When obsolescence takes its toll on art

Threat: After years of collecting avant-garde works on video, laser discs and other technology-based media, museums face a lack of replacement parts to preserve them.

October 28, 2004|By Alex Pham | Alex Pham,LOS ANGELES TIMES

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 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," conservator John Hirx said. "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 troubled by failing disk drives, burned-out bulbs, scorched wires, indecipherable bits and 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. Those artists seized on 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. In 1951, Cage 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 could take random bits of magnetic tape and play them on a dismantled player.

Decades later, countless works such as these "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."

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 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 are hoarding televisions. But that's considered a short-term remedy. Museums have approached the 72-year-old artist for his thoughts on preserving his pieces for a day when CRTs 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. "At the same time, he's open to the reality that media has changed, and that his work has to change with it."

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.

"That's like ... medieval monks who copy manuscripts," said Jeff Rothenberg, a senior computer scientist at Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif., 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 mentioned 1995 article in Scientific American, proposed another technique: emulation. The idea is to write a program that coaxes a current computer, say, a Linux-based PC with an Intel processor, to mimic the original, such as a Commodore 64. That allows the modern PC to run virtually any Commodore 64 software.

Otherwise, conservators are left with the old-fashioned method of interviewing media artists about their work while they're alive, so that when they're dead, museums have guidance on repairing or re-creating their works when things go wrong.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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