Comment Collection: “Les sources de quoi, chéri ?”

COMMENT COLLECTION #24
Les sources ? De quoi, chéri ?

“Les sources ? De quoi, chéri ?” is a conversation between four major media outlets about wikileaks.

Assembled from comments from news articles about the Assange phenomenon, “Les sources ? De quoi, chéri ?” is a collection of insights and quips about the stakes involved in leaking information in the era of the web. Based on France’s Libération, Canada’s the Globe and Mail, USA’s New York Times and the UK’s Guardian, vastly diverging points of interest and importance surface.

“Les sources ? De quoi, chéri ?” is the 24th in the COMMENT COLLECTION project, exploring the power of the viewer to tell and re-tell stories.

Globe & Mail CA

Guardian UK

Libération Fr

NYTimes USA

Video Rental Store: An Interview with Suzanne Carte-Blanchenot and Su-Ying Lee

The following is an interview with Suzanne Carte-Blanchenot and Su-Ying Lee, a collective of cultural producers working in contemporary art under the moniker MUSE. MUSE is a collaborative project that places experimental strategies at the forefront of their creative process and practice, which stems from over ten years of combined experience as artists, curators, programmers, educators, and administrators. MUSE’s launch of Under New Management’s Video Rental Store in Toronto, Canada from August 2-15, 2010, is part of a larger project that hybridizes exhibition-based practices and experiential methods examining the relationship between art and its vast milieu.As made evident by the project’s name, Video Rental Store takes on the video store as a space for distributing video art, facilitating audience participation, and determining or contesting value through the honor system. Following a pay-what-you-wish model, audiences are invited to contribute whatever they deem appropriate, the sum of which is forwarded directly to artists. Video exchanges happen during hours of operation as by the traditional video store definition.This interview focuses on the space of the video store and its potential for generating new modes of thinking about value through alternative economies. Situated somewhere between old school bartering philosophies and new school debates about file sharing online, the Video Rental Store project exist as an experiment that utilizes the video store as metaphor for the circulation of culture.

 


Mél Hogan: Tell me what inspired this idea of “video rental store.” Who is behind this project? How did it start? Where does it end?

Su-Ying Lee: The video rental store is part of a larger project—a group exhibition in stages. The project does not take place in a gallery; instead it uses a retail space as a platform. We capitalize on some of the characteristics associated with such a space. Hence, the video portion of the exhibition as rental.

There exist parallels in the identities of artists and curators as producers and viewers as consumers. The physical context of the project allows us to further make visible those aspects of our respective roles.

This is also an experiment about value, trust, and generosity, which involves exchange between the artist and the viewer. The viewer borrows the video work on an honor system basis. They are asked to return it within a certain “rental period” with payment. The payment portion is open-ended. They pay what they wish. We accept non-monetary exchange for rental. There is a chance that the viewer may not return the work at all and there will be no penalty for this. The artists participate with the understanding that there is the element of risk. This may yield disappointment or delight.

Suzanne Carte-Blanchenot: The project is never-ending in regards to idea generation and potential for future iterations.

MH: When you sent out the call for videos for this project, it was open to everyone. You were hoping to receive hundreds of videos to “keep the store shelves stocked.”

How many videos did you receive? How close are you to achieving passable video rental store status?

SC-B: The call for submissions was distributed through a number of different venues including our own email lists, visual art and performance art listservs, and universities. We also solicited work directly from artists that we regularly work with and admire to ensure their participation in the store/exhibition. No video was ever turned away. If work of a sexual or violent nature was submitted we made note on the cases, which were fabricated by our Exhibition Assistant, Katherine Hong. This notation was not done to censor but was in keeping with commercial video rental store policies regarding age appropriateness.

In the end we had 35 artists participate in the project contributing over 65 videos.  I would have liked to see more in the collection to reflect the capacity that a commercial rental store has on its shelves, but time, resources, and exhibition space dictated those numbers. As it was our first time, some artists were uncertain of what to make of the distribution of their work in that manner and if it would be a successful venture. I think that with the next store—due to the overwhelmingly positive response to the concept and execution—will garner a broader response from artists interested in participating. It will break down the barrier of having to explain the project in a “what if?” scenario and established the credibility of the endeavor.  

MH: Something about it feels like it is mimicking virtual file sharing, which itself derives from ideas of lending libraries and video stores, etc. Any thoughts on that loop? What is the importance of doing this project “offline”?

S-YL: I hadn’t considered the similarity to file sharing. I think the difference is that online the files are not willingly shared by the creator. They are appropriated and distributed without consent. For the Video Rental Store we are receiving works from the artist directly. The artists’ participation is their choice and an act of generosity or perhaps curiosity about how their works will be received and responded to. There is, however, the possibility that the work will be continuously shared since the artist is relinquishing control.

SC-B: I do see the project as a continuous loop of sharing through not only the video rental, but with the other stores that are set up as exhibitions. Allowing the work of artists to be made visible in arenas outside of a gallery space.

Since so much of our daily interactions are mediated through the digital means (social, work, commerce and research) it is an opportunity to have a “real” meeting experience with a physical element of the video.

The importance of doing this offline is the human interaction, the experience of making a selection through conversation with the attendant. I used to work in a video rental store (years and years ago) and know how the act of going to the store, roaming through the isles, grabbing junk food, and ruminating over the new releases is part of the performance of preparing for a night in.

How many times have you asked a video store clerk for assistance in choosing films or deciphering content? You can hear patrons always ask, “Hey, is this good?” With downloads there is no dialogue other than a blog situation where the advice is easy to discredit because it could be anyone (anyone meaning it could be a avid film buff, an action seeker, a melodramatic lover, a viewer with potentially dissimilar interests, or with sophisticated, discerning taste)!

The larger project speaks to bringing back the mom-and-pop shops of another generation that conjures up a nostalgic of simplicity of knowing your service provider. It is about being part of a community and supporting the local businesses that are the face of the neighborhood, not part of a larger online jungle.

MH: You mentioned that Video 99 closed down and as a result provided you with their store fixtures. Do you have any thoughts on video stores closing down, largely as a result of online distribution?

SC-B: It was a happy/sad moment (and one coated in a bit of guilt as it is less than a block away from me and I never rented there). The project is an independent one and we relied heavily on the community to come to rescue us (or play with us) to make the shop happen. With limited financial resources we gave ourselves the task of creating four different shops/exhibitions. This could not have been done without the support of the arts councils, local retailers, brewers, photographers, artists, designers, galleries, production houses, and friends. We had to constantly walk around with our hand out and found that retailers, suppliers and our landlords were very eager to assist in making the project a reality. Video 99 was integral to the success and believability of the video rental store by generously donating the cases, shelving units, and marquee. All of which would have been prohibitive for us if we had to pay retail prices for the store fixtures that fabricated the structure of the exhibition.

The unfortunate demise of this independent rental store that saw over ten years of activity on that street is the sad part. I think that it fuels the discussion that we are trying to engage with in regards to the temporality that is becoming a disturbing reality in the downtown core as the rotating door of independent stores are giving way to larger franchised stores.

MH: Would something similar work online?

S-YL: For our purposes, this would not work online since it is one component of a larger project. Online, it would be out of context.

MH:  I submitted my video for the store in two formats—one as an authored DVD that plays when you insert it into a DVD player or computer, and another version as a “data” DVD so people can copy it if they want. Is that wrong or is the project intentionally open for interpretation?

S-YL: I hadn’t considered that option/interpretation. I think it’s brave and generous! Since this entire project is in many ways an experiment, we’d love to have artists interpret it in various ways. Your method enhances the project. If we are able to accommodate ideas that do so, we will.

SC-B: No, it is definitely not wrong. However, how the user of your work chooses to “work” with the content in the privacy of their home is truly unknowable. We have given no restrictions and understand that there is the possibility of theft both intellectually and economically.

MH: Am I mistakenly reading into this project a critique about the arguments around the threats to culture and art when you leave it in the hands of the people rather than industry?

S-YL: The “industry” I’d be familiar with in relation to this project would be commercial galleries, distributors, and the fees artists command for the exhibition, use, and sale of their work which extends to copyright and reproduction. I tend to support the artists in that whatever the level of control the artist wishes over how their creation/work is used and disseminated and the compensation they receive should be their decision.

This is not a critique about that argument. It is an experiment, largely about milieu. Having worked within institutions, I certainly am critical of some aspects of the way in which they function. But, this is more an inquiry into my own role as a curator, how that is realized and whether curators and art are legitimized by the context of the gallery.

I don’t feel we’re subverting the idea of customer or consumer but we are making transparent the parallels between viewer and consumer. Consumerism is an everyday occurrence in most of our lives. We are aligning art with the everyday.

MH: Can you explain this idea of the everyday in relation to Video Rental Store recreating the space of the video store as retail outlet rather than, say, happening within the space of an existing video store?

SC-B: That is exactly it. These exhibitions are the everyday. People consume everyday. We are a culture whose primary pastime is consumption. Shopping is the number one leisure activity. That is where the success of the exhibition lies in bringing in a non-art based audience. The commercial presentation, or serial arrangements were familiar and brought in people off of the street, yet there was something queer.

I was in the rental store one night to hear a group of people outside talking about the space. One of them said, “Oh ya this is that joke store.” From inside I exclaimed, “We are not a joke!” It made them laugh and brought them into the exhibition to discuss the project in greater detail, seeing that in fact we were no joke, we were renting videos. They ended up taking a couple videos home.

If we were to rent a couple shelves at a commercial rental location or infiltrate their merchandising the project could get lost and I could not guarantee that the sales representatives would be respectful to the artists’ work. It would also get confusing as to what was a rental of an infinite amount of time for any form of payment and what was the location’s videos that have a predetermined rental policy dictating duration and price.

MH:  How does this speak to the relationship of art—its circulation and value?

S-YL: Again, I would say this relates to context. Galleries and museums assign and reflect a value system to art in the way that the spaces are designed, the proportion of space allotted to collections and exhibitions, geographic representation, historical representation, genres, etc. It can be argued that values are reflected in any exhibition in the installation design and placement of work.

Institutions are seen as authoritative. Museums and galleries can choose to sanction or challenge prescribed histories or even write history.

Are we (artists, curators, viewers) reliant on the context of the gallery? This is the inquiry we are making.

MH: I am assuming this is a social project about distribution and sharing—is there something about video’s history in particular, its art history and activist roots, that informs the politics of this project?

S-YL: Video art is conducive to the project because of the way in which people understand DVDs as a commodity and access video regularly through retail and rental. We are presenting video through appropriation of that model.

MH: In what way is this also an experiment between curators and artists and audiences? Is it putting the honor system to a test? Where does the idea of an “honor system” come from?

S-YL: This project crosses the boundaries of how art is conventionally presented and consumed. Expectations are destabilized, creating an opportunity for exchange not typically available in each of those roles.

The idea of an honor system and pay-what-you-want compensation come from our work in an institution. Suzanne and I worked at a public art gallery where she was the Outreach Programmer and I was Assistant Curator. Our ideas evolved during this time through issues arising from working within the context of a public institution and an examination of our respective roles. Giving consideration to the many targeted efforts of galleries which include increasing visitor numbers and introducing the institution and contemporary art to new audiences, there was often the question of how to measure success and how to derive audience feedback. The honor system is an unscientific reflection of the value audiences place on the work. It is an inexact alternative to audience surveys and statistics, which we suspect to be equally inexact.

SC-B: Yes, an experiment of trust with all three! The artists trust that we (the curators) only have the best intentions to properly represent their work. The curators trust the general public to be respectful and return the work undamaged so that it can go into other homes for viewing and eventually be returned to the artist. The audience trusts that the artists and curators are going to give them something of quality and substance for their time invested.  So it truly is a system of honoring all of players involved to make the cycle complete.

MH: How do you anticipate value being attributed to works? Do you foresee people exchanging video for video?

S-YL: People typically understand payment to be money. So, I suspect people will pay what they might normally pay for a video rental, or they will pay nothing because we enjoy receiving things free. It is my hope that by making non-monetary exchange an option, creative alternatives to expressing value will be found. A formerly unavailable avenue is opened for both artists and viewers. Video for video would be amazing in that it becomes a dialogue.

SC-B: We saw the non-monetary exchange of this project as a way for the audience to question the value of cultural production. In [many] way[s], value has already been prescribed. We (I can only speak from a Canadian perspective) would never question the purchase of tickets to a film, rent[ing] a Hollywood video in a commercial outlet, and the bills for accessing various television programming for our home entertainment, but [we] would [question paying to] gain access to a municipal public art gallery. In turning the exhibition structure around to physically mimic that of a commercial venture, it forces the viewer to perform the same act of going to the counter and inquiring about payment. They are then forced to ask themselves, “What would I pay for the opportunity to view an artist’s work?”

Ideally, I wanted to see the exchange of video for video, or ideas in the way of a written critique for the artist, or resource sharing and voluntary time for viewing pleasure, or a work [responding] to [and] complement[ing] the ideas brought forward in the original video. We were curious to see how patrons and/or users approach the honour system. We (and the participating artists) are making a grand optimistic gesture, testing assumptions about the general public’s generosity.

Yet we had to be wary of the other end of the spectrum, gluttony. North Americans have the tendency to grab anything that is being offered as “free.” Here is a perfect example: I grabbed a pair of the ugliest, cheapest sunglasses this summer on the street during the Montreal Pride festival from a TD bank booth. I got back to the hotel and immediately wanted to throw them out. Why the hell had I grabbed them? Why did the girl in the green shirt (other than she was cute) waving a pair of sunglasses appeal to me so much? They were free, free, free. That is all really. I got caught up in the frenzy of my brain telling me to take, take, take. Feeling guilty, I actually wore them later that week (yes, Su-Ying, I am ashamed to say it is true).

So we had to be careful about our wording and not waive a banner stating “Free Videos” but instead ask them to contemplate the value of the artists’ work and to spend time looking through the selection for works that may interest them rather than a “smash and grab” looting mentality.

Theatres and some galleries test the pay-what-you-wish system often to open up their audiences, breaking down the perceived access deterrent of admission costs. I wonder if a study has ever been done of what the average of what we want to pay … and in the end it is really not paying what we can … but what we want.

But … Everything that we want is free, anyway.

MH: Can you reflect on how the project worked? What was most surprising?

SC-B: After all of the stress of the fundraising and coordination, the most surprising part was to see it actually happen!

The project has worked out better than I could have ever hoped for! The videos are flying off the shelves and we have received very considered and thoughtful responses to the work and the concept of the exhibition. On behalf of the participating artists we have received money, tomatoes, cookies, books, film tickets, letters, stickers, and a hand-embroidered bag.

MH: How was the project received by the community? And who constitutes the community?

SC-B: The word community is thrown around with reckless abandon (I too am guilty of it at times). Within this project it has a shared meaning of artists, retailers/store owners, consumers, and neighbors.

Sometimes I use it in reference to proximity or a group with shared interests, ideals, political motivations, or social circles. Our location is perfectly situated off of the main Queen West strip on Gore Vale facing Trinity Bellwoods Park. So when we allude to our “community” in relation to locality it is very broad. The park attracts a disparate mélange of users, who become our primary audience. Walking through the recreational space you will see families, tennis players, musicians, artists, lovers, friends, runners, hipsters, elderly, youth, homeless, dog-walkers, and tourists. It truly feels like the most general public.

Even though I mentioned earlier the craziness that happens around “free stuff” we did not experience that at all. Every patron was very respectful or the “stores” and our pay-what-you-wish policy about almost anything. Yet there was a distrust from the general public that I was not anticipating. Consumers are always told “there is no such thing as free” so they can be a tentative bunch when given complimentary items or goods.

We held a grand opening on the first Saturday that Under New Management opened. Mill Street Brewery and a donor, David Saffer, graciously sponsored the event. With that support we were able to have a barbecue in front of the exhibition site offering free beer, hotdogs and snacks. With a smoking barbecue outside of the space I was certain that we would be overrun with people that were enjoying the park in the afternoon. Instead, our “customers” were leery of accepting the free food and drink and we found ourselves being quite insistent that they partake.

Overall, the response has been amazing and the best and most touching part of this entire project has been getting to know that community. It has affected me more than I ever thought that it would.  

MH: I think traditional video stores sometimes sell off old works when they close down. What will come of the videos after the show comes down? Will these videos be sold, sent back, or archived?

SC-B: The work will be given back to the artist at the end of the exhibition as well as a package including the payments that they received, images, press, UNM swag, a letter outlining how many people rented the work, as well as a huge thank you for making the project a success and honoring us with their work.

In the initial call for submissions, artists were made aware that they may not get their work back. This would only be the case if they were not returned by a renter. It would be great to archive them for future stores, but at this point we do not have another venue in sight (or the financial means to do it again soon) and I would prefer that the artists decide whether they would like to participate again rather than us taking their work “on the road.”

 

Suzanne Carte-Blanchenot is an Assistant Curator at the Art Gallery of York University (AGYU) with prime responsibilities for exhibition coordination and student outreach. Previously she held the positions as outreach programmer for the Blackwood Gallery and the Art Gallery of Mississauga and as professional development and public programmes coordinator at the Ontario Association of Art Galleries. Her independent curatorial practice focuses on event based interventions and infiltrations such as Massive Party, PowerBall, AIDSBeat, and Toronto Alternative Fashion Week. She sits on the Board of Directors for C Magazine and is the former undefeated Pillow Fight Champion of the World.

Su-Ying Lee has curated independent projects as well as exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Mississauga where she is Assistant Curator. Lee is interested in curating exhibitions which are active in some manner: Explorers and Dandies in an open letter to Canada Post: Frederick Hagan & Kent Monkman was an exhibition that was accompanied by a petition to Canada Post in support of appointing Kent Monkman to be an official postage stamp artist; Couch surfing in Mississauga/Couch surfing in Syracuse: Alison S.M. Kobayashi & Christina Kolozsvary was an exhibition generated from a residency and exchange established by Lee; an exhibition confirmed for November of 2009 The Rug: Harrell Fletcher and Wendy Red Star (working title) was commissioned by Lee, allowing the artists to realize a project which took them on an investigative journey into fair trade and industry.

Mél Hogan is currently finishing her Research-Creation-Dissertation (wayward.ca) in the Joint Ph.D. in Communication at Concordia University (Montréal, Canada). Her research looks at now defunct and “crashed” Canadian video art databases and repositories on the web, and unconventional modes of distributing and curating video online. Hogan submitted a video to MUSE’s Video Rental Store in Toronto. She is also the Art Director and Publisher of nomorepotlucks.org, a print-on-demand and online journal of art and politics, and part two of two of the BRUCE video art duo. Website: www.melhogan.com.

 

[ PDF version ]

Wayward: Splinter

Splinter is a video art chain-letter. All artists participating have received an invitation by mail, and invited an other artist to participate.

The idea is to track (and lose track of) the circulation of video, as circulated by artists to artists, outside of any predictable distribution channel.

An artist adapts and responds to the video she or he receives by mail. Each video is then sent back to wayward and posted on the site. The artist sends a copy another artist to continue the process. As implied by the title, the work splinters off in many (wayward) directions…

The wayward.ca splinter project falls under a creative commons license, which basically legally grants invited artists the permission to use the video of other participants to remix and respond, and by doing are agreeing to the same license to whatever you create. All the works should be attributed to the artist and linked back to the source. Videos will remain online for a period of time at wayward.ca.

Expect some sort of compilation to come out in 2011.

Questions? info [at] wayward.ca

Comment Collection: “What is this “PAY” word you speak of?”

COMMENT COLLECTION #5
What is this “PAY” word you speak of

“What is this “PAY” word you speak of?” is a conversation about sampling and stealing. ?

Assembled from YouTube comments from videos featuring tracks off of DJ Danger Mouse’s Grey Album, “What is this “PAY” word you speak of?” is a collection of questions and insults about what constitutes the authentic, the original, and the essence of musical genius.

“What is this “PAY” word you speak of?” is the fifth in the COMMENT COLLECTION project, exploring the power of the viewer to tell and re-tell stories.

Screening: 8th Biennal Queer Arts Festival

TRIP is a short video about time and space compression and distortion when traveling by air. Functioning visually like a slot machine, TRIP is composed of three windows: time and space line up momentarily on an otherwise fragmented journey.

Presented: 8th Biennal Queer Arts Festival, 8 – 19 juin, 2010. (http://www.queercitycinema.ca/2010/)

Caching and Crashing the Médiathèque

Hogan, Mél “Caching and Crashing the Mediatheque” on FLOWtv.org Special Issue: The Archive.

Cache (kash) A place for concealment and safekeeping of valuables. A fast storage buffer in the central processing unit of a computer; cache memory.
Crash (krash) A breakdown, hardware failure, or software problem that renders a computer system inoperative.1

Between December 2009 and May 2010, I met with and interviewed the co-founder of the Mediatheque, Kevin Morris; the project’s digital archivist Anatoly Ignatiev; and the current director of SAW Video (Sussex Annex Works) in Ottawa, Canada, Penny McCann. I also had the opportunity to have many technical questions answered by Douglas Smalley, a technical assistant of the Mediatheque, currently a video preservationist at Library Archives Canada.

With a budget of $385,960 (including $100,000 in artist fees) stemming in large part from Heritage Canada, the Mediatheque was a massive undertaking built in record time: on paper, three months was all that was allotted for the project’s creation. In this astoundingly short time, which became just over one year in practice, a database had to be created, partnerships solidified, an interface designed, works collected, contracts signed, works digitized, etc. With an open call, SAW Video collected works directly from artists and from video co-ops across the country. Described as a “mad dash” for artists’ fees, the Mediatheque promised artists a sum of 200 dollars regardless of the length of video,2 exhibited for a three-year period through the Mediatheque portal. Artists were limited to 12 works on the original Mediatheque project. Completed, it featured 486 works by 238 artists. The master copies were retained by the artist, while the digital file for streaming became part and partial of the Mediatheque. The Mediatheque existed as a repository of video art for seven years, streaming full video pieces on the web (rather than samplers/clips), with no master/original material archive as counterpart. In this sense, the Mediatheque project was one that saw the online repository as an entity onto itself, and not a mirror, complement, or addition to any material version of the collection presiding over it.

Interviews with those invested in the Mediatheque, past and present, introduce various aspects of SAW Video’s Mediatheque project, focusing here on the eventual server crash that made the project vanish. Nothing of the backend database was backed up.

Looking at funding, copyright, and sponsorship (among others issues in the context of the “cache and crash” of the Mediatheque) serves as a springboard into a larger conversation about the intricate if not paradoxical nature of the online Archive. More precisely, these issues inform how the technical is always mitigated to some extent by and through the interplay of legal and archival parameters, and vice-versa.
Tracking the Mediatheque from its launch in 2003 to its database crash in May 2009 means following the digital paper trail to link stories, ideals, and absences into the history of Canada’s first large-scale and long standing independent video art repository on the web. The case of the Mediatheque is rare and important for understanding the manifold locus of the online archive: it is past, present, and predictive.3 Reconstructing the Mediatheque’s story from cached memory and interviews, the fragments serve to document the project—what it was, what it has become, and what future potential it holds. An approach that accounts for the importance of the “crash” as symbolic of and essential to the online repository as Archive is key to understanding the Mediatheque, past and potential. While it is the cache that makes the Mediatheque’s traces visible and re-visit-able, it is the crash that signals its ongoing archival value, and perhaps, that signals the conceptual if not practical limits of the online repository as Archive. The crash becomes a point of departure, the site of inquiry.

In June 2009, SAW Video’s summer intern sent out a letter to video artists regarding the Mediatheque project and more specifically to communicate the “going down” of the site—including the SAW Video website and the Mediatheque. The letter was written to explain the server crash but also, already, anticipating the Mediatheque’s rebuilding. However, since this outreach effort, a notice on the SAW Video website diverts users: “Due to circumstances beyond our control, the Mediatheque will be down until further notice. We apologize for any inconvenience.”4 Currently, in 2010, plans are underway reconsidering the project, without any move to hastily reconstruct it based on fragments of what it once was. As Smalley puts it, “The Mediatheque web engine (front end layout and backend database) will never be resurrected. It is gone forever. This raises the larger question of how we can go about archiving dynamic web based content that contains dynamic links and content, even executable code.”5 Perhaps, almost a decade later, the Mediatheque cannot exist as it did, and/or its re/creation would pose a different series of tribulations. The crash, then, becomes a moment to pause and reflect on the direction, if not progress, of video art distribution on the web.

Crash page screen shot

The story of the crash is at once complicated and simple. Limited funding, complicated corporate affiliations, human error, and legal parameters inform the crash—often reduced or relegated to a mere technical failure—for the Mediatheque, as well as for many if not all similar initiatives in Canada. Because so little documentation exists about the obstacles faced by various online video art repositories in Canada since (and including) the Mediatheque—such as the Video Art component of the Virtual Museum of Canada, VTape’s VTape Digital Bitcasters, and Vidéographe’s viThèque project, as examples (screen grabs below)—not much can be done to argue for a new approach to video preservation and distribution online. But the propensity to crash, by whatever definition, is undeniable for many of the attempts to generate widespread Canadian access of video art online. When the server at iSi Global crashed the Mediatheque, a recent copy of the database could not be found and relinked. While a crash can occur at level of hardware, application, or operating system, little documentation exists at SAW Video beyond an email thread about the May 12 2009 Mediatheque crash that outlined the failures.

To this day, video files from the Mediatheque remain housed on a hard drive at SAW Video, duplicate files exist on the iSi Global server in Texas, and the database with all the content (except for some translations) was backed up according to McCann. However, the interface design has all but vanished save for the efforts of the Way Back Machine Internet Archive6, Google Cache, and possibly, older personal back-up files from SAW Video staff and hired designers over the years. Aside from the project’s institutional memory, which is limited in large part to the dozen or so people who worked on the project, promotional materials and a few grant reports, nothing of a coherent collection or context remains. There is also no formal documentation about this project, save for two or three local papers announcing the 2003 launch. Finally, because the Mediatheque is no longer online, it risks generating little interest despite its symbolic and cultural significance for (Canadian) video art history.

The Mediatheque lived long enough to experiment with one important thing that is hotly debated today, which would put them at the forefront of online video art in Canada: the legitimacy of ‘free’ distribution of video art online. The longevity of the project meant that the repository would outlive the streaming contracts, which in turn meant that artists were to opt in or out of continuing to showcase their work–this time for free. Canada was the first country (in 1975) to pay exhibition fees to artists, after successful lobbying by Canadian Artists’ Representation / Le Front des artistes canadiens (CARFAC). CARFAC’s lobbying also resulted in the federal Copyright Act Amendment. The Act recognizes artists as the ‘primary producers of culture’, and gives artists legal entitlement to exhibition and other fees.7 Despite this, the Mediatheque tested the idea of fees for a duration, after which the works would become ‘loss leaders’, as defined by Morris.

Few artists decided to pull their works from the site upon termination of their original contracts. Of the 486 works on the website, 300 remained, which, according to McCann, provides “a substantial foundation upon which to build a permanent digital archive.”8 Because there is generally a two-year window for video works to be featured in festivals and circulated by distributors, the value of the works was undoubtedly a factor in the artists’ decision to continue to showcase their work for free, streamed in low resolution. Low resolution is often presented or conceived as “protecting” artists’ copyright because it is contrasted against a far superior original/master screening quality.9 Whatever the motive, the link between format/compression/quality and copyright is a significant component of the current discourse, and it represents one hint at how the technical is informed by an explicitly legal and archival framework. Out of the 500,000 dollars budgeted for the project, nearly half was dedicated to the acquisition of rights for showcasing the videos. Today, the issue of monetizing content on the web remains hotly debated. Highlighting instead the value of a wide reach and promotional tools at little to no cost, especially in user-generated hubs like YouTube and Vimeo, the idea of value has arguably shifted to cultural and social capital as the major gains. However, as McCann explains, the Mediatheque is not seriously considering Vimeo or YouTube as a replacement or model because of copyright issues. More specifically, the strict terms of service of these major repositories—while similar in writing to the Mediatheque’s10 —are increasingly enforced.11 As such, a significant part of what comprises the Mediatheque would be in question, since an important part of what constitutes video art in Canada is a conversation about culture writ large, often intentionally pilfering from mainstream media to re/present and challenge cultural ideals. Appropriation, critique and parody are an important if not determining part of video art history—and if anything—is further enhanced by the ease of copying and unfettered access to media online. So while participating artists had to claim ownership over the works they submitted to the Mediatheque, there was no policing from Saw Video of copyrighted content within those works, because as McCann explains “artists have a right to be part of the global conversation”. The flipside is, of course, that artists may not agree to the terms of use of YouTube, such as to grant them “a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicenseable and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform…”12 but may very well see an advantage to releasing partial or older works as a trade off for the incredible social network built into the repository. The copyright issue, then, becomes about the tradeoffs between so-called legitimated Archives that comply to copyright demands at all costs, with initiatives that inherently challenge the inflexibility of the current system in the digital distribution era13.

A second hint at the interdependence between legal and archival practice made evident after the crash is the corporate sponsorship between the Mediatheque and iSi Global14 —a local (Ottawa, Canada) internet start-up that would provide server management and free bandwidth for the project. Smalley notes their important contribution:

bandwidth costs in 2003, especially for the capacity to deliver video streaming to multiple concurrent viewers online, was very expensive. ISI offered this service and their expertise at a substantial discount for a period of 3 years. It was a fantastic arrangement, as even when the original agreement had run out in 2006, they agreed to keep the archive online at no cost.

While the project would have been impossible without iSi Global, the condition was that the Mediatheque would stream video using the Real Player plug-in, since iSi Global was the local representative for the software. 15 While in 2003 this may have seemed as viable an option as the ubiquitous Adobe Flash player/HTML 5 does today, it did emphasize the Mediatheque’s role as an access portal rather than a preservation project per se. According to Smalley, the Mediatheque,
violated many rules when it comes to preservation: compressed master files, proprietary codecs, insufficient metadata and provenance records, highly volatile storage mediums (i.e. consumer grade DVD-R discs). If the primary goal was preservation, we would have needed to approach things very differently.

Furthermore, SAW Video could not afford the streaming costs—the site was visited by over 5000 people a month, and at its height, the demand for the works exceeded 116 00016 —this meant that a corporate partnership facilitated the project which would have otherwise been impossible within the funding budget of Mediatheque. Despite the crash—for which no blame is laid—SAW Video and iSi Global remain on good terms and are considering a future partnership.

Mediatheque screen shot

As demonstrated by the Mediatheque documentation, piecing together fragments of a lost digital repository is an exercise of our era—the web has now existed long enough to have large-scale projects come to life and come to crash. In this strict sense, there is no better time to explore the web’s potential for defining and redefining the role of online repositories as Archive, and more specifically their capacity and limitations for preservation and access.

For the time being, the Mediatheque collection remains unavailable, save for its digital traces left in cached memory. Along with a stack of DVDs in McCann’s office, these traces are what remain of Canada’s first large-scale video art archive on the web: the cached and crashed Mediatheque.

Image Credits:

All images are author’s own screen shots.

Please feel free to comment.

NOTES

  1. Pieced from: http://www.answers.com/topic/cache and http://www.answers.com/topic/crash (Accessed March 30, 2010). []
  2. The length of videos determined their worth based on television broadcast rates – the internet is transforming this and with it, notions of value. []
  3. See: Rick Prelinger’s 14 point Manifesto online http://subjectobject.net/2008/11/09/on-the-virtues-of-preexisting-material-a-manifesto-by-rick-prelinger/. Prelinger also discussed the “predictive” archive in a presentation/Master Class at Daziboa Gallery in Montreal http://www.dazibao-photo.org/en. []
  4. http://sawvideo.com/ (Accessed March 24, 2010). []
  5. Personal correspondence with Douglas Smalley (May 14, 2010). []
  6. http://web.archive.org/web/*sa_/http://sawvideo.com (Accessed March 20, 2010). []
  7. http://www.carfac.ca/ (Accessed April 12, 2009). []
  8. (New Directions for the Médiathèque in 2006–2007). Personal correspondence with Penny McCann (2010). []
  9. The origins of this claim is unclear and perhaps one worth reconsidering in the age of small screen mobile devices. []
  10. Terms of Use and Copyright for Mediatheque (2007) via Archive Way Back Machine http://web.archive.org/web/20070128054058/www.sawvideo.com/cinema4/index2.php?lang=undefined (Accessed March 15, 2010). []
  11. See: “Google quizzed over YouTube plans BBC News (UK) (2006) “http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/6087976.stm and Egelko, Bob (2008) “Serious YouTube test of copyright law” SFGate San Francisco Chronicle http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/07/19/BUDH11RKQ9.DTL&feed=rss.business. []
  12. continued: “…the User Submissions in connection with the YouTube Website and YouTube’s (and its successors’ and affiliates’) business, including without limitation for promoting and redistributing part or all of the YouTube Website (and derivative works thereof) in any media formats and through any media channels.” From YouTube Terms of Service: http://www.youtube.com/t/terms?hl=en (Accessed May 10, 2010). []
  13. See: Felix Stalder (2008) copyright dungeons and grey zones> http://www.mail-archive.com/nettime-l@kein.org/msg00613.html (Accessed May 13, 2010). []
  14. http://www.isiglobal.ca/ (Accessed March 30, 2010). []
  15. http://www.real.com/ (Accessed March 30, 2010). []
  16. Untitled (no date) Statistics document from SAW Video 2003–2005. []

FLOW TV Caching and Crashing the Médiathèque (2010)

“Caching and Crashing the Mediatheque” on FLOWtv.org Special Issue: The Archive. May 21, 2010

 

Caching and Crashing the Médiathèque
Mél Hogan / Concordia University

 

 

homepage screen shot
 

 

Mediatheque homepage
 

 

Cache (kash) A place for concealment and safekeeping of valuables. A fast storage buffer in the central processing unit of a computer; cache memory.
Crash (krash) A breakdown, hardware failure, or software problem that renders a computer system inoperative.1

Between December 2009 and May 2010, I met with and interviewed the co-founder of the Mediatheque, Kevin Morris; the project’s digital archivist Anatoly Ignatiev; and the current director of SAW Video (Sussex Annex Works) in Ottawa, Canada, Penny McCann. I also had the opportunity to have many technical questions answered by Douglas Smalley, a technical assistant of the Mediatheque, currently a video preservationist at Library Archives Canada.

With a budget of $385,960 (including $100,000 in artist fees) stemming in large part from Heritage Canada, the Mediatheque was a massive undertaking built in record time: on paper, three months was all that was allotted for the project’s creation. In this astoundingly short time, which became just over one year in practice, a database had to be created, partnerships solidified, an interface designed, works collected, contracts signed, works digitized, etc. With an open call, SAW Video collected works directly from artists and from video co-ops across the country. Described as a “mad dash” for artists’ fees, the Mediatheque promised artists a sum of 200 dollars regardless of the length of video,2 exhibited for a three-year period through the Mediatheque portal. Artists were limited to 12 works on the original Mediatheque project. Completed, it featured 486 works by 238 artists. The master copies were retained by the artist, while the digital file for streaming became part and partial of the Mediatheque. The Mediatheque existed as a repository of video art for seven years, streaming full video pieces on the web (rather than samplers/clips), with no master/original material archive as counterpart. In this sense, the Mediatheque project was one that saw the online repository as an entity onto itself, and not a mirror, complement, or addition to any material version of the collection presiding over it.

Interviews with those invested in the Mediatheque, past and present, introduce various aspects of SAW Video’s Mediatheque project, focusing here on the eventual server crash that made the project vanish. Nothing of the backend database was backed up.

Looking at funding, copyright, and sponsorship (among others issues in the context of the “cache and crash” of the Mediatheque) serves as a springboard into a larger conversation about the intricate if not paradoxical nature of the online Archive. More precisely, these issues inform how the technical is always mitigated to some extent by and through the interplay of legal and archival parameters, and vice-versa.
Tracking the Mediatheque from its launch in 2003 to its database crash in May 2009 means following the digital paper trail to link stories, ideals, and absences into the history of Canada’s first large-scale and long standing independent video art repository on the web. The case of the Mediatheque is rare and important for understanding the manifold locus of the online archive: it is past, present, and predictive.3Reconstructing the Mediatheque’s story from cached memory and interviews, the fragments serve to document the project—what it was, what it has become, and what future potential it holds. An approach that accounts for the importance of the “crash” as symbolic of and essential to the online repository as Archive is key to understanding the Mediatheque, past and potential. While it is the cache that makes the Mediatheque’s traces visible and re-visit-able, it is the crash that signals its ongoing archival value, and perhaps, that signals the conceptual if not practical limits of the online repository as Archive. The crash becomes a point of departure, the site of inquiry.

In June 2009, SAW Video’s summer intern sent out a letter to video artists regarding the Mediatheque project and more specifically to communicate the “going down” of the site—including the SAW Video website and the Mediatheque. The letter was written to explain the server crash but also, already, anticipating the Mediatheque’s rebuilding. However, since this outreach effort, a notice on the SAW Video website diverts users: “Due to circumstances beyond our control, the Mediatheque will be down until further notice. We apologize for any inconvenience.”4 Currently, in 2010, plans are underway reconsidering the project, without any move to hastily reconstruct it based on fragments of what it once was. As Smalley puts it, “The Mediatheque web engine (front end layout and backend database) will never be resurrected. It is gone forever. This raises the larger question of how we can go about archiving dynamic web based content that contains dynamic links and content, even executable code.”5 Perhaps, almost a decade later, the Mediatheque cannot exist as it did, and/or its re/creation would pose a different series of tribulations. The crash, then, becomes a moment to pause and reflect on the direction, if not progress, of video art distribution on the web.

 

Crash page screen shot
 

The story of the crash is at once complicated and simple. Limited funding, complicated corporate affiliations, human error, and legal parameters inform the crash—often reduced or relegated to a mere technical failure—for the Mediatheque, as well as for many if not all similar initiatives in Canada. Because so little documentation exists about the obstacles faced by various online video art repositories in Canada since (and including) the Mediatheque—such as the Video Art component of the Virtual Museum of Canada, VTape’s VTape Digital Bitcasters, and Vidéographe’s viThèque project, as examples (screen grabs below)—not much can be done to argue for a new approach to video preservation and distribution online. But the propensity to crash, by whatever definition, is undeniable for many of the attempts to generate widespread Canadian access of video art online. When the server at iSi Global crashed the Mediatheque, a recent copy of the database could not be found and relinked. While a crash can occur at level of hardware, application, or operating system, little documentation exists at SAW Video beyond an email thread about the May 12 2009 Mediatheque crash that outlined the failures.
To this day, video files from the Mediatheque remain housed on a hard drive at SAW Video, duplicate files exist on the iSi Global server in Texas, and the database with all the content (except for some translations) was backed up according to McCann. However, the interface design has all but vanished save for the efforts of the Way Back Machine Internet Archive6, Google Cache, and possibly, older personal back-up files from SAW Video staff and hired designers over the years. Aside from the project’s institutional memory, which is limited in large part to the dozen or so people who worked on the project, promotional materials and a few grant reports, nothing of a coherent collection or context remains. There is also no formal documentation about this project, save for two or three local papers announcing the 2003 launch. Finally, because the Mediatheque is no longer online, it risks generating little interest despite its symbolic and cultural significance for (Canadian) video art history.

The Mediatheque lived long enough to experiment with one important thing that is hotly debated today, which would put them at the forefront of online video art in Canada: the legitimacy of ‘free’ distribution of video art online. The longevity of the project meant that the repository would outlive the streaming contracts, which in turn meant that artists were to opt in or out of continuing to showcase their work–this time for free. Canada was the first country (in 1975) to pay exhibition fees to artists, after successful lobbying by Canadian Artists’ Representation / Le Front des artistes canadiens (CARFAC). CARFAC’s lobbying also resulted in the federal Copyright Act Amendment. The Act recognizes artists as the ‘primary producers of culture’, and gives artists legal entitlement to exhibition and other fees.7 Despite this, the Mediatheque tested the idea of fees for a duration, after which the works would become ‘loss leaders’, as defined by Morris.

Few artists decided to pull their works from the site upon termination of their original contracts. Of the 486 works on the website, 300 remained, which, according to McCann, provides “a substantial foundation upon which to build a permanent digital archive.”8 Because there is generally a two-year window for video works to be featured in festivals and circulated by distributors, the value of the works was undoubtedly a factor in the artists’ decision to continue to showcase their work for free, streamed in low resolution. Low resolution is often presented or conceived as “protecting” artists’ copyright because it is contrasted against a far superior original/master screening quality.9 Whatever the motive, the link between format/compression/quality and copyright is a significant component of the current discourse, and it represents one hint at how the technical is informed by an explicitly legal and archival framework. Out of the 500,000 dollars budgeted for the project, nearly half was dedicated to the acquisition of rights for showcasing the videos. Today, the issue of monetizing content on the web remains hotly debated. Highlighting instead the value of a wide reach and promotional tools at little to no cost, especially in user-generated hubs like YouTube and Vimeo, the idea of value has arguably shifted to cultural and social capital as the major gains. However, as McCann explains, the Mediatheque is not seriously considering Vimeo or YouTube as a replacement or model because of copyright issues. More specifically, the strict terms of service of these major repositories—while similar in writing to the Mediatheque’s10 —are increasingly enforced.11 As such, a significant part of what comprises the Mediatheque would be in question, since an important part of what constitutes video art in Canada is a conversation about culture writ large, often intentionally pilfering from mainstream media to re/present and challenge cultural ideals. Appropriation, critique and parody are an important if not determining part of video art history—and if anything—is further enhanced by the ease of copying and unfettered access to media online. So while participating artists had to claim ownership over the works they submitted to the Mediatheque, there was no policing from Saw Video of copyrighted content within those works, because as McCann explains “artists have a right to be part of the global conversation”. The flipside is, of course, that artists may not agree to the terms of use of YouTube, such as to grant them “a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicenseable and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform…”12 but may very well see an advantage to releasing partial or older works as a trade off for the incredible social network built into the repository. The copyright issue, then, becomes about the tradeoffs between so-called legitimated Archives that comply to copyright demands at all costs, with initiatives that inherently challenge the inflexibility of the current system in the digital distribution era13.

A second hint at the interdependence between legal and archival practice made evident after the crash is the corporate sponsorship between the Mediatheque and iSi Global14 —a local (Ottawa, Canada) internet start-up that would provide server management and free bandwidth for the project. Smalley notes their important contribution:

bandwidth costs in 2003, especially for the capacity to deliver video streaming to multiple concurrent viewers online, was very expensive. ISI offered this service and their expertise at a substantial discount for a period of 3 years. It was a fantastic arrangement, as even when the original agreement had run out in 2006, they agreed to keep the archive online at no cost.

While the project would have been impossible without iSi Global, the condition was that the Mediatheque would stream video using the Real Player plug-in, since iSi Global was the local representative for the software. 15 While in 2003 this may have seemed as viable an option as the ubiquitous Adobe Flash player/HTML 5 does today, it did emphasize the Mediatheque’s role as an access portal rather than a preservation project per se. According to Smalley, the Mediatheque,
violated many rules when it comes to preservation: compressed master files, proprietary codecs, insufficient metadata and provenance records, highly volatile storage mediums (i.e. consumer grade DVD-R discs). If the primary goal was preservation, we would have needed to approach things very differently.

Furthermore, SAW Video could not afford the streaming costs—the site was visited by over 5000 people a month, and at its height, the demand for the works exceeded 116 00016 —this meant that a corporate partnership facilitated the project which would have otherwise been impossible within the funding budget of Mediatheque. Despite the crash—for which no blame is laid—SAW Video and iSi Global remain on good terms and are considering a future partnership.

 

Mediatheque screen shot
 

As demonstrated by the Mediatheque documentation, piecing together fragments of a lost digital repository is an exercise of our era—the web has now existed long enough to have large-scale projects come to life and come to crash. In this strict sense, there is no better time to explore the web’s potential for defining and redefining the role of online repositories as Archive, and more specifically their capacity and limitations for preservation and access.

For the time being, the Mediatheque collection remains unavailable, save for its digital traces left in cached memory. Along with a stack of DVDs in McCann’s office, these traces are what remain of Canada’s first large-scale video art archive on the web: the cached and crashed Mediatheque.

Image Credits:

All images are author’s own screen shots.

Please feel free to comment.

NOTES

  1. Pieced from: http://www.answers.com/topic/cache and http://www.answers.com/topic/crash (Accessed March 30, 2010). []
  2. The length of videos determined their worth based on television broadcast rates – the internet is transforming this and with it, notions of value. []
  3. See: Rick Prelinger’s 14 point Manifesto online http://subjectobject.net/2008/11/09/on-the-virtues-of-preexisting-material-a-manifesto-by-rick-prelinger/. Prelinger also discussed the “predictive” archive in a presentation/Master Class at Daziboa Gallery in Montreal http://www.dazibao-photo.org/en. []
  4. http://sawvideo.com/ (Accessed March 24, 2010). []
  5. Personal correspondence with Douglas Smalley (May 14, 2010). []
  6. http://web.archive.org/web/*sa_/http://sawvideo.com (Accessed March 20, 2010). []
  7. http://www.carfac.ca/ (Accessed April 12, 2009). []
  8. (New Directions for the Médiathèque in 2006–2007). Personal correspondence with Penny McCann (2010). []
  9. The origins of this claim is unclear and perhaps one worth reconsidering in the age of small screen mobile devices. []
  10. Terms of Use and Copyright for Mediatheque (2007) via Archive Way Back Machine http://web.archive.org/web/20070128054058/www.sawvideo.com/cinema4/index2.php?lang=undefined (Accessed March 15, 2010). []
  11. See: “Google quizzed over YouTube plans BBC News (UK) (2006) “http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/6087976.stm and Egelko, Bob (2008) “Serious YouTube test of copyright law” SFGate San Francisco Chronicle http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/07/19/BUDH11RKQ9.DTL&feed=rss.business. []
  12. continued: “…the User Submissions in connection with the YouTube Website and YouTube’s (and its successors’ and affiliates’) business, including without limitation for promoting and redistributing part or all of the YouTube Website (and derivative works thereof) in any media formats and through any media channels.” From YouTube Terms of Service: http://www.youtube.com/t/terms?hl=en (Accessed May 10, 2010). []
  13. See: Felix Stalder (2008) copyright dungeons and grey zones> http://www.mail-archive.com/nettime-l@kein.org/msg00613.html (Accessed May 13, 2010). []
  14. http://www.isiglobal.ca/ (Accessed March 30, 2010). []
  15. http://www.real.com/ (Accessed March 30, 2010). []
  16. Untitled (no date) Statistics document from SAW Video 2003–2005. []

NMP: Jane Siberry, Thoughts on Creating a Monster

I am supposed to meet Issa for an interview in 15 minutes. My phone rings. It’s Issa. She tells me she is still at the hair salon. She is running late. Could I do her a favour and get her a salad—something with protein, something vegetarian—and meet her at the Green Room at 7 instead. I’ll pay you back, she says.

It’s November in Montreal and it is pouring rain and dark. But because I’m about to interview the woman who sang the best song on my favorite mix tape from my first big love in high school, a little salad-fetching in the dark of the winter night seems totally reasonable. And, as I would later understand, Issa’s straightforwardness is just part of her agenda-free, free-thinking experiment. She lives her politics—and having sold all her belongings, including her house in Toronto—she lives everywhere. The night we spoke she made Montreal her home and I was determined to make it a place she would want to return to often.

I arrive at the Green Room, where she was to perform later that night. She is sitting at the piano, writing up her guest list. She wonders if perhaps there would be a venue better suited for her, somewhere else. The thought passes and we sit down to talk. She is at once intense and soothing, passionate, and present. She tells me she’s recently changed her name (back from Issa) to Jane Siberry.

A bit nervously, I dive right into the idea of ‘improvisation’ without much preparatory small talk. It seems to me improvisation is a core concept of self-determination, of adapting, and of what I would later understand from Jane as freethinking.

MH: Improvisation is certainly not something that is new for you, but would you say you have more creative freedom now that you are free from a major label?

JS: There was a certain point with Warner Brothers when I couldn’t do interesting side projects like when I did Maria, which was not a commercial record. I said no problem. I’ll do it the way I like it, but I will give you a companion EP of the most commercial versions of these songs you could ever want. I will do remixes for you. But they didn’t have a system that could handle that kind of thing. I said we could use the commercial versions for the videos, too.


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