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Inside the Whitney's replication committee


For the New Yorker, Ben Lerner writes about a peculiar committee formed at the Whitney Museum in 2008–the replication committee. This committee is responsible for determining if, when and how artworks should be replicated rather than fixed if degraded or damaged, and might be the only one of its kind. Any readers know if there’s a similar museum committee out there?

Here’s an excerpt from Lerner below, or the full piece after the link.

An example of “tratteggio”

How does the museum determine when to reprint the objects? And, once you start replicating parts, when is the work no longer the work? These and other questions are the domain of the Whitney’s replication committee, a little-known but increasingly crucial body within the museum. The committee is, as far as I know, the only one of its kind. Founded in 2008, it is composed of fourteen people—conservators, curators, archivists, a lawyer, and a registrar. The committee convenes to determine when a work of art, or a part of a work of art, cannot be fixed or restored in the traditional ways—when and how it must, instead, be replicated. These discussions result in recommendations that affect the way art works are maintained, classified, and described in exhibitions.

The room on the seventh floor of the Whitney where the replication committee interviewed Kline about “Cost of Living (Aleyda)”—the Frances Mulhall Achilles Library—has a huge bank of sloped windows facing the Hudson River. When I was told we’d be meeting in the “Achilles Library,” I remembered how the Greek hero would have been immortal, wouldn’t have had a vulnerable heel, if his mother had fully varnished him in the River Styx. But when I arrived at the library I was put in mind of more recent mythology: the architecture recalled the observation deck of the U.S.S. Enterprise in “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” a show that I watched late in the last millennium in my childhood home, in Topeka. On the Enterprise, you asked the computer’s “replicator” when you wanted something to eat or drink and it materialized before you—no alien workers necessary.

As I sat watching a plane trailing a banner that read “Happy Birthday Dalai Lama” above the sparkling water, I thought about the Prime Directive, from “Star Trek”: Starfleet officers may not interfere with the development of alien civilizations. This imperative has a kind of Petryn-like absolutism about it, and many “Star Trek” episodes revolve around the moral quandaries that arise as a result. Conservators also strive to avoid interference—conservation is not supposed to affect creation—and yet, as Mancusi-Ungaro and the other Whitney “officers” prepared to interview Kline, I was struck by how contact between the museum and the artist inevitably changes the art it would conserve. The questions, however neutrally posed, compel the artist to make decisions about what is permitted and what isn’t, decisions that then become part of the work’s conceptual content.

Kline arrived at the meeting flanked by two fabricators from N.Y.U.’s Advanced Media Studio, who oversee the printing of his sculptures. Mancusi-Ungaro introduced everyone and asked Kline if he’d like to say a few words about “Cost of Living.” Kline said that the digital files contain the still unrealized, the still unrealizable, scans, and that “there is nothing precious about the current prints.” Everyone nodded politely.

There was a pause during which the only sound was a curatorial assistant taking notes by hand. (I thought it was strange that a meeting about archives and cutting-edge technologies was not itself digitally recorded.) Then came a barrage of questions:

“Can and should the Whitney retain old prints as part of the archive?” Farris Wahbeh, an archivist, asked. “And what about old file formats of the scans as software changes?” Kline deferred to the museum to make a decision.

“Can individual components of the assemblage be reprinted?” Margo Delidow, a sculpture conservator, asked. Delidow was interested in immediate issues of material care. (I later heard her say, “If I can bump into it, I have to conserve it.”) “Is the kind of tape holding the L.E.D. lights significant?” she asked Kline. If so, is it the color of the tape that matters, or the make, or the level of adhesiveness? Kline said that the color temperature of the lights was important, and that he preferred gray; as long as that condition was met, the tape could be replaced. I had the sense that he was thinking out loud.

Dana Miller, a curator and the director of the Whitney’s permanent collection, had concerns that were both philosophical and practical. “If there’s a show in, say, China, do we need to ship these objects, or can they just be reprinted there? If they can be reprinted and not shipped, could the same work be shown in two locations at once?”

Mancusi-Ungaro remained focussed on fundamental issues. “How much does the printing technology need to improve—or how much do these prints need to degrade—in order to trigger reprinting?” Kline said that he hadn’t established clear thresholds, and that he would need to reassess over time. Nobody brought up the fact that these questions might outlive him.

Kline is a thoughtful artist, and he was frank about what he hadn’t yet determined. The goal of the Whitney’s staff was to honor his intentions with the greatest degree of exactitude possible. But, precisely because of the thoroughness and intelligence of their queries, I felt that I was watching conservation shade into collaboration. This didn’t bother me at all, but Mancusi-Ungaro clearly didn’t like the word “collaboration” when I brought it up in a later conversation. “We’re not trying to influence the work,” she said. “These decisions will have to be made at some point, and we want the artist to be heard.”

But why not embrace conservation as collaboration? The Whitney was founded to focus on living artists, to experiment with new media—to be, as Mancusi-Ungaro put it in another conversation, “unencumbered by traditional structures.” To boldly go where no conservator has gone before.

*Image caption “Josh Kline (1979-). Cost of Living (Aleyda), 2014. 3D‑printed sculptures in plaster, inkjet ink and cyanoacrylate, with janitor cart and LED lights, 44 1/2 × 36 × 19 1/2in. (113 × 91.4 × 49.5 cm)”