Three years after the advent of the Portapak (the first portable video recorder), MoMA showed Nam June Paik’s Lindsay Tape (1967) as part of the landmark 1968 exhibition The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age, organized by K.G. Pontus Hultén. The piece consisted of two, half-inch reel-to-reel decks that were spaced 10 feet apart, with the tape (Paik’s original!), jerry-rigged together to allow it to loop continuously. After a week on view, the wear on the tape proved too much. It began to break down and was taken off view (and was almost lost to history). Despite this rather daunting introduction to the fragile and fugitive nature of video, the Museum began to formally acquire video works in the late 1970s, led by former MoMA Associate Curator Barbara London.
Video, as a medium, is inextricably tied to an industry built on rapid advances in technology, as breakthroughs in resolution and portability lead to older formats being quickly supplanted. These advances also bring about obsolescence of the older formats as companies no longer produce or service the playback decks, or manufacture the formats. Just as your favorite film was on VHS, then DVD, and is now streaming on Netflix, artists’ videos also need regular migration to newer formats. However there is a necessary exactitude and respect for original intentions during such format migration that complicates the task for a media conservator.
To date, the Museum has over 1,600 video works—an astounding collection that documents the history of this medium used in artistic practice from its beginning. When the first media conservator arrived at MoMA in 2007, the large analog video collection was quickly identified as a priority for conservation treatment and migration of the video signal to digital files. Migrations had largely been carried out on an ad hoc, exhibition-driven schedule. Conservators realized that a focused effort was needed to care for the over 6,000 tapes in the collection. In response to this, the Museum undertook a large-scale digitization effort focusing on the analog videos in 2011. Because of the Museum’s long history of acquiring video art, the collection contains a variety of formats, including a handful of two-inch Quadraplex reels, hundreds of U-matic tapes, and thousands of VHS tapes among countless others. Video tape—intended for rapid news production and at-home recording and viewing—was never designed to be a long-lasting medium. Hence, the entire collection was in danger of becoming unplayable because of degradation issues due to age and inherent fragility. A particular concern with magnetic media is binder hydrolysis, or “sticky shed syndrome,” where the magnetic particles will separate from the binder over time. The digitization project began by scouring the collection to gain intellectual control of each piece’s format history. This history of the work was based on documentation of the artist’s practices, institutional knowledge, and general conservation knowledge about methods in which artists would work with video. In some instances, a work will exist on a myriad of formats and as conservators and curators begin to tease out its history, they must rely on the artist’s memory or research into exhibition histories to identify as close to the master tape as possible.
To illustrate this challenge, we can look at Richard Serra and Nancy Holt’s Boomerang. The piece is a recording of artist Nancy Holt narrating the real-time experience of listening to a feedback loop of her own voice. Originally broadcast and recorded in 1974 in a television studio in Amarillo, Texas, the master resides on a reel of two-inch Quadraplex tape. The content was migrated to three-quarter-inch U-matic in the late 1970s and 1980s and distributed by the Castelli/Sonnabend Gallery, then to Betacam SP and Digital Betacam in the mid 2000s.
Based on documentation both on the various cassettes and of the history of the piece, we were able to decipher its production and exhibition history. We decided to migrate the two-inch Quad, presumed to be the original tape or “master,” which would yield the best fidelity and image quality. A reference three-quarter-inch U-matic tape was also migrated to get an understanding of how the piece was exhibited in order to compare them against each other to observe any changes made from the master to the exhibition format. We worked intimately with the video engineers at DuArt—Maurice Schechter and Erik Piil—to closely analyze the video signal for the different formats to determine how to properly migrate the material with minimal intervention on the conservator or engineer’s part. Integral to the analysis of the signal are calibrated playback decks and monitors, such as a broadcast cathode ray tube (CRT) monitor and oscilloscopes, which allow us to empirically analyze the luminance (black and white) and chrominance (color) information in the video signal. A time-based corrector (TBC) and processing amplifier allow conservators to manipulate and treat the video signal.
Special care is needed to maintain the authenticity of a piece of video art while transferring this material. As my colleague Kate Lewis stressed in her recent post, the core role of a media conservator is to help manage changes in the work over time while respecting the artist’s intent. Not only must we protect against any degradation the tape may exhibit, we must also analyze the video signal to ensure it is as close as possible to the analog original and the intent of the artist. For example, the piece’s color may be intentionally out of phase—resulting in a purple/blue skin tone—or the sync pulses manipulated so the signal appears to be malfunctioning. It is imperative to document this and conservatively adjust the signal, if deemed necessary, as each transfer is done with the understanding that this may be the last time these tapes are able to be played.
During the digitization project, each analog video work in MoMA’s collection was migrated to a digital video file. No compression was applied during the transfer, allowing for the maximum digital latitude in accurately representing the analog video signal. The resulting digital files allow us to extend the life of these works and ensure that the artist’s work can be exhibited faithfully and accurately. Now that the material is in a digital form, there is no risk of damaging tapes upon playback, no lengthy wait time after requesting material from off-site storage, and files can be easily transcoded to copies for viewing. This has allowed unprecedented access to this historically significant collection.
To find out more about how we store and care for these digital files, look for Digital Repository Manager Ben Fino-Radin’s upcoming blog post.
Additional Information on Video Preservation and Digitization:
Sustaining Consistent Video Presentation by Dave Rice
Video Identification and Assessment Guide by Texas Commission on the Arts
Digitizing Video for Long-Term Preservation: An RFP Guide and Template