Case study report: The preservation of Danny Matthys' video works

Artist: Danny Matthys

Titles and dates of creation: Zeedijk Knokke-Heist (1973-74); Lager gelegen weiland (1973); Prudence van Duyseplein (1974); Coupure Links / Coupure Rechts (1974); Closed Letters and Numbers Series (1975); Building 19 Verdiepingen (1975); 9+1 Polaroid Black & White Pictures (1977).

Type: Video installations

Collection: Argos centre for art and media

Researcher: Emanuel Lorrain (PACKED vzw)

Language of the case study report: English


1 Danny Matthys


Danny Matthys is a Belgian visual artist born in 1947 in Zottegem. He lives and works in Ghent where he studied various art disciplines such as drawing, textile design, painting and sculpture at the Belgian Textile Institute, the Royal Academy of Fine Art and the Hoger Sint-Lucas-Instituut. His work covers a wide range of genres and media such as painting, photography, sculpture, collage and installation. He has  exhibited internationally and is represented in the collections of, for example, Argos, centre for art and media (Brussels), M HKA (Antwerp) and Mu.Zee (Ostend).

At the beginning of the 1970s Danny Matthys was one of the first artists in Belgium to use the newly democratised video medium and the famous Sony Portapak video system to make single and multi-channel installations. He is one of the pioneers of media art in Belgium. Although he is still active as an artist, he stopped working with video in the mid-1980s.


2 Early video works


Danny Matthys' early video works all have a very common approach to the medium. Most of the time they are made of long takes with minimal or no editing at all. The seemingly conceptual and methodical system behind his works, Close Number and Letter Series, and the fascination for signs in Zeedijk Knokke-Heist  (1973-1974) and Coupure (1974) is similar to that of works by other artists of his generation, like Lawrence Wiener and Gary Hill. As in a lot of early video artworks from the 1970s, experimentation is an important aspect of his videos. They often involve the use of several cameras and closed-circuit systems while the production process itself becomes the subject of the work. A common structural aspect to several of his multi-channel installations is the creation of shots from different points of view of the same action which are then shown side by side. In Zeedijk Knokke Heist (1973-1974), Coupure (1974) and Prudence van Duyseplein (1974) he used two fixed cameras to simultaneously record what a passenger would see through both the left and right windows of a car. In these works, in a way it's the structure of the road which defines the structure of the video. Danny Matthys also often employs the subjective camera and mise en abyme procedures in works like Lager gelegen weiland (1974), in which one camera records a field of pasture while the second camera records the man filming the field of pasture. Later, in 9+1 Polaroid Black & White Pictures (1977), he added a complex closed-circuit system with both video cameras and monitors. The system, as well as the Polaroid photographs, are part of the picture.


Scan from the book 'Danny Matthys' (Danny Matthys, Bart de Baere. Gent, Imschoot, 1989).


2.1 Zeedijk Knokke-Heist

Production date: 1973-1974

Four channel video installation, ½” EIAJ-1, PAL, black & white, each video loop approx. 15 min

Through the windows of a moving car Danny Matthys films the buildings, people and streets along the seafront of Knokke-Heist. Two cameras record both sides of the street simultaneously. The filming was done twice from the same starting point (a T-shaped crossroad); once while driving to the left and then while driving to the right. The resulting four video loops are presented as a four channel video installation using four cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors.


2.2 Lager Gelegen Weiland

Production date: 1973

Two channel video installation, ½” EIAJ-1, PAL, black & white, each video loop approx. 8 min

Lager Gelegen Weiland is a two channel video installation composed of two video loops that were shot simultaneously. In the first, a straight moving subjective camera view shows a field of pasture while following a fence. In the second video, the camera films  the person shooting the first video from a long distance. The installation Lager gelegen Weiland therefore  simultaneously shows the man in the pasture walking at the edge of the slope, and what he his filming with his bulky Portapak system.


Scan from the book 'Danny Matthys' (Danny Matthys, Bart de Baere. Gent, Imschoot, 1989).


2.3 Prudence van Duyseplein

Production date: 1974

Two channel video installation, ½” EIAJ-1, PAL, black & white, each video loop approx. 5 min

Prudence van Duyseplein is another two channel video installation that follows the same principle as Zeedijk Knokke-Heist and Coupure Links / Coupure Rechts. Here again Danny Matthys filmed the same itinerary through the right and left windows of a car and recorded the buildings and streets around the circular square, Prudence van Duyseplein, in the city of Ghent.


2.4 Coupure Links / Coupure Rechts

Production date: 1974

Two channel video installation, ½” EIAJ-1, PAL, black & white, each video loop approx. 12 min

Coupure Links / Coupure Rechts, like Zeedijk Knokke-Heist, is part of the same series of multi-channel installations consisting of videos of the same route in a specific area of a city taken through the two opposite sides of a car. This work is composed of two video loops made in Ghent and focuses on the numerous bridges present along two sides of the Coupure canal.


2.5 Closed Letters and Numbers Series

Production date: 1975

Single channel video installation, ½” EIAJ-1, PAL, black & white, video loop of approx. 3 min

Closed Letters and Numbers Series is a short video work consisting of two successive and static black and white shots in which the "[…]course of time is structured respectively by the turning figures on the telephone dial and by typing all the letters on a writing machine."[1] The first part shows the rotary dial of a telephone and a hand dialling all numbers from 0 to 9. In the second part, another pair of hands is typing all the letters of the alphabet on an old typewriter.


2.6 Building 19 Verdiepingen

Production date: 1975

Single channel video installation (in combination with slides and photographs), ½” EIAJ-1, PAL, black & white, video loop of approx. 32 min

Building 19 Verdiepingen is an installation combining video, slides and pictures. It shows one of the first social housing complexes in the city of Ghent. The building had an astonishing lack of finishing touches; even the floors were not numbered outside the elevator. Danny Matthys filmed and photographed the stairs, the elevator, the streets and other constructions surrounding the building through its windows. The slides and pictures part of the installation are stored at M KHA, the museum of contemporary art in Antwerp.


2.7 9+1 Polaroid Black & White Pictures

Production date: 1977

Single channel video installation, ½” EIAJ-1, PAL, black & white, video loop of approx. 9 min

In this work, […]two video monitors are being recorded. On the left monitor the viewer sees the polaroid camera of Matthys and on the right one the image of the two video monitors is shown. The image on the right monitor repeats itself endlessly. Then Matthys starts taking photographs of the two monitors and sticking them on the right monitor. This video of Matthys could be understood as an example of what Rosalind Krauss calls indexical art. A video is an index, a trace of something that happened. A photograph is also an index. By combining the two Matthys adds another dimension to the idea of the index.1


Video still from the digitisation made by AV Works of Danny Matthys's work '9+1 Polaroid Black & White Pictures' (1977).


3 Digitisation history of the tapes


3.1 First digitisation

Danny Matthys' early video works from the 1970s were originally recorded on ½” open reel videotapes. Some years later they were transferred to ¾” U-matic tapes. In 2000, these ¾” U-matic tapes were transferred to Betacam SP tapes by the now defunct Vidipax restoration company in New York, USA. Subsequently the Betacam SP tapes were transferred to Digital Betacam tapes by the Studio L'Équipe2 in Brussels.

The different migration and digitisation procedures led, over the course of the years, to the creation of a large number of derived copies on a broad range of tape formats. There do not only exist master tapes, but also, for instance, screening copies and submasters. The tape formats range from VCR, VHS, Betacam, Digital Betacam, U-matic, miniDV to Betamax. They are all stored in the archive of Argos, the centre for art and media in Brussels. As the origins of these copies were not clearly identified in Argos' database, one of the first tasks before digitisation was to create a complete inventory. When possible the copies were viewed to check the differences between them in terms of quality. A report on dropouts and visual artefacts was also made.


Copies of Danny Matthys' works on different tape formats. Picture : PACKED vzw.


Once these first steps were done, Danny Matthys was contacted to find out if he had more information about the rather unclear history of all the copies and if other analogue masters or submasters existed. He said that he had kept all the original ½” open reel tapes. These tapes were subsequently brought back to Argos in order to be stored in a climate controlled storage room and added to the inventory.

The first digitisation to digital Betacam did not achieve optimal quality, and so it was decided that the works should be directly digitised from the original recordings, on ½” open reel or ¾” U-matic tapes. The aim, when digitising the oldest tapes, was to avoid any generation loss that had occurred during the successive transfers from one tape format to another (as described earlier). To determine whether the ½” open reel or the ¾” U-matic tapes would offer the best guarantee for a good digital video copy, a video lab with the necessary (obsolete) playback equipment had to be found.


3.2 Second digitisation

As a first step the videotapes that are part of the installations Zeedijk Knokke-Heist (1973-1974), Prudence van Duyseplein (1974) and Coupure Links / Coupure Rechts (1974) were sent to the Laboratorium for antique video systems at ZKM, Centre for Art and Media Technology in Karslruhe, Germany3 for digitisation. ZKM possesses working players for almost any analogue format ever produced. It was decided that the ¾” U-matic tapes should be digitised again. The reason being the expectation that it would be easier to digitise the ¾” U-matic tapes than the ½” tapes, while the quality loss between them would be marginal. Unfortunately, the resulting digital files of this new digitisation were not much better than the already existing copies. In order to obtain a proper exhibition copy a great amount of frame-by-frame corrections would still be required.


A 1/2" SONY V-60H (High Density) tape. Picture: PACKED vzw.


3.3 Third digitisation

As a lot of dropouts and other visual artefacts present in the digital copies that resulted from the ¾” U-matic tapes in the second digitisation were also present in the previous ones, the assumption is that they were probably created during the first transfer of the ½” open reel tapes to the ¾” U-matic ones. The only remaining option was then to digitise the original ½” open reel tapes. This was worth a try in order to obtain the best possible quality and the least generation loss as well as to avoid any expensive digital correction.

Three ½” open reel tapes were sent to AV Works in Haarlem, the Netherlands, a lab that had already digitised an old 1" format for PACKED vzw and Argos with very good results4. AV Works has not only the necessary equipment and knowledge but also a lot of experience in digitising ½” open reel tapes. The first results showed that two of the three tapes contained the original recordings of Danny Matthys' works as expected. The third one was blank. While this first try resulted in digital video files with a larger amount of detail in the image, it showed instability at the top of the image that is visually very disturbing. As one can see in the video stills below, the results from the first two digitisations looked as if the image was overexposed, while one can see the clouds in the sky in the files from AV Works that were not visible in the first two digitisations.


Video still from the second digitisation of Danny Matthys' work 'Zeedijk Knokke-Heist' (1973-1974).


Video still from the first digitisation attempt by AV Works of Danny Matthys' work 'Zeedijk Knokke-Heist' (1973-1974).


The instability was due to the tape being badly wrapped around the head drum and is normally corrected by the machine's skew control, but in this case the skew control did not function as it should. AV Work's collection of players and spare parts allowed it to test three different working machines to get rid of this instability. Different time base correctors were also tried to get the best and most stable signal for the digitisation. For the new digital masters AV Works was also able to recover a few lines at the bottom of the image (overscan) that were missing in the previous digitisations.


3.4 Digital master files

Danny Matthys' video works that were digitised were all made from ½” EIAJ open reel tapes that contain a PAL black & white video signal.


Analogue source signal  
Standard PAL EIAJ-1 (also known as AV)
Frame aspect ratio 4:3
Images per second 25 images/second
Pixel aspect ratio 59:54
Audio channel Mono


Three different types of tapes were digitised. Some of them are the ones that were used in the 1970s with the Sony Portapak. This portable system allowed the use of 30 minutes tapes, but not 60 minutes tapes. This means that the 60 minutes tapes were already copies of the original tapes.


Tape brand Sony
Tape model V-62 (High Density)
Reel diameter 15,24 cm
Tape width ½”
Tape length 610 m / 2.000 ft
Recording duration 60 min


Tape brand Sony
Tape model V-60H (High Density)
Reel diameter 12,7 cm
Tape width ½”
Tape length 310 m / 1.016 ft
Recording duration 30 min


Tape brand Fuji Film
Tape model V621 V-30 (High Density Beridox)
Reel diameter 12,7 cm
Tape width ½”
Tape length 351 m / 1.150 ft
Recording duration 30 min


According to Martijn Belle (AV Works) the ½" tapes were in a rather good condition, especially considering their age and the fact that they had been stored in a cupboard at Danny Matthys' home until 2007. He didn't notice any acid smell and the tapes were not overly sticky. However, as often when transferring ½” open reel tapes, baking and then cleaning were required. The tapes were played back on a modified Sony AV player using an appropriate Time Base Corrector for old video signals and no further digital compensation or correction was necessary. The portable set that was used in the 1970s by Danny Matthys to record the tape had a misalignment that could be 95% corrected by AV Works. Although the Fuji tape was easier to transfer, there was in the end no noticeable quality difference between the results from the Fuji tape and the Sony ones. This is remarkable since the Sony AV players that AV Works used were designed for Sony tapes that are actually structurally (back coating) and magnetically slightly different from the Fuji tape.

The whole digitisation process, including the quality control and the choice of the destination file format and codec were based on the guidelines of the Cultural Heritage Standards Toolbox (CEST)5 developed by PACKED vzw.


Digital Master
Format AVI
Codec V210
Compression Uncompressed
Bit depth 10 bits
Image size 720 x 576 pixels
Aspect ratio 5:4
Frame rate 25 images/second
Chroma sub-sampling YUV 4:2:2
Pixel aspect ratio 2:1
Codec PCM (0x1)
Compression Uncompressed
Audio channels Mono
Bit depth 16 bits


Unfortunately, as AV Works wasn't equipped with the necessary capture card, using the preferred codec and container format – a lossless codec with an open wrapper format – wasn't possible. Instead, the tapes were digitised to the best alternative format available: a 10-bit uncompressed .AVI file with a proprietary V210 codec. While the video and audio quality has in no way been compromised, transcoding the new digital masters to a standardised open file format and open codec should still be done by Argos in the near future in order to ensure the long-term preservation and access to these pioneering and important works in Belgium's media art history.


3.5 Digitisation workflow

The actual digitisation process was split into five phases and conducted by different partners.

1. Objectives, budget and copyrights

Argos, Centre for Art and Media undertook the first series of actions:

  • defining the digitisation objectives;
  • determining the available digitisation budget;
  • entering into an agreement with the artist Danny Matthys and the institutions that acquired the works (Mu.ZEE, SMAK and M KHA).


2. Inspection, quality and intermediary

A second series of actions was undertaken by PACKED vzw:

  • superficial visual inspection of the material;
  • defining the digitisation and quality requirements;
  • searching for a suitable digitisation lab and requesting a quote.


3. Inspection, cleaning and digitisation

Subsequently, a third series of actions was undertaken by the digitisation lab AV Works in Haarlem:

  • inspection, baking and cleaning;
  • digitisation of the tapes to an uncompressed file format and codec that meet the requirements for a digital master.


4. Control and checksums

This was followed by a fourth series of actions undertaken by both PACKED vzw and Argos:

  • checking the quality of the delivered files, creating checksums for the digital master files (md5).


5. Storage and Access

Argos, Centre for Art and Media also took on the task of creating digital copies, describing the digital files and adding metadata for long-term storage.

  • storage of two copies of the digital masters on LTO4 and LTO5 tapes;
  • creation of exhibition copies and viewing copies for Argos' media library;
  • adding metadata to the new digital masters in Argos' database system.


4 Installation of the works


During the interview with Emanuel Lorrain and Rony Vissers that took place in 2007, Danny Matthys was also asked how his video works should be exhibited. Some synchronisation issues and installation instructions were also checked with him. New digital editing will be required for the purpose of the synchronisation of the different video loops.


4.1 Space, sound levels and lighting

For Danny Matthys the works should preferably be shown alone in a room, but they can also be installed with other works if the space around each piece is big enough to avoid it being polluted by the sound of other works. However for the multi-channel works (Coupure Links / Coupure Rechts, Zeedijk Knokke-Heist, etc.) it is not a problem if the sound of the two or four monitors interferes. For the artist, the light of the space where the videos are shown should be dimmed.


4.2 Multi-channel works

For his early multi-channel video works, Danny Matthys recommends a standard preferred way in which to install them. This group of works includes:

  • Zeedijk Knokke-Heist (1973-1974, 15 min, four channel video installation)
  • Coupure Links / Coupure Rechts (1974, 12 min, two channel video installation)
  • Prudence van Duyseplein (1974, 5 min, two channel video installation)
  • Lager gelegen Weiland (1974, 5 min, two channel video installation)

For the artist, these works should be considered as installations in which the monitors and the pedestals have an important sculptural value. The ideal way to show them is to use professional cathode ray tube (CRT) cube monitors that have a dark casing and minimalist design (e.g., Sony PVM, Barco and Hantarex). The monitors should be installed on pedestals painted either in black, grey or white. The width and length of the pedestals should match the dimension of the monitors while their height should allow the screen to be at an average eye level. The space between the pedestals with the monitors should be approximately half the size of the pedestal themselves.

Zeedijk Knokke-Heist is the only four channel video work made by Danny Matthys. When he was asked about the order in which the videos should be installed, he referred to the monograph written by Bart De Baere in 19896 in which a booklet included in the book shows the four videos side by side.


Scan from the book 'Danny Matthys' (Danny Matthys, Bart de Baere. Gent, Imschoot, 1989).


While the requirements for the equipment and pedestal are the same as for the two channel works, Danny Matthys added that the monitors positioned at the left and right sides should be placed at a 45° angle, as in the drawing below:


Installation plan for Danny Matthys' work 'Zeedijk Knokke-Heist' (1973-1974).


These multi-channel video works should be synchronised. To do so some black should be added at the beginning and the end of the videos so that they have the same length when shown in loop during exhibitions.


4.3 Single channel works

The single channel video works by Danny Matthys include:

  • Closed Letter and Number Series (1975, approx. 3 min, single channel video)
  • Building 19 Verdiepingen (1975, approx. 32 min, single channel video)
  • 9 + 1 Polaroid Black & White Pictures (1977, approx. 9 min, single channel video)

The installation requirements for the single channel video works are similar to those of the multi-channel works. The videos should be looped and always need to be shown with a cathode ray tube (CRT) cube monitor on a black, grey or white pedestal. Here again, the pedestal should have the same dimensions as the monitor. The monitor on the pedestal should be at an average eye level, whether people are watching the work sitting or standing. The monitors used shouldn't be bigger than the average television of the time when the videos were made. The monitor and the pedestal can be installed against a wall.

In addition to the video, the installation 9+1 Polaroid Black & White Pictures, also includes a diagram placed on the wall at the right of the monitor/pedestal. This schema (visible below) describes the complex recording system used to create the final video. For Danny Matthys, it is important that the visitors can see the video and at the same time understand how it was produced.


The diagram part of Danny Matthys' installation '9+1 Polaroid Black & White Pictures' (1977) scanned from the book 'Danny Matthys' (Danny Matthys, Bart de Baere. Gent, Imschoot, 1989).


            4.4 Importance of the equipment

Danny Matthys considers the combination of the monitor and the pedestal as a kind of sculpture. For this reason, the aspect of the CRT monitors is important for the right look and feel. The artist doesn't consider LCD, Plasma or LED monitors with flat screens possible alternatives to show his works. As the playback equipment is not considered to be a sculptural element of the installation, video loops can be played from any carrier and player (computer, DVD player, flash card player, …).

If no CRT monitors are available and the videos are displayed on flat screen monitors or projected, Danny Matthys considers what is exhibited to be a documentation of the work and not the work itself. Whenever that might be the case in a media library or in an exhibition, the artist would also like that it's made clear for the audience that the work consists of a combination of the videos, the CRT monitors and the pedestal, and not just of the videos.




It was urgent to digitise Danny Matthys' works again due to the age of the ½” open reel tapes. Not only do the tapes suffer from degradation, but also the well-functioning playback equipment for this format and the knowledge and skills for operating it are getting rare. Fortunately, AV Works had the equipment and the knowledge and skill to make it possible. Compared with the previous digitisations made from the ¾” U-matic tapes, the new digital master shows less dropout and there's a major improvement in terms of contrast and stability of the image. Now that the transfer from the original analogue format has been successful, the transcoding to an open format. and open codec also still needs to be done as well as some editing to make sure that the videos can be synchronised when installed in an exhibition.

Although digitising the tapes can ensure that the videos themselves remain available for the future, it is not enough to preserve both Danny Matthys' single channel and multi-channel installations. For the preservation of these works the obsolescence of the display equipment is a problem as the scarcity of CRT monitors has increased drastically. In anticipation of a future strategy to counter the obsolescence of CRT technology, for a large number of media art works storing spare monitors is the only good way of ensuring that they are shown in their original form. For the exhibition at Argos Fiction = Fixation7, in 2013, early works such as 9+1 Polaroid Black & White Pictures and Closed Letter and Number Series will be shown with rented CRT monitors from Eidotech8. If no alternatives can be found when the remaining stocks of working monitors is exhausted, at least a high quality digital master of the videos will still exist as a document.





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