Art That Goes on the Blink
When the Los Angeles County Museum of Art acquired “Video Flag Z” in 1986, the piece by video artist Nam June Paik canonized a culture driven by technology.
A 6-foot-high grid of 84 white Quasar monitors flashed a changing mosaic of images that together formed an American flag in pulsating red, white and blue.
Today, the screens of “Video Flag Z” are dark, victims of the very modernity to which they paid tribute. The artwork’s parts, including the 84 defunct television sets, are packed in the museum’s warehouse.
“We can’t find replacement parts anymore,” said LACMA conservator John Hirx. “We’re a museum. We’re not a TV manufacturing plant.”
Museums all over the world face similar problems. After decades of amassing avant-garde works on video, laser discs and other technology-based media, conservators are plagued with failing disk drives, burned-out bulbs, scorched wires, indecipherable bits and a host of moving parts that no longer move.
The collections grew from a movement that began in the 1950s, led by artists such as Paik, John Cage, Andy Warhol and Bruce Nauman. These artists seized upon the notion that people felt disconnected by the onslaught of technology-driven media.
Many of them sought to demystify technology by taking it apart and introducing human interaction by having people tinker with the pieces. Cage in 1951, for example, created a piece that involved 12 people twiddling with the knobs of radios to create a composition. Paik expanded on the theme in 1963 with a famous piece called “Random Access” in which viewers can take random bits of magnetic tape and play them on a dismantled player.
Decades later, countless works like this “are decaying badly, on life support or turning to dust in a warehouse,” said Jon Ippolito, associate curator of media arts at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. “There’s a looming threat of mass extinction on the media arts landscape. And there’s great debate right now over what to do about it.”
Traditionally, museums have kept objects in their original condition for as long as possible. But with technology, several factors conspire against the conservator -- from equipment that becomes obsolete because companies no longer make it to fragile discs and tapes that degrade with each use.
“In my first investigations, I was concerned with making this physical videotape last,” said Roni Polisar, conservation specialist at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum in Washington. “What temperature should I keep it in? What level of humidity? What materials can be in contact with it?
“But quickly, you come to realize that’s not the central issue,” Polisar said. “It’s the image that has to be preserved, not the equipment, because the equipment will become obsolete. How do we do that? Well, that remains an open question.”
The film world has faced a similar conundrum as reels of celluloid crumble in their canisters.
“Film buffs believe you lose something very subtle if you treat movies as images and not as film,” said Richard Rinehart, director of digital media at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. “For them, cinema is about the scale of the image, the quality of the light and even the sound a projector makes. It’s an aesthetic that’s very different from computers.”
Such questions are amplified in the fine art world, where medium and message are often indistinguishable. How much of the hardware powering an artwork can be replaced before the work itself changes? All of it? None of it?
“Let’s take George Washington’s ax, the one he used to chop down the cherry tree, as a hypothetical,” said Bruce Sterling, an author and futurist who has lectured on media preservation. “Let’s say we had to replace the head three times and the handle five times. But, hey, it still occupies the same space. Is it still the same ax?”
In the case of Paik’s work, the art has to do with television’s effect on culture during the decades leading up to the 1980s, when flat-screen monitors weren’t around. But the cathode ray tube TV sets Paik used are being phased out by consumer electronics companies in favor of flat-screen, liquid-crystal or plasma monitors. Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., which owns the Quasar brand, stopped making the model Paik used in “Video Flag Z” in 1988.
Some museums have begun hoarding TV sets. But that’s considered a short-term remedy. So museums have approached the 72-year-old artist for his thoughts on preserving his pieces for a day when cathode ray tube sets are unavailable. (Paik declined to be interviewed for this article.)
“For him, the medium was fundamental to the experience of the work,” said John Hanhardt, the Guggenheim’s senior curator of film and media arts and a friend of Paik’s. “At the same time, he’s open to the reality that media has changed, and that his work has to change with it.”
The quandary of conservation affects private collectors as well, who may have paid $50,000 to $500,000 for a Paik piece.
“People come back to us and say their TVs don’t work anymore,” said Carl Solway, a Cincinnati-based art dealer who represents Paik. “We tell them how to find a repair person who specializes in older TV sets. But sometimes, you have to reconstitute the entire thing. In the case of Nam June Paik, he gives certificates that let you change to new technology without changing the authenticity of the work. It preserves the intention and the value of the work. It’s no different than owning an antique car and having to keep it running.”
Although maintenance issues deter some collectors of contemporary art, Solway said, many feel compelled to own electronically based works because they’re cultural artifacts.
“These works have a historic place in the trajectory of 20th century art,” said Matt Carey-Williams, vice president of contemporary art at Sotheby’s Holdings Inc. in New York. “As such, their ideas have been recorded and written about. So we’re not going to lose the ideas. But if the pieces ceased to function, we would lose the enjoyment, the vibrant sense of innovation these pieces have. It would be a shame.”
Yet as technology evolves, media become obsolete in mere decades.
“When we look at the media landscape in the last century, the lifetime of these formats has shrunk,” Ippolito said. “Film in canisters is turning to powder. Video formats are no longer readable. Web formats go out of date in a matter of months. My iMac has the lifespan of a hamster. So hanging on to these formats may not be feasible.”
Instead, many museums are investigating options for capturing the artwork in a way that would allow it to be displayed on future technology. One way to accomplish this is to transfer data from one format to another, for example from videotape to DVD.
“That’s like ... medieval monks who copy manuscripts,” said Jeff Rothenberg, a senior computer scientist at Rand Corp. in Santa Monica and an expert on digital longevity. “But keeping the bits alive is just part of it. You still need a new program to interpret those zeros and ones and a piece of hardware to run that program.”
Rothenberg, in a frequently cited 1995 article in Scientific American, proposed another technique: emulation. The idea is to write a single program that coaxes a current computer, say, a Linux-based PC with an Intel processor, to mimic the original computer, such as a Commodore 64. That allows the modern PC to run virtually any Commodore 64 software.
The Guggenheim put the method to the test this year in an exhibit on emulation called “Seeing Double.” The exhibit displayed a series of artworks side by side with their electronic doppelgangers.
One piece created in the mid-1980s, called “The Erl King,” was an interactive movie that required a touch-screen display, three laser discs, three players and a large computer. The original, using bulky 1980s technology, had to be packed in 12 separate crates. The new version boiled down to a single PC and a touch-screen monitor.
The piece’s co-creator, Grahame Weinbren, thought the outcome was a success. For him, the machinery was a means to an end.
“I was thrilled to get rid of all that equipment,” Weinbren said. “What I cared about were the images and the idea that you, as the viewer, could navigate through this river of images by touching the screen.”
For another artist in the exhibit, Cory Arcangel, emulation didn’t make sense.
His piece, “I Shot Andy Warhol,” featured a modified video game played on a Nintendo NES console. As characters floated across a cartoon blue sky, viewers could shoot the characters with a light gun. The game mimicked the aesthetic of Nintendo Co.'s well-known Mario Bros. game franchise.
“If we had put the piece on a [Macintosh computer], people wouldn’t have any idea what was going on,” Arcangel said. “They should see the Nintendo. They should see the cartridge.”
This leaves conservators with the old-fashioned method of interviewing media artists about their work while they’re alive, so when they’re dead, museums have some guidance on repairing or re-creating their works when things go wrong.
Most conservators agree, though, that compromise is necessary.
“Which is better? To have an imperfect copy 500 years from now or no copy at all?” Rinehart said. He referenced, by way of an answer, the “Winged Victory of Samothrace,” a sculpture in the Louvre Museum in Paris. “It’s a Roman copy of a Greek sculpture. The paint is gone. It has no arms, no head. And yet it’s one of the world’s greatest cultural icons.”
For Hirx at LACMA, the key to resurrecting “Video Flag Z” lies in a beige envelope and a manila folder filed in his office. In the envelope is a milky plexiglass fragment yellowed with age and about 4 inches long that broke off the sculpture’s armature.
And in the manila folder is a letter signed by Paik. It gives LACMA the authority to re-create the work using currently manufactured television sets and a new armature with wheels and doors.
“Our goal is to create a new armature and acquire monitors that are aesthetically equivalent to the originals,” Hirx said. “When I get the requisite funding, I will replicate it as closely as I can. That’s my goal.”