JAIC 2001, Volume 40, Number 3, Article 3 (pp. 193 to 209)
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 2001, Volume 40, Number 3, Article 3 (pp. 193 to 209)




While the condition of Tiananmen Square: Break-In Transmission is currently stable, its long-term preservation is threatened on several fronts. The major threats can be summarized under the following headings:


5.1.1 Format Obsolescence

Laser disc, Betacam SP, and the 3/4 in. U-matic formats have been supplanted by newer formats and are no longer supported by manufacturers.

5.1.2 Hardware Obsolescence

While there is a large installed base of playback equipment for the formats listed above, the ongoing production of the equipment is unclear or has stopped altogether.

Even though LCD technology will continue to develop for high-performance displays, obtaining small, high-quality analog LCD monitors has proven difficult, as the market seems to be moving away from this niche.

While powered speakers will continue to be manufactured (especially for use with computers), the unique triangular design of the AV-570s will be difficult to match, now that this model is no longer manufactured.

The nearly 60-year dominance of the CRT for the display of visual information seems to be coming to an end as higher resolution and less bulky technologies gain momentum.

5.1.3 Media Degradation

The original off-air recordings and the edited masters are vulnerable since magnetic tape has a very poor life expectancy of only 10–30 years when stored at ambient temperature and relative humidity.

5.1.4 Documentation

Through participation in interviews and the TechArchaeology symposium, Dara Birnbaum has a proven ability to articulate her intentions for the piece in a manner that is both clear and insightful. In large part, this article is based on these interactions. Still lacking, however, is a document that spells out Birnbaum's specific requirements for the composition and parameters for acceptable change when components fail. Without such guidance, any required change could result in perceived or actual degradation of the artistic intent.

A centralized, accessible, and authoritative repository of technical specifications, measurements, materials, installation photographs, installation history, and correspondence pertaining to the piece does not exist. Assembly of this type of information will be increasingly valuable for future installations.


The magnetic tape masters and Birnbaum's off-air recordings should be remastered using a more contemporary format, possibly using a more stable storage medium. The original masters and remasters should be stored in a secure location under conditions that meet the ISO 18923:2000 standard (ISO 2000) for the extended-term storage requirements for magnetic tape (23oC at 20% RH, 17oC at 30% RH, and 11oC at 50% RH). The remastering process should be documented, especially if restoration based on subjective criteria is required.

Electronic components that have sculptural qualities (in addition to their functional properties) need to be specifically identified by the artist in collaboration with the installation's owners, who would then have the option to seek out suitable replacements. For example, the distinctive shape of the AV-570 loud-speakers may be worth preserving, and, if so, the time to acquire replacements is fast drawing to a close.


A centralized, authoritative list or catalog of all documentation pertaining to the installation should be established. At present, art historical and conservation research is difficult since there are many repositories that hold photographs, interviews with the artists, technical specifications, and equipment manuals that pertain to the piece. An easily updatable list of these repositories and a detailed inventory of their holdings would significantly streamline future preservation-related work.

Working with conservators, curators, technical experts, and the owners, the artist should develop an absolute generic version of the piece. This version should be as pure a distillation of the piece as possible, identifying critical physical and electronic components and dispensing with everything else. It should be extensively documented. The positioning of the key compositional elements, sound levels, and video output quality should be empirically measured and recorded. Through the documentation, this version can serve as a template against which subsequent display can be compared.

The TechArchaeology model for discussion of the preservation of media-based art should be expanded. Meeting the challenges inherent in preserving electronic art requires collaboration across a wide range of disciplines, including curators, technical experts, and artists. While conservation methods applied to electronic art will always be grounded in commonly held standards of practice and ethics, these new challenges will require new approaches. The development of these new approaches will require the dedication of resources for education, research, and the exchange of ideas.


The obsolescence of the laser disc format, the eventual obsolescence of CRT monitors, and the scarcity of replacement Acoustic Research loud-speakers will present a challenge for the long-term preservation of Tiananmen Square: Break-In Transmission. Such rapid cycles of hardware and software obsolescence are the inevitable effects of technological innovation within a highly competitive market. The preservation of almost any work of art that incorporates electronic technology, especially consumer electronics, will ultimately depend on strategies designed to document and manage the eventual replacement of gear like the NEC PMC 2571 and the Pioneer LD-V2000.

The obvious preservation strategy would seem to be the acquisition of multiple, redundant replacement parts. Although they are no longer being manufactured, at this writing the AR-570 loudspeakers used in Birnbaum's piece are still available, presenting a soon-to-close window of opportunity. There is no question this strategy should be implemented to the extent possible, though the limitations of the strategy should not be underestimated.

Perhaps a less obvious strategy is to contemplate the preservation of the piece without a CRT monitor, LCDs, AR-570s, or laser disc players. Eventually even the most well-preserved monitor or LCD screen from ca. 1990 is going to appear dated and somewhat primitive, just as breakthrough technologies such as phonographs, vacuum tubes, and room-sized videotape recorders now have primarily antiquarian value. Eventually such vintage gear, whether or not it is original to the piece and functional, may seriously interfere with and possibly undermine the intent of the artist. An example might be the large CRT monitor used in Tiananmen Square: Break-In Transmission. The monitor appears to be a deliberate evocation of contemporary television and the news media. Arguably it is this evocation of television and the medium's passive and disjointed viewing experience that is Birnbaum's intention. The CRT monitor was effective at fulfilling Birnbaum's intention in 1990 and will continue to work well for a number of years hence. However, CRT technology is on its way out, eventually to be replaced by LCD or, more likely, plasma display panels (PDP) or some other display technology. The medium of television will adapt and integrate whichever new technology predominates. Eventually, the NEC PMC 2571 monitor will cross a line: no longer a meaningful reference to contemporary television and the news media, it will become a technological relic evoking perhaps nothing more relevant than nostalgia, at best. At this point, the preservation of the piece and the preservation of original materials may present opposing goals.

The notion that the preservation of Tiananmen Square: Break-In Transmission may actually be undermined by a base reliance on its core technological components can certainly be applied to other work that incorporates electronic media. On its face, the problem is obvious: technology ages rapidly, and, when obsolete, it is replaced. However, within the context of art conservation, this practical reality will present a host of unique challenges for the conservator. Indeed, one of the underlying premises of Western art conservation is that materials are the embodiment and ultimate manifestation of artistic intent. The materials of the artist, whether canvas, paper, or photographic negative, are vital, tangible links to the artist. Distanced from the original materials, we perceive our experience of a work of art to be eroded and diminished—unmoored from the artist and the point of artistic creation.

Therefore if we opt for mapping the terrain where the preservation of artistic meaning supersedes the goal of materials preservation, conservators need to do more work by building substantial and credible justification. Such work cannot be done in isolation but needs to be reflective of informed dialogue with the artists, technical experts, curators, scholars, and collectors. While the dialogue must be inclusive, these issues of meaning, interpretation, and materials are central to the professional practice of art conservation. Conservators should be prepared to take the lead.

Copyright � 2001 American Institution for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works