Time-Based Media Art: Preserving Bits and Bytes

These days, many artists are wielding laptops and keyboards, creating works with mouse clicks instead of paint, brushes, and more traditional materials. Some of these creations are called “time-based media art,” which refers to works that occur over time, such as film, video, and computer-based art. For those of us in museum conservation, the preservation of digital video is challenging because of rapid changes in technology. It takes an entire team to tackle the long-term preservation plan for these artworks.

The Portrait Gallery’s digital arts team includes curators, conservators, installation specialists, and registrars who meet regularly to discuss strategies for acquisition, documentation, installation, and long-term preservation storage, keeping in mind that the media used to create a time-based media artwork may become obsolete in the not-too-distant future. The following are examples of the diverse artworks that come under our care.

Britney Spears, moving portrait, in frame
(Pop) Icon Britney by R. Luke DuBois, digital video with sound, edition 5/6, 2010.

Sometimes traditional materials are integrated with digital technology, as in (Pop) Icon Britney by R. Luke DuBois, currently on view in the exhibition “Eye Pop: The Celebrity Gaze.” The artist’s intention was to evoke the aura of a religious icon by placing an ornate gold frame around a screen of Britney Spears’s videos. The performer’s eyes remain fixed while the videos morph from one to the next to create a mystical and enigmatic persona. This visual array is accompanied by an audio compilation of Spears’s a cappella songs, which was manipulated to replicate the acoustics of San Vitale Basilica in Ravenna, Italy.

Projected image of person speaking, with word-like squiggles alongside
Sergey Brin and Larry Page, digital video with sound, 2013


Close-up of Esperanza Spalding's face
Esperanza Spalding by Bo Gehring, digital video with sound, 2014

Another new media piece on view in “Eye Pop” is DuBois’s portrait of Google foundersSergey Brin and Larry Page. The artist employs two video screens. One features the Google founders in interviews on YouTube. DuBois developed custom software to search the Internet for words and phrases spoken by Brin and Page, and the text appears on the second screen. The work is constantly changing, as it refreshes weekly.

After winning the Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition in 2013, artist Bo Gehring was commissioned to create a digital video portrait of musician Esperanza Spalding. Gehring suspended a camera on a track above Spalding and it panned from her feet to the top of her head while she listened to a musical piece by Wayne Shorter, which she had chosen. Spalding seems completely comfortable with this medium, hardly moving as the camera scans every fold of her intricate golden outfit, except to rock her head and smile in time with the beat.

For those of us working with time-based media, the best time to accumulate valuable information about the artworks is before acquisition. This documentation can include artists’ interviews, schematic drawings, former installation information, technical requirements, and identifying software programs. Our digital arts team works closely with staff who manage the Smithsonian’s Data Asset Management System (DAMS) to devise methodologies to track the integrity of the artists’ digital files and ensure that these artworks will continue to be enjoyed long into the future. Over the past several years the Portrait Gallery, with funding from the Smithsonian Consortia, has collaborated in the study of time-based media art with our colleagues at other museums who face similar concerns. For more information about these artworks, see http://www.si.edu/tbma/.

Rosemary Fallon, Paper Conservator