-base version would be more practical for presentation purposes, but connoisseurs of film might reasonably object that the particular tonal qualities of a black-and-white acetate film are unsatisfactorily rendered on polyester-based film.

Nam Jun Paik's (b. 1932) piece, Moon Is the Oldest TV (1963–65) was produced by magnetically disrupting the image on 12 cathode ray tube monitors to mimic the appearance of the phases of the moon. When CRT monitors are no longer reparable or replaceable, the only way to present this piece might be with a laser disc containing digitized still images of the moonlike magnetic effects, presented on modern LCD monitors. However, such a presentation might be so remote from the original material and concept that it would lose its meaning. In a case like this the only viable intervention might be to re-create working CRT monitors (Herzogenrath 1997).

Vito Acconci's (b. 1940) 1975 piece in the exhibition Seeing Time(Riley et al. 1999), Pornography in the Classroom, originally contained a Super 8 film, which was later remastered to Beta SP and then to DVD for the exhibition. The evocation of a “classroom” created by the original Super 8 projector and imagery, along with the scratches and skips typical of the medium, was lost in the remastered media, to the possible detriment of the piece, even though Acconci himself had expressed no concerns whatever regarding the reformatting of his audiovisual materials (Vitale 2001). On a philosophical level, given that Acconci's work is primarily conceptual in nature, the remastering could be considered irrelevant (Vitale 2001); on an experiential level, the piece could be said in a sense to have been “overrestored,” much like a painting whose original rubbed canvas texture has been inpainted by a well-meaning restorer.

Dara Birnbaum's (b. 1946) installation Tiananmen Square: Break-In Transmission (1989–90) will present future curators and custodians with a similar dilemma. Some of its video imagery contains “snow” and other visible technical “defects”—typical of the broadcast signal on which it is based—that should not be corrected in any future reformatting, since they are important to the experience and meaning of the piece (Messier 2001).

Keith Tyson's (b. 1969) piece, AMCHII-XLII Angelmaker Part II (the quadruped) (1995, Collection of Pamela and Richard Kramlich) (Riley et al. 1999), includes a vacuum cleaner motor that periodically turns on, creating a distinctive sound and air turbulence, though the motor itself is not visible to the viewer. When the motors burn out and replacements are unavailable, they could theoretically be replaced with components that mimic or emulate the sound and air turbulence produced by the original equipment. As long as such an intervention is documented and theoretically reversible (at the extreme, someone could construct a new motor from scratch, for example), it is probably appropriate since the viewer's essential experience of sound and air movement is entirely preserved. In many ways this approach is analogous to using an inpainting medium other than that used by the artist. The material may differ, but this fact is transparent to the viewer, whose experience, if the intervention has been well-executed, remains unchanged.


Valuable work has been done recently on basic standards for the care of technology-based installation art and video installation (Roosa 1998; Laurenson 1999a), installation art (Stringari 1999), and single-channel video (Stauderman 2000). Institutional guidelines should include, for example, at least the following elements for video-based installation work:

  • For the signal-bearing media (Laurenson 1999a): accurately labeled media, including media's generational relationship to the original or master media (e.g., edition, exhibition copy, clone, duplicate, etc.)maintenance of at least an archival master, exhibition copy, and access copy, in appropriate mediaif known, the location of other versions or masters in the possession of artist, gallery, or other institutiondetermination of the obsolescence rating of the media (Stauderman and Messier 2000)strict playback guidelines regarding what each format is to be used for, under what circumstances, and by whom (for example, an archival master would never be lent, while an exhibition copy could be)record-keeping requirements for each version including standard metadata sets such as Dublin Core (Dublin Core Metadata Initiative 1999). A model for cataloging independently produced media has recently been proposed by Independent Media Art Preservation (2001).storage criteria including maintenance of acceptable levels of temperature, relative humidity, and particulatesguidelines for pre-acquisition requirements; for example, viewing the tape to determine the presence or absence of color bars (important for future calibration), technical faults or damages, chrominance and luminance levels (important for selection of display format), and so onidentification of any copyright issues posed by the imagery or sounddocumentation of the correct appearance of video imagery by agreement of artist. For example, documentation could be done by monitoring the tape with the artist on a calibrated monitor or measuring the luminance and chroma with appropriate devices such as light meters and spectroradiometers (ISO 1997a, 1997b, 1997c, 1999).cost of ownership and long-range strategy for migration or reformatting of original and exhibition media, avoiding “lossy” compression algorithms such as MPEG or MPEG-II for digital media.
  • For the installation as a whole (Stringari 1999): identification of required components and whether they are provided with the sale or acquired after the sale by the ownerprecise numbering and registration of all 226 material componentsdrawings or blueprints of the installation's layoutdescription and documentation of lighting and sound aspectsdescription and documentation of mechanical devices (motors, etc.), any service or replacement records, preventive maintenance requirements, and sources for replacement parts and service expertisetranscription or videotape of interview with artist, or written questionnaireinstallation manual, developed in partnership with the artist or by the artist alone, detailing requirements and limitations for future installations of the piecestorage requirements (space, environment, etc.) for each type of materialcost of ownership: storage, maintenance, replacement, etc.consolidation of documentation from various sources into a single archive

Direct intervention on the signal-bearing media requires its own set of standards for practice. With videotape, for example, typically the work of cleaning, baking, scraping, remastering, and other forms of treatment are performed by professionals outside the conservation community who may not be familiar with the ethics of conservation and the requirements for careful documentation. The library preservation community has begun to evolve protocols for recording metadata associated with digital objects and their reformatting or migration, an approach that will prove useful to the museum community for management of similar materials present in technology-based collections (Dublin Core Metadata Initiative 1999; Furrie et al. 2000; Russell and Sergeant 2000). Some magnetic media restoration practitioners have started to provide documentation of restoration treatments as well (Lindner 1998), while Sterrett and Christopherson (1998) and Laurenson (1999a) have described institutional procedures for managing interventions on media collections.

Copyright 2001 American Institution for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works