RESTORATION CHALLENGE: PRESERVING THE TECHNOLOGY IN EDMUND ALLEYN’S BIG SLEEP
“Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions of man – the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and our nerves by the various media.”(1)
– Marshall McLuhan
Edmund Alleyn’s Big Sleep offers a chilling reflection on an age articulated by the media guru Marshall McLuhan. Part of a series of works bearing witness to Alleyn’s cybernetic obsession, Big Sleep was acquired for the MMFA by Anne Grace in 2008. The retrospective of the artist’s work at the Musée d’art contemporain, Edmund Alleyn: In My Studio, I Am Many, provided the impetus to undertake an ambitious restoration of this complex and multi-dimensional work.
Big Sleep is a painted wood and plywood mural that contains visual and sound devices designed with technologies available at the time of its creation, in 1968. It is suggestive of a medical device through which the subject would offer thoughts and memories for viewing and hearing. It is part of the corpus of the artist that reflects on the invasive development of media and communications technologies. On the vertical section, there is a painted diagram of a brain as well as a column of Pyrex tubes partially filled with blue ink. On the lower section, there are a reel-to-reel tape recorder, a screen in a casing, and, under a Plexiglas dome, the torso of a vinyl mannequin whose head is covered in contacts suggestive of electrodes.
When the device is turned on, the brain lights up, thanks to a bank of small blinking incandescent lights, and various workshop sounds seem to come from the tape recorder. At the same time, the small screen runs a slide show, shifting at regular intervals through images of war, holiday memories and anatomical charts. Originally, the activation lasted one minute. A slide projector integrated into the lower section projected eighty colour images onto the screen. The reel-to-reel tape recorder was a mechanical illusion, as the sound came from a cassette player connected to a loudspeaker. A small electronic circuit controlled the simultaneous activation of visual and sound effects. (2)
In 1968, the artist was already aware of the limited life expectancy of some of these technologies, in particular the incandescent light bulbs and colour slides that would become discoloured with use. Surprisingly, the original bulbs still light up and the flash sequencing mechanism still functions as well as it did when the work was first created. This is not the case for the slides for the presentation, which had to be reproduced for this exhibition.
The obsolescence of the media (film, slides and videotapes) and the devices that play them threaten this type of “historic” work, with its technological components. This singular restoration challenge led us to define different acceptable strategies in order to guarantee the integrity of these works in the medium term by reproducing the effects of the original technologies while preserving the content.
Two strategies were adopted to restore this Alleyn work: migration and emulation. Migration consists of transferring the contents of a medium that is becoming obsolete to another technology that is more recent and more stable. The digitization of video is a good example. The principle of emulation seeks to imitate the physical behaviour of a work by using recent technologies that reproduce the original action.
Big Sleep was restored using these principles. The original soundtrack was recorded on a digital file. Each of the eighty images was transferred from the work’s analog mode, including the recording tape, the slides and the electronic timer circuit, to digital. A MacBook portable computer contains not only the programme coordinating the different electronic functions of the timer, but also the sound and image files. The images are now projected in a fixed sequence with the help of a digital projector hidden in the lower section. The sound coming from the computer is played on its speakers. As for the analog equipment that was retained, namely the mechanism to turn on the lightbulbs and the fake tape recorder, they are connected to the computer via a dimmer box to ensure simultaneous action. Finally, all of the actions remain dependent on the first action, which has also been kept: that of the visitor who presses the ON button.
1. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. (Toronto: McGraw-Hill, 1964), pp. 3-4.
2. The visual and written documentation prepared in 1999 for the showing of Big Sleep in the exhibition Déclics, art et société : le Québec des années 1960 et 1970 helped us to identify the components and understand the original mechanisms of this complex work.
Edmund Alleyn (1931-2004)
Wood, glass, acrylic, thermoplastics, metallic finish alkyd paint, acrylic paint, liquid ink, colour slide projections, incandescent light, sound
185 x 199.5 x 51.5 cm.
MMFA, gift of Anne Cherix-Alleyn and Jennifer Alleyn