Time-based Media Conservation: Masterclass with Patricia Falcão from Tate

What happens when an artwork is produced using technologies that later become obsolete? What special skills are needed by conservators working with old media? Tate conservator Patricia Falcão recently delivered a masterclass on this subject for Master of Cultural Materials Conservation students at the Grimwade Centre. Ashley Hayes, one of the postgraduate students who organised the masterclass, reports and reflects below on the dynamic field of Time-based Media conservation.

Over the last century many contemporary artists have used a range of technologies within their practices and as integral elements in their works. This includes analog technologies, such as CRT televisions and VHS tapes, and digital technologies including the internet, digital video, and software. This list is not and could never be comprehensive because new technology is continually being developed, and in turn used by artists. For conservators at Tate, works created using these types of media fall under the broad category of Time-based Media. Put simply, a time-based media artwork is something dependent on technology that involves the dimension of duration, in which something is revealed to the audience over a period of time. So, how do we conserve such media?

Students participating in the masterclass with Patricia Falcão. Photograph: Katrina Watson
Masterclass at the Grimwade Centre lab

Time-based media conservation is a relatively new field, and there are limited opportunities for students to gain hands-on conservation experience with these types of artworks as compared to more traditional media such as paintings and sculptures. However, a suite of electives designed by Grimwade lecturer Robert Lazarus Lane, introduces students to the broad and complex world of time-based media conservation through partnerships that he has developed with Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) and Tate.

Tate conservator Patricia Falcão has taught into the Grimwade program for several years. For example, she has taken part in assessing the documentation reports produced by Grimwade masters students working with ACMI’s collection. ACMI staff Nick Richards and Candice Cranmer have enabled students to work on a time-based media collection and Patricia has supported students on this steep learning curve. The Tate and ACMI industry facing partnership has generated a knowledge exchange that can help safeguard time-based media. For students, the Grimwade program provides a window into the professional practices of leading cultural institutions. For industry partners, this has resulted in research projects and internships but also a situation in which existing museum staff are coming to study at Grimwade and graduates are being employed to manage both traditional and variable media.

Patricia Falcão during the masterclass
Patricia Falcão during the masterclass

The Art Gallery of NSW brought Patricia to Australia as part of a four-day workshop titled ‘Towards a flexible future: managing time-based media artworks in collections’, organised by time-based media art conservator Asti Sherring. The Student Conservators at Melbourne University (SC@M) were tasked with funding and organising the event. In 2018 SC@M received funding under the University’s Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF) Grant Program to produce a series of masterclasses for conservation students at the Grimwade Centre. Current SC@M president, Daniel Schwartz, along with previous SC@M president, Lisa Mansfield and myself, Ashley Hayes, made it the first masterclass in this series.

Patricia Falcão is the ideal person to deliver a masterclass on time-based media. For ten years, she has been researching and practicing the preservation of software-based artwork. She completed her MA at the University of the Arts in Bern, one of the few universities in the world to offer a master’s program with a specific focus on time-based media art conservation. She wrote her thesis on risk assessment for software-based artworks, and completed it in parallel with an internship at Tate, designed to meet the needs of Tate’s growing software-based art collection. Conservators at Tate are leaders in advocating for the needs of time-based media artworks. Currently, Australia has only two permanent full-time positions for time-based media conservators: Asti Sherring at the Art Gallery of NSW, and ACMI’s Candice Cranmer, both graduates from the Grimwade Centre. Due to the vast range of interdisciplinary skills required to work in this field, this masterclass proved to be appealing to many. The masterclass, which was filled to capacity, was attended by current Grimwade students, graduates, and practicing conservators.

Students working on time-based media artwork, 2019. Photograph: Katrina Watson
Students examining Packman by Sean Dockray with lecturer Robert Lazarus Lane

Using real-world examples of time-based media artworks created by emerging and mid-career Australian artists, students in the masterclass gained an understanding of the breadth of knowledge and skills required to preserve these works. The conservator’s task begins before and during the acquisition process. By interviewing the artist or custodian of an artwork, conservators can formulate a coherent conservation plan for an artwork. Documenting the artist’s specifications for support media, software, and installation plans is another crucial part of the conservator’s role; this ensures that the artist’s intent is clear, thereby enabling the integrity of the work to be maintained. In the masterclass, Patricia Falcão conducted a mock interview with Melbourne-based artist Ross Coulter to demonstrate this process to the class. We also learnt about a range of open source software that can be used to assist in the conservation of digital artworks. After this demonstration, Grimwade graduate Mar Cruz set up an emulation station to show how CD-ROM art from the early 2000s cannot always follow artist intent. Due to media dependency, emulated artworks vary according to the operating systems and hardware used for display.

Patricia Falcão interviewing Melbourne-based artist Ross Coulter
Patricia Falcão interviewing Melbourne-based artist Ross Coulter


Patricia Falcão (front centre) with participants of the masterclass
Masterclass participants

Tate has been establishing conservation strategies for time-based media art since the early 1990s. I was interested in learning more from Patricia about how she has seen time-based media art conservation develop over the last decade. Following the masterclass I asked her about some of the key changes she has witnessed across her career to date. She explained that nowadays

We are seeing more and more artists talking about sustainability of their work. Nearly every artist is interested in making their artwork preservable. However, I think it’s more of a general contemporary art concern, rather than just an issue that comes up in the case of time-based media art.

When I started at Tate in 2008, almost any work that we acquired came on a tape; it was mostly digital Betacam tapes then. Nowadays we will have some vintage tapes – for example, if we acquire a work made in the ’80s – but these must be transferred to a digital file format immediately, and 90% of the video works Tate acquires are fully digital. Digital is everywhere, and our practices must reflect that.

In the case of time-based media art, the underlying technologies change over time. Those are the key aspects that we in time-based media conservation have to consider. But, at the same time, our basic problems are very similar to other conservation disciplines in that the artwork data needs to be kept safely stored and accessible. To accomplish that time-based media conservators need a grounded knowledge of the field of Digital Preservation, which is a full-fledged discipline concerned with exactly that aspect.

I think the interesting thing also is that artists and the technology of producing artworks are evolving, as are the conservation processes and the tools for conservation. There’s a lag but eventually preservation catches on … And people concerned with digital preservation are not only learning about the production technologies, but also developing their own tools. For example, the Webrecorder was developed by Rhizome because they knew exactly what they needed and there weren’t tools available to achieve that. There is also a trend among media archivist to develop their own tools, often as open source and free, such as QCTools or MediaInfo, by MediaArea.net.

Students learning how to use open-source software to conserve time-based media art
Students learning how to use open-source software to conserve time-based media art

This masterclass with Patricia Falcão was a valuable experience for all the students who took part. Personally, it made me aware of the incredible range of software and tools for time-based media art preservation that are available to conservators, and how much work I need to do in order to understand how to use them effectively. Luckily, the class was so engaging that I am inspired to work towards improving these skills! Perhaps the key takeaway message was that conservators have to constantly learn about new technologies in order to keep up with the work contemporary artists are generating.

Consider artists today whose practices draw upon contemporary technologies – technologies whose development is currently running ahead of our understanding of the best ways to ensure their long-term preservation. Thirty years on, we’ll be reading articles about the obsolete technologies of 2019. We can only try to imagine what advances in technology will have been made by the year 2049, and what kind of work artists of that era will be creating. Knowledge sharing enables conservators to keep up with these changes to meet the ongoing challenge of preserving time-based media for generations to come.

The Masterclass was facilitated by Grimwade lecturer Robert Lazarus Lane and organised by Master of Cultural Materials students Ashley Hayes, Daniel Schwartz and Lisa Mansfield. It was supported by industry partners the Art Gallery of NSW and ACMI. Funding was provided by the Student Conservators at Melbourne Uni’s (SC@M) 2018–2020 SSAF Grant. This was the first in a series of Masterclasses organised by SC@M.

Feature image: Frank Wang via Unsplash
All other images: Katrina Watson, 2019