Eyebeam Update: Two months after Sandy

Eyebeam is turning the road to recovery into an opportunity for progress, but getting it done will take a whole community.

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the new media and design incubator in NYC, Eyebeam, and the damage they’d suffered in Hurricane Sandy. This week I caught up with Eyebeam executive director Pat Jones to find out what kind of progress has been made in the cleanup.

The three feet of polluted water that flooded Eyebeam’s work and exhibit space on the West Side of Manhattan during the storm had damaged lots of equipment and soaked much of their archive material. Cleaning whatever could be saved and making a priority list for replacing what was lost were the two main challenges of recovery.

Thanks to generous contributions from philanthropic foundations and private companies — such as the Jerome Foundation, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Art Dealers Association of America, Time-Warner, and O’Reilly Media — as well as donations from individuals, about half the equipment losses have been covered.

There are still some other funding proposals under consideration, but essentially the equipment recovery process has been one of triage: Eyebeam has tried to replace equipment needed immediately by their artists in residence, as well as some practical pieces like the two scissor lifts required to access lights and other equipment at the top of their two-story exhibit space.

After replacing some of the equipment, such as computers and monitors, that artists needed right away to do their work, the next priority was to replace the tools needed to put on exhibits for the public — for instance, projectors. Of their former fleet of 10-12 projectors, they have so far replaced four, though they’ll need to replace a few more soon. Bigger pieces will have to wait, though MakerBot has loaned the non-profit a Replicator.

Although the equipment restoration is happening bit by bit, working with half of what they once had has slowed down the rebuilding of the space; it will probably take until the end of the year or so before the organization is fully back up to speed. Donations are certainly still needed and very much welcomed.

The other challenge Eyebeam is facing is the restoration of their archives. Thanks to the volunteers who came in right after the hurricane, the cleaning process happened right away, which helped enormously. Specialists washed salt and oil and other things that could cause damage from tapes, drives, and discs, and whatever was salvageable has been stabilized. What remains is to — carefully — transfer the information from these older formats to a longer-lasting digital format.

Of the work that was submerged, some of it was on media that was fragile in the best of circumstances, so those are of higher priority to transfer first. With some of the material, like VHS and mini-DV tapes, they won’t know how much damage there has been until transfer is attempted. So the transfer needs to be done professionally and delicately, and that’s a very expensive process.

To help with that process, Eyebeam has applied to the Institute of Museum and Library Services (a government agency) for a grant that would provide monetary support for a strategic plan to move forward. They’ve put together an advisory committee that includes several high-profile experts from institutions such as MoMA, Rhizome, and Cornell’s Media Library. If the funding is granted, the project will start in October.

Archival media conservation is, of course, a challenge faced by many organizations all over the world. Says Jones, “Hopefully, not only will this plan help us, but it will also be something we can pass on to other institutions.”

While no one would say they were glad for Hurricane Sandy, it has clearly forced some important questions about priorities and practices. Eyebeam already has a legacy as a place where advances have been made over the last 15 years. Ensuring that it will be a place where people can access what has been done in digital media during this important period, and into the future, will benefit all of us.

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