A shift in focus for conservation
Traditionally the main focus of conservation has been on preventing the deterioration of the material aspects of a work of art. In the case of installation art, the conservator’s gaze has moved beyond the purely physical to include the less tangible aspects of the installation which contribute to the identity of the work. Examples of less tangible aspects of an installation include the way in which the public encounters the work and enters the space and its acoustic properties, or perhaps how a particular projector renders colour. Lying somewhere between performance and sculpture, these works exist as installed events, dependent on display to be fully realised. In this respect installation art is different from a painting or sculpture which has been fully realised in the artist's studio or before it enters the gallery. These differences demand a distinct response from conservators.
What is it we are trying to preserve?
Working with the artist and the curator, the conservator will seek to clarify what is important to preserve in future installations of the work. These might be seen as the defining properties of a particular piece. Through the preservation of material parts, the documentation of the less tangible elements, and careful decision making, every effort is made to ensure that what is important to the identity of a work is preserved.
- AUDIO : Listen to Pip Laurenson, Head of Time-based Media at Tate discussing the conservation of installation art
- Pip Laurenson, Time-Based Media Conservation at Tate, discussing the conservation of installation art
It is possible to see the role of the conservator as someone who manages change. The conservator seeks to understand the significance of any alterations to the work of art and strives to avoid undesirable change. Installation art is created in two phases with the first phase being completed by the artist prior to installation and the second phase being repeated each time the work is installed. This makes these works vulnerable to modification because of the different circumstances presented by each new situation. For example different spaces, acoustics, display equipment, floor and ceiling finishes may all have a profound effect on the realisation of the work.
Artists differ in their attitude to change. Some artists tightly specify their work to minimise differences between installations, whereas others are more open to variations. Attitudes to change may be influenced by the historical context in which the artist is working. For example, in some cases the artist’s attitudes about how a work is specified may be underpinned by strongly held views about the relationship of their practice to the art market, the museum system and a reaction to the idea of art as a commodity. It is for the conservator to understand the artist's attitudes to change and the context in which the work was made in order to make judgments about the status of the elements that make up the installation. In order to develop a conservation plan, a conservator will need to judge when a particular change threatens to undermine something important about the identity of the work.
The conservation plan outlines the steps that need to be taken to avoid or minimise loss. For example, a conservation strategy for a time-based media work such as Nauman's Mapping the Studio II will include an assessment as to whether any part of the current display technology is integral to the work and how best to preserve the video to avoid deterioration in quality.
The long view
The conservator is employed to take the long view and to ask: "What do we need to be doing now to ensure we can show these works in 50 years?" There are two main points of activity - firstly when a work enters the collection and secondly when the work is requested for display or loan. Alongside these key activity points, ongoing collection care ensures that the vulnerabilities of particular works are tightly managed. For a time-based media work this means making certain that media elements are migrated or updated where necessary and that any risks, such as key equipment becoming obsolete, are identified and responded to.
When a work comes into the collection, records are established, the conservation plan is developed, and where possible the artist is interviewed. In the conservation of contemporary works, conservators may have their first contact with the work when it has only recently been created. In many cases the dialogue between the artist and the conservator will span many years, enabling a rich understanding of the work to be established. Subsequent displays and loans offer vital opportunities to refresh and assess our knowledge of the installation and its display and conservation needs. The cycle of display acts to reactivate and refresh the information held about a work, and is a tool by which the current staff hand the work on through the memory of the museum.
Contemporary conservation practice demands that conservators are able to communicate with a broad constituency. Their decisions may have a profound impact on how a work is experienced in the future and therefore it is essential that these decisions are well informed and judgments are make in close collaboration with artists, curators and other interested parties or experts.
Conservators as risk assessors
Conservators spend an average of 6 years in professional training and continue to build their expertise and experience throughout their careers. This underpins their ability to make difficult decisions in complex situations. Although as a profession, conservation has established a great deal of expertise and knowledge about the works in their care, new works present new situations and new problems. For contemporary art in particular there may be uncertainty about how materials will deteriorate, what will be considered of value in the future and the speed that technologies, on which some of these works depend, will become obsolete.
Technical art history
The information recorded by conservators provides a rich account of how a work was made and the techniques or materials used in its realisation. Their interviews with artists shed light on working practices and the artist’s view of what is important in the installation of their work. Material gathered by conservators can therefore be a valuable resource to curators and scholars. For example, this website presents technical information about Bruce Nauman’s Mapping the Studio II not commonly available from traditional sources.