Phil Morton / Living Archive
QUESTION: Who was Phil Morton?
JON CATES: Phil Morton was a remarkable individual who was in many ways someone who saw beyond his time. He was an artist who came to SAIC in the late sixties, and in 1969 he was here and he discovered that the art education program had a video camera that they didn't know what to do with. Nobody really had a background in video, there was no such thing as having a background in video in the late sixties. He had come from other disciplines, but he quickly adopted video as an art form and then he founded what became the video department and what became the first degrees in video art to be offered in a fine arts context in the world, as far as I know, and certainly in the United States by creating what became the video department.
So it was a small community, but it was tightly knit and Phil Morton was a really important figure because he created this academic program. He created this set of resources that were for sharing and for free distribution. They were for remix, they were for viewing and exchange and his own work as an artist was also genre defining. He had an approach which we could now describe as remixalogical, but at the time nobody had really ever seen anything like his work. So his work was very hard to qualify or quantify, but it was exciting and people were excited by it. He had a very active career as an artist internationally from the global south and Latin America to Europe, Paris, nationally and of course locally here in Chicago. But that activity and dynamism was really consolidated within the decade of the 1970s. He kept on working into the 1980s but his work really radically changed over time and while he was in Chicago, from the late '60s to the early/mid-80s, that was the heart of his artistic activity.
Q: Where did the collection come from, how did it end up here and related to that, did Morton consciously construct a collection of his work as an archive to be repurposed or did that come later?
CATES: He did, I'll start at the last question. He did consciously construct an archive of what he called his own personal databases, his own personal databank; those were phrases that he used. So he did collect his own work for the purpose of rework and what we would now call remix. The idea was that it should be shared, it should be available freely, it should be copied. This is where copy-it-right comes from, as an ethic and as a licensing scheme.
He had this personal database, personal databank of his raw material, and raw material processed with the Sandin image processor. He was the first person to build a copy of the Sandin image processor and he's the person who made it possible for other people to copy, to build their own Sandin image processors. He was very much into creating the documentation for how they would build the first copy which then became the plans for all subsequent copies of the Sandin image processor. That changed the landscape of video art, the fact that people could build their own Sandin image processor. Those plans, they're called the Distribution Religion and they were released under COPY-IT-RIGHT which is basically open source, what we would now refer to as open sourced hardware. People could make their own modifications and then send it back to Sandin and Morton and then they would include it in all the next versions, and some people made very serious modifications which were then included. In open source software development that's called forking. So now we have vocabulary for it, but back then these were all just Xerox copies that they would send through the mail.
Q: Are those Xerox copies part of the collection?
Q: So how did the collection end up in your care?
CATES: My research was into this area because I discovered this work and as I say, Phil Morton was very active, has a very robust CV from this era from the 1970s into the early/mid-1980s. But then for lots of different reasons it was not as available anymore. And the fact that he started this department, or what would become this department wasn't well-known or discussed. So I rediscovered it and I was, as a new media artist, as a digital artist, I was immediately connected to what I found. I thought, "I understand this," this is exactly everything that I think and believe but it's from the 1970s. It's not from the 2000s or the '90s. I was super excited. So I just dove into it as deeply as I could and I gathered up everything I could find.
Q: What formats are in the collection, what's the size and the scope of it?
CATES: There are over five hundred tapes. There are also paper files and slides and Polaroid photography. The slides and Polaroid photography and paper files are mostly in this room in those cardboard boxes underneath the shelves. There are just over five hundred videotapes. Those are in open reel, ¾" and VHS. The open reel is the least number. Obviously they're the most unstable and we don't currently have the technology to transfer them or to even view them, so they have not been touched, except to be just moved from one place to the other. The 3/4" are the most original of the formats, original copies or original masters of the artworks and the raw materials and the processed materials. So those, the 3/4"s are the heart of what has been digitized so far. I've started digitizing 3/4"s by myself and then over the years I've had students who were interested who assisted at different times.
The transcodes are first pass. They're not corrected or cleaned. At the very basic level, I started off using a time base corrector, a TBC. That is a departmental resource that I was able to use. So when I started I would just put in a 3/4" inch tape and back when I started I would put in a DV tape. I would kind of forward and rewind in order to get the 3/4" ready to playback and then I would playback and record and I would be sitting with a time base corrector and correcting a little bit just to get a stable image but I didn't care if there was glitches or dirtiness or errors because the point was just to get a copy as quickly as possible. Then I would take those DV tapes and I would capture them and make them available on the Internet. I didn't care if there were glitches or dirt or errors, because the point was to get the message out to the world about who this person was and what he had done and what the energy of the times had been.
Q: If money and resources and access to all the bells and whistles in terms of migrating legacy formats weren't an issue, would you want to go back and transfer them differently, would you do anything differently?
CATES: For me the goal is to build the discourse, not to have perfect image quality because you can't, it's not real, it's a fantasy. I mean I have friends who work to create those kinds of perfect images for artists or for institutions and I know as well as they do that what they create is their creation and it's not what that work was. The past is irrecoverable, past events have occurred, you can't go back to them. We can't, we can imagine what it was like in 1973 when this was all happening, but we can't go back there. A beautiful analogue image on a CRT screen; a live, real time audio video process by Morton on Sandin's system, you can't recover that. That happened in the past and it was beautiful back then, I'm sure, but we can't; you can make something else that's beautiful that helps people imagine what 1973 looked like, but it's a radically different creation.
Q: So the people watching the images that you've transcoded and they're seeing glitches and dropouts and errors, you're not concerned that those are errors that were intended or not intended?
CATES: No, they were unintended. I mean, If I feel conflicted about it now, it's more about the misperception that this error, specifically in Chicago, that video art is directly connected to glitch art. That's more what I'm concerned about. Whenever I hear it, I try to correct it, I try to talk to the people who are starting to say this. I try to say, I'm sorry, that's not true, that's not how it was, and then I explain the social patterns that led to people's perception. But the cat's kind of out of the bag. You can't put it back, to some extent and so, in the 2000s, I thought that it would add a patina of age. I thought people would understand, "Oh, this means older, this means recovered," but people didn't understand that. And the tools improve in the sense of resolution so now you could potentially go back, you could make different transcodes, but there's still so much to transcode and when we make new transcodes now, they're 4k, they're HD, they're ProRes, they're more beautiful, but they're also much larger files. The file sizes, the data is larger, it's more unwieldy because it's bigger, that slows us down, it slows me down. I tried not to get weighed down by all that you know.
There is still so much from the archive that has not been digitized that I don't have time to go make a perfect pristine copy of General Motors by Phil Morton, let's say, which would be the number one thing that he would want to, because that's the most well known piece of his. So I don't have time to go back and make a beautiful copy of General Motors, but somebody should do that, that would be great if somebody wanted to do that, but I'm just trying to get new stuff through the pipeline and then get new stuff out on the internet so that somebody who is 18 can see this work that they've never heard of before. And make remixes out of it. That's my agenda.
Q: Who are the intended users or the primary users of the archive?
CATES: I don't want to foreclose any possibilities. There are students here and students everywhere, connecting with a local history that happened here. And then there's new media digital art people from everywhere. This is a certain kind of genealogy, there's a certain kind of historical reference point or legacy that you could connect to and in some ways they saw things that we're dealing with right now that are as unresolved now as they were in 1973. So it undoes a narrative about technological progress or historical positivism, it undoes some of that, to teach it. Artists, students, media histories.
Q: Is there a place people can go to to see the work online?
CATES: So copyitright.org is the site where things come together. Again, the point of this approach that I took was to get things out as quickly as possible. So everything is here.
I had talked with Steina Vasulka about what to do and how to do things and Steina said some really important things to me. Things that I took to heart, like don't worry about the original tapes, just don't get rid of them, but don't worry about them. In the future there might be new technologies, there always are, we can probably fix the tapes in the future, don't worry about them, just don't ever get rid of them. And so that was liberating because then I thought, okay, it's not about like perfection of the tape or the perfection of the copy of the tape, it's really about dissemination, distribution and getting the word out. There was a mistake that I think some people, some archives made where they felt like they had to do everything themselves, like they had to host the video files themselves, they had to transcode the video files themselves, they had to manage a website where they were, that contained those video files that they themselves managed, never letting any of that stuff go. Basically, having your own servers for that and my idea was always,no, just get it out to people as quickly as possible so people can find it and can connect with it.
Q: I want to go back to COPY-IT-RIGHT. Can you just go back to the beginning and tell me what that is?
CATES: So, COPY-IT-RIGHT is an ethical position in which copying is ethically correct, it's morally good and it's technically necessary. There's truth to all of those positions. That's also one of the ways in which Phil Morton saw very clearly in his present, what we would now consider his future. Everything that we're looking at, everything is a copy. That's part of digital technology and that is not a bad thing. That is a good thing and a necessary thing and that's what he represented. He knew that copying was good, morally right and technically necessary.
So he would license and release his work under this idea of COPY-IT-RIGHT and that meant that other people should copy it correctly, which meant they should, number one, copy it, and number two, there is an issue actually of fidelity. Now the one thing, I think Phil, if I could imagine what he would think, I do think that the issue of the technical fidelity of the work would be one that he would still take issue with. That it doesn't look as clean and crisp and beautiful, that it doesn't have the frequency range that the analogue material had because I know that was really important to him and upsetting to him about digital. It looked low res, at his time. So copying it right is also copying it with fidelity, like making a good copy of it, but copying it is actually maybe more important than the fidelity. Distribution, getting it out there, getting the word out there.
Q: Switching gears a little bit, this was a great segue actually into talking about you as a new media artist, or would you call yourself that -
CATES: I do.
Q: - and preservation. It's obviously founded on ideas of fixity, constancy, reliability, which is sort of antithetical to what new media work is about, so what are your thoughts about attempts to preserve new media work?
CATES: I don't think that all preservation is based on those rigid concepts of fixity or permanence. I mean, you know, permanence through change, for instance is, are you familiar with that project?
CATES: There is an acknowledgement within new media art or within media art more generally that there are forms of permanence that are about change. There's an acknowledgement that new media is unstable, it's changing, it's changeable. We don't have to permanently lock, and in many cases we can't permanently lock, a device, piece of hardware or software into a certain state and then keep it in that state forever. It's just not technically possible or it's not realistic. I mean even if it is technically possible to maintain something for a long time, it's not really realistic to commit to try and do that forever. Now that's not to say that you shouldn't. Again, like Steina said to me about the tapes, you don't get rid of the devices, even after they don't function because their industrial design does matter, the shape of the shape of that Commodore 64, (points towards a Commodore 64 system [monitor, keyboard computer, tape drive and disk drives] in his office) that's mine from when I was a kid. I mean it matters to me, it's shape matters to me. The squareness of the monitor matters to me. Their industrial design matters, but the circuit board, okay no, you can't really necessarily maintain that circuit board forever and you, I don't think, should realistically be overly attached to that agenda. It's not rational or healthy.
Q: Are you taking steps with your own work?
CATES: There's a few folds. One fold is maintaining a lot of personal archives, maintaining a lot of data, keeping the data in motion, you know, recovering drives when they go down. Using open formats whenever possible. Using the plain text format whenever possible. Using open sourced solutions whenever possible.
The other thing that I do - I have a new artwork that's up in this glitch art exhibition and that is an archive of fifteen years of activity and it's a personal archive of mine and I'm giving it to everybody who wants it, so that's another step that I take. It's just to distribute as much as possible because it's not wise to hoard anything, cats or data, it's not wise.
Q: Was there anything you want to go back to or add? This is, you know, primarily an audience of artists, but something that would also be useful to conservators or others managing and preserving this kind of work.
CATES: Sure, well, giving stuff away or making it available and making it accessible, or sharing or distributing or copying, those are all positively valued activities from my perspective. And it doesn't mean you have to give everything away, it doesn't mean that nothing has any value and it doesn't mean that you'll lose everything or anything. And it also doesn't mean that everyone will be interested in everything or everyone will be interested in anything. You don't know, but if you don't make it available, then there's no possibility or potential for people to discover something that might resonate or be meaningful to them. So I think that's a really important aspect, it's healthy for one's own practice, but it's also healthy for other people's practices to be able to discover, to have their own sense of discovery when they encounter materials that they've never seen before. And it contributes to the discourse, it contributes to the plurality of multiple histories which can be recounted instead of having to rely on some monolithic version of what occurred, which is never complete. And incompleteness is not negative, it's not a reason not to do something. It's reality, and you just need to acknowledge that and say, okay, you know, this is the part of it I can contribute and I'll make it meaningful to me and maybe other people will discover meaning in it for themselves and be able to use it in ways that I can't imagine. And that's exciting and cool and not a problem.