Documentation Diaries: Content vs. Technology

Joan Jonas. Mirage (installation details). 1976/1994/2003. The Museum of Modern Art. Gift of Richard Massey, Clarissa Alcock Bronfman, Agnes Gund, and Committee on Media Funds

Migrating media to accommodate rapidly evolving playback technology is a common occurrence. Our daily tendency to preserve images and sounds as we progress technologically means that we often discard old recording forms and playback equipment for digital replicas. Yet this drive to preserve content unexpectedly distorts the importance of technology as more than mere platform for content. When we disconnect media from its method of presentation we must consider the loss of contextualization for an object. Technology may seem disposable, but is it?

Joan Jonas. Car Tape (detail). 1976. Video (black-and-white, sound), continuous loop. 6 min. Photo: Sydney Briggs

Joan Jonas’s Car Tape (1976) was recorded from the interior of a car while driving down a wooded path. The six-minute, black-and-white video, part of the installation Mirage, is looped and played back on a small box monitor positioned to the left of two large side-by-side projections. The monitor lies sideways on an independent pedestal. A vertical roll is activated on the screen to interrupt the stationary image of the video. (A vertical roll occurs when the picture frame (generally horizontal) jumps from top to bottom with a black band visible between each frame.) The appearance of a vertical roll is a function of vintage monitor technology; along with many other functions, monitors manufactured after the early 1980s eliminated the effect.

With the help of two members from our Audio Visual staff, Charlie Kalinowski and Howard Deitch, several old monitors with vertical-hold controls were located.  Unfortunately, none of the monitors in our supply could be slowed to the rhythmic pace required for the work.  Joan Jonas quickly informed us of a similar situation during a previous installation in Barcelona, where a technician created a digital version of the function. Using an existing digital file of the original analog video, Howard mimicked vertical roll with Adobe Premier Software. As he explained, the transfer to digital format allowed him “to change the vertical position of the image.” Once the aspect was created, he then matched as closely as possible the short sequence of vertical roll in Mirage 1, which is taped from the artist’s own television. To do this, Howard timed the vertical roll to move through each image at approximately three-second intervals, adding a slight bounce at the end of the sequence which would mimic an analog artifact on a pre-digital monitor. The newly manipulated image was output in DVD format for playback on the vintage set.

Our experience with this installation highlighted how the loss of technology may affect our ability to install an artist’s work. For conservation of time-based media to be effective, we must balance the importance of both content and carrier so that the understanding of technology in relation to the experience of the medium is not lost. In the most unassuming way, Mirage reminds both the viewer and the caretaker of the relationship between history, memory, and the present.