New Media Conservation Fellowship
In early 2021 Jesse Dyer was the recipient of the first Time-Based Media Conservation Fellowship, offered in partnership by the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI). This new fellowship supports graduate research in the dynamic field of Time-Based Media Conservation. Samantha Rogers spoke with Jesse about his fellowship.
The Tate Modern website defines time-based media as “art that is dependent on technology and has a durational dimension”. There is an urgent need for research into the conservation of time-based media, especially because the speed at which digital technology moves means older technologies quickly become defunct.
Take, for example, the video games of the 1980s and 1990s. Many people have vivid childhood memories of playing on the original Nintendo systems. Games such as Mario Brothers and Sonic the Hedgehog have now passed into collective cultural memory. Meanwhile, issues around how to preserve their material culture have often gone neglected. It is essential for conservators to work out ways to preserve this new heritage material before old technologies become obsolete and the experiences associated with them are lost forever.
Jesse Dyer’s project will focus on Unity, a video game development technology. Unity allows those with little coding skills to build interactive 2D or 3D content, making it accessible to diverse artists. Virtual reality (VR) and Augmented reality content can also be created through this platform and users can cater for consoles, mobile and PC experiences. As a result of this ease of use, more artists are starting to build digital realities and video games into their work.
Jesse’s project is aimed at identifying how artists and developers create both artworks and video games with Unity, and the consequences of this production method for the conservation of time-based media. As part of the project, Jesse will be interviewing artists and developers about the kinds of preservation which might be feasible. This might include, for example, running art works in an emulated environment or using different hardware, with a view to facilitating future conservation.
Jesse’s project was originally inspired by a number of artworks from ACMI’s collection. Jesse explains:
The idea for my research project came from noticing the Unity engine being used in a number of artworks – particularly installation works which have been recently commissioned. I wondered how one might approach the acquisition, and further in the future, the conservation of these works.
Because the Unity engine is used so widely in the development of video games, this research has a scope beyond fine art – it’s relevant to a whole range of significant cultural works. The fact that ACMI has several Unity-based works in its collections, as well as their expertise in collecting, conserving and exhibiting media art and video games, makes it an ideal site for the research.
One of the artworks that caught Jesse’s attention was Joan Ross’s Did you Ask the River? It is a VR experiential video game that transports the viewer to colonial times. ACMI describes the work thus:
Unlike many VR experiences, participants are placed in a body – that of an 18th-century colonial woman – and become uncomfortably complicit in her unwitting destruction of the landscape.
Viewers are provided with various seemingly out-of-place modern objects, such as a BBQ, spray paint, and a pokie machine. Using these objects, the participant engages directly in changing and destroying the pristine landscape. In this way, the artwork provokes reflections on how the landscape has been transformed by the Industrial Revolution and modern lifestyles.
Joan Ross’s work is a vivid example of how VR technology provides new ways for artists to comment on the contemporary sociocultural landscape, and new experiential avenues for audience interaction with art. The Time-Based Media Fellowship will enable crucial research into the conservation of significant innovative interactive artworks of this kind.
Jesse’s research will also cover scenarios where artworks created with Unity and other 3D software programs are not created in isolation but interact with traditional artwork media. This hybrid aspect of many of the works created using Unity-based installations was something that was especially appealing to Jesse. His project aims to meet the challenges posed by artworks that require conservators specialising not just in time-based media but also objects, painting and paper. In this connection, Jesse aims to support the conservators at Grimwade Conservation Services (GCS) by articulating acquisition and preservation strategies around the software based components of such artworks. This will enhance GCS’s capacity to assess and conserve time-based media installations within the University of Melbourne collections as well as for external clients.
Another interdisciplinary artist whose work inspired Jesse’s project is Sahej Rahal. Rahal has found a way to integrate his artistic work across different artistic media, including AI programs, sculpture and painting. In this way, he creates an artistic space which transfers from a digital medium to a physical one. In his artist’s statement for the Spencer Museum of Art, Rahal explains:
My work can be seen as a form of world-building, where the artefacts of a fictional universe are populated by strange beings and their absurd tools and totems, slipping through the cracks into our world, refashioning everyday detritus to take its own physical form. It can be seen as ‘speculative metafiction’, where the imagined contends with the real. Consequentially the objects of this fictional world become ‘vessels of narrative potential’ that weave together performances, fictitious ethnographic documentaries, and sculptural installations.
In artistic landscapes such as this, conservators must reflect on how to preserve the entirety of the artist’s world. Through the fellowship, Jesse will explore issues related to the conservation of art across different media.
This new fellowship will allow University of Melbourne graduates to explore new and challenging questions in conservation theory and practice and share their research locally and internationally. The changing environment of art conservation with the development of new technologies provides consistent opportunity for practice-led research into evolving theories and standards at local and international institutions. Jesse’s project and future graduate research supported by this scheme will allow for a deeper understanding of the technology, as well as the exploration of new practical measures for the conservation of contemporary art.
The purpose of the Grimwade and ACMI Time-based Media Conservation Fellowship is to provide research and professional development opportunities for recent graduates specialising in time-based media and audiovisual heritage at the University of Melbourne. Based in ACMI’s Media Preservation Lab, the industry-facing postgraduate research Fellowship is designed to build and sustain the new media conservation field in Australia.
Further information can be found on the University of Melbourne’s Scholarships website.