The Secret Tech Problem at Modern Art Museums

What happens when changing technologies render once-avant-garde works of art outdated? See how a growing group of conservators is trying to keep art alive.

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For the 100 years it’s been in operation, the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio has been a repository for artwork by American masters, from preeminent 19th-century painters like Winslow Homer, to 20th-century realists like Edward Hopper and George Bellows, to pop artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

So in 2000, when the museum opened its Beecher Center for Electronic Arts—the first American museum dedicated solely to new media—it hoped to be a similar storehouse for modern artists. Among the works on display: holograms from Jonathan Ross, lightpaintings from Stephen Knapp, and a sculpture by Nam June Paik, considered by many to be the father of video art.

Paik, a Korean expatriate, found a home in the avant-garde New York art scene of the 1960s. He was one of the first artists to use a camcorder to capture videos and invented a synthesizer to alter them. His works incorporated television screens that showed everything from eggs to fish to the cello, and even built the stringed instrument out of television screens and recruited a musician to play it.

Paik can be found in the halls of the Smithsonian, the Whitney, and especially the Butler, where his “Ars Electronica” project (pictured below) once featured 20 Panasonic TV screens, each displaying everything from sitcom scenes to a blue background with black lines appearing intermittently.

But within a decade, a problem arose with the installation. One by one, the Panasonic screens started to burn out. The Butler was able to replace some of the 1993 cathode ray tubes through the miracle of eBay, but gradually those became harder to come by as well, and the museum was faced with a difficult decision: Do you put Paik’s piece into mothballs or upgrade his technology?

It wasn’t as if the museum staff could simply ask Paik what his vision was. He died in 2006—coincidentally, the same year Panasonic stopped making cathode ray tube televisions.

In the end, museum director Lou Zona decided to continue to show the piece. “We put flat screens inside the casings,” Zona says. “As a result, there’s no curve, so when you stand to the side, you don’t really appreciate what Nam June Paik did.” In fact, if you look at the artwork from the side, it becomes evident that the flat screens were retrofitted into convex cases.

Ars Electronica 2.0 may not have been exactly what Paik presented in 1994, says Zona, but the Butler tried to honor his vision as best as it could with the resources it had.

“Most modern art is born, it lives, and it passes on,” Zona says. “Museums try to keep artwork alive.”

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