Interview with Mona Jimenez (NYU)

Tisch School of Arts, New York, May 10, 2010


Mona Jimenez is an Associate Arts Professor in the Cinema Studies Department at the Tisch School of Arts where she currently teaches courses in ‘Video Preservation’, ‘Digital Preservation’ and ‘Handling Complex Media’. She is also Associate Director of the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program (MIAP) at Tisch that she established together with Howard Besser.

Mona Jimenez has been involved in video since the 1974, first as a videomaker and later as a preservation advocate. In 1999 she was the founding director of Independent Media Arts Preservation (IMAP). She has been committed to a lot of different organisations and has been involved in several important projects and publications on video and media art history and preservation.


PACKED: Can you explain what your background in video is and how you came to media preservation?

Mona Jimenez: I started making videotapes in 1974. At that time, I was using the ½ inch open reel format.1 Starting in the late 1970s I didn't make any video, for about five years. I started again in the mid 1980s when I went back to school and got training to use U-matic for recording and editing.

In the late 1980s I was working in a media arts centre in Rochester, New York that is called the Visual Studies Workshop.2 We were giving access to equipment and every now and then people would come in with old tapes. We were trying to play some of these tapes and we were having problems because the tapes were sticky. Basically we would just play them until the heads clogged so badly that the machine would come to a stop, and we would clean the machine again and roll the tape back and try to get another piece. In the end we would edit all the pieces together.

I got involved in video preservation because I was making tapes and because of my connections with several media centres that were around early on. I have a kind of community-based orientation, from first making tapes and then being involved in preserving independent media history.


PACKED: Did the research on video preservation start in the late 1980s?

Mona Jimenez: Yes, within the media arts community, somewhere between the late 1980s and the early 1990s. At the end of the 1980s some people had started talking about video preservation in the media arts in the United States, and there had been a few articles, such as in The Independent, a magazine published by the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers (AIVF).3 Then in 1991 a conference on video preservation was held at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). It was organised by the New York State Council on the Arts4 and an organisation called Media Alliance.5 I didn't go to the conference, but I knew people who were working on the issue and we were aware of the problems since we had been trying to playback some old sticky tapes.

In 1993 I came to New York to be the Director of Media Alliance when Media Alliance was publishing ‘Video Preservation: Securing the future of the past’.6 I was responsible for the distribution of that publication which was a summary of the 1991 symposium at the MoMA and which also contained some other additional research, like a survey of different collections. When I came to Media Alliance, this publication had just been delivered and we were trying to distribute it. At Media Alliance I became an advocate for independent media art, and it is by being an advocate that I got involved in preservation. From then on, we undertook a number of different initiatives to try to get things started with video preservation.


 Cover of the 1993 Media Alliance publication ‘Video Preservation: Securing the future of the past’


The Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC)7 was just starting their preservation efforts and I met BAVC staff in 1994. They were just starting to do ½ inch open reel transfers, and they also organised a symposium called 'Playback 96’,8 where they had working groups of different people who were so-called stakeholders or people interested in the issue: artists, curators, technicians, preservationists, conservators, programmers, etc. These working groups were addressing different issues like for example, physical storage or video installations. At Media Alliance we were working closely with them on that project and they later published a monograph out of the project called 'Playback 96: Preserving Analog Video'.

Basically we were just advocating for more press and more attention to be put on preservation of independent media and media art. We started a cataloguing project in upstate New York to catalogue some of the collections up there, and this was in association with what was then called the National Moving Image Database Project (NAMID) at the Center for Film and Video Preservation at the American Film Institute9. They were cataloguing different collections from different parts of the country, but they were not cataloguing independent work. We had them teach us how to do the cataloguing of collections – we had a number of different media arts groups doing cataloguing. Because potential funders said ”you want to do preservation but you don't even know what you have“, we were trying to advocate for the collections and they needed to be described. We did the cataloguing project to be able to make a better case for preservation.

BAVC was doing the preservation centre, so they were handling more the physical side. On the east coast we were handling what is called ’intellectual and physical control‘ by helping people to know what was in their collections and to get them organised. We also got a conservator, Paul Messier, involved to do conservation surveys of six collections in NY State, so that we could gain some credibility by having consultant from outside the organisations saying what needed to happen. A lot of this early work was just trying to get credibility for the media arts field as having really important works.


PACKED: What types of collections were there in New York state?

Mona Jimenez: New York State was the first state in the United State to have an arts council and in the early 1970s the first state with an arts council to fund video. There were a number of different groups and a lot of organisations throughout the state in the 1970s. The best known is maybe the Videofreex10, an organisation that was first active in New York City and later upstate. They did a low power TV station in a rural area in the 1970s. I work closely with the Experimental TV Center (ETC)11 that is located in Owego, New York, in what is called the southern tier of New York. Their centre started in 1970 where they not only provided access to equipment but also invented a number of early tools for changing and controlling video images. The Paik/Abe Video Synthesizer was in part designed at ETC, and also other different devices such as synthesizers, colourisers and frame buffers. In Syracuse, New York, there was an organisation called Synapse.12 Bill Viola,13 who came out of Syracuse University, was involved with Synapse and a community of people associated with the television school that was there. There were also a number of different organisations working in the Buffalo, New York region and a lot of other organisations throughout the state. Then there were also organisations in New York City like the Kitchen14 and Electronic Art Intermix,15 and later access centres like Film/Video Arts,16 and distributors like Third World Newsreel.17 Since the New York State Council on the Arts was funding those centres, there was a lot of experimentation going on in the 1970s and 1980s. A lot of the collections that we were trying to draw attention to were some of the oldest collections in New York State. So we were advocating for a lot of different collections that were either media art or community media.

At the same time we started to interface more with the field of audiovisual preservation because there were librarians and archivists who were working on video preservation, who we didn't really know about at the beginning. We also started to go to their conferences, and we tried to inject the concerns of independent media artists and community activists to the conferences, that were more focused on television, Hollywood films and things like that.

As I learned more, I personally started to work on collections. Also, together with Sherry Miller Hocking18 and Dave Jones of Dave Jones Design19, I started to work on the Video History Project20 website and Sherry and I put together a Video History Conference in 1998. In 2000 I organised in collaboration with the conservator Paul Messier.21 the symposium ’TechArcheology: A Symposium on Installation Art Conservation’.22 In 2002, Sherry and I also did a symposium called ’Looking Back/Looking Forward’23 on remastering videotape. Then in 2002 the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Program at Tisch School of Arts. I got recruited around 2003 and since then I've been teaching. So a lot of different activities led me to what I'm doing now.


 The Video History Project website.


PACKED: What is the content of your courses at the Tisch School of Arts (NYU)?

Mona Jimenez: I started out in the programme by co-teaching ’Introduction to Moving Image Archiving and Preservation’ with Howard Besser the very first semester. Then I taught ’Collection Management’, ’Video Preservation’, a class called ‘Handling New Media’ (mostly on installation and multimedia art) and also ’Digital Preservation’ for a while. Later on we added an additional session on video; I am now teaching ‘Video Preservation Part One’ and ‘Video Preservation Part Two’, and ‘Handling Complex Media’.

The whole MIAP programme is two years, but I only teach the students in their second year. I teach ’Video Preservation I’ in their third semester (in the Fall) and then ’Video Preservation II’ and ’Handling Complex Media’ in the Spring. Chris Lacinak24 is also here as an adjunct professor. He teaches video or digital courses as well.


PACKED: What kind of background do your students generally have and what have they learned in the first year of the program?

Mona Jimenez: The students mostly come from film studies, film production, media studies or media production. Some people come from other areas like anthropology or musicology, but they all want to be moving image archivists.
The first year they take a basic training in handling film and media, they do an internship, and take collection management, copyright and a number of other courses. When they begin the program, they tend to have more experience with film but by the end of the first year they can identify video formats and know basically what the failures are. Then, when we get to video preservation, we go more into the signal level and an understanding of the configuration of the tracks on the tapes, the problems with alignment and all kinds of timing issues. Understanding the signal, all the different types of signals and how a video preservation system works with all its components – like the time base corrector (TBC)25, monitoring of the video and audio, signal flow and digitisation.

It is great that video preservation has been increased to two semesters. This enables us to do some digitisation in house. For the first time we will also be able to send some tapes out to vendors as well. The students will have the experience of interacting with vendors: asking for what they want, getting the files back and doing quality control.


PACKED: When doing digitisation what do you consider as the best format for the archival of digital video files?

Mona Jimenez: I would recommend uncompressed26 10 bit or 8 bit and MXF27 is being developed as a wrapper, but a lot of people think Quicktime28 makes more sense on a practical level.


PACKED: What can be done in your teaching laboratory at the Tisch School of Arts (NYU)?

Mona Jimenez: We can playback U-matic29, VHS30, S-VHS and through an auxiliary input we can connect other decks like a ½ inch open reel deck, a Hi-831 camcorder or whatever. We couldn't get a PAL VHS deck in the United States and we had to get a PAL combo DVD and VHS deck. We have a TBC, the monitoring equipment for audio and for video, and what is called a gain stage device32 that allows one to increase the audio level, and a switcher to send the signal to wherever we want to send it.


 Equipment in the Teaching Lab.


 Equipment in the Teaching Lab.


We use an Apple Mac Pro station and an AJA digitizer33 to do the capture to Final Cut Pro34 and to create the uncompressed file or other formats. Another computer is used to capture DV quality so the students can capture with two different systems and see the differences. The third computer has Adobe Premiere35 installed on it and a Xena card and can also capture uncompressed files. We also have networked storage, just for classroom use, as we don't store anything here over the long term.

Then we also have the ‘Old Media Lab’ with Apple computers with OS 836, OS 937, and OS X38 operating systems, and OS9 running in Classic mode. We are trying to set up OS739, but but we can’t actually get the driver for the CD-ROM drive for that computer. I use CD-ROMs from the 1990s in my course 'Handling Complex Media' to introduce my students to the preservation of multimedia documents, to get them to know the multiple files and formats involved.


 Different generations of Apple computers and Mac Operating Systems used for the course on "Handling Complex Media".


Our teaching lab is quite modest but we didn't have the budget to create a lot of different stations to do the same thing, so we have the three different stations. It is sometimes challenging when you have eight students and try to get everybody working. The Tisch School of Arts (NYU-MIAP) is the only place that I know that teaches hands-on video preservation in the United States.


PACKED: You have worked on issues related to single channel works as well as on issues related to installation works. What do you consider as the main differences between an installation and a single channel work?

Mona Jimenez: In a video installation you have all the same problems that you have in single channel works and more. If you have a tape, you have in both cases issues with being able to do a successful transfer of that tape and being able to do it in a way that maintains the integrity. In an installation you have all the problems of a single channel work, but on top of it you also have additional problems: problems related to the different components, etc.

I like Pip Laurenson's40 work a lot because she does a really good job of talking about the different aspects that you need to keep an eye on: the conceptual, aesthetic, the historical aspects, and also evaluating how important the equipment is in relation to the meaning of the work. For my course I actually use the risk assessment model that was developed for 'Inside Installations'41 to which I add a little bit. I ask my students to look at the anatomy of the work, the component parts and their relative value, behaviours and other things that are important for installations. Also, installations are one thing but site-specific installations are another thing. With installations you have the issues of these two forms and at the same time you also still have the issue of the media itself. In installations there are just a lot more things to keep an eye on.

I have never worked in a museum; I am more on the archival side but I have worked with a lot of conservators and collectors who own installation works. I have also seen and evaluated a lot of works. I think the exhibition requirements are different from the archival requirements and this is always an issue. You may for instance say that you want to have an archival copy on Digital Betacam,42 but Digital Betacam is never going to be your exhibition format. You have an ideal of a so-called archival master - an uncompressed file or whatever it is - but to actually play it on a continual basis you will transform it again. There is an interesting tension between this sort of ideal (archival) state at one side and then this usually compromised (exhibition) state that is actually in the installation, at the other side. Hopefully both states are very close but sometimes they are not. Today you wouldn’t play your highest quality version - you would never want to pay to play a master, but in the past the situation was different. For instance if you shot on U-matic, then edited it on U-matic and later on also screened it on U-matic, you were very close to a master (although there is some generation loss). Today it is more complicated because the exhibition copy may be more of a compromise. Maybe the work was shot on Digital Betacam, then digitally edited in an uncompressed form and then for exhibition purposes put on a DVD or flash card player. Then the MPEG-2 file is how the work is being seen. This is an interesting problem.


PACKED: What equipment do you consider as the equipment that is the most at risk in video installations?

Mona Jimenez: I think that right now the biggest challenge is the Cathode Ray Tube (CRT). Maintaining the display and the relationship with the historical sculptural object that is the television is going to be a huge challenge. But these challenges really depend on the installation itself. I am not sure whether it is possible to generalise.

A museum is very different from a media arts collection because the museum’s mandate is to take care of individual objects. So they spend a lot of time on these, whereas I tend to work with people who have collections of many tapes. Solving one problem in an installation is fine but coming up with solutions that are useful for a number of tapes that are out there in any of those centres that I mentioned earlier and that still exist, is another problem. I do think that there is a kind of disconnection by collectors and museums who own individual objects that are very precious to them, and who assume that the infrastructure will still be available in the outside world when they want to transfer a tape. There is often still a sort of attitude like ”I'll just call the plumber when my pipe breaks,” but in this case the plumber might not be there anymore. I tend to be more concerned about large number of tapes that are out there and not collected.


PACKED: The disappearing of the knowledge is also a problem that has to be solved.

Mona Jimenez: Yes, this is another problem. How do we get the knowledge out on how to do transfers, to keep the equipment going and all these kind of things? And how do we share this knowledge? How can we have the centres that we need? And how can these centres share their knowledge and expertise with each other and collaborate? There are people who don't even want pictures taken of their set-up for transfers and cleaning, etc. Many of them are quasi-commercial, or they might be commercial but working with non-profit centres, so they are going to be more proprietary. On the contrary a totally non-profit centre tends to be more transparent. They would say ”take a picture.” They may be embarrassed but they would still say ”yes“ to the public. They have to do that because they are public institutions.

I am concerned about CRTs, but I am even more concerned about a shelf full of ½ inch open reel tapes and having only very few options of where to go to transfer the tapes, and knowing that most of those people who are doing the work are hardly making a living. I am more concerned about the fact that we don't have a lot of cleaning machines and that we don't have a lot of heads for decks.

We still don't even have a lot of common knowledge and strategies that we can use to solve the different problems. The people who are doing the preservation work all the time have a lot of deep knowledge but that deep knowledge is not commonly shared. But I know that this common knowledge will come, for example with the DVD and the book publication that is being made by AktiveArchive43 on image failures and that is great.

At the same time, since I was at Media Alliance at the beginning of the 1990s we have been talking about the same problems – like not having cleaning machines for ½ inch open reel tapes. We need to solve this problem. There are several cleaning machines for ½ inch open reel: at ZKM44 in Karlsruhe, at Mercer Media45 in New York, at BAVC in San Francisco, at the Conservation program at the Bern Univerity of the Arts in Bern46, and also in Australia at the National Film and Sound Archive47 and at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.48 We need, for instance, more people like Johannes Gfeller49 who is making a cleaning machine that will probably eventually be publicly available. We need to have people doing this right away and then we just need to pick up the pace. We need to find someone to manufacture enough heads to make them available cheaply. We also need an equipment registry where people can share information. These are things that we have been talking about for a very long time; they just have to be done.


PACKED: The specialised technical knowledge is becoming less and less available. How can this knowledge that is coming from people as diverse as technicians working in TV stations, people working in repair service centres or artist assistants be gathered?

Mona Jimenez: The experts probably need to be identified for each different format. Television engineers are, for example, usually not the ones who know about the ½ inch open reel format because it was not a broadcast format. It is the people who were using this format in the field who know about it, although there might be of course aspects of the format that people in the broadcast industry will understand well. When I was using the ½ inch open reel format, I didn't understand everything about every little aspect of the way a tape worked and behaved, but I understood enough - that was passed onto me in an informal way - to be able to make and play back productions on ½ inch tape. I think that there is on one hand the knowledge of the people who were just there threading and unthreading every day, and making productions and making things work. The television engineers on the other hand are really video engineers; they can for instance find out why something is a problem because of the way that the ½ inch tape was manufactured or why changes that occurred in one deck differ from changes that occurred in another deck, etc. Some of these things can be understood by producers if one is good enough mechanically and has an engineer around to consult with - who for instance might know that a certain TBC is the one that works when you are trying to get that U-matic from 1976 to play back on a specific deck. But there were also people who were not engineers doing modifications on equipment who understood electronics and knew how to read oscilloscopes and schematics, and they could, for example, tell that something needs to be calibrated to some particular specification.


PACKED: You make a distinction between two different types of knowledge: on one hand the knowledge coming from practice in the field and on the another the knowledge coming from engineers working on the electronic component level. How can these two distinct types knowledge be merged?

Mona Jimenez: Maybe the two types could be merged if you would have people from the two groups in the same room: somebody who is not as practical and knowledgeable but who saw the problems every day, as well as an engineer. Because the engineers didn’t use certain equipment every day, engineers sometimes don't have this everyday knowledge of the solutions that you would use to make something work. This is why I think that it is good to have both.

For ½ inch open reel format, I think it is the people who were really using it, the ones that were doing modifications of the equipment and then also some of the engineers - who were maybe assisting and facilitating the relationship with some studios and making it possible for people to get their tapes broadcast. I'm working, for instance, now on a collection from the New York State group Portable Channel. They were broadcasting everything on public television and they also ended up doing some of their titling at the television station. This means that there was some kind of relationship or dialogue happening there.

The experts for ½ inch open reel format are one set of experts, but there is a different set of experts from a particular time period for the 1 inch format. One of my students, Walter Forsburg just did a great paper where he went into the Old VTRs user group50 and asked questions about a certain type of problem with binder51 degradation where white powder comes up to the surface of the pack in crystalline formations. There was a whole discussion about this within the user group. The 1 inch format was used in broadcast and it was also used by people who were making industrial tapes. Thus there is a certain amount of knowledge about this format. To clean this kind of tapes, you have to take them apart because otherwise you can only clean the tape between the little windows. It turns out that because of the way that the tape reels are manufactured you need a powerful drill to take them apart and there is a particular way the screws need to be pulled out. The problem is that in order to be able to put the tape reels together again, you have to know what you are doing. How do you clean the contamination off the top of a tape if you can't take the 1 inch tape reel apart? I am convinced that there exists a group of people who know how to do this.

Independent media artists didn't tend to have so much to do with 2 inch format,52 but there was a broad use and knowledge of the U-matic format.

Identifying each format and its problems, and trying to get the people who know the format really well to work on it is one thing. The second thing is thinking of all the issues and the obstacles that you can encounter with each format. For the ½ inch open reel for instance, one of the main obstacles is the sticky shed syndrome.53 We know already that by dehydrating and cleaning them, you can get a good result.


PACKED: When you talk about dehydrating the tapes, do you mean baking them?

Mona Jimenez: To bake them or to use desiccants54 like, for instance, Agathe Jarczyk55 and Johannes Gfeller do. We started to try desiccating here by leaving a tape for a long time inside a plastic bag with desiccants and in cold storage.


PACKED: Did you get any result?

Mona Jimenez: We did try it but we didn't have a working ½ inch open reel deck before we did it, so we could not play the tapes first to tell the difference. This year for the first time we will play the tape and see how it transports, then put it in a bag with desiccants and play it again afterwards to see if it plays better. People tell us that it works.

The Image Permanence Institute in Rochester, New York56 did some experiments on the use of silica gel with film materials to find out how long you have to keep the film with desiccants to get the moisture out. I think that this is something that we could do with video as well. When the Image Permanence Institute did the tests with film, they used 10% of the weight of the object as a desiccant and measured the time it took to dry out the film, keeping film in a can and keeping it outside of the can. Out of the can it took around two weeks to observe a substantial difference in moisture and it was about six months to get the same result when the film was kept in the can. They would measure the weight of the object and see the change in moisture content.


PACKED: What are the other ’issues‘ and ’obstacles‘ that you could encounter with videotapes?

Mona Jimenez: There seems to be a number of different problems. One is sticky shed syndrome where the introduction of moisture breaks the polymer chains in the binder system. The chemical changes in the binder system are experienced as stickiness on the surface of the tape and during playback debris is deposited on the tape transport and clogs the heads of the video players. To return to the 1 inch problem – as different tapes have different binder systems with different formulations – I have heard that some 1 inch tapes are particularly subject to binder degradation that shows up as white crystalline formations. I have also seen this problem on U-matic tapes from Ghana were temperature and humidity are very high, so it could be the problem is more the environment rather than the tape stock. By-products from degradation that come to the surface of the tape pack, and these fatty esters, compounds migrating to the surface of the tapes in a crystal formation, have sometimes also been called lubricant loss. No one knows precisely what is happening, as it is just basic degradation that people are describing. The process that is used to deal with it is cleaning of the tapes, either by hand or by using cleaning machines.

During my first year teaching video preservation at MIAP I had my students call RTI57 to ask questions about their cassette cleaning machines. RTI said that when they first sold the machines, their objective was to resurface new tapes. New tapes had a lot of debris on their surface and the cleaning machine would take off whatever loose material was on it from the manufacturing process. I also have heard people say that they would run a tape through a deck before recording on it for this reason, or just that a tape plays better after it has been used. Because of the friction from playback, the tape was going through the mechanism better.


PACKED: Do you always clean the tapes in your laboratory before playing them?

Mona Jimenez: We don't have a cleaning machine for ½ inch open reel tapes, we can only clean U-matic tapes. It seems that people often clean tapes before they put them on the machine, but I would put the tape on the machine and see how it transports first. If there were problems, like the transport is straining or there’s a lot of drop-out, then I would clean them and use desiccants because if the tape has sticky shed or there is just other loose material on the tape, it is going to clog the heads of the video player.


PACKED: When would you use baking as a treatment for the tape?

Mona Jimenez: I would use baking to deal with hydrolysis but I'm always asking these questions myself, and to this point I have never baked a tape. This year will be the first time that we will have desiccants, a dehydrator and a cleaning machine for U-matic tapes. We are going to try all three. What I've been told by the Image Permanence Institute, who did the testing on dehydrating films using desiccants, is that they think using a dehydrator is quite a radical solution. They would consider baking to be a last resort because it drags out the moisture so quickly - it doesn't allow the material to go through a more gentle process of dehydration over time. They think that you can then have problems with deformation of the tape. In a tape there is the polyester backing58 and then there is the binder. The theory with desiccants is that the more slowly you do the dehydration, the better the tape can adapt to the changes. But obviously most vendors are not used to putting tapes in cold storage for two weeks, so they would probably use baking instead of desiccants.


 A bag of Silica Gel.


PACKED: Is this mostly a problem for ½ inch open reel format?

Mona Jimenez: Yes, with ½ inch we have the sticky shed problem but it is something that happens with video and audio over time with the introduction of moisture. Also, with the U-matic format, a U-matic deck from 1974 might not playback a U-matic tape from the 1980s or vice versa. I think the problem is that the U-matic format was manufactured for a long period of time and that the decks have undergone a lot of changes. You have tapes that need to be played back on the same type of decks on which they were recorded.


 A Studer A807 quarter inch Reel-to-Reel audio deck and a Sony AV 1/2 inch open reel video deck.


PACKED: Could you also experience problems with a modern U-matic player being too sensitive for old U-matic tapes?

Mona Jimenez: Yes, because as videotape technology was developed and electronics got more advanced, the newer decks have tighter tolerances. You also have to find out which TBCs will work best with which tapes. If an old tape is used in combination with a new TBC, the TBC may not be able to deal with it.

There are a number of different problems that we can try to tackle to make it a lot easier to the field to do tape transfers. Also, there is the whole question of the aesthetic of the display: old tapes are tied to cathode ray tubes as a display device. For example, apparently U-matic tapes played through a digital projector look pretty bad. I feel that the museums are tackling the issues of CRTs a little bit more whereas we are not tackling the underlying issues, like how do you get a U-matic deck to playback properly?


PACKED: Probably because this is something that the museums would like to outsource.

Mona Jimenez: Yes, and most of them are just assuming that people are always going to be out there doing preservation. The thing is that there are a number of vendors who are doing the work but only some of these vendors are making money. It is not a very lucrative business as the decks break down so much and because you have to have specialised knowledge. For a vendor whose primary business is duplication, preservation is just too much trouble,. In the United States there are a number of different vendors, for instance Duart59 in New York, The Media Preserve60 in Pennsylvania, Scene Savers61 in the Midwest and DC Video62 on the West Coast - they specialise in 2 inch tape. Of course the for-profit vendors are needed, but we also need to have the non-profit centres, and they need to be open enough to tell us what they are doing, to share information.


PACKED: How could this information be more easily shared?

Mona Jimenez: One of the things I'm trying to do – and I guess it would require people to be open - is to organise the centres here in the United States: BAVC, Standby with Mercer Media,63 a place that has just started up in Buffalo called Migrating Media64, along with Blaine Dunlap in New Orleans who is getting a non-profit organisation started called The Southeast Video Preservation Center65, and also others such as the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound, who are doing in-house transfers66. It is important for all of us to get together because all non-profit centres are really struggling. What we would like to do is to get everybody together so we can talk about what everybody is doing and what kind of research needs to happen. What do the centres need to operate? How much does it really cost to do preservation? We still don't really know how much it costs. If we could say it takes 300 US $ to do a 60 minute tape and we know that non-profit archives can only pay 100 US $, then we know we need subsidies of 200 US $ per tape, and we need to start looking for funding for the subsidies. We don't even have good numbers on this. I don't think anybody has ever said publicly ”this is how much it costs, on average, to preserve a tape“. They may think ”this is all we can charge because people don't have much money“ but they haven't thought on how much it actually costs. This analysis is needed to know how non-profit centres can be sustainable.


PACKED: What you want is to make some kind of survey of the cost and needs of these non-profit centres to know how much you should ask for to help them continue their activities?

Mona Jimenez: Yes. In the United States the funding is really small for culture anyway, but we are realising that funders are putting much more money into production than preservation. We are now starting to talk about how much has gone into production, and asking ”where all these tapes are that people have been making?” and why there can't be more money for preservation. As a field, we don't have a good clear message like ”this is how much it costs, and this is how much we need“. We are just struggling along.

I also think that it would be great to be able to do this together with our Canadian and European partners as well, to really get together and to have some dialogue. When we organise preservation events in the United States, we usually work with V-tape67 in Canada where they are also doing video preservation on independent media and media art. It is always good to have them as partners.


PACKED: What is your relation with the state archives likes the Library of Congress which is also preserving ½ inch open reel tapes?

Mona Jimenez: We know what they are doing but they are only working on their own material. They have the intention of doing preservation work for other people but they are not at that stage yet. When they built that the Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation they had to ask for staff incrementally and everything takes a long time with the government. Every year they are able to add new people. I think that they have just added some people in the video area but they are not able to do more than their own tapes for the moment. They started with transferring their own U-matic cassettes using a robotic system. As they add staff, they are getting their 1 inch and 2 inch tapes transferred as well. They are definitely people that we need to partner with, and we have good relationships with the staff and leadership there.

In 1997 there was a study in the United States on the preservation of television and video, and there were a number of recommendations that were made. There was a recommendation to establish a national television and preservation centre, and there was a recommendation to establish a national television and video registry – but none of these ever happened. There has been no plan of action and nobody has taken any steps in this direction. Although we have the national mandate and a national plan and goals, no one has actually set up the structures. There is a National Film Preservation Foundation but we don't have one for television and video. There is no money going into it, but we are in the process of asking the Library of Congress to fund projects like, for example, to bring video preservation experts together and to conduct new research.


PACKED: What would be the aim of such a project?

Mona Jimenez: If I had the funds to go around the world, I would interview everyone doing preservation on the same set of questions: how do you prepare the tape for transport? What sort of equipment do you have in your system? How do you monitor the signal? How do you treat the tape before playing it? What are you listening for when the tape transports?, etc. I would just go all the way through the preservation process from inspection and treatments through digitisation and storage and I am sure we would get a lot of different stories.


PACKED: Would it be possible to extract a general solution from all these different stories?

Mona Jimenez: I'm starting to think there is maybe not one solution, even if we can look at different ways people do it - how Bill Seery68 does it, the way BAVC does it, etc. Even if you take four different examples - I think you could make an educated guess about what the process would be – but I don't think that a general solution is ever going to get pinned down. Video is dynamic and it is created in real time. Somehow I just think that this translates into the people who are doing it too; they are dynamic and they are doing it in real time, too. We are never going to get everybody to agree. That is the way it is. (Laughs).


PACKED: In your opinion, what kind of specific knowledge should a conservator have in order to deal with the preservation of media art, what should they know about tapes and video?

Mona Jimenez: One of the things that we have been struggling with here at MIAP is exactly what we need to teach people about video, particularly with conservators because conservation training is traditionally very structured. Although you have conservators like Agathe Jarczyk who has set up her own business, the majority of our graduates are going to work in museums, in private practice, in historical societies and in organisations where they will need to communicate with people who are doing the work for them. I think that conservators need to start by knowing a history of technology and how to identify formats. They also need to know how to safely handle and playback tapes, and how to handle the equipment in a proper manner. They need to understand what the common failures are. But I think that they also need to understand video signals, what happens with video signals, how they are constructed and how signals flow in a studio. We consider that there are three points of failure: the tape, the equipment - which would be the system - and the operator. You can have failures in any of these three areas or you can have failures with all three.

It is important that the conservators not only understand the way how tape behaves, its basic components, how it's produced, etc., but also how video systems work and the devices in systems that need to be there in order to have a faithful reproduction. So they need to understand the different types of signals: component, composite, s-video, etc. They need to understand for different time periods, what the different formats allow for in terms of types of signals. They need to understand how to do monitoring and basically what one looks for in signal characteristics. They need to be familiar with the different standards and reference signals, how one calibrates equipment and how one maintains integrity throughout the system. They don't need to be able to do the transfers themselves, but to be able to ask the right questions. It is also very important that they understand destination formats and the implications that preservation decisions have along the way. They don't necessarily need to be operators but they need to understand the vocabulary in order to be able to ask the vendors, for instance, how often do they calibrate their equipment? What do they use for monitoring equipment, what their maintenance schedule is, what they recommend for the signal coming out of the U-matic … If the vendor doesn’t know, for instance, that U-matic has a funny component output – the dub output – that needs to be converted to be s-video, and they say U-matic is only composite, then you know the vendor doesn’t know what they are talking about. If conservators are told that a tape can't be transferred, they need to be able to ask why. They need to be able to understand the basics.


PACKED: The basics are what they will need to be able to interact with technical partners?

Mona Jimenez: Yes, they need to be able to evaluate whether vendors have the necessary knowledge to do preservation and they should not feel intimidated to ask questions. It is more about being able to communicate and do quality control. This is also common with other types of conservation practices. Conservators don't necessarily learn to do all aspects themselves but they learn how to manage things. They have to be trained, but of course it is also something that you learn by doing. They have to understand that they have a role to play in the health of the larger community in which they live (in terms of video), and that they have to be actively involved in working together with other conservators, media artists and vendors to keep the field going so there are resources once they want to transfer a tape.

Then there are all the issues surrounding installation. Understanding what the production process is, what is required to maintain the works and how to make decisions. I think the case studies that are being done through research projects on installation art are really useful for decision-making about specific installations. There is a lot of good information out there on specific installations and decision-making models, etc. But what I think that we are losing are a lot of the tapes out there.


PACKED: Do you think that having a shared technician or a shared laboratory could be a solution for those small collections that you have been working with?

Mona Jimenez: We have a big country, you know. If you are in Nebraska, you probably won’t go to New York to find a technician and a laboratory. This is a problem. I really believe in regional non-profit video preservation centres. Like I already said, the private sector is needed and the vendors are needed, but I think that the non-profit centres are the ones who will also be able to educate people who are holding those collections about what it means to get a catalogue, to do preparation, give unique identifiers, name your files correctly, etc. Vendors won't do this. This means that we have to have centres that help people to understand the whole range of tasks that are involved in video preservation and not just the actual transfer process. I have always asked when going into communities: “You have two museums here, two universities, a public television station, a public access television station, and you have a media arts centre. Why don’t you just get together and solve this problem for yourself?” But people don't usually think this way; they only think about what they individually need. I think that there is a real need to have shared technicians and shared centre.

The museum is one part of an ecosystem. The museum may be healthy, but if the other part of the system has died, it will impact that museum. In the media arts system, you can't just have distribution and exhibition and then expect that someone out there will take care of the transfer issues. It’s not the way it works.


PACKED: In 2005, as part of the ‘The Artist Instrumentation Database Project’,69 you created an Access database to catalogue equipment. Has this been used since then?

Mona Jimenez: I don't think it’s been used much because almost no one ever got in touch with me or e-mailed me about it. The only one was Martin Koerber70 who said that he was going to try to use it. A lot of people have told me that they were going to use it but I haven't got any feedback. I don't know how widely it is known. Maybe people just don't think about cataloguing equipment.


PACKED: Did you think about this tool as something that could be added to the existing cataloguing tools that the museums have?

Mona Jimenez: At the time I was thinking that we needed something for the collection of tools at the Experimental Television Centre and I was interested in how we could describe custom-made tools. I knew that the Daniel Langlois Foundation71 was interested in artists’ tools and that I could have a good conversation with Alain Depocas72 as he (and later other researchers in DOCAM73) were interested in the cataloguing of machines. I thought a template could be useful, not only for people with collections but also for people who are caring for installations – to maintain all of the equipment information. What I found was that museums usually don't have any standardised way to manage their equipment. They often have some equipment that is dedicated to installations and then other equipment that is taken care of by an audiovisual department that installs exhibitions or just does screenings. What I found is that museums often don't have a good system for tracking equipment, and I think that often they don't even know where the equipment for a particular installation artwork is stored.


 The website of the Experimental Television Center.


Another issue is that a lot of conservators don’t use databases; they are more used to creating conservation records in the form of printed documents. Conservators are starting to do a lot more of their work electronically, but at the time when I did my database project they were often not even taking digital photos or storing documentation as electronic documents. Conservators are more aware that they should know where their equipment is located and what state it is in, but they are not thinking of using a database to track this. What databases are great for is, for example, to know how many projectors you have in your collection, how many of them are in working order or when was the last time that they were used, etc. My impression is that most people tend to use more narrative reports for those matters because they are not typically using databases to help them to generate reports about an overall collection.

I talked to Pip Laurenson about it. She is not really fond of using databases – except for a collection management system like TMS – for conservation documentation; also because she has a great system with folders and manuals for equipment that works well, she does not feel the need for a specific equipment database74 .


PACKED: Could it be because the equipment is not used on a regular basis but only when the work has to be shown, whereas in a TV archive the maintenance of the U-matic players for instance, the location of the spares, etc. needs to be managed with a structured database to proceed with the daily transfers in an efficient way?

Mona Jimenez: Yes, maybe most museums don’t have enough dedicated equipment. After I did the ‘Artist Instrumentation Database Project’, I had an idea to take some of the fields from the template and create an online registry where people could register the video equipment they had - not using the whole database structure but just a part of it. People could input what equipment, like a Sony deck or whatever, into that structure and share the information. The Experimental Television Center has already catalogued various pieces of video equipment. The idea was to take the twenty or so most popular decks and make catalogue records for those. Then if you had one, you could copy that record and just put your local information into it. I thought my database template might be helpful for that, for some kind of collective effort.

I tried to get IMAP75 to do an equipment registry but after they did a feasibility survey, they decided not do it. They were not sure that a registry was needed and that people would really use it. IMAP is a small organisation and for the feasibility survey they talked mainly to people in the North East of the United States.

I think that in an ideal world the registry and the Artist Instrumentation Database template might be useful. If I knew that you had a U-matic and I had the parts that you needed, then we could talk together. Isn’t this how the world works? I hope so. (Laughs)


PACKED: What is your feeling about the future of all these works? What strategy should be employed?

Mona Jimenez: Obviously, I believe in a collective solution. With a collective solution, we will more likely have media art works last. If each museum is going to try to solve these problems on their own, I think that only a few works are going to be saved. For the videotapes that are outside of museums, my sense is that without a local community around them that wants the collection to keep going, they are probably not going to survive. We really just need to start pulling out tapes and transferring them. The collections in small arts and culture organisations are not going to survive if we keep on saying that they first need to get a grant to hire a professional archivist to have their tapes catalogued. I don't think it is ever going to happen, because there are too many tapes and because you will never get money for cataloguing in the United States if you are not an official cultural library, archive or museum.


PACKED: How could this community around a collection be involved?

Mona Jimenez: I have this idea that I'm testing out now and which I have been working on since last year; it is called 'activist archiving'. The idea is to go into a community, like to go to a media art centre, do a workshop and try to recruit people for cataloguing tapes. In June I will go to Philadelphia and meet people at the Scribe Video Center,24 then in the Fall I will bring my students and give some kind of simple workshop for people who are part of Scribe or who are associated with the centre. We will try to recruit them for another event that is going to happen at the same time as the IASA/AMIA joint conference in November 201076. It will be one day where I am hoping to get thirty people working in pairs on laptops to catalogue a collection of two hundred to three hundred tapes that we will choose in consultation with Scribe. The objective is to have those tapes catalogued and then to carry out a visual inspection. One of the aims is to be able to locate all the different versions of one work.


PACKED: Did you already try this working method?

Mona Jimenez: I did it last year Upstate New York at the Visual Studies Workshop where they have the collection of a now defunct media arts centre called Portable Channel77 .
I give the participants an Excel spreadsheet with maybe ten fields and then everybody catalogues the tapes. Later the spreadsheets are merged and exported into a database. If I could have fifteen pairs of people working together, which makes thirty people, and give fifteen tapes to each pair, that is two hundred and twenty-five tapes catalogued in a day. Then I want to have Scribe pick some tapes and remaster them in my Video Preservation class with my students. The main idea is to try to recruit people who care about a collection to work with archivists to learn how to take care of the collection. Then when we have a small number of tapes remastered, the idea is to go back to the community and do screenings of the preserved tapes, and try to build more support and repeat the cycle.


 Students capturing VHS tapes at the Tisch School of Arts lab.


If at a minimum a few tapes can be remastered, there is something to show and to say: ”this is what is in the collection“. If we just talk about saving hundreds of tapes, people get bored immediately and lose interest because it seems like an impossible problem. But if we preserve a few tapes and then screen them back in the community and keep talking about the collection, I think it is possible to get something started. Over time an organization like Scribe can maybe find another institution to partner with, and then the collection can find a permanent home.

I think we really have to start transferring as many tapes as we can and at the same time get the information about how to do preservation out there. There are people interested to do the work, for instance people graduating from our program. They not only need the classes that they take here, they also need mentors. What is important is that the entire ecosystem has to be taken care of. People can't just stay in their little worlds and expect to solve their own little problems.





  • 1. ½” open reel is an analogue video format introduced in 1965. The ½-inch tape is not inside a cassette but on an open spool. The tapes were used in combination with the first portable video recorders and were widely used by artists, lecturers and activists. Broadly speaking, there are two categories of ½” open reel: CV (Consumer Video/Commercial Video) and AV (EIAJ Type 1). Although the tapes look identical, the players are not compatible.
  • 2. See:
  • 3. See:
  • 4. See:
  • 5. See:
  • 6. See:
  • 7. See:
  • 8. See:
  • 9. See:
  • 10. See:
  • 11. See:
  • 12. See:
  • 13. Bill Viola (°1951, New York) is an American artist who is regarded as one of the pioneers of video art. His work has contributed to the recognition of video art as an important form of contemporary art and to the expansion of the scope of video art in terms of technology, content and historical reach. Viola’s video installations – spatial environments which immerse the viewer in image and sound – are characterised by the use of the very latest technology, but at the same time they also stand out for their direct simplicity and precision. See:
  • 14. The Kitchen is a non-profit, interdisciplinary organization in New York that provides innovative artists working in the media, literary, and performing arts with exhibition and performance opportunities to create and present new work. It was founded as an artist collective in 1971 by Steina and Woody Vasulka and became a screening and performance center for the electronic arts at the Mercer Arts Center. See:
  • 15. See:
  • 16. See
  • 17. Third World Newsreel is an American media center and film distribution company based in New York City and established in 1967 as Newsreel. For more information:
  • 18. Among other things, Sherry Miller Hocking has conceived the Video History Project website with the assistance of Mona Jimenez and the programming of David Jones. For more biographical information see:
  • 19. See:
  • 20. See:
  • 21. Paul Messier is an art conservator specializing in the conservation of photographic materials and works of art on paper. Source:
  • 22. See:
  • 23. See:
  • 24. See:
  • 25. An electronic device used to correct video signal instability during playback of videotape material. Source: ScreenSound Australia.
  • 26. Video compression refers to reducing the quantity of data used to represent digital video images, and is a combination of spatial image compression and temporal motion compensation. Most video compression is lossy — it operates on the premise that much of the data present before compression is not necessary for achieving good perceptual quality. Uncompressed video files don’t use compression, and are often large files. The fact that no data is lost is one of the requirements for good digital archiving.
  • 27. Material eXchange Format (MXF) is a a "container" or "wrapper" format for professional digital video and audio media defined by a set of SMPTE standards. It supports a number of different streams of coded "essence", encoded with any variety of codecs, together with a metadata wrapper which describes the material contained within the MXF file.
  • 28. QuickTime is a multimedia framework developed by Apple. It supports a large number of formats for digital video, media clips, sound, text, animation, music and interactive panoramic images. Here Mona Jimenez refers to MOV, a special video format for the Quicktime player. It is available for both Mac OS and Windows operating systems.
  • 29. U-matic is an analogue video format developed at the end of the 1960s and consisted of a ¾ inch magnetic videotape in a cassette. It is the forerunner of the analogue Betacam. The first models of U-matic players and recorders like the SONY VO-1600 or the VP-2030 had their cassette loading system on top. The more recent models have a front-loading system.
  • 30. VHS designates a recording standard of video signal onto ½ inch tape developed by JVC in the late 1970s. Its mass distribution was launched in 1976. During the 1980s and 1990s, VHS became the standard format of general public video ahead of its competitors: Sony Betamax and Philips V2000.
  • 31. Hi8 is an analog video recording standard for mass-produced Sony camrecorders, for which 27 manufacturer acquired a licence. It is an evolution of Video8 (8mm).
  • 32. A gain stage refers to any stage or point in an audio/video signal path where the gain or level of the signal can be adjusted or amplified.
  • 33. See:
  • 34. Final Cut Pro is a professional non-linear video editing software developed by Macromedia Inc., and since the end of the 1990's a by Apple Inc.
  • 35. Adobe Premiere Pro is a real-time, timeline based proprietary video editing software application.
  • 36. Mac OS 8 is an operating system that was released by Apple Computer on July 26, 1997. It represented the largest overhaul of the Mac OS since the release of System 7, some six years previously. Source: Wikipedia.
  • 37. Mac OS 9 is the final major release of Apple's "Classic" Mac OS introduced on October 23, 1999. Apple discontinued development of Mac OS 9 in 2002, transitioning all future development to Mac OS X. Source: Wikipedia.
  • 38. Mac OS X (pronounced /ˈmæk ˌoʊ ˌɛs ˈtɛn/ mak oh es ten)[6] is a series of Unix-based operating systems and graphical user interfaces developed, marketed, and sold by Apple Inc. Since 2002, Mac OS X has been included with all new Macintosh computer systems.
  • 39. System 7 (codenamed "Big Bang" and sometimes called Mac OS 7) is a single-user graphical user interface-based operating system for Macintosh computers. It was introduced on May 13, 1991 by Apple Computer. It succeeded System 6, and was the main Macintosh operating system until it was succeeded by Mac OS 8 in 1997. Source: Wikipedia.
  • 40. See interview with Pip Laurenson on this website:
  • 41. Inside Installations: Preservation and Presentation of Installation Art is a three-year research project (2004-2007) into the care and administration of an art form that is challenging prevailing views of conservation. Over thirty complex installations have been selected as case studies and will be re-installed, investigated and documented. Experience is shared and partners collaborate to develop good practice on five research topics. See:
  • 42. Digital Betacam or DigiBeta is a digital version of the Betacam tape format. For a very long time it has been considered by television and other audiovisual archives as a good archival format because there is no generational loss between two copies. Since it seems that the current technological evolution will result in massive tapeless archiving, it is expected that also digital Betacam will disappear as an archival format.
  • 43. See
  • 44. ZKM holds a unique position in the art world; it is an interdisciplinary research institution focusing on new media. Since its opening in 1997, the ZKM has become an important platform for the production and exhibition of contemporary art and emergent media technologies. Since 1999 the institute is led by the artist, curator and theoretician Peter Weibel. See the interview on this website with Christoph Blase who he is running the Laboratory for Antique Video Systems at the ZKM:
  • 45. Mercer Media, in collaboration with the Standby Program, provides artists, independent producers and non-profit organizations with high quality post-production services for film, audio, video, and interactive projects, and media preservation at low cost. The Mercer Media studio is owned by Bill Seery.
  • 46.
  • 47. See:
  • 48. See:
  • 49. Johannes Gfeller is a professor in the Department of Conservation and Restoration at the Hochschule der Künst HKB, Bern(Switzerland). Since 2002 he is also in charge of the research project AktiveArchive.
  • 50. A Yahoo discussion group about old VTRs.
  • 51. The binder is the polymer used to bind magnetic particles together and adhere them to the tape substrate. Source: BAVC.
  • 52. 2-inch quadruplex (also called 2″ quad, or just quad, for short) was the first practical and commercially successful videotape format. It was developed and released for the broadcast television industry in 1956 by the American Company Ampex.
  • 53. A great number of videotapes are victim of the Sticky Shed Syndrome, which is the result of hydrolysis of the binder that attaches the particles of iron oxide to the plastic carrier.
  • 54. Dessicant is a humidity absorber used to prolong preservation and protect against oxidisation, corrosion, mould and any other deterioration due to humidity.
  • 55. Agathe Jarczyk studied Conservation of Modern Materials and Media at the University of Arts in Berne, Switzerland, and received her diploma in 2001. From 2002 to 2008, she worked as a conservator in a video production company for video artists. Since then, she has been head of the Studio for Video Conservation in Berne, see: She is also a lecturer and researcher at the Department for Conservation and Restoration of Modern Materials and Media at the University of the Arts, Berne.
  • 56. See:
  • 57. RTI is an American company that sells, amongst other things, machines that clean and evaluate videotapes of different formats such as 1 inch or Umatic.
  • 58. The backing film layer that supports the magnetic layer in a magnetic tape. Source: The National Film and Sound Archive Australia.
  • 59. See:
  • 60. See:
  • 61. See:
  • 62. DC Video is located in Burbank, California and run by David Crosthwait. See:
  • 63. See:
  • 64. See:
  • 65. See:
  • 66. See: and
  • 67. See:
  • 68. Bill Seery is in charge of the video transfers at Standby. See:
  • 69. See:
  • 70. Martin Koerber is a film restorer who worked amongst other on movies by german filmmaker Fritz Lang.
  • 71. See:
  • 72. Since 1999 Alain Depocas has been the head of the Centre for Research and Documentation (CR+D) of the Daniel Langlois Foundation in Montreal, which holds a collection of documents covering the history, works and practices associated with the media, electronic and digital arts. From 2002 to 2004, he has co-managed the Variable Media Network as part of a partnership between the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Daniel Langlois Foundation. And he also co-managed the publication entitled Permanence Through Change : The Variable Media Approach. Since 2005, he has been Director of Research for DOCAM, an international research alliance studying the documentation and conservation of the media arts heritage.
  • 73. See:
  • 74. See interview with Pip Laurenson where she explain how the equipment is managed in the Tate Modern collection.
  • 75. See:
  • 76. See:
  • 77. See:
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