The preservation of installation art draws on every aspect of the preservation field--a reflection of the breadth of practices involved in its creation. As befits the media-based content of this site, these best practices will take a narrow focus: on how to preserve the media components of an installation work for the long term.
Even so, this document is a work in progress-designed to lay out the fundamental questions these works raise, and to gather the most recent research in the field.
Documentation is the process of gathering and organizing information about a work, including its condition, its contents, and the actions taken to preserve it.
An installation may consist of numerous elements and be composed of various materials other than electronic media. It is therefore crucial to document all the components of the work, including its behavior, as soon as it becomes part of a collection. Describe the work's media components as well as the equipment that enables its presentation. It is also important to document the physical space and environment where the work is installed. In this sense, a conservator should treat a media installation as a special kind of sculpture. Each part is equal to the whole.
Inventory and Cataloging
The first stage of any preservation project is the assessment of the needs of the item(s) in question. For an installation with multiple, interdependent components, a basic inventory is a critical step in this process. It is important to document not only the media elements but also the playback and display equipment. The display equipment of an installation is often as integral to the work as the media. It would be ideal to catalog an installation fully in the early stages of preservation, but this is not always feasible or practical. Instead, a basic item-level inventory-with information gathered on paper or in a spreadsheet using software such as Excel-is a good place to start.
In the process of doing an inventory, be sure to watch out for particularly damaged or visibly deteriorated elements and note the overall composition of the installation. See Inspection.
To create a basic inventory for an installation, document the following:
As the preservation process moves forward, it is critical to catalog thoroughly the material being preserved. Though it isn't necessary to create full catalog records to begin the process, it is critical that cataloging be included as a step in the process at the earliest possible point.
Cataloging can be a surprisingly complicated process. Although numerous standards have been set by librarians and archivists to keep catalog records consistent between various institutions and databases, very few standards exist for cataloging installation art. Before building a database of catalog records, it is helpful to consult an archivist, librarian, registrar, or conservator with expertise in the field.
An important part of cataloging is the use of a consistent vocabulary. The generally used standard for cataloging moving-image material is Archival Moving Image Materials: A Cataloging Manual, 2nd edition, colloquially known as AMIM-2. It is available at many research and university libraries and gives detailed standards for describing everything from tape format to title variations.
An in-depth discussion of cataloging principles and practices can be found on the Moving Image Collections (MIC) website. Rules for cataloging are available on the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) website.
A "work" record describing the installation should be created, with individual item records for the each media component and piece of equipment linked to it. Separate item-level records for each component are necessary because tape media and born-digital media have different technical metadata (e.g., cataloging data) and creation information, and may have different preservation needs.
For the entire installation, a basic catalog record, whether paper, spreadsheet or database, should include:
In addition to Descriptive, Technical, Preservation, and Administrative metadata for the work as a whole, minimum information for a record describing each tape media component should include:
In addition to Descriptive, Technical, Preservation, and Administrative metadata for the work as a whole, minimum information for a record describing each born-digital media component should include:
When labeling each file, implement naming conventions and make sure to include the file extension. These conventions should be decided at the beginning of the project.
For a more in-depth explanation of metadata for digital files, see Computer-Based Art: Best Practices.
Note: Many collections contain obsolete formats that are not always identifiable to non-experts. These obscure tapes usually need the most attention, and accurate descriptions of their formats are essential. For more information on videotape format identification, refer to the following site:
Behavior and Environment
In addition to documenting the individual components of an installation, a work's behavior needs to be documented to preserve it accurately over time. Behavior is not only the way in which the installation behaves or acts, but also the way the installation operates under a particular set of conditions determined by the artist. The ideal method of documenting behavior begins with the artist, if possible. An artist's interview or questionnaire is becoming increasingly common practice in collecting institutions.
Questions to ask the artist include:
This information will be critical if the work ever needs to be reinterpreted, in the event of obsolescence of the original media, for example, or if it is reinstalled in another space.
Because installations are site-specific, it is useful to document how an audience responds or interacts with a work at a specific site. For instance, interviews with visitors, still photographs or video of the installation, or summaries of particular interactions or exchanges with the work using diagrams or a brief narrative are all helpful elements. (Keep in mind that this kind of documentation adds its own preservation needs.)
Other forms of documentation are important as well. Collect ancillary materials related to the work, such as blueprints or room specifications, tech drawings, exhibition guides, or press books.
For additional information on documenting media installations, an excellent case study, and a collection of questions to ask artists, see Pip Laurenson's "Developing Strategies for the Conservation of Installations Incorporating Time-Based Media: Gary Hill's "Between Cinema and a Hard Place" and "The Conservation and Documentation of Video Art." (PDF file))
For more information on the documentation strategy, review concepts behind Rhizome's ArtBase Artist Questionnaire and the Guggenheim Museum's Variable Media Questionnaire. (Note that you need to be a member of Rhizome and the Variable Media Network for access to these online questionnaires.)
With an item-level record created for the work-its physical materials and its "look and feel"-a clearer picture of preservation needs emerges and it is now possible to begin estimating costs for preserving the installation. This information is also critical when approaching funders, who invariably want a clear sense of the project's scope.
Unique identifying numbers for each individual item are critical to the cataloging process. For an installation, it is useful to assign a unique number to the work as a whole and to assign a variation of that number to each component. The numbering system should be as simple as possible. A basic numbering system can describe the collection or creator, assign a number, and give details about format or generation. For example, the video triptych Anima (2000) in the Bill Viola collection, which consists of three separate wall-mounted monitors displaying three different video sources, could be numbered like this:
BV-00001 - For the whole work
The various conventions for numbering should be determined in advance, as should conventions for writing out the number (e.g., the use of hyphens, etc.).
Secure acid-free labels with the corresponding unique identification number on the installation, each media component, and on hardware devices required to play back and display the work, including decks and monitors. Also, label portable storage devices for computer-based artworks such as floppy discs, zip discs or optical discs-these devices should have the unique identification number of the work that they relate to.
Of course it is important that the label be discreetly placed so it does not affect the overall "look" of the piece.
Keep in mind that the adhesive on labels can dry out and the label can fall off. Optical media such as CDs or DVDs should be stored in polypropylene jewel cases with acid-free labels. The unique identifier should be written on the clear plastic inner hub of the disc with an archival, soft felt-tip, non-solvent, water-based, permanent ink marker.
Labels should include the following information:
Inspection is the process of gathering detailed information about tape or file condition, in preparation for migration to new formats, as well as to check the status of works already preserved or yet to be preserved.
Inspection at Intake and Cataloging
A detailed physical inspection of the installation and its materials can provide a great deal of information about the work and can help the archivist, conservator, and vendor determine what steps are necessary to migrate the media components to a new format. Inspection for videotape and inspection of digital files will be handled separately, as each form deserves different considerations.
Magnetic Videotape Inspection
Videotape inspection is a relatively straightforward process, but it does need to be done in an orderly fashion, with careful attention to detail. A basic videotape inspection form can be found in the condition report section of this website. See the Association of Moving Image Archivists' guide to videotape inspection for a step-by-step guide to physical inspection.
Signs of Active Deterioration or Potential Damage
Ongoing Periodic Inspection for Videotape
Digital File Inspection
Inspection of digital files consists of checking regularly for operability, which also includes inspecting the appropriate software necessary to run the file and making sure the hardware device is fully functional.
The following characteristics or basic attributes of computer-based artwork should be examined and described in the catalog during inspection:
Ongoing Inspection for Digital Files
Rapidly changing technologies and the threat of obsolescence necessitate regular inspection of the work-the work as an interoperable system of data, data formats, software, and physical hardware.
It is hard to quantify how frequently items should be checked. Often, software upgrades do not provide backward compatibility, thereby rendering large amounts of digital information obsolete in a short amount of time and without advance warning.
Ideally, inspections should be performed as often as every six months in order to make certain that digital files and the systems and equipment needed to run them are in full operation. This is not always feasible, of course, but when bringing a computer-based work into a collection, periodic inspection should always be considered as part of the institution's responsibilities.
Test the work in its original environment as well as in the latest environment using the newest version of software, operating system, and/or hardware. Retain multiple copies of the original software. These tests provide a good opportunity to assess the risks and consider what actions will be necessary when the work must be migrated.
Unlike other works of media art, installation art is intricate, and its conservation involves the preservation of multiple components. These components are typically comprised of the sound and/or visual media, display equipment, sculptural elements, and any behavior that is linked to the work's interactivity with the observer. The following preservation actions will serve to maintain the functionality of the artwork as closely as possible to what the artist originally intended. Although the conservation of all parts of an installation is essential to preserving a work's integrity, this section will specifically address actions for the preservation of the moving-image component-magnetic tape and born-digital media are addressed separately.
Many installations include motion picture film components. For a guide to conserving film materials, see:
Linda Tadic's Recommended Conservation Practices for Archival Audiovisual Materials Held in General Special Collections (March 2001) (PDF file)
Film Forever: The Home Film Preservation Guide by the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA)
Magnetic Videotape Storage Conditions
In optimal environmental conditions, new audiotape and videotape should last at least about ten years, but can actually last up to thirty and, in some remarkable cases, fifty years.
Proper storage conditions will give you a window of time to document tapes properly and to preserve works that need immediate attention, while keeping the lower priority tapes stable. The best long-term storage temperature is approximately 50°F at 25% relative humidity, with little fluctuation. These conditions cannot always be met, of course, but the following guidelines should be kept in mind:
Keeping a tape wound properly can increase its longevity.
Born-Digital Media Storage Conditions
Storing digital media on a system of redundant independent hard discs (such as RAID-6) or on a server duplicates your data and keeps it relatively secure, provided it is well managed. This is the most expensive digital storage option.
As cost per megabyte has decreased, a single external hard drive is an affordable solution and is reliable enough to store the components of a digital work. However, long-term storage of any high-density disc is risky.
Redundancy is key, as drives can fail. We recommend that you back up the work on at least two hard drives and leave one hard drive sitting on a shelf, preferably off-site in case of disaster. It is also wise to bring together files and outside links that may be spread over several servers and/or directories to maintain provenance of the work and exert more control over the individual components. This is an essential step in preserving websites.
If your institution can afford to do so, it is also good to back up local data onto a computer storage magnetic tape format such as Linear Tape-Open (or LTO) and store it off-site. This requires being networked into a local area network with tape backups. We recommend that you store data on separate media that use different technologies to keep your archive from being dependent on one technology.
A note about "archival" gold DVD-Rs and CD-Rs. Optical are vulnerable to scratches, heat, and humidity. They can delaminate in heat, and humidity can ruin them if moisture gets to the adhesive layer of a DVD-R through unsealed edges. Gold optical discs have a 24-karat reflective layer that is inert to oxidation and tarnish, and uses an organic phthalocyanine dye that, according to independent studies, has the longest lifetime of photosensitive dyes. The dye is subject to degradation over a long period of time, especially if the optical media is kept in a lighted area. The light can fade the dye, which causes failure when the laser tries to read the information that has been recorded to the disc.
Equipment Storage Conditions
For installation works, maintaining functional playback and display equipment is crucial to preserving the relationship of the individual media components to the whole, and preserving the authenticity and integrity of the original object-the installation as an entire system of interconnected parts. Like all machinery, equipment will eventually fail, but by storing it in proper conditions, one can delay this inevitable fate as long as possible. The following guidelines should be kept in mind:
For more information on equipment storage and maintenance, including the process of identifying the significance of equipment as functional or otherwise, see Pip Laurenson's "The Management of Display Equipment in Time-Based Media Installations."
Preservation refers to the overall process by which the content of an item is saved and its long-term viability is ensured. With respect to installation art, the preservation assessment of all distinct components that make up an installation artwork should be done concurrently in order to maintain, as best as possible, the authenticity of the original piece. Thorough documentation of the original will inform your preservation methodology and process. This section will address the specific preservation needs of the moving-image component in these works-priorities and actions for magnetic tape and born-digital media are addressed separately.
The preservation process involves migration, or duplicating videotape to a new, archival format in order to keep the content accessible in the long term.
Archival Videotape Formats
There are a variety of analog and digital videotape formats that have been manufactured to serve specific user needs. In preserving videotapes, there has been no official designation of a standard archival tape stock. However, videotapes that are recommended as good archival formats are those that are ubiquitous and widely supported in the broadcast and production industries, on professional tape stocks that are thick and strong. Consumer videotape formats are manufactured for the layperson for general purpose videotaping. These videotape stocks are usually not robust and can be small in size, with thinner tape grades than professional stocks. It is not acceptable to use a consumer tape format in generating a preservation master.
The most commonly used formats for videotape preservation are:
Digital Betacam (or DigiBeta)-In the archival community, this low compression digital format is widely considered the best choice for a preservation master. As a digital format, this sturdy and reliable stock has a number of benefits: it can provide the best quality video image available, and there is no generational loss of content when using it to re-master because it allows for exact digital clones of the original. However, this tape stock and its playback equipment are expensive and predominantly available only in professional production environments.
Betacam SP-an uncompressed analog format that is very durable, reliable, and-through migration-able to maintain the maximum level of information compared to most tape stocks. However, because it is an analog stock there can be generational loss on subsequent tapes made from this master.
Archival Born-Digital Media Formats
At this point, there is no general consensus within the archival community regarding a digital file format that is appropriate for the long-term preservation of video images. One major advantage to storing files in a digital format is the ability to replicate the files with-theoretically-no generational loss. There are also cost and space advantages related to digital file storage, as it continues to decline in price and will most likely do so for the foreseeable future.
However, there are a number of variables that come into play when digitizing video; among them are issues of compression, codecs, and file compatibility. These issues have yet to be resolved among archivists-though there have been exciting developments in this area recently. (One important project-carried out on behalf of the Dance Heritage Coalition--can be found in the case studies section of this website.)
To initiate and maintain a preservation program, first identify the installation work that needs immediate attention and develop a plan based on the resources you can commit to the project. Prioritizing which installation to preserve first should take into account provenance, physical condition, and the level of threat of obsolescence of the work's media format(s), equipment, and other materials. It is helpful to ask the following questions: Is any component of the equipment no longer easily available? Is the media format no longer supported? If so, is it acceptable to replace the part or format? Ultimately, the preservation decision is a matter of balancing the needs of the total system. Other things to keep in mind:
Migration Basics for Videotape
Migration requires action and foresight-a balance of short-term and long-term planning. It is crucial that migration not change the functionality, "look and feel," or essence of a work. The following steps outline the basic procedures for migration:
Working In-House vs. Outsourcing
Some organizations have found that investing in an in-house cleaning and reformatting program can save time and resources over the long term. Many organizations, however, outsource such work to trusted vendors. Once you have selected tapes to preserve, call several vendors to compare estimates based on the format, length, and condition of each tape. Keep in mind that pricing can change once a vendor assesses materials in person.
Migration Basics for Born-Digital Media
Migration (reformatting and refreshing) prevents media obsolescence or deterioration by transferring digital information from one hardware and software setting to another. There are several levels of migration. Maintaining the original integrity and functionality of the work, you can transfer hardware and software to a new operating system, or you can transfer an obsolete file format to a new format.
Focus initial preservation efforts on works that show signs of physical deterioration or include proprietary components that are no longer active or supported in the industry. It is crucial that migration not change a work's functionality, "look and feel," or essence. The following steps outline the basic procedure:
Other Preservation Strategies for Born-Digital Media
Emulation involves the re-creation of the technical environment required to view an object. This strategy is only possible if information about a work's hardware and software requirements is maintained so that the original environment can be reengineered by future systems. Although this approach means there is no need to migrate files, emulators must be created for every software and hardware configuration, which can be expensive.
Another strategy, called encapsulation, groups a digital object with all components that are necessary to provide access to that object. In encapsulation, physical or logical structures called "containers" or "wrappers" provide information about the relationships between all data and software application components. Encapsulation aims to overcome the issue of obsolete file formats by including details on how to interpret the original information and possibly re-create the original work.
In all cases, it is critical to document each preservation action and experiment in the catalog. Archivists should avoid making changes that compromise the overall functionality or "look and feel" of the work, but any changes that do occur should be thoroughly documented and explained.
For more information on migration and other preservation strategies, see Cornell University Library's Digital Imaging Tutorial and the National Archives of Australia's
See also IMAP's list of case studies of digital preservation.
Be prepared to invest a large amount time in the quality control process-perhaps even more time than the actual running time of the work. If you outsource tapes to a vendor, it is generally standard practice for a lab to conduct quality control on the re-mastered tapes it generates. However, it is always best practice to perform your own quality control upon receipt of tapes from the vendor.
Ideally, for both tape media and born-digital media elements, image quality assessment should be conducted by the same person, using the same calibrated equipment and settings. Staff may need training to communicate image appearance effectively, in a balance of formal qualities and content.
The following guidelines are helpful in assessing the quality of new videotape preservation masters:
If this is the first time you have seen the content of the work, it is useful to catalog the image content as well, using a screening copy.
To assess the quality of new digital preservation masters, test the behaviors and functionality of a work against the original. If the original is no longer accessible, test against documentation of the original.
Technical variables affecting display include:
Guggenheim's Variable Media Questionnaire
Laurenson, Pip. "The Conservation and Documentation of Video Art" (PDF file)
Matters in Media Arts (consortium of New Art Trust, MoMA, SFMOMA, and Tate)
Real, William. (2001). Toward Guidelines for Practice in the Preservation and Documentation of Technology-Based Installation Art. JAIC 40 (2001): 211-231
Rhizome's ArtBase Artist Questionnaire
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