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Every so often a structure must be updated for the changing times and uses. Such is the case with the IRS Martinsburg Computing Facility in West Virginia which is slated to soon update its facilities.

Unfortunately, new construction sometimes means that site-specific installations like Herbert James (Jim) Sanborn’s Binary System, 1999 installed on the building’s plaza must be moved before the project begins; a conditional assessment by a professional conservator is necessary before the work is moved to preserve the artwork during construction.

Herbert James (Jim) Sanborn’s Binary System, 1999

Jim Gwinner, Conservator of Public Art and Sculpture of McKay Lodge Conservation Laboratory traveled to Martinsburg to perform the condition assessment of Binary Systems by artist Sanborn. The artist’s work reflects an interest in science, physics, archaeology, and even secret codes.

For Binary Systems, Gwinner would essentially need to decode the best way to deinstall the sculpture for the upcoming construction project. It was critical for Gwinner to accurately identify the materials, construction, and current condition to develop a time and cost-effective plan to safely move, label, and store the work of art. After construction, the artwork could then be seamlessly reinstalled.

A circular seating area made of granite; note the inscription

The stone and bronze Binary System by Jim Sanborn is characteristic of his other works of art. The artwork consists of three elements. The first is a 10-foot diameter black granite seating area which has highly polished surface; it also has a series of numbers inscribed in a circular pattern. The bench is comprised of 13 sections consisting of a small circular disk at the center, then a larger circular top which is quartered, and there are eight legs or stands that act as a base.  

A detail of the binary (1 and 0) pavers

The second element is a series of 256 “binary” pavers that measure 12 x 12 inches each and they are inset into the plaza. Each of the pavers is inscribed with a “1” or a “0” . The third element is a large “loadstone” intersected by two bronze panels or screens.

Both screens have been laser-cut with the names of American Presidents on the proper right hand side and binary numbers on the proper left. The bronze screens measure 9 feet long by 4 feet high. There is a “ring” of red granite pavers measuring a circumference of 232 inches that surround the loadstone. The word “magnetic” is inscribed on each loadstone. Each paver is 25 1/2 inches long and 6 inches in width.

A detail of the red loadstone which reads “magnetic”

Most of the elements were in excellent condition with little to no signs of degradation. Some general condition issues were from exposure to the elements and soiling from the outdoors. Bronze elements demonstrated corrosion.

The artwork overall is in good condition, some corrosion on the bronze is observed

Gwinner then surmised a method of disassembling or removing the bench, pavers, and screens to eliminate damage as far as possible. He noted the importance of labeling the location of each paver, so they can be reinstalled in the exact configuration after construction.

Jim Sanborn has works of art all over the United States and some international works. He was born in Washington D.C. in 1945, and received a Masters degree in sculpture from Pratt Institute in 1971. As previously mentioned, his work reflected an interest in science, physics, archaeology, and even secret codes. While Conservator Jim Gwinner was able to “decode” Binary Systems so that the artwork can be safely reinstalled after an upcoming construction project, at least one of the artist’s works remains shrouded in mystery.

His artwork Kryptos was presented to the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Virginia in 1990. The sculpture, like Binary Systems, has multiple bronze laser cut screens. In the case of Kryptos, each screen not only serves as a sculpture but a puzzle. Only three of the four sections, have been reported to have been solved. To learn more about the artist, visit his official website.

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