Installation view of the exhibition Revisions—Zen for Film (September 18, 2015–January 10, 2016) at Bard Graduate Center Gallery. Photograph by Bruce White.

From the Exhibition:

Revisions––Zen for Film



Since at least the 1960s, artists have created works that incorporate technology-based components, including video, slide, film, audio, and computer-based elements.1 However, museums and private collectors first began acquiring substantial numbers of these works only in the 1990s.2 The recent influx of technology-based—or electronic media—artworks into museum collections in particular has created a host of new challenges for curators and conservators whose expertise has historically lain in the long-term care and presentation of discrete, object-centered artworks. In the last twenty years, a cross-disciplinary body of critical literature has emerged to address these challenges, uniting expertise from professionals working in the social sciences, conservation, art history, technology, music, and performance studies. This essay considers some of the issues involved in installing Nam June Paik’s Zen for Film (1962–64).

The needs of electronic media artworks are incompatible with many of the prescribed approaches and goals of traditional conservation practice, which tend to locate authenticity and meaning within an artwork’s material originality and uniqueness. Traditional conservation aims to minimize loss, preserving “material manifestations of an object in the best state possible.”3 In contrast, media installations are durational and inherently ephemeral, unfolding to viewers over time in a gallery setting according to the temporal logic of the chosen medium.4 Here, authenticity may reside not only within the encoded material but within the temporal dimension of the artwork’s playback or performance as well. In the absence of singular objects, how do conservators negotiate an artwork’s authenticity and preserve it for posterity? How do playback and display equipment—which lend a corporeal component to installations—contribute to their authenticity and meaning? What happens to a work’s identity when the technologies originally used to support and display it become obsolete?

During the Spring 2015 semester, students in Hanna Hölling’s course; In Focus: Revisions—Art, Materiality, and Continuity in Fluxus (1960s–70s); explored these questions through close study of artworks associated with Fluxus, an “international forum of artists, composers, and designers … engaged in blending art forms, media, and disciplines in the 1960s and 1970s.”5 The course took Paik’s Zen for Film as its primary focus, engaging the perspectives of Fluxus artists, art historians, conservators, and curators to determine an appropriate installation strategy for the piece. The students’ research and discussion process mirrored that of museum curators, whose decisions regarding installation of media art are generally informed by the artist’s own relationship to the original medium and to the installation process (when known), as well as the playback equipment’s visibility and aesthetic impact within the installation and its relationship to the work’s cultural and historical context.6

Although explicit instructions from Nam June Paik regarding the installation of Zen for Film do not exist, we know that, materially, early iterations consisted of a clear length of 16mm film leader run through a film projector and projected onto a screen. However, it is not known what film projector make(s) or model(s) was(were) used, nor is it known how long early performances lasted.7 The lack of substantive information creates challenges for conservators and curators seeking to preserve and present an authentic work. In addition, the work’s movement through history reveals that its identity is multiple: Zen for Film is “an experience, an object, a projection, a relic … perhaps all of these.”8 One object-based iteration of Zen for Film, an early film reel left over from a 1960s performance of the piece, is too fragile to project and is now a venerated museum object.9 Zen for Film Fluxus editions, while traceable to Paik’s colleague and Fluxus founder George Maciunas, consist of 16mm film leader and are a sort of do-it-yourself film-object. While historically auratic, if not activated through projection, both forms of the piece are unable to provide viewers an experience of the work in its temporal becoming, as a cinematic performance.

Successfully providing this experience for viewers comes with its own complications. Like many other film-based installation works, Zen for Film is affected by obsolescence of film projection technology, as well as museums’ projection requirements. Because vintage film projectors demand constant maintenance, and hours of sustained looping quickly deteriorate fragile film prints, museums increasingly install digital versions of film works.10 Throughout its lifetime, Zen for Film has been installed as a durational piece via film, video, and digital projectors. Though video and digital projections of Zen for Film may present versions of the piece that have historical value, they bear the status of documentary recordings. Whereas film projections require the film leader to physically move through the machine, changing over time through accumulations of dust and scratches, change occurs behind the scenes in video and digital versions, via the migration process between formats. Each of these media contributes to and even alters the artwork’s identity differently, testing its limits and perhaps even engendering new layers of meaning.11

In Revisions—Zen for Film, the artwork is displayed utilizing a now-vintage EIKI film projector. In 2015 the projector may invoke a particular cultural and historical moment for some viewers, aurally and visually recalling projections of days past. It may also contribute to an attendant sense of authenticity through historical reference: after all, Zen for Film was presented on multiple occasions in the 1960s as a 16mm film projection. Nonetheless, neither the projection apparatus nor the film leader used in Revisions has a historically evidentiary character in terms of purely material authenticity.12 Both were specifically sourced for the exhibition from outside vendors: the projector was acquired on the second-hand market, the leader from one of the few remaining film suppliers in the United States.13 The decision to use a film projector places renewed emphasis on the conceptual valence of the piece, whose content arises as a result of the filmstrip’s physical movement through the projector in real time. Thus the preservation of Zen for Film’s identity continues to manifest through a combination of conservation and curatorial approaches that recognize materiality and concept as inseparable partners in an ongoing process of re-interpretation.

1.A number of conservators, curators, and institutions use the umbrella term “time-based media” to discuss these artworks. See Pip Laurenson, “Authenticity, Change and Loss in the Conservation of Time-Based Media Installations,” Tate Papers, 2006, http://www.tate.org.uk/download/file/fid/7401. See also “Time-Based Media,” Guggenheim Museum, accessed August 28, 2015, http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/collections/conservation/time-based-media.

2.Although there are exceptions to this, according to Chrissie Iles and Henriette Huldisch, museums did not begin acquiring this material in earnest until the 1990s. See Chrissie Iles and Henriette Huldisch, “Keeping Time: On Collecting Film and Video Art in the Museum,” in Collecting the New: Museums and Contemporary Art, ed. Bruce Altshuler (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 66.

3.Hanna Hölling, Revisions—Zen for Film (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 65.

4.Laurenson, “Authenticity, Change, and Loss in the Conservation of Time-Based Media Installations.”

5.Hölling, Revisions—Zen for Film, 13.

6.Pip Laurenson, “The Management of Display Equipment in Time-Based Media Installations,” Tate Papers, 2005, http://www.tate.org.uk/download/file/fid/7344.

7.Hölling, Revisions—Zen for Film, 4.

8.Ibid., 24.

9.The film reel is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. See Hölling,Revisions—Zen for Film, 29–30, and Bard Graduate Center, Revisions—Zen for Film, exhibition brochure, 2015.

10.Julia Noordegraaf and Arianne Noel de Tilly, “Epilogue,” in Preserving and Exhibiting Media Art: Challenges and Perspectives, ed. Hediger, Vinzenz, Barbara Le Maitre, and Julia Noordegraaf (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2013), 408.

11.Hölling, Revisions—Zen for Film, 24ff.

12.Ibid., 75-76.

13.According to Stephen Nguyen, chief preparator at Bard Graduate Center Gallery.