An Introspective Look at Nam June Paik, Time-based Media Art and Conservation Practices in Museums

The following is a guest post by Madeline Sheldon, Junior Fellow with NDIIPP

Smithsonian American Art Museum. Photo by Madeline Sheldon.

During the last week of June, I had the pleasure of attending the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s symposium titled, Conserving and Exhibiting the Works of Nam June Paik, which featured museum professionals who discussed their previous experiences with the conservation and preservation of Nam June Paik’s media-based artwork. My summary of this symposium reveals my own interpretation of the discussion as it pertains to the current state of digital conservation and preservation within the museum world.

NamJune Paik: The Man and the Exhibit

Known as the “Father of Video Art,” Nam June Paik created multiple video installations over the span of his life, acting as an influential pioneer for the contemporary art world. According to presenter Jon Huffman, who worked with the artist for over 20 years, Paik’s method involved a total “realiz[ation]” of his workspace. Often beginning his process by sketching in a notebook, Nam Paik used the museum as his studio, building his exhibits on site. At times, he would reuse some of his previous installation concepts, and combine them with recent renditions to make a new piece of artwork. The Worlds of Nam June Paik (2000), displayed at the Guggenheim, served as a great example of the artist’s use of space and recycled pieces. In this instance, he used several works for the exhibit, installing Jacob’s Ladder (2000) as one of his centerpieces, and included TV Chair (1968), TV Cello (1971), and TV Garden (1974) throughout the Guggenheim’s many galleries. As a result, the museum existed as an entirely new art piece, incorporating the physicality and design of the building, which worked with his smaller video installations to tell his remarkably visual story.

Conservation and Preservation Strategies

The photographs of Nam June Paik’s work do not fully capture or represent the brilliance of the artist, because in order to enjoy or “realize” his vision, a patron must be physically present within the space. This reality is certainly true for professionals like presenter Joanna Phillips, who simultaneously work to conserve the integrity and preserve the physical nature of Paik’s art. In the symposium, Phillip’s revealed that Nam June Paik, who actively facilitated the conservation process, was known for his flexibility as an artist, because he worked in collaboration with museums to find restoration strategies for his installation pieces. While the artist was a willing participant, his artwork did not share the same flexibility, mostly because of its functional dependence on analog hardware, which often impeded the conservation process.

John Hirx’s presentation provided a great example of the similar challenges he faced while working to conserve, and eventually preserve, Video Flag Z (1986). While the conservators in his museum wanted to devise a reversible restoration plan for Z, Hirx ultimately had to rely on preservation strategies, such as migration and emulation, to combat the technical obsolescence he confronted with the installation’s analog TV sets. In the end, John made an executive decision, choosing to manufacture a “hybrid” model, which included a migrated TRIVIEW security monitor, fashioned to emulate the look and feel of the original QUASAR set. His experience exposed the complicated, often creative work museum professionals must do to assess what can be realistically accomplished in terms of long-term solutions for the artwork in their collections.

Preservation for Access

SAAM Courtyard. Photo by Madeline Sheldon.

Access to media-based content will become increasingly fragile and more susceptible within a “non-static” human environment, which requires immediate and consistent action from collecting institutions. Currently, organizations, such as the Electronic Arts Intermix and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, are taking “proactive approach[es]” (to quote speaker Lori Zippay) towards the preservation of “living” time-based material, which remains in a “constant state of flux.” The EAI creates multiple backup copies of its content, and also provides a subscription-based portal for educational institutions to access their digital collections.

In order to prepare for the Nam June Paik exhibit, the Smithsonian American Art Museum needed a massive electric renovation, so that the facility could safely manage and display the artist’s video installations. While every strategy differs, each institution must undergo a parallel process of maintenance, extensive preparation, and preservation planning with regards to their individual collections. Doing so not only alleviates some of the time-based media’s susceptibility towards obsolescence, but also improves the possibility of long-term access.

Predictions for TBMA and the Museum

Speaker Ann Goodyear called for dynamic change within the museum community, as they exist in the cultural heritage environment, predicting that “repositories” would act as the “archives” for future generations. As artists experiment with new and diverse time-based media, museums will increasingly require flexible preservation strategies, and a new breed of specialists to care for and maintain their collections. Departmental and/or external institutional collaboration between the digital stewardship community, e.g. Smithsonian’s TBMA Working Group, Matters in Media Art and the Variable Media Network, will be required for the future advancement of standards and best practices.

The complexity and diversity of challenges museums face are certainly unique to and, at times, more dynamic than the issues with which libraries and archives come into contact. All of my personal experience with digital preservation exists within the confines of libraries and archives, which is why the symposium proved so beneficial to my understanding of its capacity within museums. While libraries and archives certainly experience challenges with preserving digital content, the type of data they collect and preserve tends to exist primarily within a virtual environment. On the other hand, museum professionals must work to conserve a multi-dimensional object, which not only refers to the physicality and location of a project, but also to the intent of an artist.

The observations inferred from this symposium will ultimately supplement the research I’ve conducted regarding digital preservation planning, focused primarily on archives, libraries and museums. Tune in to my last blog post, which will include a brief summation of my methods, data and conclusions.

 

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