1Using The Bad Infinite by Diana Thater as a case study, this research considers the ways in which technological obsolescence affects perceptions of the material and conceptual integrity of technology-based works of art.
2The Bad Infinite is a silent three-channel video installation by Diana Thater from 1993 (Fig. 1). Like in many of her other early works, Thater exploited the three-tube construction of the then ubiquitous cathode-ray tube (CRT) video projector to separate the work’s video components into their red, green and blue signals, and recombined them on the walls of exhibition spaces in overlapping, misregistered, multi-channel projections. During filming for The Bad Infinite in 1992, Thater mounted three Hi8 video cameras to a plank of wood, one behind the other, and carried them through Sequoia National Forest in four feet of snow recording the surrounding wintry and wooded landscape. When installed, three Sony 1000 series three-gun video projectors were stacked on a metal rack; each channel – corresponding to the front, middle and rear cameras – was reduced to its red, green or blue signal by selectively turning off the other two tubes on each projector. The work has not been displayed since 1995 and is currently in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Fig. 1. The Bad Infinite by Diana Thater,1993
Three three-gun video projectors, three color LaserDiscs, three LaserDisc players, sync box, film gels, existing architecture. Installed at Long Beach Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA, 1993.
Credits: photograph provided by David Zwirner Gallery.
3Beginning in the late 1990s, CRT projectors began to be discontinued and phased out, superseded by brighter, more compact LCD display technologies; it is now becoming increasingly difficult to service these projectors and source replacement parts, which are no longer commercially available. This poses a significant risk to artworks whose meanings and values are constructed and communicated by an endangered technology, such as the three-gun CRT projector. The near-obsolete status of the CRT projector coupled with recent interventions by the artist aimed at updating similar works to contemporary display technologies makes creating conservation documentation for The Bad Infinite far from a simple and objective process.
4Thater has been actively involved in updating her early works, revising her manuals and reinstalling the works with contemporary display equipment in part to maintain their exhibition potential. In 2012, Thater reinstalled Oo Fifi, Five Days in Claude Monet’s Garden [Parts I and II] (1992), her first work to incorporate deliberately misregistered video projections. The RGB color separation – originally accomplished by misregsitering the lenses of the three gun projectors – was instead achieved on a computer in a video editing room so the work could be reinstalled with LCD projectors. In an interview conducted with the artist in 2013, Thater acknowledged the inevitable futility of keeping alive a dying technology as a guiding factor in her decision to update her works (Thater 2013). Thater also argued that the “dated look” of the CRT projector now overshadows and limits the authentic reception of the work of art, diminishing its conceptual integrity. This, for Thater, has been an additional motivating force behind her wishes to update her works, a concern that has received little attention within the conservation discourse.
5In Thater’s words: “It’s more important to me that the image maintain dominance over the equipment...that the ideas of the work become clear. When you use those really old [CRT] projectors, the weight of meaning lays on top of [them] as opposed to laying in the in-between space between the image and the technology” (Thater 2013). In the case of Thater’s work, the three-gun CRT projector is viewed now as an incidental or “unintentional monument” – to use Alois Riegl’s terms – with accumulated age and historical value (Riegl 1996). This unintentional monument is embedded within the work of art, the intentional or deliberate monument. As the equipment becomes obsolete it is vitiated of its original use value and takes on new meanings and significance. Age becomes a symptom of decay, an obstacle for the conceptual work i.e. the deliberate monument, which is “dependent on an ageless appearance to maintain its function,” (Arrhenius 2004: 74).
6Through its outmoded appearance the three-gun projector acquires a semantic patina, evincing the passage of time and thereby a sense of historical veracity, values appreciated by adherents of age value. As audiences grow increasingly less familiar with the three-gun projector and it begins to be viewed as temporally foreign and rare, its age value increases such that it inhibits a conceptually intact transmission of the work of art. Preserving the original display equipment in future iterations reveals the work’s “original state of creation” (Riegl 1996: 75), and maintains its material integrity. However the integrity of the artistic concept and the work’s ability to be experienced as it would have been in the 1990s are inhibited by the age value of the original equipment components. This immaterial change, viewed as both decay and patina, creates a dissonance between conceptual and material integrity thereby making any wholly “authentic” reiteration an improbable prospect, if authenticity is seen as being contingent on a work’s absolute integrity.
Fig. 2. Detail of Wicked Witch by Diana Thater, 1996
Three-gun video projectors, color LaserDiscs, LaserDisc players, sync unit, existing architecture. Installed at Walker Art Center, 1997.
Credits: photograph provided by David Zwirner Gallery.
7Technology-based artworks contain an intrinsic mutability of meaning and reception, qualities that shift as a function of time. Obsolescence is determined not by time exclusively but by specific advances within a consumer electronics industry that regulates and vitiates technologies of their use value. This transforms the way we view artworks with visible technological components and affects how we perceive their integrity and authenticity. The CRT video projector used in Thater’s work can be identified as an unintentional monument with accrued age value, which leads ultimately to a divergence between material and conceptual integrity in any future iteration of the work where the original display equipment is either maintained or updated. With this in mind, we might reconsider the degree to which we allow the unintentional monumentality of equipment components or the deliberate monumentality of artistic intention to define and singularize the integrity and authenticity of the work of art in conservation decision-making.