Catherine Collyer, Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art
The Art with a Plug (AWAP) webinar series is billed as a ‘workshop for art conservators encountering work that runs on electricity’.
The third in an ongoing series run by New York University (NYU) since 2019, this online edition involved a brief introduction to the basic principles of electricity, electrical components and tools. Scott Fitzgerald (Industry Associate Professor, Co-Director of IDM and IDM Online, Tandon School of Engineering, NYU) led the workshops, giving descriptions and examples of how electricity can be harnessed and converted to create light or motion, transfer data and communicate between systems.
A presentation by time-based artist Vibeke Jensen gave insight into the artist’s use of electronics, mechanics, and programming in her practice. Her work also prompted discussion amongst the group about documentation and digital preservation.
Over four weeks, several antipodean participants logged on in the middle of the night to join our northern hemisphere counterparts to discuss things electric and time-based art related. The series offered a crash course in basic electronics through online videos followed by practical tasks such as building circuits that turned on LEDs using motion-activated switches (no hands). Conservators had the opportunity to apply electronic principles in creative and artist-inspired ways using fans (nod to Ross Manning), toys, water and movement. Electronic schematics were deciphered, and soldering was attempted with varying degrees of success. The final week was an education in basic programming of microcontrollers and looking at the application of motors, solenoids, integrated circuits, diodes and other devices in time-based art.
The webinar was a great intensive in basic electronics, but also offered a meaningful discussion about conservation challenges with time-based art that has led to ongoing communication amongst the group of attendees. It will be the beginning of an ongoing education in how electronics are used by artists and will hopefully provide a basic understanding of the language required to decipher how things can go wrong, and how to start to find solutions when this happens. A useful addition to the conservator toolkit.
Kasi Albert, Museum of Contemporary Art
It’s clear that the use of electrical and electronic components in artworks is here to stay. Accessibility, affordability and technological advancements mean that many artists are increasingly incorporating these types of materials into their practice—whether they are making things themselves or working with collaborators who can fabricate, integrate and program. As an objects conservator, I have had a fair number of experiences with art with a plug, but it’s always required a lot of fast learning and reliance on others with greater specialist expertise. It was fantastic, therefore, to have the opportunity to participate in this course online. Offered through NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, the course was tuition-free, thanks to the generous support of the Andrew W Mellon Foundation.
The course offered a combination of synchronous, live Zoom meetings and a-synchronous videos and readings. Of course, the Zoom sessions were scheduled for New York time, so these were at a tricky 1am for Australians on the east coast and 3am for New Zealanders! Nevertheless, a number of antipodeans represented some institutions on this side of the globe, calling in from dark livings rooms. Participants also utilised Slack to post questions, participate in discussions and show-off their successful (or not-so-successful!) weekly projects.
With a range of other international participants from the US and Canada, Norway, Germany, Chile, Brazil, Hong Kong and Singapore, it was amazing to hear how similar our experiences were. From searching for obscure lightbulbs, to sourcing obsolete CRT TVs, to failing microcontroller programming, many of the issues participants described were universal. Although often idiosyncratic or bespoke, approaching the conservation of works of art with a plug can often be undertaken in a systematic way with the right knowledge base. I found the information about the typical components of electrical and electronic circuits a particularly useful part of this course. In the second week, we were challenged to build a complex circuit to create a tiny sound synthesiser called an Atari punk console. We first created a temporary version on an electronics breadboard, then transferred it across to be soldered onto a perforated circuit board. This was quite a challenge and was thrilling to get it working!
I feel more confident that I can have productive and informed conversations with the AV technicians, electricians, artists and fabricators with whom I work on art with a plug! I also found it great to be reminded that many of us are working in this particular area and that there are generous and knowledgeable networks we can reach out to, both locally and worldwide.
Candice Cranmer, ACMI
I completely agree with my brilliant colleagues Catherine and Kasi—that this course presented such an incredible opportunity to learn basic electronics within a conservation framework, which is not yet available to us in Australia.
Having a background based largely in moving image and digital artworks, I found the opportunity to learn and share the challenges of electronic works, with conservation specialists from across the globe, especially invaluable.
What Art with a Plug also highlighted for me in debriefing about the workshop (in the more reasonable daylight hours) with Catherine, Kasi and Eliza (NZ), is the sheer breadth of our burgeoning electronic and time-based artwork collections in Australasia. These works are often bespoke and complex, and require dedicated time and resources to document for long-term access. Fortunately, this is slowly being recognised with a burgeoning army of time-based, variable media, object and electronic media, digital preservation and special collection conservation specialists in Australasia, which is incredibly exciting.
Dedicated courses like Art with a Plug and our ever-expanding and generous community of practitioners make me think that the cliché maxim ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ may actually be true. Looking forward to sharing these challenges and solutions from your practices in the future.