Mya Vander Pol


Time-based media (TBM) is a category of art in which the works rely on the passage of time and often the integration of technology to convey their artistic concepts and narratives. It encompasses various artistic expressions, including video installations, sound art, performance, and interactive digital works. This diverse array of mediums present distinct challenges to institutions responsible for their storage, preservation, and accessibility. The rapid evolution of technology and the inherent fragility of the media formats make the proper management of time-based media art equipment a critical concern. This paper examines three case studies of time-based media artworks from the Guggenheim, Museum of Modern Art, and Smithsonian American Art Museum, evaluating the approaches employed by each institution to address the unique challenges of conserving display equipment for exhibition. By analyzing the outcomes and implications of these approaches, this study aims to contribute to a comprehensive understanding of effective strategies for preserving and presenting time-based media artworks in museum settings.

Many of these time-based media works consist of three essential technical elements: the information carrier, the playback equipment, and the display equipment. For example, a VHS tape—the carrier—is responsible for storing the data, a VHS player—the playback equipment—reads the data, and a CRT video monitor—the display equipment—renders the data in a consumable format for the viewer. In this constructed “dynamic system,” each of the components is vulnerable to degradation and technological obsolescence, so parts must eventually be repaired or replaced. While regularly exercising a time-based media work is vital to keeping it and the institutional knowledge of its installation alive, it also introduces loss to the dynamic system by gradually degrading the equipment with each use. Consequently, two fundamental tenets of the museum—preservation and exhibition—are at odds with one another.

The active role of a TBM conservator is to strike a delicate balance between these two institutional missions, and to do so they must make decisions that require a certain degree of nuanced, conceptual interpretation. If a piece of equipment fails, should it be replaced with the exact same model as the original or can modern technology be used in its place? If the equipment is updated, what aesthetic or auditory qualities—if any—inherent to the original technology should try to be emulated? If the original hardware is considered invariable—meaning the work’s authenticity is reliant on that specific equipment—how does the institution source and preserve the backup equipment that may have become scarce since the artwork’s inception? There are never perfect or one-size-fits-all answers to these questions. Technological obsolescence is a common hurdle, and the work becomes more vulnerable to loss as the equipment becomes more invariable and specialized. A conservator must work with other stakeholders such as the artist, curators, collections managers, and fabricators to determine the best strategy for each specific TBM artwork.

Pip Laurenson—the first TBM conservator to be appointed to any institution worldwide in 1996—posits that there are three main strategies to address equipment failure of media artworks. The first entails replacing technical components with spare parts of the same equipment as it was originally installed. While this strategy preserves the work’s conceptual and physical integrity the most, it may not be the most sustainable option due to the necessary stockpiling and upkeep of obsolete, often rare technology. The next strategy involves swapping out failing components with new or modified technologies while maintaining what is considered to be significant to those pieces—like integrating modern components within an original casing or updating the information carrier and playback equipment while preserving the original display equipment. Lastly, a TBM work’s significant features can be recreated by substituting the equipment with an inexact alternative that uses the same technology or by emulating quantifiable outputs like dynamic range, resolution, audio levels, and rhythm with modern technologies, reproducing functionality and behavior through imitation.

As Laurenson states in her seminal work, “Authenticity, Change and Loss in the Conservation of Time-Based Media Installations,” even identifying a piece’s “significant features” or “work-defining properties” is a complicated endeavor, especially when the artist has not provided detailed installation instructions, is not available for interview, or is no longer a reliable source of information and decision-making. The statement of an artist must be contextualized by conservation expertise and the conservation treatments should also consult the artist’s original vision. The care of a TBM work is a constant, cyclical, collaborative process that varies based on the piece’s unique dynamic system, available technologies, and institutional context. Different institutions may use different conservation approaches based on their resources and needs. Although TBM conservation treatments are complex and nuanced, individual case studies can be evaluated based on the same criteria to determine their efficacy.



How to Cite

Strategies in Time-Based Media Conservation: An Evaluation of Three Institutional Approaches. (2024). University of Denver Undergraduate Research Journal, 5. https://duurjportal.com/index.php/duurj/article/view/236