What happens when an artist’s technology becomes obsolete? | ET REALITY


At the top of a warped flight of stairs on Murray Street in Lower Manhattan, CTL Electronics’ dusty workshop is packed with once-newfangled relics: cathode ray tube (CRT) televisions, triple-beam projectors, and DVD players. laser discs from the previous century. Hundreds of obsolete monitors are arranged next to money trees and waving chinese lucky cat Cats, a mini-museum installation of sorts run by CTL owner Chi-Tien Lui, who has worked as a television and radio repairman since emigrating from Taiwan in 1961. At CTL, which opened in 1968, Lui initially sold products closed. -TV circuit systems and video equipment, but for the past two decades, his business has had a singular focus: repairing works of video art that, since the dawn of the digital age, are increasingly likely to be malfunction and deteriorate.

Many of CTL’s clients are museums seeking to restore works by a single artist, video art pioneer Nam June Paik, who died in 2006. Known for his sculptures and installations of flickering CRT monitors, Paik began visiting the store in the 1990s. 1970. during his breaks from his studio in nearby SoHo. While some conservators have updated his work by replacing old tubes with LCD screens, Lui is one of the only technicians who can rebuild Paik’s devices from spare parts, as if they were new.

Paik’s work was on display, along with video works by dozens of other artists, at “Signs”, a wide-ranging exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York earlier this year. Many pieces in the show, such as those in the video collectives section, were played on Sony’s square CRT monitors, long favored by artists for their austere, stackable design, and which went out of production in the 2000s. Cubic CRTs are essentially useless to consumers, but museums are willing to pay a premium for them on eBay, “if they can get one,” said Stuart Comer, chief curator of media and performance at MoMA, who helped organize the show. “I had to tell security, ‘Pretend these are Donald Judds,’ because they’re basically priceless right now.”

It’s a constant dilemma for the modern art institution: new technologies are only new for a while. When the phasing out of incandescent light bulbs, a go-to material for artists from Robert Rauschenberg to Félix González-Torres, began in 2012, museums built up stockpiles of the old bulbs or found a reliable supplier. Dan Flavin, who spent his entire career working with fluorescent lighting, always had his favorite manufacturers. Last year, the Biden administration proposed phasing out compact fluorescents as part of its climate policy, and some states have recently enacted laws that in the coming years will also ban the longer tube lights that Flavin used. For now, museums continue to tour the legacy of the artist, who died in 1996, to replace the burned out lights. However, not all artists are so precious with their materials: In 2012, when Diana Thater presented her 1992 video installation “Oo Fifi, Five Days in Claude Monet’s Garden” at the 1301PE gallery in Los Angeles, where it had first been shown 20 years earlier, she upgraded her clunky CRT projectors to digital projectors. She digitized the video, a collage of cinematic images of Monet’s garden in Giverny, France (a technological update of the Impressionist painter’s oil views) because she, she said, “don’t want my work to look old.” Paik, for his part, left a page of instructions specifying that his works could be updated, as long as the integrity of the sculpture’s original appearance was respected, to the extent possible that technology allowed.

When preserving works made from more mundane materials, museums typically rely on an artist like Thater or the artist’s estate for guidance, or even the materials themselves, as is the case with Flavin. But technology is now advancing at a much faster pace. A museum’s task of protecting art in perpetuity has remained fixed, even as artists’ materials have changed. Art institutions are likely the only places in the world currently planning how they might repair an Oculus Rift in 50 years. Instead of keeping stockpiles of expensive, obsolete technology in storage, museums have to find smart ways to avoid software updates, from video game emulators to server farms and specialized businesses like CTL. But they also have a lifespan as short or shorter than that of light bulbs. There are much darker materials that artists can choose from than ever before.

GLENN WHARTON WAS hired in 2007 as MoMA’s first curator of time-based media, or works that often rely on commercial technology that may have a limited lifespan. “I saw the writing on the wall that it was already difficult to even buy videotapes,” Wharton said. Early on, he made decisions “about changing artworks” that were the equivalent of a painting conservator using acrylic instead of oil paint: “We were changing CRTs and sometimes moving toward flat-panel technology, or we changed the projectors. or even digitize.” Ultimately, Wharton decided, “defining the authentic status of a work of art is central to what conservators do.” So when the museum acquired a work that relied on a specific technology from a living artist, he would ask how they wanted it to be preserved and displayed.

Wharton now runs a program at UCLA that has helped clarify one of the major issues in the emerging field of digital preservation: digital obsolescence. If certain art depends on an extinct technology, how is the art preserved so that it outlives the technology itself? Sometimes addressing a phenomenon called bit rot: As Caroline Gil, director of media collections and preservation at Electronic Arts Intermix, a New York nonprofit, explained, “digital files of all kinds are made up of data ( zeros and ones) and, very often, a zero can become a one due to an electrostatic discharge on your hard drive or a large server farm. That corrupts the file.” There are methods to solve this problem, she said, “but that’s a very specific level of understanding, and I don’t think many archives or collecting institutions do that, really.”

Coding expertise is still rare in museum conservation departments, but that may have to change. “The art world runs on an old operating system of modernism,” said Cass Fino-Radin, curator and founder of the upstate New York firm Small Data Industries, even as museums are collecting newer works of art. which, in essence, are made up of code. In 2016, the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York contacted Fino-Radin for help with a two-year evaluation of digital materials in its permanent collection. The project included a detailed case study of a defunct iOS app called Planetary, acquired by the museum in 2013, which allowed users to explore a music library like astronauts flying through the Milky Way. Planetary, which debuted in 2011, became incompatible with iOS software updates within a few years, so the museum decided to share the source code on GitHub for anyone to try to fix. In the end, it was an Australian developer, Kemal Enver, who got it working again and released it in 2020 as Planetary Remastered. For Fino-Radin, it was a warning sign: “For museums, hiring a professional software developer to perform that kind of annual maintenance is not something that has been even remotely necessary in history, so institutions simply do not They have the money to do it. do it. It is a new item in their budgets.”

For works that rely on older hardware, conservators sometimes turn to a method known as emulation: “You’re tricking a current computer into thinking it’s running an older system, which means I can turn my MacBook Pro into a virtual machine.” where I can run a piece of net art in a Netscape 1.1 browser,” said Christiane Paul, curator of digital art at the Whitney Museum of American Art. This approach was taken at Rhizome, a New York nonprofit dedicated to promoting and preserving digital art, which in 2012 hosted (along with the New Museum of Contemporary Art) an online exhibition of interactive computer games for girls. tweens co-created by Theresa Duncan that was first released on CD-ROM in the mid-1990s. Rhizome Website Visitors I can play chop sueya delirious adventure through a small Ohio town, virtually connecting to a server that runs the game on its 1995 software.

Many artists don’t think about what will happen to their work when they are gone. Or they never imagined that certain pieces had much of a future. In “Super Mario clouds” (2002), one of the first video installations by artist Cory Arcangel, the 1985 video game Super Mario Bros. is played on a Nintendo console with all of the game’s animated features, except the sky and clouds, erased. Obsolescence was partly the goal of the work because, as a then-unknown artist, Arcangel did not expect to show it 20 years later, and in 2002 the consoles “were considered trash,” he said. The Whitney purchased an edition of “Super Mario Clouds,” whose curators knew the console might not work for much longer. But the source code is still available and Arcangel has granted the museum permission to use a Nintendo emulator to display the work.

However, is an emulated work of art, even if indistinguishable from the original, really the same artwork? This riddle is sometimes known as the Ship of Theseus paradox: according to Plutarch’s legend, as the Athenians preserved their former king’s ship over decades by gradually replacing its old, decaying planks with new ones, philosophers wondered whether the ship could still be considered authentic if none of its original parts remained?

The puzzle is why some artists and curators have now incorporated obsolescence into their practices. Lynn Hershman Leeson, an 82-year-old artist who was a contemporary of Paik, has been working with artificial intelligence technology since the late 1990s and in 1983 made one of the first pieces of interactive video art: “Lorna,” originally created for an innovative new technology called laserdisc. Twenty years later, she opted for another now obsolete technology: the DVD. Lately she has been experimenting with a futuristic method of archiving her work. Seeking to preserve a series of videos and documents from her research on genetic manipulation and synthetic biology, she turned to a technology much older and cutting-edge than anything else on the market: DNA. Hershman Leeson first turned her research into a video timeline in Final Cut Pro and then enlisted Twist Bioscience in San Francisco, which makes DNA products, to chemically synthesize it into a sequence. The resulting genetic material is preserved in two vials in her studio, as well as at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Arts and Media Center in Karlsruhe, Germany. “DNA has a half-life of 500 years,” she said. “I also saw it as a metaphor, a poetic conclusion to all this work, to create something that is relatively invisible and contains our past and our future.”

The problem is that neither Hershman Leeson nor the museums that collect his work can recover it from the sequence. In theory, the process is reversible, but it is also expensive and time-consuming. At least for now, work belongs to the future.

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