Digital Disruption and Divergent Conservation: Opportunities and challenges relating to the development of time-based art conservation in Australasia

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Code on Canvas, Untitled (Children’s immersive experience with Grayson Perry), 2015, projection mapping installation, National Centre for Creative Learning, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney. Image by Jeremy Shaw, courtesy of the artist.

By Asti Sherring

The art museum is in a moment of transition.

I found this reflection typed in bold font on 1st December 2019 in my iPhone notes application, months after the idea had first seeded in my mind. I can only assume that this thought came to me in haste (evidenced by the variety of incorrect characters present in the note) while I was going about my daily work. Clearly, I must have felt that this statement was significant at the time, enough so for me to stop what I was doing and type my future self a reminder.

Reflecting on these words, it seems impossible that I would have forgotten it, as this loaded statement clearly articulates what I had observed in my role as the first time-based art conservator in Australasia. The honour and privilege of being granted this title ensures that I have a front row seat to what artist and philosopher Herve Fischer calls the “crisis in contemporary art”—the digital revolution (Fischer 2000, p.75).

This digital revolution has disrupted the archetype of the 20th-century art museum from a place of tradition and contemplation into a space that can be transformed by digital experiences and virtual connectivity.

This transition is driven by cultural changes in the present day which are increasingly mediated by technologies with the ability to engage human senses in different ways, creating new connections. By the end of 2021, it is projected that consumers will own 46 billion connected digital products (Juniper Research 2021) ensuring a continued reliance on external devices as an extension of the human body. Artist practices, artworks and art audiences are also changing—both as a reflection of, and in reaction to, these societal shifts, providing the incentive for art museums to move beyond traditional media. For the purposes of this article, “time-based art” will be used to refer to digital experiences, heritage objects and artworks that utilise analog or digital technologies, have a duration dimension and which only exist when they are switched on or performed, often requiring activation and active management to maintain functionality. This medium includes video, film, sound and software-based works as well as works that do not have media elements, such as performance works.

Faced with the need to adapt, museum professionals working in cultural institutions are searching for new collection and conservation methodologies which can encompass and care for the complex and variable needs of time-based art collections.

Arguably, the most important role of a cultural steward is “to prolong the existence of cultural material” (Australian Institute for Conservation of Cultural Materials Code of Ethics, 2002). However, preliminary research I have undertaken in time-based art conservation presents themes and issues that appear to contradict this ethical mandate. First-hand observations indicate that the shock of the new and fear of the now sentiments are very much prevalent within the Australasian sector’s current state of awareness and understanding of time-based art. To further investigate, I conducted an online survey which explored many of the themes and issues that have emerged over the course of my research.

My findings, as discussed below, indicate the viewpoints of cultural heritage profess-sionals who advance the discussion of cultural, institutional and structural barriers embedded in working cultures, practices and attitudes. Of the 140 cultural heritage professionals who took part in this study, the majority see the development of time-based art as a distinct specialisation within conservation. However, many feel challenged with the day-to-day management of all aspects of what it means to collect, display and preserve time-based art. As one respondent noted, a "lack of understanding of how to manage all aspects of it [time-based art] means it is time consuming compared to ‘traditional’ art”. The biggest roadblocks affecting the institutional management of time-based art include: the artwork not being identified as an institutional priority; challenges relating to managerial support and institutional advocacy; lack of specialist skills within an organisation and an overall lack of understanding of the key issues relating to the institutional management of time-based art works. As one respondent explained, “currently, museums are not adequately resourced to deal with existing collections of time-based art (to fully document and future proof the works). So as artists explore and push the boundaries of the medium, and technology improves/expands, museums get further behind”.

Survey respondents were hesitant to talk about positive progress in the sector without also acknowledging potential obstacles. Examples include noting a "greater awareness of and future planning to achieve best practice standards, however existing workload volumes, resourcing and infrastructure within institutions could be seen as a limitation”, and that the “organisational change required to ensure the needs of these works are met [require] processes and resourcing changes". One respondent noted that time-based art conservation is “still [in the] early days, [but] it seems that institutions are on the edge of solidifying sound processes", while another respondent felt that "we are moving towards better practices as time-based art becomes better understood. I just don’t think we are there yet”. As one respondent explained, “...this is a very complex, nuanced and multifaceted area of conservation, and one which is only just beginning to really emerge in Australia.” In addition to the data presented, respondents also identified several supplementary obstacles such as limited budget and resources; general negative attitudes toward time-based artworks being acquired into cultural institutions; the complex challenge of engaging artists as primary stakeholders in the installation, display and preservation of their work; the knowledge/skill gap between technical skills and collection management practices and successfully advocating for better time-based art collection manage-ment and conservation standards within an institutional environment.

 Another reoccurring issue expressed throughout the survey is the lack of specialist skills to support the display and preservation of time-based art. Over half of respondents identified a lack of specialist skills within their organisation as one of the biggest issues impacting the institutional management of time-based art. One respondent commented that "there are entire collections becoming lost due to the lack of expertise and fear of intervention". The majority of survey respondents agree that there is a need for the establishment of specialist time-based art conservation roles within the cultural heritage sector to ensure the appropriate care and management of this growing category of art. As one respondent observed:

"The main issue is the extent of technical knowledge required which I (and perhaps most people in the visual arts) are not (or at least not yet) well versed in. I think quite naturally we lag behind the artists who are embracing new types of media. Traditional registration, cataloguing and preservation practices need adapting to appropriately accommodate time -based art and doing so successfully requires being upskilled and educated in different technologies. Finding the relevant information also involves go- ing outside of the more traditional/conventional sources of information."

As it stands, the difficulty is that there are currently very few positions in time-based art conservation in the region and a lack of trained specialists even if positions were to become available. Multiple respondents acknowledged that “the knowledge and skills required to work with time-based art are completely different from those developed and needed for more materials-based conservation like paper, objects etc... And yet there is some expectation that we should be able to just do time-based art conservation”. Currently, the development of training in time-based art conservation has seen limited growth both within Australasia and internationally. Without dedicated training programme coursework, conservators working in time-based art generally need to first complete traditional conservation coursework followed by significant independent research, museum fellowships under experienced time-based art conservators, and/or film and sound archival training. It is also possible, as demonstrated at Tate, for professionals with equivalent experience, often in a related audio-visual or information technology field to be employed into the role of time-based art conservator after a period of in-house training (Lawson 2020, pers. comm., 24 June).

"In the last century [conservation] has been struggling to define its own identity in response to the rapid changes which have shaped the modern world” (Pye and Sully 2007, p. 19).

While acknowledging that time-based art conservation is a new field within the still relatively young discipline of conservation, the rapid technological advancements which began to emerge in the late 20th century will continue to push the profession further away from its classical and scientific roots. This sentiment was repeatedly expressed in the survey, where respondents observed that a philosophical, cultural and practical shift from traditional museological practices is required to manage and conserve time-based art. The evolving materiality of the 21st century requires the conservation profession to embrace these rapid technological shifts for the sake of our cultural heritage and our professional reputation. As former General Electric CEO Jake Welch said, "if the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near” (Allison 2014), or as one survey respondent urged; “... view TBA [time-based art] not as a ‘trend’ in con-servation and object management but as an integral part of how an art museum needs to function in the 21st [century]—that works are no longer restricted to traditional media and an institution needs to keep up with the changes and challenges of artistic expression”.

My research demonstrates that the very nature of time-based art requires a reassessment of traditional institutional roles and workflows, new types of technical knowledge, the development of skills to support the field of time-based art conservation and the creation of lasting supportive networks of practice. As the conservation profession continues to explore the dichotomy between object-hood and virtual spaces, it is imperative that our ability to develop new practices for new materials is not stagnated by the traditional principles of conservation. There will always be new objects which enter into our collective heritage space and "present previously unanticipated conservation challenges” (Pye and Sully 2007, p.29), and so it is essential that conservators acknowledge our subjective role within museological frameworks, including our preconceived notions and personal biases, for the sake of our cultural heritage and for the future of the conservation profession.

This article is a conversational summary of the author’s published research in the AICCM Bulletin. Read Asti Sherring’s full journal paper HERE.

Another link to the full paper: 

Asti Sherring is a time-based art conservator. She has completed a bachelor of media arts, Sydney University and a masters of materials conservation, Melbourne University. Asti held the position of senior time-based art conservator at The Art Gallery of New South Wales between 2015-2020. She has also worked at Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Museum of Contemporary Art.  Asti is currently undertaking doctorate research at Canberra University.
(Read the article in the October-November 2021 "News in Conservation" Issue 86, p. 12-17)


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