Interview with Joanna Phillips (part 1/2)

Guggenheim Museum, New York, (May 10, 2010).

Joanna Phillips is the Associate Conservator of Contemporary Art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum1 in New York and focusing on the conservation of media artworks. Originally founded on a collection of early modern masterpieces, the Guggenheim Museum is now an institution devoted to the art of the 20th and 21st century. It is at once a vital cultural center, an educational institution, and the heart of an international network of museums (with exhibition sites also in Venice, Bilbao, Berlin and, in the near future, Abu Dhabi). At the Guggenheim Museum visitors can experience special exhibitions of modern and contemporary art, lectures by artists and critics, performances and film screenings.
Joanna Phillips is in charge of the preservation of the video, sound, film and computer-based artworks in the Guggenheim collection. Emanuel Lorrain of PACKED vzw met her to talk about her work in the conservation department and about her approaches to issues related to the preservation and the obsolescence of equipment in media arts.

PACKED: What is your background? How did you become a media art conservator?

Joanna Phillips: I was trained as a paintings conservator in Germany, and worked in that field for several years, before I shifted towards contemporary art conservation. When I moved to Zürich in 2003 to join the Swiss Institute for Art Research (SIAR)2, I first encountered media art conservation. The SIAR was and is engaged in the research project AktiveArchive3, a joint project with the Hochschule der Künste in Berne (HKB)4 that explores the preservation of electronic art. Both institutions had two people involved in the project, in Berne there was Johannes Gfeller5, lecturer for media preservation and project leader of AktiveArchive, and art historian Tabea Lurk6 who specialises in the preservation of net and computer based art. At the SIAR, there was art historian Irene Schubiger7 and myself, adding the perspective of a conservator to the team. When I was offered the position of a researcher, I didn’t quite know what I was getting into, and that I was about to undergo a whole new (rather empirical) training period. At first, I was simply intrigued by the fact that electronic art puts to an extreme the questions we are discussing in contemporary art conservation in general, and I was curious to learn more about it. Then I started to work myself into the more technical details, e.g. the basics of video technology. I never made a conscious decision to change my career, it just happened step by step, as I was reacting to the needs of these particular artworks.
During the three years I worked with AktiveArchive, I was especially involved in two focus projects. The first project was the yet unpublished book & DVD 'Image Errors in Analog Video', which I co-authered with Johannes Gfeller and video conservator Agathe Jarczyk8. We collected about thirty image errors that are due to tape, device or operator errors, depicted them as still images and video sequences, described the image phenomena, listed possible causes and gave recommendations on how to solve the problems. The second focus project was an exhibition of historic video art at the Kunstmuseum in Lucerne, titled ’Reconstructing Swiss Video Art from the 1970s and 1980s’. The research concept was to stage Swiss historic video installations with their historic, “original” equipment and to explore and discuss our perception of these reconstructions in the frame of a symposium and publication. For reconstructing the works, we sourced the equipment according to its availability: if the original device was still around and functional, we would use that. If not, we would either use equipment that was from the same group of models by the same brand, or we would use equipment that was around during the time of the artwork’s creation, to evoke the “look and feel” of that period. The discussions revolved around the historical value in video installations, or electronic art in general, and explored whether artworks installed with historic equipment look antiquated and outdated for today’s recipients, or still convey the meaning of the work in an immediate, true way. In fact, some of the press reactions seemed to confirm that the historic equipment can even distract from the actual artwork if it catches too much attention.

PACKED: Are these two projects what brought you to media art conservation?

Joanna Phillips: Yes, it was certainly the beginning of a process! When I joined the Guggenheim in 2008, I had applied for the position of the ‘Associate Conservator of Contemporary Art’. The job description did not focus on media works in particular, but since all of the other collection works were already covered by the traditional specialties of my colleagues – paintings, objects, works on paper - the media works became the exclusive field I was going to focus on. Meanwhile, I have set up a small media conservation lab, and I am working on establishing procedures for documenting and preserving our media works. To be honest, this is keeping me so busy that I really would not have the time to deal with all the other types of contemporary art in the collection.

PACKED: No one was dealing with media art at the Guggenheim museum before you arrived?

Joanna Phillips: There was no conservator explicitly dedicated to media works, the responsibilities were shared between several departments. The initial impulse for this practice was the Variable Media Initiative9 that took place at the Guggenheim between 2001 and 2004 and the protagonists of which were the former assistant curator Jon Ippolito10, and Carol Stringari11, formerly the Senior Conservator of Contemporary Art and now our Chief Conservator. With the support of Variable Media fellow Caitlin Jones12, this initiative was aiming to provide preservation strategies for all variable contemporary art, not only media art in particular. When it came to the more technical aspects of media art, including format migration and equipment selection or replacement, our former Media Specialist Paul Kuranko13, actually in charge of installing the works, took great responsibility.
As crucial it is to discuss strategies between departments, it is also becoming more and more apparent in art institutions today that competence is needed that unites both the technical understanding of the artwork, and the conservator’s ethical approach to caretaking. Although it might not yet be broadly acknowledged that a media conservator is needed, professionals are growing into that occupation. Depending on the structure of an institution, and the personalities of its staff, different disciplines are leaning towards the practice of media preservation. At the Guggenheim, it is now the Conservation Department that has expanded to take responsibility for the media works in the collection. Although my position is still called the ‘contemporary art conservator’, my activities are really those of a ‘media art conservator’. The only museum I know of in the United States that has created the position of a time-based media conservator, is MoMA14, with Glenn Wharton15 in that position. It is probably the immense size of MoMA's media collection, I think they have around 1,500 or 2,000 media works, that has catalyzed that innovative step. As a reference, we only have between 250 and 300 media artworks. But still far too many to cope with them on my own!

PACKED: What kind of media artworks do you have in the Guggenheim Museum collection?

Joanna Phillips: Most of the works are single-channel16 and multi-channel video works, but we also have around thirty installations based on 16 mm17 and 35 mm18 film. We have rather few computer-based works in the collection. As most other art museums, the Guggenheim started acquiring video more prevalently in the 1990s, and also inherited some media collections. Unfortunately, those collections did not always include the masters for the videos.

PACKED: Does this mean that getting a master copy of all such works is one of your jobs?

Joanna Phillips: Yes, but the larger part of that was already done during the Variable Media Project. Caitlin Jones did a tremendous job on getting back to the donors, or the artists, and asking for master material for our archives. When we acquire a work today, I will always ask for the production format and make the master format we request dependent on that. I have also made the experience that you should never acquire a video without inspecting the master material thoroughly, because most of the time, neither the artist, nor the gallery or post-house will quality-check the master. Some of the videos that entered the collection in previous years displayed cross color effects19, raised black levels20, low bit rates on DVDs21, or weird aspect ratio22 problems - just because the copies weren’t properly made. This is one reason why it was so crucial to set up the viewing station in our Conservation Lab, including a Digital Betacam23 deck, and a BlackMagic card24 to play out video files onto a CRT25 inspection monitor. I always view and condition-assess the video carefully before digitization, or preparation for exhibition, to make sure that the exhibition copy does not compromise the artwork in quality.

Actually, it should be added that not only the video, but also the film works require thorough inspection at the point of acquisition. Even with very renowned artists, we have encountered interpositives26 and internegatives27 that were accidently printed onto acetate28 stock, reference prints29 that were badly timed or vertical image jumping that can occur when the developer in the printing process does not get exchanged regularly. Talking to the artists about these phenomena revealed that they were shocked about the poor quality of the archival material, and that they had simply trusted the expertise of the production companies. The problem with film in particular is that we are dealing with a dying industry and that the quality and expertise of companies is often compromised when they are being downsized or re-structured.

The viewing station in the Guggenheim’s media conservation lab.

Basic film inspection is being carried out in the conservation lab.

PACKED: Where do you store the equipment for all these works?

Joanna Phillips: It depends on the category of equipment. We divide our playback and display equipment into three categories, non-dedicated, dedicated, and shared obsolete equipment. The majority of equipment belongs to the first category, it is non-dedicated, variable, and gets sold, donated or discarded, when it becomes obsolete. This kind of equipment is stored in a warehouse in Brooklyn. It is placed on stacking pallets and shrink-wrapped to keep the dust out. We keep an inventory on an excel sheet, so we can track the equipment. For example, the LaserDisc30 players can be found on pallet G. Whenever we need equipment, we break down the pallet, remove the devices, re-wrap the pallet and update the spread sheet.

The non-dedicated, variable equipment is stored on shrink-wrapped pallets.

The equipment in the second category is much more valuable, and stored in climatized art storage, along with the other components of the artwork. This dedicated equipment might be modified by the artist, custom-designed or signed, or it is a performance relic and therefore has historical value attached to it. It is unique, and not replaceable.
The third category of shared, obsolete equipment is a smaller, but certainly growing category and has only recently been established. It comprises equipment like slide projectors, 16mm film projectors or CRT monitors that is not being produced anymore, and is increasingly harder to obtain. This equipment needs to be kept and maintained to install certain artworks that are dependent on its specific technology rather than a particular device, or make and model. We have only recently started to hold on to this kind of equipment, forced by the death of analog technologies. In previous times the Guggenheim never really dedicated or stockpiled equipment, partly because storage space is so expensive in New York, but also because the Guggenheim’s nature is rather exhibition-oriented. Moreover, in the past most of the collection care had to be covered by exhibition budgets. This meant, that money could only be invested into the preservation or migration of a work, when it was selected for exhibition. It was hard to finance preservation measures that didn’t pertain to a single artwork, e.g. the purchase of replacement parts or obsolete equipment for the future. Meanwhile, a collection fund has been established, which helps to establish more sustainable strategies.

PACKED: How exactly do you store the classes of more valuable equipment?

Joanna Phillips: Over the years, it has been stored and handled just like other installation components, partly in crates and archival boxes. We are currently working on finding an appropriate storage solution for the dedicated and the shared, obsolete equipment. It is one of our goals to eventually separate the dedicated equipment out of the crates and archival boxes, and to keep it in one place, on shelves, but this will be a long-term project. For now, it is mostly wrapped in bubble wrap foil, housed in Pelican Cases31, or still in the manufacturers' box. Quite recently, we have even started moving some of the formerly variable, class 1 equipment from the warehouse into the art storage. This change happened because the significance of the equipment is shifting; some devices are becoming obsolete and we want to preserve them, just because they are harder to get. Examples are overhead projectors in a Kara Walker32 piece33, or 16mm projectors for Tacita Dean34’s film installations, or CRT monitors for installations by Vito Acconci35 or Marina Abramovic36.

In former years, the Guggenheim has been storing dedicated equipment in archival boxes, like other components of the artworks. Today, this equipment is gradually being separated out for centralized equipment storage.

PACKED: How is this equipment tracked?

Joanna Phillips: The undedicated equipment is tracked on an excel sheet, and the dedicated equipment has component numbers and is tracked as “Part of the Artwork” in TMS37, our museum database. I have not come up with a solution yet how to best track the shared dedicated equipment. I would love to track the artworks and exhibitions the equipment has been used for, and thereby indirectly the running hours. I have to work on that.

PACKED: Do you have installations for which you just have the video tapes and not the equipment?

Joanna Phillips: Yes, that is the case for most single-channel works, and many installations, too. This practice is fine as long as the artwork does not depend on a certain technology, or as long as the technology is still around that is needed to install a piece. But we have just experienced recently - in preparing the current exhibition “Haunted”38 - how hard it can be to install a piece dependent on CRT monitors that you have never purchased when they were around! Marina Abramovic's five channel video installation "Cleaning the mirror I" consists of 5 stacked, cubic, dark CRT monitors. The artist is not particular about the make and model, but very precise about the aesthetical appearance. We decided with the artist that the Sony 2030 PVM monitors, very common and omnipresent in museums and galleries over the last decades, are the model we want to go with. But already now, it was really hard to find them! Ebay is certainly too late for CRTs, and in the end we found some very old PVMs that had been discarded by a broadcast company that had gone down. They were very dirty and completely off in terms of white balance, zoom and convergence. We had to take them apart, clean them, adjust them, and even add little magnets to the back of the tubes to correct the convergence, because it was not sufficiently correctable anymore through the preset screws on the circuit boards. It took a lot of effort.

PACKED: Who did all that maintenance and repair?

Joanna Phillips: I worked on the monitors together with Maurice Schechter, Chief Engineer at DuArt Film & Video39 here in Manhattan. I am very grateful for his infinite knowledge and experience, and I am learning from him continuously. He also helped me finding the monitors in the first place. You need good connections, if you are dealing with obsolete equipment.


5Johannes Gfeller is a professor in the Department of Conservation and Restoration at the Hochschule der Künst HKB, Bern(Switzerland). Since 2002 he is also in charge of the research project AktiveArchive.
6 Tabea Lurk studied Art history and media theory at the school for Art and media in karlsruhe, germany. In 2004–06 she was a scientific assistant at the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe. She has been a member of AktiveArchive since 2006 and director of the Artlab at the conservation and restoration department of the Art Academy in berne since 2008. Tabea Lurk’s scientific work focuses on new media art and the conservation of digital artworks.
7 Irene Schubiger studied Art History in Basel, Berlin and Cologne. She has had various activities in archives and museums, as well as curatorial activities. Since autumn 2004 she has been involved in the research project Aktive Archive. Since 2006 she is Lecturer at the HSLU Hochschule of Design and Art in Luzern and at the University of the Arts in Bern.
8 Agathe Jarczyk studied Conservation of Modern Materials and Media at the University of Arts in Berne, Switzerland, and received her diploma in 2001. From 2002 to 2008, she worked as a conservator in a video production company for video artists. Since then, she has been head of the Studio for Video Conservation in Berne, see: She is also a lecturer and researcher at the Department for Conservation and Restoration of Modern Materials and Media at the University of the Arts, Berne.
9 The Variable Media Initiative, is a nontraditional, new preservation strategy that emerged in 1999 from the museum’s efforts to preserve media-based and performative works in its permanent collection, and which later spawned the Variable Media Network (VMN). Initially supported by a grant from the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology in Montreal, Canada, the VMN comprises a group of international institutions and consultants, including University of Maine, the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archives, Franklin Furnace,, and Performance Art Festival & Archives. VMN is recognized for its ground-breaking methodology, which seeks to define acceptable levels of change within any given art object and documents ways in which a sculpture, installation, or conceptual work may be altered (or not) for the sake of preservation without losing that work’s essential meaning. See: and
10 Jon Ippolito is an artist, writer and curator born in Berkeley, California in 1962. Jon Ippolito was hired in the curatorial department of the Guggenheim, New York, where in 1993 he curated Virtual Reality: An Emerging Medium and subsequent exhibitions that explore the intersection of contemporary art and new media. In 2002 he joined the faculty of the University of Maine's New Media Department, where with Joline Blais he co-founded Still Water, a lab devoted to studying and building creative networks. His writing on the cultural and aesthetic implications of new media has appeared in The Washington Post, Art Journal and numerous art magazines. (Source: DOCAM)
11 Carol Stringari is Chief Conservator and Deputy Director at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and has been with the museum since 1992. She oversees the treatment and care of the permanent collection, exhibitions, and loans. Her specialties include modern and contemporary painting conservation; research on contemporary materials; installations; new media; and conceptual art. She has headed such projects as the laser research of a monochromatic painting by Ad Reinhardt, conservation of the works of László Moholy-Nagy, and the Variable Media Initiative.
12 Caitlin Jones is the Executive Director of the Western Front Society in Vancouver, see: At the Guggenheim, she held a combined research position in both the Curatorial and Conservation departments. Based on her background in Art History and Archival Studies, her activities included a one-year Variable Media Fellowship sponsored by the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology. She co-edited the Guggenheim / Langlois publication “Permanence Through Change: The Variable Media Approach,” and was co-curator of the exhibition “Seeing Double: Emulation in Theory and Practice”.
13Paul Kuranko was the Media Arts Specialist at the Guggenheim Museum from 1997 to 2009.
14The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is an art museum in New York City. It has been singularly important in developing and collecting modernist art, and is often identified as the most influential museum of modern art in the world. The museum's collection offers an unparalleled overview in modern and contemporary art, including works of architecture and design, drawings, painting, sculpture, photography, prints, illustrated books and artist's books, film, and electronic media.
15 Glenn Wharton est conservateur au musée d’Art moderne de New York et spécialiste de la conservation d’œuvres médiatiques. Voir l'entretien avec Glenn Wharton faisant partie du IMAP Resource Guide sur le site web de Electronic Art Intermix :
16The term ’single-channel‘ refers to video or media work that involves a single information source (such as a DVD).
1716mm film was introduced by Eastman Kodak in 1923 as an inexpensive amateur alternative to the conventional 35mm film format. 16mm refers to the width of the film. The format was initially directed toward the amateur market and was often referred to as sub-standard film by the professional industry. But 16mm has been extensively used for television production, and is still used by experimental filmmakers and other artists. The two major suppliers of 16mm film today are Kodak and Fujifilm.
1835 mm film is the basic film gauge most commonly used for motion pictures. It remains relatively unchanged since its introduction in 1892 by William Dickson and Thomas Edison, using film stock supplied by George Eastman. The photographic film is cut into strips 35 millimeters (about 1 3/8 inches) wide—hence the name. (Source: Wikipedia)
19Cross color is an artifact produced by the imperfect decoding of composite video. High frequency luma components are incorrectly decoded as chroma signals, causing colorization where there should be none. This colorization can be detected in many types of ”busy” scenes including tiled rooftops, herringbone patterned clothing, leafy scenery, etc. The most common and visible cross color artifacts are flickering that occurs at 15 Hz rate, flashing colors or rainbow patterns. (Source:
20 In video, the black level is the luminance of the darkest (blackest) part of a picture or the luminance at which no light is radiated by a screen, thus resulting in a black screen. Video screens have to be calibrated so that the black displayed corresponds to the black information in the video signal. If the black level is not correctly adjusted, visual information in a video signal may be shown as black, or black information as grey.
21The bit rate is quantified using the bits per second (bit/s or bps) unit. The amount of data transported in a given amount of time, usually defined in Mega (Million) bits per second (Mbps). Bit rate is one means used to define the amount of compression used on a video signal. Uncompressed D1 has a rate of 270 Mbps. MPEG 1 has a bit rate of 1.2 Mbps. (Source: National Film and Sound Archive.)
22The aspect ratio of an image is the ratio of the width of the image to its height, expressed as two numbers separated by a colon.
23Digital Betacam or DigiBeta is a digital version of the Betacam tape format. For a very long time it has been considered by television and other audiovisual archives as a good archival format because there is no generational loss between two copies. Since it seems that the current technological evolution will result in massive tapeless archiving, it is expected that also digital Betacam will disappear as an archival format.
24 See
25 The Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) is a vacuum tube containing an electron gun (a source of electrons) and a fluorescent screen, with internal or external means to accelerate and deflect the electron beam, used to create images in the form of light emitted from the fluorescent screen. The image may represent electrical waveforms (oscilloscope), pictures (television, computer monitor), radar targets and others.
26 An interpositive is a color master positive print.
27 An internegative is a master negative print.
28 Cellulose acetate film was introduced in 1934 as a replacement for the cellulose nitrate film stock that had previously been standard. When exposed to heat, moisture or acids in the film base begin to deteriorate to an unusable state, releasing acetic acid with a characteristic vinegary smell, causing the process to be known as "vinegar syndrome." Acetate film stock is still used in some applications, such as camera negative for motion pictures. Since the 1980s, polyester film stock (sometimes referred to under Kodak's trade name "ESTAR Base") has become more commonplace, particularly for archival applications. Acetate film was also used as the base for magnetic tape, prior to the advent of polyester film.
29 A reference print is copy of the film used for exhibition or viewing purposes. (Source: Docam)
30 A Laserdisc is a form of optical media that, unlike DVD, stores video as a composite analogue signal. The LaserDisc was first introduced by Philips and MCA in 1972, and has been on the market since 1978. LaserDiscs can be glass or plastic. There are essentially two types of LaserDisc: those mastered for constant linear velocity (CLV) and those mastered for constant angular velocity (CAV). CAV discs store approximately 30 minutes of video, can be controlled in a frame-accurate way and can be still-framed. CLV discs can store approximately one hour of video but cannot be controlled frame-accurately and cannot be still-framed. Once a popular display format for many artists, the LaserDisc has now largely been superseded by DVD. LaserDiscs could not handle saturated areas of colour, and would produce artefacts appearing as herring bone patterns. CAV discs did, however, have the advantage of frame-accurate external control. (Source:
31 See
32 Born 1969, Kara Walker is an African American woman who has taken her place at the forefront of the contemporary art scene trailing a storm of controversy, alternating between derision and praise for her work. From her small, intense drawings to her wall-scale paper silhouette cutouts, she presents a range of racial and sexual narratives that are provocative, unsettling and often difficult-to-view. Her works convey an uneasy mixture of historical facts and prejudiced fictions that engage the viewer in an unsettling dialogue about the nature of racism and sexism in our culture and in our nation's history. Kara Walker has been making enormous, even room-sized, installations using the silhouette format in cut paper for several years now. The silhouette, popular in the 19th and 18th century as women's art, is employed today as a narrative device by Kara Walker to give a jolt of graphic recognition to a subject matter which would often be too gruesome to tell in any other format. By distilling the images to stark black, gray and white silhouettes, Walker lulls her viewers into the murky waters of the history of African-Americans on this continent before the full scope of her subject matter is realized. Once in that swamp there is no turning back and Walker navigates with an assured hand and an ability to remain buoyant in the face of all adversity. See also:
33 The work to which Johanna Phillips refers is ‘Insurrection! (Our Tools Were Rudimentary, Yet We Pressed On)’, a work by Kara Walker from 2000 with cut paper silhouettes and light projections. See also:
34 Tacita Dean (born 1965) is an English visual artist, living in Berlin. She is trained as a painter and now works in a variety of media, including drawing, photography and sound but is best known for her compelling 16mm films. Static camera positions and long takes are characteristic of her films, creating a sense of stillness in their moving images. She has also made works about the mechanics of production, which reveal the artifice of cinema. (Source:
35 The influential, provocative and often radical art-making practices of Vito Acconci have earned him international recognition. Acconci has been a vital presence in contemporary art since the late 1960s; his confrontational and ultimately political works have evolved from writing through conceptual art, bodyworks, performance, film, video, multimedia installation and architectural sculpture. Since the late 1980s he has focused on architecture and design projects. (Source: Electronic Arts Intermix)
36 Marina Abramovic was born in 1946 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, where she studied at the Academy of Fine Arts. She is recognized as one of the leading international practitioners of performance art. From 1976 to 1988, Abramovic and her partner Ulay (F. Uwe Laysiepen) undertook a rigorous artistic collaboration, during which they produced works in performance, video and life-size Polaroid photography. In 2010 Abramovic was the subject of a major performance retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Entitled Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, the exhibition contained approximately fifty works in a range of media, including the re-performance of solo and collaborative pieces originally performed with Ulay. (Source: Electronic Arts Intermix)
37 The Museum System (TMS) is a collection management system developed by Gallery Systems. See: and
38 Haunted: Contemporary Photography/Video/Performance examines myriad ways photographic imagery is incorporated into recent practice and in the process underscores the unique power of reproductive media while documenting a widespread contemporary obsession, both collective and individual, with accessing the past. The works included in the exhibition range from individual photographs and photographic series, to sculptures and paintings that incorporate photographic elements, and to videos, both on monitors and projected, as well as film, performance, and site-specific installations. Drawn primarily from the Guggenheim Museum collection, Haunted features recent acquisitions, many of which are exhibited by the museum for the first time. Included in the show is work by such artists as Marina Abramović, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Sophie Calle, Tacita Dean, Stan Douglas, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Roni Horn, Zoe Leonard, Robert Rauschenberg, Cindy Sherman, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Jeff Wall, and Andy Warhol. See: and
39 See

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