Australia's second ever Time-Based Media Conservator

Candice Cranmer, Time-Based Media Conservator at work. Photography by Phoebe Powell.

Candice Cranmer, Time-Based Media Conservator at work. Photography by Phoebe Powell.

Preservation of artworks in a museum of film, TV, videogames and digital art is a complex, technical and time-sensitive process. The very technology used to create these modern masterpieces is constantly evolving, and preserving a work so that it can still be accessed no matter what kind of tech is around in the future, adds another layer of difficulty.

Time-based media refers to artworks that use time as a dimension, unfolding in front of their audience over a period of time. This certainly isn’t your static oil-on-canvas type of art.

Time-based media can be performative, multi-dimensional, immersive and difficult to re-create.  These artworks cannot be viewed unless they are plugged in, connected and powered-up.

Candice Cranmer, Time-Based Media Conservator at work. Photography by Phoebe Powell.

Candice Cranmer, Time-Based Media Conservator at work. Photography by Phoebe Powell.

 “TBM art has both a technology or media component and a temporal dimension – so it describes artworks with software-based interactive systems, single or multi-channel projections, video or audio,” says Candice Cranmer, Time-Based Media Conservator.

Candice Cranmer has been working in ACMI’s  underground Collections studio  since 2012.  Just last month she was appointed the role of ACMI’s first Time-Based Media Conservator – only the second person in Australia to hold this title.  

“What we’ve noticed of our time-based media collection is that software and hardware can rapidly become obsolete; eventually all hardware dies and most software is superseded. The complex interconnectedness of such TBM systems mean that institutions need to invest in an ongoing cycle of migration, authentication and re-installation for continued access to these pieces.”    

This type of conservation is still relatively new in Australia, but museums are rapidly understanding that it is vital to allocate further resources, funding and dedicated staff to ensuring time-based media is properly archived.   

Candice and the Collections team have a time-consuming process ahead of them each time a new acquisition is sent down to the ACMI basement. Each piece that is ready to be archived needs to first be thoroughly documented – metadata is collected, manuals and instructions written and then the work itself needs to be stored in a way that’s going to ensure it can still be accessed in the future.  

The documentation process includes photographing and videoing the media, as well as collecting anecdotal evidence from viewers of their experience of the work. Every file supplied by the artist is analysed and quality checked by being watched in real time; if there are four versions of a file, Candice watches all four versions in real time to ensure there are no issues.

From here, any digital glitches are identified and assessed, and a checksum is created for each file that acts as a digital fingerprint so that the Collections team can tell if a file has retained data integrity. It’s slow and steady work, but the importance of what they’re doing is never lost on Candice. 

Ben Abbott, Collections technician at work. Photography by Phoebe Powell.

Ben Abbott, Collections technician at work. Photography by Phoebe Powell.

“ACMI holds and continues to grow an exemplary TBM Collection. If we don’t act to secure these works right now they may be lost to future generations.”

One particularly challenging work that Candice helped preserve during her time at ACMI was artist Troy Innocent’s software-based piece, lifeSigns: eco-system of signs & symbols.

The work itself is: “an interactive digital network where participants play selected emotions as game identities. These interactions are seen in a fluid projection onto a mounted floor screen between the game terminals.”

After being originally packed away for storage in 2004, ACMI acquired Troy’s work in 2018. Candice and the team were tasked with archiving and preserving the artwork 14 years since it had been exhibited.

This particular preservation project highlighted the difficulties associated with time-based media preservation: the original server and four hard drives used to build and display the work were missing, as well as four touch pads and trackball mouses which were crucial to maintain the artwork’s integrity and parlour game aesthetic.

Luckily, Troy had kept all the original hardware, software and other crucial elements in his studio and was able to provide this to the Collections team. Outdated software was also emulated on modern-day computers.

Read more about the Collection team’s journey to preserve lifeSigns: eco-system of signs & symbols on Medium.

The refreshed and revived ACMI, reopening in 2020, will give the public an opportunity to witness first-hand the preservation of time-based media works such as Troy’s.

The Media Preservation Lab will sit in the heart of the museum, a glass-fronted laboratory where our patrons can observe the important work that goes into ensuring the history of digital art is accessible for generations to come. Please support this work by donating today.

Anaya Latter