I was excited to join conservators, curators, and educators last Friday for a workshop about Artist Interviews presented by the International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art - North America INCCA-NA at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
The workshop had a few nice touches that made the environment collegial and made those who attended perhaps more open to sharing and discussion.
1. Our name tags had our first name in large letters in the center of the tag, this was clever, the whole name and institutional affiliation were underneath in smaller lettering. This made it feel more intimate, as we were on first name terms with the other attendees.
2. One of the first exercises was to practice an interview with someone we did not know, then re-tell the interview to introduce this person to our group (there were 3 groups, each with around 10 people in each group, my group had Dawn Rogala, Helen Ingalls, Jeffrey Martin, Matthew Skopek, Mika Yoshitake, Nancie Ravenel, Narayan Khandekar, Steven O’Banion, and Tiarna Doherty. Looking over the list of workshop attendees I see it is all alphabetical by first name, another nice touch. I interviewed Narayan Khandekar, Senior Conservation Scientist, Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies. I learned about his very impressive career, all the places he has worked, and a few off-topic facts like his fascination with the city of Los Angeles.
We absorbed a great deal of information from Richard Candida Smith, Jill Sterrett, Jess Rigelhaupt, and Gwynne Ryan. It was an environment where we were given a great deal of information and then allowed to workshop some of that information in our interviews with colleagues.
A question that kept coming up in my mind was the purpose of these artist interviews. Richard Candida Smith said at the beginning that having a goal for an interview is very important, communicating this goal to the artist, then having one interview and following up with more interviews to further discover more information. I keep hearing interviews and thinking about the role of conservation and therefore the goal of conservation of contemporary art and here is what I have concluded,
It seems like many conservators approach these interviews as if they are asking permission to preserve a work of art, there are questions like “How do you [the artist] feel about your object deteriorating?” This seems a bit naive, once the object leaves an artist’s studio and changes hands to a collector or museum, is how the artist feels about it relevant anymore? They are no longer creating the art, and if they claim that deterioration is a part of the creation of the object should they have something about that in the artist statement?
However, I can see why this question has become commonly asked in these artist interviews. I feel it is a holdover from ethnographic interviews and consultations with indigenous peoples, like those at the National Museum of the American Indian. In these interviews the conservator is questioning an indigenous person about an object of their culture. The interview implies that the ethnographic object is ‘alive’ and the cultural representative still ‘owns’ the tangible and intangible properties of the object that make it a part of their culture. The cultural representative can tell the conservator what tangible and intangible properties must be preserved for the object to remain ‘alive’.
While this is the right de-colonial approach for indigenous materials, it is a problematic approach for contemporary art. The artist still has the power to renounce a work of art using the VARA legislation (see a previous discussion of VARA and conservation), but how the artist feels about deterioration does not set a standard by which a conservator should base their treatment. Actually, VARA specifically states that deterioration through natural processes does not provide a grounds for which an artist can renounce a work. I would be interested in hearing what an artist would say if they are questioned ‘What could I do as a conservator to make you renounce this artifact as your work?’. It would certainly be interesting.
In my experience, artists create art, art historians and curators contextualize art, and conservators conserve art, while there should be an awareness of each by the other we should be careful not to ask artists to contextualize or conserve their art, isn’t that our job?