No Preservatives: Conversations about Conservation

Collaborations in Conserving Time-Based Art: a Conversation and a Colloquium

Jeff Martin

Jeff Martin

When I spoke to Jeff Martin for the first time last year, one of the first things he told me was that he wasn’t “a real art conservator.” Many professionals in my field work very hard to identify themselves as art conservators, so to have someone deny it all together struck me as a bit funny, and rather accurate. Often the things I do at the IMA leave me wondering if I too am a “real conservator,” but I think many of us have come to realize that a narrowly defined role of a conservator is not as useful as a more broadly defined one, especially when it comes to caring for art in the twenty-first century.

Jeff Martin took an indirect route to becoming a conservator (real or otherwise). He was in the first graduating class of NYU’s MA program in Moving Image Archiving and Preservation, where the coursework includes time-based art conservation. Before NYU, he worked as an archival footage researcher and television writer/producer. He now works as an independent conservator and archivist, with clients including the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum.

Jeff organized the upcoming colloquium “Collaborations in Conserving Time-Based Art,” which is co-sponsored by the Hirshhorn and the Lunder Conservation Center; it will take place at the Smithsonian on March 17 and 18. Associated with the colloquium are two evening talks that are are free and open to the public:

  • Keynote address by John Hanhardt, Senior Curator for Media Arts and Nam June Paik Media Arts Center, Smithsonian American Art Museum, March 17th at 7 pm in the Ring Auditorium at the Hirshhorn
  • Meet the Artist: talk by John Gerrard, March 18 at 7pm in the Ring Auditorium at the Hirshhorn

Richard McCoy: Will you start by defining Time-Based Art?

Jeff Martin: I have to answer that question by talking about why I don’t love the term, at least for the kind of work we’re discussing. If we’re talking about works that unfold over time—wouldn’t an Alexander Calder mobile fall in that category? It can’t be experienced properly unless it’s seen as it moves over a period of time. For that matter, the Hirshhorn had a major retrospective of Anne Truitt’s work recently. One thing that struck me was a wall text that talked about the necessity of viewing her sculptures from all sides in order to really understand them. You couldn’t get the full impact of the pieces unless you walked around them to see how the colors changed and unfolded as your perspective changed. If that’s not “time-based,” I don’t know what is.

Installation view of Anne Truitt Perception and Reflection, photo by Lee Stalsworth.

Installation view of "Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection" at the Hirshhorn Museum. Photo by Lee Stalsworth.

That said, what we’re really talking here is a subcategory of what I know you refer to as “variable art,” the subcategory whose existence is dependent on some type of technology whose continued viability and functioning is critical to the piece’s longevity. So that takes in film, video, computer-based works, and Internet art.

RM: I really like the fact this colloquium has a wide variety of presenters that represent the many stakeholders that are involved with conservation and representation of time-based art. In the introduction to this post, I mentioned our “not a real conservator” phone conversation, but I think that Jill Sterrett from SFMoMA summarized the point about not being “real conservators” very well in the recent Getty Newsletter on the Conservation of Modern and Contemporary Art:

“There are skill sets that serve a more traditional mode of conservation, and there are skill sets emerging that underpin success for people working with contemporary art. And they’re not always one and the same. Conservation has always called for analytical thinking, but now we’re looking for abstract thinkers who are comfortable synthesizing solutions. Rather than master practitioners, we’re looking for people who are master facilitators in many ways. That demands skills that are different from those required to restore a Rembrandt spectacularly.”

While those that work with contemporary art probably understand this perspective quite well, do you think that everyone is on board with this approach?

JM: No, but to answer that I’d have to take a step back from the question and say that I don’t think everyone is on board with the fact that time-based art is actually art.

It certainly isn’t always handled that way. It isn’t always accessioned or cataloged in the same way paintings and sculpture are, for example. It’s not put in galleries alongside other work; it’s not placed in an art-historical context outside of what I like to call the “video art ghetto”—the black box in the museum. Now, I think the black box is great as a means of showing some kinds of video art, but if that’s the only place deemed acceptable for this art to be seen, then you’re not really treating it as art.

As far as this approach to conservation goes, as you say, the underlying idea is well understood by conservators of contemporary art. I don’t know if I can speak to how widely it’s accepted in terms of technological art, just because the field is still so new.  Conservators and other caretakers are only starting to address these works in a systematic way—so it’s only starting to be translated into action.

From my own experience, I can say that I find a lot of relief from people (registrars, curators, exhibition designers, and conservators) when they realize that, on one hand, they aren’t being asked to solve the problems themselves, but on the other hand, that the knowledge they do have—their specific area of expertise—is being considered part of the solution. There are also plenty of people—information technology (IT) specialists, for example—who haven’t been drawn into the dialogue yet, so they don’t even know they’re part of the solution.

RM: Well put.  And at the same time, we have to consider that the artist is part of the solution. I’m so thrilled to hear that part of the colloquium is a lecture by John Gerrard, who currently has a show up at the Hirshhorn entitled Directions: John Gerrard. Can you talk about how the artist’s role in caring for time-based art, and perhaps also ways in which artists aren’t helpful when caring for their art after it’s been accessioned into a collection?

Still from John Gerrard’s Animated Scene (Oil Field), 2007

Still from John Gerrard’s "Animated Scene (Oil Field)," 2007

JM: John Gerrard’s work is especially interesting in this area because time is such a key component of his practice—his real-time 3D animations could appear at first glance to be relatively simple, but they’re highly complex works that are designed to evolve and play out over the course of decades. He’s also committed to the conservation of his works, and has created an archiving system to support institutions that own his works. The Hirshhorn is acquiring one of his works, and I’m looking forward to seeing how this relationship will unfold over time (and to what he’ll say about it in his Meet the Artist talk).

RM: Are there specific artworks at the Hirshhorn that you were thinking about when this colloquium was being formed or that led to creation of the theme?

JM: One issue has been coming up repeatedly in the case studies I’ve been reading lately, and especially in discussions within the Hirshhorn about its most recent time-based acquisitions (the John Gerrard and Paul Sharits works), is the issue of control.  We’re saying the theme of the colloquium is “collaboration,” and by its definition, collaboration means someone will have to give up some amount of control.

So control is a theme I hope to explore thoroughly, and especially the museum’s responsibility to relinquish control in order to ensure that these works survive into the future. That can include allowing decisions about a work’s conservation to be made by others, it can mean allowing the artist to continue having a voice in the work, even to the point of changing it over time.

It can mean allowing a work to die a natural death. In the process, I also hope we will critique the assumptions that underlie conservation of time-based works, both the assumptions of traditional conservation, as well as the ones that have built up over the past ten years about the specific needs of time-based art.

RM: The conservation of contemporary art is a hot topic in the conservation field. Can you talk about what makes this colloquium different than others?

JM: More than a few people have asked me how this colloquium will avoid “reinventing the wheel.” Only a few weeks ago did I finally think, well, who decided the wheel’s been invented? And is it the wheel we want? Clearly, there is now a loose set of assumptions about caring for this kind of art, assumptions being put into practice to one degree or another in museums worldwide.

Putting it another way, I think it’s appropriate to ask what is the “moment” we’re in?

Are we at risk of codifying practices and ways of thinking simply because, a) we know there is a lot of work to be done and we want to bring some sense of order to that work as we tackle it; and b) that’s simply the nature of museums and conservators?  Should we instead pause to take stock of what’s been done already and question these assumptions about what are shaping into best practices?

There’s another colloquium on the conservation of time-based art being held in April at Harvard, and it’s focusing specifically on technological issues, which I think is great. I’m looking forward to attending. But knowing that they’re focused on technology has helped clarify the focus of this colloquium as not specifically technological. Instead, we’re going to focus as much as possible on the job—how the complicated task of caring for these works has been translated into action in the real world. Obviously technology is part of that task, but it’s the interpersonal relationships that develop along the way that are even more important.

One other thing that’s different—during the colloquium there will be a number of major time-based works on view at the Hirshhorn and the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM). This way, people will have a chance to see the works up-close as part of the discussion, which doesn’t usually happen at these events. In addition to three works by John Gerrard, the Hirshhorn will also be showing a new acquisition, Shutter Interface, a four-projector 16mm installation by Paul Sharits. Douglas Gordon’s Play Dead; Real Time and Miguel Angel Rios’s A Morir (’til death) will also be on display. In addition, three of SAAM’s Nam June Paik major installations are on display, as is the light work, Snails Space with Vari-Lites, “Painting as Performance” by David Hockney.


RM: Those are complex and involved issues that you raise. I think in many ways it might end up being “bad practice” to concretely codify practices around the conservation of contemporary art. With this in mind, what outcomes do you hope to have from the symposium?

JM: From the beginning, the event has been tasked with two things. The first is to educate about and advocate for the necessity of caring for time-based art—addressing the Smithsonian community in general, many of whom are new to the conservation issues under discussion, though they may provide valuable expertise that is part of the conservation puzzle.

The second task is to share information and provide a forum for discussion among those of us who are already experienced in this work (both inside and outside the Smithsonian), and draw new stakeholders and potential allies into the conversation we have already been having.

RM: So, can anyone come to the colloquium?

JM: We are encouraging people from outside the conservation realm to attend. As the colloquium’s title implies, these works require the collaboration of conservators, artists, exhibition designers, audiovisual specialists, IT professionals, curators, and more. If you’re interested in attending or what more information, send me an e-mail at martinj[at]

Here’s the list of speakers:

  • Jill Sterrett, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
  • Glenn Wharton, Museum of Modern Art
  • Chris Laciniak, Audiovisual Preservation Solutions
  • Andrew Lampert and John Passmore, Anthology Film Archives
  • Richard McCoy, Indianapolis Museum of Art