Diana Tay, University of Melbourne

Photon physics, performance art, artworks on iPads – these are examples of some engaging and thought provoking topics presented at On Paper? The 8th AICCM Book, Paper and Photographic Materials Symposium. Held over three days at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the symposium offered participants an insight into current issues and developments in the contemporary conservation practice that would not be traditionally associated with the paper conservation discipline.

While my interests lie in the use of digital media and documentation in conservation of contemporary works of art, I am trained as a paintings conservator. I entered the symposium not knowing what to expect and I found this pleasantly alarming and disarming. Before and during the symposium, I was frequently asked: “Why are you going to a conference about paper?” I didn’t have an answer for this question; I only had more questions. Why and should we be bound to our material specialisation? With constant shifts in technology and notions of art in the contemporary world, what is the framework that we, as conservators of the 21st century, should work within?

These questions were frequently raised in the symposium. In particular, Kerry Head and Lucy Willet, in the treatment of ethnographic objects, employed materials and techniques that are conventionally used in paper conservation. On a similar vein with non-conventional methods, Ruth Shervington presents display systems designed for large friable and unglazed works which can be hung flat against the wall. These talks not only highlighted the need for creative problem solving and cross-disciplinary approaches, but have emphasised that through developments in contemporary conservation practices, the walls between medium specialisations are not rigid and inflexible. The need for info-knowledge sharing, collaborative exercise, and cross-disciplinary adaptation, will allow us to develop more ways than one to arrive at a solution.

While science can be the answer and logic to complexities in materiality and aid in our understanding, it is not always the answer in times of modernity. Dr Pip Laurenson distinguishes the context of the object and how the artist intent plays a different role during its ‘active life’ and when it is at the ‘end of life’. The friction between the artist intent and material preservation is a prevalent issue in the conservation of contemporary art in which documentation platforms, direct involvement and discussions with practioners and colleagues are essential to gain an overall understanding and perspective.

The necessity for documentation was a constant highlight in talks ranging from documenting performance, the incorporation of iPads in an installation and the use of iPads for condition reporting. Inclusion of talks on digital media and technology in conservation was refreshing as it showed two sides of a coin – it introduced ethical dilemmas with digital media preservation but along with advanced technology and accessibility, it showed great potential to assist conservators in condition reporting. With the use of digital technology, it was interesting to note that a ‘digital deterioration’ could happen well within a year. I personally find that this is a field which has great research potential and encourage emerging conservators to consider and explore.

In conclusion, the series of talks presented in On Paper? have informed the future direction of conservation practice – moving beyond and breaking walls of our material specialisations. And beyond the field of photons and accelerated light-fading tests are some fundamental concepts which I’ve taken home that I think underpin our practice today – managing ethical dilemmas, risk analysis, adapting creative problem solving, making informed analysis, adopting a cross-disciplinary practice and keeping an open mind.

Thank you Tru Vue for this sponsorship, the organisers and speakers in AICCM’s Book, Paper and Photographic Materials Symposium.