Media Art: History, Installation and Conservation

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Interviews

Richard Gagnier Video

In the following video clip, Richard Gagnier, Head of the Conservation Department at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), discusses the process of emulation.
(available in French only)

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Definition

"Media art" refers to artworks that depend on a technological component to function. The term "media" applies to any communication device used to transmit and store information. By incorporating emerging technologies into their artworks, artists using new media are constantly redefining the traditional categories of art.

Over the years, numerous artistic disciplines have fallen under the umbrella of "media art", including:

  • Biotech Art
  • Computer Art
  • Digital Art
  • Electronic Art
  • Interactive Art
  • Kinetic Art
  • Multimedia Art
  • Network Art
  • Robotic Art
  • Sound Art
  • Space Art
  • Technological Art
  • Video Art
  • Web Art

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History

Experimentation with audio and visual technologies in art dates back to the 19th century. As new technologies have emerged, artists have integrated photography, film, radio, television, computers and the Internet into their artistic practices. Created during diverse historical periods, the components of the artworks illustrate an integral aspect of our relationship with technology and its evolution.

Timeline

The development of media art has been influenced by both technological advancements and 20th century avant-garde art movements that sought new ways of making, viewing and understanding art. By situating major technological and artistic influences, this abridged timeline traces the roots of media art from the 1830s to the present day.

19th Century

1830s

  • British mechanical engineer and mathematician Charles Babbage (1791 – 1871) invents the analytical engine, a precursor to the modern day computer. Using punch cards, it is able to calculate numerical data.Footnote 1
  • French artist and chemist Louis Daguerre (1787 – 1851) develops the daguerreotype, an early form of photography.Footnote 2

1890s

  • American inventor Thomas Edison (1847 – 1931) helps develop the kinetograph and kinetoscope – devices that enable individual viewing of short films. French filmmakers Auguste Lumière (1862 – 1954) and Louis Lumière (1864 – 1948) introduce films to the public.Footnote 3
  • Radio is developed by numerous inventors throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla (1856 – 1943) invents the Tesla coil, an induction coil for radio technology;Footnote 4 German physicist Heinrich Hertz is the first to broadcast electromagnetic waves;Footnote 5 Bengali physicist Jagadish Changra Bose (1858 – 1937) conducts important experiments with short radio waves;Footnote 6 Russian physicist Alexander Stepanovich Popov (1859 – 1906) introduces the application of electromagnetic waves over long distances;Footnote 7 and Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi (1874 – 1937) further develops wireless telegraphy (the diffusion of messages via the radio).Footnote 8

20th Century

1920s

  • Film and radio become increasingly popular.Footnote 9
  • The following discoveries help develop the beginning of television: Scottish inventor John Logie Baird (1888 – 1946) gives the first public demonstration of a television system;Footnote 10 Russian-American inventor Vladimir Kozmich Zworykin (1889 – 1982) develops a system of transmitting and receiving information with cathode ray tube (CRT) technology (a fluorescent screen that depicts images with an electronic beam);Footnote 11 and American inventor Philo Taylor Farnsworth (1906 – 1971) conceives of the complete operating principles for electronic televisions.Footnote 12
  • The avant-garde art movement Dada introduces new ways of representing reality, including the ready-made (commercially manufactured objects placed in a museum or gallery context), collage, and photomontage.Footnote 13

1930s

  • English mathematician Alan Turing (1912 – 1954) publishes a theoretical description of a digital computer that can solve mathematical problems.Footnote 14
  • German engineer Konrad Zuse (1910 – 1995) builds a computer using 35mm film tape to control programming.Footnote 15
  • Hungarian artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, associated with the German Bauhaus school that combines crafts and fine arts, creates the Light-Space-Modulator. This lighting equipment installation depicts the play of light and movement.Footnote 16

1940s

  • The University of Pennsylvania builds ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), which uses switches for computer-programming control; the computer is so big that it takes up an entire room.Footnote 17

1950s

  • Television becomes widespread in households.Footnote 18

1960s

  • The Internet is developed, although it is reserved for university researchers, the military, and the U.S. government's secret services. Footnote 19
  • The following influential art movements emerge and evolve over the ensuing decades:Footnote 20
    • Fluxus: Artists, composers and designers work together to combine artistic media and disciplines;
    • Pop Art: Artists become interested in commercial culture and mass production;
    • Conceptual Art: Artists focus on the idea, the process and language more than on the aesthetics and materials of the art object;
    • Performance Art: An individual or group performs this ephemeral art form;
    • Video Art: Inexpensive portable video cameras become available to the general public and are integrated into artistic practices.Footnote 21
  • A series of performances between artists and engineers, 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering, takes place in New York. This event is the precursor to the organization Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T).Footnote 22

1970s

  • Annual gatherings for artists working with computers begin to form. These include Ars Electronica in Austria and SIGGRAPH (Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques) in the United States.Footnote 23

1980s

  • Personal computers (PCs) become more accessible and affordable.
  • Video games are popularized.Footnote 24

1990s

  • The Internet explodes into a popular medium for distributing and sharing content (e-mail, publishing, commerce, file-sharing and online gaming).
  • PCs become more powerful. Users can now manipulate images, construct Web sites, use 3D software, and edit video and audio content.
  • Universities begin to offer programs in "New Media and Design."Footnote 25
  • Museums, galleries and other art institutions begin to collect and exhibit media art.Footnote 26

21st Century

  • Media art is constantly expanding, and new technologies are being used at a rapid pace.
  • Open source software is popularized. It allows people to freely use and modify existing software.
  • Video games and Web interfaces such as flickr, myspace, YouTube, Facebook and Second Life become new material for artworks.
  • Museums and other institutions begin to develop policies and procedures for documentation and conservation strategies specific to media artworks.

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Installation

Museums act as custodians by safeguarding cultural artefacts for the enjoyment and education of future generations. Due to the wide range of materials used in media artworks, museums are faced with a number of exhibition and conservation challenges. As a result, museums need to ensure constant collaboration between the artist, curator, archivist, conservator and technician.Footnote 27

How does a museum exhibit and install media artworks?

Media artworks are not simply hung on a wall like a painting. Artists, curators and technicians have to be very creative in their exhibit designs for media art. Some media artworks are installations and use exhibition space as part of their design. Other media artworks require the use of large equipment. Consequently, some artists consider the equipment to be part of the artwork, while others prefer to hide the equipment from view.

Media art can also invite viewer participation by allowing visitors to manipulate components of an artwork. The artist, curator, educator and technician must then consider how to ensure visitor interaction with the artwork.

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Conservation

What are the main conservation challenges?

Media art uses technologies that inevitably change over time, and the technologies adopted by artists using new media are representative of a given historical period. Conservators and curators work together to conserve this history by staying as true to the original artwork as possible. Otherwise, the historical and technological context of these valuable cultural artefacts is at risk of being forgotten.

As a result of technology's constant evolution, museums are encountering conservation challenges that are specific to media artworks:

  • Deterioration of Components: Occurs when a part of an artwork no longer functions and cannot be repaired. Over time, all technology is prone to breaking down. For example, the magnetic tape of a video cassette will eventually deteriorate. This can either result in lower image quality or the disappearance of the image.
  • Technological Obsolescence: Occurs when technological equipment becomes outdated and can no longer be used. Electronics companies move on to newer technologies, and old models are often discontinued. If one component of a media artwork becomes unavailable, obsolete or incompatible with new software, the entire work may cease to function.
Richard Gagnier Video

In the following video clip, Richard Gagnier, Head of the Conservation Department at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), discusses the challenges of conserving media art.Footnote 28

What are the main conservation strategies?

Museum professionals have been conserving traditional artworks, such as paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures, since the late 19th century. Museums only began collecting media art in the past few decades, making its conservation a relatively new phenomenon. The conservation of traditional artworks is dependent upon the scientific analysis of their chemical components. The conservation of media art, on the other hand, must also take into consideration the variability of technologies. Consequently, conservators have developed new conservation strategies, which have both positive and problematic aspects:

  • Storage: Involves physically keeping the artwork in a safe and controlled environment in order to conserve the media artwork's original condition. This is the most traditional conservation strategy, as the artwork is not modified at all.

    Main problem: Once the equipment deteriorates or becomes obsolete, the artwork will no longer function.

  • Migration: Involves upgrading an old technological component to a newer version.

    Main problem: This strategy may not correspond to the artist's initial intention and the original appearance of the artwork will likely change.

  • Emulation: Involves imitating the original aspects of the artwork using current technology.

    Main problem: This strategy may not correspond to the artist's initial intention.

  • Reinterpretation: Involves re-creating the artwork each time it is exhibited according to contemporary media and practices.

    Main problem: This strategy may not correspond to the artist's initial intention.

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Richard Gagnier Video

In the following video clip, Richard Gagnier, Head of the Conservation Department at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), discusses the process of emulation.
(available in French only)Footnote 29

Research

What research is being done in Canada on the conservation of media art?

  • The Research Alliance

    Following the surge of artworks featuring technological components, new challenges involving the exhibition, the documentation and long-term conservation of media art in museum collections have recently surfaced. The Documentation and Conservation of the Media Arts Heritage Research Alliance (DOCAM) was initiated by the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology in Montréal. Uniting the academic and museum worlds, this vast interdisciplinary research alliance aims to find hands-on solutions for the long-term conservation of media.

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Footnotes

Footnote 1

Lev Manovich. The Language of New Media(Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MITPress, 2001) 20.

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Footnote 2

Lev Manovich. The Language of New Media(Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MITPress, 2001) 20.

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Footnote 3

Lumières Brothers Films. "A History" http://www.holonet.khm.de/visual_alchemy/lumiere.html (No longer available)

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Footnote 4

"Tesla, Nikola ." Encyclopædia Britannica(vol. 11, 15th ed. 2005) 654.

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Footnote 5

"Hertz, Heinrich." Encyclopædia Britannica(vol. 5, 15th ed. 2005) 892.

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Footnote 6

"Bose, Jagadas Chandra." Encyclopædia Britannica(vol. 2, 15th ed. 2005) 399.

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Footnote 7

" Popov, Alexander Stepanovich." Encyclopædia Britannica(vol. 9, 15th ed. 2005) 607.

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Footnote 8

"Marconi, Guglielmo." Encyclopædia Britannica(vol. 7, 15th ed. 2005) 826.

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Footnote 9

Media Art Net. "Media - Art/Art – Media". http://medienkunstnetz.de/themes/overview_of_media_art/. (Consulted on May 28, 2008).

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Footnote 10

"Baird, John Logie." Encyclopædia Britannica(vol. 1, 15th ed. 2005) 809.

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Footnote 11

"Zworykin, Vladimir Kozmich." Encyclopædia Britannica(vol. 12, 15th ed. 2005) 947.

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Footnote 12

"Farnsworth, Philo Taylor." Encyclopædia Britannica(vol. 4, 15th ed. 2005) 688.

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Footnote 13

Mark Tribe and Reena Jana. New Media Art. ed. Uta Grosenick (Cologne, Germany: Taschen, 2006) 7.

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Footnote 14

Lev Manovich. The Language of New Media(Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MITPress, 2001) 24 – 5.

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Footnote 15

Lev Manovich. The Language of New Media(Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MITPress, 2001) 24 – 5.

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Footnote 16

Media Art Net. http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/works/licht-raum-modulator/. (Consulted on June 27, 2008).

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Footnote 17

New Media art and History. http://wiki.media-culture.org.au/index.php/New_Media_Art_-_History. (No longer available).

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Footnote 18

Janet Murray. "Inventing the Medium." The New Media Reader. eds. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort (Cambridge, Massachusetts; The MITPress, 2003) 7.

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Footnote 19

New Media art and History. http://wiki.media-culture.org.au/index.php/New_Media_Art_-_History. (No longer available).

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Footnote 20

Lev Manovich. "New Media from Borges to HTML. " The New Media Reader. eds. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort (Cambridge, Massachusetts; The MITPress, 2003) 23.

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Footnote 21

" Video Art in Canada." The Virtual Museums of Canada. http://videoart.virtualmuseum.ca/exhibition.php. (Consulted on May 28, 2008).

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Footnote 22

Media Art Net. http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/exhibitions/9evenings/images/27/. (Consulted on June 6, 2008).

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Footnote 23

Lev Manovich. "New Media from Borges to HTML." The New Media Reader. eds. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort (Cambridge, Massachusetts; The MITPress, 2003) 13.

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Footnote 24

Janet Murray. "Inventing the Medium." The New Media Reader. eds. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort (Cambridge, Massachusetts; The MITPress, 2003) 9.

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Footnote 25

Lev Manovich. "New Media from Borges to HTML." The New Media Reader. eds. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort (Cambridge, Massachusetts; The MITPress, 2003) 13.

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Footnote 26

Mark Tribe and Reena Jana. New Media Art. ed. Uta Grosenick (Cologne, Germany: Taschen, 2006) 10.

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Footnote 27

http://www.docam.ca/IMG/video/seminaire2008-Gagnon1.html. (No longer available).

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Footnote 28

Amanda Beattie, Researcher and copywriter, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Interview with Richard Gagnier, Head of the Conservation Department, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. July 22, 2008.

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Footnote 29

Amanda Beattie, Researcher and copywriter, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Interview with Richard Gagnier, Head of the Conservation Department, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. July 22, 2008.

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