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Electronic Media, Optical artifact, Time-based Media Conservation:

Body language and hand gestures are an important part of communication, especially in the world of politics and diplomacy. The artwork Gesture Politics, 2009 by artist Sean Healy is a time-based media installation which showcases video clips of FBI agents performing different greeting gestures. These circular-shaped videos are rear projected through frosted laminated glass panels on the walls of the FBI Headquarters in Houston, Texas. The panels feature an image of trees and a fence, below the video projections.

Gesture Politics, 2009, Houston, TX. Image courtesy of the artist.

Nearly ten years after the artwork was installed, some of the video equipment needed updating, and changes to the space, necessary for current building needs, impacted the artwork. Jim Gwinner, Conservator of Sculpture and Public Art, was tasked with performing a condition assessment, treatment, and developing a operation manual for the time-based media installation as part of the General Services Administration (GSA) contract held by McKay Lodge Conservation Laboratory, Inc.

Conservator Gwinner had a lot to consider. Electronic media, optical artifact, or time-based media installations often consist of many components: the hardware, software, physical materials, and the artist intent. Depending on the artwork, all, some, or none of these components may be critical to the overall aesthetic and meaning. For the conservation of time-based media, the term “obsolescence” is also always a consideration during examination and treatment. Limited service life or a transient nature can be a component in other works of art, but time-based media is unique because electronic hardware and software quickly become obsolete due to the fast-paced development of technology, discontinued products, and upgrades.

internal hardware of the artwork gesture poliics by sean healy
Examination of internal hardware for malfunction and connection issues.

At the time of inspection for Gesture Politics, some of the glass panels suffered from edge delamination, but this is a typical condition issue and might have been present at the time of installation. One of the four video projectors was also malfunctioning, leaving a blank panel which was visually distracting. For the internal hardware, some of the components simply had reached the end of their service life or the connections were detached.

For additional troubleshooting, the electronic hardware was sent to the McKay Lodge Conservation lab facilities just outside of Cleveland, Ohio. In the lab, Gwinner was able to fully disassemble necessary components to determine the exact elements that were malfunctioning and if they could be fixed or if they would require replacement.

Testing hardware components at the lab.

During treatment, he also performed an artist interview with artist Sean Healy. As described by art conservator Gwinner the purpose of the questions are for the artist to divulge “what is intrinsic to the artwork and what is not, this should be stated with the least amount of ambiguity so that there is little interpretation needed to preserve the artwork”.

In other words, the art conservator investigates what equipment can be replaced, how the artwork should look, and what materials must be left as is, regardless of condition according to the artist’s original meaning. This investigation is, of course, made easier when a primary or close secondary source is available like the artist or his or her fabricator.

For Gesture Politics, important aspects from the current treatment to future maintenance of the time-based media installation was discussed with Healy. The artist was asked about the design architecture of the video system, file formats, and how the information should be preserved in the event of a failure of both the computer and lighting components. The required appearance and specifications for the diffuse glass panels were also noted.

Based on this information, conservator Gwinner was able to select and test new hardware, designing a system that would power off at night and restart when needed or if a power outage occurred. He also suggested an updated media player to replace the previous consumer grade unit which is more prone to failure. Changes to the space which interrupted the artwork, such as an addition of a door, were noted for replacement to recreate the original appearance. Maintenance instructions like switching out burned-out bulbs or removal of settled dust that require attention, but not necessarily conservation treatment, were also provided to the client.

The artwork will be reinstalled soon and in full working order.

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