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Inside the installation piece "Predictive Engineering³" at SF MoMA.

Inside the installation “Predictive Engineering³” at SF MoMA. Photo by Aubrie Johnson, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Artist Julia Scher’s installation Predictive Engineering has had a permanent home at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SF MoMA) since 1998. In a poignant commentary on mass surveillance, the artist laced real security footage with jarring clips of back-alley shenanigans and men and women frolicking nude through the museum itself. As the art evolved across decades, so too did its equipment, documentation, and space requirements.

After closing its doors in 2013 for a major redesign, SF MoMA reopened in May with new attractions and a comprehensive catalog of every artwork to ever grace its floors. Though virtually every staff member is directly involved with these featured artworks, not everyone on staff can rally the bandwidth to wade through such a wealth of information before making prompt decisions.

So how can SF MoMA’s staff, from registrars and technicians to curators, quickly make sense of Predictive Engineering, a complex entanglement of gallivanting, wires and media files? MoMA looked to the Wikimedia Foundation, two blocks east, for inspiration.

Today, they’re experimenting with MediaWiki, the software Wikipedia was built on, to provide context for Scher’s latest version of Predictive Engineering (PE3). PE3 is just one of over 300 of SF MoMA’s media works: interactive art installations with a dizzying amount of moving parts.

The MediaWiki page for PE3 features “just the facts:” installation instructions, PDFs, quick-reference equipment lists, and the artwork’s approved curatorial description—everything SF MoMA staff may need to install, reference, lend, or discuss the work. It also provides something the primary database can’t: rich context, like audio and video interviews. It’s a user-friendly way to help people understand its purpose in the future.

In the term of complex works, SF MoMA media conservator Martina Haidvogl said “before a work is installed, you can’t really know what it is by just looking at its components. In order to get an idea of what the work is, we looked at how to adequately tell its story; how can we bring what the core of the work is to the forefront?”

SFMoMA’s latest documentation platform is gaining traction as a source for staff searching for deeper knowledge on an artist or their artwork.

The hope for MediaWiki is that sharing context on these pieces will become so effortless, pages could be dispersed to the media or other institutions just as simply as sharing a Wikipedia page.

Installing and showing new pieces is a feat in and of itself, demanding advanced documentation of the required projections, screens, paintings, floor plans, technology, and more. PE3 in particular has evolved over decades, demanding new technology as old ones succumb to obsolescence. Their standard database tackles all of these demands and more, but when it comes to context and ease of understanding, MediaWiki pulls its own weight.

The original Predictive Engineering called for firewire cables, tube television screens, unwieldy sets of speakers and projectors, and a set of tube televisions, all of which are almost impossible to find today. Since then, the PE3 experience has grown sleeker and more streamlined, exchanging the old fare with flat screens, faster hookups, and hidden speakers built into the installation’s surrounding walls. The wiki provides a platform where all of this research can live in a collaborative, complex way.

So far, Haidvogl calls the SF MoMA MediaWiki “flexible in terms of allowing us to understand how changes [in the work] might occur, as opposed to a standard and rigid database.” The new, streamlined SF MoMA practices “curated information,” unfettered by logistics, leaving staff free to do what comes naturally: to put art at the center of their thinking.

Aubrie Johnson, Social Media Associate
Wikimedia Foundation

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