Cultures of Conservation....

posted on 04 Nov 2013 13:06 by Elena Pinto Simon
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Hanna Hoelling and Gabrielle Berlinger are Visiting Professor, and Postdoctoral Fellow, respectively, for our Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Initiative, Cultures of Conservation. I had a chance to chat with them about how they are finding the BGC so far, and what their work here is all about…..

EPS: Greetings, Hanna and Gabrielle, and welcome to the BGC! Tell us a little about your first reactions to our institute.

HH: Many thanks, dear Elena, for your kind welcome. First of all, I am absolutely grateful for the friendship of my new colleagues at the BGC, for their interest and curiosity in my research and the many inspiring discussions! I am truly impressed by the range of the courses proposed and the scope of research performed at the institution. There is so much going on here, from symposia and seminars, through various types of academic events, exhibitions to more informal Brown Bag Lunch events – it is hardly possible to be selective. The programs of the BGC galleries and own publication series, including the journal West 86th are truly rich resource to explore. I find the library holdings, Digital Media Lab and the research facilities very helpful to quickly set up the teaching and own research agenda. Last but not least, I have a great group of students taking my course, active and inspirational. All in all, it is a great place to be, a place of immense potentialities and I am looking forward to the next years.

GB: Thank you — it’s such a pleasure to be joining the BGC. My first reaction to the institute is an inspiring impression of the BGC faculty, students, and staff – their intellectual rigor, creative vision, and community spirit. The diversity of scholarly traditions that you represent and cultural programming that the BGC nurture’s makes it such a vibrant and dynamic institute. Every day has presented new opportunities for gratifying learning and exchange—a public lecture about dress and curatorship by cultural and fashion historian Amy de la Haye (“Objects of a Passion: Exhibiting Fashion and Dress in the Museum”), a BGC exhibition and symposium that re-examined Georgian British design (“William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain), a lunchtime talk about perceptual controversies surrounding prehistoric cave art by philosopher Mats Rosengren (“Cave Art, Perception, and Knowledge: A Doxic Investigation”), classroom discussions, and chance hallway encounters, to name only a few. I strongly believe in the BGC’s commitment to engaging scholars, artists, and practitioners across disciplinary and institutional boundaries as I also aim to bridge the academic and public spheres in my own discipline of folklore. I am therefor extremely excited by student and faculty involvement in museums across the city, in our own two galleries here on West 86th street, and in the BGC’s innovative Digital Media Lab.

EPS: Hanna, can you tell us a little about your background?

HH: I am a conservator and art/cultural historian specializing in art and media installations with particular emphasis on the developments of the 1960s and 70s. I am interested in aspects of time, changeability, continuity, identity and archive in relation to how we conceive of artworks in terms of objects that endure. Before coming to the BGC, during the last four years I was a NWO Dutch Scientific Organization founded research fellow within the project New Strategies in the Conservation of Contemporary Art (at the University of Amsterdam, Maastricht University and Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands). Within this project I completed my PhD at the University of Amsterdam at the Institute of Art History and Cultural Studies (September 2013) theorizing conservation and its 'objects' in relation to their temporal and relational materiality and change undergone. The outcome of this project – my thesis book entitled Re:Paik; On Time, Changeability and Identity in the conservation of Nam June Paik Multimedia Installations has just been published.


During my Amsterdam years, I was fortunate to participate in a number of research projects, such as The Material Lives of Things at the Courtauld Institute in London, Obsolete Equipment at the Netherlands Media Art Institute in Amsterdam (now LIMA) and I taught in various programs and seminars on conservation, media and art history, and museology at a number of universities and academies in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Glasgow and Stuttgart.

Prior to returning to academia, I was active as a conservator for contemporary art and media in a number of institutions, and most recently at the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, where I became head of conservation department responsible for two collections – Media Museum and Museum of Contemporary Art – and current exhibitions.

Although in my academic years I have been still acting as a conservator merely in a consulting capacity, my professional development is definitely oriented towards research and teaching. I like to think that I combine practical experience, knowledge and skills with a substantial theoretical background, so necessary in this young, emerging field.

At the BGC, I am Visiting Professor within the initiative Cultures of Conservation, supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. In my thinking and writing I focus on the diversity of Fluxus media, performance, leftovers and ephemera 1960s+ in relation to their ontic and ontological status, lives and ‘afterlives,’ and institutionalization.

Currently, I teach courses that bridge material culture studies and knowledge derived from humanities with the conservation’s approach to study materials and media. This semester’s course (Fall 2013) entitled Cultures of Conservation: Form Objects to Subjects – On Sites, Rites and Paradigms aims at studying diverse cultures of conservation, approaches to objects and institutional and professional attitudes. By examining a variety of media, we focus on the historical conditions that shaped the conservation theory and ethics and follow the development of the discipline and paradigm shift introduced by the new forms of artistic expression. The Spring semester 2014 course that I am currently designing is entitled Beyond the Object Principle: Event – Performance – Process. It will engage with the issues related to the conservation of media and technology-based installations, performance and ephemeral art forms. During this course, in discussions, lectures and during site visits we will challenge the assumptions about conservation facing fleeting, transient and heterogeneous forms of recent media.

EPS: Gabrielle, how about you?

GB: I was born and raised here in New York City, and studied and worked in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Indiana, and Israel before returning to New York this year to join the BGC. I received my B.A. in Cultural Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, and my MA and PhD in Folklore at Indiana University in Bloomington. In between undergraduate and graduate school, I worked at several applied anthropology and public folklore organizations, such as Cultural Survival, Documentary Educational Resources, and the Folk Arts and Heritage Program of the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC). With the Massachusetts State Folklorist at the MCC, I documented traditional artists across the state for the folklore archive and for public programming events and realized how much I love the study of creative expression in everyday life (folklore).


I deeply value learning about individuals’ life experiences and worldviews as expressed through their material arts, occupational practices, food-based customs, dress and adornment, verbal arts, music and dance forms, and religious beliefs and customs (the fieldwork). I also worked in a number of inspiring public folklore organizations in New York City during graduate school, including City Lore, Inc., and the Folk Arts Program at the Brooklyn Arts Council. There I learned from the pioneering folklorists who direct those programs how vitally important are research and community-based public programming around the social and cultural traditions of underrepresented populations across the city, both to educate ourselves and to develop systems of support for self-empowerment through creative expression.

Most recently, for my dissertation research, I spent 16 months in a working-class, multicultural neighborhood of South Tel Aviv, Israel called Shchunat Hatikva (‘Neighborhood of Hope’) to document the ritual observance of an annual Jewish festival called Sukkot. For two cycles of this holiday, I documented how observant Jewish residents of the neighborhood, who had emigrated largely from Yemen, Iraq, Uzbekistan, Iran, Egypt, Morocco, and Syria, constructed, decorated, and used the traditional ritual shelters (sukkot) that are built as sacred structures symbolic of the domestic space for the seven days of this festival. In between the two holiday cycles, I participated in and observed daily social activities as well as cultural and ritual practices of the residents of this neighborhood—a neighborhood that was experiencing dramatic demographic change and social unrest during the period of my fieldwork as the Israeli government was placing tens of thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers in disadvantaged areas of Israel, such as South Tel Aviv’s neighborhoods. It was a complex, rich, and moving research period and project that involved material culture documentation, participant-observation in neighborhood life, archival research, and in-depth, ongoing interviews.

Folklore has brought the studies of art, history, and culture into meaningful dialogue in both my academic and applied work, and has allowed me to listen deeply as people tell meaningful stories about their life histories and daily lives, which has been a privilege. Now as a Post-doctoral Fellow in the “Cultures of Conservation” initiative here at the BGC, I am able to integrate my academic and public folklore experience through a research and teaching project at The Lower East Side Tenement Museum, an institution that presents the social histories of New York City’s immigrants of the late 19th/early 20th centuries through the preservation and interpretation of the material culture that they left behind. My project examines the life history of the tenement building, itself, as a material object, to understand the social and cultural lives of the building’s former residents and current users as they construct and reconstruct their physical surroundings. I am interested in viewing the apartment building, now turned museum, as a material object that acts upon, and is acted upon by, the greater changing landscape of the Lower East Side. I am eager to explore this new project from interdisciplinary and ethnographic perspectives with the students and faculty at the BGC and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

EPS: Hanna, you’ve already started to teach this term. Gabrielle, you will begin in the spring. Can you both tell us a little bit about how you approach your topics of ‘Cultures of Conservation’?

HH: I believe that cultures of conservation can only be approached from a multidisciplinary perspective. This is also why I believe that my contribution can only be partial and non-exhaustive. I am fortune to be a part of a greater network of my faculty colleagues here, at the BGC, but also at the NYU, IFA, MMA, MoMA and the Guggenheim Museum, just as the European and North American research projects such as INCCA, Media Matters and many others.

Although my course involves a number of institutional and private practice perspectives and studies of materials of traditional works (visits to MoMA, MMA, Whitney, The Cloisters), I believe that studying recent and contemporary art and installation is, in this context, especially interesting. The artworks created in the 1960s and 70s and in the spirit of Fluxus seem to dissolve the borderlines between genres and forms, such as object and document, for instance, or performance and event. Musealization of these works, which originally were not conceived as collectables, presents us with yet another aspect of their fleeting identity. In response to that, conservation is confronted with the necessity to divorce itself from the concerns orientated only to the artworks’ physical constituents and the prolongation of their lives to the future. Beyond the safe area of material analysis and precise results, there is a grey zone of questions that cannot be answered straightforwardly. What is an artwork, how it is received and perceived and how it functions within and beyond a certain historical moment? What exactly is being preserved and for whom? Can we change while we preserve, and how much? Is it the past that we are accessing, or rather the present? The answer to such questions can lie only where disciplines overlap. One benefit of such crossovers is that they may produce cultures, such as the culture of the humanities together with conservation envisioned by the BGC and generously founded by Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

GB: Over the course of the next two years, I will be engaged in a project that will document the historic preservation of an 1863 tenement building in Lower Manhattan, now known as The Lower East Side Tenement Museum (LESTM). The course I will teach this spring is based on this project, and will investigate the theoretical and practical issues that material conservators and museum educators must reconcile in their efforts to preserve this historic site. We will explore questions of authenticity, representation, restoration, and heritage in the process of resolving potential conflicts in the conservators’, curators’, visitors’, and neighborhood residents’ agendas. More broadly, I hope to introduce my students to studies of vernacular architecture beyond the boundaries of the LESTM, in sites across New York City where folklorists, cultural scholars and activists are studying individuals’ relationships to their physical environments—the ordinary buildings and settings in which we live—to understand how our surroundings shape, and are shaped by, our social and cultural lives. I approach the conservation of the material world as a way to consider the role of conservation in our social, historical, and cultural lives. Through a study of the things we make, use, repair, destroy, and let fall apart, we can ask, "What is ‘cultural conservation,’ who engages in it, when, how, and why?"

EPS: This new initiative is an exciting one for the BGC; and it really sounds as if it is in really great hands! Thanks, Hanna and Gabrielle.