The Early Video Project

Archival Resources

The videotapes produced from the time when Nam June Paik recorded the Pope's visit to New York on his new CV Videorover in 1965 to, say, 1975, when the AV Videorover (the portapak) began to be replaced by the Sony U-Matic 3/4' format, are all now over 25 years old.

Twenty five years, or more! That's a long time for videotape. We're talking more than dog years here. Conditions of storage; the temperature, the humidity, traffic in the storage area, the condition of the ' pack' on the reel, the manufacture of the videotape, whether they were stored tails out or tails in, these and other factors all work to prolong or curtail videotape life.

But the sad fact is that the people who made the videotapes, the very people who were excited by the new medium of video and the possibilities that it held for realizing a new communications paradigm, often took a casual attitude about storing the thousands of videotapes that they made with such dedication.

I write from personal experience. The marvelous Videofreex archive of videotapes shot on CV and AV twenty-minute and half-hour reels spent twenty years in an unheated and uncooled attic in Phoenicia, New York., except for the portion of them that were stored in a cellar in Saugerties. I have seen dust covered boxes of old videotapes in the bottoms of closets with the tails and leaders hanging out over the sides in the homes of friends and colleagues.

Some edits survive. But edits alone were a very small percentage of the videotapes produced. And often the real intimacy of that time is more to be found in the tapes that came right off the portapaks.

The same holds true for early video art. If one were to stage a retrospective of video art from 1968 to 1972, reproducing that actual conditions of exhibition at that time, how many works would be able to be mounted? Some certainly, because some works are so well known and treasured that curators and archivists have consistently transferred them to later formats as time passed. But many were not. Many were prepared for special occasions or events, and were never used again. Many were never collected by museums and archives, or were only shown in alternative spaces and galleries, and were then consigned to the shelf, never to be updated to modern formats.

As of this moment, the early video community probably will have to accept a high percentage of loss of early video material. This is tragic, but I, and others associated with our Project take the position that that portion of videotape that is salvageable should be aggressively collected and carefully restored. But this is an expensive proposition. Estimates for restoring a single AV tape seem to average about $100 per tape. Thousands were recorded, so you begin to understand the scale of the problems. For example, the Videofreex archive alone, if all the tapes in it were salvageable, could cost over $60,000 to restore.

Some steps are now being taken to achieve this. The Videofreex tapes, for example, are being collected by the VideoDataBank in Chicago for cataloging and, it is to be hoped, eventual restoration. About a dozen or so have been scheduled for early restoration with help from the NEA. The work will be done by the Bay Area Video Coalition, which has made a specialty of restoring AV-format videotapes.

Another company, a commercial firm in New York, VidiPax, has also done extensive research in restoration problems and techniques for restoring early videotapes.

A complete list of video archives, places where early videotapes await discovery and restoration would have to include many university libraries and film archives. I hope to compile this list, and I hope that they will send our Project lists of tapes that they have dating between 1968 and 1974, the portapak era.

Some of the others include Anthology Film Archives, Electronic Arts Intermix, The Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Experimental Television Center, Media Study/Buffalo, The University of Michigan Film and Video Library


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© Davidson Gigliotti, 2000CE