Can We Talk Post-Preservation? A Letter to Nam June Paik

This is an excerpt from an invited lecture delivered on November 18 at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) in Seoul, South Korea, which addresses the positive value of obsolescence and posits post-preservation as an alternative to traditional conservation in Paik’s work.

Image of Paik Nam June, The More, The Better, 1988. Photo: Woo Jongduk. Excerpt from the announcement of the conference My Paik Nam June National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul, published by e-flux.

Dear Nam June,

This is a letter from the past to you in the future. This might sound paradoxical but I’m writing this script a few weeks ahead of its presentation at The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Gwacheon, Seoul. We are celebrating the 90th anniversary of your birth in your absence. “The future is now.

Someone recently told me, “you neither teach nor research this kind of media anymore; in museums, they are passé.” Needless to say, Nam June, I was first left speechless; I then wanted to shout out: “I strongly disagree!” What does it mean that these media are passé? Are they “dated,” “obsolete” or “outworn”? But the state of being outworn is, I later reconned, not a negative value, but rather evidence of rich history or changing technology, views, knowledge, attitudes and fashions. And this at least in two ways: firstly, these media were implemented in works as effects of creative practice reflecting the zeitgeist of their time; secondly, from your media, dear Paik, we can read how the practices of collecting, archiving, conserving and preserving have shifted from an object-orientation of traditional conservation to more open ethics and practice of care, which, more recently, have encompassed not only an artwork and its effects but also, and above all, those people that give rise to it and who have maintained it over time, along with their tacit and explicit knowledge.

Your media have taught me the world: The vibrant, flickering power of video, the monumental beauty of your cathode ray tube video walls, the stoic tranquility of electronic line, the participatory dynamics of activation, the joy of archival serendipity and randomness of editions, .. Nam June, I believe that your works, and your concepts, lie at the very foundation of the contemporary concerns with electronic media in and outside the collecting institutions. I am convinced that those who have been privileged to explore them, learned a great deal about how other electronic media behave—alter, succumb to wear and tear and technological obsolescence, how they deal with the issues of authenticity and originality so pertinent to museums modeled on the Western paradigm of precious, unique objects conveying authorial gestures.

First,

“As for the eternity of my work, you don’t need to worry at all. . . . It will last longer than Vermeer or Rembrandt. You simply repair or replace the picture tube when it gets old, which is cheaper than [a restorer].”

Perhaps one of my favorite quotations entailed in a letter to Edy de Wilde written on September 25, 1977 (de Wilde was a director of the Stedelijk Museum 1963-1985), this endorsement of the replacement and/or the repair of a picture tube, along with the waiver of restoration causes headaches to many stewards of contemporary collections, and this for several reasons.

But before I’ll go any deeper, let me first bring up the example of Canopus (1989), which participated in one of the most important events in my early career, which I spent as a conservator at ZKM. Named for the brightest star in the southern constellation of Carina and Argo Navis and the second-brightest star in the nighttime sky (the brightest is Sirius), Canopus is one of a series of your works representing celestial bodies. It consists of six small-format (eight-inch) Sony monitors playing a one-channel video; they are arranged symmetrically around a chromed Oldsmobile hubcap from the 1970s, inscribed with Korean calligraphy and endowed with your signature. OK, so you might ask at this point, what happened to Canopus.

On one of the cold mornings in December 2008, I received an unexpected phone call from a colleague in the technical department. He told me that Canopus had fallen from the wall and was heavily damaged. That morning at 5:10 the night guard at an external gallery that featured the exhibition of your works from the ZKM collection had been startled by a loud crash. When he investigated, he found your work lying face down on the floor, surrounded by scattered glass, the aluminum frame that held the monitors exposed, and loose electric cables hanging from the wall. When my colleagues from the conservation department and I examined the scene and turned your installation face up, we noted damage to almost all its elements: every vacuum tube of the six cathode-ray-tube (CRT) monitors had imploded, its plastic case shattered, and the hubcap was severely dented and deformed. Although the video data for the work were safely stored on a digital carrier (compact flash media player) and the supporting structure remained stable, your Canopus presented a lamentable picture. The damage to it, though unfortunate, led to one of the most compelling dis­cussions that I have participated in an institutional context. But let me pick out just a few aspects of it.

As it is evident from the images, your Canopus required either a full repair or a replacement of the monitors. To repair a picture tube, as you, dear Paik,  have proposed, means to make the means and knowledge available to perform a recovery of its electronic inner life. Although this knowledge is still available, it is increasingly getting scarce, in that the expert technicians who are able to fix a defunct cathode ray tube monitor are becoming older and the new generation, unless instigated by archival or museum work, rarely recognizes the necessity to perform repairs to preserve the technical knowledge. In my tenure as head of conservation at the ZKM Center for Art Media, a specialized technician was hired whose knowledge enabled him to judge whether a picture tube is worth to be repaired, or whether another one should replace it. The preservation of knowledge, of the technological and technical know-how is at least as important—if not even more important at times—as is the maintenance of physical objects. The work of a conservator-repairer of a picture tube, is not, to my knowledge, taught in the conservation programs. Often, the museums rely on external expertise in conducting conservation measures on multimedia installations (the New York-based CT Electronics run by CT Lui being an example). The second reason why a repair of a picture tube is increasingly more problematic is that the replacement parts are becoming difficult to obtain. While the secondhand market still provides pieces of dated equipment, it might run out of them in the very near future. So, as you see, the application of your proposal seems less straightforward than it might have seemed at the moment it was uttered.

And how about your proposed replacement of the picture tube? This really is my favorite topic as it ventures into the philosophy of conservation. Indeed, to replace a picture tube might for many simply mean to source a secondhand market for a similar (or “the same”) device and to perform the replacement. Stoke-piling technology of the 1960s-90s is a common strategy practiced by museums around the world.  Given that most of the production of high-end CRTs had ceased around 2010, the replacement strategy is finite, despite the fact that new approaches to reengineering these media are arising.

So, here is what was decided in relation to your Canopus:  To present it with replaced picture tubes, framed in restored frames, the video program played back from a flash media player (which remained intact), and with a damaged, inscribed, hubcap. The proposal to emulate and replicate the hubcap was refused.

However, dear Paik, what interests me more in the context of the replacement is that it moves the discourse from the technicality and technical operability of the work to the ethics and aesthetics of contemporary conservation. What does it mean to replace a defect piece of a multimedia installation with another device, whether “the same” or simply “similar”? With the introduction of electronic media such as video, computer-based works and installations to the realm of the conservation objects, conservation developed a sophisticated vocabulary that allows us to determine between “emulation,” migration,” and “reinterpretation.” These terms, as you know, are not quite straightforward, though it might be said that emulation approximates the original, older medium (in digital conservation emulators run a code for a platform that is obsolete), migration preserves a work by moving it to a new platform, and reinterpretation implies a work’s remaking from the scratch to preserve the work’s effect rather than the original material. And here lies the crux, don’t you think? The idea that a reinterpretation is “further” away from the initial look and feel of the installation already implies our deeply rooted conviction that there is, in fact, a venerated authentic original to which we strive to return.  But wasn’t it something you strictly opposed to in the first place? Haven’t you argued for variability or changeability, by saying that repetition is boring, and variability, as a direct consequence of intensity, is a necessary condition of and in your work?

Paik, but there is more, and it concerns the notion of time. You said, “I think I understand time better than the video artists who came from painting-sculpture.” And in relation to your Wuppertal exhibition in Parnas, you stated “One must stress that this is neither painting nor sculpture, but a ‘time-art.’” I too understand time better now that we have met. No doubt, time feels faster in new technologies. Importantly, however, and as seen in the strategies mentioned earlier, the conservation’s implicit operation within the linear notion of time—the sequential, chronological time that results in its understanding merely as a method of measurement—the time of clocks, machines, scientific apparatus, historic chronologies, industry, and labor. Implicitly, conservators adapt thinking about events that take place in the life of artworks as occurring on a timeline, valuing them according to their precedence. This valuation is revealed in the wish to access the point of creation, the author’s intention and the sources of the original object. The conservation paradigms such as reversibility, the belief in an original/preferred condition of an artwork and the notion of restoration rest on the implied notion of measurable and linear time. Moreover, recent scholarship suggests that museums are preoccupied with the sameness of the objects, which is only partially true, since the conservation actions have always oriented themselves at an original that lay in the artwork’s past.

But, you know, dear Nam June, “sameness” and “difference” are highly complex notions. Let’s take the ship of Theseus as an example:  The Greek philosopher Plutarch in his Vita Thesei, 22–23, introduces Theseus, the mythological demigod and hero, and a leader in classical Athens. The ship on which Theseus battelled became a memorial and was kept intact for some hundreds of years: But because the ship has been restored multiple times—the old planks having been taken away as they decayed and replaced by new and stronger timber—the ship, according to Plutarch, “became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.”(Plutarch, “Vita Thesei 23”) Plutarch poses a paradox about the identity of objects experiencing change that is still debated intensely in contemporary ontology. When does an object experiencing change become something else, and when is it still the same object? How much can an object change and still retain its identity? How much change would transform it into something else?

 Let’s return to your Canopus again: The monitors have been replaced with six look-alikes to be played back from a flesh media player that had been installed prior to the incident. According to the nominal authenticity (the empirical facts related to the origins of an artwork), this Canopus isn’t identic with its pre-incident manifestation. Would you agree? Yet according to the performative paradigm, and its accompanying expressive authenticity (its interpretation, its “faithfulness to the performer’s own self,” following a set of instructions), the post-2008 Canopus is still identic with its pre-incident manifestation. However, any attempt to replace the hubcap (due to the impossibility of its repair) with reconstructed inscription was rejected as an attempt to falsify the work. Why is that? Because both the museums and conservation operate within the traditional notion of nominal, material authenticity when it comes to the sculptural, autographic elements of multimedia work. But they follow expressive authenticity in the case of electronic media (playback and display devices). The changeability of a work is thus displayed not only on its operational, material level, but also on the level of your work’s conceptualization. Paik, if you knew what we went into with your works. And with your words!

If thus a work is a “changing same,” to adapt the notion from Amiri Baraka and Rebecca Schneider, then we need, in conservation, to divorce us once and for all from the attachment to the linear progression of time, and understand works in a nexus of relations, as a swarm of manifestations without any prevalence of their earlier or later versions. I believe then, that to care for an artwork like yours is to engage with the archive, not only as a physical space (which harbors instructions, documents, and condition reports) but also as a virtual domain which “contains” all manifestations of a work. It is on the basis of such archive that the activation of an artwork takes place, and to which every following work’s activation contributes.

So, dear Paik, I hope you agree that when “the picture tube gets old” you neither can “simply” repair or replace it, nor is this process “cheaper than [a restorer].” Even if this would be possible (which is, as I indicated, an idealistic and difficult to achieve aim)—we cannot simply replace one medium with another without having a more serious discussion about what does such replacement mean. We need to ask, “What exactly is the work, how and when is it?,” thereby leaving behind the exclusive standing of the care for the purely physical. But there is more: We need to think of conservation as an intellectual endeavor, one that not only critically contends with the notion of what the work is, but also generates knowledge that allows us to better understand what needs to be kept and cared for. Only so does conservation emerge as an epistemic practice, rather than remaining a set of actions reacting to a given status quo. Beyond its pure operability and technical application, and leaving behind the limits of material preservation, conservation becomes a way of drawing objects to conscious attention and making them apparent. It becomes a knowledge-generating activity.

Second,

“Video installation will become like Opera . . . in which only the score will be ueberliefert [handed down] to the next generation and the video curators in the next and subsequent generations will re-interpretate [sic] and install them every time new in their anpassendes [adaptive] Place and the accents of the new incarnation will have the strong personal traits of the conductor, like Karajan’s Neunte [Ninth] or Toscanini’s Dritte [Third].”

I need to thank you for these words, Nam June. We must think about your works musically, firstly, because your creative roots lie in music—in your studies of classical and experimental music, and in your lessons from Schoenberg, Fortner, Stockhausen and Cage; and secondly because in your numerous sonatas, symphonies, and performances, the musical logic and structure takes center stage, and is manifested, among others, in the presence of instrumentation, notation and score. If we follow music, we might start to think independently of the fetish of the object, and its preciousness as commodity bound with the Western models of collecting and “owning” art—often a result of colonial violence towards non-Western cultures. To think of your large-scale multimedia installations—such as Canopus, but also your TV Garden (1974) and Arche Noah (1989)—in musical terms is to be able to execute them based on an instruction or a score—whether primary or secondary—and allow them to materialize in multiple locations, even simultaneously.

Nam June, could we then think of the devices we use to reinstantiate your installations as instruments, historical or new? As a musician, you know that historically authentic performance might or might not involve historical instruments. Thus, playing Bach on harpsichord is historically authentic and distinctive, but not necessarily better than playing Bach on piano. The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould felt that the modern concert grand piano revealed more clearly the interweaving of musical voices in Bach’s compositions. Historical authenticity does not guarantee that a performer or a performance will realize the full aesthetic potential of a score. If we follow the performative paradigm, neither Canopus, nor your other works, would need to stay attached to the original physical carrier to survive.

Apart from the instrumentation, it is also, as you suggest, the interpretive skills and agency of the performers that impact the realization of your work. To understand a video installation as comparable to an operatic form, we might agree that, like in the case of an opera, the “performance” of such an installation will differ markedly owing to the set of instructions given in the score, the instrumentation specified, and the interpretive skills of the performers. Gould’s recordings of Bach’s Gold­berg Variations in 1955 and 1981 offer a notable example. The two recordings differ mark­edly: the first version is dynamic and energetic, the second deliberate, slower, more contemplative. Both interpretations have become essential parts of the history of music.

Dear Paik, you say that in the future, only the artwork’s score will be handed down to the next generations. We have not arrived there yet. But today, your scores, and those formulated by others, continue to sustain your work—whether articulated in written instructions or conveyed in objectual form. Your scores seem to embody a potential for endlessly diverse itera­tions. These iterations, as you teach us, “carry the strong traits of their conductor—the curators and conservators who draw from, and contribute to, the archive of that work.

But could we go even further, Nam June? Conservators, curators and other actors creatively intervening in your works must be seen, according to Paul Eggert, “as a competing and complementary authorial (or editorial) agency, occupying a place in the work. This has effects on how we view the concept of the work and how we understand each individual one.” Intentionally comes into the picture, not as a unique authorial gesture enacted in the time past, but as a bundle of mental states—perceptions, beliefs and desires—that all leave a mark on your work.  

Third,

“In the future the only artwork that will survive will have no gravity at all.”

These perceptions and what have been said above, dear Paik, bring us to the last motif in my letter. If works can, as you propose, be treated independently of their physical media that had been used once and that have since become dysfunctional, why not to shift away from the constraints of classical conservation altogether? As you aptly noted on another occasion, “The culture that’s going to survive in the future is the culture that you can carry around in your head.” A solution might be glimpsed from the tactics of cultural transmission used, among others, in translation studies and heritage studies, as a mindful assurance of these works medium-independent fluidity, a fluidity that radically confirms change, not as a necessary evil but as a condition of possibility for these works’ survival. Here, post-preservation emerges as a forward-looking, creative and inclusive presencing of the past, lacking the limitation of material trace; it is a sort of doing, a horizon and a sense of potentiality (Aristotle, Munoz). Such reading for potentiality suggests a futurity that is never limited to the effects of materials. This takes us back to music or poetry which has been transmitted without the ballast of its tools for times immemorial. It might be said that these forms have been in a mode of post-preservation even before they started to be preserved.

What I am putting forward, dear Nam June, is by no means to dispose of the reparation/restoration of your monitors. Rather, my point is to start forging a creative and interpretive engagement with past, liberated from the (paradoxical) constraints of the authentic material. It means that, on the one hand, we should agree that dysfunctional media carry a timeless aesthetic that might liberate your works from the threat of obsolescence. On the other, it might mean continuing your works by activating them in the present moment, e.g. by deploying artistic gestures and creative re-enactments which would leave behind the fetish of the object and the historical ballast of the outworn. After all, “the eternity cult is the longest disease of mankind.

Sincerely, Hanna B. Hölling

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