Among the most complex of artworks that cultural institutions are asked to preserve today are those based on digital technologies and generally referred to as “time-based.” For a formal definition, I prefer the one developed by the Tate that summarizes time-based media as ”works of art which depend on technology and have duration as a dimension.”
Over the years on this column, I’ve had and shared conversations about approaches to caring for time-based art, including interviews with Jeffrey Martin, Glenn Wharton, and Hugh Shockey, art conservators at major institutions. Though those discussions have provided a good framework, what I’ve really wanted to do is create a discussion around digital art that involves, at once, an artist, a conservator, a curator, and a technologist, so that folks might better understand the complexities associated with caring for this kind of artwork.
Late last year, at the annual meeting of the Museum Computer Network (MCN), I was finally able to pull together this kind of discussion. The panel turned out better than I imagined and I’m thrilled to share it here on Art21′s Blog:
In addition to myself, the lineup included:
- Anne Collins Goodyear, Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings at the National Portrait Gallery. She is also president of the College Art Association. In May, she will join her husband, Frank Goodyear, as co-director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.
- Penelope Umbrico, an artist and photographer whose practice often involves interactions with digital media from the Internet.
- Koven Smith, Director of Technology at the Denver Art Museum. He is also on the program committee for MCN and a member of the steering committee of the ConservationSpace project.
- Jeffrey Martin, time-based art conservator and moving image archivist, helped develop the panel. He was scheduled to participate but had to cancel due to unforeseen circumstances.
As part of the ongoing celebration of Tony Smith’s 100th birthday, the folks at the Tony Smith Estate and the International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art – North America (INCCA-NA) wanted to do something special and a little different: document every single one of Smith’s outdoor artworks using Wikipedia. INCCA-NA launched this rather ambitious project last year by posting instructions in Wikipedia to help facilitate documentation. Then, they asked the world to help create the articles. When the initiative was first announced, there were eager participants who contributed good articles. The project also got some buzz, including a mention in the New York Times. But lately things have been moving slowly. The project needs help. Your help.
What’s in it for me, you ask? INCCA-NA is giving participants the limited-edition Tony Smith t-shirt pictured above (designed by Justin Visnesky). The front features a stylized version of Smith’s sculpture Marriage. The reverse bears a black and white INCCA-NA logo.
By contributing to this project you would be helping to document artworks by one of the greatest American sculptors of the 20th-century. You would also be helping to increase the “sum of all human knowledge” about art on the world’s fifth most viewed website.
For some, Wikipedia isn’t the easiest platform to work with. But here’s all you have to do:
- Follow the instructions within the Wikiproject for selecting and researching artwork.
- Using these instructions, write a Wikipedia article about the artwork you’ve chosen. To get a sense of what a good article looks like, check out the Wikipedia article for Smith’s sculpture Gracehoper.
- When you’re done, leave a note in the comment section below or on my Wikipedia Talk Page and tell me your t-shirt size (M, L, XL). I’ll have INCCA-NA send you a t-shirt!
Note: For the past few years, I have served on INCCA-NA’s program committee, and as part of that group, I helped create this project. If you contributed a Smith Wikipedia article early on, you too can receive a t-shirt! Drop a note on my Talk Page (link above) and I’ll have one sent to you. Please hurry though–supplies are limited. It’s first come, first served. Also, Tony Smith won’t be 100 forever.
In 1975 the Brutalist-inspired Minton-Capehart Federal Building opened in Indianapolis with a 27-foot tall, polychromatic artwork, Color Fuses, completely wrapping its loggia. This 672-foot mural has 35 bright fields of color that fade into each other, and a complex lighting system for the evening. Legendary designer Milton Glaser created Color Fuses with the idea that he wanted to make “a mural that would express a spirit of openness and thus a new sense of government.”
The project was commissioned through the U.S. General Services Administration’s Art (GSA) in Architecture Program. Glaser was selected to design this site-specific project and worked with the building’s architect, Evans Woollen, who hoped that Color Fuses would make the building “cheerful, disarming, fresh, welcoming, and inviting.”
While it’s always been clear how the artwork was to be viewed during daylight hours, originally it was designed with a complex lighting system that was supposed to gradually illuminate the bands of color in a kind of programmed wave sequence during evening hours. The light-dimming system fell out of operation shortly after it was installed, and later was replaced with fixed illumination. Adding to the technical difficulties of this system, in 1975 the primary lighting source was incandescent light bulbs, which produce a yellowish light that can affect the way color is perceived, particularly when dimmed at low wattage. The original system also did not create an even wash of light on the wall, which caused a scalloped appearance on the mural.
Last week I helped install the IMA-organized exhibition, “Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial,” at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, NC. Working on this show has been one of the best experiences I’ve had in my career, but I was just as excited to be in Charlotte so I could visit Jean Tinguely’s 1991 installation, Cascade, in the lobby of the Carillion office tower. The 40-foot tall work has 15 motors and a dizzying amount of parts and light bulbs all suspended from chains and moving above a small reflecting pool.
Cascade was Tinguely’s last major artwork (he lived from 1925 to 1991) and only his second monumental installation in the United States. His other work, Chaos I, was created in 1974 and located in Columbus, IN. Chaos I was recently restored inside a new Koetter Kim & Associates building, The Commons.
The Bechtler family commissioned Cascade in 1991 as the centerpiece for their new office tower on West Trade Street in Uptown Charlotte. The lobby of the building also contains Sol Lewitt’s Wall Drawing #683, which easily makes the building as interesting as any office lobby anywhere.
The Bechtler family have been long-time supporters of the arts in Charlotte, and like Tinguely have Swiss roots, so it seems quite natural that they had him complete a work there. The Bechtler family’s generosity in the city of Charlotte is punctuated by Andreas Bechtler’s somewhat recent creation of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. The building, which was designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta, opened in 2010.
I’ve had to take a break from this column for the past few months to focus on my conservation projects at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and the graduate course I taught in the IUPU Museum Studies Program this semester — my course was a survey and research project that looked at the artworks and artifacts housed inside the famous Madame Walker Theater (here’s a link to blog posts my students have written about the project). The above artwork of Madame C.J. Walker by Sonya Clark is destined for a new hotel in Indianapolis.
While I’ve been away, there has been a lot going on in the world of contemporary art conservation; as a way to catch up on what I’ve missed, I’ve assembled the following list of news and notes:
- In early March, The Preservation of Plastic Artifacts (POPART) conference was convened; the conference included lectures by many of the world’s experts who have been researching the difficulties of preserving plastics in museum collections. This European Union-funded initiative includes a significant print publication (and not much online). The IMA’s own Laura Kubick provided a first-person summary of the conference on the IMA’s blog.
- In both February and April the International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art — North America (INCCA-NA) hosted two Artist Interview Training Workshops. These workshops were hosted by SFMoMA and the Hirshhorn Museum as part of an Andrew W. Mellon-Funded initative. One of the participants of the Hirshhorn workshop, Rose Cull, wrote about her experience here.
Before travelling to Nigeria, I had known of a number of artists living around Lagos from Indianapolis friends who have been collecting contemporary Nigerian art during their time living and working there. Among their favorite and most collected artists was Ben Osaghae.
Ben was born in Benin City, the capital of the Edo State and studied painting at Auchi Polytechnic college. He has taught painting in Nigerian universities but has since retired from this work to focus solely on his painting.
At once thoughtful and light hearted, he’s just as likely to tell you something very serious and important as to come with a quick and light laugh about his observations.
I want to show the point of view of the participant of a police check point and the observer driving by. Both at the same time. I don’t worry about making my paintings ‘naturalistic,’ rather I want them to be descriptive. — Ben Osaghae
*Ed. Note: This is the second post in a five-part series by Richard McCoy on the art and artists he encountered during a recent trip to Nigeria. Part I is here.
One of the most interesting places I visited in Lagos was the Center for Contemporary Art, Lagos (CCA) which was founded in 2007 by Bisi Silva, who remains the artistic director. When we visited, Bisi was away on travel but we were kindly met by CCA volunteer Jude Anogwih and CCA-staffer Taieye Idahor. Jude is a remarkable artist and curator, responsible for a number of projects in Lagos, co-founder of the Video Art Network in Lagos, and co-curator of the Tate Modern exhibition, Contested Terrains, which features four artists working in Africa; as part of this exhibition, he gave a lecture at the Tate Modern last march about the CCA (you can find a link to his lecture here).
Since 2007, the CCA has become an important hub of activity for contemporary art in Lagos, hosting a number of critically-engaged exhibitions, public programs, as well as being home to the “largest library of contemporary art materials in all of West Africa,” according to Jude.
Some notable recent exhibitions include Identity: An Imagined State, which was the first international exhibition of video art in Nigeria. Complete with a small catalog, this exhibition featured the work of 12 artists all working on the continent of Africa.
*Ed. Note: This is the first post in a five-part series by Richard McCoy on the art and artists he encountered during a recent trip to Nigeria.
At the conclusion of the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) exhibition, Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria, I was invited by the U.S. organizer, the Museum for African Art (MfAA), to help their registrar, Amanda Thompson, with the return of more than 100 important artworks to their home country — the works had been out of Nigeria for three years, travelling to six venues in Europe and the USA.
It was truly a privilege to play even a small part in returning these artworks to Nigeria, and a mind-changing experience traveling to Africa for my first time.
While our work days were busy carefully examining each artwork to ensure that it was in the same condition as when it left, in the evenings and weekends I investigated a number of galleries, exhibitions, and studios of contemporary artists working in and around Lagos. What I saw were individuals looking at the rich history and traditions of Nigeria through the lens of the 21st century, in some cases preserving traditions and in others challenging the colonial past and current government, which is infamous for its corruption.
Staying at the hotel Bogobiri House, with its live music just about every night and walls and courtyard filled with contemporary art, it felt like I was at one of the centers of the Lagos art scene. Bogobiri, which is also home to the gallery, Nimbus, is owned by Chike Nwagbogu; he has received a lot of attention for his ideas of putting art at the center of the transformation of Nigeria.
No Preservatives | The Science and Ethics of Contemporary Art Conservation: A Discussion with Tom Learner
Tom Learner is senior scientist at the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) and the person responsible for the Pacific Standard Time exhibition From Start to Finish: De Wain Valentine’s Gray Column, which has received a lot of positive press reaction, including a recent article in the New York Times.
Richard McCoy: How did you arrive at your position of conservation scientist?
Tom Learner: I was trained as a chemist at University of Oxford and always loved chemistry and science; I also always loved art. But when I was finishing my degree I realized that I had stopped enjoying chemistry.
Eventually I went to see a career advisor and sat in his office for hours and hours. He asked me if I was interested in all sorts of things from research in forensics or pharmaceuticals, to teaching, even to the financial sector. I said no to them all. Eventually he pulled this scrap of paper from the bottom of his pile, dusted it off, and said “apparently art conservation is looking for students with science backgrounds.”
And for me it was one of these moments when something really clicks. From there I went on to an internship at the Ashmolean Museum, and then into the paintings conservation program at the Courtauld Institute of Art. I was offered an internship at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, D.C. working six months with Sarah Fisher in paintings conservation and six months with René de la Rie in the Scientific Research Department. After that, a research fellowship became available at the Tate in their Science Department—to figure out the best ways to analyze modern and synthetic paints.
I got my PhD at Birkbeck College at the same time, and once the fellowship finished the Tate kept me on in a permanent position.
I wanted to do a Top Ten list of contemporary conservation projects that could be seen online, but only found nine. While I don’t mean to pretend that I completed an exhaustive search for projects from 2011, I do pay a lot attention to conservation in the news and did a fair amount of looking around…so, if you know of any other good ones, please list them in the comments below.
9. SFMoMA Conservators Turn Back Time: Michelle Barger talks to a KALW reporter about caring for Janine Antoni‘s famous set of busts titled Lick and Lather (pictured above), and a variety of other SFMoMA projects.
8. The Problem of Paint: Re-coating Sculptures by Calder, Oldenburg, West, and di Suvero: This is probably the most curious story in the bunch as the conservation project was atypically overseen by The Walker Art Center’s registrar (they don’t have a conservation staff), but it still provides an interesting glimpse into the restoration of one of Minneapolis’ iconic sculptures, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s Spoonbridge and Cherry.
7. Artist Documentation Program (ADP): This ground-breaking web initiative went online in 2011. The ADP “interviews artists and their close associates in order to gain a better understanding of their materials, working techniques, and intent for conservation of their works.” There are lots of great artist interviews available through this project, and don’t forget to check out the talk by the folks that completed the interviews and created the web page.
6. Francesca Esmay Announced as the Conservator for the Panza Collection Initiative at the Guggenheim. Maybe I’m a sucker for press releases about art conservators, or maybe the Guggenheim was lucky to grab Esmay from her job as the first (and only) conservator at the Dia Art Foundation; either way, her work on the Panza Collection will be tremendously important and I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about it soon (you might remember Esmay from her brilliant work documenting Spiral Jetty).
5. Charles and Ray Eames’ Living Room Makes an Interim Home at LACMA. While it’s clear that a project of this scale requires a team of collections staff and not just conservators, I couldn’t help but include this project after looking at the Eameses so much on this blog.