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A Preservation Guide for Technology-Based Artworks

Some tools and principles specific to the preservation and conservation of time-based media artworks

Prepared by the Conservation and Preservation Committee
Émilie Boudrias
Alexandre Mingarelli
Olfa Driss
Under the direction of Richard Gagnier

This document summarizes the five years spent by the DOCAM Alliance Conservation and Preservation Committee examining potential conservation and preservation strategies for technology-based artworks. Not only does the document outline observations and approaches based on particular examples, it also offers a decisional methodology: practical methods of implementing preservation and curatorial measures for these works, whose major weaknesses are related to their risk of obsolescence and the limitations of their use. This use is predetermined by their materials and is often compromised or outright disabled by their museum exhibition or other manifestations. It is important to note that some of the concepts used to systemize a preservation framework for these works may be undermined as much by the works’ production context as by their conceptual nature. And while these concepts never become inoperative, their restrictions must be considered and certain redefinitions accordingly proposed. We hope that we have achieved this.

The research approach was based on case studies of specific works, and the structure of the document reflects this. The research focused on particular collections, i.e. those at the National Gallery of Canada, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and Canadian Centre for Architecture. Issues related either to technologies not found in these collections or to works that use technology in a highly singular way were not studied. However, we feel that the subjects we selected are a fair reflection of the problems that recur in preserving these kinds of works. As a result, we were able to establish decisional approaches applicable to a wide range of artworks that incorporate distinctive technological features associated with behaviours that are equally atypical.

Our research was prompted by the use of technologies and content media in a constant state of flux, transformation, advancement and refinement, which ultimately render their original iterations obsolete within what is often a very short space of time. It may therefore also be that our conclusions and recommendations will themselves turn out to be rooted in a particular period. We believe, however, that this preservation methodology is increasingly establishing itself and will prove sustainable for technology-based artworks. We see ourselves as standing at the intersection of the analog and digital worlds, where both technologies continue to be actively used. For this reason it still appears possible, at least in some cases, to offer solutions capable of maintaining a work in its analog mode; indeed for certain works there is simply no alternative. Based on this paradigm, these works would seem destined for a limited lifespan, and we believe such should be the case, as they would otherwise lose too much of their integrity to be viewed and experienced as originally intended. It is therefore vital to determine exactly what constitutes the work and under what circumstances it can continue to be considered as the same work. The case studies put forward focus on doing just that. These works can of course continue to exist in an alternative format; they can adopt the status of a documentary manifestation as witness to a specific production history, for example. But that, clearly, is another case altogether.