Franziska Butze-Rios and Christina Schaaf-Fundneider at work.

How is contemporary art preserved?

Franziska Butze-Rios and Christina Schaaf-Fundneider at work.

Dealing with contemporary art necessitates unusual and interdisciplinary approaches to conservation and presentation. Questions as to the preservation of the original character of a work of art are redefined by technical components with a limited useful life. Contemporary art therefore presents us with special challenges. It takes a large degree of open-mindedness, interdisciplinary competence, knowledge, and sometimes a little bit of luck.

Helmut Rainer’s video sculpture "Selbst" ("Self") is such a work of art. Preparing it for the exhibition "The Adventure of Reality" at Forum Frohner, which opened in November 2016, proved quite challenging for us conservator-restorers. The following is a brief outline of this process.

This piece of art was created in 1994 and consists of a used workwear jacket and overalls, a clothes hanger, a monitor, and an abstract silent video presented on it.

The monitor is integrated into the "(heart) pocket" of the overalls – a special monitor-sized viewing window measuring about 3 x 5 cm was cut into the cloth, which lets the viewer see the video. Further adaption of the overalls is found inside the pocket, where the wiring allowing the presentation to run is located. Monitor and overalls thus form a close unity.

Since 1996, this work has been held by the Lower Austrian State Collections of Art, it was acquired directly from the artist. The video was originally stored on a VHS cassette. These tapes are not resistant to age-induced deterioration, even when they are hardly used, their predicted shelf life averages only about 20 years. Without backup copies, this video would be damaged or even lost by now. Already in the early 2000s, Head of Collections Dr. Alexandra Schantl therefore decided that it would be digitized in the context of a project launched by Medienkunstarchiv Austria (MKA). At this point, most of the new-media art held by the State Collections at the time was converted after consultation with the respective artists.

In preparation for the 2016 loan, the original technical components of the installation were tested. It became clear that the LCD monitor, VHS video recorder, and the connecting cables were no longer working and the video sculpture could not be exhibited. Replacements for these devices hat to be found.

The “heart pocket" cut into the overalls perfectly matches the shape and size of the LCD monitor, its specific dimensions and appearance are an integral element of the work. In order to restore the original character of the video sculpture, acquiring an identical monitor was therefore a first priority.

The Panasonic model used here was generally sold as an external monitor for film cameras and its main feature is its small size. Due to technological innovations in camcorders and similar devices, over time this type of monitor became obsolete. It is no longer produced – but is occasionally available on the secondhand market.

This acquisition hinged on availability on the market as well as the good working order of the acquired used device, which could not be taken for granted. Thus, while continuing our search for the desired monitor, we also started to consider temporary solutions, i.e., compromises.

After extensive online research, numerous phone calls, and emails we knew that displays commonly available today are not produced in this size and have different technical and other requirements. Digital picture frames were theoretically an alternative, but they, too, do not come in the right sizes. Smartphones, on the other hand, do not meet the technical standards of a presentation in a video sculpture.

Luckily, we were able to acquire the monitor we were looking for in mint condition (!) on the secondhand market from overseas.

Since we were aiming to preserve the original VHS cassette, however, we had to refrain from using it.

Consequently, we had to consider how the video could be played. Should we make the change from analog to digital, a conversion to a new technology? Or should we search for the same video recorder, just as we did with the monitor, in order to show a VHS cassette with a copy produced from the digital copy?

It proved impossible to get hold of an identical VHS recorder for the November presentation. Following careful consideration of, in part, seemingly contradictory objectives of preservation (conservation of the original, preservation of authenticity, preservation through presentation) we decided to replace the VHS recorder with a modern media player.

The video is played from an SD card. Thanks to the appropriate cables and adapter, the player is compatible with the monitor.

The crucial point for us was that visually nothing changes in the video-sculpture "Selbst" if the video recorder is replaced by a media player. The recorder is not part of the sculpture, but serves as a means to an end. The historical cultural context the hardware adds to this piece of art is preserved, in this case through detailed photographic and written documentation, as well as the correct, in conservation terms, storage of original technical components.

The preparation of these artistic objects extended over a period of four months. The problems involved were ultimately resolved.

"Selbst" von Helmut Rainer 1995, Foto: Landessammlungen Niederösterreich
"Selbst" ("Self") by Helmut Rainer, 1995, Photos courtesy of Lower Austrian State Collections of Art.

From November 20, 2016, "Selbst" (Helmut Rainer) is on display at the "The Adventure of Reality” exhibition at Forum Frohner in Krems.


Franziska Butze-Rios, Christina Schaaf-Fundneider 

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