Challenges of Preserving a Multimedia Installation

Challenges of Preserving a Multimedia Installation

donderdag 7 december 2017

Earlier this year, in January, students of the MA ‘Preservation and Presentation of the Moving Image’ were presented with four different case studies. Each project was introduced by a specialist from EYE, under whose supervision a group of four to five students would dedicate their time for the duration of four weeks. The following report describes one of those projects: Moving Pictures.

Rien Hagen standing inside his installation, 1995 (one of five available photographs that depict the actual installation as it once was).

Moving Pictures

Moving Pictures is the name of an installation by Rien Hagen, which was on display, together with two other installations, during the two-week exhibition 500 Years of Film, in the Theater aan het Spui in November 1995. The exhibition was organized by the Cinematheek Haags Filmhuis, which hosted an accompanying two-day conference, inviting a variety of speakers who, through a series of lectures and debates, reflected on the state of cinema as it celebrated its centenary.

Hagen’s installation was inspired by, or even based on, Anne Hollander’s book Moving Pictures. Hollander, an art historian, gave permission to use the title of her book for the installation and was present herself during the conference and opening of the exhibition. In her book, Hollander describes the birth and rise of cinema not merely as a technological invention, but above all as the continuation of a specific form of imagery that was established by Northern-European painters. She argues that these painters suggested, by using a variety of techniques, that there was a world beyond the physical frame of the painting, resulting in a form of imagery that can or should be considered proto-cinematic. By projecting some of these proto-cinematic paintings in conjunction with famous excerpts from films, Hagen wanted to highlight the connection between proto- and contemporary cinema in his installation.

Remnants of the Past

Rough first sketch of the installation, the final screens would measure 11 metres wide and 4 metres high.

Our project evolved around the question how such an installation, which now merely exists in parts and on paper, could be best preserved, effectively enabling the possibility of a future reconstruction that mimics, or at least approaches, the experience of the past visitor. The following sources were available to us from the outset:

  • - 192 framed slides.
  • - Over 300 slide duplicates.
  • - 10 cans of 16mm film positives.
  • - 4 cans of 16mm film, A-B negative rolls (8 rolls in total).
  • - 2 Hi 8 tapes, which were solely used to record 8 tracks of audio.
  • - 1 compact cassette.
  • - A post-production script.
  • - A printed sequence of all images, moving and still (sometimes referred to as a timeline).
  • - 5 photographs of the installation (from 1995).

Framed slides, originals and backups.

The photographs of the installation provided an entry point for our research. The installation consisted of four dark transparent screens, which allowed backlit projection, creating a square room which could be entered from one of the corners. Each screen, or wall, could have still images projected onto it at four different locations. Besides these still images, the photographs made clear that film could be projected at the centre of each screen. This indicated that there would have been at least sixteen slide projectors, four per screen, and four 16mm film projectors, one behind each screen. A schemata, acquired at a later stage of our research, confirmed this setup.

Schemata of the installation showing various projector locations.

The framed slides, which were used in the actual installation, bear handwritten annotations that indicate trough a letter on which wall each slide was projected (A, B, C or D). Next to this letter a number was written, ranging from 1 to 4, specifying the exact location on the wall where the image was to be projected.

Example of a series of slides which were all projected on the same wall. Because of the handwritten annotations, it was decided to preserve these slides as a whole, including the frames.

The 16mm positives did not contain many images, some rolls were even completely void. It was to be expected that the actual film rolls used for the installation would contain a lot of black material, since there were four different film projectors, and often there would be no film projected at all during the runtime of the installation. However, none of the prints would match the sequence of images, as provided by the film related documentation, at a specific wall,. The A-B negatives proved to be more promising. There were four cans in total (now eight, for the rolls have been re-canned individually), which all included an A and B roll. The cans were labelled A to D, and the images on the negatives did in fact correspond to the image locations as provided by the timeline. There was however a slight discrepancy between the timestamps in the timeline and the ones provided by the Steenbeck’s counter while viewing the material. Nevertheless, it is very likely that the A-B negatives were in fact used to create the final prints that were projected. The negatives were in excellent condition and would only need dust removal before being processed once more.

Several cans containing 16mm positives or A-B negative rolls.

The compact cassette contained three citations of poems which would accompany specific images while the installation was running. The cassette itself was not used during the installation and should be considered working material. However, the Hi 8 tapes (one being a backup) were used for the installation. This carrier, as we later learned, was chosen because of two reasons. First, the production team simply had access to this specific technology at that time, which made the choice cost efficient. Second, this carrier was able to contain eight separate sound tracks, delivering stereo sound to each individual wall.

The Tascam DA-88 (left), which was used to produce and read the Hi 8 tapes (right) of the installation. Nico Bunnik, who originally worked on the sound for Hagen’s installation, maintained the unit in his studio and was able to digitize the Hi 8 tape for us twenty-two years later.

Cataloguing and Scanning

In order to preserve both material and concept, it was decided to catalogue all slides, including detailed descriptions in EYE’s collection database. There were over 300, non-framed, acetate positive duplicate prints of the slides. For the sake of preservation, all duplicates have been transferred to acid-free folders, while the framed slides that were broken had their glass removed and its folder cleaned thoroughly by a cotton swab. In consultation with EYE specialists it was decided that the originally used slides would remain in their frames, for the annotations on these frames are valuable to the concept and should be preserved as well. Logically, the duplicates were used for scanning purposes, they had never been used in the installation and proved to be in better overall condition.

The time-consuming task of organizing over hundreds of slides. Connecting each slide to a specific wall and position of the installation proved to be a daunting task.

Organized and catalogued slides, transferred to acid-free folders, ready for their trip to the vault.

Connecting the Dots

Even though all content-material seemed to be available, many questions remained, especially concerning the physical and technical setup of the installation. Dealing with a media art-installation, the logical next step was to contact the artist himself, not only to gather missing technological information, but also to focus on the ethics that are involved during a possible re-installation of the work. In other words, to discover and determine what could be considered the essential characteristics of the installation. Rien Hagen suggested to also contact Gerard Holthuis and Nico Bunnik, who were involved with the installation’s production and sound, respectively.

During a variety of interviews a great deal of information was gathered which allowed us to fill in most of the gaps that were still there. Besides specific technical details on, for example, the way in which sound and images were synced or why and how different lenses were used for the slide projectors, Holthuis was able to provide us with a much more detailed production script than we originally had access to. This addition made it possible to finalize an exact timeline.

Excerpt from the production script as provided by Gerard Holthuis. Besides connecting sound and image, it also specifies the location on the screen/wall where an image was to be projected.

Regarding a possible reconstruction of the installation opinions differed. According to Bunnik a reinstallation should ideally be fully analogue, especially the slide projectors, for he identifies the analogue setup as a unique attribute that added to the overall experience of the artwork. In contrast, Hagen and Holthuis argued that if they had had the means in 1995 to produce the installation digitally, they would have chosen to do so. To them, the noise produced by the analogue apparatus was distractive and interfered with the overall experience. Hagen defines specific aspects, like the dimensions of the screens and projections, the fact that the apparatus was hidden from the inside of the installation and the actual content as key components that should not be tempered with.

It’s logical that the content plays a defining role, but to what extend are its delivering mechanisms hands-off? If an artist states that his or her intended goals would have been better served by newer technologies, should one embrace such alterations and implement them in future editions? One might argue that such a deviation automatically leads to a different work of art. Following a similar, yet slightly different, line of argumentation one could assert that especially now, in an era where the digital has seemingly taken over, a return to the analogue apparatus would add an extra dimension to the historical exploration of cinematographic aspects as was investigated by Hagen’s installation in the first place.

The difference between preserving a film and a multimedia installation is primarily that an installation demands the safeguarding of a concept as well. A film may already be accompanied by a variety of film related material, such as posters, catalogues, scripts and photographs, to name a few. A multimedia installation, such as the one described above, potentially multiplies this accumulation of related materials and inscribes them with a certain necessity. Not only do they add something external to its subject, they may provide specific context that is crucial for a possible future reestablishment of the work, its body and meaning.

Research by: Aldo van Keulen, Fatma Amer, Costanza Lo Cicero and Katia Rossini
Written by: Aldo van Keulen