Monday, April 18, 2011

"Archival" DVDs

During Moving Image's panel discussion (we're working on getting the podcast online...I know it's been a while, but well, we've been busy), one of the most tense moments (and to my pleasant surprise, there were a few) came when (Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art) Chrissie Iles admonished the gallerists in the audience with not so much a suggestion as the command: "Don't sell DVDs."

Of course she wasn't suggesting that video can't be presented/exhibited on DVD discs, but that, simply, it cannot be responsibly archived on DVDs. There is, despite widespread confusion in the gallery system and art industry in general, no such thing as an archival DVD.

As early as 2007, analysts were predicting the end of the DVD, and when I ask the artists, curators, and technicians best suited to know today, they generally give the format between 4-5 years before it's officially dead. That means the large collection of films you have on DVD will soon be joining your cassette-based music collection in your parent's attic.

But more than just referencing the ever-evolving "preferred platform" dance of technological "advancement," Chrissie was referring to the poorly understood, but very important, imperative that moving image-based work be preserved in the format closest to its original production as possible (yes, for video, that would mean the very file or format first recorded/edited, or as close to that as possible) and that that be given or available* to the collector who will eventually donate the work to a museum for its lasting preservation. A DVD is already a compressed (and hence degraded) copy of that original and as such nowhere near "ideal" from a preservation point of view.

While in London this past week, Bambino and I had the distinct pleasure of meeting with the charming Curator of Film and Events at the Tate Modern, Stuart Comer (who will be here in NY this week, presenting, as he describes it, "Steven Arnold's magical, polysexual underground films on Friday 22 April at 7pm, and will join Ronald Gregg, Agosto Machado and Ela Troyano in discussion following the unmissable screening of José Rodriguez-Soltero's Lupe and Ron Rice's Chumlum on Saturday 23 April at 7pm" at the Museum of the Moving Image). Stuart echoed Chrissie's concerns and noted how a very well-established gallery who should certainly know better had tried to pass along an important video work on an "archival DVD." We guffawed, but it dawned on me later that many artists and/or dealers may not understand (given how DVD manufacturers flog their wares as "archival") why it is so irresponsible to suggest a DVD is a fine permanent vessel for the information it contains.

The University of Michigan has a nice accessible summary of the pitfalls of digital preservation at this site. In addition to obsolescence the main problem with DVDs is degradation:
The very media that digital information is stored on was not always made to last, and can quickly degrade. This media can include magnetic tapes, floppy discs, optical discs and more. Take, for example, a movie on DVD. More likely than not, you have experienced a crucial scene in a movie being ruined because of scratches on a DVD you were watching. This is a case of media degradation – the information that was on the DVD no longer exists because the media that it was on has itself degraded. Now imagine this has happened with not simply a commercially available CD or DVD, but a unique item ...
In addition to the physical damage possible (which is the same for any object-based work of art, obviously), each time you burn a file to a DVD some of the original information is lost (due to the compression process). If you burn a file from one DVD to another DVD or another format (generally converting it first to an *.avi or similar editable file), you will lose even more information in the re-compression. Therefore, it's irresponsible to present someone with a DVD as if it were a truly archival version of the artist's intent.

As Noah Horowitz points out in his new must-read book Art of the Deal (I'll have a lot more to say about this important contribution to the dialog in weeks to come...seriously, you shouldn't even pretend to discuss the art market until you've read this book...it's like manna from heaven), though, getting serious about moving image artwork conservation is a critical first step toward building a serious market for it. Therefore, it is in the interest of every gallery representing video artists to stay informed and participate in the development of best practices and standards.

Now I realize it's complicated (believe me...we present our fair share of moving image-based work and it's an ongoing education), but one easy way for dealers (and artists) to keep up to speed is to follow the work of the New Art Trust (founded by Pamela and Richard Kramlich, and involving the Tate, MoMA and SFMoMA). Together they have taken a leadership role in providing guidelines and information, including in showing dealers anxious to have their video artists acquired by these major museums what goes on behind the scenes in their decision-making process (hint! hint!).

I strongly believe that moving image-based work stands to follow a similar trajectory to that of photography in being seriously collected in the coming years. There are too many artists working in the medium, including those whose main practice is in painting or sculpture, to ignore it. You can expect to see more on these topics here as I continue my own in-depth education. As such, don't hesitate to point out where I may be missing something or (gasp) even mistaken in my own assessments.

*Making the original available to collectors when the format requires that the artist keep it in their procession is a common practice, with the terms (including location of the original) generally spelled out in the Certificate of Authenticity.

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20 Comments:

Blogger George said...

Ah! Today's DVD's are tomorrow's Tintypes

4/18/2011 01:41:00 PM  
Anonymous Terri said...

I've really wondered when this would come up.

Preserving the digital video art in it's original form, given the swift progressive movement of computer hardware and software is almost imaginary. I don't know how much you know about computers, but as software dies out, you have to hope that new software supports old formats, otherwise you have to archive both the art file and the software able to read it. And hardware evolves very quickly as well, making new software requirements obligatory -- and then you'd need to archive old hardware as well.

The other option, and less palatable to purists, I'm sure, is to convert the art files whenever the old format becomes obsolete.


Blogger George said...
"Ah! Today's DVD's are tomorrow's Tintypes"

Yes, and today's digital art video files are tomorrows 16mm film....


(This is one of the reasons I make object-based art -- it exists without needing any kind of mechanical interpreter, allowing future generations to see it as I did.)

4/18/2011 03:52:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

allowing future generations to see it as I did

If only.

All object-based art ages. Colors fade, materials decompose, paint cracks, varnish yellows, substrates contract or expand, sunlight does its work, moisture does its work, and what the artist saw in their studio is very, very different from what you see just a few decades later.

Having interviewed one of New York's best painting conservators for my book, I can pass along that this is one of the biggest misconceptions in the industry (i.e., that paintings [etc] will look the same in time as they do when made). If one does, you'll know, just like you do with humans, that it's "had work done." And just as with humans, few really look "right" modified as such. Most paintings, the conservator noted, will show definite aging within 50 years. And, again, just as with humans, that will look "right" or normal for them.

Photography, too, has a shelf-life (90 years I believe is the expectancy now, no?). Bronze, I believe is, the only medium that really stand the test of time in a way that justifies bragging rights.

In fact, should video technology eventually achieve a more stable, trans-computer-hardware platform (if I knew what that was, I'd be rich, but you can bet it lives on the Internet), it actually stands to be a medium very likely to allow future generations to see it as the artist did. The key seems to be preserving the current best copy (i.e., the one with the most information), complying with the best conservations practices (these are evolving, but being aware, for example, that you need to turn a hard drive on once a year and play a work from beginning to end, is important), and ensuring the slowest, most careful transfer when necessary...all of which sounds like good old fashioned conservation when you get right down to it.

4/18/2011 04:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Terri said...

Hi Edward, I understand what you mean, and I understand why you want to defend the idea that digital art (video in particular) might somehow be superior to other media. No problem there.

I was just voicing my observation of the hyperbolic rate of change in digital technology that really impacts digital art.

Also, stone and ceramic far outlast bronze in most cases -- not that I work in just those media, but from an archaeological perspective, those are the media that seem to last best.

But I like and have made digital art too -- it just can't be expected to be "present" in the same way as more stable media in thousands or hundreds or even decades of years. Plus it requires a "magic decoder ring" in the form of a technological interpreter (read as compliant hardware/software) whereas object-oriented art only requires the human perception for communication.

Digital art needs to be appreciated and viewed for what it is -- a virtual temporal medium. (It's cool, it's just different.)

4/18/2011 06:17:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I understand why you want to defend the idea that digital art (video in particular) might somehow be superior to other media. No problem there

Actually, I'd like to be very precise here. I don't see digital art as superior to other media. I see it as increasingly just another, and in that way perfectly valid, medium. Issues of superiority relate to the quality of what an artist does with the medium, not anything inherent in the medium, per se, IMO. According to Horowitz (see post), the practice of Matthew Barney (as one example of an artist working across many media) provides a good argument for dismissing issues of superiority with regard to medium:

"Judging from his emphasis on symbiosis, Barney may argue that all components be weighted with equal values." [Art of the Deal, p. 63]

Also, stone and ceramic far outlast bronze in most cases

You might be right, but I recall reading that bronze sculptures were the man-made objects that would outlast all other man-made objects. I have no proof either way, though.

4/18/2011 06:32:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

(Geeky) I think it is important to differentiate between technologies used to produce digital work, to display digital work, and to store digital work.

The digital tools, hard and soft, available to artists will continue to improve, making obsolete previous generations. This shouldn't be an issue. Artists should archive the source of their digital work in uncompressed, or lossless compressed formats.

Display options create thornier issues if the hardware is part of the artwork, think Nam June Paik, or even Dan Flavin as examples. If We are just thinking in terms of video, then if the original is properly archived it should be able to be regenerated using more modern software and the latest formats. Moreover, computing power has now reached a point where it is possible to create virtual machines to run old software on old operating systems.

At the moment storage is an issue. For digital files in binary format, the safest storage currently available (economically) is a hard drive which supports RAID and is capable of being a network device (ethernet) without requiring a specific computer or operating system. It is likely that backwards emulation for supporting old network protocols won't disappear but support for USB, Firewire, SATA and the like will. Solid State Drives using RAID would be better but much more expensive.

4/18/2011 07:09:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Geeky is exactly where the conversation needs to go, though...so many thanks for the input George.

4/18/2011 07:15:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

BTW, a good example how these technological issues can be positively solved for artworks was the recent Warhol exhibition at MoMA. Warhol's original interview films were shot in film (8 or 16 millimeter, I can't remember which) MoMA remastered the films for video display, maintaining as much as possible the feel of the original work (film speed etc) The final results were exhibited on huge flat screen displays and looked absolutely fabulous. The remastered videos aren't exactly the same as Warhol's original 8mm films but I think they are very close to his original intent and now they can actually be viewed.

4/18/2011 07:44:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

There's another irony in this field, which is that many artists are now transferring earlier videos to film (which is estimated to have, if I recall correctly, something like a 200 year shelf-life as opposed to video which is much shorter).

4/18/2011 07:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Terri said...

Blogger Edward_ said...
"I don't see digital art as superior to other media. I see it as increasingly just another, and in that way perfectly valid, medium."

I was hoping that you would correct me and establish your broader viewpoint. Honestly I am happy that you don't have a media prejudice....


Hi George, RAIDs are nice for storage, in that if one drive dies, you can rebuild it from the other two (or more) drives. If one drive becomes corrupted, though, the corrupted data is shared and ruins things.

Storing the entire data set (the entire work/piece/project) in multiple locations is the best bet for archiving -- like at different unrelated servers preferably in different physical locations.


The ability to store undifferentiated "originals" of the same piece in multiple locations is a real PLUS for digital art forms. Of course, the downside is that there can be endless undifferentiated "originals"....

4/18/2011 08:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Terri said...

I forgot to mention:

Blogger Edward_ said...
"You might be right, but I recall reading that bronze sculptures were the man-made objects that would outlast all other man-made objects."

Ceramic is man-made.

4/18/2011 08:37:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

@Terri, You are correct about multiple site storage being optimum. RAID has become more affordable and provides quite a bit of protection against accidents. In the last few years it has become more user friendly.

4/18/2011 08:58:00 PM  
Blogger Mab MacMoragh said...

Gah!!!! So much to think about here- thanks for the good conversation....

/bookmarks this page

PS. Newly cast bronzes never look like old ones- the aging is part of the appeal (patina, verdigris, etc. with its allusion to past-present-future). Hopefully something like this will apply to new media art philosophy and conservation practice- but how?

4/18/2011 11:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Ed,

This has always been an issue for video and video artists, and as someone who works and sells in this medium, there is no good solution. At the end of the day, nothing is archival, and we're all trying keep up with not only technology but with what collectors want in terms display and format.

I would argue however, that commercially pressed DVD and Blu-ray discs are far more stable and "archival" than burned media. In fact, if you read about how burned media works, it's crazy that it works at all. If the scratching of the disc(s) is the issue, then someone needs to be more careful. Of course, accidents do happen, which is why most of us provide display / exhibition discs with an editioned work.

As for providing a drive with the data file on it, that has its issues too. A few years back a certain institution in the midwest undertook digitally archiving all of the paintings in their collection at an amazing resolution. The capturing went relatively smoothly, but the biggest issue appeared upon retrieval and viewing some time later - the data became corrupted / over written / too scattered on the drive by the software, and when the files were opened they had 1 pixel green lines running through them. No saving those files.

Personally, I'd love to provide a computer (probably a Mac mini) with the work on it. But then when the computer has issues, asks to update something, or myriad other things that computers do to make our lives more difficult, I get a phone call looking for support. When was the last time someone got a support call for a drawing?

Of course, we'd all love to output to film. But thats insanely expensive, it drives up our production costs, the cost of the work, the cost and considerations for storage, and most collectors have no idea what to do with it.

Lastly, while artists should be concerned with this issue and working to provide our collectors / institutions / heirs with something that will last, at the end of the day it isn't our problem to solve. Our job is to make the work in the output format that we feel works best for us and is the best for the piece whether it's DVD, drive, file or film.

4/19/2011 09:28:00 AM  
Blogger Balhatain said...

I want to say two things:

First, I've always known Ed to be fair and balanced in regard to medium. I've never once read him suggest that one form of art is 'better' than other forms of art. I'm not sure where that idea came from.

Second, this article is important for artists who document their work on DVD as well. I know many artists who take that route instead of traditional slides. It can be useful-- but I know artists who stored images digitally just a few years ago who act in shock when they discover the cd no longer works. It is something to consider and I'm glad Ed spurred debate about this topic.

4/19/2011 01:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for both the University of Michigan and the New Art Trust link.

4/21/2011 08:13:00 AM  
Blogger Mab MacMoragh said...

Electronic Arts Intermix is working on these issues, might be good to keep tabs on what they're doing:

http://www.eai.org/index.htm

From their About page:

'Founded in 1971, Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI) is a nonprofit arts organization that is a leading international resource for video and media art. A pioneering advocate for media art and artists, EAI's core program is the distribution and preservation of a major collection of over 3,500 new and historical video works by artists. For 40 years, EAI has fostered the creation, exhibition, distribution and preservation of video art, and more recently, digital art projects.'

4/21/2011 11:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Collin said...

The strange contradiction about digital media is that if they're backed up, they can be preserved in ways that more stable media can't. James Rosenquist's studio burning down destroyed lots of work and there's no way to back up paintings with hard drives stored at another location. If somebody working in digital media is smart about backing up and storing a copy of backups off-site, then a studio burning down (or a collector's house flooding, or whatever catastrophe might hit) still sucks, but the work still exists. (I'm sure there are a bunch of decent guides to backing up, but here's one: http://www.macobserver.com/tmoguides/backup/index.shtml)

Likewise, if a gallery or museum has digital work, it should be backed up on drives that are off-site too, hopefully in a common uncompressed format, so that generating a new copy is easy. That's a kind of insurance that isn't possible with "physical" media.

A few questions: When a work is sold, should the Certificate of Authenticity include the right to the original uncompressed files? Should it include access to archived copies in the case of catastrophe?

4/25/2011 02:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Frank Steineck said...

Before I follow that thought to the end, I would like to point out how frustrating it is for a contemporary artist to meet at his hotel room walls with some long diseased artist/s of long gone ways to look at things, change or consideration. Even worse I feel when I see prints hanging on those walls quoting outmodelled thought dead for hundreds of years and nothing alive; avoiding even anything contemporary quite often. I hear well enough "I can understand pragmatism!" To hell with all that luxury talk. Hotel management doesn't even know the art taste of their public individuals. I am not arguing to not preserve, but I argue to speak more about the living. That reduces the drama on preservation considerably. I love looking into the distant past, because more is one up to less. On preserving the pictorial, moving or not, I have worked a decade or more to find that all solutions so far served more "unusual" approaches and certainly more problems than ever. Sales-talk does not predict very well. Since that experience of no way in or out on preservation basically, I do not even want to afford to put visuals back onto film (the least problematic I found), I have to live with what gives (mass storage,etc.), while the DVD has its substitute role. Preservation is a loosing game eventually anyway. I prefer art is consumed while it is fresh, instead having to become stale first for appreciation. And I argue let's use what we learned so far and do it all again to advance its culture. Besides that let us do what we can to preserve, because the past has virtues I do not want to miss. But too often it is installed in front of us, to draw back from the present and the future prospects. No, the situation is that there are basically two inclinations in people concerned. One is to create and continue to do so and the other is to preserve. It is being with life or being with death. I guess it is taste that determines and there is nothing wrong in choosing; for both considerations are valid truth. Humans though will always go for all, so let us try for it. My inclination is more with substituting.

11/08/2011 12:01:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Wow. This article, to quote the Physicist Wolfgang Pauli, "Is so bad it isn't even wrong."

There's two fundamental assertions in the article which are categorically incorrect. The first is that data compression intrinsically results in a loss of information. Some data compression schemes do (e.g. JPEG as it's usually used) and some do not (e.g. ZIP). Second, there's an assertion that writing a file to a DVD intrinsically results in a loss of information. That is never true. Every bit in the original file is not only written to the DVD, but it's done so in an encoded way that results in the data being written such that single bit errors (and certain multi-bit errors) can be detected and repaired. That repair process returns the original data, not some "guess" at the data. The above aspects of data compression and CD/DVD data storage are precisely why these media "work" for storing zero-fault-tolerant files like the program binary executables (e.g. exe files in Windows). While I won't go into the intricacies of programming here, those files won't run if even one bit is out of place.

12/21/2012 08:06:00 AM  

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