MEDIA ART RESTORATION:
The Craft of the Art of the New Old New
by Barbara Rosenthal
NYC Nov 1, 2018
reetings, Readers, for this last issue of the year, and what could be more fitting for this philosophy of art column, as we ring out the old and ring in the new (or wring out and string out, as the case may be), to give some thought to questions about the old made new in the field of art conservation and restoration, particularly that of Media Art, such as Video. This bimonth’s column is occasioned by my attendance at The Whitney press preview brunch for “Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965–2018” regarding the conversation I had with the primary technician there, Richard Bloes, to whom I was referred by Christiane Paul, Adjunct Curator of Digital Art, when I asked about Nam June Paik’s dazzling show-topping piece “Fin de Siècle II.” And, to some extent, the same quandaries I have been facing as I restore/remaster some of my own video works from the 1970s, 80s, 90s, etc.
My concern is this: Digital media appears onscreen via electronic processes. Each generation of technology sharpens, de-bugs and de-glitches the productions, flattens the screens and brightens the projectors that display the picture. How true to what the artist created the first time around should the restoration be? Do more modern viewers deserve the highest resolution possible, and which they are accustomed to seeing in contemporary works, or do they deserve to view the works as the artist saw them, even, perhaps, if the artist would have used the crisper technology had it been available? What do we owe them now?
Straight off, I will tell you two things:
- that as I remaster my own videos, I clean them up as best I can; I am still alive, and date the new releases accordingly: for example 1976-2018.
2, that the Whitney technician, Richard Bloes, assured me that he kept the artist’s vision in mind as he recreated Paik’s piece, a massive wall of over 200 television screens, “as many as possible the original” analog TV sets and “all the scaffolding,” which Christiane Paul took me underneath to see were the same ones installed in the piece as it was first shown at The Whitney in “Image World: Art and Media Culture,” 1989.
So please don’t think I’m going to tell you either that I am totally against enhancement, or that The Whitney slicked up the work. They did their very best not to.
And yet… and yet…
I told Christiane that when I first walked into the huge gallery, Paik’s “Fin de Siècle II,” given pride of place, had the feel of contemporary airports and hi-tech shopping milieu. This is very unfortunate: does genius suffer if a later era adopts ideas and makes them commonplace? To what extent is our perception of things made in the past affected by what we are used to seeing now? Paik’s bank of variously-sized screens, blocks of which divide single moving images into segments of figuration, others of which are single or multiple abstract quick-paced patterns, accompanied by a unified semi-abstract soundtrack. While a laudable tour de force at the time, it reverse-echoes the new changes in the Meat Market neighborhood, with Samsung’s dark areas and massive screens, for example, right down the block. Was I feeling affronted by this magnificent, prescient work because it parallels a blatant, pervasive, contemporary trend? Or is there actually something more overt going on?
I admitted to everyone that I had not seen the 1989 show, but I’d had some acquaintance with Nam June Paik and his partner Shigeko Kubota in the mid-70s and 80s through my own video mentor, Bill Creston, also one of the first five video artists in the world, and who is facing some of the same questions now, although related to a grant being prepared for the restoration of his work in Super-8 film. Bill says, “Make it as sharp as possible and get rid of all the bad frames. So he is in favor of updating the technology. We had also done some work and screenings at their Downtown Community TV Center, DCTV, donated to Nam June a few old video monitors of our own, and I had known his work to have a warmer, more playful feel than this. Don’t get me wrong — this is a fantastic piece, and a piece I commend The Whitney and the curators and staff for undertaking and presenting to the public. What has been making me uneasy?
In a follow-up email, the technician Richard Bloes wrote me a more detailed explanation: “…my goal was to make the videos look as close as possible to what the piece was in 1989. To do that I needed a reference point. Fortunately, even though the original laser discs were unusable due to corrosion and dropouts, sections of them would play…” He then outlined a protocol in which DVD files were received from Paik’s estate, and continued. “I then asked the Post [Production] house…if they could take the files I received… and make them look as close to the quality of the laser discs. We got the files back and after the Paik Estate approved them I added a touch more contrast….”
Was that it? “I added a touch more contrast…”
I do not have an answer. My gut conundrum couldn’t have been that simple. The piece has many aspects to it. And, as I said, I’ve been doing my utmost to spiff up all my own videos, anyway. How much should a conservator’s goal be to “to make the videos look as close as possible to what the piece was,” and how much leeway should an experienced conservatorial eye like Richard’s be given some latitude?
Obviously, we can’t abide restorations like that of the now legendary 2012 amateur re-depiction of Jesus Christ called “Ecce Homo,” the 1930 Elías García Martínez fresco in Borja, Spain. But what about the possibility of restoring Turner’s quickly faded but reputedly scintillating, brilliant reds, using not the extremely fugitive red lake that delighted him, but the analine pigments invented from coal tar a mere eight years after his death? Would the color have been exact? Would any difference in it be more exact than the faded red his own became so soon? Can a reputable, conscientious technician like The Whitney’s bring a work to the aesthetic pinnacle he believes the artist would have — or indeed that the work itself possibly did have with “a touch more contrast.” I repeat: I did not see the original piece nor the laser discs. Usually, as you know, I rail for an artist’s unique vision: in this case I’m not ashamed to say I’d let Richard Bloes take over my remastering any time. It seems obvious Paik was going for the highest resolution he could get, and Richard told me he took pains not to go overboard.
To some degree, questions like these niggle all art conservators, not only in Media works. Some of my concerns were addressed by a panel called “Ethical Dilemmas in the Conservation of Modern and Contemporary Art” at The Getty Conservation Institute in 2009 (http://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/videos/public_lecture_videos_audio/ethical_dilemmas.html). The panelists Edward Goldman, Matthew Gale, Susan Lake and Jill Sterrett discussed specific issues like the fugitive nature of many pigments and materials, as well as general ones like whether to extend the viability of deliberately ephemeral pieces, and the possibility that “early intervention” could thwart further interpretations of works, and the kind of question we face here: “Should … preservation…focus on maintaining the original materials, or place more emphasis on … original appearance,” which, as I can see in the case of Media Art, go beyond that appearance to an artist’s obvious intent. Paik wanted his piece sharp and clear, and it is.
The Whitney show is not a Media History show. It is curation of disparate works from various eras and visual genres, all created from a “program,” i.e., a plan or set of instructions the artist created the work to fulfill. It comprises two categories: “Rule, Instruction, Algorithm” (“Ideas as Form,” “Generative Measures,” “Collapsing Instruction and Form) and “Signal, Sequence, Resolution” (“Image Resequenced,” “Liberating the Signal,” “Realities Encoded” and “Augmented Reality”). Some of the artists in it besides Nam June Paik are Steina [Vasulka], Lucinda Childs, Agnes Denes, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Joseph Kosuth, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Barbara Lattanzi, Cory Archangel, James Seawright, Lawrence Weiner and Josef Albers. This article is not a review, but I would encourage you to see it. I was particularly captivated by the very beautiful, large, inviting enter-the-piece irregularly-walled optical-illusion open-room, “Tilted Plane” (2011) by Jim Campbell, the softly moving six-channel video installation “Mynd” (2000) by Steina and the engaging little living-room corner installation, “Lorna” (1979-83) by Lynn Hershman Leeson.
“Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965–2018”
Curated by Christiane Paul, Adjunct Curator of Digital Art, and Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, Melva Bucksbaum Associate Director for Conservation and Research, with Clémence White, curatorial assistant.
Sep 28, 2018–Apr 14, 2019
Whitney Museum of American Art
About the author:
Barbara Rosenthal is an idiosyncratic New York artist/writer/performer/philosopher whose latest book, the novel, Wish for Amnesia (Deadly Chaps Press, 2018) explores themes of idealism, innocence, esthetics, dimensionality, thought and corruption. She is particularly interested in the intersection of art and life.
About the novel: wishforamnesia.com
Calendar of events: http://www.emedialoft.org/artistspages/frameEleven.htm
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Bi-MONTHLY COLUMNS: Barbara Rosenthal, A Crack in the Sidewalk:
Nov-Dec, 2017: Journaling
Sept-Oct, 2017: by this first sentence here now, back upon the Earth.