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Challenges in the Curation of Time Based Media Art: An Interview with Michael Mansfield

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Michael Mansfield, associate curator of film and media arts at SAAM.

The following interview is a guest post from Jose (Ricky) Padilla, an intern with the NDIIPP program working on issues related to software preservation and the innovation and infrastructure working groups of the National Digital Stewardship Alliance.

This time in the Insights Interviews series we get the chance to speak with Michael Mansfield, an associate curator of film and media arts at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and representative in Smithsonian’s Time Based and Media Art Conservation Initiative. Mansfield has contributed to exhibitions including The Art of Video Games ,  Watch This: New Directions in the Art of the Moving Image, and Nam June Paik: Global Visionary. I’m excited to get the chance to speak with Michael about his experience and insights on the curation of time based media art.  

Ricky: Can you tell us a bit about your work at the Smithsonian American Art Museum? I would be particularly interested to hear about how your work connects with digital preservation.

Michael: I am the Associate Curator for Film and Media Art overseeing and organizing the permanent collection, acquisitions and exhibition practices for digital, electronic and moving image artworks.  Part of this work includes developing best practices for the preservation of artworks and related archive material comprised of digital and electronic materials.  Digital media is an increasingly important aspect of our cultural heritage, and at the moment, it plays two critical roles in the museum’s initiatives.  First, the institution is authoring its own digital tools to assist in preservation efforts around media artworks, both analogue and computer driven.  And second, contemporary artists are authoring artworks using new and unique digital languages.  These issues present significant challenges, but challenges that we are eager to respond to.

Ricky: Could you give us some examples of some of the pieces you have worked with? What is particularly challenging about working with time based media art? It would be ideal if you could talk us through challenges in working with particular pieces.

For SAAM by Jenny Holzer

Michael: Time based artworks are complex.  A particularly challenging characteristic of time based art is that any single artwork may exist in a multitude of forms.  From a preservation perspective, the art object is both the physical components –which often means an array of components – and the binary signature, which may include multiple assets.  The artist’s relationship to both ‘materials’ is really very important to understanding the artwork’s place.  As a curator of this collection, I need to ensure that the two remain compatible in perpetuity.  One example might be Jenny Holzer’s artwork For SAAM.

It is a 28’ tall, site specific, light column suspended in the museum’s Lincoln Gallery.  The column is comprised of 80,640 LEDs, managed by integrated circuits and attached to several customized circuit boards. Jenny Holzer’s texts – the content displayed on the column – exist as code running in DOS on an old computer laptop.    There are eloquent relationships between her text based work, the code on the machine, and the visualization in the gallery.  Managing the complexities of that on exhibit and in the collection is daunting.

Ricky: What lessons have you learned in working with this material? Further, do you think the lessons you’ve learned in this work transfer more broadly to preserving objects with software components?

Michael: There is a steep learning curve with artworks of this kind.  It is difficult to build an accurate model for handling all time based art, because artworks vary so much from piece to piece.  That’s what makes them unique.  But strategies we develop for handling one artwork certainly give us experience to draw from on the next.  With For SAAM for instance, we’re learning that the code and the components are of equal importance.  It would be unwise to migrate either part to a more stable system without accounting for the other.

Ricky: I imagine that contributing to The Art of Video Games exhibition held last year presented some opportunities to understand some of the nuances of working with time based media art in software. Could you mention other exhibitions or works which allowed you to appreciate the unique challenges of this type of curation?

David Haxton Painting Room Lights, 1980, 16 mm film, color, silent; 9:00 minutes, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist, © 1980, David Haxton

Michael:Yes, The Art of Video Games presented some fantastic learning opportunities around media art in software.  That exhibition in one sense foregrounded the evolutionary changes in hardware, software and interactivity.  And it explored how creativity arrived from within the rules of the material.  On the opposite side of the coin, we are exhibiting artworks in our WatchThis! gallery that experiment with those rules, challenging the very behaviors of technology and sometimes intentionally breaking technology.  This is a strategy some artists employ to uncover new ideas and/or better understand ourselves.  But, caring for artworks that intentionally break the rules, or even visualize destruction, certainly presents its challenges from a preservation perspective.   We have to preserve something so that it can be continuously destroyed.

Ricky: How does the construction of a “curatorial narrative” for an exhibition of time based media art differ from one for traditional art?

Michael: “Curatorial narratives” are a curious thing I suppose, and the material really shapes any exhibition.  I think important elements to consider when developing an exhibition of time based media are simply time and space.  Digital and time based media creates, or can create, a new performance space accessed by actors and unfolding in real time.  Shaping the ‘spatial’ relationships between the artwork and the audience, actor or player can be very informative.  In looking at art: revealing the behaviors of the artist, the behaviors of the media and the behaviors of the participant give us invaluable insight for understanding ourselves and the world we inhabit.

Ricky: I would be curious to know if there are any essays, papers or projects that you have looked to for insight on helping ensure future access to these works. If there are, I would love to hear what you found particularly useful about them.

Barn at North Fork, 2010, Peter Campus high-definition digital video, color, sound; 24:00 minutes © 2010, Peter Campus, 2011.55.1

Michael: Digital preservation among art collections is a very hot topic for museums and institutions at the moment.  Organizations like museums are not known for being particularly nimble, but commercial changes in technology are really forcing the issue.  So now there are incredibly smart people tackling these issues within them.  A number of pan-institutional projects have been formed and they are generating great ideas published for public consumption, (notably something that institutions do very well).  The Smithsonian has its own Time Based Media Art Conservation Initiative that is currently investigating models for trusted digital repositories used for documenting, storing and maintaining moving image artworks.  There is also the Variable Media Network started by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.  And, of course there is Matters in Media Art resulting from a fantastic collaboration between the New Art Trust and it’s partner museums at Tate in the UK, Museum of Modern Art in New York and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.  Projects like these are a really compelling and inspiring use of resources.

Ricky: What different groups at the Smithsonian Institution are working on preserving this kind of time based media art? I would be curious to hear a bit about the different players and the different roles that are emerging around this material.

Michael: One thing that is very clear about “time based art” is that it would be impossible for one individual to understand every aspect of the field in all its complexity. The Smithsonian is large and includes a number of independent collections.  While each museum on campus handles their respective collections differently, we’ve come together around these issues and are finding new ways to leverage the tremendous institutional knowledge captured here.  There is a joint, time based art conservation initiative that includes representatives not only from each museum, but each discipline within the museum.  We have curators, registrars, conservators, technology specialists, mathematicians, engineers, archivists … collectively, we can tackle challenges facing our time-based art collections by communicating with truly knowledgeable experts in other fields.

Ricky: What areas do you feel we need more research or tools to support conserving this kind of material?

Michael: I’d like to find interesting ways to document the lifecycle of media artworks.  This might be out of left field a bit, but artworks like this seem to live and breath in ways that are unique in the arts and unique in their time or historical place.  They grow, or shrink.  They respond to their surroundings.  They physically evolve.  They consume.  They age.  They die … In some cases they reproduce. Outside of the box, I think we might benefit from some creative, comparative research with animal sciences, through their documentation of life cycles.  We can look at the tools used by zoos and their conservation practices with living specimens.  How do they document natural behaviors of a living creature?  Perhaps this might generate some new ideas for handling something like an artwork, something that is uniquely human.






  1. This is an interesting topic. I’m a big fan of SAAM (love Foster’s addition in the courtyard), but the work on the floor resonates. The current exhibit on Nam June Paik presents more examples of the challenge evidenced in displaying Holzer’s For SAAM. I’ve visited a few times and seen the work turned off, and had to explain to people how this is not how the piece is supposed to “look” or “work.” It’s funny because I’ve heard others say how it’s impressive, but they don’t know what it meant. (Again, probably because it wasn’t turned on.) I can only imagine what would happen if Paik’s Electronic Superhighway or Megatron Matrix were down.

    That said, I sympathize with the challenges Mansfield and his team face. These are not “static” works which are simply on a canvas and require cleaning. More parts=more places where things can go wrong, and as more things go wrong over time, there is pressure to fix, repaire, and replace parts within the work. Should that occur, at what point is the artist’s original work lost through replacement due to maintenance?

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