BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 01 OCT 10
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Issue 134

Video Store

The dematerialization of the moving image

BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 01 OCT 10

A video cassette of Marcel Odenbach's, Abwarten und Tee trinken (Wait and See), 1978. Courtesy: Anton and Kern Gallery, New York. 

Recently I’ve heard more than a few artists and gallerists complain about private collectors who still insist on acquiring video in the Digital Betacam format. Launched in 1993, DigiBeta continues to be recommended by institutions including Tate and Electronic Arts Intermix. But detractors view the cassettes as expensive, time-consuming, digital dinosaurs. Many artists now prefer to send hard drives with digital files, which can be easily copied and migrated to other formats. Along with the file comes a set of instructions for setting up the projection space. The future promises a lighter collectible: videos might hover in digital clouds like heavenly creatures, downloaded or streamed into an exhibition site. Collectors will amass passwords, which will obviously put a damper on showing off the archive.

Aren’t these techy details for IT experts? In fact, digitalization is bringing video closer to hardcore Conceptual art. Each screening – determined by a contract with instructions about how to execute the work for exhibition – evokes the re-enactment of a performance piece. While artists might save time by sending files and instructions (instead of DigiBeta), they spend time negotiating with collectors and museums about what kind of equipment will be used to show the video.

In contrast to conceptual and performance art, video has lingering ‘residuals’: a moving picture, plus the technology to view it. If first-generation Conceptual artists used contracts to thwart the market during the era of dematerialization, today’s video artists are using them to thwart technological obsolescence. Allowing collectors and museums to provide and update equipment is a more convenient and lasting solution. Video’s current dematerialization reflects technology’s rapid development.

But will the moving picture alone – without the vintage supports – be sufficient to evoke the history of a video? Isn’t there value in the technological origins – low-tech from today’s perspective – of, say, Bruce Nauman’s Bouncing in the Corner, No. 1 (1968)? Collectors and museums may someday exhibit those VHS tapes, DigiBetas and DVDs with their custom-made labels as well as the instructions – just as they exhibited the typed contracts of early conceptual works and the blurry photographs of by-gone performances.

While obsolescence adds historical value, it’s becoming a double problem with digitalization. First, disappearing technologies – like cathode ray tube monitors – will turn 20th-century art into a conservation nightmare. Many artists – from Nauman to Marcel Odenbach – linked videos of the human head with the boxy monitors screening them. Such associations cannot be reproduced with digital flat screens. Second, digitalization is self-destructive, as each advance produces ‘digital decay’: from early versions of software to outdated hardware, like floppy disks and Mini-DVs. DVDs may be good for saving, but not for archiving; they have a limited life-span, even if they’re never used. (Blu-ray is no better.) France’s Académie des sciences recently issued a ‘digital amnesia’ warning to institutions and citizens and advised regularly recopying disc archives, from catalogues to family albums. An ‘archive DVD’ is a misnomer.

Documentation and Conservation of the Media Arts – a Canadian research alliance dedicated to lengthening the afterlife of art works – offers some sobering case studies. I thought they would focus on videos made with Sony’s Portapak, which came out in 1967. Most, though, were made in the 1990s, like Daniel Dion and Su Schnee’s The Moment of Truth (1991), which used the now-extinct Sony GV-300, a portable video player with a small monitor. The device – constantly running in exhibitions – broke down and was replaced with a Casio EV-670, a small handheld TV that doesn’t come with a player. The conservator consulted the artists, who had to choose between the authenticity of the original work, the integrity of the moving picture and its disappearance.

Obsolescence was intentional in Philippe Parreno’s The Boy from Mars (2005). Some copies were made on DVDs with a chemically-treated surface, which oxidized and erased the data once the disc’s wrapping was removed. Today, the work hovers in a VodPod cloud. This resurrection reveals another link between video, conceptual and performance art, which emerged in the 1960s with the Utopian ideal of not only thwarting the market but also making art accessible.

As some artists were dematerializing their works, others were disseminating them and bringing tools to citizens through video collectives, like Montreal’s Vidéographe (1971–5) with a street-level location, vidéothéâtre and around-the-clock opening hours. In light of this history, the Guggenheim’s ‘YouTube Play: A Biennial of Creative Video’ this month – with videos chosen by a jury from digital clouds instead of studio visits – is not a novelty but a welcome revival of a long-lost tradition.

Jennifer Allen is a writer and critic based in Berlin.