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Watch out: the work regards us!

The term video is known to derive from the Latin word meaning "I see". The act of seeing, however, should not be understood as a passive consumption of images but as an active process, because what we see is profoundly influenced by our perceptual habits and by our culture...

immagine per Watch out: the work regards us!

As soon as we observe a work of art, it ‘regards us’ or looks at us, in the sense that it confronts us with our customary habits and our knowledge and places our preferences and limitations into relief. Accustomed by now to the aesthetics of video on DVD, the image quality from more dated formats appears inadequate to us. But to what point is this impression due to the actual deterioration of the support in question, and what is the role played by our perceptual patterns themselves? Then in the case of video installations, each new staging raises new questions for us: what aspects of the work do we believe to be indispensable for conserving its authenticity? Which aspects, on the other hand, can be adapted to the new situation, and up to what point? Our conservation choices occasionally reflect our responses to these questions, in other words our interpretation of the work, our reaction to its implacable “gaze”.
Due to the rapid development of technology, reproduction supports and devices which appeared at the cutting edge when a work was created, in fact quickly became obsolete, thereby making it very difficult to find spare parts or equipment the same as the original. As a consequence, the devices which permit one to view works on older supports are often not available or, if they are available, they demand time-consuming or troublesome maintenance. To avoid this problem, procedures are currently very common such as migration (transfer of video from one support to a more advanced support, e.g. from VHS to DVD, or the use of equipment that is more advanced than the original equipment with consequent “updating” even of the look of the work itself) or emulation (creation of software and/or hardware to imitate the effect of programs or devices now obsolete by modern tools). However these procedures, though broadly welcomed by those engaged in the restoration of video art, pose considerable problems from the theoretical point of view (such as the authenticity of the work) and therefore they remain controversial.
The complex conservation problems posed by the various kinds of work coming within the rubric of ‘video art’ cannot be solved applying a standard ‘recipe’ or simply by relying on the judgment of technicians specialized in electronics. What they require is a careful hermeneutical analysis of the individual works to be restored. The requirement to focus on the role of interpretation does not mean that decisions relating to restoration interventions are reached in an arbitrary manner. As Umberto Eco would have it, one must distinguish between an interpretation and an “over-interpretation”.
To advance research in this area, the imai-inter media art institute of Düsseldorf has brought to life the project Materialisations of the ephemeral. The conservation and staging of the installations of New Media Art, which proposes to analyse a series of cases of restoration and re-installation of video installations, with a view to drawing conclusions of a theoretical character. This contribution is based on the initial working assumptions drawn up in the context of this project.

Gary Hill
In Situ, 1986
Mixed technique
global view of the installation, Cornish College of the Arts, Seattle, 1987
Courtesy: imai, Düsseldorf

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