Voices

Allison Jessing

Public Programs Coordinator at the American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery

Megatron Matrix
Allison Jessing
Allison Jessing

What sort of things do you do as a public programs coordinator?

I work for two museums that share one building, but we have two separate collections. My job is to create enriching and engaging public programs that interpret the themes in both of those collections, giving visitors an opportunity to experience the Museum as a community center and activity center within the city.

You’re also a member of the Consortia-sponsored project, Preservation of Time-Based Media Art at the Smithsonian.

Yes, it’s a pan-institutional Smithsonian effort to create protocols, resources, and tools for people who are working with time-based and digital media artworks, and then share these resources with colleagues in art museums around the world. Members of project team are interdisciplinary specialists from the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, National Museum of African Art, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Archives of American Art, and the Office of the Chief Information Officer.

Time-based media artworks have a specific duration—film, video, audio, websites, computer-based interactions, performance, or installation art. These are works that include technology-based components, and those can present specific challenges for conservation or documentation, acquisition, and installation.

We have hundreds of these artworks in the collections of multiple museums, and more and more are coming into the Smithsonian collections all the time. We’re finding that we need new resources and training to care for them, to preserve them, and to present them in ways that ensure that they’re available for museum visitors generations from now.

What are the preservation challenges?

Some works rely on a specific computer model, software, or a certain kind of television, VCR, or DVD player. We have those objects on hand now, but we may not in the future. So, we have to figure out how to take care of the technology components alongside the artwork components and examine the relationship between the two. That’s what separates time-based and digital artwork from works created by painting, sculpture, and printmaking that exist independent of technology.

For example, at the National Portrait Gallery, we have a work called The Network by Chicago-based artist Lincoln Schatz, and it’s actually 89 portraits of political and cultural and social leaders who were filmed in 45-minute interview segments. A specially designed software program combines the interviews by topic, and transitions from one person to the next based on what they say.

If you visit this work in the National Portrait Gallery, you see a screen on the wall with multiple images of the sitter as they speak, and that transitions into the next sitter. So, you may start with somebody who’s talking about transportation infrastructure, and a word that they use in that interview may trigger the next sitter who talks about conservation efforts in national parks.

The Network is a born-digital piece, with this wonderful software that constantly recombines these videos based on their topics. So, the portrait generates a new experience for each person who sees it. 

How does one preserve something like that?

That’s what we’re trying to figure out. One of the things we’ve been doing is working closely with the artists so that we know what we need to maintain it. We need to keep the connection between the data and the software because without either one of those things, we don’t have an artwork.

I can give you an example of a totally different kind of work in the Smithsonian American Art collection. From the 1950s to the 1990s Nam June Paik worked in film and video, but he also worked with sculptural components—anything from household objects to cathode ray TVs, suitcases, handwritten pages, sculptures, physical objects were incorporated into his video pieces and became part of the viewer experience. Some of his works would be shown on a screen and others would be seen in a gallery with a physical element next to it or part of it.

In this type of work, the meaning shifts when a work that was meant to be displayed on a cathode ray TV running out of a VCR is instead displayed on a plasma screen TV running off of a Blu-ray player. It’s not the same experience because seeing that specific type of equipment is part of the viewing experience.

Are there other issues you’re trying to address through this initiative?

One of the big issues we’re looking at is the obsolescence of technology. You can no longer walk into any store and buy a VCR, so we now have works that rely on technology and parts that are no longer being produced. And we don’t have a limitless pool of people who can maintain and repair these older technologies.

Look at the advancements in computer technology in the last ten years. How can we make sure that we have a computer that can interpret the data that we want to put it on display? We don’t want that data to be trapped in a form that can’t be opened. The same goes for software. So, we’re saving in file formats and backing up on media that’s not going to become immediately obsolete.

We want to come up with practical solutions and share them within the Smithsonian—not just with conservators, but with registrars, curators, and exhibition specialists—so we all know what’s going on from the moment an artwork is brought into the collection. What questions do we need to ask? What resources do we need to have on hand? How often do we need to look back and say, “Well, we should probably update this system backup?” Or how often do we need to look at what our media is stored on and consider upgrading to a newer technology? 

The Time-Based Media Art Initiative is not just internal to Smithsonian museums and archives; it reaches out to all those who are involved with contemporary art conservation. One of our objectives is to forge relationships with external organizations and institutions that acquire, exhibit, and care for similar time-based and digital artworks. As such, we are sharing the approaches we develop with colleagues at other museums, so that nobody is going through these growing pains alone.

Why is this type of initiative particularly suited to be done at the Smithsonian?

I think this is really a great project for the Smithsonian because we have much of the existing internal expertise that we need. We have access to an amazing pool of information specialists who understand the technical requirements—how to build physical systems, move the data around, and bring these artworks into the collection. They’ve been really gracious and helpful in supporting this initiative. The same thing goes for access to registrar experience, exhibition experience, and curatorial experience. It’s a group effort and we have all these people willing and eager to work on the projects.

We owe a lot to the Consortia’s support for this project—we could not have done it without them. I think they understand how crucial it is to preserve these artworks, and from the very beginning they’ve been really dedicated to this effort.

 

Credit/caption for top image:

Megatron/Matrix 
1995
Nam June Paik
Born: Seoul, Korea 1932
Died: Miami Beach, Florida 2006

eight-channel video installation with custom electronics; color, sound
approx. 132 x 396 x 48 in. (335.3 x 1005.8 x 121.9 cm)

Smithsonian American Art Museum
Museum purchase made possible by Mr. and Mrs. Barney A. Ebsworth, Nelson C. White, and the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment
1998.86
Smithsonian American Art Museum

Caption/credits for slideshow:

Nam June Paik Archive
Nam June Paik
Born: Seoul, Korea 1932
Died: Miami Beach, Florida 2006

Research Material: Correspondence, ephemera and performance documentation; writings on art, history and technology; video and audio tapes; production notes for video and television projects; sketches, notebooks, models and plans for video installations; early model televisions, video projectors, radios, record players and cameras; musical instruments, vintage photographs, posters, catalogs and works in progress; toys, games, folk sculptures and other studio effects

dimensions variable

Smithsonian American Art Museum
Gift of the Nam June Paik Estate
2009.NJP

Megatron/Matrix
1995
Nam June Paik
Born: Seoul, Korea 1932
Died: Miami Beach, Florida 2006

eight-channel video installation with custom electronics; color, sound
approx. 132 x 396 x 48 in. (335.3 x 1005.8 x 121.9 cm)

Smithsonian American Art Museum
Museum purchase made possible by Mr. and Mrs. Barney A. Ebsworth, Nelson C. White, and the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment
1998.86
Smithsonian American Art Museum

Zen for TV
1963, 1976 version
Nam June Paik
Born: Seoul, Korea 1932
Died: Miami Beach, Florida 2006

manipulated television set; black and white, silent
19 x 22 1/2 x 18 in. (48.3 x 57.2 x 45.7 cm)

Smithsonian American Art Museum
Gift of Byungseol and Dolores An
© Nam June Paik Estate
2006.20
Smithsonian American Art Museum

Technology
1991
Nam June Paik
Born: Seoul, Korea 1932
Died: Miami Beach, Florida 2006

25 video monitors, 3 laser disc players with unique 3 discs in a cabinet of various materials
127 x 51 7/8 x 75 5/8 in. (322.6 x 131.7 x 192.1 cm.)

Smithsonian American Art Museum
Museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment
1994.29