Dirk van de Leemput

Precarity in the social-material networks of time-based media works of art

Faculty of Arts and Social Studies, Maastricht University, dirk.vandeleemput@maastrichtuniversity.nl

Supervisors: Prof. Harro van Lente and prof. Pip Laurenson


Since museums collect time-based media art, they struggle with the problem of how to conserve these artworks. The distinguishing feature of time-based media works of art is that they depend on media technologies for their conservation and display. The social-material networks of these technologies are precarious and the technologies are prone to obsolescence. Museums need greater understanding of these networks to build on methods of risk assessment to enhance the future viability of works in the collection. The project will trace the networks of three representative technologies and investigate how museums can manage social-material precarity.

In this project, I study precarity as a normal condition, brought about by the interdependencies that shape society. Like Judith Butler (2004, 2011, 2012), I define precarity as “a heightened sense of expendability or disposability,” brought about by precariousness, “the social bond, the various relations that establish our interdependency”. Lowenhaupt Tsing (2015) in a similar way describes the precarity of social and natural assemblages as emergent from a worldwide entanglement and interconnectedness. I will study the precarity of social-material networks as emerging from a human and non-human interconnectedness.

These social-material assemblages of technologies do not survive by themselves. By accepting that they are always precarious, it becomes clear that they need constant care to keep all connections in place. In this respect, technologies do not differ that much from artworks. If one does not conserve an artwork it will deteriorate. The social-material networks of these artworks need care for their social and material parts. I will investigate how practitioners care for their social-material network, and how this influences the precarity of these network.

I will use three case studies, artworks from the collection of Tate, to trace and map the social-material networks of their technologies. One case study – Tacita Dean’s Disappearance at Sea (1996) – will be about 16mm film technology, the other two about CRT’s and software. I use an ethnographic approach to trace the social-material networks of the technologies. I will study how precarity unfolds over time, how the actors in the networks care for the network, and how this effects their precarity. This involves, depending on the case, participant observation, interviews and archival research. I will build on insights from innovation studies about the management of obsolescence and technological change and about terminating technologies to provide museums with the insights on how to manage these precarious networks.

The project is a collaboration between Maastricht University and Tate. It is part of the project Reshaping the Collectible: When Artworks live in the Museum, sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.