Obsolescence

Video Art & Machine Obsolescence

multiple stills from BBC documentary showing Jim Moir and Greatbear video equipment in a mock-up studio

Stills from BBC4's "Kill Your TV: Jim Moir’s Weird World of Video Art", showing vintage video equipment from the Greatbear studio with researcher Adam Lockhart and artists Catherine Elwes and George Barber © Academy 7 Productions 2019.

At Greatbear we have many, many machines. A small selection of our analogue video players, CRT monitors, cameras, cables and tapes recently found work as props (both functional and decorative) in the BBC documentary “Kill Your TV: Jim Moir’s Weird World of Video Art”, on BBC iPlayer here.

From the BBC website: “Jim Moir, aka Vic Reeves, explores video art, revealing how different generations hacked the tools of television to pioneer new ways of creating art."

Our obsession with collecting and restoring rare video equipment is vital for our work. As technology developed through the latter half of the 20th century, dozens of different formats of video tape were created - each requiring specialist equipment to play it back: equipment which is now obsolete. The machines have not been manufactured for decades and the vast majority of them have been scrapped.

Those that remain are wearing out - the rotating head drums that read video tape have a finite number of working hours before they need replacement. Wear to the head drum tips is irrevocable, and the remaining few in existence are highly sought-after.

Even TV companies, where U-matic, Betacam and countless other formats of VTR machine were once ubiquitous, no longer have access to the machines and monitors we provided for “Kill Your TV”.

It is a similar conundrum for the artists who produced work with older video technology, and for the galleries and museums who hold collections of their work. We have recently been working on a fascinating project with specialist art conservator for time-based media, Brian Castriota and the Irish Museum of Modern Art, transferring important video artworks produced between 1972 - 2013 from multiple video tape formats, by artists including Isaac Julien, Gillian Wearing and Willie Doherty - more on this in a future blog post!

conceptual immateriality & the material device

In "Kill Your TV", Jim Moir describes a demonstration of David Hall’s "Vidicon Inscriptions" (1973) as “an electronic image that doesn’t really exist in a physical space” which nevertheless relies on the quirks of (very physical) vintage video equipment for its enactment.

Artist Peter Donebauer refers specifically to immateriality inherent to his 1974 video art piece “Entering” (broadcast via the BBC’s arts programme “2nd House”). PD: "Technically, the real core of this is the signal. It made me think about what this medium was, because it’s not material in the same way as painting, sculpture or even performance, dance, film - almost anything that has physicality.”

But for a signal to be perceived, it needs to be reproduced by a device capable of reading it. The dangers facing video artwork preservation lie not only in the fragility of the tape itself, but in the disappearance of rare playback machines and the specialist tools for their maintenance and repair; of the service manuals, calibration tapes and the expertise needed to set them up.

The 'tools of television' relished in "Kill Your TV" are the material devices we are striving to save, repair and maintain.

links & further reading:

Read about our facilities to transfer video made with the Sony Portapak system featured in the documentary: Sony 1/2 inch Portapak (EIAJ) / CV2100 / CV2000 open reel video tape

Our work with Videokunstarkivet, an exciting archival project mapping all the works of video art that have been made in Norway since the mid-1960s, funded by the Norwegian Arts Council.

“Kill Your TV: Jim Moir’s Weird World of Video Art” was made for BBC4 by Academy 7 Productions

 

Posted by melanie clifford in Blog, Obsolescence, reel to reel video, Video Tape, 0 comments

Repairing obsolete media – remembering how to fix things

A recent news report on the BBC website about recycling and repairing ‘old’ technology resonates strongly with the work of Great Bear.

The story focused on the work of Restart Project, a charity organisation who are encouraging positive behavioural change by empowering people to use their electronics for longer. Their website states,

the time has come to move beyond the culture of incessant electronics upgrades and defeatism in the face of technical problems. We are preparing the ground for a future economy of maintenance and repair by reskilling, supporting repair entrepreneurs, and helping people of all walks of life to be more resilient.

We are all familiar with the pressure to adopt new technologies and throw away the old, but what are the consequences of living in such a disposable culture? The BBC report describes how ‘in developed nations people have lost the will to fix broken gadgets. A combination of convenience and cultural pressure leads people to buy new rather than repair.’

These tendencies have been theorised by French philosopher of technology Bernard Stiegler as the loss of knowledge of how to live (savoir-vivre). Here people lose not only basic skills (such as how to repair a broken electronic device), but are also increasingly reliant on the market apparatus to provide for them (for example, the latest new product when the ‘old’ one no longer works).

A lot of the work of Great Bear revolves around repairing consumer electronics from bygone eras. Our desks are awash with soldering irons, hot air rework stations, circuit boards, capacitors, automatic wire strippers and a whole host of other tools.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We have bookshelves full of operating manuals. These can help us navigate the machinery in the absence of a skilled engineer who has been trained how to fix a MII, U-Matic or D3 tape machine.

As providers of a digitisation service we know that maintaining obsolete machines appropriate to the transfer is the only way we can access tape-based media. But the knowledge and skills of how to do so are rapidly disappearing – unless of course they are actively remembered through practice.

The Restart Project offers a community-orientated counterpoint to the erosion of skills and knowledge tacitly promoted by the current consumer culture. Promoting values of maintenance and repair opens up the possibility for sustainable, rather than throwaway, uses of technology.

Even if the Restart Project doesn’t catch on as widely as it deserves to, Great Bear will continue to collect, maintain and repair old equipment until the very last tape head on earth is worn down.

Posted by debra in Obsolescence, 1 comment

video tape obsolescence – spares supplies disappearing

Greatbear protects tape-based analogue and digital media from the wave of obsolescence faced by these formats. The speed of technological change in the 20th and 21st centuries has been, and continues to be, breathtaking. Consider the amount of tapes and machines that have been made since the invention of magnetic recording tape by Valdemar Poulson in 1894. Since then, the drive for efficiency and better quality has fueled the development of numerous formats which become eclipsed as each new product hits the market.

Close up of a V-MAG Head off an AMPEX 1" Machine

Close up of an individual V-MAG Head off an AMPEX 1″ Machine

Obsolescence for video tape is an issue for a number of reasons. Firstly the knowledge of how to repair older video machines is disappearing: as technology changes, people are no longer trained in the maintenance of such technology.

Another crucial issue is the lack of spare parts. For video tape machines, the most sought after parts are often drum heads. Video drum heads are difficult and expensive to make, they can’t be refurbished and there is no market for them, which makes them rare and sought after.

The nature of recording an audio signal is different from recording a video signal. Because of this,  video heads and the video tape transport had to be designed in a different way to audio heads. Audio drum heads are in fact easier to make and they can also be ‘relapped‘ (a sophisticated form of sanding down), so it is a fairly straightforward process to refurbish them.

Because of the specific problems facing video tape obsolescence we have to rely on ‘New Old Stock’, although sometimes it is possible to use parts from scrap machines. These are however less reliable because the drums heads are part of a mechanical process and if used extensively, they will inevitably be worn down.

Betacam Head Drum

Betacam Head Drum

One company – Video Magnetics Inc – remake video drum heads and specialise in the repair and alignment of Betacam SP, Digital Betacam, Betacam SX, DVCAM and DVC PRO recorders, cameras, camcorders and dockables. They do not however cover all the machines we use at Greatbear.

Luckily we are well stocked up with lots of spare parts, mainly through careful collecting with an eye to work in the future.

U-matic Head Drum

U-matic Head Drum

Posted by greatbear in Obsolescence, Video Tape, 1 comment