Conservation is a knowledge-generating activity.1 Often, relevant knowledge that directly exerts influence on a conservation approach or action, including the artist intent, resides in what Fernando Domínguez Rubio calls artwords– the expressions that artists produce about themselves and their artworks.
As Rubio writes: “Rather than asking curators or conservators to cobble together an interpretation based on questionnaires and contracts, or to infer intention through material excavations of the artwork, why not ask the artist herself? Certainly this seems much better than relying on tea-leaf interpretations of artists artwords gathered through secondary source.”2 These artwords can be procured by provoking intention through the use of artist questionnaires, interviews, statements, and contracts.
The ritual of interviewing artists, loosely defined as a guided conversation where information is obtained, is a standardized, institutionalized practice in art museums. In metropolitan cities– strong-holds and centers of the art ecosystem–access to the artist can often be consistently guaranteed. An artist’s visit to the museum can provide a welcome opportunity to inquire about a possible conservation plan or strategy, examine gaps in knowledge that were not probed during the acquisition process, discuss a change in state in the artwork, or to review the materials and techniques employed during the conception of the artwork. One of the major benefits of artist interviews and engaging with contemporary artists in a more collaborative way is that you get to hear them interpret their own work in their own words. Having the artist’s voice on record would, in theory, make decisions made around an art object more or less ethically manageable. But there are risks and advantages in the deployment of interviews as research-gathering tools for rendering artist’s intent, and with museums using that data to specify the boundaries of an artwork’s identity and setting parameters regarding which elements or components are variable and which are more or less fixed.
Something that is not discussed as much–save for in specific professional workshops or seminars like the VoCA Artist Interview Workshop which I attended in 2019–are the power dynamics encountered in these engagements and how much of a living artist’s time and energy can be subordinate to maintaining their market relevance under a global capitalist system. One of the workshop’s teachings is that one must consider what is asked, how it’s asked, when it’s asked, and that these ingredients will undoubtedly shape the response obtained. As I see it, an interviewer must to some degree relinquish control and simply guide a conversation with an intended purpose. It’s a delicate balance, and vital to bear in mind that artist interviews serve only as ‘snapshots in time’ of a particular set of circumstances and attitudes that are highly contextual and often the fruit of loaded situations.
Continuing Rubio’s provocation, if the resources needed to care for media artworks assume a constant, endless labor with the objective of preventing something from becoming neglected, undone, then the tools used to ascertain facts about an artwork must recognize the complex social networks of collaborators, with multiple interdisciplinary knowledge systems and practices, which are involved in a work’s materialization and conservation that transcend the museum. Shannon Mattern writes that: “Given the degree of brokenness of the broken world (and the expense of fixing it), we need all maintainers to apply their diverse disciplinary methods and practical skills to the collective project of repair.”3 Taking heed of Mattern’s summon, it is useful to look into other knowledge generating activities and pursuits that are done by maintainers in community that fosters collaboration, orality, pluriversality (as in a world where many worlds can exist), and most importantly, are sustained throughout time, “against the weight of the centrifugal odds”.4 This approach might be enhanced by looking at the social sciences. How through the coordination of human effort, we have articulated methods and enduring ways for material objects, things, and cognition to persist. For example, the ways in which traditional recipes are shared across generations, particular ways of agriculturally treating the land to produce diverse, rich crops, maintaining collective work, the invisible labor of servicing city infrastructure, and sustaining revolutionary social movements.
I crossed paths with the origin story of the Zapatista (EZLN) caracoles5, during an APEX (Audiovisual Preservation Exchange) visit to San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico. I was there to work alongside ProMedios de Comunicación Comunitaria, a community-based centre facilitating audiovisual training within and around the autonomous Zapatista communities. The story La historia del sostenedor del cielo (Story of the Sky Holder), collected through the writings of Subcomandante Marcos, foregrounds a Caracol, the Spanish word for snail, a mollusk with its signature spiral shell. But in Southern Mexico, caracoles accrue additional meaning as meeting points where the autonomous municipalities discuss, organize, and exercise self-governance.
Caracoles are: “[…] like doors that allow entry to communities and allow communities to exit; like windows that people can look through and through which we can see the outside; like loudspeakers to project our words into the distance and to hear the voice of those that are far away. But above all to remind us that we should watch over and be responsive to the totality of the worlds that populate the world.”6 In this rendition of a Mesoamerican myth, a person is entrusted with the responsibility to hold up the sky, as if it were a stretched canvas over the Earth. After some trial and error outstretching the sky, the holder slung a snail shell across their chest to listen for the rumblings of the earth when taking repose and to call on others to awaken and to collectively clutch and hold the sky. In symbol and practice, the caracoles represent an internal and external shift in consciousness of thought and action to “participate in increasingly effective actions in order to achieve the intended goals of a community.”7
The caracol can function as a framework for conservation-focused artist interviews, as it urges active and intentional listening to cooperatively care for a social project. The mode in which caracoles occur can also be instructive, as they are meant to strengthen and increase webs of care where individuals can achieve negotiated solutions based on non-negotiable principles. In some contexts, this type of negotiation can be understood as an extended dialogue akin to an interview: it allows for information to be exchanged and presents opportunity to jointly explore deeper layers of information associated with an object such as an artwork and to its production, like a particular artistic practice. Viewing artist interviews as dialogues rather than a quick means of extracting information is key; it opens the door for developing or establishing a relationship with an artist from within an institution or organization, as a tool for negotiation of care, an opening to discuss possible conservation actions or to develop future iterations.
The scholar Mary Louise Pratt described ‘contact zones’ as the “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialisms, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today.’’8 The historian-anthropologist, James Clifford, in his 1997 essay Museums as Contact Zones, problematized the unidirectional way relationships have historically transpired between museums and indigenous people, based on his observations at the Portland Art Museum. In the article, Clifford recollects when a group of 20 people, including museum staff, anthropologists and a group of Tlingit elders, gathered to discuss the stewardship of the museum’s Northwest Coast Indigenous Collection. The museum staff wanted to specifically talk about objects in the collection and how to display them, however the elders had a different agenda and wanted to talk about their own history as reflected on collection objects and its contemporary pertinence. The elders responded to the collection objects as aides-mémories– an occasion to tell stories and sing ceremonial songs. In Clifford’s observation, not only did museum staff and the Tlingit elders have differing viewpoints with regards to these collection objects, they didn’t seem to even want to have the same conversation or share the same concerns. “The experience of “consultation” left the Portland Art Museum staff with difficult dilemmas. It was clear that from the elders’ viewpoint the collected objects were not primarily “art.” They were referred to as “records,” “history,” and “law,” inseparable from myths and stories expressing ongoing moral lessons with current political force.”9 What came to pass was that the museum basement cafeteria became the place where all came together and had what was probably two mutually unsatisfying conversations that would become the first step on the road to better mutual understanding. In this respect, the museum became a contact zone, a space where different cultures can come into contact (and conflict), and where reciprocity can replace one way transmission and translation.
I have similarly found that choosing a comfortable setting can have a major impact on the interview outcome. For example, in 2019 I was an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Media Conservation at MoMA, and the Cuban artist Wilfredo Prieto was scheduled to visit the museum. Prieto’s 2006 installation Mute had been gifted to the museum by Patricia Phelps de Cisneros through the Latin American and Caribbean Fund. With Mute, Prieto transforms the gallery space into a disco-dance floor environment with flashing, spinning multi-colored and strobe-lights. The type of stage lighting truss that you would find in a massive 1990s or 2020s rave. The physical gallery setting, that of an authentic dancehall, produces a dissociative comedown from the absolute, stark absence of music or a drum beat. It becomes a sort of auditory afterimage. To prepare for the interview, I pored over available documentation on the work and came up with a plan or line of questioning addressing the work’s history, equipment, materials, work-defining properties, and installation guidelines. The interview was scheduled to be attended by a small group composed of collection specialists, curators, and conservators. The room where the interview was to take place was an elegant boardroom with a long table, leather upholstered chairs and an impressive view of Manhattan’s midtown high rises. While stylish and impressive, the room was not necessarily inviting or warm.
From my perspective, interviewing someone from a similar cultural background in a language other than our mother tongue proved to be challenging. I speak English with a somewhat thick accent and am from Puerto Rico, an island that shares deep-rooted historical linkages with islands in the Caribbean sea, and is 1,225 km from Cuba. In retrospect, I believe that conversation would have flown more freely if we had held the interview in Spanish and in a different setting. As it was, the conversation was self-conscious and consisted of brief statements. It’s uncertain whether language would have made a difference, but I believe that the additional layer of translation stunted the conversation. I imagine that removing the language barrier, avoiding technical jargon or offering the option of a multilingual exchange, could’ve made the artist feel more comfortable and significantly altered the tone of the interview. The cold ambiance of the boardroom setting also had an effect on the conversation; the dynamics encountered in such stark artist-museum relations, and our role as conservators in that ecosystem as I realized during that experience, lingers in my mind. Open reciprocity is crucial in an artist interview, yet the terms of the exchange may not be understood in the same way. It can be constructive to pare down expectations by acknowledging that in “absorbing the culture of knowing and fixing we are narrowing our opportunities to learn, creating loss through missed reciprocity.”10
This experience differed from another interview held with Basim Magdy at a museum gallery, in the presence of their installed work. Accompanied by the sounds of clicking and rotating slide projectors, we uncovered the artist’s production process and preferences for display. The audio recording was cacophonous, but information gathered was useful. Or another focused interview held in a small lab space, with Composers Inside Electronics, a group of composers and performers dedicated to the composition and live performance of electro-acoustical music, where we talked about and broke down a particular piece of software written by one of the group’s members, which ran a series of tasks that contributed to ‘running’ the artwork in question. This drove home one of the central lessons derived and extrapolated from the VoCA Workshop: works of art can trigger memories and help the artist as mnemonic devices.
What happens when the infrastructural scaffolding of museums– its amalgamated staff representing different aspects of cultural heritage labor, conference rooms, generous endowments, established position of authority, is not present or does not exist in the same way? What unfolds when artist interviews become loose conversations spread across many visits over the course of years? A dialogue shared over hard-drives, videotape recorders, amid coffee rings and dispersed CRT monitors; accompanied by meandering thoughts and digressions that mimic unruly cabling diagrams. The product of sustained relating. Input and output.
In my current role as Director of Media Collections and Preservation at Electronic Arts Intermix– a New York-based non-profit organization and leader in the field of media art– I am responsible for the technical stewardship of a collection of analog and born-digital media artworks. EAI was founded in 1971 with the goal of promoting the creation, exhibition, distribution, and preservation of media art. Relationships had developed profoundly with some of the artists EAI has represented over its 50-year span. In part, this was a byproduct of my role in its initial iteration and the technology of the time. Technical Directors would often work cheek by jowl with artists editing, producing videotape or DVD exhibition copies, and re-mastering works. With ease and frequency, settling into assignments as collaborators, technical consultants, advisors, and advocates. In this new capacity, I had the enormous task to re-establish these relational connections–and more importantly– build up the trust required to continue to steward artworks in the collection that needed attention or that had not received enough consideration. Bearing in mind that an ongoing process to subtly shift the ad hoc, unrecorded manner in which many of these conversations were being carried out, while also gaining from the existing interpersonal groundwork established by my colleagues, could be destabilizing. I worked with Erin Fitterer, a student at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts Time-Based Media Conservation program, to cull together existing time-based media questionnaires and documentation forms and adapt them to our current context: small-scale, tightly resourced, video intensive, and come up with a minimally viable prototype.
Unilaterally applying verbose questionnaires replete with specialized, technical language, which are often not tailored to a specific artwork, and are based on generic templates are not an ideal recourse for gathering the type of information that a conversation can raise. They may help in a pinch, but are often not filled in by the artists themselves and take a lot of labor to dissect and interpret for both the artist and for the conservator. In practice, these often convoluted questionnaires, which mostly inquire about the technical metadata of a video, software, or film artwork, concern data that can be extracted directly from the delivered files. In an environment where staff are already spread thin, and one person is solely responsible for all aspects of preservation, capturing basic information and advocating for the work’s care is hierarchically more important than recording the native video codec of a work. This is not to say that questionnaires or technical metadata are not valuable information, but that it is best to be strategic and intentional in how information is harvested, especially when dealing with an artist. Going through EAI’s paper records, the presence and variety of prior questionnaire forms grabbed my attention and provided glimpses into how and what information has been historically collected and what was left out. In the 1970s when these forms were filled in by hand, Video Art had barely started to enter the museum, and to a greater degree resisted museumnization. It is then no wonder that display preferences do not figure on these forms, and that video generation, production, and description are the data fields that are championed. I realized that in order to steward these works to the best of our ability going forward, questionnaires alone would not suffice; we would need to start conducting interviews as well.
Planning to implement an artist interview program meant coming up with a list of artists to ‘beta-test’ our approach. We also began brainstorming the type of information to be gained from interviews, as these would be decidedly about conservation, the material production process of the artwork or bodies of work, and the stewardship of said body of work. Format also matters, so we considered whether to have in-person interviews or adopting the convenience of video conferencing, the logistical details, equipment needed, and the desired outcome. In other job environments, I have found that working together with the artist – whether observing them install a work, co-editing, pair programming, or having them ‘run through’ a hard-drive – can be a useful, cooperative catalyst for an interview and generate reflections about preservation and conservation. This frequently gives way to improvised questions, relating to what the interview participants are actively noticing, while interfering as little as possible with their creative process. The practice of engaging with artists, together with the responsibility to capture and manage that information in a meaningful way, is essential in allowing future caretakers an appropriate degree of context that can inform decisions regarding an artwork’s preservation and display.
Sanneke Stigter has written extensively about auto-ethnography and reflexivity as a new approach and tool to document process-based installations emphasizing the conservator’s testimony, and potential role as co-producer in the installment of an artwork. Auto-ethnography is a genre of writing that draws on, analyzes, and interprets the experiences of the author and “connects researcher insights to self-identity, cultural rules and resources, communication practices, traditions, premises, symbols, rules, shared meanings, emotions, values, and larger social, cultural, and political issues.”11 In conservation, auto-ethnography embroils conservators in the act of describing how a collection object can affect their actions upon said object. Writing about a direct experience with the world from memory is, just as in the case of entering a dialogue with an artist, grounded in self-reflexivity or the careful consideration in which a person’s past experiences, points of view and roles impact interactions and interpretations of the ‘research scene’. As we’ve seen, one’s personal history, the location, and cultural contexts all come into play.
In Cine-Ethnography, filmmaker and anthropologist Jean Rouch narrated that while filming a ritual, he found himself in a trance that allowed him to enter a heightened creative state. In the exhibition catalog for the exhibit ‘A Universe of Fragile Mirrors’, the artist Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, reacts to Rouch’s writings, in particular to the line which gives the exhibition its namesake. “In this universe of fragile mirrors, next to men or women who can with one clumsy motion unleash or stop the trance, the presence of the observer cannot be neutral.”12 In response, Santiago Muñoz compels us to consider the prospect of various positionalities from which to see, hear, and become aware of something: “seen from the position from which art is made, its processes intensify states of perception and the relationship between the form and new states of consciousness. Both ritual and art are constructed on the materiality and of every kind of object, whether everyday or exceptional. […] When we look at the practice of art through a lens of ritual, we can open art to positions beyond that of the spectator.”13
There is an evident tension in translating everyday or exceptional states of consciousness and perception into declarations constructed by already faulty, imperfect language. Dominguez Rubio writes that “[interviews] force the artist to translate something that usually takes place in the order of bodies, things, and practices into the order of language, that is, into the order of explanations, descriptions, and justifications.”14 One of the VoCA Artist Interview Workshop exercises asks participants to form pairs and take part in a 30 minute introductory interview. The act of summarizing one’s biography into small tidbits of information to be relayed by someone else can be an unsettling, yet informative experience.
It seems like no matter how exhaustive an artist interview program is, there are practical issues that are overlooked or hidden from view, embodied knowledge that is un-transmittable or not easily managed or captured. The advantage, however, is interviews force subjects to acquire a sense of vulnerability. A sense that in spite of the broken, inoperative technology that surrounds us, there is a very real consciousness of a fragility that acknowledges that we are not in control.
1 Hölling, Hanna, The technique of conservation: on realms of theory and cultures of practice (2017), Journal of the Institute of Conservation,
https://www.hannahoelling.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/The-technique-of-conservation-on-realms-of-theory-and-cultures-of-practice.pdf Accessed July, 2022.
2 Domínguez Rubio, Fernando. 2020. Still Life : Ecologies of the Modern Imagination at the Art Museum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Accessed July 28, 2022. ProQuest Ebook Central.
3 Mattern, Shannon, Maintenance and Care: A working guide to the repair of rust, dust, cracks, and corrupted code in our cities, our homes and social relations, (2018)
https://placesjournal.org/article/maintenance-and-care/?cn-reloaded=1&cn-reloaded=1 Accessed July, 2022.
4 González, Casanova, Pablo, The Zapatista “Caracoles”: Networks of Resistance and Autonomy, (2010), p. 91
5 Pratt, Mary Louise, Art of the Contact Zone, 1999
https://gato-docs.its.txstate.edu/jcr:c0d3cfcd-961c-4c96-b759-93007e68e1f0/Arts+of+the+Contact+Zone.pdf Accessed July, 2022.
6 Clifford, James, Museums as Contact Zones, Chapter 7, p. 191 in Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century
7 Jack McConchie, ‘“Nothing Comes Without its World”: Learning to Love the Unknown in the Conservation of Ima-Abasi Okon’s Artworks’, Tate Papers , no.35, 2022 ,
https://www.tate.org.uk/research/tate-papers/35/learning-to-love-the-unknown-conservation-ima-abasi-okon-artworks, accessed 21 October 2022.
8 Santiago, Muñoz, Beatriz, A Universe of fragile mirrors, I am going to describe a ritual , 2016, Pérez Art Museum,
9 Wielocha, Aga, The Artist Interview As A Platform for Negotiation an Artwork’s Possible Futures, 2018, Art and Documentation No. 17, 2018,
10 Jack McConchie, ‘“Nothing Comes Without its World”: Learning to Love the Unknown in the Conservation of Ima-Abasi Okon’s Artworks’, Tate Papers , no.35, 2022 ,
https://www.tate.org.uk/research/tate-papers/35/learning-to-love-the-unknown-conservation-ima-abasi-okon-artworks, accessed 21 October 2022.
11 Conceptual Foundations of Autoethnography, p. 4
12 Santiago, Muñoz, Beatriz, A Universe of fragile mirrors, ‘I am going to describe a ritual’ , 2016, Pérez Art Museum,
14 Domínguez Rubio, Fernando. 2020. Still Life : Ecologies of the Modern Imagination at the Art Museum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Accessed July 28, 2022. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Shana Moulton, Whispering Pines 4, 2007.
10:53 minutes, color, sound.
Image courtesy of the artist and EAI (Electronic Arts Intermix).
Side profile of a light-skinned woman wearing over-ear headphones with large cream conch shells covering her ears. The woman has short strawberry blond hair cut into a chin-length bob, and wears a purple collared shirt under a bright pink sweater. Behind her, a swirl of random objects include a wooden fence strung with sheer purple fabric, a large sculpture of a hand painted with symbols, and an unidentifiable grey stone monolith.