A Daring Balancing Act: “Programmed” at the Whitney

Drawing heavily from the Whitney Museum of American Art’s permanent collection, Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965–2018 includes a broad range of works that spans fifty years of instruction-based artistic practice. In a groundbreaking collaboration, the exhibition was co-curated by Christiane Paul, Adjunct Curator of Digital Art, and Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, Melva Bucksbaum Associate Director for Conservation and Research. With many time-based media works requiring conservation efforts or adaptation in order to be shown, the two curators worked within an ideological framework of “experiential conservation,” which was developed through a deeply intertwined process of making both curatorial and conservation decisions for the exhibition.

Many of the artworks in the exhibition could not be shown in their initial state because of damage, issues of obsolescence for time-based works, or restricted exhibition conditions. Some artworks required curatorial and artist input to consider variable installation parameters, or to evaluate past modes of exhibition in order to arrive at their presentation in the current show. The artworks included in Programmed exemplify the copious challenges posed by experimental media, materials and processes, conceptual practices, and installation-based works. They often defy the foundations of both curatorial and conservation principles, which have traditionally aimed to preserve an artwork’s original state and to uphold its integrity despite shifting cultural and technological environments. While the notion of an original state for any work is now generally acknowledged as a myth among cultural heritage professionals, these works prompt reflection upon exactly what it is that needs to be preserved in the first place. The concept, equipment, content, and experience of the artwork as it unfolds are some of the variables contributing to an artwork’s meaning and identity. In this exhibition, Paul and Mancusi-Ungaro emphasized the preservation of the experience of an artwork to determine how each work should be presented. An exciting approach with the potential to capture work-defining qualities beyond material or technical aspects, their framework could be the beginning of a new paradigm for museum display and interpretation.

Whitney Museum of American Art
Nam June Paik (1932-2006), “Fin de Siècle II,” 1989 (partially restored, 2018) (installation view, “Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965-2018,” Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, September 28, 2018-April 14, 2019). Seven-channel video installation, 207 televisions, sound, 168 × 480 × 60 in. (426.7 × 1219.2 × 152.4 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Laila and Thurston Twigg-Smith 93.139. © Nam June Paik Estate. Photograph by Ron Amstutz

Striking out on this bold new path necessitates that the curators hold the audience at the center of their considerations. With their “experiential conservation” framework, the co-curators took on an enormous responsibility in bridging the divide between the artworks as they existed (or didn’t exist), as they were presented, and the viewers who encounter them. As a result, the vast majority of works on view were modified in some way to meet exhibition needs. Some of these interpretations are accepted as part of the practice of exhibition-making, even essential to the curatorial mandate. Sol Lewitt’s 4th Wall: 24 lines from the center 12 lines from the midpoint of each of the sides, 12 lines from each corner (1976) is necessarily re-interpreted each time it is installed. Jim Campbell’s Tilted Plane (2011) and Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Lorna (1979-1984) were adjusted to better fit the dimensions of the gallery space. Nam June Paik’s Fin de Siècle II (1989) was installed to mimic the entryway that it provided to the 1989 exhibition in which it was first realized.

The confluence of sanctioned curatorial interpretation and the ability to create altered versions of artworks for exhibition requires a principled approach anchored to both the artwork’s integrity and a responsibility to communicate relevant information to viewers. An average visitor to Programmed may not realize that Casey Reas’s {Software} Structure #003 A and #003 B (both 2004 and 2016) were adapted for exhibition by resizing from web browser resolution to full-wall projection and switching the color scheme to more closely reflect Lewitt’s 4th Wall, highlighting the conceptual connection these works share.

Whitney Museum of American Art
Installation view of “Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965-2018” (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, September 28, 2018-April 14, 2019). From left to right: Casey Reas, “{Software} Structure #003 A,” 2004 and 2016; Casey Reas, “{Software} Structure #003 B,” 2004 and 2016; Sol LeWitt, “4th Wall: 24 lines from the center, 12 lines from the midpoint of each of the sides, 12 lines from each corner,” 1976. Photograph by Ron Amstutz

In the case of Lucinda Childs’ Dance #1-#5 (1979), the original drawings could not be shown because of a recent, full loan schedule. They were instead digitized and projected on the floor amid other components of a collaborative piece by Childs, Lewitt, and Philip Glass called  Dance (1979 and 2014). While the projection illustrates that these drawings are plans for dancers’ movements on a stage, it is unclear whether the scale matches the originals, or whether the limited digital color space combined with the hue and grain of the hardwood floor accurately reflect the originals. A critical connection to the artwork’s identity is lost in this interpretation, and shows that the projection mainly serves to support the curatorial vision.

Whitney Museum of American Art
Installation view of “Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965-2018” (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, September 28, 2018-April 14, 2019). On wall: Lucinda Childs, Philip Glass, and Sol Lewitt, “Dance,” 1979 and 2014. On floor, projection of: Lucinda Childs, “Dance #1-#5,” 1979. In vitrine: Philip Glass, “Score for Dance #1,” 1979. Photograph by the author.

Many other examples of interpretation can be found throughout Programmed, from completely reformatted web-based artworks to re-fabricated exhibition copies. Citing the viewer experience, the co-curators have made their argument based on navigability, legibility, and accessibility in public tours and talks. However, the exhibition’s wall labels yield inconsistent communication about modifications, and the average viewer may leave the show with an inaccurate impression of many of the works on view. The purpose of creating replicas and exhibition copies of works, or making alterations to enable exhibition, is to keep the artworks accessible and active. This goal should remain a priority, allowing audiences to continue to experience important works and debate their place in culture. To that end, providing consistent and accurate information about the works and how they may have been altered in the service of exhibition is an essential responsibility.

Obsolescence and rapid degradation of artworks made in the past fifty years will continue to pose challenges for conservators and curators, and it is necessary to develop new approaches in order to share them with the public. Questioning the traditional limits of display and changing what information is shared within exhibitions not only enables engagement for such artworks, it also affects how viewers encounter and understand them. Putting the audience’s experience at the center of an artwork’s presentation opens up possibilities to expand the scope of exhibition beyond “looking back” at a historical work. Sharing relevant information about how a work has necessarily changed over time can bring awareness of the stakes involved in keeping cultural heritage accessible. “Experiential conservation” may be a strategy that allows viewers to better understand preservation and the choices involved in the ongoing story of exhibiting works of art like those found in Programmed, signalling a major shift in engagement with our cultural heritage.

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