Interview with Yves Bernard (iMAL)

iMAL, Brussels, August 19, 2010


Yves Bernard has been the manager of iMAL (interactive Media Art Laboratory), a Centre for Digital Culture and Technology in Brussels, since 1999.  In 2007, iMAL started to organise exhibitions, conferences, concerts and present works of performance art and allows artists to have access to a workspace for research and experimentation for and with new technologies. As part of the Obsolete Equipment project, Emanuel Lorrain and Rony Vissers (PACKED vzw) met Yves Bernard to discuss the difficulties iMAL encountered during the Playlist exhibition that was held from the 4th of June to the 21st of August, which brought together a collection of works that use obsolete devices such as games consoles and computers from the eighties and nineties, often modified for artistic purposes.


PACKED: The Playlist exhibition currently held at the iMAL was also shown at LABoral 1 in Gijon in Spain. Is it the same exhibition?

Yves Bernard: No, not exactly, in consultation with the exhibition’s commissioner, Domenico Quaranta, we decided to modify it for iMAL. We have added other pieces of work and some that were too big for our premises have not been shown. For the work called VinylVideo 2 for example, we have shown only the promotional video and not the entire installation. On the other hand, we have added two works from the Jodi art collective as well as videos and prints linked to the Low res graphic and aesthetic movement 3. We have also increased the number of 8-bit music playlists 4.


PACKED: Alexei Shulgin’s 386 DX 5 is the opening piece of the exhibition. How does it work?

Yves Bernard: It operates with three or four different programs. One of them drives the monitor and the text is spoken by a synthetic voice, which comes from an old Text to speech program for Microsoft 3.1, which is what gives this strange, rasping sound and the impression that the machine is humming. Then there is a program that handles the communication between the monitor and the Text to speech 6. This work runs on an old Intel 386 DX computer 7, a machine from the late nineties. The fact that it is an old computer, a piece of antiquated technology, is very important for the work. It would be possible to install something else inside the shell of the 386 DX but for this work of art, a cathode ray tube screen is necessary.


PACKED: Did the artist provide the hardware for the exhibition?

Yves Bernard: Alexei Shulgin provided us only with the computer, and then we found the monitor.


Vue de l'exposition <i>Playlist</i> : <i>386 DX</i> d'Alexei Shulgin. Photo: PACKED vzw.


PACKED: Was this the same for the other works?

Yves Bernard: Most of the time the artists have provided us with the equipment and when this was not the case, we were lucky enough to have the necessary equipment at the iMAL. For a work by goto80 called HT Gold 8, the Commodore 64 9 was not provided. For C=64 SYNTH 10 by Paul Slocum, which consists of a video synthesizer created for the Commodore 64, the computer was supplied but never worked properly because of a defect in the video output that made it impossible to obtain a satisfactory signal on the monitor. Several years ago, my car mechanic had given me a crate of Commodore 64s with external floppy disk drives that I had never opened until then, and we were able to show the two works thanks to these consoles. In theory, we ought to have received all of the consoles, electronic toys, etc. from LABoral, who had in turn received them from the artists. However, certain faulty NES games consoles 11 could not be repaired.


 View of the Playlist exhibition: <i>C=64 SYNTH</i> by Paul Slocum. Photo: PACKED vzw.


PACKED: Were these the games consoles that had been used during the exhibition at LABoral?

Yves Bernard: Yes, and they were certainly already faulty at the end of the exhibition in Gijon, as they never worked at iMAL. With this type of device, cleaning the connectors is often sufficient, but in this case the problem was different. We found spare consoles, but this didn’t always work because of the differences in standards. There are American NES games consoles and European consoles, as well as American cartridges and European cartridges, which are "of course" not compatible with each other. To read an American cartridge, we needed an American console and the solution that we found was to borrow consoles that had been modified to accept both standards from a shop in Brussels.


PACKED: These were consoles that had already been hacked?

Yves Bernard: Yes, that’s right. The world of retrogaming is a very active one, and a small industry has even been created around it. For example, one can find flash cards that cost €80, which simulate a Commodore 64 hard drive, as well as a whole range of little peripheral devices created with modern technologies. It is a market that allows one to do something else with an old Commodore 64 bought from a flea market for five or ten euros. Since finding these consoles remains relatively easy and inexpensive, there is a community of fans of these old technologies who modify and tinker with them.


 View of the Playlist exhibition: Nintendo NES modified to accept both cartridge standards, used to show 5 in 1 by Paul B. Davis. Photo: PACKED vzw.


PACKED: Did the problems encountered by LABoral help to anticipate problems with the exhibition at iMAL?

Yves Bernard: No, because unfortunately there was no transfer of knowledge nor any list of the problems that were encountered. This is in part due to the fact that LABoral has a very different way of creating exhibitions from our own. Their internal team is very small, and when they set up an exhibition they call on companies from their region, which leave once the inauguration is over. Then there is no one to perform maintenance on the works, which is why at LABoral certain works were no longer functional the day after the inauguration.

Here, we carry out the assembly of an exhibition ourselves and we have tried to keep the exhibition in working order for as long as possible. Despite the fact that the consoles were provided, some of them did not work, and it has sometimes been necessary to clean the contacts, for example. We always have someone on site who is capable of carrying out simple repairs. The work called Pong 12 for example, has been repaired at least ten times during the exhibition.

As well as the iMAL team, I also have a network of freelancers who contribute to the set-up. These are generally artists who themselves are good at modding and who are easy to get hold of if there is a problem with the work during the exhibition.


PACKED: Has it often been necessary to perform maintenance on the works during Playlist?

Yves Bernard: Certain art pieces have required more work than others, but this was already the case for the Holy Fire exhibition 13, during which we showed a work by Cory Arcangel that ran on a NES. The console had been kept in a paper bag for several years and when we received it, it no longer worked. After a certain amount of time, the connectors get dirty and rusty and don’t hold in place well anymore. Then one has to take a screwdriver to take apart and open the console, and adjust the connectors, etc. This is why, when holding this sort of exhibition, one has to know the frequently occurring problems that certain devices may encounter and have a minimum of knowledge of what a RF video signal14 or a composite video signal is 15, etc. And, most people will have forgotten about this in a few years time.


PACKED: Do you also have the expertise to repair the electronic components of certain works?

Yves Bernard: It is often simpler to find another second-hand computer than to try and repair a problem with the electronics. Nintendo manufactured millions of NES and the hardware is still fairly easy to find. In twenty years’ time, things will of course be different.


PACKED: Have certain works proved impossible to repair?

Yves Bernard: The Atari Falcon030 16 for the work by Dragan Espenschied 17 had a faulty power supply and I haven’t bothered buying another one, because the exhibition is almost over and it would require reinstalling all the applications onto the machine and doing this would require the right peripherals.


View of the Playlist exhibition: an Atari Falcon030 in Dragan Espenschied’s Deluxe Mjuzakk Zerbastel Kit. Photo: iMAL.


PACKED: Was this sort of reinstallation of applications with the original peripherals necessary at the start of the exhibition?

Yves Bernard: Yes, for one piece of art with a Commodore 64, for which the artist had sent a floppy disk 18 by mail, which was delivered damaged and unreadable. Fortunately, one of the artists contributing to the exhibition, Chantal Goret 19, is Belgian and owns a large number of Commodore 64s.  From the code sent by the Internet, he was able to recreate a functional floppy disk. There is a network of artists and modders who have the necessary hardware and peripherals, and who can be called on for help in this sort of situation.


 View of the Playlist exhibition: a floppy disk drive for the Commodore 64 used in the HTGOLD installation by GOTO80. Photo: PACKED vzw.


PACKED: Was showing hardware from this period also an important feature of this exhibition?

Yves Bernard: Yes, for example with the art pieces by Jodi, which were the subject of a case study within the Variable Media project 20, we really wanted to show them on the original hardware even though it is possible to run them on an emulator. It is possible to show these works with the same sound and almost the same graphics on something other than a ZX Spectrum 21, but we wanted to keep the original hardware and the grain of the video signal, which we would have lost by using an emulator.


View of the Playlist exhibition: Jet Set Willy Variation by Jodi. Photo: iMAL.


View of the Playlist exhibition: detail of the Jet Set Willy Variation by Jodi. Photo: iMAL


Dirk Paesmans of the Jodi art collective had warned us that this would be quite difficult as the program is stored on an audiocassette from which one has to load the code. This only works half of the time, and the operation has to be repeated after a certain amount of time; but in the end we have encountered relatively few problems. As we approach the end of the exhibition, and it becomes tricky to start up the works every day, we no longer switch them off and in this manner we no longer have to reload the program on a daily basis.


 View of the Playlist exhibition: A ZX Spectrum computer in the Jodi installation; Jet Set Willy Variation. Photo: PACKED vzw.


 View of the Playlist exhibition: an audio cassette player used to load the software for Jet Set Willy Variation by Jodi. Photo: PACKED vzw.


PACKED: Did Jodi provide all of the hardware for Jet Set Willy Variations 22 ?

Yves Bernard: Yes, they provided the ZX Spectrum, the monitor and all of the other necessary equipment to set up the artwork.


PACKED: Did the artists provide their monitors for other works of art?

Yves Bernard: No, I often had to find the monitors myself. Several of them come from the art school where I teach, the ERG 23, which owned a large number of old television sets that today have been replaced by flat screens.


PACKED: Were they selected in each case depending on the period of the console or of the work of art?

Yves Bernard: Not really. However, although some are older than others, most of them are about ten years old. The important thing is for them to have cathode ray tubes and screens that are not too big.


PACKED: Do instruction manuals exist with the installation procedures for each work of art?

Yves Bernard: The instruction sheets for installing the works were given to us by LABoral, who had almost certainly written down what the artists had told them. To set up Juvenile Amplifier 24, there was no diagram or plan, and so we installed it by guesswork with help from a photograph. For certain works, the start up procedure is very simple, by simply pushing a button, whereas for others it can be fairly complicated as we have seen for the works running on ZX Spectrum, for which it is necessary to load the programs from a cassette, or from floppy disks in the case of the Commodore. To start up The 8-Bit Construction Set Atari Data by BEIGE 25, there is a complete instruction manual explaining a precise order in which to switch on the hardware, and which commands are to be typed to load the program, etc. For those art works, one had to enter the commands each morning in order for them to be up and running for the opening of the exhibition.


 View of the Playlist exhibition: Juvenile Amplifier by Joey Mariano/ANIMAL STYLE. Photo: PACKED vzw.


PACKED: Several works of the exhibition invite the audience to use the machines, which in a way makes them even more vulnerable.

Yves Bernard: Yes, it is the case for many of the works in this exhibition. For example, there are two Sega Megadrives  26 transformed into little sound/image synthesizers by Gijs Gieskes. The artist added a small control circuit with a physical interface, which he uses himself to perform and which visitors of the exhibition can also try out.

Rabato 27 transformed toys of the eighties and nineties into musical instruments, and for example turned a little spelling toy into a synthesizer, or even modified children’s synthesizers to go beyond the factory default sounds. Unlike Gijs Gieske, Rabato did not allow the audience to touch because they are fragile devices and this is why we have systematically added a video in which you can see and hear the instrument being used.


PACKED: Another piece of art in the exhibition by Gijs Gieske, Gameboy Reboot 28, plays on the very nature of the hardware, and it would be difficult to show it with anything other than the original equipment.

Yves Bernard: Indeed, it consists of two Game Boys placed side by side that are constantly rebooting in unison. However, although these are two identical devices manufactured by the same industrial process, a phase difference sets in gradually and shows that they are not quite the same.


Game Boy Reboot by Gijs Gieskes. Courtesy of Gijs Gieskes.


PACKED: Other works in the exhibition consist of tailor-made electronics, such as 1-bit Symphony by Tristan Perich 29 or PONG by André Gonçalves. Are the problems encountered with this type of work of a different nature?

Yves Bernard: It is a type of artwork that is becoming more and more common today, which consists of completely autonomous electronic devices without a hard drive or any other mechanical part, but only integrated circuits and chips. The work by Tristan Perich, an artist from the Chiptune movement 30, executes music from a code on a chip. It consists of a CD case containing a processor, a battery, an on/off button, a reset button and a volume knob. Although when they arrives here from LABoral, one of the two units had a cracked case and the other had a faulty solder, this type of device has in some ways a greater life expectancy than the works using consoles, in that a faulty component can simply be replaced. In all likelihood, one will always be able to emulate a present-day chip with another chip in the future.

However, with regards to the fact that we have always been able to find spare hardware for the works operating with consoles or computers, those which are tailor-designed by the artist and consist of contemporary modding are often the ones that have caused the most problems. Certain artists create things that are not designed to be robust or durable. And yet, independently from any considerations with regards to preservation, I think that artists should attempt to create works that last.


PACKED: Did certain artists come and install their own work?

Yves Bernard: André Gonçalves came to install Pong, Jodi brought us their components and Paul Davis from BEIGE came with The 8-Bit Construction Set 31, which consists of an Atari and three turntables.


PACKED: Does the documentation provided with an artwork state that the work must be shown with the original appliances? If not, is there some other document that can be referred to in order to know what hardware should be used?

Yves Bernard: No. However, although in both cases it was the will of LABoral and iMAL to do so, I think that the artists would also prefer to show their work with the original hardware. There are no statements of intent in the documentation we receive from the artists, only purely technical indications about the device such as: “there is a floppy disk”, or “you switch it on like this”; etc. Therefore, there was no indication of how the artist wanted the work to be shown, but by talking with Jodi for example, it became clear that they liked the idea of showing the work with the original hardware whilst warning us that this would be complicated and we would have to do certain operations each day to start up the work.

I don’t think documentation with this sort of information about the hardware exists at the present time. In any case, if it does exist we didn’t receive it with the aerworks. What’s more, most of these works can run on an emulator, and so there are solutions that will allow them to be shown again. On the other hand, it will be difficult to install these art pieces in 15 years’ time in the same way on the original hardware.


PACKED: The work of art by Shulgin dates from 1998, but in the exhibition there are also more recent works dating from 2008-2009 but with a nineties feel to them. In this case, will the artist want to use a monitor from the nineties, or will a monitor from 2008 do the job?

Yves Bernard: The work by Jodi for example, has been shown several times and always in this manner. The graphic style of Jodi’s work with pixels and primary colours can easily be reproduced on a modern monitor, but for the artist it is still important to show the piece of art with this sort of television set and this is even done in a relatively implicit way. I don’t know if Paul Davis makes this a requirement, and I don’t know what he would say if someone offered to display his work on a flat screen, but for us it was clear that we wanted to use the hardware of the period, which means that we never discussed any possibility of a compromise with the artists. Everyone was in agreement, right from the start.


PACKED: Don’t you think that in five years’ time, it will no longer be possible to avoid this discussion, especially if people don’t know what a Super NES is, for example?

Yves Bernard: Yes, children who are ten today may no longer know what it is, whereas the intention today is still unspoken for most people.


PACKED: Were certain art pieces shown differently at LABoral?

Yves Bernard: Not exactly. At LABoral, certain works were shown on a TFT-LCD screen 32, which personally I didn’t really like and this is also why we used cathode ray tube screens at iMAL. For example, Eat Shit by NULLSLEEP 33 was displayed through a video projector at LABoral, whereas it was shown on an old television set at iMAL.


 View of the Playlist exhibition: Eat Shit by Nullsleep.


PACKED: Is this because with a games console plugged into a television, there is a connection with a personal and intimate universe that you don’t find in a video projection?

Yves Bernard: Yes, it changes the way people relate to the work; there is an emotional content in these old machines. In addition, the historical and educational aspect is also very important because a lot of people have forgotten or don’t understand the technical devices. For example, some visitors don’t understand that a Commodore 64 or a ZX Spectrum was not just a simple keyboard, but in fact a complete computer. Others don’t understand why there was an audio cassette player, because they don’t know that back then, programs could be loaded from this media. In such an exhibition, reminding people of this is important.


PACKED: One can therefore imagine that in the future, it will be necessary to explain the history of a certain type of technology so that the visitors can understand a work of art?

Yves Bernard: Yes, because without this, one will not get the same feel for a work. There is a huge amount of work to be done to create a resource centre on the hardware and their characteristics, etc.  At iMAL, we have a room where we try to keep the old machines that people give us. A lot of people offer us things, but we have limited storage space. However, we are trying to keep several generations of Apple computers, as well as all the software and Mac OS boot disks, to allow us run old applications, CD-ROMs, etc.


PACKED: Amongst the works presented in the exhibition, are some of them part of a collection?

Yves Bernard: No, however this was the case during the Holy Fire exhibition, which was made up of only works that were part of a collection. Although Playlist does not focus on this, one could easily imagine that the art piece by Alexei Shulgin might be of interest to a private collector.


PACKED: And yet conserving it would be a challenge?

Yves Bernard: Yes, but there are different sorts of collectors; some are enthusiastic about the work and are not concerned with the durability of their investment if they really like it; and others are more cautious.


PACKED: Do you think that if a work of art is sold on the art market, this can contribute to it being conserved in a better way?

Yves Bernard: Yes, I think that this would allow it to be conserved in a better way, because if someone has recognized its value and the collector cares about it, then he will want to preserve it. The latter may however have to find an organisation capable of helping him by giving advice or providing services. The collector must also demand certain guarantees of durability when he buys the work, such as a contract that stipulates that he must obtain the source code, and perhaps spare parts.

This is what should be done during a purchase, but for the exhibition at iMAL, things were done in an extremely informal manner. The works of art are not well documented and include many variations in the way they are shown, since the artists give very few directives. This is also due to the fact that these exhibitions are still emerging, and the artists are first and foremost happy to see their work exposed. For many, whether the work is displayed on a cathode ray tube television set or on a flat screen is of no importance. However, I believe Jodi’s work is completely transformed if shown on a ZX Spectrum rather than on a recent computer with an emulator.


PACKED: Although iMAL does not collect works of art, you do have a collection of CD-ROMs of artists who also understand the problems due to the obsolescence of information technologies, and amongst others of operating systems. What are your projects for this type of work?

Yves Bernard: Our question regarding the CD-Roms is: what are we going to do with this heritage, produced mainly in the nineties, which risks disappearing too if we don’t do anything to save it? The Espace Gantner, which also owns a similar collection, displays all sorts of documents of this type thanks to emulation software. We ourselves have tested the existing ones, because unlike with installations, the physical platform is of little importance. We got some very interesting results, but certain CD-Roms have their own peculiarities that are very difficult to render with an emulator.


PACKED: In your opinion, what efforts must still be made so that such solutions can allow any application to be viewed correctly?

Yves Bernard: It would be possible to optimise these emulators if several institutions worked together to allow them to evolve. If you take SheepShaver as an example 34, which is an open source project 35, it is certain that an effort must be made by the people working on the emulators in terms of development. To create a more stable product, a framework that allows the developers to receive financial help is necessary.


 Mac OS 9 operating system booting on OS X with the SheepShaver emulator.


I think it is also important to consider projects that deal with both the legal and technical aspects of emulation. It would be interesting to lobby the manufacturers and editors in order to solve the copyright problems with applications and technologies that no longer have any commercial value. This is the case for Apple ROMs 36 that were made 30 years ago, for example. There should even be laws for this.





  • 1. See:
  • 2. See:
  • 3. Low res is short for Low resolution, in opposition to high resolution, which means the resolution, or number of pixels per unit of distance, is low
  • 4. 8-bit is a style of electronic music inspired by the sound of old 8-bit games consoles. 8-bit music is created using tones that evoke the technology of a period that can today be considered as “primitive” or outdated (like the sounds produced by NES, Game Boy and Atari consoles). Source: Wikipedia
  • 5. Voir :
  • 6. A Text-to-Speech is a software application that allows text to be converted into synthetic speech.
  • 7. The Intel 80386 is a 32-bit CISC microprocessor manufactured by Intel. It was used in many personal computers from 1986 to 1994. Source: Wikipedia
  • 8. See:
  • 9. The Commodore 64 was a 8-bit home computer introduced by Commodore International in January 1982. It was the first machine to sell several million units (estimations vary between 17 and 25 million), and it remains the best-selling computer of all time
  • 10. See:
  • 11. The Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES, was an 8-bit games console manufactured by the Japanese company Nintendo, introduced in 1985 in North America and in 1986-1987 in Europe and Australia. Its Japanese equivalent is the Family Computer or Famicom, launched a few years previously, in 1983. Source: Wikipedia.
  • 12. See:
  • 13. See:
  • 14. A term used to describe radio signals incoming to a receiver or outgoing from a radio transmitter (above 150 kHz). Even though they are not really radio signals, TV signals are also included in this category. Source:
  • 15. a video signal in which the elements of luminance and chrominance have been combined. It allows economical broadcasting of video images. Luminance and chrominance are combined by means of one of the encoding standards – PAL, NTSC et SECAM – to produce the composite video signal. The process, which is a type of analog video compression, limits the bandwidth (the quality of detail of the image) of the components. Chrominance is added to luminance by using a visually acceptable technique, but it becomes difficult or impossible however, to reverse the process (to decode) into pure luminance and chrominance. This can be a problem, in particular during postproduction
  • 16. The Atari Falcon030 Computer System was the last computer to be produced by the Atari Corporation. Introduced in late 1992, production of the Falcon ended at the end of the following year when Atari Corp. decided to restructure in order to focus its efforts entirely on the marketing and support of its new product, the Atari Jaguar games console. Bearing the code name Sparrow, the machine was based on the Motorola 68030 main processor and had a Motorola 56000 digital signal processor, that differnciated it from most other computers of the time. Source: Wikipedia
  • 17. See:
  • 18. A floppy disk is a removable storage medium for computer data, the name of which comes from the flexibility of the magnetic storage medium, as opposed to that of a hard drive. The most common sizes are 8”, 5.¼ ” and 3½”: this dimension corresponds to the diameter of the magnetic disk. Source: Wikipedia
  • 19. See :
  • 20. The Variable Media Initiative, is a non-traditional preservation strategy born in 1999 from the efforts of museums to preserve the multi-media works of art and performances in their collections, which later spawned the Variable Media Network (VMN). Initially supported by a grant from the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science and Technology in Montreal, Canada, the VMN is made up of a group institutions and international consultants, including the University of Maine, the Berkeley Art Museum / Pacific Film Archives, Franklin Furnace, and the Performance Art Festival & Archives. VMN is renowned for its methodology, which seeks to define the acceptable levels of change for a work, and to provide information about the way that a sculpture, an installation or a conceptual work can be changed (or not) in order to preserve it without losing its essential nature. See: and
  • 21. The ZX Spectrum is an 8-bit personal computer released in the United Kingdom in 1982 by Sinclair Research Ltd. Initially called the ZX81 Colour and ZX82 during its development phase, Sinclair then named the machine the ZX Spectrum to highlight its colour display compared to the black and white one of its predecessor, the Sinclair ZX81. Le Spectrum was produced in eight different models, from the bottom of the range model with 16 kB of RAM, to the ZX Spectrum +3 released in 1987 with 128 kB of RAM and a built-in floppy disk drive; total sales of all models reached 5 millions units worldwide. Source: Wikipedia.
  • 22. See:
  • 23. See:
  • 24. See:
  • 25. See:
  • 26. See:
  • 27. See:
  • 28. See note 26.
  • 29. See:
  • 30. Chiptune music, also known as Chip music, is music made from sounds that are usually synthesised in real-time, often by the chip of a computer or a vintage games console, and not based on samples or any other kind of audio recording. It is also sometimes produced by other methods such as emulation
  • 31. See note 27.
  • 32. An LCD, or Liquid Crystal Display, is an electronic flat panel screen which uses the light modulating properties of liquid crystals (LC). LCD screens have replaced cathode ray tube (CRT) screens in most domains. They are generally more compact, lighter, more portable and cheaper
  • 33. See:
  • 34. SheepShaver is an open source Apple Macintosh PowerPC emulator. By using SheepShaver (with an appropriate ROM image) it is possible to emulate a PowerPC computer, capable of running Mac operating systems OS 7.5.2 to 9.0.4. SheepShaver is available for Mac OS X, Windows and Linux
  • 35. the open source classification applies to software with a licence that respects the criteria established by the l'Open Source Initiative, that is to say the possibility of free redistribution, of access to the source code and by-products. Source: Wikipedia.
  • 36. ROM, or read-only memory is a type of storage medium used in computers and other electronic devices. Data stored in ROM cannot be modified, or can only be modified slowly or with difficulty, so it is mainly used to distribute firmware (software that is very closely tied to specific hardware, and unlikely to need frequent updates Source: Wikipedia.
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