How to deliver what is asked

[beginPage: Intro]


door Bart Rutten

Since 1978 the Netherlands Media Art Institute, previously known as MonteVideo, has promoted the dissemination of, and reflection on media art and video art. As well as organizing exhibitions and administering and circulating a large collection of video art, there is Artlab, where artists are invited to develop projects for or with internet. Among these are also the latest developments in the field of making video art accessible through internet. Before going into this in more detail, I would first like to sketch an historical framework which, hopefully, will help explain the choices which are being made.

The historical developments I will outline are closely related to one another and their causes and effects are interconnected. But I would first want to devote a short analysis to four themes which can define a further vantage point. In doing so, I apologize in advance for the absence of hard figures, but I am assuming that most of my listeners or readers will recognize themselves in this sketch of developments. After all, being involved with art institutions you also plot your course through the analysis of these tendencies, without having the time and means to perform academic investigations in the field.

I would, however, want to share with you a quote from the book Remediation: Understanding New Media, by D. Bolter and R. Grusin (MIT Press, 1999), which to my mind says a lot about the problem we are now facing, of the differing interests of the audience and provider:

'What is new about new media comes from the particular ways in which they refashion older media and the ways in which older media refashion themselves to answer the challenges of the media.'

[beginPage: The growing audience
The most striking development is the shift that has taken place in the appreciation of video work, which has seen it move from being a marginal art form in the wider field of the visual arts in the 1960s and '70s to one of the most used and a the same time most discussed art forms in the last decade. Its audience has grown along with the rising interest and increasing number of works available; the growth in audience has been both quantitative, in terms of visitor numbers, and qualitative, in the sense of their being better informed. For the rest, it appears that as the problem of the scarcity of video art has been resolved, viewing habits have changed drastically. Where in the 1970s a video-lover would watch a video art work in its entirety, now only a fraction of the audience will watch a work from beginning to end, although many may perhaps think back on the work and would like to find it again, or perhaps even see it again.

In addition there has been an enormous increase in the number of training courses which give extensive attention to video art, from art academies to new programs in cultural communication and majors in 'visual culture', for both video makers and art historians and critics. This new audience has created a new demand for means that will allow them to consult video art easily.

[beginPage: Better presentations]
With the democratizing of technology, not only has the artist profited from being able to work with video by simpler means, but art centers and museums have profited as well. After all, they are now able to acquire professional apparatus in order to improve the presentation of video art. In the 1990s art made with video grew into a full-fledged museal art form. The similarity between the projected image and the painting if often cited, but that certainly does not cover the whole significance of what has happened. There are many artists who further spatially problematize the presentation of video by specifying the position of the video screen, changing the color of the space, or adding objects to the space. The presentation is comparable with an installation, so that the experience of watching the video signal is very deeply influenced by the apparatus selected and the further context of the presentation. This strongly involves a vitally enriched experience, in which the visitor is affected by the synergy between image and sound. This not only improves the aura of the artwork but, more important, distinguishes the museal presentation from the television experience. To experience video art in this way is to undergo a unique experience.

[beginPage: Video art and the market]
After video art was annexed by specialized institutions and festivals in the late 1970s and early '80s, in the 1990s, following the success of the museum circuit, increasing numbers of galleries began to focus on this (for them) often new art form. The developments sketched above, in which museums and art criticism played a role in defining their artistic status, also affected the economic value of the art works. For that matter, this had its effects at multiple levels, that is to say it not only affected the price which had to be paid for the artworks, but also the way in which people were able to involve the artist in his or her presentation. In this way the intention of the maker came to stand out in greater relief against the uniform possibilities of the media used (see below in 'From tape to digital signal').

At first, video art appeared to function in the gallery circuit primarily as a signboard to polish up the image of the other artists in the stable and enhance the image of the gallery as being able to dictate the value of 'its' art. Later, as demand from collectors and museums for art made with video began to increase and the trade intensified, the gallery circuit was best served by scarcity. As a matter of fact, this not only was in the interest of financial value, but also contributed to the differentiation of the presentation. The totally artificial limited edition was used to drive up prices. In this, only a few galleries made any distinction between the circuits to which they sold, or the purpose for which the tape was to be used (the presentation circuit versus educational use or archiving). This reduced the accessibility of video works.

[beginPage: From tape to digital signal]
In the 1960s and early 1970s the most used vehicles for the video signal were quarter inch open reel tapes. The differences between the various individual players and brands of tapes were so great that exchange of information on tapes was extremely difficult. In addition, the number of tapes was so small that duplication was a prerogative of specialized institutions and businesses and an occasional artist. This changed with the arrival of Umatic; this vehicle became the standard for video art. (It is important to note at this point that artists used the same technology as the television world, which guaranteed the availability of the equipment.) With the standardization of the vehicle, illegal duplication became a potential problem. For the rest, it appears that until far into the 1980s only a handful of artists were aware of the possible problems with unauthorized use of copies that might be floating around. For instance, in our archive there are still many tapes from early exhibitions that we apparently have no right to possess. Furthermore, during the conservation project (see 'What the Netherlands Media Art Institute is focusing on', below) it appeared that many institutions had difficulty distinguishing in their video collections from before 1985 what had come in as previews, what had been left on loan that the artist had eventually forgotten about, and what they had full right to as a museum. When conservation became a necessity and research into the origin of the tapes began, many problems of this sort came to light. It illustrates how the ways of dealing with video became increasingly formalized, use was increasingly limited, and perhaps from the outset had been a matter not of possession but rather of right.

An advantage of Umatic, and later of Betacam as compared with the newer digital vehicles is that they are of professional format, alongside which a consumer format such as VHS can exist. This enabled a number of artists to make and sell VHS copies especially for the consumer market - for which there was demand, after all - which did not in any way interfere with professional exhibition. In a certain sense, the nature of the vehicle connoted the use. With the digitization of the video signal, and particularly with the use of DVD as a vehicle, the old difference between professional format - Umatic - and consumer format - VHS - was eliminated. The attendant disadvantage is that DVDs are (and will remain) very easy to copy without loss of quality. Especially in the consumer market no one is making an issue about trading content. With internet this can be, and is, circulated further outside the circle of one's own friends and acquaintances. For the present video remains outside the circuit of up and down-loading, as has happened with music and regular films.

Today there are inventories and catalogues in database programs for most video collections. Metaphorically, the computer with the inventory stands right next to the cabinet with the video tapes. Many larger collections which are accessible to the public are transferring their collections to computer servers. Because digital storage capacity has increased enormously, it is more sustainable to fit out a public space with computers which can log into a terraserver than to maintain video viewing sets. Logically, the two - the database program and the server with video files - will be integrated. If the computer formerly stood next to the cabinet, now the cabinet is disappearing and only the computer will be left. The collection is totally accessible, and only security keeps it out of the hands of the public on internet.

[beginPage: Event-based alongside databased
A split has occurred in the way video art is consumed. On the one hand the presentation has become more intense, meaning that the audience experiences the video work in a special situation; on the other hand, an audience has arisen which wants, whether for personal or professional reasons, to be able to study or consult the work in its totality. Alongside event-based video art there is a growing need to be able to consult a database for video art at a distance. This is not just in the Western world, but certainly also in former East Bloc countries and in Asia, where there is an enormous appetite for video art and its history. The audience for this is willing to accept less technological quality, in the same way that the VHS video tape functioned, and in a certain sense, like the illustrations in a museum exhibition and stills in books and on the internet.

Because of the apparently great similarities between DVD quality and videostreams as they are generally found on the internet (high compression rate), many artists are hesitant about releasing. Often they proceed from the thought that doing so would stand in the way the potential income from sales or exhibitions. What can be investigated is the question of whether having the video available in internet indeed results in decreased income. Perhaps, on the other hand, the chance to become acquainted with the work will prove beneficial , and there will be more demand for having it set up as an installation or seen in a cinema or theatre. The internet site where the work can be called up will play an important role in this. Here the prestige of the site will help to determine its status, in the same way that the museum circuit functions, and this would give the traditional platforms a chance to profile themselves, and their prestige, online too.

Opinions on the possible changes in significance and quality as a result of making work available online vary enormously. For one it is a welcome new platform to use alongside the regular, technically polished exhibitions. Internet is not suitable for use as a platform for others, because for them the work and medium are one entity, and therefore cannot be seen apart from each other. The context - for instance, the desk on which the computer stands - and the mediocre quality of the visuals and sound are named as the most important objections. Thus, in these cases, internet exhibition is considered as competing with presentations in regular theatres or museums.

Arguing in terms of the medium, it appears the idea of making things available via internet will be a historical necessity. However, with its technological possibilities, video art never lets itself be defined by future scenarios. Artists themselves often have an outspoken opinion on the intentions that lie behind their artwork, and in most cases they retain copyright on the artwork. These opinions and rights must be respected, but on the other side institutions and museums can take part in the discussion of the question of how access can be provided to artworks. Once we become accustomed to the internet as a platform for video, we come to see the differences between internet and art presentation better than the similarities, which we are now concentrating on too much.

The present situation would seem to be an intermediate phase. One is struck, for instance, by the huge increase in DVD publications by artists, magazines and newly founded 'virtual museums' alike. They appear to be making grateful use of the lack of availability of video art and the fact that for the past years DVDs have been available very inexpensively in bulk editions. But it remains to be seen just how far these editions go in being profitable financially; because the consumer market is small, much already depends on purchases by libraries and archives.

[beginPage: What the Netherlands Media Art Institute is focusing on]
In 1995, in collaboration with Toxus software, the Netherlands Media Art Institute developed a database program that was specially tailored for recording video. Cyclope was the derived video variant through which people could consult the collection. The visitor can select from artist and title, and also genre, subject and key word. A fifteen second video fragment was added for a large number of works.
Artlab has developed a number of pilot projects which experiment with internet as a platform for video exhibition. With the permission of the artists, video art is also offered temporarily on internet full screen (MPEG 4) in educational projects.

After our drive to eliminate a backlog in conservation between 1995 and 2004, the collection was transferred to Digibeta (see the publication The Sustainability of Video Art, by the Stichting Behoud Moderne Kunst, 2003). In 2003 the Netherlands Media Art Institute began the transfer from Digibeta to MPEG 2 on a terraserver. This hard disk serves as the memory for the MPEG signal that, in contrast to Digibetas, is intended precisely for use by the public. Thus in terms of the vehicles there is a great distinction between storage or conservation and exhibition. We chose MPEG 2 as the format for storage because this meets the specifications that are employed in DVD productions, and because of its relatively acceptable transmission quality. Moreover, MPEG 2 fits with industrial standards and the system appears to be guaranteed. Accessibility criteria such as capacity and speed also played a role in this. For distribution purposes the MPEG signal is transferred to DVDs. In the future we will perhaps also be investigating new exchange possibilities via internet with professional customers.

Computers that offer access to a selection of works on the terraserver are also placed in the project space during exhibitions. This is done not only as a trial run for the future mediatheque where one can log in directly to the server, but also to link the exhibition with the collection.
The custom-made Watson database system has been used in order to integrate the collection into the Institute. The videostreams are coupled with the entries in the database system. A catalogue system is adapted for the website. In addition to fragments and stills, if desired whole works can be added to this system, for instance in MPEG 4,. We contact artists personally to ask in what manner the artist wants to have his or her work available to the public. They are offered the following choices: no fragment; a 15 second fragment; or the whole work in either small format, or full screen. Responses are presently still coming in to this inquiry.

In the future we will also be trying out various manners of digital distribution. For instance, a pilot of a Pay on Demand system is being organized, in which internet users pay for viewing the work in MPEG 2 format. But we also want to work further with making works available temporarily on educational and streaming channel internet sites. The largest obstacle in this sort of cooperation to date has been that many organizations do have a budged for the technical realization of an internet project but won't give a moment's thought to compensation for the content.

Artists remain responsible for the decision of whether their work can be placed on internet. The Netherlands Media Art Institute will always respect that. We will however continue to make efforts to give video its rightful place on internet in a way which satisfies both the artist and the public. Perhaps the solution will be found in encouraging artists to offer their work with inferior image and sound quality in a context which makes it clear that this is documentation which functions as a reference, and which is not intended to replace the work in the art and film circuit. Accomplishing this no longer requires any technological advances, but rather a change in cultural attitudes by which the internet will be seen as complementing regular presentations, and for which possible new payment strategies can be developed. In order to bring about this cultural change we should be aiming for as many presentation sites as possible. We are on our way to that goal; who will follow?