Back in 2015, Nam June Paik’s 1994 work WareZ Academy was taken out of storage to have its picture taken for the museum’s Collection Highlights catalog—and it started smoking. Collections manager Brady Evans quickly pulled the plug and the multimedia work’s 19 televisions have blankly stared out through the miniature schoolhouse door ever since. But even without the quintessential 1990s images of George H. W. Bush, the acronym AIDS, and scenes of conflict, nuclear biology, and genetics flashing across its screens, the piece earned a spot in HoMA SELECT among collection highlights handpicked by Spalding House director Aaron Padilla.
“We had to come to a compromise,” explains collections manager Brady Evans. “We weren’t comfortable having the piece turned on until it got checked out. So Aaron said, ‘What if we have it off, and we bring in a conservator and can incorporate it into the programming for the exhibition?’”
Enter Jeff Martin, an archivist and conservator who specializes in what is now known as “time-based art”—art that uses the passage of and manipulation of time, such as experimental film, video art and installation, sound, performance and multimedia computing. With a Master’s in Moving Image Archiving and Preservation from NYU and more than a decade of experience in museums and private collections restoring video art—including works by Nam June Paik—he was the ideal person to examine WareZ Academy. Evans got in touch with Martin by way of fellow conservator Glenn Wharton, who previously cared for MoMA’s electronic media works (and handled the 1996 restoration of the original King Kamehameha statue).
Two weeks ago, Martin unscrewed the back panels of the work’s classic cathode ray tube televisions (CRTs), the kind that people of a certain age grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons on, to find out what happened in 2015. His goal was to find the best course of action to preserve the soul of the work—its warez. Pronounced like “wares,” the word refers to pirated software and other copyrighted media—like the ready-made TV commercials Paik appropriated in the work. Originally put on LaserDiscs, this content was later moved to DVDs—both technologies that Martin feels are less trustworthy than digital files (the University of Cincinnati lost the DVDs for its video wall Cinci-Mix, and with them, the soul of its Paik).
Martin thinks WareZ Academy can be fully restored, though he will need some technical help. Fortunately, Evans and Padilla also found a local repairman specializing in CRTs. “We had contacted a repairman a number of years ago to get a quote,” Padilla says. “The documentation sat in the work’s file until we began thinking about getting it repaired for HoMA SELECT. Surprisingly, the guy is still in the business.” With the outside help, and that of the museum’s own trusty staff, like head preparator Marc Thomas (pictured above, at left), Padilla and Evans are confident the piece will bring its restored glow to an upcoming exhibition.
While he was working at Spalding House, Jeff Martin took a break from tinkering to share his unfiltered thoughts on the piece.
How has the restoration been going?
The work’s been going well. It’s mostly been a process of tracking what we can learn about the work’s history, and what we can learn about the next steps by really getting literally inside the piece. The first thing we did was take off the outside panels and get back behind the piece to get a sense of how it’s put together, how is the signal for all these video monitors being routed, how does it actually function, and how well it’s functioning right now. You find things that you typically find in these older works that are CRT-based. You find that the monitors—all 19 of them—aren’t the same color anymore. They’ve drifted over time, and other small things like bad connections. But a really big part was just getting inside it, looking at what was functioning and what wasn’t, and then starting to kind of diagram how the whole thing goes together. Then, thinking about next steps to revitalize the work, because it’s not in terrible shape. It’s essentially functional, but it’s not functioning as well as it should.
How does it compare to other Paiks you have seen?
I’ve worked on a lot of different types of works, and I’ve worked with different collections in different museums and clients. When I was at the Hirshhorn Museum a number of years ago they also had Paik’s Video Flag, which is 70 screens. That had just been restored and I was supposed to be involved in the upkeep. But the key thing with Nam June Paik works that’s uniform across the board is that he always used CRT televisions. Flat screen televisions had only just begun to become popular around the time he passed away (2006), but he always worked with CRT, and the kind of aesthetic that he used—the really bright colors and the sort of phosphorescent quality—is really tied into CRTs. In the long term, the big problem with these Paik works is, what are you going to do when there are no more CRTs at all, and no more parts for them, and no other way to keep them alive?
I doubt that all video artists leave blueprints for future generations of conservationists to follow. Does that make your work easier or more difficult? Where does Paik fit into that?
It depends on the artist. In the 1990s Paik was so prolific. He was creating an enormous body of work and maintaining this really high level of quality. Some artists, especially now, provide very, very detailed instructions of how the piece is supposed to go together, how it’s supposed to function, and also guidance on what’s supposed to happen next. What you want to do with a work like this Paik is try to get a sense of what the essential essence of it is that you have to keep, and what you can change. The essence of the piece is in those 4:3 [aspect ratio] CRT monitors. There’s the sculptural [element], and then there’s the monitors, and that’s the essence of the piece. Changing it from LaserDisc, to DVDs, to file-based format— that’s not changing the essence of the piece. That’s changing what’s behind the scenes. If you keep the visual quality, and if you keep the structural quality, you’re in good shape.
Media works like this are going to have to change—that’s just the nature of them over time as the technology underpinning them changes for reasons that are out of control of people who care for art. You know, it’s not up to us whether they keep making televisions in a certain shape or size, so conserving media art is really just at the mercy of technology, because it changes. So you have to try to get a sense of what can change, and what can’t, and then how to move it forward in time, because it’s going to have to change in a way that respects the original.
Is this a personal philosophy, or a consensus among your peers? Is the subject under debate?
This is definitely not a personal philosophy. This is the understood ethos of the profession right now. There’s a publication about this called Permanence through Change, and that’s a really important publication, and probably the best way to think about it. It’s going to have to change in order to keep it alive. You just have to keep rethinking and rethinking. That’s definitely a field-wide approach—managing the change.
We tend to assume we are at the pinnacle of technology at any given moment—aside from programmed obsolescence—so LaserDisc probably seemed pretty cutting edge.
The pace of change as accelerated a lot. When he made this work in 1994, televisions were all 4:3, and they had been since television was invented in the ’40s. Nobody anticipated that 4:3 monitors of any kind would be gone so quickly.
So how did you translate your background in technology preservation to art conservation?
When I did a fellowship at the Hirshhorn Museum in D.C. I really learned about not just caring for moving images, but caring for moving image art. I worked under the head of collection management and the chief conservator, who essentially said, “You’re technological, and your moving image background is really important, and I just want to work with you so that you have an understanding of the ethos of art conservation, because you have to work within our practices and our standards.” She was dealing with her de Koonings and I was working with television. I would be watching master tapes for inspection and people would say, “All he does all day is watch television.” Well, yes and no—I’m really watching television, really closely.
And now you primarily freelance?
I have a number of clients, but I primarily work for a private collection. Over the years I’ve worked for a number of different institutions, and it’s always been interesting to see the different ways in which institutions function, and how they handle things and whose responsible for what. It’s still so much in flux. If you go into a museum and want to know who is in charge of the paintings, it’s the paintings conservator. If you want to know who is in charge of caring for the video works, it might be a conservator, it might be the audio-visual person, it might be an IT person, it might be any number of people. Ideally, it’s actually a team of people—a conservator, an audio-visual technician, and an IT person, and a curator. That’s the approach that museums that are doing really well are starting to take.
So what caused WareZ Academy to short out and smoke?
We looked into the one monitor that they thought had been smoking, and when we opened up the case you could still smell the burnt plastic. It’s a little hard to tell. I am not a CRT expert in terms of getting into the electronics, but it was hard to tell whether this clump of burnt material was plastic or an insect had gotten in and shorted it out. It seemed plausible that an insect had made a wrong move and just gotten fried and shorted out part of the circuitry of the flyback transformer—and that’s where the most voltage is. These CRT televisions store up so much voltage to function that they can kill you. You won’t be killed by an electric outlet, but you can totally be killed by a television.
Will the work be playing again some time during HoMA SELECT?
The show is only up till June, so no—that’s too soon. It will definitely be back in working order, but the timeline depends on the museum. There are decisions to be made about the extent of the project. It’s got 19 monitors in it, and you’ve got another 19 spares. So you’ve got to restore everything that’s already in it, and then how many more do you restore as back-ups? Some of those might just be set aside for spare parts, so you would never have a full set of 19 again, but with parts it would never have to be down for more than a day if one did go down. I think that’s the goal. And of course, migrate the original file base format to increase reliability, because we all know how DVDs behave.
It’s an amazing piece. It’s really unique in terms of its aesthetic. The sculptural quality of it relates to his other pieces. He’s known for doing many robot pieces built out of multiple CRTs, but this one’s really special in terms of the house and they way you sit inside it. It has that interactive component, too. From this period, it’s unusual for there to be an interactive component to his pieces. They’re usually just a wall, and usually really big. This is way more intimate and that makes it really special.
Pictured at top, left to right: Museum head preparator Marc Thomas, Jeff Martin, and Brady Evans.