When facing the preservation of an installation work, numerous questions arise. Each component of an installation work presents preservation challenges of its own. Synthesizing those challenges into a single, unified preservation plan is no small task.
Answers to basic questions regarding the specific risks to single-channel video or computer-based components of a work may be found on the relevant pages of this site. The questions below focus on the unique dilemmas presented by installation art.
Whose responsibility is it to preserve an installation work?
A collecting institution or individual that has acquired a work is ultimately responsible for the longevity of the piece. Working artists are typically too preoccupied with current projects to dedicate a lot of time to preservation, but are, of course, invaluable and usually willing consultants. It is advisable to obtain as much information as possible from the creator of a particular installation while he or she is living.
Why is an installation more difficult to preserve than a videotape?
Longevity and authenticity are the two biggest issues facing the preservation of installation works. A technology-based installation has all the preservation challenges of moving-image media, plus many more. Often, an installation will utilize the presentation equipment itself as a sculptural component, which makes hardware obsolescence a twofold threat. Because an installation typically has many more elements than a single-channel work, there is also more room for misinterpretation. Comprehensive documentation of the artist's intent and technical specifications is therefore required.
What can I do to prepare for hardware obsolescence?
First, collect and store/stockpile additional hardware. If specific equipment is an inherent part of an installation piece (consultation with the artist is critical to determine this), it is important not only to use qualified service providers to maintain the equipment, but also to retain service manuals and other documentation. Spare parts (belts, for example) should also be acquired.
What parts of an installation can be substituted?
Although there is no simple answer to this question, there are some important guidelines regarding the moving-image components of an installation. The first consideration is how these changes might affect the integrity of the work. Would they alter the look and feel of the piece? Originally, an installation may have utilized U-matic cassettes for video playback, for example, which may not be viable for future iterations. If the video playback equipment is not visible, and a digital copy that maintains the piece's look and feel can be created, replacing the U-matic deck may not be an issue. Monitors-the most visible component of any video work-raise a more difficult challenge. Video monitors vary greatly in size and image quality, and any replacement of these components must be carefully considered. The shift from CRT monitors to LCD and plasma screen monitors provides an additional challenge. As conservator Pip Laurenson has noted, "Display equipment is certain to fail and become obsolete, therefore any strong link between specific display equipment and authenticity or value will mean that a degree of loss is inevitable."
Apart from saving all the hardware and media of an installation, what else can I do to prepare for re-creating the work in the future? Documentation is key. Floor plans, wiring diagrams, lighting specifications, photographs, and artist notes and sketches should all be retained. Video documentation-such as interviews with the artist, curators, and technicians, as well as footage of the installation while running, and, if relevant, people interacting with the piece-can be particularly useful.
Can an installation really be the same from venue to venue, and from year to year? Installations are typically site-specific, so the viewer's experience will not be the same in different contexts. All iterations require some intervention, which changes a work in fundamental ways. In light of the inevitable obsolescence of hardware, conservators may have to look beyond the tangible components to retain the "heart" of the piece. In fact, substitutions may actually be necessary to recapture the authenticity of the original work.
William A. Real, "Towards Guidelines for Practice in the Preservation and Documentation of Technology-Based Installation Art." (PDF file) Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, Vol. 40, No. 3, (Autumn-Winter, 2001), 211-231.
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