Rachel Ward, NDSR Fellow: “When time-based media art in private collections no longer functions, who is responsible for conservation?”

We were super interested to read this short essay byt PhD student Rachel Ward on her research doing time-based media conservation at Small Data Industries, Brooklyn NY, as a part of her National Digital Stewardship Residency.


From National Digital Stewardship Residencies:

“When time-based media art in private collections no longer functions, who is responsible for conservation?”

The Small Data Industries lab — Ben Fino-Radin, Erin Barsan, Nick Kaplan and I — recently returned from the American Institute of Conservation (AIC) conference. The work I presented represents the “new” stream of my NDSR Art project, Something Old, Something New. My talk, within the Election Media Group (EMG) section, was entitled Conservators in the Wild: Collaboration with art studios, galleries and collectors. It calls attention to the conservation needs of time-based media art (TBMA) that exists outside the walls of institutions (that is, in “the wild”), in the contemporary art market — much of which is still being negotiated and standardized. In other words, the art world is often referred to as “the Wild West” (a phrase which also came up many times in the session).

Over the past 10 months, I’ve immersed myself in these contemporary art spaces — as a contrast to my background in cultural anthropology, ethnographic objects and Indigenous rock art conservation[1]. Although the art world has “practices, rituals and customs” that are unfamiliar to me, the methods are the same: observation and interviews in the field. These are often the only tools an anthropologist has in exploring new cultures in order to create primary source material. Whereas my previous fieldwork was conducted in literal fields and escarpments — here, I was “on the ground” in the contemporary media art world and my interviews were with emerging media artists, gallery owners, and private collectors. These interconnected spaces are what I will refer to as the “ecosystem of contemporary time-based media art”.

Within this ecosystem, I am focusing on the path of a TBMA piece from artist studio to gallery to private collection and looking for the problems it faces at each stop along its trajectory. My work also examines obstacles in the path’s interstitial spaces and the broader ecosystem that grows over many years in terms of obsolescence in private collections, reiterations in gallery spaces and new editions from the artist. As time passes, the spaces between these move farther apart — galleries close and artists retire — while complexities, particularly to the private collector, grow.

The Journey and Interstitial Spaces of TBMA
Animation by Rachel Ward

This leads to the question: when time-based media art in private collections no longer functions, who is responsible for conservation — the artist, gallery, installation team or private conservation practice (that is, if a collector is even aware of such services)? Within museums, established protocols and processes are in place — but where should one turn without this system of defined support? Artists often pass their work directly from studio, to gallery to private hands. Yet these important, complex media pieces are stricken with the same inherent dilemmas as those safeguarded within institutions: obsolescence, demands for migration, repair and preservation.

The Path of TBMA Obsolescence
Animation by Rachel Ward

To unravel this theme at AIC, I quoted segments from my interviews with stakeholders that operate in mixed spaces in this “ecosystem” — for instance, when an artist’s work enters the gallery — when the collector reaches back out to them if a piece isn’t working — and instances of reiteration for new shows in galleries or museums. Overall, I attempted to include a broad spectrum of viewpoints to construct a more comprehensive view of this ecosystem, from established and emerging artists, to small and investment collectors, to the most serious, professionally managed private collections.

In my interviews with media artists, I realized concerns often stem from their old pieces in private collections that require repair. In these regards, they expressed the need for outside assistance, as well as creating comprehensive archives, documentation and bespoke storage systems based on their medium (e.g., apps, VR, installations). For the galleries, their needs mainly focused on a simple and easy way for them to safeguard their artists’ work, storage that would be synced with the artists’ studios for new versions and updates, and best methods for documenting and conferring artists’ parameters (for iteration, installation and repair) upon sale. Lastly, in my interviews with private collectors, it was apparent they desired a change in the viewpoint that once they buy a piece, they are the sole party responsible — or at the very least, basic instructions. According to one collection manager, “they never even told us to use a write-blocker!”. Finally, they want trust that if something goes wrong, there will be a defined system of support.

A “Healthy” TBMA Ecosystem
Animation by Rachel Ward

In looking forward to collaboratively develop recommendations, I recognized that many of these issues are professionally addressed and standardized in museums, with on-staff AV teams and conservators. But when these problems arise “in the wild”, new strategies must be conceived, often on the fly (as one gallery director put it), to address these urgent and, what could be very expensive, concerns. It seems that needs which occur outside the walls of institutions could be provided as a service, such as an ongoing monthly support model. For current and future collectors of TBM art, there needs to be assurance there is a system of support that will safeguard their investment. If this comes in the form of a service, such as a monthly fee, it needs to be simple and affordable.

It seems time-based media conservators in private practice could provide this support at every entry point along the TBMA path, directly to artists, galleries and private collections. Here, the most prudent and inexpensive solutions would rest in preventative conservation rather than salvage repair. In doing so, it could preemptively safeguard the legacy of artists — and by protecting works in private spaces, it may make TBMA more collectible, in turn, allowing artists to sustainably continue working in this medium for years to come. Importantly, these defined spaces of need may open up new roles and career opportunities for emerging media conservators, in our collective goal to preserve our global artistic legacy — from small art pieces “in the wild” to priceless artworks in institutions.

[1] Although, I am now renegotiating these established canons of anthropological research to that of digital anthropology, media archaeology, artist archives and time-based media art (TBMA)