Interconnections: Conservation and post-Museum cultural space

Last week, I attended an event closely related to the subject of Art, Culture and Innovation: the 12th International Conference on the Conservation of Contemporary Art, held by El Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia (MNCARS) in Madrid, February 17-18.

In this context, innovation refers to new ways to preserve or restore art objects. The focus is upon the thing, its physical qualities, its chemical composition and material substrate. Here, the goal of art conservation (and all the noble ambitions it implies) is identified with object restoration. When I went to the conference, however, I was not so much concerned with the art object as I was with a more philosophical question: the Museum as cultural space. It is not enough to preserve the object itself, but one must have access to it; and the forms that preservation and access take will determine the course of art history. The Museum provides a site for this cultural activity and has a strong hand in its development.

While attending the conference, the gap between these two mindsets – object-focus versus cultural space – was palpable to me.

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 To fill out the idea of what I mean by ‘cultural space,’ I will quote at length from a lecture given in 2001 by cultural theorist Stuart Hall. (The entire lectureis available online.)

 

Stuart Hall

“The idea of museums in general, but also museums of modern art, is in trouble as a result of certain deep historical shifts or ‘turns’: transformations of theory and consciousness, but also shifts in the actual cultural landscape itself… Art history has given the museum its principles of organisation, providing the practices of curating, exhibiting, collecting and classification with a scholarly ground. The historicisation, therefore, of what was previously perceived as an entirely new historical moment inevitably leads to a sense of operating in a gap between a past which is not quite over and a future which has not yet started (and may never happen in the totalised form in which we imagine it)…”

I sensed that gap at the conference, through the tension between the different mindsets. Conservation is an exercise in historicisation, evaluating pieces, determining what meets the criteria to form part of a collection, what deserves to be remembered, discarded or changed. This process of evaluation – this mental gap, taking a step back – has traditionally been rooted in a concept of History that is no longer culturally predominant. This is mainly because art pieces themselves today no longer obey such laws of easy, chronological categorisation. And so determining their “value for history,” or whether or not they deserve to be restored, enters into the gap very uneasily, without orientation, leading to a theoretical tension without clear resolution.

The change referred to by Hall is the one from modernity to post-modernity, which has brought with it two major cultural ‘turns.’

First, if it means anything, ‘post-modernity’ signifies:

“a break from the established continuities and connections which made artistic practice intelligible in a historical review. It focused as much on the blankness of the spaces between things as on the things itself and on the excessive refusal of continuities. It was always caught between the attempt, on the one hand, to turn the sign back to a kind of direct engagement with material reality and, on the other, to set the sign free of history in a proliferating utopia of pure forms…

“History, with a capital ‘H’, which is now increasingly understood as one grand narrative among many narratives, has managed to situate itself, or substitute itself, in the place of the Universal. The History around which the practices of the arts have organised and ordered themselves is the lifeblood of the museum’s self-understanding… [Nowadays] we are not talking about the History of art, but about how we have chosen to narrate the identity of the histories of art to ourselves…”

 Post-modernity’s preoccupation with the contingent and the heterogeneous has problematised efforts of historicisation because the linear and authoritative concept of History in which it is based has, itself, been undermined.

Secondly:

“Post-modernism… transformed [modernism] by taking it out into the world… [T]he symbolic has never had such a wide significance as it does in contemporary life…

“[W]e find the languages of the aesthetic as appropriate within popular culture or public television, as they are within the most recherché rooms of the Museum of Modern Art… [I]t is completely ridiculous to define modern contemporary visual art practices in terms of the media in which they are executed; instead, we must consider the proliferation of sites and places in which the modern artistic impulse is taking place, in which it is encountered and seen. This is not just a reservation about the white cube gallery space. This is an explosion of the boundaries – the symbolic as well as physical and material limits – within which the notion of art and aesthetic practices have been organised…

“Similarly, we might talk about the post-museum… the radical transformation of the museum as a concept. I would call it the relativisation of the museum which can now be perceived as only one site among many in the circulation of aesthetic practices… [I]n terms of the real understanding of how artistic practices proliferate in our society, it is only one site and no longer enjoys the privileged position that it had historically… I am talking about it more as a space which the modern sensibility can no longer inhabit with confidence in the old way. It can no longer rest there in the knowledge of having found a scholarly and evaluative foundational ground from which to organise and classify the objects of a particular collection.”

Abe Lincoln by Banksy, internationally renowned graffiti artist

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Once one accepts the idea of Museum as cultural space, then the importance of managing and administering that space becomes evident. It is an exercise of power.

Like it has in so many other fields, the work of Michel Foucault has had its impact in museum studies. His work researches the historical a priori that make knowledge systems possible, defining the socio-cultural conditions that sustain scientific discourses. Foucault calls these episteme. They are “systematic conceptual frameworks that define their own truth criteria, according to which particular knowledge problems are to be resolved and that are embedded in and imply particular institutional arrangements” (Milner and Browitt, Contempoarary Cultural Theory: An Introduction. 2002). An episteme is

Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

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“the strategic apparatus which permits of separating out from among all the statements which are possible those that will be acceptable within, I won’t say a scientific theory, but a field of scientificity, and which it is possible to say are true or false. The episteme is the ‘apparatus’ which makes possible the separation, not of the true from the false, but of what may from what may not be characterized as scientific.” (Foucault, Power/Knowledge. 1980)

In this context, “scientificity” refers to a sufficient level of technical as well as art-historical knowledge when discussing the conservation of a particular work of art. It implies an entire network of shared cultural knowledge (higher level education in art history) and institutional infrastuctures (such as federal funding and national museums like the MNCARS). Together, they lead to certain decisions about what pieces to save and what methods to use in the restoration. As I will suggest later, it also determines what questions are acceptable at a conference.

In a museum context, the dangers implied by a misuse of that power touch upon the very future of art history. Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, for example, writes of the various focuses that art collections have had since the sixteenth century (Museums and The Shaping of Knowledge, 2002). Fascination with peculiarity and novelty led to art collections being populated with curiosities, at the expense of many other genres of art production, shifting to “more taxonomic lines” in the seventeenth century and then, more sinisterly, shifting onto the education and behaviour of the population itself, when “states began to employ public museums as a means of civilizing their populations” in the eighteenth century. Tony Bennett takes this further and speaks of “the disciplinary museum” (The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics. 1995). He argues that its purpose is not only to educate and improve the lives of citizens but to train them to regulate and police themselves – a Panopticon of control!

I would now like to review some of the presentations given at the 12th International Conference on the Conservation of Contemporary Art, with an eye towards the theoretical tension between object-focus and cultural space and the lines of institutional power that traverse it. I do not pretend to resolve these tensions, but only to point out that they were very evident to me and – quite surprisingly – rarely discussed by anyone else.

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Innovations presented at the conference included two kinds. One group were the latest techniques in preserving and restoring more classical pieces, such as sculptures or paintings. The other group encompassed the frequently remarkable innovations – as well as the historically unprecedented decisions – required when conserving pieces of more contemporary art.

 

Liquitex advertisement, 1955

David Smith, Untitled. (1957)

As an example from the first group, the conference opened with Richard Mulholland from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. He considered what paints may have been used by David Smith (1906-1965) when outlining the forms he would also try to materialize as metal sculpture. Smith’s pioneering work is found at the heart of the modern conceptual art movement.

 

David Smith, 'Star Cage.' (1950)

This was when the first acrylic paints (such as Liquitex) were introduced into the market, intended for use primarily by artists. The new paints’ fast-drying quality appealed to Smith, who used their texture to explore “the mysteries of concave and convex.” These early acrylics, however, are infamous amongst conservators as being highly sensitive to any kind of manipulation or contact, deteriorating rapidly if exposed to any number of factors, as well as being unstable when mixed with other materials. The bold dark lines in some of Smith’s acrylic work now suffer colour bleeding into the paper beneath. Determining what paints he used decides the restoration procedure.

Solana. 'El Café del Pombo.' (1920)

On the second day, Juan A. Sánchez of MNCARS presented the latest technological advancements that were used to face a serious problem with Solana’s painting ‘El Café del Pombo‘ (1920). A large crack had appeared along its surface and experts were at a loss to determine its cause. The latest scanning equipment were assembled; the data were uploaded and analysed by the latest software; computers now allow images to be altered according to numerous variables and compared side by side. The investigation identified the cause as the way the frame ran along behind the canvas, thereby leading to a solution. It also lead to a new discovery: it revealed that Solana had not been the first to use that canvas. The scans unveiled a completely different religious scene underneath, painted by a different hand.

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In both cases, the pieces are undeniably modern art – they easily fit into the chronology and conceptual order of History. The solution is provided alongside the innovation. It is equivalent to progress: improvements in the techniques of object restoration = advancement in the goal to preserve our cultural heritage.

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The challenges seemed to be of a very different sort when conserving more contemporary multimedia art. That is, innovations become problematic when we ‘turn’ to the post-modern era.

Two different kinds of contemporary art object require two different conservation strategies.

Allan Kaprow, '18 Happenings in 6 Parts.' (1967)

The first kind of contemporary art object presents the most obvious theoretical challenge to the conservator: some works of art have no material substrate to be conserved.  Alicia García of the MNCARS spoke about artistic performances and happenings, where the only artistic production is in the realm of experience and/or intersubjective interaction (an artistic practice dating back to the early 1960s, carried out by artists such as Allan Kaprow).

In these cases, documentation is the conservation strategy, guided by an object-focused mentality. If there is no object, then one must objectify the occurrence and delimit its scope. This is done by determining its situational objectivity, i.e. the objective limitations of the time, place and circumstances in which the artistic event took place. Then, conservators can document all these data and establish a durable record, though it is seen as a kind of historical consolation, it being the only remembrance bequeathed to an ever-estranged art History.

More often than not, however, post-modern media art is of the second kind: possessing both immaterial and/or uniquely situational/interactive features alongside new technological materials.

Once electronic technologies are introduced into the artist’s palette, each work becomes a world unto itself, full of technical as well as theoretical challenges for the conservator. This is how post-modern art objects differ from their modern predecessors. Each new technology manifests rapid obsolescence in its own way, quickly deteriorating (such as video cassettes) or being superseded by incompatible formats (such as software applications or codecs).  In these cases, there is no established procedure. Conservation is on a case to case basis, combining documentation strategies with migration to new platforms and emulation: trying to make a faithful copy of the original while replacing old technologies with new ones. The idea is to change the original object as little as possible while preserving the original “intention” behind the piece unaltered.

Unsurprisingly, this is where the philosophical  troubles begin.

There is also the added complication that the creators of newer media art – being more recent – are still around to voice an opinion about how their work should be treated and understood.

Bill Spinhoven van Oosten, 'I/Eye.' (1994)

Artist Bill Spinhoven van Oosten’s interactive installation I/Eye (1994) shows these hybrid features. Jo Ana Morfin (University of Bristol) and Hanna Hölling (University of Amsterdam) explained how Spinhoven used existing technologies to create a sense of intrusive surveillance. He recorded numerous images of his own eye which he then made to follow the movements of the observer cum observed. The point of the piece was to create a sense of self-awareness and uneasiness, provoking behavioral modifications within the exhibition space. The interactive dimension, however, is generated through an outdated software application that – only 15 years later – can no longer be run on most hardware systems. This aspect of the piece requires migration and emulation, writing new applications that perform on today’s technological platforms. The restoration project is a complicated affair, being carried out by a team of technicians at the NIMk in Amsterdam under the careful supervision of the artist himself.

Interestingly, once the art object shows any features of material objectivity – even though the piece clearly focuses on immaterial interaction – the conservator’s interest immediately shifts toward it. The conservation project for I/Eye, for example, has opted to recreate two versions of the piece, one using the original technology, the other using updated technologies. The goal, it seems, is to explore the way new software changes the art as object.

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We can now pause and consider the decisions that are made when restoring and conserving these unique cases. What kind of precedent do they set? What is the role of the Museum here?

If one changes emphasis away from art as an object to the museum as a cultural space in which these objects are encountered, these decisions take on tremendous importance. Decisions concerning the object also manifest the authority of the museum in this space, and the power it wields when defining what takes place within it.

Marta Minujín, 'Minuphone.' (1967)

Take another example discussed at the conference: the 1967 installation / performance / happening Minuphone by Marta Minujín. The piece appears to be a typical telephone booth. However, unbeknownst to the innocent passer-by, who stops in to insert a coin and make a call, it is really a booby trap. Upon dialling, with the door closed, any number of things can take place, depending on the number dialled: the speaker’s image is shown on close circuit television above his or her head, lights begin to flash, sounds are emitted, air is channelled through the floor to the ceiling and smoke fills the chamber, or colored water begins to seep in and fill up the booth, as well as the transparent windows turning into mirrors – the last thanks to a curtain of liquid mercury filling the hollow window panes.

It was the artist herself who initiated efforts to restore her work in 2009 with Marcelo Marzoni, the head technician at La Fundación Telefónica in Buenos Aires. The first phase of the project involved a detailed study of the current state of the piece as well as gathering all documentation on its original exhibition. At this time, the intention was to attempt an integral reconstruction of the booth’s original mechanisms: the physical gears and switches that lay hidden behind the deceptively simple veneer of the phone booth. Marzoni showed us photographs taken in 1967 of the art work’s intricate interstices and I quietly admired the artist’s touch of irony here: at the time of its creation, before micro- or nano-technologies could even be imagined, it seemed to me that the real art in Minuphone was what you could not see, an elegant, discreet, technical artistry and slight-of-hand.

The second phase came when they realized that such a restoration was simply impossible. Many of Minuphone‘s components were irreplaceable, made of materials that were no longer functional or simply not available. Deterioration of the structure (wood, metal, acrylic) meant a total collapse, a loss of the piece as well as a possible danger to people inside. There was also the danger inherent to the piece as such, before the deterioration, presented by the original work of art: the large volumes of mercury or the forced inhalation of smoke. (“People were choking in there,” Mr. Marzoni explained.) Not only could it not be rebuilt, but maybe it shouldn’t be rebuilt?

The power and authority of the Museum in this context is clear. Not knowing how to proceed, the restoration team submitted their report to the MNCARS for evaluation. That is, they recurred to the museum as a referendary, a patron bestowing authoritative knowledge.

After due deliberation, MNCARS’s recommendation was to make “a copy or a contemporary version” of Minuphone. As Mr. Marzoni explains on the project’s Facebook  page (in Spanish), they decided to make a physical emulation, that is “a reproduction with the same effects, respecting the same formal and conceptual characteristics, but using contemporary technologies.” And, of course, removing all risk to the visitor whatsoever.

Unfortunately, I cannot reproduce images of the restored Minuphone but, I assure my reader it was nothing like the original. Yes, it was a phone booth; but it no longer resembled one from the 1960s. It didn’t look like a typical phone booth from our day either, showing design details (architectural lines, colors, distribution of the elements) that were totally different from the original and entirely unique in their own right.

Another difference lay in the fact that, today, typically, there are no phone booths. Mobile phone culture has made the scenario of the enclosable public phone booth obsolete. How can that be restored? In addition, miniature technologies are now routine and common. In 1967, no one could expect that those varied and complex machinations would be possible, made to spring from behind such thin plastic panelling at only the touch of a button. Today, it is commonplace. The discreet and surprising elegance, which I mentioned earlier, has been lost.

Marta Minujín, 1967 and 2010

Perhaps more importantly, the artist herself and her reputation changed in the interim. When she inaugurated Minuphone in 1967, she was at the cusp of the post-modern. She was an experimental artist exploring the new possibilities offered by the free play of conceptual-based artistic practice. Key features of that early movement – such as the rejection of formalism and the pursuit of a perpetual ‘surprise’ and self-reflexive reaction from the public – can clearly be seen in the original Minuphone. But by 2009, Minujín was an established artist, interested far more in the place to be given her in the official pages of the Book of Art History than surprising anyone.

When asked in an interview last year why she was having a retrospective, Minujín answered that it was time “to redeem thirty years of hard work, to reconstruct some of my pieces and to develop an overview of my work as a mobilizing history” [recuperar treinta años de laboro, reconstruir obra y desarrollar un guión que arme la historia]. When making Minuphone, she was at the vanguard. Now, thanks in large part to the critical success of Minuphone (which, in her words, gave her “a great deal of international visibility”), she is one of the world’s most established artists; and she is actively seeking acknowledgement of that fact. According to Mr Marzoni, in 1967, Minujín dreamt of making hundreds of Minuphones and surreptitiously spreading them across the country. By 2009, Minujín’s reputation preceded her. The retrospective of her work was an international success, drawing large crowds to the travelling exhibition. In contrast to 1967, when people would wander into the booth unawares, people were now lining up around the block to get inside, anticipating a chance to try out the unusual and highly publicized aesthetic experience.

For MNCARS, the case of the Minuphone was another object-focused inquiry. Some of the features of that object were contextual, historical and interactive, but their restoration and conservation efforts were approached through a physical reconstruction and emulation. I am interested in what lies behind this mindset. Though unspoken, it seems to me that the principal goal of this process was to introduce the piece into the museum’s exhibition space and promote the artist. They elected physical emulation by means of declarative authority and, in pursuit of the genuine “intention” of the original piece, let the artist herself lead the project. The after-effects have secured for her – and for her work of art – a permanent place in official Art History. This, however, may have come at the cost of legitimately conserving it as a work-in-context. That is, it may have come at the cost of the work itself.

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I do not want to be misleading. The power of the Museum and the authority it has over this public culture exhibition space are necessary. Museums hold the mantle of responsibility, making them the guardians of our cultural patrimony. If they did not control this space, the upkeep of the collections could not be guaranteed; nor would there be fair and open access to its carefully preserved contents.

liquid mercury

Think of the dangerous aspects of the Minuphone. Does the Museum not have a responsibility to step in and prevent harm from coming to its visitors? This too is based in power and authority, but most everyone quietly agrees that safety is a legitimate reason for exercising and imposing them.

Eva Lootz, 'Para la mente.' (1992)

Eva Lootz’s sculpture Para la mente (1992), at the Artium museum in Vitoria, also contains mercury, which is exposed to the public as light-reflecting droplets along its surface. At the conference, Emilio Ruiz de Arcaute described the piece and the difficulties it poses, the dangers in handling it for public exhibitions as well as the obstacles imposed by ever-more-restrictive legislation. His colleague, Itziar García, described their remarkable solution: the development of a liquid mercury emulator. It looks and reacts just like mercury, but presents none of the dangers. The artist herself was very pleased with the result, and encouraged other artists to make the same replacement in their works.

The decision to spend so much time and so many resources on developing an emulation is based upon the value the museum places on the piece. This goes without saying, but perhaps it shouldn’t. The comment is poignant given the case in point, where the artistic value of the piece really is (in my humble opinion) open to serious question. The delicate process involved in making a mercury emulator truly impressed me, and it seemed to me that it had far more artistry in it than just putting mercury drops onto a big alabaster head… The expense must have been enormous and I am compelled to ask the question: why did they not just throw the dangerous statue out?

I didn’t ask the question at the time, of course, though the microphone was offered to the audience. These formal scenarios where five minutes are allotted to 500 people for questions leave no room for subtle philosophies. I felt that the question would have been misunderstood, seen as ignorant, provocative and possibly rude by those in attendance. I will leave it to my reader to judge if I am right. Given the nature and structure of the situation, I feel my question could only have been dismissed as unscientific, excluded by the dominant episteme.

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In the era of Stuart Hall’s post-museum, art history is not a single narrative but is the discourse we use to narrate that history to ourselves. The prevalent concern in the conservation community with art-as-object is a discourse that elides the more global concern of cultural space. But if art is no longer confined within the walls of the museum, why go to one? Post-modernity does not allow a single, totalising narrative; each particular narrative is constructed by the museum in question, out of the pieces in its collection, defining a physical and conceptual itinerary. But without discourse on cultural spaces, today’s museological episteme risks a blind and unreflected distribution of power relations – one that threatens to distort what the museum is trying to preserve.