Inside Installations: Mapping the Studio II
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WORK IN FOCUS Planning and Installation

Preservation of installation art

Installation works differ from more traditional fine art objects in that they have two stages to their realisation: the first is in the creation by the artist before it is publicly displayed and the second is in the act of installation each time it is realised in a public gallery space. In considering how to preserve the work to ensure that we can show it in the future, we need to be aware of the issues relating not only to the preservation of the video itself, but also those relating to the artist’s specifications about how the work is presented.

As custodians, it is the responsibility of the owners to make sure that they understand what is important to a good installation of the work – to ensure that each time the work is displayed, potential changes such as the space and the technical equipment are carefully managed.

This is essential as a museum plans for a longer time-frame than the individual life of an artist. There are parallels to be drawn between the way that intangible heritage such as musical traditions are past down, in that re-installing these works keeps them in the memory of the museum, ensuring that the memory of how to install them is renewed. On a similar theme, the video artist Bill Viola has drawn analogies between the transfer of digital video to the ritual reconstruction of the Ise Temple in Japan:

‘One of the most sacred sites in Japan is the Ise Shrine. It has been on a site in the ancient cedar forests of the Ise peninsula for more than one thousand years – yet it is twenty years old. Every twenty years, the Shinto shrine is reconstructed a short distance away from the current one – a pristine, perfect duplicate, true to the original down to the finest detail (if there can be said to be an original rather than a concept of a master plan). The final step is to transfer the “kami”, the god, to the new version, activating and empowering it. Then the old deconsecrated building is torn down and construction started anew in a never-ending cycle. In this model, one of the greatest threats to conservation in the future may be gradual mutation rather than discrete physical damage.’

- Bill Viola, Permanent Impermanence in Mortality Immortality?: The Legacy of 20th Century Art, ed. Miquel Angel Corzo,  J. Paul Getty Trust, 1999, p. 91

Parallels between the presentation of installation art and performance of the musical tradition can also be made, please refer to The Role of the Curator in Related Themes.

Recording the artist’s intent

At Tate, the conservation department works closely with the artist, his technicians, the art installation team and the curators the first time a work of installation art is installed, carefully documenting what is important to maintain in future installations of the work.

Those responsible for installing the work will consider any instructions they have from the artist, and any information about his or her wishes kept on file. It is broadly considered to be good practice for conservators and curators to interview an artist about what is important to preserve and what should be maintained. They may also draw on their experience of that artist’s work in order to fulfil the artist’s wishes with regard to the installation of the work.

Circumstances may change and some aspects of the installation specified by the artist may no longer be viable. For example a piece of equipment or technology may become obsolete. Though artists may be asked their views about what should happen in the future, often it is difficult to pre-judge which options might be available. Conservators strive to understand the significance of a particular aspect of an installation so that they understand what may be lost should that aspect be at risk.  

Michael Short has described in an interview with Tate’s conservator, this process of getting to know the piece and learning to “recognise” what is important to the identity of the work.

There is a useful analogy to be made here to western classical music. In performing a musical work the performers have to, in good faith, intend to perform that work and make every effort to follow the score created by the composer. The performers may also consider the musical conventions which were current at the time the work was composed and use this to interpret the composer’s intent.


Sound is one of the most difficult things to document in time-based media installations and it is easy to forget what a work sounds like. This is especially true of MAPPING THE STUDIO II with color shift, flip, flop, & flip/flop (Fat Chance John Cage) 2001. The microphone used was simply the in-built microphone of the camera. The audio of this piece is a composite of the sound recorded in the 7 locations of the studio on 42 different nights. It had automatic gain control which distorted loud sounds and amplified the ambient noise of the space. Some locations are noisier than others largely due to the fact that some are closer to the air conditioning units.

As part of documenting the work for the conservation record, conservators were keen to see whether it was possible to accurately document how the audio is experienced in this installation. This is important because there was a high risk that in the future this work might be installed with the sound levels much too low. This would upset the balance between the quiet parts of the piece and the louder elements such as the cat, the train, the coyotes etc. which would now jump out of nowhere.

When setting the audio levels in the space, Michael Short will start with the audio channels for all the images set at the same level and then slowly makes adjustments as he works - spending a few hours making adjustments to ensure that no sound is overbearing. 

- VIDEO : Michael Short discussing the process of setting audio levels

Read transcript

In order to capture the aural experience of this installation Tate has enlisted the help of Arup Acoustics. Arup acoustics made an ambisonic recording which can be used to re-create a 3 dimensional sound-scape. To do this Arup made two recordings one moving slowly from screen to screen spending 5 minutes in front of each and the other quicker tour slowly turning in the centre of the room. The aim of this was to create a reference to guide future installations of the work and to capture the experience of this particular installation.

Listen to an example of the Arup recording:

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- AUDIO : Sample Arup recording

Preservation of media elements

In many ways the most straightforward aspect of the preservation of video installations is the video element.  On acquisition Tate creates a preservation master on a high end professional video tape format. The preservation master material for MAPPING THE STUDIO II with flip, flop, & flip/flop (Fat Chance John Cage) 2001 is made up of 42 hours of footage stored on 42 tapes. Tate has two storage environments and stores its video material in the cooler and drier of the two 18 – 20 degrees centigrade and 30-40 % relative humidity.

As part of the on-going preservation strategy this footage will be transferred onto new stock and new formats every 6 or so years as the need arises. Time-based media conservation at Tate believe that it will soon be possible to store their preservation masters as uncompressed digital video on hard drives as the cost of these drives decreases and the capacity increases.  Feasibility tests are currently being conducted.

Recordings from the past 30 or 40 years make up the sound collage used in Raw Materials Photograph: Tate Photography

- MAPPING THE STUDIO II with flip, flop, & flip/flop (Fat Chance John Cage) 2001 is made up of 42 hours of footage stored on 42 tapes.