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Preservation for the Future: Whitney Museum of American Art

Technology for yesterday, today and tomorrow is on exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Upon walking into a gallery and seeing Nam June Paik’s towering “V-yramid” stacked high in the corner, the first thought had by a certain type of production-oriented, tech-savvy museum visitor might be something like, “Wow, how did they get those CRTs? And they look so clean!”

There are those who count brushstrokes and there are those who relish the presence of real slide projectors. Both will appreciate the grand scale on which they are able to bask in those elements at the new Whitney Museum of American Art, which debuted in its new location in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District on May 1, 2015.

Nam June Paik’s “V-yramid” and Peter Halley’s “Blue Cell with Triple Conduit” in Art is Hard to See at the Whitney.
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Designed by architect Renzo Piano and situated at the southern end of the High Line elevated park, the new building greatly increases the Whitney’s exhibition and programming space, providing the most expansive view ever of its broad collection of modern and contemporary American art. The building features outdoor galleries with striking views of the city and provides state-of-the-art facilities for performance, film, video and enhanced education programs, as well as a study center for works on paper, a conservation lab and a library reading room.

Multimedia buffs will appreciate the new theater space, which taps into the Whitney’s deep storage of historic projectors and their modern-day digital equivalents to display film and video works. There’s a killer sound system in there, too, which will serve as one outlet for the museum’s multifaceted performance program.

The new Whitney’s first exhibition, America Is Hard to See, ran from May 1 to Sept. 27, 2015.

Drawn entirely from the Whitney Museum of American Art’s collection, America Is Hard to See took the inauguration of the museum’s new building as an opportunity to reexamine the history of art in the United States from the beginning of the 20th century to the present. Comprising more than 600 works, the exhibition elaborated the themes, ideas, beliefs and passions that have galvanized American artists in their struggle to work within and against established conventions, often directly engaging their political and social contexts. Numerous pieces that have rarely, if ever, been shown appeared alongside beloved icons in a conscious effort to unsettle assumptions about the American art canon.

Image from Nan Goldin’s “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.” Description: “Cookie with me after I was punched, Baltimore, MD, 1986.”
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Organized chronologically, the exhibition’s narrative was divided into 23 thematic “chapters” installed throughout the building. Works of art across all mediums were displayed together, acknowledging the ways in which artists have engaged various modes of production and broken the boundaries between them.

Nam June Paik’s “V-yramid” (1982) was included in America Is Hard to See in the gallery “Racing Thoughts.” “V-yramid” is a two-channel video installation with sound that Paik created for his 1982 retrospective exhibition at the Whitney. Paik assembled this ziggurat-shaped floor-to-ceiling video installation from 40 CRT televisions of decreasing size, stacked one on top of each other. Each monitor plays a kaleidoscopic montage of video footage, including material recycled from his earlier single-channel works.

Another of the roughly 600 artworks in the America Is Hard to See exhibit was Nan Goldin’s “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” (1979-96), a 45-minute looping slide installation with 690 35mm color slides and sound. In the late 1970s, photographer Nan Goldin began to document her life, recording friends, lovers, relatives and herself. Goldin first presented the accumulating photographs as live slideshow performances in downtown New York bars, clubs and alternative art spaces. “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” was displayed in the exhibit’s “Love Letter from the War Front” gallery.

View of the Whitney from Gansevoort Street. Photographed by Ed Lederman, 2015.
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The Whitney is steeped in the innovative display of contemporary and modern works that push the boundaries of media and performance, and a new emphasis will be placed on all of the above in the new space. Which means one thing for staff technologists: maintenance.

On a Tuesday, the one day each week when the museum’s doors are closed to the public, it’s possible to find a little bit of maintenance going on. In fact, a good portion of the high-tech care is done by the very person who led the charge in finding those CRTs for the Paik piece. For a good while, at least, it would be easy to go to the fifth floor and find Richard Bloes, senior technician with the exhibition and collections management department, carefully dusting each of the 690 35mm slides in a flock of nine projectors displaying stills from Nan Goldin’s “Ballad of Sexual Dependency.”

“I do a little bit of everything,” Bloes says, including slide dusting, CRT monitor hunting, multiformat projecting, high-tech digital 4K displaying and more than a few other things in between. “There’s a lot of old technology in this show,” he notes. Then he laughs with a little bit of irony. “We’re constantly dealing with the oldest equipment imaginable and then the newest stuff at the same time.”

Whitney stairway. Photograph © Timothy Schenck 2015.
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Take the slide dusting, for example. Plenty of contemporary artists and museums are transferring slides to digital formats and projecting them that way. That might in fact be better, as “keeping nine slide projectors working is a lot harder than keeping one video projector working,” he observes. But the Whitney prefers the original format, and, Bloes adds, “I like the way slides look better. But I don’t know if anyone else knows the difference or cares that the photos are on slides.”

Oh, but they certainly do! And not just multimedia buffs, either. The original format of works is important, and the Whitney engages in a constant process of maintaining and transferring formats on a per-work basis. That’s something else Bloes helps to manage, and the museum’s conservation department is receiving a big new media lab in the new building. The Whitney has devoted about 5,000 square feet to the newly established Sondra Gilman Study Center for works on paper and the Bucksbaum, Learsy, Scanlan Conservation Center. Adjacent to one another and the galleries, the complex enables cross-disciplinary and cross-media study. There, a lot of the older video equipment will be used to transfer some works into digital formats—where curatorial interests permit, of course.

Film, video and performance are key counterparts to visual art found at the museum, and the new space provides a lovely new platform in the form of the 170-seat Susan and John Hess Family Theater. The projection booth there features a Barco 4K projector, two Kinoton projectors that handle 16mm and 35mm, surround sound and an assortment of other audiovisual provisions designed by Cerami & Associates and installed by Technomedia for Turner Construction. Cerami also provided acoustical design for the theater to abate traffic noise from the adjacent West Side Highway, along with acoustic isolation for exhibit spaces.

Live theatrical events will also be supported in a blackbox theater. More audiovisual technologies were built into the Kaufman Gallery for film, video and performance, as well as in classrooms and seminar rooms and throughout the space in the form of digital signage.

On the sound side, a building-wide distributed digital audio system provides multichannel sound to locations including galleries, lobbies and the restaurant and cafes. Broadcast tielines terminate at the loading dock from strategically placed connections for production and satellite camera feeds.

Slides aside, the technology at the museum is anything but dusty, especially as preservation and maintenance of works occurs in tandem with the acquisition of new technologies to support today and tomorrow’s media. Bloes jokes that even with all the new space set aside for technology in the new building, the galleries are much bigger, too, so the shows are larger and require more equipment. Soon enough, new shelves will be overflowing with new media. But that’s good news for artists and visitors who like to see works displayed as intended.