The Shock of the New—Symposium Review

National News Categories: 
Publish date: 
22 Mar 2017
Author: 
Rosie Cook

The AICCM Objects and Electron Special Interest Groups presented their joint symposium “The Shock of the New: Modern Materials, Media and Methods” on the 8th, 9th and 10th of February, and given the location at the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne, it was a great opportunity to enjoy a conservation conference close to home. The two days of presentations on a wide variety of topics were anchored around fantastic keynote speakers, who captured the excitement, novelty and challenges of modern materials and media. Students and recent graduates of the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation also presented their recent research, alongside experienced conservators and heritage professionals from around Australia and beyond, who shared their experiences – many of them highly entertaining as well as informative – in caring for challenging modern materials and unorthodox time-based media. Q&A sessions showed the strong level of relevance and engagement between audience and presenters, particularly on the topics of both digital preservation and preservation of the digital; discussions frequently returned to importance and impact of the audience experience upon conservation decisions.

On the first day, Kate Dunn of Creative Robotics Lab opened the conference with her keynote address on 3D modelling, printing and creative robotics, and shared her insights as an artist and scientist, highlighting the interdisciplinary nature of contemporary conservation. Questions were raised about how best to archive 3D models – such as how necessary is it to preserve a physical copy of a 3D print if we have the digital file – as well as the artist’s intent in terms of printing materials and methods.  

Rhizome’s Dragan Espenschied gave the keynote presentation on the second day of the conference, with a humorous yet thoughtful exploration of internet culture, and the conservation challenges and implications of its ephemeral nature. Dragan’s introduction to his work as an artist and as the Digital Conservator of the Rhizome project was a great segue to the second day’s presentations, touching on Kate’s questions from the previous day about how to faithfully restore a digital work according to the artist’s original vision and intent.

Presentations given over the course of the two days covered a wide range of subjects, revealing the depth and breadth of modern conservation concerns, and yet always returning to the common threads of significance and audience experience. It was fascinating to analyse each presentation through the filter of my own interest in performance and to observe the performative nature of both contemporary culture and its conservation on a theoretical and conceptual level. On a more pragmatic level, presentations on modern scientific methods introduced the audience to new and highly effective tools that are becoming more widely available to conservators for diagnosis, reconstruction and treatment.

I thoroughly enjoyed all of the presentations, which I also covered live on Instagram (@rosiehcook), and it’s difficult to choose highlights for this review, but here are my top three in addition to the excellent keynote presentations:

  • Louise Curham of the University of Canberra presented her PhD research “Tending the archive: ritual as preservation”, which explores the re-enactment of performance works as preservation, and was a fascinating insight into the overlap between artistic creation and conservation in archival practices. I am of course biased due to my own interest in this topic, but it was definitely one of my favourites.
  • Ellen Jansen from the University of Amsterdam who discussed the challenges of managing Jenny Holzer’s 1980s scrolling text artworks, using early digital technology and designed to be experienced outdoors – and pondered whether emulation in a gallery environment recreates the artist’s “signature”.
  • Di Whittle of the National Gallery of Victoria had her audience rolling with laughter with her extremely entertaining presentation, “The Robot has gone psycho, and other contemporary art survival stories”. There’s something about the gleeful combination of a zombie-themed presentation and conservation horror stories, that made it the perfect pick-me-up at the end of the second afternoon!

The third day of the symposium concluded with workshops in two streams, the first led by Dragan Espenschied on the topics of web archiving and emulation, and the second stream including an introduction to Arduino and micro-controllers by Micelle Woulahan and a free workshop on immersive VR experiences relating to archaeology, by Simon Young. The web archiving workshop that I attended demonstrated how to use Webrecorder (webrecorder.io), the free web archiving service offered by Rhizome, in order to capture interactive “recordings” of website experiences, customisable according to the need for active hyperlinks. I was able to record an Instagram channel in a fully archivable format, as a downloadable and readable WARC (Web ARChive) file, the open format recommended by archive.org.

Participants to the symposium were exposed to a wonderful variety of subjects, as well as many opportunities for dialogue and exchange, and it was great to see how Australian conservators are becoming so comfortable with handling challenges from time-based media artworks to crumbling museum plastics. An overarching theme emerged, which was that the conservator has to take responsibility for prioritising where care and resources are most needed, and symposiums such as these help us assert ourselves in that decision-making process.