Module I - Introduction to Media Art and Museums

1. Preamble

Various international research groups have been formed to facilitate the acquisition and long-term management of media artworks. Based in Montreal, the DOCAM Research Alliance (Documentation and Conservation of the Media Arts Heritage) is made up of researchers in cultural organisations and universities. In collaboration with the DOCAM Research Alliance, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) has developed documentation and conservation methods adapted to media artworks in museums and identified the ethical issues associated with them.

2. Definition of Media Art

The DOCAM Research Alliance (Documentation and Conservation of the Media Arts Heritage) defines "media art" as follows:

Created during diverse eras, the works may be analog, digital, mechanical or electronic; they are also often multimedia and comprised of materials that range from machines, software, electronic systems and analog or digital images to traditional (sculpted and pictorial elements) and non-traditional (industrial material and techniques) mixed media. Footnote 1

When activated, the artwork's technological components create a dynamic system which unfolds to the viewer over time. It is for this reason that these artworks are also described as time-based media. Footnote 2

3. Museum Requirements for Media Art

The problems caused by the obsolescence of technological and digital components are threatening the heritage of media art. Media art has placed new demands on museums and requires a collaborative effort between the artist and institution.

To respect the nature of media artworks, museum professionals must acquire knowledge and new practices as part of their regular activities, including:

Gain knowledge about the history and functioning of the various technologies;
Maintain a cordial and lasting relationship with the artist; conduct an interview and sign an agreement (contract) with the artist with respect to the artwork's conservation, exhibition, installation and intellectual property rights;
Archival management/cataloguing:
Create a descriptive methodology and a classification system adapted to the characteristics of media artworks;
Document the arrival (unpacking), installation (in accordance with the artist's instructions), dismantling, and crating of the artwork;
Manage the storage, migration, emulation and re-exhibition of technologies and equipment used; determine the best content format for the master source of the artwork;
Promote public interaction with the artwork using various educational tools.

4. DOCAM Research Alliance

The DOCAM Research Alliance (Documentation and Conservation of the Media Arts Heritage) is a multidisciplinary and multi-institutional research initiative that brings together museum and university professionals. These researchers come from a wide range of domains, including archival science, visual arts, music, art history, museology, computer science, library science, and information science.

4.1. Objectives

The primary objectives of DOCAM are to:

  • Assist museums in researching new tools and methodologies using media art case studies;
  • Develop university programs to train emerging academics and museum professionals, and create educational content for museum professional development programs.

4.2. Research Committees

The DOCAM Research Alliance is comprised of five research committees with complementary objectives:

1) Conservation and Preservation

Conduct case studies in order to guide institutions and facilitate their acquisition and long-term conservation processes of media artworks:

  • Case study by the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA): Embryological House by Greg Lynn - conducted by Karen Potje, Head, Conservation/Preservation; Howard Shubert, Curator of Prints and Drawings; and Andrea Kuchembuck, Lawrence Bird and Guillaume LaBelle, Research Assistants, CCA, 2007.
  • Case study by the National Gallery of Canada (NGC): Unex Sign 2 (from the Survival Series) (1983-84) by Jenny Holzer - conducted by Richard Gagnier, Head of the Conservation Department, MMFA; Ariane Noël de Tilly (NGC) and Émilie Boudrias (MMFA), Research Assistants, 2008 (forthcoming).
  • Case study by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts: Royal Canadian Mounted Police (1989) by Nam June Paik - conducted by Richard Gagnier, Head of the Conservation Department, MMFA; Émilie Boudrias, Research Assistant, MMFA, 2007-2008 (forthcoming).
  • Publish a Best Conservation Practices Guide for Artworks with Technological Components (2009).

2) Documentation and Archival Management

  • Prepare documentation strategies and methods adapted to the collections of records and archival fonds of media artworks;
  • Create a typology of documentation methods found in artist archives and museums;
  • Conduct case studies on records collections and archive fonds.
  • Digital files of artworks featured in the exhibition e-art: New Technologies and Contemporary Art - Ten Years of Accomplishments by the Daniel Langlois Foundation (The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts) - produced by Andrea Kuchembuck, Research Assistant, DOCAM, 2007-2008 (forthcoming).

3) Technological Timeline

Create a directory of information resources on the various technologies used, including links to user guides and technical data:

4) Cataloguing Structure

  • Establish a cataloguing structure for artworks with technological components to complement traditional museum collections management systems;
    • Survey by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts with 43 museums in North America, Australia and Europe to identify the practices and needs associated with the management of their media art collections, including:
      • The procedures applied to the management of media artworks;
      • The need for a cataloguing system and standardized terminology.
    • Report on the Intelligent Preservation of Media Artworks in Museums: the Importance of Metadata - produced by Tommy Lavallée, Research Assistant, Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal (MACM), 2007. Importance of Metadata (PDF)
  • Conduct case studies to validate this new cataloguing structure;
    • Case studies by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts: In Your Dreams (1998) by Gisele Amantea; and Royal Canadian Mounted Police (1989) by Nam June Paik - conducted by Émilie Boudrias, MMFA, Research Assistant, 2007 (in French only). Case studies by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (PDF)
    • Case studies by the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal: Beats and Butterflies (2006) by Jean-Pierre Gauthier; Conspiracy Theory (2002) by Janet Cardiff; Dervish (1993-1995) by Gary Hill; and Générique by Alexandre Castonguay - conducted by Tommy Lavallée, MACM, Research Assistant, 2007;
    • Case studies by the National Gallery of Canada: The Table: Childhood (1984-2001) by Max Dean and Raffaello D'Andrea; and Unex Sign 2 (from the Survival Series) (1983-1984) by Jenny Holzer; Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal: Générique (2001) by Alexandre Castonguay - conducted by Marie-Ève Courchesne, DOCAM, Research Assistant, 2008. Case studies by the National Gallery of Canada (PDF)
  • Publish a Best Cataloguing Practices Guide for New Media Artworks (2009).

5) Terminology

Develop vocabulary management tools for standardized media art terms through a glossary, thesaurus and ontology. Bilingual English-French DOCAM glossary - produced by Corina MacDonald, Research Assistant, McGill University, 2009 (forthcoming).

5. Documenting and Conserving Media art

Museums act as custodians by safeguarding cultural artefacts for the enjoyment and education of future generations. The obsolescence and deterioration of technological components in media artworks is threatening this heritage. Within this context, museums must target new documentation and conservation strategies adapted to the changing nature of these artworks.

5.1. Documentation

Documentation is defined as the assembly, description and conservation of elements pertaining to the artwork which include the following items: Module II. 4 - Step 1. « Assemble and Analyze Documentation Relating to Artwork ».

Documentation is used as a media art conservation strategy because it helps professionals:

  • Anticipate the technological transformations of the artwork;
  • Respect the artist's wishes regarding the authenticity and integrity of the artwork;
  • Reinstall and recreate the artwork without requiring the presence of the artist;
  • Record the evolution and deterioration of the artwork's components;
  • Conserve testimonials recounting how viewers perceived the artwork within an exhibition context.

5.2. Conservation

Conserving traditional artworks, such as painting, sculpture, drawing, etching, etc., is based on the observation, identification and scientific analysis of their materials using physicochemical procedures. The ultimate objective of this approach is to conserve the artwork in its original state. It also helps to establish the degree of stability and deterioration of the materials.

The transformations of the artwork and the conservation strategies applied can be defined in concert with the artist, conservator and curator. The conservator's code of ethics stipulates that "all actions of the conservation professional must be governed by an informed respect for the integrity of the property, including physical, conceptual, historical and aesthetic considerations". Footnote 3 Conservation also involves obtaining input from technicians who are capable of defining viable long-term actions.

The complexity of conserving media artworks is based on the following factors:

Deterioration of technology
Deterioration occurs when a part of the artwork no longer functions due to a mechanical breakdown or the physicochemical weakening of its materials. Through prolonged use, any technology may become vulnerable to breakage, deterioration, or, in the case of computers, corruption.
Obsolescence of technology
Obsolescence occurs when a technology becomes outmoded and can no longer be used, because both the content format and the equipment needed for its upkeep are no longer available on the market. For example, computer companies are regularly producing new models of equipment, operating systems and programs to replace previous versions, which risk being discontinued. When a component used in an artwork becomes outmoded or obsolete, the artwork may cease to function.
Operating Equipment and Content Format
Media artworks contain technological components that are an integral aspect of the artwork and are considered as part of its content format. The presence of these components is essential to the viewer's experience of the artwork during an exhibition, as they contain the information that constitutes the master source of the artwork. This master source is not used during exhibitions, and reproductions of the content format should be made available to assure their conservation. These reproductions may include software, DigiBeta or Betacam tapes, DVDs (digital video discs), etc. and are part of a purchasing policy. They are operated or executed on functional components that make up the artwork. This equipment may include DVD players, computers, cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors, etc. Unlike the content format, the equipment is not always included with the artwork when it is acquired, which may oblige the institution to procure it.

5.3. Conservation Strategies

Conservation strategies can be defined as follows: Footnote 4

Consists of physically keeping an artwork's components in a location designed for safekeeping in order to conserve the artwork's physical characteristics or save its data in digital format. The objective is to conserve the artwork over the long term and the original nature of the technological components.

In the following video clip, Richard Gagnier, Head of the Conservation Department at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), discusses storage as a conservation strategy (available in French only). Footnote 5

Richard Gagnier discusses storage as a conservation strategy (available in French only)

(2:06 min)


Transcript of Richard Gagnier talking about storage as a conservation strategy

Richard Gagnier, Head of the Conservation Department at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), discusses storage as a conservation strategy

Storage is probably what a person traditionally thinks of first in terms of preserving media art works. However, media installations and media works are not just about storing content. There's often a sculptural aspect too. A work may have elements that are present in space, that are physical or, once again, even sculptural, and these elements may be made out of various materials that are important to preserve in their original state as much as possible. So in the end, the objective of storage is to create conditions that'll maximize the display life and archive life of these various elements. Of course, another goal of storage is to provide a format for archiving content over the medium term, which is the ideal for preserving all of a work's information content. For example, in the case of a video work, NTSC tape may not be the best format; it may be better to use beta, or half-inch tape instead of three-quarter-inch. Whatever the format, it's important to find the best support for storing and preserving the content in question. Physical materials come into play here as well: recording tape is made out of some kind of plastic polymer, usually polyester, and so you have to create optimal conditions for storing the tape, like low humidity. And certain procedures need to be followed to maximize the life of the support, for example, playing magnetic tapes periodically. This remagnetizes the tape, and so doing things like this are important. And then other procedures are necessary for content preservation, and the same applies to the equipment. Generally speaking, equipment just needs a good storage place, which creates the option of going out and buying two or three pieces of the same equipment to make the most out of a work's lifespan over the long term. If you know that each piece of equipment is in good working order and could be used for 15 or 20 years, that you can operate it without worrying about interference in relation to any electronic components around the work or any other programming components or platforms, then the work can be played and kept available almost indefinitely. And so having two or three of the same pieces of equipment can double or triple the lifespan of a work's components and, by extension, the work itself.
Involves the transfer of data or upgrade of equipment to a more recent format. Conversion, reproduction, updating, reformatting and transfer are all forms of migration.

In the following video clip, Richard Gagnier, Head of the Conservation Department at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), discusses migration as a conservation strategy (available in French only). Footnote 6

Richard Gagnier discusses migration as a conservation strategy (available in French only)

(2:17 min)


Transcript of Richard Gagnier talking about migration as a conservation strategy

Richard Gagnier, Head of the Conservation Department at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), discusses migration as a conservation strategy.

Migration is closely related to the content format in terms of where the information is stored and how to keep up with technological developments. For example, the major turning point, or major transition, recently affecting media works was the switchover from analogue, or electromagnetic videotape, to digital, with the development of CDs, DVDs and other formats like that. The appearance of this new technology made it possible to preserve content much longer using media available today that weren't an option at the time when many works were created. Evidently, this makes transferring videotape content to digital formats the solution of choice, since these digital formats are simply chunks of memory space. For example, it's now possible to store content on the hard drives of computers or even on portable hard drives or other similar devices. These storage options allow for excellent preservation of large expanses of information for a long time in formats that are also likely to survive indefinitely. As a result, people have generally abandoned analogue media in favour of digital media and more contemporary content formats. The most important part of this process is to transfer all content as completely as possible and minimize any kind of signal compression or loss of information. For the most part, the new technologies and content formats perform better than the older technologies, making it possible to transfer information completely while preserving its integrity. That's the phenomenon of migration. Sometimes, migration may also be related, once again, to the use of equipment that still supports analogue formats but where we know the equipment is no longer available or becoming increasingly less available due to lack of demand, industrial production and the appearance on the market of newer models, newer types of equipment. And it's not so much that the equipment at hand is wearing out and not working properly anymore… but more the fear that soon it won't be possible to play a work anymore because the equipment is no longer available, again due to changes in the technology and the quick pace that all technologies grow at. There are just always newer models coming out. And so in some cases, migration becomes necessary based on the simple knowledge that certain equipment probably won't be available any longer in the near future.
Consists of imitating the effects and behaviours of an artwork by different means. Forms of emulation include the imitating or substitution of technology.

In the following video clip, Richard Gagnier, Head of the Conservation Department at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), discusses emulation as a conservation strategy (available in French only). Footnote 7

Richard Gagnier discusses emulation as a conservation strategy (available in French only)

(2:48 min)


Transcript of Richard Gagnier talking about emulation as a conservation strategy

Richard Gagnier, Head of the Conservation Department at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), discusses emulation as a conservation strategy

Emulation is a much more complex concept in that it has to do specifically with creating effects to imitate obsolete technologies. Its purpose is to recreate the original "historical" feel of a work using more contemporary technologies. For example, in terms of programming, it may be necessary to use newer programs that are completely different from a work's original program due to the fact that certain equipment or platforms available when the work was created are no longer around. The most important thing is to seek to recreate the impression and the impact of the work. It's a question of deciding what the artist originally intended for viewers to experience, and then trying to recreate more or less the same experiential parameters so that people receive the work in the same way. Now, this brings the whole notion of time into play because all of the works at hand are based on time in some way. For example, if you think of the fact that the programming used for the consoles and other elements of older interactive games was less advanced, then the reaction time, the time it took for interfaces to respond as people interacted with them, was much longer a few years ago. Things happened in a much more deliberate sequence then, unlike today, when programming and technology advances have made response time much, much faster by comparison. In the hi-tech world we're living in today, people are much more demanding - they want a response pretty much instantly. However, it's important to gauge things like response time carefully, because the goal is also to recreate the feel of the work and place it in a certain historical period. It's also necessary to take into account the technological limitations of certain works in terms of their equipment. For example, you have to take into account things like image definition, luminosity and contrast when you recreate images; and audio quality, since the objective is to recreate a certain auditory experience based on the technologies available in a given space. It's also important to understand the limits of technologies so that you don't improve the experience too much, because if you do, then people may make a leap that doesn't fit in with the earliest works. If you look at works from the 60s and 70s, the artists working with technology were pushing the envelope, maximizing the technological capacity of their works, perhaps even distorting certain technologies based on their interest in various aspects of their creations that could be emphasized through technology. And so it's important to understand what the limits of these technologies were and take this into account in recreating the experience today. That's emulation in a nutshell. And in this context, it's extremely important to have detailed documentation, or at least the best documentation possible, about the original experience associated with a work.
Defined as interpreting the artwork each time it is exhibited. While risky, as the outcome may not correspond to the artist's initial intent, reinterpretation is appropriate for artworks that vary according to their exhibition context.

In the following video clip, Richard Gagnier, Head of the Conservation Department at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), discusses reinterpretation as a conservation strategy (available in French only). Footnote 8

Richard Gagnier discusses reinterpretation as a conservation strategy (available in French only)

(2:54 min)


Transcript of Richard Gagnier talking about reinterpretation as a conservation strategy

Richard Gagnier, Head of the Conservation Department at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), discusses reinterpretation as a conservation strategy

Finally comes the last aspect, reinterpretation, which could be seen as related to emulation to a certain extent. However, reinterpretation has much more to do with the variable nature of technological media and presentations as they exist in the domain of the visual arts, which, once again, relates more to aspects of documentation. By this I mean that some works aren't presented in exactly the same way every time they're shown or put on exhibit. Artists frequently use the space differently each time when setting up a work, and sometimes they may even leave out certain technological components. For example, if a work has multiple display monitors, the artist may decide for whatever reason to use certain monitors differently or not at all. This reinterpretation is based on the documentation and history of the work, which in turn relates to the artist's production methods and the processes the artist applies to a particular work in a sequential and repetitive manner. This often becomes a platform for various reinterpretations based on the work's multiple iterations, with major influence from either the artist or other individuals with expertise in working with the technical aspects of the work's production. These could be technicians or other people working with the artist who make decisions about presentation while also remaining true to the artist's original intentions and the work's design elements. When installing a work, it's not unusual to leave some components out from time to time. Certain sculptural elements may even be removed permanently. As a result, there's always a chance that the final presentation could become a sort of reference presentation, which is often associated with the addition of a work to a permanent collection or an institution. At this point it's the institution that assumes responsibility for the work and for producing the various documentation on the work. Then, based on this reference aspect controlling the various presentations of the work due to things like space limitations or certain unique aspects of the work, we actually gain a better understanding of the work depending on the parameters at hand and how they're applied. In the end, this highlights the flexibility of playing with the variable nature of certain parameters of the work. Through interviews with the artist, the artist may also tell us, for example, that the number of monitors is not always the same, that it's not essential to always have the same number of monitors, although a certain minimum number of monitors may always be necessary. The same occurs during interaction with the various components of a work: the artist may tell us that certain components have to always be there, while certain others are not as important - that the relationship between components A and B is critical, while the role of component C is more incidental. This makes it possible to revisit the entire installation of the work to a certain extent while at the same time remaining consistent with the artist's intentions, because the work has a presentation history that we can draw on and work with. Reinterpretation may also come into play if certain technologies are no longer available and the originals are no longer at hand. This forces us to consider migration or different approaches to emulation. The work may come out different somehow in the end, but the integrity of its design intentions remains intact. This is more or less what reinterpretation is about.

5.4. Authenticity and Integrity of Media Artworks

According to Richard Gagnier, Head of Conservation at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, an artwork's authenticity is defined on two levels:

  • The use and safekeeping of the artwork's original materials, which help to situate its historical context;
  • The maintenance of the artwork's integrity, which is linked to its functional, conceptual, aesthetic, temporal and spatial aspects. This also helps to conserve the original way in which the artwork is experienced by the spectator.

Set forth by the Variable Media Network, the variable media paradigm Footnote 9 defines a number of contemporary art practices (including media, performance and installation art) that incorporate an aspect of changeability. The approach is based on describing the artworks independently of the medium on which they are based, so as to define the behavioural characteristics of the artwork. Footnote 10 An artwork's behaviours may be maintained in a variety of ways during its lifespan. The variable media paradigm attempts to assess the degree to which the artwork's components can be completely original or modified, without compromising its integrity.

5.5. Conserving Ephemeral Artworks

Many artists define their artworks as ephemeral or in constant evolution, which runs counter to both the traditional objectives of conservation and the mandates of most museums. It is important to respect the transitional state of the artwork, since this state is inherent to its very being. However, it may be possible, with the artist's agreement, to provide exhibition and storage conditions that slow this process and prolong the artwork's lifespan. The museum must therefore ensure that the documentation remains complete throughout the existence of the artwork.

6. Ethics and Media Art

6.1. Overview of the Copyright Act as it Applies to Artworks

In Canada, the Copyright Act is comprised of a series of rights, including copyrights and moral rights.

A copyright allows for the regulation of the reproduction of an artwork in any material form, both for its public presentation (right to exhibit) and for its publication (right to reproduce). These rights may be assigned to a third party with or without restrictions. This assignment is only valid if expressed in writing and signed by the artist.

Moral rights include the right to the integrity of the artwork, the artist's right of authorship, and the right to remain anonymous. These rights are solely those of the author of the artwork and are inalienable, but they may be waived by the author. Footnote 11

6.2. Fair Dealing for Museums within a Context of Conservation

Media art generates a number of questions with respect to applying the Copyright Act, notably because of the limited lifespan of the technologies used. The Act has an important impact on the conservation strategies used for media artworks.

Under the terms of the Act, the artist is the only person who may make changes to his or her artwork. However, the Act includes a fair dealing clause for museums with respect to copyrights. It authorizes the reproduction of an artwork for its management or maintenance in the following situations, if:

  • The original is deteriorating, damaged or lost;
  • The original cannot be viewed, handled or listened to because of its condition;
  • The original is currently in an obsolete format or the technology required to use the original is unavailable. Footnote 12

6.3. Contractual Considerations for the Artist and Museum

Contracts between the artist and museum allow for the management of intellectual property, installation and exhibition of media artworks and their conservation strategies. Artworks that raise questions about the management of intellectual property (the reproduction of part of an artwork by an artist, the re-creation of an artwork for conservation purposes, etc.) should be discussed with a lawyer.

Contracts may cover any or all of the following elements:

Definition, identification and description of what the museum is acquiring (detailed description of the artwork and the components that may change);

Authorization to apply conservation strategies that include:

  • Re-creation of a software program;
  • Replacement of certain components;
  • Reproduction of audio-visual tapes.

Description of the optimal exhibition and installation conditions for the artwork;

Identification of the artwork's co-authors and collaborators. The rights assigned to the artwork may not be exclusive to the artist since artists often call on collaborators to produce various components for their artworks. Within this context, the artist must provide the museum with all of the authorizations that apply to the exhibition of the artwork. The re-creation of a software program, for example, may require the authorization of its programmer; Footnote 13

Identification of elements from other artworks that the artist has used in this particular work; Footnote 14

Assessment of the feasibility of a limited edition of the artwork:
museums may sign a contract with the artist to restrict a DVD to an exclusive copy, which assures them of a monopoly over the artwork; Footnote 15
Authorization to exhibit archival documents:
ephemeral artworks may be replaced by their documentation for an exhibition. Museums must therefore sign a contract with the artist in order to obtain authorization for this course of action. Footnote 16

6.4. Open Source Philosophy

Traditionally, artworks have been considered as the exclusive property of an artist and are protected by copyright. However, certain contracts allow artists to grant more freedom to the public in using their artworks.

The philosophy behind the Free Software Foundation Footnote 17 and Open Source Initiative Footnote 18 is to allow users to use, copy, distribute, study, modify or improve a software application. For software to carry this designation, its author must distribute it under a free software license, of which a number of models exist.

The Creative Commons Project, founded in 2001 at Stanford Law School, offers a variety of licenses to authorize the reproduction and distribution of online artworks. Each type of license comes with a specific level of use and must be distributed with the artworks. Footnote 19

Initiated in 1984, the GNU project Footnote 20 developed a free software system in order to establish a cooperative environment. GNU free software is listed in a database hosted by the Free Software Foundation.

Other types of contracts allow the Free Software Foundation and Open Source Initiative philosophies to be applied to media artworks. Licence Art Libre, Footnote 21 created in Paris in 2000, authorizes copying, distributing and transforming the artworks while respecting all applicable copyrights.

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