Issues in Capturing Related Histories Panel

Joel Chadabe (Electronic Music Foundation), Alain Depocas (Daniel Langlois Foundation), Woody Vasulka


Joel Chadabe, Alain Depocas and Woody Vasulka


JOEL CHADABE:  I’m Joel Chadabe, President of Electronic Music Foundation and a composer. This is Alain Depocas, who is the primary archivist at the Daniel Langlois Foundation, and Woody Vasulka, who I’m sure you all know, media artist, pioneer. I say media artist, pioneer, but I’ve never really thought of Woody that way, and I’ve reflected that media art actually comes in two distinct types. There is media art that is an extension of books and film and so on, and then there’s media art that has more to do with interactive installations that fits more into a kind of musical context--that’s performance oriented. That is my perspective of the field; in a sense it’s what I do, and it’s what Electronic Music Foundation has presented a great deal.


Now, if we talk about history--what is history? I wrote a book on the history of electronic music, and discovered in the course of writing it, that one understands history from the perspective of the present. That is, you always perceive the present in some way. You ask, “What’s going on?” Then, once you decide what’s going on, you say, “How did we come to this place?” That’s the way people write histories, otherwise history really doesn’t exist at all. What I see right now is a phrase that all of you are extremely familiar with: convergent media. What it means to me is not only a combination of images and music. You can say once those bits and bytes are going down the wire, they can come out as images or sound, and who’s the wiser for it? But the concerns are very much the same. I come to it from a slightly different perspective. I was just at the new Medialab Europe, in Dublin, speaking at a conference. The conference was called the NIME Conference, New Interfaces for Musical Expression. I’m telling you this not only because it’s so interesting musically, but because I think it has such important implications for video, for images, for convergent media in general, and for doing anything that would involve media in performances.  The concern there by interfaces for musical expression, are devices--there’re all kinds of things. Basically, if you look upon it as what you touch in a musical instrument, no longer do you need to go through the unpleasantness of holding— playing a violin like that, or taking a round grip and making it flat to play a piano. You can really produce very ergonomic, very dynamic kinds of devices. They can be video cameras that let you wave your hands in the air. One remarkable installation I saw was by Garth Paine, who incidentally presents his work, not really in a concert situation, but in galleries where he leaves it set up for the public to interact with it. What does that mean? Basically he has created a musical instrument, using as its control input device a video camera that can sense motion in the air or a position in a floor. In fact, he’s letting the public perform this instrument, and this is a very important part of performable new media.


If we go back in history and look at the various roads that have converged to bring us to this situation, we get into the history of devices, the history of electronic instruments, even way back to the analog days. These are not really problems of preserving a record of a performance — for example, of a tape of a specific performance. In every case that I know— from Sal Martirano’s “SalMar Construction”, to some things that I did in the late sixties and early seventies, to digital stuff in the eighties— the issue is not freezing a moment that came out of these instruments. For example, to take a recording of one result of Garth Paine’s installation would be ridiculous, because it doesn’t capture the work at all; it’s not the point. The point is to make an object, like a symphony or a piece of music, that then even might have a performance, but it exists. Its identity really is as that object, performed or not. That might be what you want to preserve. But when you’re taking a process where the composition really is the instrument itself, the question is how can you then preserve that? As opposed to preserving some particular instance of what it might produce, which could in fact, be very misleading—if it wasn’t a good sampling.

So dealing with the issue of how to preserve performances is certainly something that is of great concern to musicians, for a lot of different reasons. Luigi Nono solved it in a very interesting way. Most musical scores give instructions to a performer.  When you read a piano score, it’s not telling you what middle C sounds like, it’s telling you to push a certain level on a piano. In fact, when you’re playing it on a synthesizer, you can get very surprising results. You can connect a middle C on an electronic keyboard to any sound you like. But on a piano, there are certain expectations that something will come out, and these kinds of notations are called tablatures.


Nono did not do that. What he did is to specify the sound in acoustic terms very specifically, so that it could be done with other equipment. He pointed us towards one example of preserving an electronic performance, long after his particular equipment becomes difficult to service because of lack of component parts, or lost or damaged in some way. Alvise Vidolin, who is a composer in Padua and a music historian, recreated what Nono did with up-to-date equipment. I was faced with a different solution, in a different kind of problem, with John Cage’s “Bird Cage.” I knew that piece very well, because I helped John write it back in 1971-72. I was not only witness to it, but John was a friend of mine. These things are very germane, they’re very important, because if you know the composer and you have a sense for the person’s work, you can recreate it much better.


What we did in the studio is to produce twelve tapes--each a half-hour long--that were random combinations of birds recorded in aviaries, and John himself singing his piece “Mureau,” which was his randomization of words by Thoreau. In fact, as he listened to himself croaking away there in the studio as we were doing this, he said, “It makes the birds seem less ridiculous.” The third series of sounds were a kind of random track recorded by some filmmakers from German radio that were accompanying him in writing the piece. Once these twelve tapes were done, they were played back through a Matrix mixer, for any length of time. His score he told me to avoid, not to pay attention to in performance. The mixer was just kind of pushing buttons and turning things that routed a particular tape to a particular loudspeaker. Of course, the tapes were changed continually, so that this process could go on forever.


Now, how would you perform that today? Well, we were faced with that problem in opening Engine 27’s performance season two years ago in New York.   It occurred to me that [it would be] very hard to find those analog tape recorders; I don’t know where that Matrix mixer is anymore. Well, why not just digitize the whole thing? So we just turned all of the tapes into sound files in the computer, wrote a little program that randomized their diffusion to eight loudspeakers around the hall and it came out absolutely beautifully. It was very similar, in fact, to what we had done with it in performance. Here, then, is solution number two to preserving performances: recreating the performance with up-to-date media.


The third solution to recreating a performance, and the only other one I could think of, is to completely rewrite the piece. That is, completely redo it with an understanding of what it was (but new material, new technology) and just capture whatever one would consider the essence of the piece. In that case it takes a great understanding of what the piece is about, and knowing the composer would certainly help. I say composer even though the people who do this kind of art are not necessarily composers in the traditional sense of the word, but media artists, sound artists, whatever.


A word on the different between a composer and a sound artist.  Although the word [composer] is becoming generalized. Chris Mann, a poet and a friend of mine, is teaching a course in composition at the New School now. There is no reference to music there. Chris is a poet but he is also a performer. “Composition” then takes on a kind of generic term or meaning, which I think is great. But in the traditional sense, a composer is someone who has studied music. I have found that people who have studied music, and who come into the media arts, have a particular take on things. Listening to all those symphonies when you’re studying music gives you a certain sense for timbre and sound--a certain sense of an evolving language-- that other artists who come into composing with sound from a media direction may not have. Talent is talent; so I can’t say that any one approach is generically better. Unfortunately, when you study music for a long time, you carry a lot of baggage into the media arts. On the other hand, when you’re a media artist, you might lack a certain sensibility to timbre and how timbre can evolve in sound and so on. So there are peculiar bridges to cross that, I think, will get ironed out a lot.


I guess my point is to bring to the conference a dimension of performance and of dynamic process, as [opposed to] media as an object; to introduce the problem of how to preserve performances, and certainly to understand the context. It’s not like preserving an object; it’s not like fixing up an old tape. There’s nothing really to fix. It depends upon a human understanding of what happened, and one has to really understand the original context and understand the history. Let me introduce Woody Vasulka, who has also done a great deal of live presentation.


WOODY VASULKA:  There are many reasons to decide that this art of transmission, of the creative activity, would now migrate from our daily artistic practices to this electronic cyberspace. But I’d say it was always, in a way, a struggle with what we call “the gallery”, or presentations through institutions. In fact, that was the first departure between film or painting or other kind of—especially film as moving image, into the small format video. Many of us chose this particular route, to establish our independence from this kind of a banal environment, and started working with something quite unique and quite specific—like material of electronic time and energy, products which then make pictures and sounds. A while ago we were approached by Jean Gagnon, associated with the Langlois Foundation, to look at our archive. We thought this is all about electronic images and sound. No, no. Forget it. It was about paper. Here we have a protagonist behind this whole thing. So paper still is the courier of the cultural shift between what was and what is, in this context. I must say, one day it indeed probably will end in the electronic— I don’t know, what do you think?


RESPONSE:  Well, I think having several preservation strategies at the same time might be a good …


VASULKA:  But really, why paper? Because, then of course, we realize that paper is somehow forever or something? We now struggle for defining what medium will carry this for us. From that point, it was a perfect strategy, in a way, for an institute that preserves the legacy. But of course, we (meaning people in practice) again, try to carve our independence on giving things to institutions, where you have to apply— there’s a touch to it, certain amount of money, an expenditure; a certain ritual and acceptance or rejection and so forth. So we decided to put everything for free in a way, to this cyberspace. As I say, the deal we have made is very interesting. We kind of sold the paper, but got the rights to maintain what’s called electronic publishing rights. To our family in the sixties, copyright and the idea of privacy and ownership of these printed matters like video, was always, in a way, socialistic. We thought things should be put out there and see what people do with it. Fortunately there is no market for this kind of a product--like videotapes and all that stuff--and it never came to the possibility of returning some kind of a profit back to the process. In some way, we still maintain the philosophy — not only our family, but others. It’s a Chicago group that pioneered that attitude in the seventies. What’s the protocol of delivering the image, which was based on quality, to the public? Let’s figure out a quality that could be released as some kind of value to society--forgetting the whole process of money return--a process of value systems. So we are there now, with what we call cyberspace (which is an animal that eats you alive) and these kinds of items. So I call them items now. They are pages, you know. Since we have a time constraint with this process of giving this material to the institution, we decided to hectically scan the materials.  That’s a whole different story. The actual products of our archive are pages of information. We work now through what’s called Art and Science Laboratory, setup in Santa Fe.  We have assembled almost thirty thousand pages. Now, what do you do with thirty thousand pages? You could fix five hundred pages. You can enter, over a year, maybe three thousand pages. But you cannot deal with thirty thousand. So we sent it to Czech Republic. And for nineteen hundred dollars, we get a first layer of this engine. So we type in Paik. “Pike”, which is in Korean, Paik, you know, represents this kind of a word under which you can find anything in video that you ever thought about!!(Laughter) So when you click on Paik, it brought you three hundred kinds of words. Now we have certain problems, of course. Like, you know, people that enter Spanish, but in fact it’s Portuguese. Anyway, what the search engine does, it first takes little headings, and it gets this into the database and searches all the documents.  It’s really like Google, you know. I learned that from you. Last time you told me, “Look at Google.” We get a photo with it, we get an article, and we get a group. I asked these Czechs, “Can you do it for nineteen hundred dollars?” and they said yeah. This comes in two versions. One is called an RTF, which is Rich Text Format. So and that makes this whole archive readable. The second level, of course, is the actual TIF format, which we translate into PDF, and then you can page, PDF into bundles.

Our project is a little self-serving, because we have a tremendous amount of material that was sent to us, about our shows, for example. There are posters, with hand-written notes. We have certain material which we don’t know we have. (And it’s always embarrassing because they send a letter, you know, “We came from New Jersey, it took us ten hours, and you weren’t home.” All that stuff.)   But we did it by putting things through a toploader scanner. You know, you go to an auction and you ask, you know, forty dollar, fifty dollar scanner, and then you go and say— Something like that, nobody knows what it is. So you just put it on the top of it and it loads, in one time, fifty pages. And that’s how you deal with the volume. These guys had to convert the OCR, which means Optical Character Recognition, when they scan all these pages. In Czech Republic, they had to load one time, three thousand pieces. That means they had to strung up, you know, the batching, the whole batches together, in order to get it economic. You cannot deal with thirty thousand — which is nothing, compared to millions that industry needs to scan daily. So we had only thirty thousand. We are three doing it, you know. There’s a lady that does the entry and because all the men burn out; they burn out in six weeks! And so eventually we kind of got it, after two years we somehow got it together. The rest of the paper will be processed there, but we’re going to send them also the whole data for free.

So we have a couple of books here. The Eigenwelt--it’s a cesspool for the Eigenwelt. This was a book and laserdiscs that we did twelve years ago for this show in Austria called Ars Electronica. Let’s look at Robert Moog. We’ve been visionary enough to take the music as a predecessor to the electronic imaging. All the tools that came later in some video synthesizers were, in fact, inherited: the quality of that predecessor, as voltage control and all these things. So we fluently incorporated, through David Dunn’s essay with pictures.


So we have a couple of books. One is this Eigenwelt, which is a catalogue with laser bars going somewhere. We used to, I mean, twelve years ago, we made these bar codes on the catalogue that you got, and we have these stations that would kind of show pictures. We now have the pictures and movies elsewhere, but we are working on connecting them. It’s going to be simple.


Gene Youngblood wrote a book, Expanded Cinema. Gene has kind of introduced this new era, which is a transition between the film and video, when film became a fluid medium for that. So we got this book. (He called his publisher and they said, “Well, what kind of a book?” And he said, “’Expanded Cinema’, so could I have it?” “We don’t even know what it is, you should have it.” I think they sent him a little letter.) Now, this is the most visited book we have, because people actually got an idea that the book is essential for someone who tries to speak about it or teach it. So it’s been hit now too many times, and he probably wants it back, because he wants to make money on it. But of course, you know, you made him. And so I’m optimistic about publishing. If people need it, they’ll get it. If they don’t need it, they won’t touch it.


So that’s a vast directory of information, where the thirty-three thousand pages are.

(There’s also this famous complaint letter by Jane Brackage about the IRS. It’s just unbelievable.)   

This is called dynamic database access. 


Anyway, these all contain something like three hundred items--from letters to everything about The Kitchen we had in our home.  There is a second part to it, about the Electronic Arts Intermix, which we’re going to try to extract and integrate as a perfect dialogue. Sometimes we need to reference a biography. Experimental Television Center, they have a nice biography there.  You can click on biography, then click on anybody you need, then you get it. Let’s get Paik into this business of serving the art here. And here we are, Paik is up there, and you get Paik, you know? Here it is. So anyway, it’s beginning to go, so go back and let’s get another sucker there, which is— Who is that? That’s an early Video History Project. And who is that? That’s Gigliotti. Let’s get Gigliotti into it. Ok, go back, yeah, and go to early video project here. Ok, on its way. And anyway, this is our sponsor. And that— Anyway, if everything goes well, you could sort of get into. This is not for people that are not— kind of just want to be entertained. This is for people that search for information. And at a certain level, when it’s all apparatus— Ok, I should tell you one little sketch. You can’t get them in, huh?


WOMAN:  No. It was trying to get there…


VASULKA:  I’m sorry. Well, it’s alright. But anyway, any comments, maybe? Well. And… Oh, go, go. It’s just next door, I think, to Manhattan here. (Laughter) Alright, ok. Oh. Oh, let’s— oh, far beyond. So anyway, we are now getting material from other people. Now we have to construct a machine that takes the other people, what I call workbench, from— that’s for the working. Then there’ll be shelves for people that want to do nothing with it, just put it on a shelf. But I think that someone will take over this job. Because, I mean, it’s enormously demanding to construct. Of course, it’s much more difficult to present, as I see it, yeah? So in any case, thank you very much. Yeah.



VASULKA:  Now, they got “Expanded Cinema”, but they didn’t put an address on it. If  they put an address to us, as many other people do, they will get all the downloads possible. And this is all for free. People go from Australia to get downloads from Finland and everywhere. So anyway, so that’s kind of our little episode. Because there’s other activities of this Art and Science, but this is what I’m now into, but… Ok, that’s probably enough. Thank you.


ALAIN DEPOCAS:  It will be difficult to be as entertaining as Woody.  But there are so many things linked between what I want to tell you and what Woody just showed, it’s overwhelming. First, it’s interesting to see that artists now, more than ever, are taking charge of not only their documentation, but also working on ways to make it accessible. This is, I think, one of the new features linked to a new media aspect of practices. It’s very interesting.


So we do work with the same set of documents. Just as Woody explains, we do have the paper. It’s not only paper. In fact, we also have many other types of documents from the Vasulka archive. But we work on very different levels. At the same time, it’s completely complimentary. They complete each other. One thing that is different is that we are working on a different time perspective. I’m not just talking about their archive, but the whole collection of the documentation center at the Daniel Langlois Foundation. We really work with a long-term perspective. It seems simple to say, but it’s not simple. It has many repercussions on how we work.  My goal today is to explain what we are trying to do, what we are; and (since it’s been two years now that we’re collecting and organizing that document) where we are up to, and where we would like to be in the future. 


First, of course, you already understood we are interested in a broader perspective than video art, per se. Video art is, of course, very important. We are mostly interested in pioneers in this domain. What we are trying to document is broader. We are not preservation specialists either. What we do about preservation is help create and participate in research projects that lead to better practices. We also want to provide our user documentation about these research projects; the research projects themselves are objects for documentation. Regarding preservation issues, we strongly believe that documentation is one of the most important tools for the future. We already understood that for many types of art and many new media art--which contains more real interactive aspects. What I mean by real interactive is, not only the choice of three buttons, but power for the user, for the spectator to add something to a work of art. It means that it’s not stable anymore; it’s completely changing all the time. I think documentation in that perspective is even more important than before. We also are confronted by new types   practices, which oblige us to imagine a new type of documentation. Joel was talking about how to preserve something that is a performance. Obviously, we need imagination to try many ways of documenting.


As I mentioned, we strongly believe that documentation is of great importance as a strategy of preservation for works of art using new technologies. The best preservation efforts will be insufficient without the support of a structured documentation. Documentation of both the works and the context in which they evolved must be seen as a primordial factor of conservation. In fact, if we take into account the volatility, for example, of certain online projects, it is more than likely that in many cases, this documentation will soon be almost the only remaining trace of the work. What will give real value to a collection of digital art is documentation. Of course, you must have data about it, contextualization, and of course also, guaranteed long-term access to that documentation. I will repeat myself many times, but the documentation that we are producing right now represents the same problem of preservation for the future. We are talking about preservation of works of art, but now more than ever, documentation are of the same type of technology. So they will represent the same problematic in the future. We also have to deal with a new, even more complex situation, which is created by the new digital documents and works. Once again, the example of the web is a good one. How to apply this data and other methodologically constraining documentary practices to an object that is not stable, that is changing all the time, evaluative, collaborative. For all these new types of objects, we need new documentary methods and tools. This is also an area where we want to develop expertise, and where we need to experiment a lot. Just by example, it might seem strange, but I think it’s a good idea to try to document a net artwork with video. It’s one of many different ways that might be interesting in the future, and if we don’t try it now we will never know if it’s a good way to preserve. But once again, if we do produce documentation about net art with video, there still remains the problem of the preservation of the videotape. So the problem is moving all the time.


I’ll try to explain what we are doing at the documentation and research center. We’ve been open to the public since October of 2000, and that public is whatever you can imagine. They are artists, scholars, students, curators, both local and international. For two years, we have been trying to build a group of users. It’s not easy at the beginning; we have to be well known, especially locally, because most people that come to the documentation center are from the region of Montreal. Strangely, the interest is very international. But we need to build and to keep up a number of people that use our facilities locally. The goal of the documentation center is to cover the new media arts scene and to put this into historical perspective and contextualization. We are also assembling a documentation collection covering the last forty years. We have three levels of documentation. The first mandate, the most important mandate for us, is to cover as much as possible all of the projects that are funded by the foundation. This is obviously the main task we have to do. But we discovered very early on that it’s not enough if we do not provide the user a contextualization, documentation of the context in which these works are evolving. Otherwise, in the future we won’t be able to know why these works are important and significant. Then, if we broaden that to a larger perspective, we have to add the historical perspective because the actual context is difficult to interpret without knowledge of the past. There are so many so-called new things happening now that have deep roots in the past. It seems obvious, but a lot of people don’t know about it. If they think about it, they don’t have any resources to verify it. So a collection of documents from the last forty years--at least--is extremely important.


At the moment, we are still beginning the construction of the documentation collection. A large part of the collection is made up of usable types of documentation — paper — such as catalogues, books, periodicals, invitation cards, a lot of ephemerals, programs and other types of paper documents. Of course, the collection also includes a lot of videotapes, CD-ROMs and other types of digital documentation from various sources. In fact, the sources of documents we have are multiple. One is all the documents that accompany the proposals. In the context of our programs, we receive a lot of proposals, and we ask people to keep the documentation that accompanies it. That’s a major source of documents. Then we have a budget for regular acquisitions and magazine subscriptions. We have the third part, which is the acquisition of collection of documents and archives. These cover the more historical perspective of our collection.


We have a traditional type of collection--if we look at the format of the document. But we think the way we process that documentation is less traditional. The level of indexation, the development of the website, and the access to our database is where we try to be most innovative. It is true that high level processing would create an added value to our documentation collection. What we’ve developed is a database--a relational database--that is quite interesting. I do not have time to explain in detail, but let’s just say it’s composed of various modules, each having a specific task. One is about the document in general of all types; one is about individuals; one is about organizations; one about works of art; one about events. We also have modules that manage all the vocabulary necessary to describe contents. It is also completely bilingual, French and English, and it has a structure that is ready to accept other languages without a lot of technical problems. It still needs translation, of course.


I’ll briefly describe the major collection we have at the moment. The first we’ve acquired is the collection built by Avery Fisher in Montreal. He was director of a festival in Montreal called Image from, or of the Future. It’s ran from ’86, to about ’95, so for about ten years. During that time they accumulated a very important collection of documents. They received a lot of documents from artists that would like to participate. They traveled a lot and accumulated catalogues from Japan, Europe--everywhere. This collection was the first large set of documents that we received and processed. It covers the eighties very well, and a lot of documents in that collection are already impossible to find elsewhere. Many small catalogues from the festivals that disappeared a long time ago— for us, that is very precious.


Then of course, there is the Vasulka archive, and I don’t think we have to continue to explain to you what it is composed of. Woody did a very interesting overview. He mentioned paper, but as you figured, there is also many other types of documents in that collection. Understand that we are still processing—treating--the collection. The thing that takes a lot of time is indexing the contents of the documents, but when it’s done, it is completely. It is complimentary to what Woody and Steina put online, because what they have put online is completely raw.  That full-text engine is a wonderful tool, but it is also interesting to have a more structured set of data.  I think they both work together.  I like to think that there is not just one good way to organize information or index. I think a good system can function with very structured data and at the same time--on another level--something extremely subjective, or unorganized. Both systems can work together. I think users, like researchers, can use both systems adequately. In the end they go in the same direction.


We also acquired a smaller collection, which is quite important for us, from EAT. They are at the Getty, as you might know. It’s obviously not the archives; what we have is all the published documents that they produced, and a collection of documents about their activities during the sixties, seventies, and eighties. In fact, that collection is one that they distributed in the beginning of the eighties. I think there are about six or seven full sets of documents that they distributed to places like the MOMA, Pompidou Center in Paris, and other places in the world. We learned that there was another full set available, and now it’s in our collection. Once again, there is a large different between how we process that collection and how other institutions process that collection. I know that if you make a search on the database interface of the MOMA library, you will find one single record for the collection. This is also something very interesting, to know that they have this collection. What we have done, which is the opposite way of treating a collection, is to create one record for every single document in the collection. There are over six hundred records in the database, and all are cross indexed. I think they are a wonderful tool for a researcher that would like to know what is possible to do with such a collection of documents. All these collections are linked together through the database, and they are all processed on the same level. After a certain time, they compliment each other.


The last important documentation collection that we acquired is the ISEA documentation. This is quite incomplete because ISEA was organized every year or two years by different people in different cities. We have a complete archive of the event in Montreal in 1995, because it stayed in Montreal; but we also have, depending on which years, a certain amount of documents. We are just now starting to process the collection. I think it will be very interesting when it is finished, because, it is already history, you know? It started in 1988, and is still an extraordinary event every two years. Through the collection, you can get a good idea of the evolution since it has already been fourteen years. For us, that documentation is utterly accessible. Accessibility is extremely important for us; what we want is to preserve the documents but also maintain their accessibility. This is not always the same. People tend to think if you keep the documents they will always be accessible, but that is not true. For example, a CD-ROM that we have in our collection was made for Macintosh in 1992. The programmer, probably not a professional, linked the speed of a rolling menu to the CPU speed. When we look at that CD-ROM in a new machine now, it goes extremely fast, and you cannot access the content. If the CD-ROM is very well preserved, you can still see all the images and the sound files and everything is there. But the intended way to access it is not there anymore. In order to access it the way it was designed, we would need to intervene or change some codes. We are already in the process of transforming an object to make it accessible to the future.


I’d like to maybe finish with an explanation of another of our activities. As I mentioned, we are interested in preservation research, and with that in mind, we recently started a partnership with the Guggenheim Museum about the variable media concept. About three or four years ago, Jon Ippolito started to conceive this idea of “variable media.” It opened a lot of new possibilities and is very interesting. I’ll explain to you what our partnership with them involved this year, and will next year, but first—a few things about what variable media involves. One of its central issues is a questionnaire that was filled out by artists when their artwork was entered into the collection of a museum. The way that questionnaire is constructed, gives the artist an opportunity to explain the limitations, so an intervention by a conservator can still make the work accessible in the future. So this is one of the main features of the concept and it is certainly one that could change a lot of things in the future in the conservation world. It also proposes different preservation strategies that are linked to features that for the artists are the important aspects of the artwork. If an artist says that the only important thing in his artwork is the size of the image, well, ok. Or maybe it is the opposite. Somebody may have an art piece made of several television sets, and if these television sets ever stop working, it means the artwork does not exist. It’s important to know it at first, you know? This year, with this partnership with the Guggenheim, we will develop that questionnaire and produce a database that will contain the results of interviews with artists. We also want to publish a small book, to be distributed to people we think should be aware of that concept and participate in its development. The book should be produced by the end of this year. It will contain the issues of variable media in detail, and will act as an important tool for letting people know about the concept. The final goal is to build a network of institutions that would like to participate. Participation essentially means adding something to it; for example, participating in the development of vocabulary used to describe some of the new types of effects that we’d like to explain.  It means developing new types of words. Next year we would also like to--with the help of other institutions truly network--to be able to publish something like a “best practice guide”. That will always be in development, of course, because new types of work will continue to exist and represent new challenges for preservation and for documentation.


QUESTION:  I am curious about a couple things because you are both a foundation and a center. When you talk about the archive, are you--like the Vasulka collection-- scanning all of your documents? Is this your goal, or is your goal to have the ephemera and make sure it is not lost?


DEPOCAS:  About the fact that the foundation is both a foundation and a documentation center, I should have said it at the beginning. Today, I explain to you what we are trying to do with the documentation center. It is true that it’s important to mention we are also a founding institution, and being both is extremely positive. It really has a wonderful, tremendous result.


About the Vasulka archive, at the moment we do not scan a lot. We have projects to do, so for us, scanning is not a way to preserve. It might be on some occasions, but it is not a way to preserve, it is a way to give access to documents. More and more, we put large parts of digital documents online. A lot of our documents are published, like books and magazines; it is not our duty to put them online. So we have to select parts of our collection that are either very rare, difficult to find, or that are meaningful enough to be online.


QUESTION:  With the variable media and what you’re doing with that, there are many of us who are very involved with the questions of what is a work of art when it is a media work? What is the future of these works? And the importance of getting this information down--particularly from the voice of the artist--because we’re not going to have all these artists around. We’re not going to be around either. So, with this publication, are you doing case studies? To me, that would be the most valuable: not to just have the terms, but to do case studies around real works of art.


DEPOCAS:  I’m sorry I was very brief because of time. There will, of course, be case studies in the publication. We will do some this year or early next year, and we will do some test cases with one strategy of preservation for electronic (or at least digital) media, which is emulation--computer emulation. We will try to apply it to a certain number of works of art and we will do a workshop with the artists, computer specialists, maybe the public, because they would be able to try a different version of the same works of art, but under a different title of emulators. Then we can see where the differences are or if there are any--but I’m sure there will be.


QUESTION:  Will you include some works that involve monitors in the case studies? Monitors are becoming flat-screen.


DEPOCAS:  I don’t know at this moment what will be the case studies, but the first series will probably be about works that use computer and codes in general, and less about the physical aspect to it. But I understand--this question is also very important.


COMMENT:  You present a nice summary of the topics we’ve adressed today: the preservation grid, Joel’s sense of convergence, and Woody’s Art and Science Laboratory. The topic that I’m seeing is the relationship between preservation and interpretation. It’s not unlike the topic that we’ve identified for so long, the relationship between collection and exhibition or sharing. Now it seems to me this is a convergence, and there needs to be a careful consideration all of these topics together. It is not sufficient to talk about preservation in isolation, but always necessary to consider what the outcome might be —either interpretation or exhibition. Perhaps you, Joel and Woody would continue the discussion.


CHADABE:  Do you mean keeping things alive?


COMMENT:  Sure, that is an easy way to say it.


CHADABE:  I view the two distinct types of media; that keeping a film alive or keeping a videotape alive is very different from keeping a performance or an installation alive, where there are presentations involved. I guess I haven’t really thought of it exactly that way. I think that festivals, conferences, and so on certainly keep films alive. The availability to have them available to people at home is very important, but essentially you’re looking at them, so it’s having a kind of library. Performances, however, are more of a problem because there is the element of production, and more of a context that has to be created. I think that the documentation around the event is extremely important, and as Alain was just saying, the context of it becomes extremely important. To think that in fifty years people will look back at some of these works of art, not knowing the artists at all, not knowing the people that talked about the artists, and will be wondering what it was. I remember writing about Gottfried Michael Koenig, a German composer who was very active in the Cologne Studio in the 1950s, and trying to put myself into his position in order to see the world as he saw it, to understand the innovative work that he was doing at the time. I remember all of the problems I had, from an American perspective looking at German art in the 1950s, thirty years earlier, forty years earlier. It was very, very difficult. I don’t know how that can easily be done. What do you think?


VASULKA:  I mean, in our case it was very clear that it is a parallel process. But we understood that if you apply to get into the archive, it may be more difficult at times to actually accommodate large informational paper. Of course, there are photographs and negatives. We want to give them all the slides, eventually, and all the releases, because it’s a good place to have it--we couldn’t find better. (We would do it even for free, because these guys are serious!) We can then publish anything electronically. For us, it’s basically to index— or they index us, and it’s theirs. It’s a great advantage to have your work there. Since we don’t believe there is any market otherwise, that is a great vehicle for us. So it’s luck. Now, we are facing two thousand hours of video. Fortunately, we met a streamer, you know, a professional streamer that streams commercials (an enlightened young industrialist) and he’s going to stream any amount of material we give him. He’s going to bring machines, you know, all kinds of stuff, and we’re going to put it there and just stream it indifferently so to speak. So it’s there. Then if someone indexes it, wants to have access to it, they can have an interview, or they can find the proper moment and simply play it for any reason. We’re just trying to put together the second part. We will always be a parasite to the scholarly. Yet there’s a lot of loose work around, which is exciting, interesting and in fact, endlessly creative. We have a tool project, and we get all these ideas about what happened, because we have also archived a lot of tools, but already other people have started sending us material which we can’t process. Then there is another area which we’re going to be working with, which is called the meta-scribers. Under editorial supervision, there are certain slots that people could have their work there permanently. So that could be indexed by other things. People are, in a way, complimentary system. All we need is a permanent system that doesn’t disappear because some product goes off the shelf and then there’s a hole. For us, the permanency of it is its survival. Otherwise, we have to start again. That we have a permanent system of indexing in this cyberspace is our concern.


CHADABE:  The conveyance of context becomes more important in understanding what an artwork is about. As I see it, every artwork, what every artist does, is a reply. If you don’t know to what the reply is, it’s very difficult to understand the artwork. That has a lot to do with the artistic context of the time in which the artwork is created. Sometimes I think of Thaddeus Cahill who invented the first synthesizer. His idea was to send electronic music out over telephone lines, when telephones were just being developed. His first version of this was finished in 1899; you can think of it as the first electronic musical instrument. People don’t realize that there was hardly any electricity at the time. You could travel all over the country, and there were no automobiles on the roads. Here he is building an electronic music synthesizer! It is a fascinating aspect relating to the context of it. There is a wonderful story by Borges in a book called “Labyrinth”… Borges describes the life of a very successful young Parisian writer who decides to write Don Quixote. But he doesn’t want to rewrite it by recreating the context of Cervantes; he wants to rewrite it from his perspective in Paris. So he writes it and at the end, in a brilliant bit of literature criticism, Borges compares identical paragraphs from Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” in that context, and Pierre Menard’s “Don Quixote”, in the context of modern day Paris, and comes up with completely different interpretations, completely different meanings to identical passages. I recommend the book entirely; I use that story as an example for students, about taking styles or artistic ideas and putting them in completely different historical contexts. Almost everything we produce is a result of our time. It is an historical imperative. It happens now because of things that happen now, and we are replying to things that happen now. In twenty years, when people look back on it, I fear that they’ll mostly miss the point if they don’t understand exactly what that context was. So to preserve the work itself, without an understanding of the context, is only half the job. I’m not sure how to do it. The problem of preservation as a whole —not only to cultural history — makes it all the more difficult. There are simply not enough financial resources available to handle— with any degree of wisdom or of completing— the archiving that represents a huge amount of our recent cultural history. I fear the tapes are degenerating and there are serious, emergency problems going on. There is simply not enough money available to do it or to understand how to convey the cultural history of something. I don’t know how one would do that. Would you do it through interviews, through news broadcast type of thing? I’m not sure how you could easily convey that to the future, along with the artwork. It is like there are two messages involved. You know, it’s like you walk up to someone and say, “Hello, you sonofabitch,” and clap them on the back of the shoulder. One message is what you’re saying, and the other message is how to take it.  We often convey only one message, leaving things up to a lot of misunderstandings.


COMMENT:  I was going to say there’s what the artist feels the work is, and then there’s what the historians or the critics, curators, and cultural historians think the work is in the context. You actually need both. They either jibe or they don’t. But if you only have one without the other, you may not have the full picture.


QUESTION:  I want to ask a question about the documentation center, because I think that perspective is a central question: how and what your strategy is for collecting documentation. I thought I heard you say you were collecting documentation on projects that you’ve funded. Are you also looking for other types of documentation? Are you soliciting it, or trying to map out a kind of history of a space?


DEPOCAS:  When I described the various sources of documents, I think it explained what we’re trying to do. There are documents that come with proposals that give us an idea — though never complete—  of what the main issues this year, last year, and the very in the present. Then, through the budget for acquisition of new books, we also try to cover what’s available concerning the actual thing, and the past, also. Then there is also the acquisition of special collections. In this area, we try to know what is available. Some people approach us or we approach some people, this is how we try to start it because, we are just beginning; it’s only two years old. At the beginning of the adventure, there are so many fundamental types of documents that we don’t have now that it’s not a difficult part at the start. What will be difficult in the future will be to pinpoint, to complete the collection, without having too many overlaps and things like that. At the end of the process, constructing such a collection is partly scientific, and very cold, but there are also many chances--serendipity and things like that--and also some subjectivity  that is probably not avoidable.


DARA MEYERS-KINGSLEY:  I wanted to ask whether or not the questionnaire that’s being developed by the Variable Media project is going to be available to all. Will it be a public domain document like the living will?


DEPOCAS: Yes, absolutely [to both questions]. It will have various states. On the web, people will be able to try it and see how it’s structured. They will be able to download an NT version of the database containing the interface of the questionnaire, so that they can fill it in themselves and print the results and have it for themselves. Then members of the network will be able to reduce it and share the information. A certain level of information will probably stay private, but most of it will be shared between the members of the network, and part of it to the public, also. We have to show the people what the result is of filling out the questionnaire, so they understand its importance. Yes, it will be available, at different levels of interface.


QUESTION:   You mentioned it’s going to be shared in a network; what is that network?


DEPOCAS:  Anybody would be able to download the database--absolutely anybody. But to use it for the day-to-day work in collections management, they will have to be part of the network that we will try to organize this year and next year. We don’t yet have what it will imply to be a member. But as I was explaining briefly before, it will be like a shared work. Price of entry won’t be money; it will be investment by research, or at least an attempt to implement the questionnaire in day-to-day practice and to participate in the development of the best practice guide.


CAROLE LAZIO:  Maybe you could tell us how what you’re doing relates to what the Guggenheim is doing with Rhizome. They’re talking about putting the questionnaire up on their website. So there’s some relationship between—


DEPOCAS:  Rhizome will certainly be a member of the network.   Rhizome has a subset of the questionnaire, more focused on net art. It is mainly the same concept. It is completely linked. Of course, they will help us tremendously to develop the part of the questionnaire that is about net art and recent aspects of net art.


QUESTION:  Are the other members mostly museums?


DEPOCAS:  For the moment, there are no official members. We know who is very interested. It’s something that will have to be developed.


VASULKA:  You see— I’m sorry to interrupt. There is such a passion here because, after all, you are searching to a certain set of systems and kind of a definition of it. There is something wild outside as well, but I don’t mean wild. The idea is one of having input from people who are still alive. There are testimonies of this era, as far as the electronic. These people are very much eager to send material somewhere. You will not be able to contain it all. Look at the people in Binghamton. They already had this and gave us information for years. We plan the same kind of participatory system, so to speak, hoping there will be a much broader place for all of what we are talking about. It is probably true, but may not be because after all, you may be the most prestigious, see? Then the prestige drives people— donation of information— because they believe the prestigious part of the community may just be the most important ones.


QUESTION:  I want to approach this from another angle. I can look around this room and see there are probably two hundred thousand documents, at least, that are mapping a large segment of the media arts field in the United States. I know in my own office, I have thousands and thousands of documents and I worry about what’s going to happen to all that material. Having spent twenty-five years accumulating it, I want to make sure that it all goes someplace where it will be accessible, where it will be a mapping of not just my work, but the different ways all of us have worked together for twenty-five years. My question is, are you accepting documentation from other people? Do you view yourself as a repository for information on the media and electronic art?


DEPOCAS:  That’s a big question, of course. We don’t have resources to accept all the documentation, and I don’t see why there will be just one place for all the documentation. We ought to be just a model, so that other types of archives exist too. We don’t pretend to be able, even in the future, to deal with such a tremendous number of documents. It’s impossible. We have more and more people come and propose things, and it started to be difficult to deal with what we can accept and what we cannot accept. It’s coming much earlier than we were expecting, in fact. We were thinking that for at least the first five or ten years, we would not be well known enough or have the reputation so that people would come already, which is now the case. I don’t have a very precise answer, but of course, we are perceiving that it’s a major issue.


CHADABE:  I’d like to point out that if all of those documents were collected, decentralized or centralized, the big problem becomes one of access. That is, even if they’re all catalogued on the web, how do you look through two hundred thousand listings and decide which one you want to look at? There has to be different layers of access: that is, there is the raw data, then there are various levels of interpretation of it, until finally it comes out. You can get to some subject matter, reasonably quickly, that you’re interested in.


VASULKA:  I believe it’s going to be mechanized. You see, the machines, they are the only tools that could look at these things. They have to be intelligent enough to lead you to the information. We found out by mass scanning that eventually, you have to put another mechanized system to deconstruct it.   We just have names, locations, time, certain context; but it can be put together by intelligent sort of—not intelligence machine, because it was so much discredited. But there is going to be a construction sort of engine that will take care of that.


BARBARA LONDON:  At MOMA we have our department of film and media. We’re in the middle of this big renovation project. Part of our five year plan is to, when we reopen, have a study center that is the best.  I’m trying to fund raise now to fill in the gaps, not only in the collection to have the tapes and the installations, but to also have the ephemera and the books--to fill in a lot of those gaps.


COMMENT:  All of us are facing this. I get calls from the archivist at the Art Institute of Chicago and she says, “Don’t throw out one single piece of paper.” So I don’t throw any paper out. But even if we give it all to them, they’re not the places that are going to really appreciate


SHERRY MILLER HOCKING:  I’d like to thank the three of you for bringing up all of these issues, which I personally am very interested in, but I think are also really important and oftentimes not talked about--within our community, certainly.



Looking Back/Looking Forward: A Symposium on Electronic Media Preservation

May 31 – June 1, 2002

Issues in Capturing Related Histories     1