Interview with Glenn Wharton
Nam June Paik installation

Glenn Wharton works at MoMA as a Special Projects Conservator, and is on faculty at NYU in Museum Studies and the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts. At MoMA, he is assembling documentation on all media works for future conservation and exhibition. At NYU, Glenn teaches conservation of modern and contemporary art. This interview was conducted via telephone and e-mail by Jeff Martin in April, 2006. Photo: Nam June Paik. Untitled [Installation view of the exhibition Merce Cunningham Tribute], April 14-17, 1994, The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Jeff Martin: Can you tell me about your background, and what kind of work you did before coming to work in new-media conservation?

Glenn Wharton: After obtaining an M.A. in conservation I worked as a sculpture conservator in museums and as an archaeological conservator on sites in Turkey. I later started a private practice in Southern California, working primarily for museums and public art agencies. Running this practice for sixteen years led me in the direction of contemporary art and installation work. Our best client during this time was the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. We also consulted on commissioning works for public art agencies, some with video and electronic components. Mid-career I decided to pursue a PhD in conservation at the University College London, hoping to move in the direction of research, teaching, and program development. Now I am on faculty at NYU, helping develop a track for studying the conservation of modern and contemporary art.

JM: Tell me a little bit more about your current role at The Museum of Modern Art.

GW: I'm a Special Projects Conservator there. The core of the project is to conduct a survey of their time-based media holdings. Piece by piece I am working through the collection, documenting the artists' concerns for longevity and the technical history of each work. The project is collaborative by definition, allowing me to work with curators, registrars, and audiovisual staff to record an institutional memory of the works, along with criteria for their conservation and exhibition. The idea is to record all we can about the collection that will enable future staff to make decisions about their care and display.

JM: Can you give me a sense of what is considered "time-based media" for this project, at least as far as your work is concerned?

GW: The nomenclature for this genre of work is still a bit dodgy since we are living in the moment of its birth. Future art historians will no doubt have better classifications. I like the term "Installation art" since it is more inclusive, and provides for variability of exhibition components. For instance, some works produced by artists today include electronic, performative, participatory, and sculptural elements. I use the term "time-based media" to describe works that must be experienced over time, including film, video, and audio media. "New-media" is more narrow in my mind, but shifts focus from film to computer based art. MoMA uses the term "media" to identify non-film works that contain moving images.

JM: How do the various departments interact in terms of the conservation of these works?

GW: This form of art is diffuse at its borders. Hence, traditional divisions of work within museums are challenged. Fortunately Sydney Briggs, a Registrar, has taken a personal interest in media works. She catalogues them as they enter the museum and manages their movement from storage to display, whether at MoMA or in other institutions. The exhibition designers work with curators to design the displays, and the art handlers do much of the physical work to set up the exhibits. The Audiovisual Department brings in special expertise to manage the playback and projection equipment. With its eye on the future, part of the role of conservation is to document each piece and help ensure that technical changes follow standard ethical practice. The exciting aspect of this work is that it forces new collaborations. Decisions are made with input from all of these departments, since each person on the team brings in specialized expertise.

JM: Does this kind of collaboration begin when works are being brought into the collection, at the acquisition stage?

GW: Yes, at the acquisition stage the collaboration extends beyond the museum walls. We work with artists, their technical collaborators, and galleries to ensure that proper documentation occurs when new artworks come into the collection. Everyone along the chain recognizes that it is not just a matter of crating the piece and bringing it to the museum. Often the works come with electrical diagrams, product manuals, backup equipment, and floor plans. Given that this is a very unstable form of art, all parties know that equipment and media formats will change over time. Therefore part of the acquisition process is to document allowable parameters for that change. MoMA just developed a lengthy acquisition questionnaire that is specific to media works. The questionnaire is filled out when new works are acquired.

JM: What kind of information are you gathering on these forms? Is it related to display, file formats, that sort of thing?

GW: Yes, all of the above. Starting with asking the artist to describe the key elements of the work-the environment that it should be exhibited in, the light levels, the sound levels, and the display equipment. It is also critical to know the desired image quality and the artist's tolerance for various types of change. For instance, is it okay to exhibit the work either on a CRT monitor or a flat plasma screen ? The look and feel of the piece changes with different technologies, and above all else is a respect for the artist's intent. We also address technical information about formats, master copies, and exhibition copies. If the gallery retains the masters, what legal rights reside with the gallery and what exactly is the museum acquiring? Questions of copyright, cost of migration, and future costs of equipment upgrades are addressed in the acquisition phase.

JM: Your job with this project is to go back, then, and gather this kind of information for works that have already been in the collection, correct?

GW: To be honest, that was the original focus-and still the primary goal. I find myself getting involved in acquisitions, loans, and exhibitions in addition to the survey. For the survey, we are gathering all of the information on past acquisitions that we now gather for new ones. There are approximately 150 works that were acquired over the past few decades that need various amounts of documentation. Much of the information is already in-house, stored in files and the heads of staff members who have worked with the artists. It is an archaeological process of sorts, digging deep into archives, examining past exhibition records, and interviewing staff to pull the information together onto one database.

JM: Is it challenging to be working with an artist when he or she finished the work several years ago and might see conservation as a chance to revisit the work? Do your needs as a conservator ever come into conflict with the artist in a situation like this?

GW: Sure. There are built-in tensions. For instance, an artist may want to alter a work of art that he or she produced many years ago. The museum may not want to upgrade a work fully because it represents an earlier phase of the artist's career. Artists are human beings. Sometimes they don't want to be bothered with questions museums have; sometimes they don't remember what they were thinking back then. They bring new ideas to conservation questions that they did not have when they created the work. That is why it's important to record the artist's intent early on. If the museum and the artists jointly decide to make changes in the future to keep the work alive, there should at least be an awareness of the artist's earlier attitudes from when the work was created. Our goal is to assist future staff members who may not even be born yet. They will inherit the collection and continue to shepherd it into the future, without the benefit of the artist's presence.

JM: To step back a little bit, what are some of the aspects of new-media preservation that may fly in the face of what you've been doing before as a conservator? What are the biggest differences?

GW: I wouldn't frame it quite that way. I think what's interesting and what keeps me fascinated with new technical challenges is how it builds on the foundation already established in the conservation field. The core ethical questions aren't new. Art conservation has developed as a science since the nineteenth century. We have a large body of literature to draw from that addresses the theory and philosophy underlying preservation issues. We have always recognized that changes occur over time, and the question has always been how to modulate that change.

For instance, the "use versus preservation" debate has been with us for a long time. Functional objects in museums-such as clocks and musical instruments-require research and discussion between curators and conservators about whether to keep them functioning. By keeping them running we are preserving their function, but we risk using them up by wearing out their mechanical parts. The alternative is to stop using them. This preserves their material qualities for a longer time, but kills the experience of sound and movement. There are volumes written on these debates, and it is important for today's decision-makers to be aware of this literature. Likewise, there are codes of ethics developed by professional groups such as the American Institute for Conservation and the International Council of Museums-Committee for Conservation that guide conservators in their decisions.

You are right that new-media preservation brings up a whole new set of questions, but the answers must be grounded in the accumulated theory, ethics, and experience of our field.

JM: One specific question that I would like to ask in that area is that when you're dealing with motion picture or video preservation outside the fine-art world, you're basically dealing with copying. In the fine-art world, copying isn't a part of traditional conservation-how do you deal with issues of authenticity in preserving and migrating video works?

GW: Once again, copying artworks and issues of authenticity have been with us for a long time. For instance, artists cast sculptures and make prints in edition. Authenticity doesn't necessarily lie in one original, but in multiples that vary in form and content. In some cases, such as Rodin, artists in the past authorized posthumous reproductions. The questions get complicated very quickly, and they aren't altogether different from questions that arise in migrating new-media works.

But yes, this form of art pushes these questions even further. They must be regularly migrated onto new formats. We need to preserve the essential characteristics of the work while fundamentally changing it over and over again. We don't know how technology will shift in the future, so we really don't even know what questions will be asked. Our aim is to record everything now, to help future generations answer these critical questions of authenticity. To accomplish this, we keep some of our questions on a general level. We ask the artist what the key elements are for the viewer to experience. Is it light, sound, image quality? Can the piece be shown with other works in the same room? Does it need to be in a closed, soundproof environment? Their answers will guide us in migration decisions and quality control.

JM: It's interesting how much of this overlaps with curatorial responsibilities in terms of display, etc.

GW: Conservators have always worked with curators, registrars, preparators, and other people with technical expertise in making decisions about display. But new-media works force these collaborations one step further. It is still the curators who make final decisions about display, but their decisions are often based on technical information provided by others.

JM: So they're now brought increasingly into the conservator's world, so to speak?

GW: Yes, professional worlds increasingly overlap as we try to answer the questions posed by these works.

JM: To follow up on a point you made earlier about working with artists, do you find situations where an artist's parameters for conserving a work are so rigid that they're almost dooming the piece to not be seen again?

GW: Yes, this can become problematic. For example, if an artist specifies that the work must be shown on a rounded CRT monitor , it will have to be declared dead at some point in the future. These monitors are already getting scarce. Some sizes and styles can only be purchased in secondary markets, and these sources will eventually dry up. In our artist interviews we try not to have artists over-specify the exhibition criteria. Their tolerance for change is a delicate subject. We strive to establish parameters that will allow people in the future to make decisions, but not restrict them in a way that will kill the work. On the other hand, some artists have strong feelings that we must respect. Collectors need to be aware of the doomed nature of some of these works.

It isn't just a question of ethics. It is also a question of legal rights. All players must be aware of artists' moral rights that are governed by copyright legislation. In the U.S. these rights are specified under the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) In much of the world the Geneva Convention or other local laws apply. When an artist sells a work, he or she gives up certain rights of decision-making. And once someone buys the work, that person assumes certain rights. Moral rights protect the artist's rights of "integrity" from "distortion, mutilation, or other modification." U.S. law is more protective of conservators than laws enacted in most countries.

JM: Now that these questions about longevity are being asked earlier in the process, do you think that this will shape curatorial decisions and decisions about acquisition-if there's a fear that the artist's parameters are so narrow that the institution may decide not to acquire a work at all? In other words, will this shape what ends up in museums?

GW: I think that to some extent these issues do shape what ends up in museums. Acquisition decisions often include conservation assessments. Committee members take into consideration a predicted short life or expensive maintenance. If someone is going to give a work of art to a museum, and a conservator reports that it's going to cost a fair amount of money to make it exhibitable, the donor may be asked to provide a maintenance fund along with the gift. In this way, museums strive to be wise consumers. To some extent, more durable works end up in museum collections. Much of the ephemeral art of any moment disappears. This gives us a distorted view of the material culture of any era.

Some museums are not purchasing new-media works. Instead they purchase the rights to exhibit them. Institutions such as Electronic Arts Intermix hold the works themselves. This allows museums to exhibit the works but not sign on to care for them in perpetuity. I just finished performing a General Conservation Survey for the DIA Art Foundation. Interestingly, DIA commissions Internet works and maintains them, but they do not accession them into their collection. The works will revert back to the artists once DIA decides that it can no longer care for them. I find this a very interesting and creative arrangement that allows all parties to do what they want to do-artists are given money to create the works and the museum is allowed to exhibit cutting-edge (and ephemeral) media.

JM: Is there a real difference between the technical approach to migrating, say, a video artwork and any other videotape, based on your experience with labs and technicians?

GW: The technology may be the same, but the care and attention to detail is heightened. We are aware of maintaining not just a high standard, but the quality that the artist wants the viewer to experience. Some artists prefer having a lot of dropout for instance; some works intentionally have grainy imagery that would be considered low quality in the industry. The quality control is therefore filtered through the lens of artistic intentions.

JM: Can you tell me about some of the artworks you've been working on?

GW: We just finished documenting a work by Jennifer and Kevin McCoy called "Our Second Date." This is a recent purchase, so we filled out the acquisition forms and conducted an artist interview. I taught a seminar last semester NYU's Institute of Fine Arts on the Conservation of Modern and Contemporary Art, and two of the graduate students (Cathleen Chaffee and Camille Moore) took it on as a project. They performed their own research on the McCoys and prepared the initial topic guide for the interview. "Our Second Date" is a complex tableau, generated from the artists' experience of watching Goddard's Le Weekend. It presents a traffic-jam scene from the film, reconstructed with plastic cars, people, animals, and scenery on a rotating turntable. Two figures, representing the artists, face a screen that captures real-time video of the tableau that is also projected on a gallery wall. There are small lights and five miniature video cameras that feed images to a video synchronizer and then to a video switcher, which switches between the cameras according to a software program written by the McCoys. We learned that the plastic figures were purchased off-the-shelf, but modified by the artists with paint and synthetic clay. The clay is not archival, and knowing this, the museum will monitor it for deterioration in the future. This work is an example of how installation art requires the expertise of a sculpture conservator as well as a new-media conservator.

The artists provided excellent documentation with this piece, including installation instructions, a floor plan, a list of suppliers for various components, a schematic diagram of the electrical elements, and a copy of the software code used to control the video switcher.

JM: The video in the piece is live projection, is that correct?

GW: Yes.

JM: So there's not a question of storage media for recorded video?

GW: Not in this case, but we did ask the artists about changes in technology and their allowance for change. We wanted to know their criteria for changing the mechanical equipment in the future once it no longer functions. They were delightful to interview because they understand that technology will inevitably change, and they were able to articulate their concerns without over-specifying. In this instance, they didn't say that new cameras must look exactly like the original, but they requested that the museum make an effort to maintain the same look and the same size. They weren't concerned with the look of the synchronizer and switcher since these elements are hidden from the viewer on the underside of the table.

Another piece that we are working on is by Nam June Paik; an untitled installation consisting of a player piano, fifteen television monitors, and two laser disc players. It also includes two cameras that provide live feed for some of the video monitors. It is a complex work that hasn't been shown since 1994, and curators at MoMA are interested in exhibiting it again. We assembled it several weeks ago to make sure that all the components were working and to formulate questions about re-installation. Fortunately all components are functioning. The museum even has backup monitors in case some fail in the future. We recommended purchasing several more monitors as backup equipment. The questions we developed for the artist's estate are primarily about which images should be shown on which projectors, and about future changes in the playback equipment.

Nam June Paik was famously flexible, allowing curators room for their own creativity in re-installing his works. He loved the sense of variation and chance that this gave his installations. He was comfortable with certain changes in technology, but not all changes. For instance, he had no problem with the original migration from U-Matic tapes to laser disc. But now that he's no longer alive, do we still have the same curatorial flexibility, and the same authority to migrate the playback equipment continually? Or should it be frozen in some sense? If so, in what sense? How does the museum keep that wonderful spontaneity and sense of chance that Paik is celebrated for, but not change the work so much that it is no longer recognizable in one hundred years? For instance, do we always exhibit it with the laser disc players that he approved, or do we continually replace the playback equipment? If we do, it will eventually lose its turn-of-the-twenty-first-century feel. One option is to exhibit the non-functioning laser disc players, but keep the actual playback equipment behind gallery walls.

JM: At that point, doesn't the question become, why not go back to the U-Matic decks for the installation if you're going to have the visible playback equipment not be the source of the images on the monitors?

GW: It is a question of authenticity, but since the artist approved the migration to laser disc players, the museum will accept them as being exhibitable equipment. Of course the museum retained the U-Matic decks, in the spirit of archiving the original equipment, even if they no longer function. Since we don't know what will be important in the future, we archive all original materials. The original masters are also kept in offsite cold storage.

All this is in recognition that a fine-arts museum is not a technology museum. We never have the resources to keep all original computers, playback equipment, and monitors alive. They may be kept only as relics, but they will be there. Perhaps others will come with funding in the future to revive some of the technology we are archiving today.

JM: It sounds like you're talking about a broader level of collaboration, not just within an institution but among different institutions as well.

GW: I think that will be the wave of the future, partly because of the resources. Fine-arts museums simply don't have all the equipment and expertise necessary for migration, especially as new formats are developed. The role of the museum conservator will be to guide technical decisions and oversee the quality of work, but the conservators themselves may not have the technical expertise to carry it out, whether it is migration or writing new code.

JM: Is there advice that you would give to people who don't have a conservator's background-technicians, people working in labs-who haven't encountered media art, but only know it as "media"? What advice would you give to them when they approach a media-art preservation project for the first time?

GW: Yes. This is where I can put my other hat on as a conservation educator in the NYU Institute of Fine Arts Conservation program. There are plenty of ways to approach the field of conservation. Many people come to the field with some but not all of the expertise that they need to do the work. The most accepted way to enter the field is to obtain a Master's Degree. Fortunately, several M.A. programs in film and video preservation have formed in recent years, for instance at NYU and UCLA. These programs are expensive and require a major career commitment. Other ways to enter the field are to volunteer at museums or apprentice in a fine-arts preservation facility. Anyone interested in the field must be willing to educate him or herself. There are short courses, conferences, and professional organizations that produce literature. For someone who has technical knowledge but does not have a conservation background, I suggest joining professional organizations such as the American Institute for Conservation. The AIC has a specialty group of professional conservators who specialize in electronic-media conservation. There is a tremendous amount of information on the web, hosted by nonprofit groups and projects such as IMAP, EAI, BAVC, and Matters in Media Arts.

Matters in Media Arts is a project created by staff members from the New Art Trust , MoMA, Tate, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The aim is to create best-practice documents for acquiring, managing, and conserving new-media works. Phase One focused on loaning works from one institution to another; Phase Two, which we are in the middle of now, is Acquisitions. In researching this phase, we will reach out to artists and their galleries to learn what they would like to provide museums when they acquire these works. Then we will develop suggested acquisition forms and standard documents that museums would like to acquire along with the works.

Another group that is doing interested work is the International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art (INCCA). Until now it has been a European effort, but a North American group is forming. They host symposia and projects on all aspects of conserving contemporary art. They also post valuable information and tools on their website, such as methods for interviewing artists. They developed a database for unpublished research on artists' methods, materials, and concerns for the longevity of their work. This Artists database is only open to members, and to become a member you must make contributions to the database.

It is a very fast-moving and growing field, so my main advice is to stay awake and keep your eyes open. Learning opportunities are out there, and there is a lot of work to be done.

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