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Preserving Nam June Paik's Electronic Superhighway

Nam June Paik's massive TV and neon artwork displays a grid of American states. Each TV plays unique content related to its state. The artwork, originally using LaserDiscs and DVDs, now uses digital files. The piece reflects the information overload and the role of media in our lives. Conservation efforts keep the artwork alive, even as technology evolves.

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Video transcript

(pleasant music) - [Steven] I'm with Dan Finn, conservator for time-based media at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, standing across from this enormous collection of televisions and neon by the artist Nam June Paik. So what we're seeing is this grid of American states, but they're framing all of these monitors, all of these television sets. And those televisions sets are all on, and they're all playing different things. For me, it's almost impossible to focus anywhere. - [Dan] What you see is the sense of information overload, and the importance of technology and media to life in this country and life around the world, and the sense of connectedness overarching the geography of where we live. All of the content has to do with the state in which the monitors are present. It's mostly what the artist associated with the state. So some of them are artists that he worked with, hail from a certain state, but then some of them are more associative, like potatoes in Idaho. - [Steven] When I think of conservation, I tend to think of very old objects. If the object is treated reasonably well, it can survive for centuries, maybe even for millennia. But here we have an object that was made during my lifetime, and it wouldn't have existed without your intervention and the intervention of other conservators. - [Dan] There are information carriers which have the content that's playing on the monitors. They originally were shown on LaserDisc, then DVD and currently digital files on solid state players. And then, a lot of cabling that's transmitting that, and then we have the layer of display, which are these cathode ray tube monitors, the traditional old-style of monitor that started becoming obsolete in the end of the '90s, and then the neon lights which are all custom-built and susceptible to cracking. - [Steven] You really ave to think about the artist's intention and how to maintain this object. The artist is fascinating because, earlier than anybody else I can think of, he was placing television sets within works of art as objects unto themselves, more like sculpture. - [Dan] One thing that conservators of time-based media are always juggling is to what extent is this object purely a functional piece. Like you say, is it just intended as a display of some information? Or does it have sculptural value? And he certainly imbues his monitors with sculptural value in many of his works. So, in that case, we've already begun to replace some of the screens with LCD screens, but we did it in a way to maintain the original chassis. You'll see that in all of the smaller monitors, which are all LCDs, and that's because those small five inch screens are the first to die. So, the balancing act is then, yes, it's a new LCD screen, it's a new display technology, but it's housed in the original chassis to try and maintain, to the extent possible, the sculptural effect. - [Steven] It's almost a philosophical question. What are we preserving? Are we preserving the original objects? And, in this case, no. But you are trying to preserve the semblance of the original expression of the work. - [Dan] One of the things that we have to be very conscientious of is the conceptual nature of these artworks. And this is one way in which time-based media conservation and, more broadly, contemporary art conservation tends to differentiate itself from traditional conservation of objects like sculptures or oil paintings. You can't have two Mona Lisas. The one that Leonardo da Vinci painted is the Mona Lisa. The rest are copies. Those have value, but not the same value as that original object which then gets conserved. In time-based media, you have DVDs, VHSs, digital files, photographs, films. All of these things are produced in ways that inherently produce lots of copies. He would be amenable, in many cases, to updating technology. So he had pieces he even updated from CRTs to having an iteration with LCD screens. - [Steven] This is really a relief for me to hear because, if one were to be really strict, I had this image of the screens going black one by one until there was only a single monitor left, and then that eventually dying, and the object becoming in a sense dormant. - [Dan] There is a way about thinking of time-based media art in that the artwork doesn't exist unless it's being shown, unless it's being performed. One can easily see how Nam June Paik intentionally intended that sort of evolution. A practitioner in that Fluxus Movement, he was very interested in performance. He could very easily think of this piece as a performance piece, and all of the monitors and video content are players, and they interact very differently. It looks a little bit different every time you come to it. And there's some difference on the monitors, there's some difference in brightness, and there's some difference in how they are reproducing the color on that day or in that hour. These things warm up during the day, and then get turned off and have to warm up again the next day. And so, some of the performers can change. Some of the instrumentation might change, just as it would in a performance. And yet, somehow, the overarching identity of the artwork survives across the variations that occur every time you install it or update some technological element. - [Steven] So, in some sense, the object is a living thing. - [Dan] And I believe that's the case for all works of art, except that with newer media their lifespans are so much shorter that it's something that we have to deal with in one lifetime, multiple times. Whereas, with an oil painting, a conservator's treatment maybe is good for one career's worth of time, and then the next conservator may or may not have to deal with it again. So the cycles of intervention become much more frequent, and what does that mean about how these artworks live? And I think that one of the things that that means is that conservators, curators, museums are starting to deal with the fact that they are not only collectors but producers of the artworks that they collect, in a sense, that they become in charge of that evolution. (pleasant music)