One of the site-visits of the Cultures of Conservation class in November was devoted to the conservation of kinetic sculpture and multimedia installation. On the example of Jean Tinguely’s sculpture Narva (1961) at the Met our guest speaker Reinhard Bek discussed the complexities of conservation of motion-based works. Additionally, the class was offered an opportunity to meet with technical and curatorial staff of the Whitney Museum of American Art, discussing the installation by T.J. Wilcox In the Air (2013). Student Jaimie Luria offers an interesting insight into the topics discussed.

On November 5th, our class visited two museums to address the conservation of kinetic sculptural forms — the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum. We met with Reinhard Bek, former head of conservation at Museum Tinguely in Basel, to discuss issues of preserving meaning and form in kinetic objects and electronic art. Bek is now a partner at bek&frohnert LLC in New York where he works with the conservation of contemporary art through private practice, rather than on behalf of an institution. This distinction is especially relevant when thinking about contemporary art, and especially new media, which brings novel and complex questions about functionality and value closer to the center of conservation practices.

The conception of kinetic artworks and digital installations frequently implies some kind of functionality or life-force, whether through motion or interactive capacities. Collection and presentation of these works are inherently connected to their conservation, as choices (and their effects on the work itself) about their position as art objects must be made in the present. The effects of these choices, however, will surely carry into the future, and Reinhard Bek, as a conservator of contemporary art, must evaluate and eventually act on his intuition while attempting to preserve meaning through both material and context. It is critical to note that the choice not to act is itself an act that affects the conservation of artworks; leaving an object in a particular state with particular environmental conditions is equally significant to the replacement of a part.

Questions regarding muting and pausing an object’s functionality in spaces such as museum galleries, where they may be situated next to completely different works and where there may not be supervision on the part of the institution, were an important piece of our visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s contemporary galleries. Bek chose Jean Tinguely’s Narva (1961) from the artist’s Baluba series for our discussion. The massive, metal work originally ran on a motor that has since been replaced, an act that considerably decelerated the work’s movement, leaving it now static. The frozenness of the piece undoubtedly holds an emotive and authoritative presence that is very different from the character of the work as the artist designed it. As Bek explained, one needs to decide what you are going to do with an object like this when it enters a collection. The active implications of the words “what you are going to do” struck me as a strong reflection of the subjective nature of conservation and curatorial practices when it comes to moving objects. How can a piece like this with its swinging metal scraps and loud metal bashing against itself be displayed? This is an experience that not only affects the experience of the works surrounding it, but that could also potentially injure visitors!

At the core of this conversation, though, is the fact that works like this destroy themselves far too quickly. As an investment in the preservation of contemporary artworks, Narva’s role in the gallery is to illustrate some piece of what the original work was, even if it is now conceived as a relic rather than a riotous banging, clanging, whacking organism. This tension between what is understood as artist’s intention, especially in the case of interactive works, and what is necessary for the guarding of those works over time is something that must be worked out on a case-by-case basis. Although Tinguely’s Balubas were made to viciously rock themselves to their impending deaths, he fashioned for Narva bronze sleeves in order to hold some of the wear and tear of the most unstable parts. He was, Bek exclaimed, very proud of these sleeves and wrote about their conception to friends in excited letters.

If the point of the work is to function for as long as possible, as the invention of the bronze sleeves implies, then the role of caretaker for these works may be perceived as one of material conservation rather than operative conservation. Although most of the materials Tinguely used are products of industrialism, their appearance of everlastingness is inevitably exchanged for nostalgia and the materials themselves become outdated, irreplaceable, and disintegrate over time. Upon acquiring the piece in 2012, the Met exchanged the original motor (which is now obsolete) with a new, working motor who’s engine runs at about a quarter of the piece’s original speed. Many replacement parts, such as motors, belts, and tape, are no longer available. Some of these issues of replacement and exchange of parts will soon become a great force, according to Bek. Conservation of kinetic works such as Narva is a constant negotiation between artist’s intention and whether the piece should or can run anymore at all.

As a class, we discussed alternative exhibition strategies for the piece, such as film or audio accompaniment that would help the viewer to understand how the object originally functioned. Bek found that critiques, mainly curatorial critiques, of video components to static works often oppose the documentarian (and perhaps even ethnographic) style of such installations. Individual tablets with videos of the original work would give visitors the choice to see it in its earlier context while presenting the idea that neither the live, but frozen representation nor the video of the piece is the artwork in its entirety. It is now a relic regardless, is it not? Apparently in France, Tinguely’s Balubas are rarely exhibited without their original kinetic functionality. The removal of movement from the piece is a strong example of how the maintenance and experience of these objects embody a blurriness between disciplines (namely conservation and curatorial), practices, and values.

T.J. Wilcox’s In the Air (2013) brought an equally challenging and unique set of conservation questions. Richard Bloes at the Whitney Museum facilitated this piece of our discussion, along with Hanna Hölling and Reinhard Bek. A series of photographs, taken at one shot per minute from dusk until dawn from a rooftop in Union Square, New York City, is the primary body of this work. More animation than video, the immersive quality of In the Air’s installation is built on an enormous screen that seems to levitate in a circular form, either including or excluding the viewer depending on where in the room one stands. Each shot of the city was taken by one of ten cameras, which the artist employed after a series of disappointed attempts to capture the day using video technology. Two servers communicate with each other through a cable in order to keep the projected material in sync.