Topics in Time-Based Media Art Conservation: Tina Rivers Ryan

Returning blogger Adam Dunlavy is a PhD student at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU. After receiving his BA in art history from the University of Chicago, he has held curatorial internships at the Smart Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, as well as the Lisa and Jerry O’Brien Curatorial Fellowship at the Weisman Art Museum.


Voices in Contemporary Art NYC VoCA

Photo credit: Nita Lee Roberts, Institute of Fine Arts, NYU.

Dr. Tina Rivers Ryan is one of the few art historians working to reconstruct the early history of new media art. In her lecture at the Institute of Fine Arts, part of the Topics in Time-Based Media Art Conservation lecture series, she defined new media art as “mechanical, electric, and electronic works of art that are dynamic, not static, and therefore inherently durational.” Throughout the talk, Rivers Ryan alternated between referring to the work as “time-based media” and “new media.” Her lecture made it clear, however, that working with dynamic media is far from new. As such, the rest of this review will use the term time-based media (TBM).

The story of TBM art movements is absent from most art history textbooks. As Rivers Ryan noted at the beginning of her lecture, artists like Hans Haacke and Nam June Paik spent all or part of their careers working with TBM, yet their work is rarely placed into context alongside the technology-based art movements that thrived in the US and internationally in the 1960s. Taking TBM as the starting point of her research, Rivers Ryan has scoured two decades worth of art journals, popular magazines, and archival material. Certain exhibitions, artists, and technologies appeared again and again. This led her to develop a list of five overlapping TBM art movements, and fifteen landmark TBM group exhibitions. In this way, she has begun to recapture the history of TBM art as it was seen in the 1960s and 70s.

Her lecture led the audience through this history, beginning with time-based media predecessors Naum Gabo, Marcel Duchamp, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and Thomas Wilfred. Their experiments with light and motion at the beginning of the 20th century paved the way for artists to explore kinetic sculpture in the 1950s. Artists like Jean Tinguely created kinetic sculptures that shifted the problem of depicting motion in paint to the investigation of actual motion in space. The 1955 exhibition Le Mouvement at the Galerie Denise René in Paris was the first survey of this burgeoning movement.

By the 1960s, space age technologies were becoming more available to artists as well as consumers. Technology appeared both as a neutral tool for achieving a better standard of living, but also as a menacing force. As more and more artists turned to technological media in the US, they negotiated this ambivalence. The light artists, or luminists, extended the kinetic sculptors’ exploration of light and shadow. They used light sources, lasers, magnets, plastics, and circuitry to create movement and modulating patterns of light. In New York, the Howard Wise Gallery organized one of the first group shows of this work, Lights in Orbit in 1967.

Voices in Contemporary Art NYC

Photo credit: Nita Lee Roberts, Institute of Fine Arts, NYU.

The use of “moving light” as an artistic medium expanded to include sounds, images, smells, and other components in a single work. These “intermedia” environments immersed the viewer in a space saturated by media that often encouraged participation. Light art also led to the use of moving images by video artists who experimented with broadcast television, closed circuit television, and pre-recorded content. Other early TBM artists explored the possibilities of using early digital technology to create works of art. Computer scientists and artists programmed computers to produce imagery and modify environments in shows like Cybernetic Serendipity at the ICA, London in 1968.

Even today, little is known about the first wave of TBM art, which has lead to real problems for research and conservation. Without secondary material, researchers must meticulously reconstruct TBM movements from archives. Conservators must contend with obsolete and often custom-designed technology. Conservators rarely have both the original mechanisms and engineering diagrams, which makes it difficult to know precisely how a work should function and often results in the need for complex reverse engineering.

At the end of her lecture, Rivers Ryan suggested the expansion of conservation through reinterpretation. Many early TBM works have been forgotten, lost, or damaged. In order to experience them in the present, it may be necessary to reinterpret their original technological means. In this lecture, Rivers Ryan emphasized the symbiotic relationship between art history and art conservation, noting that when we understand the original context of a work, we can better decide how to revive it in the present. She ended her lecture with a question: “If we pay attention to the concept, rather than fetishize the original means, is it possible to responsibly create new versions of a work… to revive the irreparably damaged… or otherwise lost projects of the past?”

A video of this lecture has been archived and is available at



VoCA is pleased to present this blog post in conjunction with the NYU/IFA Conservation Center’s Topics in Time-Based Media Art Conservation lecture series, taking place on Mondays during the 2016 Fall semester. The series is organized by Hannelore Roemich and Christine Frohnert and is generously supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The full schedule can be found at


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