Ethics of media art conservation

[beginPage: Introduction ]

In fine art conservation, the main ethical issue is that all conservation activities should be faithful to the integrity of the original art object, respecting both the authentic, original appearance of the work and the artist’s original intention. Most ethical codes specify different kinds of integrity: physical, aesthetic and historical. The first refers to the material components, the second describes the ability of an object to create an aesthetical sensation for the viewer, and the last describes the history that has imprinted on the object.1 These concepts of integrity (appearance and intention) are the greatest and most urgent issues confronting the field of media art conservation.



1. Muñoz Viñas, S. Contemporary Theory of Conservation, Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2005. [endPage]

[beginPage: Uniqueness and Authenticity]
The most widespread conception of a work of art is that it is a unique object. Media art challenges this conception, since the uniqueness of the physical manifestation is not applicable to video art, or to other forms of media art. A media artwork is certainly unique and authentic but its tangible form as such is not – the (analogue) video signal and the (digital) computer code can be copied: video is a technically reproducible medium with masters, sub-masters, copies, etc. Furthermore, most display equipment is mass-produced and is not necessarily unique unless it has been modified by or for the artists. In times of mechanical and digital reproduction the notion of a unique artwork is no longer seen to be relevant by a significant sector in contemporary art, namely media art.


"In the case of Das Ende des Jahrhunderts (1985) byKlaus vom Bruch the video Azimuth included in the work is not only a part of this installation but is also a video work in itself that has been acquired by a number of collections."

From the case study report by researcher Dieter Vermeulen.


"Since the cameras and monitors used in black-and-white... (2002), by Nan Hoover,were purely functional and mass-produced, the function of the equipment could be mapped without discernible change, and since the equipment is hidden from the viewer it could be replaced by equipment having the same functionality."

From the case study report by researcher Eve Dullart.

Photo Credits : Nan Hoover black and white... (2001) at the exhibition Nan Hoover - Lichtinstallation und fotografie
(Galerie Dany Keller - Muenchen - Duitsland  07-2002 / 08-2002


While fine arts preservation often deals with objects, material and the notions of authenticity and originality, media art preservation is not primarily concerned with physical manifestation; instead, we deal with increasingly ephemeral technological components and this is reflected in the refreshing strategies that are developed and implemented. Furthermore, the original authentic state often varies greatly, either because variance is sometimes part of the concept, or over the course of subsequent presentations. The question is, what kind of authenticity is preferable: conceptual authenticity faithful to the artist’s intention, or contextual and functional authenticity based on the original context and function of the work? The most common concept of authenticity in fine art conservation is based on physical integrity.

Photo Credits : Reconstruction of Projekt I-’90 Peter Struycken


"The starting point for the research in the case of Project I-’90 (1989–90), by Peter Struycken, was authentic presentation, i.e., a re-installation using identical components to those used in the original installation. This approach to re-installation was not realisable in practice because on the one hand, a significant proportion of the variables relating to the equipment are unknown and, on the other, some of the equipment, specifically the slide projector unit, no longer exists. For a presentation where the media authenticity has to be preserved, (some of) the original equipment is replaced by similar, but not obsolete models. The missing links in the complete authentic version must be determined again – insofar as it is possible, in consultation with the artist – and this information can serve as installation instructions for future presentations. Technically speaking, this version is realisable; artistically there are some problems in establishing the relationship between the deterioration of colour and the meaning of Struycken’s work. While a certain degree of deterioration is acceptable with many other film- and slide-based artworks, it is problematic in this work by Struycken where colour is the central theme. The colours of slides and films in Project I-’90 have to be as close to the original as possible. Using digital techniques to process the original material was the only workable way of restoring the colour balance to the films and slides. Furthermore, the possibility of exactly positioning the images from the slides on the filmstrip was lost during the transfer from analogue to digital production techniques. However, preserving authenticity and meaning while respecting the artist’s intentions has remained problematic. In this re-installed version the work is not defined by its media and associated equipment, but as a projection, regardless of the way in which this projection is realised. In practice this will mean some form of video projection (yet to be tested). Peter Struycken has a distinct preference for this form of re-installation, which is in fact a classic emulation."

From the case study report by researcher Gert Hoogeveen.


"For Dennis Oppenheim’s installation Circle Puppets (1994) the support [equipment] was not an important factor in the identity of the work and he considered the TV monitors and DVD players as tools, the originals of which do not have to be preserved (...)."



Traditional fine art preservation concepts of authenticity and uniqueness are reconsidered for media art preservation. Inspired by the Variable Media Network (VMN) and DOCAM, an entirely new framework and vocabulary have been introduced using notions such as ‘medium independent’, ‘variable’, ‘behaviour’, ‘migration’ and ‘emulation’.1 As Pip Laurenson points out, ‘Discussions about authenticity and time-based media artworks will become more prevalent in time.’2 A recent alternative to the concept of ‘authenticity’ is the notion of ‘historically informed performance’. Johannes Gfeller is one of the media art conservation researchers who work with this notion.3 ‘Historically informed performance’ (HIP, also referred to as period performance, or authentic performance) is a widespread approach, or movement, in music performance. In performance studies it is seen as a discipline related to all forms of authenticity, and it examines how music was performed at the time it was composed.4 It is interesting to think about an equivalent approach for media art.



1. See the appendix for the use of these definitions in the Variable Media Initiative. Jon Ippolito, Caitlin Jones and Carol Stringari, et al. have written about these notions, including in: Paul, C. (ed.), New Media in the White Cube and Beyond Curatorial Models for Digital Art, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008; and Art Press 2 (12) 2009.

2. Laurenson, Pip, ‘The Management of Display Equipment in Time-based Media Installations’, 2004. Link:

3. Gfeller, Johannes, ‘The Reference Hardware Pool of AktiveArchive at the Bern University Of The Arts: A Basis for a Historically Well-Informed Re-Performance of Media Art’, in: Reconstructing Swiss Video Art from 1970 and 1980, Zurich: JRP/Ringier, 2009, p. 166–74.

4. Members of this movement usually perform on period instruments, use older types of acting and scenery, and consult historical treatises, as well as additional historical evidence, to gain insights into the performance practices (the stylistic and technical aspects of performance) of a particular historic era.


[beginPage:Artist’s intention and signature]
Closely related to the guiding conservation principles of respecting authenticity and integrity is the notion of the artist’s intention and signature. When replacing (obsolete) equipment it is crucial to deal with issues relating to active artistic involvement, modifications by the artist, and specifications about the equipment used by the artist. During the last decade it is has become common practice to consult and interview artists when preservation problems relating to damage and obsolescence arise. Laurenson advocates redefining the notion of artist’s intention in terms of ‘work-defining properties’: ‘The kinds of things that might act as work-defining properties of a time-based media installation are plans and specifications demarcating the parameters of possible change, display equipment, acoustic and aural properties, light levels, the way the public encounters the work, and the means by which the time-based media element is played back. The artist might explicitly provide work-defining instructions to the museum or designate a model installation from which the key properties of the work can be gleaned.’1


"Mon._ Sun. (1996) and Bach Two Part Intervention (1998) by Jonathan Horowitz were made specifically for VHS tapes, which, because they are also a sculptural component of the work, cannot be replaced. The museum should be supplied with files and instructions on how to print out the labels so that by following these instructions the integrity of the work is retained. Of course all the components have to be kept: a ¾” TV from the time the piece was made, the custom-made TV stands, and so on. The equipment is part of the piece. If all of this material is available, it should be possible to make new VHS tapes and labels, but the artist is unsure if all of these are at the museum."2


Photo :Jonathan Horowitz -  Bach Two Part Intervention 1998


The artist’s interview has become a vital tool in the conservation of contemporary art. It is now best practice to conduct such an interview at the moment of acquisition or when issues relating to obsolescence or re-installation arise.3 The artist is consulted ever more frequently and is asked to authorise decisions about re-presentation and conservation. One could even go a step further and state that a growing number of presentations and re-presentations become collaborative projects between artists and the curator and/or conservator and that, in some cases, this collaboration already starts when work on the project begins. As media art is often a collaborative effort, artists should not be seen as being the sole author of the work; the interview should therefore include their assistants, programmers and in the case of co-production, the curators too.

Artists’ intentions and their opinions on conservation are important but not sacred. In practice an artist’s views evolve and current solutions could alter their earlier work, and some artists prefer to conserve their work using methods a conservator might not agree with. It is the role of the conservator to understand what might constitute an authentic media artwork and ensure that such a presentation is possible, whether the artist cooperates or not.



1. Laurenson, Pip, ‘Authenticity, Change and Loss in the Conservation of Time-Based Media Installations’, 2004. Link:

2. From the interview with Jonathan Horowitz by researcher Dieter Vermeulen.

3. A book with the working title The Artist Interview for Conservation Practice with Scenarios, Guidelines and Examples will be published in summer 2011.

[beginPage:Functionality and Significance]
As a media artwork can only be full experienced while it is functioning, properties relating to use, context and concept have to be taken into consideration – display without functionality would result in a great loss of meaning.


"In the case of Insert Coin (1999), by Hans Op de Beek, it transpired that an important component of the original installation was missing: the custom-made operating system that controls the incoming and outgoing signals.8 The absence of this component meant that the work stopped functioning at a certain point. Hans Op de Beek updated the entire system (a programmed Flash card player, monitor and electronics) to make the work functional again. Unfortunately, referring to the original version was no longer possible, as the original components are no longer available. In addition, the original version was not well documented by its owner and its caretaker."1



For digital works, technologists suggest the ‘solution’ that we merely need to copy a file onto a new physical storage medium before the old medium becomes obsolete. This was already common practice with analogue video and film. Nowadays we can recopy a digital file onto a new medium without any loss of information. This concept of ‘Refreshing’ involves periodically moving a file from one physical storage medium to another to pre-empt the physical decay or the obsolescence of that medium.2 The common practices and guidelines that have been formulated over the years as well as experience gained are consulted when translating the video signals. The preservation criteria for display and playback equipment are still being formulated, however. Two key approaches have been suggested to deal with the problem of transferral: migration and emulation.

Photo: Panta Rhei - Ricardo Füghlistahler - 1988. A: frontview B: right sideview C: backview D: left sideview. Note: one monitor (bottom one) is missing.


"In the case of Panta Rhei (1988), by Ricardo Füghlistahler, the defective monitor can either be repaired, be replaced by exactly the same brand and type of black-and-white monitor, be replaced by a similar type of bl&w monitor, be simulated by a similar type of colour monitor, or even be emulated with the aid of modern techniques. Each of these options has different consequences that must be taken in consideration.

Repair: repairing the broken monitor remains true to the original equipment used by the artist. But repairs are not always possible, and even if they are, they can result in a loss of quality or differences when the video material is played back.

Replacement: replacing the broken monitor with exactly the same brand and model remains true to the artist’s intentions. This monitor can be modified in the same way as the original. If replacing the broken monitor with a comparable bl&w monitor is close to the artist’s intention, the replacement must be adapted to match the modified broken monitor. In both cases there could be a difference in quality or appearance compared to the other monitor, meaning that perhaps both monitors should be replaced.

Migration: by replacing the broken monitor with a similarly shaped newer colour monitor, you distance yourself somewhat from the artist’s intention. The differences in appearance and the quality of the image displayed on a colour monitor and on a bl&w monitor would necessitate exchanging the other (still functioning) bl&w monitor as well.

Emulation: replacing obsolete techniques with modern equipment that retains the original look and feel. If there is a difference in quality or appearance, perhaps both monitors should be replaced. In the Panta Rhei case study, the broken monitor could be repaired. There was no loss of quality during playback of the video material compared to the second monitor used in the video sculpture."

From the case study report by researcher Evelyne Snijders.


Despite all efforts, current technological equipment will wear out and become obsolete, which means that decisions have to be made whether and how to update the equipment. Laurenson proposes an approach that involves assigning significance to display equipment, its relation to the work’s identity based on conceptual, aesthetic and historical criteria, and the role the equipment plays in the work. Identifying functional significance is seen here as an initial step to understanding the importance and use of the equipment.3



1. As explained by Rony Vissers.

2. First outlined in ‘Preserving Digital Information, Report of the Task Force on Archiving of Digital Information’, by Donald Waters and John Garrett, commissioned by The Commission on Preservation and Access and The Research Libraries Group, 1 May 1996. Link:

3. Laurenson, Pip, ‘The Management of Display Equipment in Time-based Media Installations’, 2004. Link: