Conservation and restoration of time-based media art

The conservation and restoration of time-based media art is the study and practice of conserving time-based media and its components. The conservation and restoration of time-based media art is a complex undertaking within the field of conservation that includes understanding both physical and digital conservation methods; there are many facets of time-based media conservation. Its major aim is to detect and monitor short and long-term changes that an artwork may undergo in response to its environment, technological developments, exhibition-design, or technicians' preferences.[1]

Time-based media art

Time-based media is any media that takes time to view, in other words it has a dimension of duration (e.g. five minutes and 10 seconds). Time based-media also contains a technology component, as hardware will be required to view the work.[2] Time-based media art may be made on a physical media, such as film stock, by a digital means, or a combination of the two. Examples of time-based media include artworks and installations composed of video, audio, film, slides, software-based art or other forms of technology-based artworks.[2] A time-based media artwork will consist of the medium- for example a video tape or DVD, the equipment it is played on, and any additional installation components.[3]

Works containing video and/or audio may at times be referred to as "4D" (four-dimensional), referencing time as the fourth dimension, in addition to the other three dimensions in artwork: length, width, and height. Some time-based media works may overlap, in some respects, with New Media Art. Other terms that may also refer to time-based media art include "variable media art", "electronic art", "moving-image art", "technology-based art" and "time-based media". Time-based media collections may be housed in libraries and archives, but time-based media art collections are typically housed in museums, where film and video are collected as fine art and where the collection is typically smaller than in a library or archive.[3] Museums are more likely to collect video and installation-specific equipment as well.[3] The majority of time-based media art is completed on noncommercial films stocks, such as 8mm or 16mm, on videotape, or via a digital means. Time-based media art is differentiated from professional or commercial film-making.

Preservation and conservation strategies

Guidelines for collecting and preserving time-based media art are still evolving, and standards have not yet been reached.[3] Generally though, video and film must be looked at differently because of the difference between the two mediums, despite having the similarity of being recorded in time. Thus procedures for preservation and conservation will vary between the mediums. Video is a coded system, the information stored on the magnetic or digital tape can be retrieved only with a specific electronic playback device; the images on the film strip, however, are legible on their own, though the projector provides the only means by which they can be viewed.[3] When collecting film and video art, a master and at least one sub-master should be obtained. In some cases, and exhibition copy will be obtained as well, in other cases it will be copied by the museum. The Guggenheim Museum provides preservation models for Analog Standard Definition Video, Digital Standard Definition Video, and High Definition Video. Some conservators recommend that sub-masters be in digital format, as analog tape suffers from generation loss, each time it is duplicated.[3] Digital formats can suffer from generation loss as well, but it can be avoided through good practice. The sub-master will be used to make new copies of the work and the format of the sub-master needs to be updated when it nears obsolescence. Obsolescence is of particular concern to time-based media art conservationists as many artworks are tied to hardware which is no longer manufactured or supported. File formats reaching obsolescence are another concern, as operating systems change and old formats are replaced by newer ones. Fortunately there are some methods in place to help prevent the total loss of time-based media artworks.

Preventative measures

The protection against physical loss, technological obsolescence, and digital loss of the file are important aspects of a holistic approach to preservation strategies. Measures must also be taken against environmental factors, such as humidity and pests to ensure the long-term preservation of any physical media. Integrated Pest Management is an important part of any museum preventative conservation plan. It is important to note that preventative measures do not stop deterioration fully, they merely prolong the time it takes for the media to deteriorate. Some media, like certain film stocks, are more stable than others, and some media, such as magnetic videotape are potentially unstable, so again different approaches will be necessary.

Storage and maintenance of physical objects

Good storage practices help ensure the long-life of an artwork and should be incorporated into a museum's conservation strategy. Storage practices vary by media, so a museum will need to employ a range of storage options to best care for their time-based media art collections. A variety of physical media, such as film, tape, and disks must be stored properly to prevent physical loss. Prevention is the best measure of protection against loss. How media is stored will be dependent on the type of media it is, film has different considerations than disks or videotape. Generally, time-based media storage will require cool temperatures and low humidity.[4]

Film - film reels are typically stored in their metal or plastic canisters, laid flat, and stacked on top of each other. Film must be stored in a climate-controlled room due to its susceptibility to heat and humidity. Film may also have additional special storage considerations, which may involve low temperature freezes to retard further damage.[5] How stable the film is depends largely on the type of stock, but film, if well taken care of, is generally able to last for long periods of time. Film has been made on a variety of materials, including nitrate-based stock (see: Nitrocellulose) and acetate-based stocks, and polyester-backed film, each have their own considerations. Nitrate film must be handled carefully, as it is highly flammable; cellulose acetate film stocks are at risk of vinegar syndrome, whereas polyester-backed films are not.[4] Film is stored in a colder environment than other time-based media, and different types of film have different optimum storage temperatures. Color film should be stored at the coldest temperature possible to reduce fading, 0-30 degrees Fahrenheit, while black and white film can be stored at a temperature of 25-50 degrees Fahrenheit.[4]

Magnetic Videotape- Magnetic videotape was never meant to last, and often has a short life (often only a few decades) especially if exposed to warm or humid conditions.[3] Videotapes, should be stored in upright, under cool, dry, dust-free conditions.[3] Videotapes may be stored in polypropylene cases, but without paper inside the cases and magnetic media should never be stored at temperatures lower than 46 degrees Fahrenheit.[4] Magnetic media should also be kept away from magnetic sources, which could demagnetize them.

Optical Digital Media - DVDs and CDs are another media that will need storage space. Optical media should be stored in hard plastic jewel cases or other inert plastic containers; avoid storage in plastic sleeves. DVDs and CDs can be stored at temperatures ranging from 62-68 degrees Fahrenheit, with 33-45% relative humidity, but cooler temperatures are recommended to ensure a longer life.[4]

Playback Devices - Because time-based media is dependent on technology to view it, playback devices must also be stored. There are some devices that will apply to many works in a time-based media art collection, but specific types of technological devices may be required for the art or preferred by the artist. Maintaining the technology that the time-based media art is played on is one conservation strategy, and what is stored depends on the device. Consumer products, for example, are not meant for repeated viewing on such a large scale and are usually not expected to have a long enough life to maintain the device well into the future. Due to rapid changes in video technology and the high cost of maintaining and storing equipment, storage and maintenance of some playback devices may not practical for a museum as a primary strategy.[3] Museums do at times need to store obsolete technology though, such as VCRs, old computers, video game systems, etc., particularly if they have been customized for the artwork by the artist. In these cases, conservation strategies could included acquiring spare parts (early on in the acquisition process, before the technology goes out of manufacture), making new components if necessary, and/or recreating significant features by inexact substitution (in order words, using the "best match").[6] Until better solutions are found, keeping and maintaining old technology will remain a necessity. Unlike video equipment, film equipment is far more stable and museums may be more likely to conserve the equipment along with the media because there is less upkeep and film equipment does not need constant replacement due to obsolescence.[3] A working projector will always run film. Technological devices should be stored in a clean, climate controlled environment, as humidity can be damaging to electronic components.

Digital preservation

Digital files must be preserved and stored as well, otherwise they also risk degradation. Due to the large amounts of storage space that may be needed, museums may want to employ the use of a digital repository that offers digital preservation as a service. Repositories will keep the digital file stored, perform migration (moving the old format to a new, usable format), and typically offer some guarantee of preservation for a specified period of time. Artists may also wish to seek out a repository for storage of their digital artwork. Rhizome's Artbase is an online archive that seeks to preserve contemporary digital art. Part of digital media storage is to ensure continuity of the digital file through format changes, thus migration becomes a likely strategy. Some conservators recommend that medium upgrades take place at least every five years, making duplication a main strategy of digital conservation.[3]

Time-based media art that either has an inherent digital component (i.e. a born-digital work) or has been digitized will have the need to be preserved digitally. While this work may not entirely be completed by the conservator, conservators will be aware of the methods used to preserve digital media. The Variable Media Approach, a strategy that comes from the Guggenheim Museum's Variable Media Initiative research, offers a way in which to define the artwork independently from its medium.[7] It is a methodology that approaches a work as independent from its media, so that is may be thought of as a behavior and not something tied to its hardware.[8] This process looks to preserve works despite the uncertainty of technological developments of the future. By making a work independent from its medium, the Variable Media Approach hopes to ensure the life of the artwork well into the future, beyond the obsolescence of all current technology. The approach encompasses four aspects: Storage, Migration, Emulation, and Reinterpretation. Storage is the most basic strategy. Migration simply means to copy the files to new storage media. With migration, conservators preserve the original aspects of the work. Emulation is not as straight forward, it involves some amount of interpretation and is more an imitation of the original work. In the context of digital media, emulation offers a powerful technique for running an out-of-date computer on a contemporary one. Reinterpretation is the most radical strategy, as it involves recreation of the work.[9]

When formats or storage media become obsolete, time-based media art is typically migrated to newer and accessible platforms.[10] This will mean updating the file format so that it is playable on newer technology. In some cases this may not be in keeping with the artist's wishes, as he or she may wish to continue viewings of their work in a specific format. If the format is integral to the work, then upkeep becomes more involved and maintaining the usability of the artwork against the odds of obsolescence in both media and technology becomes a major preservation challenge.[10] For this reason, it is encouraged that artists allow for some flexibility in future iterations of the artwork.

Examination and documentation

Examining and documenting the physical state of an object is an important part of understanding its overall condition. The process of examination and documentation will alert conservators to any problems that need immediate or future attention.

Physical examination

The physical components of time-based media art must be examined in order to understand their physical condition. With film, physical examination will identify a variety of deterioration processes, such as vinegar syndrome in safety films or color dye fading in color film stock. It is important to identify these early, not only to try to prevent further deterioration, but to intervene with treatment or to make a duplicate copy. Without the examination process, time-based media may degrade beyond repair and possibly be lost entirely.

Condition assessments

Condition assessments are procedures that are carried out by conservators or other collections care professionals to document the overall condition of an object. These assessments are necessary for all the types of media and technology associated with time-based media art. The assessments stay in the object's file and give future conservators insight into the object's life history. They are performed upon intake of an object into a collection, before and after the object goes on loan, and as necessary. They make note of any physical issues that may be present, such as tears, stains, scratches, or other damage. Film is especially vulnerable to tears and warping, while DVDs and CDs scratch easily. Other issues cannot be seen, such as demagnetization of tape, and require other methods of examination. After the condition of a physical object is assessed, the examiner may recommend treatment if necessary.

Independent Media Arts Preservation (IMAP) recommends taking certain steps to assessing the condition of time-based media: 1) Examine the container - damage on the outside of a container could mean damaged media inside the container. Cases should be examined for dents, stains, and molds or fungus. 2) Check for odor - it may be an indication that the media has deteriorated. Vinegar syndrome emits a vinegar-like odor when present. If media smells musty it could indicate magnetic decay. 3) Examine the surface and the edges - look for powder, dust, dirt and residue, they may indicate deterioration or surface contamination. 4) Identify the format - Knowing the media format is important to proper handling. 5) Play the tape - In some cases it may be necessary to play the tape, a process that if not handled carefully could damage the media. Playback can detect noise, color shift, distortion, and timing flaws.[4]

Further documentation

Because time-based media has a forth dimension of time, not present in other types of works, additional documentation to understand the allographic nature of the media may be required, and is recommended. Such documents include the Guggenheim Museum's Iteration Report or Variable Media Questionnaire (VMQ), developed as part of the Variable Media Initiative. The reports collect information about the nature or behavior of the art, so that future curators and conservators can understand it from an artistic and behavioral point of view, as well as a technical point of view. This allows museum professionals to recreate, or make a new iteration, of a particular time-based media artwork. The most common behaviors assigned to time-based media art are interactive, encoded, and networked. Because a new viewing of a time-based work can only be an iteration, by making each viewing as close to the artist's desires as possible, the nature of the artwork is conserved.[9] It defined a new approach to documenting contemporary artworks dependent on media, by defining the media as "variable", the artwork becomes untangled from its material aspects, allowing preservation of the work through time without loss of meaning.

Permanence Through Change: The Variable Media Approach.

Seeing Double: Emulation in Theory and Practice, Spring 2004.

Preserving the Immaterial: A Conference on Variable Media, March 2001. Echoes of Art: Emulation as a Preservation Strategy, May 2004.

The Time Based Media and Digital Art Working Group

In 2010 the Smithsonian's Time Based Media and Digital Art (TBMA) Working Group was born out of the Collaborations in Conserving Time-Based Art symposium. The group includes staff from across the Smithsonian Institution and was developed to work with the Smithsonian's collection, but also to share the information and seek external ties. The group seeks to develop and improve standards for the care of time-based and digital artworks.[2]

Survey of Roles and Practices at the Smithsonian Museums, 2010-2011. Survey of Time-Based Media and Digital Artworks across the Smithsonian Collections, 2011-2012. Report on the Status and Need for Technical Standards in the care of Time-Based Media and Digital Art, 2013-2014. Establishing a Time Based Digital Art Conservation Lab at the Smithsonian Institution, 2013.

Collaborations in Conserving Time-Based Art, March 2010. Collecting, Exhibiting, & Preserving Time-Based Media Art, September 2011. Standards for the Preservation of Time-Based Media Art, September 2012. Trusted Digital Repositories for Time-Based Media Art, April 2013. TECHNOLOGY EXPERIMENTS IN ART: Conserving Software-Based Artworks, January 2014.


Treatment methods of time-based media art include a mix of both traditional and new techniques. Not all of the work will fall to a conservator, because of the highly technical nature of some of the devices, "certain tasks have to be delegated to respective experts, such as media technicians, video engineers, programmers, film-lab professionals, service technicians, and similar specialists".[11] The maintenance of the technology is an important part of the conservation process for many works of art.

Treatment of physical objects

Time-based media conservators will treat and maintain a variety of objects, including film reels, projectors, computers, TVs, and other types of technology. In cases of videotape and DVDs, migration of the work to another format will more likely be the case. Because there are so many types of media that support time-based media art, treatment of each type will vary. While the prevention of physical film degradation is important, the preservationist's main goal is to preserve the image, as the film itself often decays rapidly and beyond repair (see: Film Preservation). Film preservation falls into four categories: conservation, which is the protection of the original film artifact; duplication, which is the making of a surrogate copy; and restoration, which is the attempt to reconstruct a specific version of the film, which will include piecing together footage from all known sources.[12] Film restoration will involve the use of duplicates, not the originals. Duplication of an original to a new and stable film stock (a continuing process, as eventually the duplicate will degrade) and repairing tears in the physical film are common types of treatment for film stock. There is a growing need to understand digital processes of duplication as well. While much duplication still requires that film be moved to a new and stable film stock, digital has been advancing as a method of duplication, though many argue it should not be used alone as digital files are unproven in the long term (see again: Film Preservation).

In the case of technology, treatment will look more like maintenance and will be required to keep the object functional. Obsolescence of technology is a major concern as discussed under Storage and Maintenance of Physical Objects.

Education and outreach


Access is the process through which artistic content is shared with public, such as providing researchers access to materials for scholarly work. Museums will more likely lend copies for study purposes, though study of the original may be warranted at times.

Community outreach

Festivals such as Portland's Time-Based Art Festival take place annually and are reflective of the general acceptance of time-based media art outside the walls of the museum.

Education and training

Educational programs

There are few conservation programs specific to time-based media art, but the Bern University of the Arts in Bern, Switzerland offers an MA program for the Conservation of Modern Materials and Media. Programs that include some aspect of time-based media include The Selznick Graduate Program in Film and Media Preservation at the University of Rochester in New York and New York University's Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program. At UCLA, there is an M.A. in Moving Image Archive Studies. The latter three programs deal primarily in archival film preservation, which requires specialized training in a variety of film stocks. A film preservationist must be knowledgeable about and trained to work with many types of film. In a museum context, the film is more likely to be consumer sizes like super 8mm and 16mm, not the 35mm that is used in commercial film making, as they are the preferred medium of artist and amateur filmmakers. Typically, the 35mm stock will be more prevalent in a library or archive. Because of the few formalized education programs in time-based media, most conservators of time-based media art make their way there through a professional path.

Professional training

Independent Media Arts Preservation (IMAP) is a non-profit organization that offers training to professionals within time-based media art preservation to include workshops, cataloging training, public programs, one-on-one assessments, and technical assistance.[13] They provide professionals with the IMAP Preservation Online Resource Guide and provide an overview of preservation of time-based media on their website.

Organizations and professional societies


See also


  1. Guggenheim Museum (n.d.). Establishing New Practices. Retrieved from
  2. 1 2 3 Smithsonian Institution. (n.d.). Time-Based Media Art at the Smithsonian. Retrieved from
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Iles, Chrissie and Huldisch, Henriette (2005). Keeping Time: On Collecting Film and Video Art in the Museum. In Collecting the New. Altshuler, Bruce (Ed.) NJ: Princeton University Press.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 IMAP. (2009). Preservation 101. Retrieved from
  5. National Park Service (n.d.) Cold Storage. Retrieved from
  6. Laurenson, Pip (2005). The Management of Display Equipment in Time-based Media Installations. Tate Papers. Retrieved from
  7. Variable Media Network (n.d.) Retrieved from
  8. Depocas, Alain (2003). The Guggenheim Museum and the Daniel Langlois Foundation: The Variable Media Network. Retrieved from
  9. 1 2 Guggenheim Museum. (n.d.). The Variable Media Initiative. Retrieved from
  10. 1 2 Smithsonian Institution (2010). Collaborations in Conserving Time-Based Art: A Summary of Discussion Group Sessions of a Colloquium. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved from
  11. Guggenheim Museum (n.d.). Establishing New Practices. Retrieved from
  12. National Film Preservation Foundation (2004). The Film Preservation Guide: The basics for archives, libraries, and museums. San Francisco, CA: National Film Preservation Foundation.
  13. Independent Media Arts Preservation (n.d.). About. Retrieved from

External links

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