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Sociological identification of the actors, practices, discourses and technologies involved in the conservation of media-art works

Final Report Summary - SOMEART (Sociological identification of the actors, practices, discourses and technologies involved in the conservation of media-art works)

Overview, conclusions and socio-economic impacts of the project

The aim of this project was to conduct an ethnographic study of media-art conservation practices at the Museum of Modern Art of New York (MoMA). Unlike more traditional artworks, like paintings and sculptures, media-art works consist of a complex assemblage of materials, including storage devices (i.e. DVDs, slide films, videocassettes) and playback equipment (i.e. slide projectors, sound equipment, film loops, monitors), which defy traditional conservation methods and demand radically new conservation guidelines and decision-taking models.

As planned, through an ethnographic engagement with the backstage of MoMA, this project has explored the complex ensemble of actors, practices, infrastructures and technologies that are being implemented to preserve this increasingly important, but highly fragile, part of our contemporary cultural heritage. With its detailed ethnographic study, this investigation provides a much-needed insight into the operations, behind the scenes, of contemporary art museums, and sheds empirical light on the material, social and technological dimensions whereby contemporary culture is being preserved and reproduced over time.

By identifying how the conservation of media-art works is perceived by various agents and how decisions are made in practice, this project has been able to determine the implications that the emergence of this media-based art is having in contemporary art museums as well as some of its wider social, cultural and economic impacts. One of the main findings of the project is to show how the instability of media-artworks is giving way to the institutionalization of new boundaries and decision-taking processes within the museums. The growing number of contemporary artworks that are fragile and obsolescent are bringing about a new relational space in which interdisciplinary, rather than medium specialization, becomes the internal organizing logic of the conservation field, and where the ability to collaborate comes to define one’s own position and relative power within the field. Those conservators who can collaborate and work across conservation boundaries and varied artistic mediums are better positioned than those traditionally trained in one single medium. The wider effects of these new dynamics reach beyond conservation. The need to collaborate to acquire, display and maintain increasingly obsolescent and rapidly changing artworks is forcing contemporary art museums to create new interdisciplinary spaces and practices that are blurring the boundaries traditionally separating conservators, curators and artists and fuelling new dynamics of ‘position-taking’ and struggles. At MoMA this process has crystallized in the creation of the Media Working Group, a new interdisciplinary group composed of curators, conservators, archivists, and audiovisual experts who collectively deal with decisions concerning the acquisition, display and preservation of media artworks. The creation of this group constitutes a significant departure from the traditionally hierarchical ways in which the museum has both organized and produced knowledge and meaning about its artworks.

The intrinsic obsolescence of media-based artworks means that every attempt to upgrade them into a newer technology will be eventually superseded by the development of newer technologies. At the same time, failing to upgrade them would be tantamount to condemning these artworks to death, as the technologies upon which they rely are rapidly becoming irretrievable. The ongoing process of migration to which these artworks are subjected not only implies a constant change in their physical containers (e.g. their display technologies) but also a change in their artistic content. This project has also found that the process through which media artworks can become ‘museum objects’ is a true process of co-production in which creative and productive agency is not monopolized by the artist but is distributed among different agents. Curators, registrars, conservators and audiovisual technicians are not simply in charge of presenting an artwork that existed beforehand, but actively shaped the final aesthetic of this artwork. In sum, the inherent obsolescence of contemporary artworks, like installations and performance, and the difficulty of placing them into stable ‘object-positions’ forces new dynamics of collaboration and co-production that challenge the traditional position of the museum within the field of contemporary art. Faced with these artworks, the task of the museum cannot be merely reduced to representing an already existing and more or less stable artwork, but also needs to include the co-production of the boundaries of the artwork: its material constituents, the ways in which it can be displayed, the degree to which materials can be changed and how that change can take place. However, this new role creates fresh conflicts in the field of art, as the museum comes to compete with artists, critics, galleries and artists’ estates, who all potentially claim ownership over the definition and interpretation of the artwork.
Another important finding of this research is to show how the emergence of media-based art is making possible a new system of alliances between museums, one which is reshaping the balance of power in the art market by enabling museums to re-enter the competition to acquire new and valuable media artworks. This new set of alliances, based on new acquisition practices, like co-ownership, is taking place predominantly at the level of local-regional alliances and is circumscribed for the most part to the specific niche of media-based art. The result of this process is a new geography of institutional alliances around media-artworks that is redefining the spatial configuration of the contemporary art field as well as power positions within it.