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Current time:0:00Total duration:5:51

Preserving Nam June Paik's Electronic Superhighway

Video transcript

[Music] I'm with Dan fen conservator for time-based media at the Smithsonian American Art Museum standing across from this enormous collection of televisions and neon by the artist named Jim pack so what we're seeing is this grid of American States but they're framing all of these monitors all of these television sets and the Silla vision sets are all on and they're all playing different things for me it's almost impossible to focus anywhere what you see is the sense of information overload and the importance of technology and media to life in this country and life around the world and that sense of connectedness overarching the geography of where we live all of the content has to do with the state in which the monitors are present it's mostly what the artists associated with the space so some of them are artists that he worked with hail from a certain state but then some of them are more associative like potatoes and Idaho when I think of conservation I tend to think of very old objects if the object is treated reasonably well it can survive for centuries maybe even for millennia but here we have an object that was made during my lifetime and it wouldn't have existed without your intervention in the intervention of other conservators there are information carriers which have the content as playing all the monitors they originally were shown on laserdisc than DVD and currently digital files on solid-state players and then a lot of cabling that's transmitting that and then we have the layer of display which are these cathode ray tube monitors which is an old style of monitor that started becoming obsolete in the end of the 90s and then the neon lights which are all custom-built and susceptible to cracking you really have to think about the artists intention and how to maintain this object the artist is fascinating because earlier than anybody else I can think of he was placing television sets within works of art as objects unto themselves more like sculpture one thing that conservators of time-based media are always juggling is to what extent is this object purely a functional piece like you say is it just intended as a display of some information or does it have skull shurl value and he certainly imbues his monitors and sculptural value many of his works so in that case we've already begun to replace some of the screens with LCD screens but we did it in a way to maintain the original chassis you'll see that in all the smaller monitors which are all LCDs and that's because those small 5-inch screens are the first to die so the balancing act is then yes it's a new LCD screen it's a new display technology but it's housed in the original chassis to try and maintain to the extent possible a sculptural effect it's almost a philosophical question what are we preserving or we preserving the original objects and in this case no but you are trying to preserve the semblance of the original expression of the work one of the things that we have to be very conscientious of is the conceptual nature of these artworks and this is one way in which time-based media conservation and more broadly contemporary art conservation tends to differentiate itself from traditional conservation of objects like sculptures or oil paintings you can't have two Mona Lisa's the one that Leonardo da Vinci painted is the Mona Lisa the rest are copies those have value but not the same values that original object which then gets conserved in time-based media you have DVDs VHS --is digital files photographs films all of these things are produced in ways that inherently produce lots of copies he would be amenable in many cases to updating technology so he had pieces he even updated from CRTs to having an iteration with LCD screens this is really a relief for me to hear because if one were to be really strict I had this image of the screens going black one by one until there was only a single monitor left and then that eventually dying and the object becoming in a sense dormant there's a way about thinking of time-based media art and that the artwork doesn't exist unless it's being shown unless it's being performed one can easily see how nanjing pocket potentially intended that sort of evolution that a practitioner in the Fluxus movement very interested in performance you could very easily think of this piece as a performance piece and all of the and video content our players and they interact very differently it looks a little bit different every time you come to it and there's some difference on the monitors there's some difference in brightness and there's some difference in the how they are reproducing the color on that day or in that hour these things warm up during the day and then it turned off and have to warm up again the next day and so some of the performers can change some of the instrumentation might change just as it would in a performance and yet somehow the overarching identity of that artwork survives across the variations that occur every time you install it or update some technological element so in some sense the object is the living thing and I believe that's the case for all works of art except that with newer media their lifespans are so much shorter that it's something that we have to deal with in one lifetime multiple times whereas with an oil painting conservators treatment may be is good for one careers worth of time and then the next conservator may or may not have to deal with it again so the cycles of intervention become much more frequent and what does that mean about how these artworks live and I think that one of the things that that means is that conservators curators museums are starting to deal with the fact that they are not only collectors but producers of the artworks that collect in a sense that they become in charge of that evolution you [Music]