documentary

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 physical 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 in video tape, video technology, machines, equipment, 0 comments

Phil Johnson’s the Wild Bunch VHS video

wildbunch-arnolfini-screen-grab-dancing

Screen shots from the Wild Bunch film

As a business situated in the heart of Bristol, Greatbear is often called upon by Bristol’s artists to re-format their magnetic tape collections.

Previously we have transferred documentaries about the St. Paul’s Carnival and films from the Bristol-based Women in Moving Pictures archive. We also regularly digitise tapes for Bristol Archive Records.

We were recently approached by author Phil Johnson to transfer a unique VHS recording.

As Bristol countercultural folklore goes, the video tape is a bit of a gem: it documents the Wild Bunch performing at Arnolfini in 1985.

For the uninitiated, the Wild Bunch were the genesis of what became internationally known as trip-hop, a.k.a. ‘the Bristol-sound.’

Members went on to form Massive Attack, while Tricky and producer Nellee Hooper continue to have successful careers in the music industry. And that’s just the short-hand version of events.

Want to know more? This documentary from 1996 is a good place to become acquainted.

 wildbunch-arnolfini-vhs-screen-grabThe newly transferred video will be screened at B-Boys, B-Girls, Breakdancers, Wannabees and Posers: ‘Graffiti Art in Bristol 30th Anniversary Party’, a free event taking place on Sunday 19 July 2015, 14:00 to 23:00 at Arnolfini.

We are delighted to feature a guest blog from Phil Johnson, author of Straight Outta Bristol: Massive Attack, Portishead, Tricky and the Roots of Trip-Hop, who filmed the event.

Below he beautifully evokes the social and technical stories behind why the video was made. Many thanks Phil for putting this together.

***

In 1985 I was a lecturer in Film and Communications at Filton College with an added responsibility for running the Audio Visual Studio, a recording room and edit suite/office that had dropped from the sky as part of a new library and resources building. There was also kit of variable quality and vintage, some new, some inherited. I remember a Sony edit suite for big, chunky u-matic videos and another JVC one for VHS tapes, with a beige plasticky mixer that went in the middle by the edit controller. This also allowed you to do grandiose wipes from one camera to another, although we rarely used the camera set-up in the studio because you really needed to know what you wanted to do in advance, and no one ever did. What students liked using were the portable cameras and recorders, JVC VHS jobs that together with the fancy carry cases and padded camera boxes, plus regulation heavy pivoting tripod, weighed each prospective al fresco film-maker down with the baggage-equivalent of several large suitcases. I remember one aspiring Stanley Kubrick from Foundation Art&Design setting off to get the bus into town carrying everything himself, and returning sweatily later that day, close to collapse. He was wearing a heavy greatcoat, obviously.

We had a ‘professional’ u-matic portable recorder too, and that was seriously heavy, but we didn’t have the requisite three-tube camera to get the quality it was capable of, never entirely understanding the principle of garbage in-garbage out, with the inevitable result that almost everything anyone did was doomed to remain at least as shoddy as the original dodgy signal it depended upon. But hey, this was education: it was the process we were interested in, not the product.

wildbunch-vhs-screen-grab
It was a JVC portable VHS recorder I was using on the night of the Wild Bunch jam at the Arnolfini on Friday 19 July 1985, the case slung over my shoulder while I held a crap Hitachi single-tube camera with a misted-over viewfinder whose murky B&W picture meant you were never entirely sure whether it was on manual or auto focus. There was no tripod, and no lighting; just me and a Foundation student, Jo Evans, helping out. The original camera tape, which I recently found after presuming it lost, is a Scotch 3M 60-minuter and the video document of the event, such as it is, lasts only until the single tape runs out, which is just about the time the Wild Bunch’s rappers, Claude and 3D, are getting started.
The image quality is terrible but when there’s some light in the room – the Arnolfini’s downstairs gallery – you can just about make out what’s happening. When it’s dark – and it generally is – the image is so thin it’s barely an image at all. As this is the camera tape – unimportant in itself, and usually only considered as the raw material for a later edit – the significance of what is shown is very provisional. What I meant to focus on, and what was only being picked up because it was easier to keep recording than it was to switch to ‘pause’, is impossible to say. But what the tape does show – when, of course, there’s enough information there to make out anything at all – is now the stuff of history: a Mitchell and Kenyon type document of the yet-to-emerge ‘Bristol Sound’, and a weirdly innocent time that existed before the camera phone. And there it all is: graffiti on the walls, funk, electro and rap on the muffled boominess of the mono soundtrack, with dancers breaking acrobatically on the floor as rockabilly quiffed boys, big-haired girls and lots and lots of very young kiddies look on. As to why I filmed the event in the first place: it was partly for my master’s dissertation (Black Music, the Arts and Education’ – classic lefty teacher getting down with the kids) and partly for the Arnolfini’s new video library.
If you go down and see it on Sunday July 19: enjoy.
Posted by debra in audio / video heritage, video tape, 0 comments

Re-animating archives: Action Space’s V30H / V60H EIAJ 1/2″ video tapes

One of the most interesting aspects of digitising magnetic tapes is what happens to them after they leave the Greatbear studio. Often transfers are done for private or personal interest, such as listening to the recording of loved ones, or for straightforward archival reasons. Yet in some cases material is re-used in a new creative project, thereby translating recordings within a different technical and historical context.

Walter Benjamin described such acts as the ‘afterlife’ of translation: ‘a translation issues from the original not so much for its life as from its afterlife […] translation marks their stage of continued life.’ [1]

A child stands on top of an inflatable structure, black and white image.

Stills from the Action Space tapes

So it was with a collection of ½ inch EIAJ SONY V30H and V60H video tapes that recently landed in the Greatbear studio which documented the antics of Action Space.

Part of the vanguard movement of radical arts organisations that emerged in the late 1960s, Action Space described themselves as ‘necessarily experimental, devious, ambiguous, and always changing in order to find a new situation. In the short term the objectives are to continually question and demonstrate through the actions of all kinds new relationships between artists and public, teachers and taught, drop-outs and society, performers and audiences, and to question current attitudes of the possibility of creativity for everyone.’ [2]

Such creative shape-shifting, which took its impulsive artistic action in a range of public spaces can so often be the enemy of documentation.

Yet Ken Turner, who founded Action Space alongside Mary Turner and Alan Nisbet, told me that ‘Super Eight film and transparency slides were our main documentation tools, so we were aware of recording events and their importance.’

Introduced in 1969, EIAJ 1/2″ was the first format to make video tape recording accessible to people outside the professional broadcast industry.

Action Space were part of this wave of audiovisual adoption (minor of course by today’s standards!)

After ‘accidentally’ inheriting a Portapak recorder from the Marquis of Bath, Ken explained, Action Space ‘took the Portapak in our stride into events and dramas of the community festivals and neighbourhood gatherings, and adventure playgrounds. We did not have an editing deck; as far as I can remember played back footage through a TV, but even then it had white noise, if that’s the term, probably it was dirty recording heads. We were not to know.’

Preservation issues

Yes those dirty recording heads make things more difficult when it comes to re-formatting the material.

While some of the recordings replay almost perfectly, some have odd tracking problems and emit noise, which are evidence of a faulty recorder and/or dirty tape path or heads. Because such imperfections were embedded at the time of recording, there is little that can be done to ‘clean up’ the signal.

Other problems with the Action Space collection arise from the chemical composition of the tapes. The recordings are mainly on Sony branded V30H and high density V60H tape which always suffer from binder hydrolysis. The tapes therefore needed ‘baking’ treatment prior to transfer usually (we have found) in a more controlled and longer way from Ampex branded tapes.

And that old foe of magnetic tape strikes again: mould. Due to being stored in an inappropriate environment over a prolonged period, many of the tapes have mould growth that has damaged the binder.

Despite these imperfections, or even because of them, Ken appreciates the unique value of these recordings: ‘the footage I have now of the community use reminds me of the rawness of the events, the people and the atmosphere of noise and constant movement. I am extremely glad to have these tapes transposed into digital footage as they vividly remind me of earlier times. I think this is essential to understanding the history and past experiences that might otherwise escape the memories of events.’

People sliding down an inflatable structure, joyful expressions on their faces.Historical translation

While the footage of Action Space is in itself a valuable historical document, the recordings will be subject a further act of translation, courtesy of Ken’s film maker son, Huw Wahl.

Fresh from the success of his film about anarchist art critic and poet Herbert Read, Huw is using the digitised tapes as inspiration for a new work.

This new film will reflect on the legacies of Action Space, examing how the group’s interventions can speak to our current historical context.

Huw told me he wants to re-animate Action Space’s ethos of free play, education and art in order ‘to question what actions could shape a democratic and creative society. In terms of the rhetoric of creativity we hear now from the arts council and artistic institutions, it’s important to look at where that developed from. Once we see how radical those beginnings really were, maybe we will see more clearly where we are heading if we continue to look at creativity as a commodity, rather than a potent force for a different kind of society.’

Inflatable action

Part of such re-animation will entail re-visiting Action Space’s work with large inflatable structures, or what Ken prefers to call ‘air or pneumatic structures.’

Huw intends to make a new inflatable structure that will act as the container for a range of artistic, academic, musical and nostalgic responses to Action Space’s history. The finished film will then be screened inside the inflatable, creating what promises to be an unruly and unpredictable spectacle.

Ken spoke fondly about the video footage which recorded ‘the urgency of “performance” of the people who are responding to the inflatables. Today inflatable making and use is more controlled, in the 60s control was only minimally observed, to prevent injuries. But in all our activities over 10 years of air structure events, we had only one fractured limb.’Young people sliding down the side of an inflatable structure - Action Space archive

Greatbear cameo!

Another great thing about the film is that the Greatbear Studio will have an important cameo role.

Huw came to visit us to shoot footage of the transfers. He explains his reasons:

‘I’d like viewers to see the set up for the capturing of the footage used in the film. Personally it’s very different seeing the reel played on a deck rather than scanning through a quicktime file. You pay a different kind of attention to it. I don’t want to be too nostalgic about a format I have never shot with, yet there seems to be an amateur quality inherent to the portapak which I assume is because the reels could be re-recorded over. Seeing material shot by children is something the super 8mm footage just doesn’t have, it would have been too expensive. Whereas watching children grabbing a portapack camera and running about with it is pretty exciting. Seeing the reels and machines for playing it all brings me closer to the experience of using the actual portapak cameras. Hopefully this will inform the filming and editing process of this film.’

We wish Huw the very best for his work on this project and look forward to seeing the results!

***Big thanks to Ken Turner and Huw Wahl for answering questions for this article.***

Notes

[1] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Task of the Translator,’ Selected Writings: 1913-1926, Volume 1, Harvard University Press, 2006, 253-264, 254.

[2] Action Space Annual Report, 1972, accessed http://www.unfinishedhistories.com/history/companies/action-space/action-space-annual-report-extract/.

Posted by debra in audio / video heritage, video tape, 1 comment

Digitise VHS Tape – Martin Smith’s Life Can Be Wonderful

In February 2013 we digitised a VHS tape from Martin Smith, the 1994 documentary Life Can Be Wonderful. The VHS tape was the only copy of the film Smith owned, and it is quite common for Great Bear to digitise projects where the film maker does not have the master copy. This is because original copies are often held by large production companies, and films can be subject to complex distribution and screening conditions.

Life Can Be Wonderful is a film was about the life of his good friend Stanley Forman, a committed communist and major figure in British left-wing cinema, who passed away at the age of 91 on 7 February 2013. Forman’s dedication to communism remained a controversial issue until his death. Smith described his conflicts with his friend which ‘most often they centred on what I saw as his refusal to own up to the enormity of Stalin’s crimes. On camera he told me that I was his dear friend, “but not a dear comrade” and apologised for failing to convey “the spirit of the times”‘.

Stanley Forman is a fascinating figure in terms of the work we do at the Great Bear. He is described on the website Putney Debater as ‘the archive man.’ The site goes on to say

His company, Plato/ Education and Television Films (ETV), held a unique library of left- wing documentaries which amounted to the history of the twentieth century from a socialist perspective. Established in 1950 as Plato Films, the outfit was what would be called in Cold War ideology a front organisation, set up by members of the Communist Party to distribute films from behind the Iron Curtain. Under the slogan ‘See the other half of the world’, Plato provided the movement with a film distributor for documentaries from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, taking in China (until the Sino-Soviet split), Cuba, Vietnam and elsewhere, which would otherwise never be seen here.

The Educational and Television Films archive is held at the British Film Institute, and some material is available to view on the JISC Media Hub website.

Posted by debra in video tape, 0 comments

VHS-C and full size VHS (NTSC and PAL)

‘We’re not sure what on here’ is a common phrase used by customers who send tape to the Greatbear. Spurred on by curiosity or creative necessity, they contact us to help them solve the mystery.

This is exactly what documentary film maker Jeanie Finlay did when she sent us VHS-C and full size VHS tapes that were used in her forthcoming film The Great Hip Hop Hoax (2013).

Jeanie wanted us to deliver her digital files as Quicktime Pro Res files, an apple codec often used in professional film production because it offers a good compromise between quality and data size.

We are also digitising material for another of Jeanie’s films, ORION, which is currently in production. ORION is the story of Jimmy Ellis, an unknown singer, who was plucked from obscurity and thrust into the spotlight as part of an audacious scheme that had him masquerade as Elvis back from the grave.

We have a series of US NTSC US VHS tapes to digitise for the film which includes copies of out takes, interviews and concert footage of Orion. The tapes were sent to us by the official (and only) Orion fan club based in Norway.

Posted by debra in video tape, 0 comments

Digitising Betacam SP video tapes

We have recently been digitising Betacam SP (‘superior performance’) video recordings, a cassette based component analogue format that is used extensively in the broadcast world. Betacam SP offered fantastic video and audio quality from its introduction in 1986, and a very similar digital cassette,  Digital Betacam, is still used now.

Betacam SP was commonly used throughout the ’90s and ’00s and was not threatened with obsolescence as many older formats are. However Betacam VTR machines will soon become very hard to find spares for, thus becoming another threatened video tape format. Luckily at Greatbear we have every type of Betacam machine (PAL and NTSC) available, as well as spare parts (such as head drums), so we are able to migrate analogue formats to digital so they can be utilised by current media practitioners.

A Betacam SP tape in its case with the case open so you can see the contents.

The tapes that have inspired this post are public domain tapes from the National Archives in the USA. They feature the tension filled politics of the Cold War, including footage of President John F. Kennedy, missile silos, Stalin, B29s taking off, graphics of the Iron Curtain, air raid warnings and people running into shelters. Collectively they give a powerful impression of Cold War international relations from the perspective of the American government.

The tapes were sent to us by renowned investigative journalist Paul Lashmar and were the raw material for his BBC Timewatch programme Baiting the Bear: How the real life Doctor Strangelove brought us close to Armageddon, aired in 1996.

Paul has covered many of the main news stories of the past 30 years related to terrorism, intelligence, organised crime, offshore crime, business fraud and the Cold War. He has written for newspapers such as the Independent on Sunday, the Guardian and the Evening Standard, is a regular TV and radio broadcaster and a lecturer in journalism at Brunel University.

 

 

Posted by greatbear in video tape, 1 comment

‘Celebrate What?’ St Pauls Carnival 1968, Bristol

A documentary we transferred and created DVD access copies for its director recently. He only had a VHS copy of the 8mm original unfortunately but it’s still a great piece of history about St Pauls, the St Pauls Carnival and Bristol.

If anyone can recognise themselves or anyone else, please contact the director, Colin Thomas by email, ctbr03509@blueyonder.co.uk

Posted by greatbear in video tape, 0 comments