Conserving Contemporary Art… And Your Favorite Mix-Tape
Sep20

Conserving Contemporary Art… And Your Favorite Mix-Tape

I spent most of today learning about what museum scientists and conservators are doing to keep contemporary art in tip-top shape. (This whole week I’m at ICOM-CC, the huge art conservation science conference currently taking place in Lisbon.) These folks who are developing life-extension treatments for some pretty quirky art and artifacts. I’m talking about gigantic chandeliers made from hundreds of illuminated plastic bags suspended from the ceiling, each bag containing a little electronic toy dog that barks and moves its legs. Gotta love it. Or they’re working on sculptures made from random objects covered in aluminum paint that are now degrading beneath the metal veneer. Or Nazi typewriters found at bombed Gestapo headquarters. Over lunch one Danish conservator told me he once had to restore the cast of a female body made from pizza dough that had cracked with age. The restoration strategy involved making pizza dough in the restoration lab and carefully inserting it into the sculpture. A great talk today was about the artist Dan Flavin who made light installations in the 1960s from fluorescent light bulbs that he had bought at the hardware store. You’d think that when the bulbs burn out, it would be pretty easy to replace them with new ones since we still use fluorescent lighting. The problem is, modern bulbs emit different colored light than the bulbs in the artwork, giving the light installations a completely different look. So researchers led by Francesca Esmay at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum are now tabulating the exact wavelengths emitted by his original bulbs so that conservators can know the artist’s original light palette, and possibly try to find ways to replicate it. Another great talk today was on magnetic tape conservation. If you’re under thirty, your experience with cassette tapes is probably limited to the hipster wallets you can buy on etsy. If you are over thirty, you probably still have a mixed tape--or several--full of songs that elicit intense nostalgia for your (possibly) misspent youth. If you’re a conservator of musical archives, thoughts of magnetic tape probably elicit feelings of panic. Researchers, such as Peter Weibel at the Center for Art and Media, have predicted that art forms stored on magnetic tape will be completely lost to the world within the next decade, due to degradation of the tape. Because of this, many archives want to digitize sound stored on magnetic tape. But if you’ve got thousands and thousands of tape reels, how do you know which ones to digitize first? Probably the ones closest to being completely unlistenable, right? And how do you assess imminent unlistenability? That’s where Elena Gómez-Sánchez comes...

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Digital Lifetimes: Data Worth Saving
Jun17

Digital Lifetimes: Data Worth Saving

If you ever get a sinking feeling that all your photos and correspondence stored digitally may one day be lost in a computer crash or due to some future software incompatibility, then you might empathize with the folks who spend their professional lives thinking about ways to ensure digital forms of cultural heritage don’t disappear into the ether. In fact, yesterday and today, people concerned with preserving digital 3D visualizations of ancient sites and other digital cultural heritage objects are meeting in London for a conference entitled Visualizations and Simulations, organized under the POCOS (Preservation of Complex Objects Symposia) banner. I’m not there, but many of the talks piqued my interest, such as the one about the Villa of Oplontis project. This is a 3D, navigable model of a gigantic Roman era villa near Pompei. The villa was so enormous that the archeologists trying to excavate the site 20 years ago never managed to find its limits. The villa had at least 99 rooms and a 60-meter swimming pool. For comparison: An Olympic-sized swimming pool is 50 meters long. Although excavators never did find the villa’s perimeter, they did acquire an immense amount of architectural information about the place. This is being used to develop what sounds like a cool 3D digital model of the villa. Art historian John Clarke is one of the leaders on the Oplontis project. He told me (by email) that his team is ensuring a good lifetime for all the digital recreation work by building a database of archival and photographs of the site, at very high resolution, just in case better software is developed than what they are using—and presumably in case there is some future incompatibility. Saving the raw data in an accessible place is a priority for Jenny Mitcham, a curatorial officer for the UK’s Archaeological Data Service. This mega database holds “a wide range of digital objects, from the simple to the complex” including digital images, databases, spreadsheets, GIS, vector graphics, geophysics (of various types for both land-based and maritime), photogrammetry, laser scanning data, 3D visualizations. (I had to look up photogrammetry. Wikipedia says it’s “the practice of determining the geometric properties of objects from photographic images.” Apparently it’s been used since the 19th century to do everything from measure tornado speeds to enable police forensics or archeology.) One cool application of photogrammetry is the VENUS project, where folks are building new tools for virtual exploration of deep water archeology sites. Here's the deal from the website: “Underwater archaeological sites, such as shipwrecks, offer extraordinary opportunities for archaeologists due to their low light, low temperature and a low oxygen environment...

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Digital Restoration: Introducing An Undo Function?
May15

Digital Restoration: Introducing An Undo Function?

Every once in a while, well-intentioned attempts to save a valuable painting or artifact from the decay of time bombs pretty badly. Consider the thousand-year-old ancient parchments that were laminated in the late 1950s or early 1960s--during that era's love affair with plastics--in order to protect the valuable documents from the wear and tear of a long life. Four decades later, the yellowed and brittle laminate had to be painstakingly removed from Belgium’s oldest parchment, the Codex Eyckensis, as the decaying plastic began to exacerbate the injuries it had aimed to avoid. Such hard lessons have since pushed conservators to look for easily reversible, minimally invasive ways to protect or restore cultural masterpieces—sometimes opting to shun any interventions altogether. Another possibility is to consider a digital restoration technique that offers “all the benefits of an Undo button,” says Daniel Aliaga, a computer scientist at Purdue University. Aliaga and his Phd student Alvin Law have designed software that can project light images on to sculptures or paintings that, for example, can reveal to the viewer what the decaying masterpiece may have looked like before decades or millennia of deterioration. The projection can also boost faded colours on a painting or touch up decorative tints on a piece of pottery or a sculpture’s exterior. Turn off the projector, and the piece reappears in its current day form. Previous attempts to digitally visualize possible restorations to art simply projected images onto a wall or screen. Aliaga’s digital restoration technique projects images directly on to the art which is tricky to do in 3D, he says. But working with Richard McCoy at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Aliaga has tried out the technique with ancient pottery from Mexico’s pre-Columbian Casas Grandes style and Neolithic people in China.  He's also given 16th century angel sculptures a digital facelift. Besides visions of what the artwork may have initially looked like, the digital technique could also project more whimsical or educational images. One possibility is to project an X-ray scan of a sculpture that highlights interesting scaffolding or materials beneath the artwork’s surface. Another option is to project the results of so-called infrared reflectography measurements, a non-invasive technique which can reveal features that an artist initially sketched on a canvas but then decided not to include in the final painting. These initial sketches could be projected on to the artwork to show how the painting was initially envisioned. Finally, you could also imagine using the technique to do a little artistic alchemy, such as turning a marble statue into wood using light. Although light projection seems, well, light to the touch, could this digital projection cause damage that would leave...

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