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Art That Goes on the Blink

When TVs burn out, videotapes age or wires fray in technology-based works, which is more important, the medium or the message?

October 04, 2004|Alex Pham | Times Staff Writer

When the Los Angeles County Museum of Art acquired "Video Flag Z" in 1986, the piece by video artist Nam June Paik canonized a culture driven by technology.

A 6-foot-high grid of 84 white Quasar monitors flashed a changing mosaic of images that together formed an American flag in pulsating red, white and blue.

Today, the screens of "Video Flag Z" are dark, victims of the very modernity to which they paid tribute. The artwork's parts, including the 84 defunct television sets, are packed in the museum's warehouse.

"We can't find replacement parts anymore," said LACMA conservator John Hirx. "We're a museum. We're not a TV manufacturing plant."

Museums all over the world face similar problems. After decades of amassing avant-garde works on video, laser discs and other technology-based media, conservators are plagued with failing disk drives, burned-out bulbs, scorched wires, indecipherable bits and a host of moving parts that no longer move.

The collections grew from a movement that began in the 1950s, led by artists such as Paik, John Cage, Andy Warhol and Bruce Nauman. These artists seized upon the notion that people felt disconnected by the onslaught of technology-driven media.

Many of them sought to demystify technology by taking it apart and introducing human interaction by having people tinker with the pieces. Cage in 1951, for example, created a piece that involved 12 people twiddling with the knobs of radios to create a composition. Paik expanded on the theme in 1963 with a famous piece called "Random Access" in which viewers can take random bits of magnetic tape and play them on a dismantled player.

Decades later, countless works like this "are decaying badly, on life support or turning to dust in a warehouse," said Jon Ippolito, associate curator of media arts at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. "There's a looming threat of mass extinction on the media arts landscape. And there's great debate right now over what to do about it."

Traditionally, museums have kept objects in their original condition for as long as possible. But with technology, several factors conspire against the conservator -- from equipment that becomes obsolete because companies no longer make it to fragile discs and tapes that degrade with each use.

"In my first investigations, I was concerned with making this physical videotape last," said Roni Polisar, conservation specialist at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum in Washington. "What temperature should I keep it in? What level of humidity? What materials can be in contact with it?

"But quickly, you come to realize that's not the central issue," Polisar said. "It's the image that has to be preserved, not the equipment, because the equipment will become obsolete. How do we do that? Well, that remains an open question."

The film world has faced a similar conundrum as reels of celluloid crumble in their canisters.

"Film buffs believe you lose something very subtle if you treat movies as images and not as film," said Richard Rinehart, director of digital media at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. "For them, cinema is about the scale of the image, the quality of the light and even the sound a projector makes. It's an aesthetic that's very different from computers."

Such questions are amplified in the fine art world, where medium and message are often indistinguishable. How much of the hardware powering an artwork can be replaced before the work itself changes? All of it? None of it?

"Let's take George Washington's ax, the one he used to chop down the cherry tree, as a hypothetical," said Bruce Sterling, an author and futurist who has lectured on media preservation. "Let's say we had to replace the head three times and the handle five times. But, hey, it still occupies the same space. Is it still the same ax?"

In the case of Paik's work, the art has to do with television's effect on culture during the decades leading up to the 1980s, when flat-screen monitors weren't around. But the cathode ray tube TV sets Paik used are being phased out by consumer electronics companies in favor of flat-screen, liquid-crystal or plasma monitors. Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., which owns the Quasar brand, stopped making the model Paik used in "Video Flag Z" in 1988.

Some museums have begun hoarding TV sets. But that's considered a short-term remedy. So museums have approached the 72-year-old artist for his thoughts on preserving his pieces for a day when cathode ray tube sets are unavailable. (Paik declined to be interviewed for this article.)

"For him, the medium was fundamental to the experience of the work," said John Hanhardt, the Guggenheim's senior curator of film and media arts and a friend of Paik's. "At the same time, he's open to the reality that media has changed, and that his work has to change with it."

The quandary of conservation affects private collectors as well, who may have paid $50,000 to $500,000 for a Paik piece.

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