The Hirshhorn Museum’s current exhibition on ’80s pop art raises serious questions about consumerism, marketing and the artist as a brand, but it also spotlights a less cerebral issue facing many museums today. Where do they get all those old video monitors, and how come they still work?
It’s simple: The Hirshhorn has a guy.
Kurt Sadler is the museum world’s secret weapon, an old-tech guru who operates out of a warehouse in the suburbs of Minnesota’s Twin Cities. He sells and services the retro monitors that are critical for exhibitions such as the Hirshhorn’s “Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s,” a multi-artist, multimedia examination of a decade that features many time-based works — video, film, slide and computer-generated imagery.
Many works in the exhibition were created using technology that is now obsolete. But updating that old technology to today’s standards raises complex questions about aesthetics and artistic intent. Flat-screen monitors are sleek and rectangular, while the monitors of the 1980s were bulky squares with curved glass. Substituting the old with the new could dramatically change the viewer’s experience.
Enter Sadler and his company, Dotronix Technology in New Brighton, Minn. Dotronix specializes in cathode ray tube monitors, or CRTs, the technology pushed out by the arrival of flat screens in the early 2000s. Sadler’s business almost went under at the start of the century, until the Museum of Modern Art in New York came knocking. Now, Dotronix is on the speed dial of museum specialists around the world.
“It was a total fluke that we came together,” said Sadler, 55. “I thought we’d be gone in 2003.”
Sadler’s inventory and expertise are critical to many, but not all, older video works. Some can be migrated to the new screens without affecting their impact, but other works would be dramatically changed without the shape and aesthetic quality of the older technology.
“A CRT is a light engine more than anything,” Sadler said, explaining how the CRTs and flat panels are vastly different. With a CRT, he said, “the image is written by a beam of light.”
Roughly half of Sadler’s business is selling monitors to museums. His client list tops 40 and includes institutions in New Zealand, Brazil, Canada and the United States.
“We’re the only ones doing it,” he said. “The museums can’t get enough of them.”
The Hirshhorn’s “Brand New” exhibition highlights the complex conservation and presentation issues surrounding technology-based artwork. Curators, exhibition specialists and conservators consider many issues when dealing with time-based works. Is the technology used to display the work part of the art? Will changing the display alter the artist’s intent?
Sometimes the answers are obvious, and sometimes they’re the result of choices made by curators. In the Hirshhorn show, which is grounded in the 1980s, the video monitors emphasize the era.
“The curved screens, the warmth of the screen, the sound the screen makes when it’s running. These are physical and visual things that are part of the aesthetic,” said Drew Doucette, assistant director of exhibit technology at the Hirshhorn, who found Sadler through an internal Smithsonian database.
Two works by the late Gretchen Bender illustrate his point. “Dumping Core,” an installation on loan from MOMA that is being shown for the first time in 30 years, features 13 reworked monitors arranged in a specific configuration. The glowing square monitors and the 1980s corporate logos that dance across them contribute to an effect that is both nostalgic and futuristic.
The throwback vibe is more obvious in Bender’s 1986 work “Untitled (People With AIDS),” on loan from the Gretchen Bender Estate. The work is a 13-inch television with rabbit ears airing live TV. The screen bears the phrase “People With AIDS.” Doucette and his team converted a high-definition signal from a digital antenna outside the museum to a standard-definition signal of a live broadcast that plays on the television. The rabbit ears are basically a prop.
The monitors used to display the art are only part of the conservation equation, Doucette said. As old technologies are left behind, conservators and exhibition specialists must grapple with preserving work in the most stable format, such as digital. Then, as is the case with the Hirshhorn show, they must connect it back to the retro displays. It’s like fitting a square peg in a round hole, and then a round peg in square hole, Doucette said.
Those working on the issue worry that the parts needed to keep the monitors running and the engineers with the knowledge to fix them will soon no longer exist. That’s only a matter of time, Sadler said.
“You have to have the knowledge to do it, and they don’t teach it anymore,” he said of matching the stockpiled tubes with electronic processors.
Sadler had CRTs and processors in stock when the market collapsed in the early 2000s. He actively searches for companies that have shelved their working CRTs and scours e-Bay and other websites for parts.
“Once the picture tubes are gone, that’s a showstopper,” he added. “I don’t know what the museums are going to do in the future. Convince the artists to go to a flat panel? Not much you can do.”
The Hirshhorn — and contemporary art museums around the world — are planning for this, said Briana Feston-Brunet, the museum’s variable media conservator. They’re stockpiling old hardware for future use and migrating work from one format to another. Another option is emulation, in which updated technology is made to look like an old-school format.
Feston-Brunet said resolving the evolving questions about all types of time-based media is a top priority in the field. “Keeping up with these obsolete technologies is a fun challenge, and we really benefit from everyone’s research,” she said.
Not to mention Kurt Sadler.