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Electronic Media assessments and Optical Artifact Conservation; Public Art Conservation:

The precursor of a successful art conservation treatment is a thorough examination. Jim Gwinner, Conservator of Public Art and Sculpture, and our staff expert in electronic media, recently traveled to the Mile-High city to perform condition assessments of public artworks in Denver, Colorado. One piece in particular struck our interest, Jim Campbell’s Broken Wall, 2006, an outdoor electronic media artwork.

Broken Wall is located in front of the Bryon G. Rogers Federal Building and Courthouse. It features a series of LED arrays and glass block elements, which together, depict scenes of pedestrian traffic at different public places in Denver. It is composed of twenty-seven cast glass columns mounted in the ground in front of the building. The glass columns range from ten to forty inches high and have controllable lights under them. Each of the lit columns relates to one of the pixels in the large grid so that as the central image moves the light fluctuations of the columns are in unison with the large image. The images and lights are controlled by a complex system located inside of the building.

Yet, regardless of good design and materials, time and the elements are harsh on outdoor works of art. Rapid evolution of technology is equally hard on electronic media and time-based works of art as well as the electronic media conservators like Jim Gwinner who help preserve them. Parts and components of many electronic media pieces can face obsolescence within months to a few years. It becomes critical to carefully document the appearance of the artwork, its components, and if possible, start a conversation with the artist regarding the very essence of the piece. Thankfully Gwinner has experience in the conservation assessment and treatment of time-based media and electronic artwork. He recently performed a treatment of another video and light display artwork by artist Sean Healy in Houston, Texas.

For the LED art and light display by artist Jim Campbell, several of the glass components had minor damages like losses or small chips. Two glass columns had major cracking, the cause of which is not readily evident since there did not appear to be an impact damage. The artwork, however, is in the Rocky Mountain range which can experience extremes in temperature and weather like rain, hail, and snowstorms.

The main concern is condensation inside of the glass elements. The excess moisture disrupts the intended appearance of the glass elements and has caused metal components to corrode. Indoor elements which include a handmade control unit are located inside of the building.

All units were performing as expected and in an organized state, but the hardware will not last forever. For this reason, it was suggested to the client to reach out to the artist to discuss what is intrinsically valuable to the work of art. Ideally the artist would provide a manual of operation with instructions and troubleshooting recommendations, a copy of the schematics for the control boards and LED light arrays, and lastly, a replacement control board since it was custom made by the artist.

Jim Campbell’s Broken Wall is just one of his electronic media pieces. Born in Chicago in 1956, Campbell started a career in film then switched to creating electronic artworks in the 1990s. He is currently based in San Francisco, California. His work combines lights, sound, and film, and it has been installed all over the world. Notable works include, Scattered Light commissioned by the Madison Square Park Conservancy, Day for Night located on the Salesforce tower in San Francisco, and many other works which can be viewed on Campbell’s website.

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