A television relic: on the digitisation of 'James Lee Byars: The World Question Centre'

Author: Emanuel Lorrain (PACKED vzw)

Published in: ARGOSMAGAZINE, N°05 Apr - Jun 2012. Brussel: argos - centrum voor kunst en media, p. 32-34


James Lee Byars (Detroit 1932 - Cairo 1997) was an American artist whose work resists any strict definition or categorisation. While it resembles conceptual, minimal and performance art, one cannot limit it to any one of them. The simple ideas often at the origin of his artworks take on a very diverse range of forms such as installations, sculptures and performances. For such, he often used materials such as glass, paper, silk or gold. Central to his work was his own presence, both physical and mental. Byars' art was greatly influenced by his many travels, and (amongst others) the Zen philosophy and Noh theatre that he discovered during the years he spent in Japan. His artworks could often be considered as some kind of relics.


In 1969, he conceived a work called The World Question Center, which consisted of an attempt to collect questions from some of the “100 most brilliant minds” of the time. On November 28th 1968, this performance was broadcast live on television. The artist asked a number of intellectuals, artists and scientists to 'offer' him one question important for them. A circle of men and women wearing a special dress designed by the artist surrounded him on set. His various interlocutors such as John Cage, Hans Hollein or Marcel Broodthaers were either present in the room or contacted over the phone during the broadcast.


 (fig.1) Video still from The World Question Center.


The programme was shot in Brussels at the television studios of the former BRT (the Belgische Radio Televisieomroep), the Flemish public radio and television that later became the VRT. The live broadcast of The World Question Center was made by Jef Cornelis, a Belgian director born in 1941 who worked for the BRT from 1963 to 1998. During this period, Jef Cornelis directed over 200 films about topics ranging from visual arts to architecture, urbanism, literature and politics. Prior to The World Question Center, he made a documentary with Geert Bekaert about James Lee Byars' first exhibition in Europe at the Wide White Space Gallery in Antwerp. This documentary, James Lee Byars: een Amerikaans kunstenaar, was broadcast by the BRT just before Byars' live performance. A one-hour programme such as The World Question Center being shown on a national public TV channel was a unique event. " That the public network even broadcast this adventure, let alone at 10:00 on a Friday evening, is still a puzzle to me", Jef Cornelis once said1.


According to him, the broadcast was recorded simultaneously on one 2” open reel tape and on two 1” Philips open reel tapes. For many years these recordings were lost, until two VCR copies2 were found in Antwerp in 2002 and subsequently digitised. Unfortunately, the digital image looked more sepia than black and white, was cropped and had poor contrast and definition. The sound level was also very low. The overall quality of the digital copy came nowhere near the broadcast quality that one would expect from a programme made by a national television station. Luckily in 2009 a 1” Philips tape was found in the collection of Herman Daled, a Belgian contemporary art collector who also appears in the programme. Although there was no information about its content on the tape or on its box, there was a strong supposition that it most likely contained the recording of The World Question Center. Considering the unsatisfactory quality of the VCR tapes digitisation, argos Centre for Art and Media – where the 1" Philips tape was stored – contacted PACKED vzw3 to do some research in order to find out where and how the tape could be played again to identify its content, and whether a better digital preservation master could be produced from this source if it did turn out to be a recording of The World Question Center.


(fig.2) A VPL 8 in. IC 1800 ft. Philips tape. Photo: PACKED vzw.


The exact type of the 1" Philips tape discovered is a VPL 8 in. IC 1800 ft that was recorded using an EL 3402 reel-to-reel video recorder that Philips began to manufacture in 1968 as a successor to their first video recorder, the EL 3400. The EL 3402 wasn't aimed at the broadcast market and was mostly used in fields such as industry, research and education. In 1969, when The World Question Center was shot, the EL 3402 was a fairly new video format and it is not clear how two recorders ended up in the studios of the BRT on the day of the broadcast. The EL 3402 uses the CCIR 625 PAL standard and is characterised by the use of a single video head and a type of tape wrapping called "Alpha-Wrap" (in reference to the ancient Greek letter, as in this configuration the tape makes a full turn around the upper drum).


As with other antique video formats such as some ½” open reel, one of the main problems for the digitisation of such tapes is to find someone who possesses both a player in working condition and the necessary technical knowledge to get a good enough video and audio signal out of it to transfer the content. Considering the age of this equipment, specific repair and maintenance (heads, electronics, belts, …) are almost systematically needed. Moreover, a player often needs to be calibrated for each tape on a case by case basis as early video recordings were often strongly related to the original machine on which they were recorded. Therefore, a specific knowledge of the technical functioning and characteristics of the video equipment is required to digitise such tapes. Often, the video signal from such old videotapes is not stable enough for digitisation and needs to be stabilised with a proper Time Base Corrector (TBC). Often, various TBCs need to be tried in order to see which one provides the best results for a given tape. After some research PACKED vzw identified five video labs in Europe able to digitise the 1” Philips tape. After a series of exchanges with several labs in search of the best possible solution, the tape was entrusted to AV Works, a video lab located in The Netherlands.


(fig.3) Video still from The World Question Center.


Considering its age, the tape had remained in fairly good shape and apart from a light amount of cleaning it didn't require any real treatment in order to be played back. Three different digitisations were made by AV Works, and after a comparison screening, argos and PACKED vzw selected the best file for the new (digital) master of the work. This version was approved by both Jef Cornelis and Herman Daled (the owner of the tape), and is now stored at argos. Compared with the previous one, the new digital master shows a major improvement in terms of contrast and stability of the image as well as in terms of the sound quality. In the case of The World Question Center, going back to the original 1” tape for digitisation was a beneficial decision.


To succeed in digitising such old video formats, it is important to choose a video lab that is equipped with the necessary digital infrastructure and analogue hardware. For The World Question Center, the whole digitisation process, including quality control and the choice for the destination file format and codec were based on the guidelines of the Cultural Heritage Standards Toolbox4 developed by PACKED vzw. Unfortunately, using an open codec and container format wasn't possible because none of the five labs could provide it. Instead, the tape was digitised to the best alternative format available: a 10-bit uncompressed .AVI file with a proprietary V210 codec. While the video and audio quality has in no way been compromised, transcoding to a standardised open file format and open codec should be done in the near future in order to ensure the long-term preservation and access to this unique artwork and document. Taking such a precaution will enable argos to save this precious relic for future generations.





  • 1. Koen Brams and Dirk Pültau,"I was too curious to hand everything over to the artists". Interview with Jef Cornelis on his film for television, Sonsbeek buiten de perken, 1971, and other films on major art events, first published in Jong Holland, jaargang 22, nummer 3, 2006. See : http://archived.janvaneyck.nl/0_3_3_research_info/cornelis_interview5.html
  • 2. VCR (or Video Cassette Recording) is a format for recording video on ½ inch magnetic tape, developed by Philips in 1972.
  • 3. For more information see: http://www.packed.be
  • 4. Since February 2010, CEST stands for 'Cultureel ErfgoedStandaarden Toolbox' (Cultural Heritage Standards Toolbox), a project with the purpose of helping Flemish cultural heritage institutions select the right standards for the creation, management and dissemination of digital collections. For more information, visit: https://www.projectcest.be/.
logo vlaamse overheid