Contemporary Conservation Challenges: Electronic Art


With the advent of digital devices and smartphones that capture and distribute video with the tap of a finger, the genre of electronic art has become ubiquitous, but it most likely first got its start decades ago. Jean Tinguely (Swiss, 1925-1991) & Marcell Duchamp (French, 1887-1968) may have been the first artists to use electrical/kinetic elements in their sculptures, and then in the late 1960s artists such as Nam June Paik, Dan Flavin, Bruce Nauman and Andy Warhol began to expand the presence of electronic components in their art. By the 1990’s the practice became more widespread as artists began to frequently incorporate digital media into their work. 

While the mediums are now omnipresent at contemporary art shows, they continue to inspire a degree of mistrust among some buyers, notes curator and journalist Judith Benhamou-Huet. A large part of that hesitation is acknowledging the maintenance and conservation these works require as well as what some perceive as a lack of expertise in this new field.

As old technology becomes unavailable or obsolete, keeping them operating becomes more difficult or even impossible. You have to anticipate problems with conservation. That is why files have to be updated every seven years or sometimes even at the same pace as the technology it utilizes. For example the fluorescent tubes which are the heart of Dan Flavin's sculptures are no longer being manufactured in the U.S. because of EPA restrictions. The glass tubes and coil amps as well as the CRT’s used in the television sets of Nam June Paik are no longer available, and very few people know how to work with them. Transformers for high voltage neon tubes age out and the dangerous PCB’s leak from them onto collectors' home or museum floors, or worse. (See Figure 2.)

Digital drivers for computers controlling interactive LED and audio components wear out and are discontinued by their manufacturers. Recently for example, an expensive, no longer in-production Dell XPS Tower that was programmed with custom software designed by the artist more than ten years ago crashed. It was the beating heart of an interactive monumental sculpture in a large private collection open to the public with millions of viewers every year. With 18 large monitors and a huge, multi-ton steel & LED the art measures over 30’ tall and 125’ long and 30’ wide. The components no longer functioned. After extensive on-site diagnostics, our firm, Callahan art & associates, discovered that a single small capacitor on the motherboard had fried (Figure 3). We safely removed the motherboard, removed the bad capacitor, sourced a replacement for it, and soldered it back on the motherboard (see image at top of page). This saved the sculpture, which otherwise would have been de-accessioned and scrapped, as the operating program and software was too old and unique to operate on any other, let alone newer, machine.

Only a small number of universities offer training in time-based media conservation. At N.Y.U., Hannelore Roemich, professor of conservation science, and Christine Frohnert, of Bek and Frohnert conservation studio, are developing a graduate specialization that will be part of the 2018 curriculum; it will be the first of its kind in the nation. Compared with traditional art conservation, which deals with, say, restoring Impressionist masterworks or Renaissance sculpture, the preservation of these technologic and time-based media works can be even more demanding.

“It becomes so much more difficult when it has a plug,” is how Professor Frohnert put it. It is crucial, she said, for conservators to forge relationships with experts in related fields.

Callahan art and associates has restored many electronic components in-house. When we approach a work, we think of it as a work of art that is in need of conservation, not as a piece of outdated technology. Electronic or computer technicians see these works as simply old machines; they lack the experience, creative problem solving or patience to restore them as works of art. Potentially dismissing the machines as totalled, they may not recognize the important social and cultural value of the artworks. They only see disposable or sometimes replaceable technology.


About Dennis Callahan: 

The principal of Callahan art & associates, Dennis Callahan, studied electronic art and holography in the early 1980’s at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). Studying under Steve Waldek Callahan designed and built solid state circuits to control his kinetic sculptures. He also studied holography and created holograms in the then-cutting-edge lab at SAIC as well as worked making neon signs and sculptures and solid state controllers (before they were available commercially) at a neon shop in Chicago.

Callahan has been fortunate to segue into electronic conservation today, providing the experience and technical know-how to maintain analog and digital based artwork. He is also sharing his knowledge with conservators and students in order to keep such works alive in the future and shares his ability to understand the perspective of the artists, collectors & museums.