Highlights From the DIA Talk

Thank you to everyone who attended. It was a memorable evening. If you couldn’t come in person, we have a recap and phone photos and videos so that you will feel like you were there. We had a great turnout, 18 people, and Rebecca Hart was a fun and informative speaker.

We had some technical difficulties with live streaming tonight. To all of our online members and those of you who could not join us in person, we apologize for being unable to stream or record the lecture. Given that the event wound up being mobile and taking place in several galleries, we were unable to present it online as we would have liked.

Ms. Hart walked us through four different pieces of contemporary art, each with its own unique challenge. Ms. Hart discussed new media art, focusing on video and digital art and installations, showing us examples in several galleries. She covered a range of concerns related to this art genre ranging from the theoretical (is the artwork still the same piece if it’s migrated to another platform? what is the actual art object?) to the practical (equipment considerations, longevity, the importance of certificates of authenticity, and budget constraints).

Hart’s job is multifaceted. Not only is she responsible for stewarding the collection, she also strives to be the “artist’s voice,” and she accomplishes that by interviewing the artist, finding out what comprises each art object, its intent, and how it should be shown.

The first work discussed was Sikander’s Dissonance to Detour. Hart described the essence of this piece as the artist creating her own fantasy world from parts of her Persian past. The foreground object is comprised of book illustrations while the background is a series of mosque images. Central to the display of the work are practical considerations such as sound, fidelity, and aspect ratio.

Indeed, Hart shared that the screen on which the piece is displayed is actually covered by a custom built frame which serves a dual purpose. First it prevents the logo from showing as it could detract from the piece, or subtly advertise. Secondly, the frame serves as a way to counteract the slightly imperfect aspect ratio, making the piece appear more visually correct.

When the DIA purchased this artwork, it received a DVD as well as a certificate of authenticity. Throughout her lecture, Hart often stressed the importance of a new media art piece’s certificate of authenticity, as without it, the work does not exist. Thus Hart concluded that what goes into the vault for safe keeping is actually the certificate, rather than the media.

Another interesting tale that Hart shared about this piece is that it originally arrived at the DIA with a three frame glitch. After consultation with the artist, DIA A/V technicians successfully remastered the master copy and sent it back to the artist, who in turn used it as her new master copy.

Kitchen V, detail from video endurance performance

Hart explained that this Abramovic piece is an endurance performance as she is striving to hold the bowl of milk until she no longer can, and focuses on subtleties. This piece is a “seamless installation” as the viewer does not really see anything aside from the piece (e.g., no wires). The only additional visible component is the small box above the screen on the wall, which is remote controlled, allowing A/V technicians to change the contrast, sound, etc., as needed, without disrupting the piece.

Hart stressed the importance of these practical concerns in displaying these types of art pieces through an anecdote about the differences in quality between different copy types.  There are four types: the archival master, the master, exhibition copies, and view copies. When Hart and her team received a view copy (view copies are also typically lower resolution to ensure that if the material is leaked, the core of the piece is not given away) of this work during the purchasing process, they thought it was a slight piece, devoid of sound. However, when they received the higher quality exhibition copy, they realized that the piece did have sound. Thus, like the work itself, practical facets of the work such as sound have subtleties as well.

What Will Come, the third piece we learned about

Kentridge’s piece is a type of anamorphic photography,  a distorted image projected onto a cylinder that results in an undistorted, properly viewable image in the circular. The art piece consists of both the cylinder and the table top image, allowing the viewer to see the history in two different ways.

Hart also utilized this piece as instruction in the high costs of equipment, the realities of equipment longevity (or lack thereof), and the challenges of installation. The projector for this piece hangs from the ceiling in an unconventional position, which resulted in an unfortunate burning smell for the first few initial weeks of display, as the projector heated in different areas than it normally would in the typical horizontal fashion. The projector was also difficult in that the lens has throw lengths which must change based on the ceiling height, making installation a precise process. She stated that she has to budget in equipment redundancy as given the amount of use the equipment sees, it wears out quickly, and must be rotated in and out of use. Considerations such as changing the bulb in each of the projectors currently in use must be taken to ensure consistency in display details such as brightness.

Another issue of particular interest to those of us interested in digital preservation included a discussion of storage formats. Hart stated that typically when a new media art piece is purchased, the museum receives a DVD copy, which is fairly stable. However, to ensure longer term stability, the piece is also stored on a hard drive. Digibeta tapes are also common, but the deck to play these is expensive, often exceeding $80,000, and requires a well-trained technician to play, as it’s ill-conceived to put a master recording into a machine without an expert running it.

Video Flag x

Nam June Paik, Video Flag x, 1985; Collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts

Storage format is of critical importance in the final piece discussed by Hart. Nam June Paik’s Video Flag x, which although not presently on display, is held within the Collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Paik’s work is a foundational piece of video art, and per the artist, the piece is the media. However, it proved difficult to present as its physical make up consisted of a grid fitted into the wall holding 84 cathode ray televisions. The heat generated by the televisions not only permeated the small enclosed space behind the work (which had additional problems including loose wires and frequent sparks), but also the viewing area, causing the televisions to often go out.

Additionally, attempted preservation of this work touches on several aspects digital preservation. First, the piece was initially held on magnetic tapes, but then copied to laser discs for longevity. Of course now we know better – laser disc is a lossy medium. But at the time, this caused the original tapes to be X numbered (museum speak for essentially getting rid of the item but without actually getting rid of it).

Second, although the tapes have long since been rescued and stored into a climate controlled environment, they cannot be played. This is due to their age and previous storage conditions. If the tapes are played, the data may migrate from the magnetic to the non-magnetic side of the tape, resulting in the loss of the piece the first time playback is attempted. Therefore, prior to being put back on display, an expert must work with the tapes.

Like archives, the concerns of ongoing access and preservation permeate new digital art. Thus, naturally the question of what will the representation of these types of artworks be in 30 years was asked. Specifically, what will happen to the format, to the equipment the media is played on, etc.? Hart stressed that when she buys work for the DIA, she works on building a collection for the museum, and for the future- not just for today. She went on to stress that for some artists you never migrate formats, as the format is inherent to the art object, and the art object itself cannot be migrated and remain its integrity.

Our thanks to our gracious host, Rebecca Hart, for providing us with such a great experience, and thanks to Kim Schroeder for setting everything up.

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