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Conserving Contemporary Art… And Your Favorite Mix-Tape

This light artwork involves a lot of electronic toy dogs suspended from plastic bags. This complex installation was made by Francisco Rocha.

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.

Replacing the fluorescent bulbs in light installations by Dan Flavin gives the artwork a different look. Photographed from a PPT presentation.

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 in.

As a conservation scientist at the Rathgen Research Laboratory in Berlin, she’s trying to come up with a non-invasive way to identify the most endangered magnetic tapes housed in musical and other archives.

Cassette tapes, your time is nigh. Credit: Wikimedia commons.

I found out today that magnetic tape is mostly composed of three parts. There’s a plastic base layer, with a magnetic coating on one side (containing the sound) and then a back coating on the other side.

The base layer and back coating can be made of several kinds of fragile plastics, including cellulose acetate and polyvinyl chloride. These plastics easily break down to release acetic acid vapors or sticky plasticizers, neither of which help keep the tape playable.

Gómez-Sánchez and her colleagues are using a hands-off technology called ATR-FTIR (Attenuated Total Reflection Fourier Transform Infrared, to be precise) to study tapes from a wide variety of manufacturers and from the musical archives at the Ethnological Museum in Berlin.

The team is first figuring out which cassette tape brands have specs that make them particularly vulnerable to degradation. They are also looking to use their device to find canary-in-a-coal-mine danger signals that would help museums decide which tapes (among thousands and thousands) must be digitized first.

Finally, they are also planning to study an empirical trick used by some conservators to render old tapes playable again. Apparently, baking old tapes for a short time brings them temporarily back to life—long enough to digitize them. Gómez-Sánchez is looking to find the scientific reasons this trick sometimes


I, for one, am excited to test out the baking technique with a tape I own from 1989 entitled “TOTALLY RAD.” It contains (if I recall correctly) a wonderfully curated series of songs that a teeny-bopper version of myself recorded off the radio. The tape has been unplayable for years, and I’m hoping a bit of baking will give me one last blissful listen.


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  • Jul 2nd 201318:07
    by Oliver Giving


    I wish I had come across this post earlier so I could still get one of those casette-tape hipster wallets from Etsy!

    On another note, I did some casette-tape digitizing a number of years ago and how it was decided which order the digitizing would happen was based more on how important the content of the tapes was than how old each was. A committee made these decisions. It was a good way to go.

  • Jul 4th 201314:07
    by Sarah Everts


    That sounds like a good strategy: As I understand it, the lifetime of the tape is dependent on additives inserted in to the layer holding in the magnetic particles and the manufacturer recipes changed often… meaning sometimes older tapes are doing better than younger ones. So prioritizing important stuff does make sense.

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