Moscow Paper - Paper delivered by Torben Soeborg
of the XXIII Moscow International Film Festival, June 23-27, 2001

Part 1: Preserving Video Art

In 1984 video workshop/HASLEV created THE DANISH VIDEO ART DATA BANK and - with support from the Danish Ministry of Culture - published the bilingual “Katalog over dansk videokunst / Catalogue of Danish Video Art” with descriptions of well over 100 video works by 30 artists.

 There have been created quite a lot video art works since then but the problem is that it is not possible today to view and experience many of the works from the catalogue. Partly because they were produced at video standards which now are outdated and even not exist anymore and partly because we have had to discover that analogue video tapes do have a limited durability.

 Most of the works though are produced on low band U-matic. This standard still exist but not for long. At the Data Bank I still keep the old well-worn low band and high band U-matic decks and edit suite in shape. But anyway we must realise that the lifetime of these perhaps more than 25 years old U-matic tapes are running out especially if the storage has not been the best and if they not have been “aired” in most of these years.

 Well - perhaps many of these first Danish video art works are not “Big Art” (whatever that is?) but if for nothing else than historical and research reasons I feel they should be preserved. They are after all a part of our cultural heritage!

 And of course this is not only a Danish problem but a problem also in most other countries.

 In the light of this THE DANISH VIDEO ART DATA BANK prepared a report and proposal (published only in Danish) to secure, protect and restore Danish video art and creating an archive for this purpose.  

 To secure, protect and restore modern art, especially when it comes to a rather new kind as video art, is still a relatively “uncultivated” field with no clear definitions. Also because the electronic/digital media is a fast changing field with standards that do not last for very long. And also the electronic/digital media are “young” in the sense that we do not know too much about durability and the process of ageing and there is almost no expertise on this field.

 I took contact with Montevideo/TBA, the Dutch Media Art Institute, because I knew that they are working with the same problem and had made some research and considerations, published in a report (partly mentioned in their Newsletter).

As a result of the research they had decided to transfer all analogue tapes to digital Betacam because they found that in this way you best preserved the “originality” of the original video art work. They found that other digital techniques like DV and DVD by more or less degree of compression “destroyed” the original analogue art work: You would not be able to “recreate” it in its original form.

Also to transfer the analogue art work to a more or less compressed digital media raises the moral and the copyright question: Could you at all take the liberty to “change” an art work, produced at an analogue form by transferring it to a digital carrier?

The question is: How far does digitisation change the meaning of the video work? By definition, digitisation of video art means changing the carrier and playback equipment of the work of art.

 Well, I find that you could also argue that this is less important in view of the problem that the analogue video art works will be destroyed if nothing is done.


Preserving and archiving video art - suggestions

In the report from January 1999 Montevideo put forward a list of “Criteria for Archiving Formats” and I take the liberty to quote these criteria:

 1.    There should be no visible change of image compared to the original

2.   There should be as much as possible compatibility with industrial standards

3.   The system must be able to process Betacam SP, U-matic and VHS tapes, while preserving the best possible quality

4.   Montage and editing must be possible

5.   The stored material must have a long to very long life span

6.   The stored material must be able to be copied onto any desired (tape) format without any appreciable loss of quality

7.   The system must guarantee the possibility of transferring the preserved material to newly designed carriers, in the 21st century 

In view of these criteria and a test with different formats/carriers Montevideo came in 1999 to the conclusion that “Digital Betacam is the most suitable option for archive purposes”.

I also took contact with the guggenheim Museum in New york and talked with Paul Kuranko, Media Arts Specialist. he told me that up until now they have every 10 years made a new "master" of the tapes in their collection. to further protect this master they also make a so-called "Protection Copy" + an "Exhibition Copy", a "Research Copy" and a "Transfer Copy". 

The new “Master” and the “Protection Copy” are always made - if technical possible - at the same format/carrier as the original video art work: analogue to analogue, digital to digital. At least they will never “go down” in quality but if possible upgrade to a better quality within the same type of format/carrier (e.g. VHS to Beta and so on). The “Exhibition Copy” though is copied on DVD and the “Research Copy” only on VHS.

They find it a problem with the digital formats that each one compresses in a different way and also they are not quite satisfied with the quality compared with the original video.


Preserving video art  … preserving the immaterial variable media:
Variable Media Initiative and conference by Guggenheim Museum, NY

In March this year (March 30-31) the Guggenheim Museum in New York organised a conference not only about video art works but also about preserving any type of immaterial variable media art works.

The conference was organised by Guggenheim Film and Media Art’s Senior Curator John G. Hanhardt and Assistant Curator Jon Ippolito as part of the Guggenheim Variable Media Initiative.

The conference raised questions like: Should video art be preserved on tape or DVD? Can museums collect Web sites? What does preserving an ephemeral installation have in common with re-enacting a theatrical performance?

The conference discussed the issues associated with collecting, preserving, and re-presenting different types of art works that could be said to present similar preservation challenges as video.

All could agree that the lifespan of works created in variable media is significant shorter than for example an oil painting. In an attempt to capture and preserve artist’s intent the museum has developed a questionnaire. In this the museum asks the artists about present-tense parameters for displaying a piece, and their vision and guidelines for the future of the work. Future concerns include 1. storage, 2. emulation, 3. migration and 4. reinterpretation.

1. The storage strategy for most museums is to store the artwork physically. The major disadvantage of storing obsolescent materials is that the artwork will expire once these ephemeral materials cease to function.

2. To emulate an artwork is to devise a way of “imitating” the original look by completely different means (“imitating” an analogue video work on digital video or DVD and so on). This could however be inconsistent with the artist’s intent.

3. To migrate an artwork involves upgrading equipment and source material. The analogue videotape and player could be upgraded to digital tape/player. The major disadvantage of migration is that the original appearances of the artwork will probably change on its new medium – compare the discussion raised by Montevideo.

4. The most radical preservation strategy is to reinterpret the work each time it is re-created. This would mean to ask what contemporary medium would have the metaphoric value of the original medium. This would not always be possible and it is a dangerous technique when not accepted by the artist.

In the Variable Media Initiative Guggenheim also operates with the two terms “reproduction” and “duplication”.

A medium is “reproduced” if any copy of the original master of the artwork results in a loss of quality. Such media include for example analogue video.

To say that an artwork can be “duplicated” implies that it can be copied without loss of quality. Most digital media obey this behaviour compared with for example analogue video and film-to-video transfer.


An example: Paik's TV Garden as a case study for reflections 

The conference at Guggenheim concentrated on 8 case studies. You can find the reflections of the Museum on all 8 case studies at the Guggenheim web site

Since it is the preservation and conservation of video that has the interest of THE DANISH VIDEO ART DATA BANK I will concentrate on the conference reflections on Paik’s video installation “TV Garden” (playing the artist’s “Global Groove” tape).

The problems with this work "include its reproducible source medium (video); its duplicable display mechanism (monitors), and its site-variability of the installation.

Preservation issues to explore include:

Video source:

·        Storage: The original videotape is ¾ inch NTSC. What is the best way to conserve the source material?

·        Emulation: If the source is ported to future formats such as DVD or digital video, should re-mastering emphasise the exact re-creation of the viewer’s original experience rather than bringing the work’s medium up-to-date?

·        Migration: If the source is ported to formats (DVD, digital video, etc.) are changes in the viewer’s original experience acceptable as consequences of bringing the work’s medium up-to-date? How would the number of channels vary with the size of the installation?

·        Reinterpretation: Is the size of the installation or number of channels meant to vary according to subjective criteria determined by the artist? If so, what is the best way to convey those criteria to future generations?

Video equipment:

·        Storage: should dedicated monitors/casings be stored?

·        Emulation: If and when cathode ray tubes are no longer manufactured, should the museum emulate a video monitor by embedding a flat screen into an obsolete monitor casing?

·        Migration: can the choice of monitor brands and types vary according to local availability?

·        Reinterpretation: Were the technology available, could the video be projected in two or three dimensions?”

The reflections continue with some considerations concerning the installation itself because it has been shown in different ways (that is: site specific, with more than one channel, etc.).


Moral and copyright questions 

Through the Variable Media Initiative Guggenheim tries to “solve” or get an answer to some of the questions through the questionnaire to the artists (available at their web site later on). They propose that artists pass on guidelines as to how their artworks might be translated into alternative mediums once their current formats become obsolete.

In RHIZOME DIGEST: April 13, 2001, Marisa S. Olson comments (among other things) this when she states (and I quote): “The aim of the conference was to outline a strategy for proceeding, both with the museum’s initiative and with developing a larger conservatory gameplan. Yet, putting good intentions aside, the issues and strategies unearthed were quite problematic. At stake is the relationship of the artist to both curators and audience members.”

 “The relevant questions, however, simply pertain to the “behaviours relevant to the work”, which are being interpreted in the present context, and there seems to be no indication that the museum is able to predict the future. –To know how a flat plasma screen will hold or re-interpret a work created for a 1970’s television or a 1990’s desktop monitor. At present, then, it appears invariably inevitable that the artist’s intentions must then expire with the variable media in which they created their work. .. an unfortunate (im)material reality.”

Another contribution in RHIZOME DIGEST is even more critical. Philip Galanter writes: “A big point was made about respecting and understanding the artists intent, but from many artists I spoke with “off camera” at the conference there was a great deal of scepticism.”

 “Rather than giving artists more control over how their work is presented in the future, the Variable Media initiative (whether this is the intent or the unintended result) makes the artist complicit in protecting the financial interests of those more interested in art as profit returning investment than art as art"

Well – I think it is a bit too hard to express it that way, but of course the artist has to ask as he goes on: “Many legitimately ask, therefore, not only what is being offered, but what will be taken away, and who is really being served?”.

Comments from Jon Ippolito

 John Ippolito from Guggenheim answer to these comments in RHIZOME DIGEST: 4.20.2001

 To Marisa Olson’s comments that the artist’s intentions must expire with the variable media in which they created their work, Jon Ippolito remarks that  “original” artistic intent, in the narrow sense Maria seems to define it, expires the moment an artist hangs a painting in a gallery or uploads something   to a public web site. Any responsible artist tries to direct a viewer’s experience, but any realistic artist knows that you can’t keep people from misreading the work in some way.  "Artistic intent is a construct inferred by a viewer.”

 Ippolito then points out that “some constructs, however, are more informed than others". By filling out a variable media questionnaire you could say, that the artists may choose to grant the collecting institution an unprecedented kind of authority. But not filling one out endows the institution with far greater authority, because then there’s no document future critics can dig out to decide whether a given interpretation is good or bad. And, says Ippolito: "make no mistake about it, museums will reinterpret works of art – sometimes consciously, sometimes not, but usually to the detriment  [damage] of all but the most conservative elements of an artwork. … “

 “And of course”, he states, “if an artist working in ephemeral media doesn’t want their work to vary at all, the variable media paradigm is the only current proposal to allow enforcement of such an expiration date.”

 To Philip’s concern that the variable media model simply guaranteed a “profit returning investment” for museums, Ippolito consents that “No collecting institution will ever be entirely insulated from market pressures, so artists are right to be sceptical of museum’s interest – to a point.” But he believes, “that a museum that is committed to collecting ephemeral works according to a variable media paradigm represents the best strategy for preserving art the way artists meant it to be seen".

 … and this, I think, could be seen as an answer to the moral and copyright question mentioned by me above.


Conclusion: Preserving video art

 Well - it is as far as we have come in our research up til now.

 I know that KIASMA, the museum of modern art, in Finland with the consent of the video artists are digitising masters in Mpeg2. The artists get a DVD-copy, which they can use for promotion and distribution. They state that they do not find any other realistic solution but anyhow it would be interesting to hear the considerations/thoughts they have done to the above-mentioned moral and copyright question.

 Woody Wasulka told me at the conference here that they are transforming their analogue tapes to DVD. But since they are the artists, it is an "artist's decision" and not something decided by somebody else, a museum, a curator, a distributor, an archive or what else - and without the consent of the artists.

 And THE DANISH VIDEO ART DATA BANK would of coarse be interested to learn what others are doing or not doing, since it is beginning to become a bigger and bigger problem not only in the future but already now with old tapes and different formats/carriers.


Part 2: Index of Danish and Scandinavian video art on the Internet

 The problem of preserving video art work is not the only problem concerning Danish video art and video art works from other countries.

 Even with works that are still viewable it is often difficult just to get information about the works unless you just happens to know the artist or a person who knows somebody that knows something about the video art works.

 Although THE DANISH VIDEO ART DATA BANK has a web site called "Catalogue", this "catalogue" is not – at the moment – very informative or extensive. And the same goes for some of the other Scandinavian web catalogues.

 When you look in general at video and video art catalogues, not only on the Internet but also at "old-fashioned" printed catalogues you will find that the information given about the videos is not the same from catalogue to catalogue. I find that this is a problem that should be dealt with. We should come to an agreement at least in Europe – or in any case at least in Scandinavia – about what information should be given about each video work.

 We are in the process of making a small comparative survey of international catalogues on the Internet. When finished I would like to suggest a sort of standard formulary as a minimum of the amount of information about each work.


An international number for each video art work

 It would also be a great help in search of any particular video work if each work were allocated an international number like with the ISBN, the International Standard Book Number system for books.

 Of course each individual artist could register in the ISBN system but one catch more about the ISBN system is that you – at least in Denmark – has to deliver two copies of what you "publish" to the Royal Danish Library – and this is compulsory. This is OK when it comes to printed matter but not when it comes to an art work – and a video art work must be considered as a work of art like a painting or a sculpture. Artists don’t have to deliver a specimen of their artwork for free to a museum. Why should artists working with video then do it?

 Fortunately ISO, The International Organisation for Standardisation, is in the process of creating a system for audiovisual work equivalent to ISBN. This system is called ISAN, International Standard Audiovisual Number. The original draft proposal was prepared by CISAC, the International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers, and AGICOA, the Association for the International Collective Management of Audi-visual Works, in 1996 and this draft was in 1997 merged with a draft from FIAPF, the International Federation of Film Producers Association. It is currently at the DIS (Draft International Standard) stage. ISAN should be finally approved by the end of the 2001 calendar year and ready for use sometimes shortly after that.

 The ISAN Standard defines "audio-visual work" as follows:

"Audio-visual work: Work consisting of a sequence of related images, with or without accompanying sound, which is intended to be made visible as a moving image through the use of devices, regardless of the medium of initial or subsequent fixation."

 The purpose with ISAN is to identify the work with a unique number and this number will remain the same for an audio-visual work regardless of the various formats in which it is distributed (e.g. analogue or digital video, CD-ROM, DVD, etc.).

 Because each ISAN will be a unique number that will be permanently assigned to an audio- visual work, it will identify that work across national boundaries and language barriers. As such it should be useful particularly as an identifier when databases and exchange of information is involved. This makes it very interesting if you want to register video art works and create databases with the information. - also on the Internet.


Many databases but one Internet search engine

 If we keep to Scandinavia because the problem about registration and index of video and film work has bee raised there, then I do not think it feasible to create one, and only one, common data base or data bank on the Internet!

 Some of the agencies / organisations in the Scandinavian countries working with distribution and or collecting videos and films already have there own data bank on paper and some also on the Internet, so I think a "merger" of these should be done in a different way.

 At the congress-part of the European Media Art Festival in Osnabrück in April this year there was among other very interesting papers presented also one by Cay Wesnigk from OnLine FILM. They are trying to create "Die DeutscheFilmDatenbank" for independent filmmakers. This is of interest because they want to create it not as one big, common data bank but as "Das Internetportal für den deutschen Film".

 I think this could and should be the model for creating an index of Scandinavian video art works (and of course also for countries outside Scandinavia). Also because you keep the already existing databases as such. How could it be done?



 I will try to sketch out how I think it should be done.

1.      We should agree upon what information should be given about a video work. As I said we will come back to that after finishing our resarch

2.      We should agree upon using ISAN as soon as it becomes ready for use.

3.      We should agree upon a common structure for the independent databases. At least you should be able to search on both "artist" and "title". If these independent data banks also should include streaming video clips should, I think, be up to each data bank, depending on both economical and man power resources.

4.      The existing (or coming) independent data banks and their web sites should still be the sole responsibility of the agency/organisation/museum, which has created it, and also be maintained by these agencies/organisations/museums.

5.      We should create a common meta search engine, which should be able to search for any information in each of the data bank web sites connected to the search engine. When somebody seeks information about Scandinavian video art you only have to go to one web site, the common meta search engine. This search engine functions a "web gate" or "portal" to the independent data bank web sites.

6.      If you then write the name of an artist or the title of a video the search engine will direct you to any of the independent web sites containing the wanted information. Not only to the web site but directly to the information.

7.      You might consider if the meta search engine also should have a list of artists from all the independent data bank sites to choose from.

8.      In any case anybody should still be able to go directly to each of the independent data bank web sites without having to go through the search engine.

9.      We have to create a common agency to take care of and maintain the meta search engine (it could of course be one of the already existing agencies, organisations and museums).

10. We have to find economical resources for the meta search engine.

11. ´9It should be possible for an artists not associated with one of the data banks but with a web site to have this web site connected to the search engine,

12. … but I think that an artist could be associated with a data bank even if the artist want to be independent of the data bank and the way they usually distribute videos. THE DANISH VIDEO ART DATA BANK offers such an opportunity for individual artists to have information published on the catalogue site without any obligation to the Data Bank (NB: in any case the Data Bank has no agreement with any artist about exclusive rights to distribution. Any of the affiliated artists can also themselves distribute their own videos)

This chart from "VIDEO ART\e-monitor newsletter No. 6 illustrates the suggestions:
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I hope my suggestions will be discussed between the Scandinavian agencies/organisations/museums concerned. Since I am an artist and not a computer specialist I do not know anything about the price of the suggested meta search engine or the work to be done to establish and maintain it. If accepted a work group should be established to look into the practical and economical aspects.


Part 3: Archive of Danish video art

 As I said in the beginning we have also been working on the possibility of creating an archive of Danish video art (a "physical" archive)

 As a starting point THE DANISH VIDEO ART DATA BANK has discussed the possible functions of such an archive:

 a)    The archive could solely be a depot for the restored, preserved and transferred video art works with a registration/catalogue and a possibility to make simple copies. The restoration, preservation and transfer would be done by commercial companies

b)   The archive   as a) but also with “in-house” technical possibilities for the restoration, preservation and transfer

c)   the archive as a) or b) but also with the possibility for public access to view the videos.

 We think that the best model would be the combination of b) and c).

 Next step would of course depend on financial support - and also in what framework and responsibility it is going to be organised. In this respect there seems to be a dawning interest among some museum curators in Denmark for doing something - and that is how far we have come by now.


Part 4: Video/media arts and the accelerating change of technology

The problems around preservation and archiving video art from yesterday also raises questions about the work of video and media artists now and in the future.

 With the accelerating technological changes of formats and carriers what is then the possibilities of the access for media artists to express themselves artistically not just now but also in the future?

 To put it very simple: If the artists created an art work on  a video cassette yesterday, then he or she should have done it on CD-ROM today which tomorrow will be outdated in favour of DVD which in return the day after tomorrow will be replaced by … you take a guess.

 The accellation of development in digital media has also increased their ephemerality. This becomes a fundamental creative problem for artists. By the time you have mastered a particular technology,it has gone away.

 You might well ask: Do we have to reject the statement by Nam June Paiks  that "Once on video tape you are not allowed to die" ?

 What can the video and media artist do to be sure to create works that you may experience "in all future times" regardless of seemingly inevitable transient quality of the new electronic / digital media?

 Should we as artists - and can we do that? - think different about how to create an art work and how to look at an art work?

 Away from the traditional view as something definitive, well-defined, present? Should we imagine all art-making with media as having the ephemerality of performance?

 Would it, for example, as the American artist Ron Kuivila has suggested, be possible if the art work is looked upon as an open source notation? – If we look upon the creation of a media art work  from the relationships that grow out of notation and realisation?

 And by notation he means notation in a "prescriptive" sense that sets ground rules for a complementary activity - realisation - and not in a "descriptive" sense that specifies a work fixed in every detail.

 He points out, that to some extent, new media are themselves notations. Let us say you work with a tool like html. It constitutes a meta-score of some sort, because it creates a field of play. And the artist might stress that it is just an enabling technology - and we can distinguish it clearly from the art work.

But perhaps we should just not do that! Perhaps we should rather imagine the passage between a particular set of technical possibilities to a particular piece of art as a more fluid situation. Or we could imagine works as problems of specification.

 If we think in this way, the making of an art work becomes a matter of making a prescriptive notation that exists independent of any specific technical possibility and that can be re-constituted by adding "the water" of a current or future technology.

 The problem for the artist in a traditional sense is that other people than the artist also will be able to "add the water" - and then you as an artist loose your individual mark on the work as its creator?

 If you talk about a descriptive notation then the artwork will be entirely encoded in the instructions. But the risk is that the technological development will make it impossible to realise the work in the future. Ron Kuivila therefore suggests using the prescriptive notation not as a replacement for current work, but as a useful supplement.

 How do we describe a work based on the prescriptive notation? Do we just keep describing the notation, or will we describe the realisation? And: do we still mention the artist that initiated the notation - Or do we only mention those that that later realise the specific notation. Those that made it "famous" with their actions?

 Well - you already have that problem. Take for example Nam June Paik's "Zen for Head".

 Karlheinz Stockhausen's "Originale" was performed the first time at Theater am Dom in cologne in October 1961. Paik had - as the only one of the participating artists - been granted free hands by Stockhausen. He performed "Zen for Head" by painting a line on a roll of paper with his head.

 In later descriptions (both in books and magazines) it is only a very few times mentioned that it was a realisation of Lamonte Young's "Composition No. 10 for Robert Morris", and that Paik and Young at that time worked together. In most cases only Paik is mentioned.

 That is to say: you mention only Paik that made the notation - the prescriptive notation - famous because he realized it by performing it, and not Lamonte Young, the artist that created the notation, the "author" of the prescriptive notation.

 Kuivila suggests that instead of maintaining a strict "author model" you should operate with a more flexible sense of "shared authorship" to create many possibilities where before there were only a few imagined. We should actively embrace the variety of models of "authorship" that are possible and incorporate them into our conception of art making.

 Well - if these thoughts about "prescriptive notations" and "shared authorship" as the future AND the rescue of media art is the way to go, I can't say. But they are in any case a proposal to discussion and debate. I think artists working with media art should do that, because the problems around the ephemerality of the digital media are there already now. We should as artists take this challenge serious.


Torben Soeborg

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