Built To Past: Floppy Disk And VHS Art Need Creative Conservation

Apr 12, 2017

As Kate Moomaw walks amongst the rows of paintings and sculptures in the Denver Art Museum’s collection storage room, you can see that great care has been taken to preserve the works.

According to Kate Moomaw, DAM’s conservationist, there are a lot of tools of the trade: acid-free tissue paper, climate-controlled rooms, eBay.

“Yes, eBay,” Moomaw said.

That’s where Moomaw, who works with the modern and contemporary art collections, finds spare parts for some of the museum’s media works. One of her more common searches is for old CRT -- or cathode ray tube -- television sets. Most manufacturers stopped making the sets 10 years ago, but you can still find them on the auction site.

“You kind of cross your fingers that what you’re getting is what you’re after and that they work,” she said. “They tend to be pretty cheap so it’s not a huge risk.”

She’s amassed a wall of the TV sets in the museum’s storage area. They’ll be used as replacement parts for art works such as Nam June Paik’s Lady Secretary -- Bilingual, Will Travel. The sculpture features nine of the sets.

“It incorporates those CRT monitors in a very sculptural way,” said Moomaw, pointing to the screens which form the arms, legs and head of Lady Secretary. “They really make up the form of the piece, so those shapes and boxes are pretty critical.”

Nam June Paik’s sculpture Lady Secretary -- Bilingual, Will Travel
Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC

Moomaw knows that it sounds a little crazy for an art museum to be stockpiling parts from the same place where Justin Timberlake’s half-eaten French toast fetched $1,000. But it’s a new world out there. That’s why the museum recently hired Eddy Colloton.

Brought on as part of a grant from the Institute of Museums and Library Services, Colloton is the DAM’s new assistant conservator specializing in media art.

Colloton became interested in the field while working at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where he regularly found himself faced with the dilemma of preserving contemporary works that used long-outdated technology.

“And there was almost no one to ask,” he said. “You could sort of ask the artist and sometimes the artist would have an opinion, and sometimes they wouldn’t. And sometimes the curator would have an opinion, and sometimes they wouldn’t. But there wasn’t necessarily this formalized way of thinking about media art.”

There are a few schools in Europe that include focuses on media preservation. But in the U.S. there’s only one. Last year, New York University launched its time-based media art conservation program. Before that, students interested in media conservation had to go through programs aimed more at film and library science majors to get the skills they were looking for.

Eddy Colloton looks at some of the DAM's U-matic tapes from the museum's collection. The U-matic is one of the first video formats.
Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC

At the DAM, Colloton’s job is to find ways to preserve art that was created using media that were very cutting edge at the time -- like floppy disks and VHS tapes -- but now seem almost quaint.

“It’s funny the little things you remember about these old media too, like sticking a tape into a VCR,” he said.” It has this really nostalgic quality for me. Just, like, the noise that the drive takes while it unspools the tape and pulls it in.”

It’s less nostalgic though when you realize the impact that time has had.

“Playback of these tapes has to be done very carefully, just because they’re fragile and sometimes if they’re degraded you might only get one more playback out of them,” Moomaw said.

Which is why Colloton is digitizing all of the DAM’s media works, including one of the museum’s first video acquisitions Gary Emrich’s 1982 piece “Gray Zone.” Recorded on a VHS tape, the degradation is evident in the squiggly black lines that crop up on the screen.

Gary Emrich's video 'Gray Zone' was originally recorded on VHS. The DAM has made a digital copy of it to preserve the piece as the original medium degrades.
Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC

“It could be from a few things, but most likely that’s from the tape breaking down and starting to flake off,” Colloton said. “So that’s a loss of information that you see represented there.”

But does changing the format of the piece change the identity of it? Sometimes.

“It’s sort of a case-by-case basis,” Colloton said. “Some art works -- the original media is very important to the artist and the artwork. [...] In other cases, the media that it was recorded on was merely a carrier for a video signal and as long as you have that video signal it doesn’t really matter how it’s played back.”

Damien Hirst's sculpture Party Time is part of the Denver Art Museum's contemporary art collection.
Credit Courtesy of Denver Art Museum

It’s not a question just for technology based artworks. Packed away in the DAM’s storage is Damien Hirst’s sculpture Party Time. It features a large, fiberglass ashtray filled with cigarette butts collected from a London nightclub. Now, all the acid-free tissue paper in the world isn’t going to keep those butts from eventually degrading.

As conservation techniques improve, Moomaw hopes to find new ways to keep the piece intact. But if it doesn’t, the idea of adding new cigarette butts to the piece isn’t so farfetched.

“Never say never,” she said. “I think replication is becoming more of an accepted practice in conservation, or at least one that people are talking about more.”