Founded in 1976, Video Data Bank is one of the largest distributors of artist-produced videos. Their catalog includes works by artists including Bruce Nauman, Joan Jonas, Jem Cohen, Vito Acconci, Sadie Benning, Paul Chan, and many more. In addition to its distribution activities, Video Data Bank also has an extensive preservation program, aimed at ensuring the longevity of artists' works in the highest possible quality for future distribution and exhibition.
This interview was conducted by Carolyn Faber in November 2014.
VIDEO DATA BANK: HISTORY
Q: Tell me about the mission and history of the Video Data Bank.
Tom Colley: Video Data Bank first and foremost is a distributor of art, and we archive the work as well. We started as an outgrowth of organization at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the early 70s, from the video department that Phil Morton ran. And we were officially incorporated into the organization we are now in 1976 by Lynn Blumenthal and Kate Horsfeld. We distribute video art. We sell and rent works of video art to museums, various other sorts of film and video festivals and screening venues. We sell a lot of work to university libraries for teaching purposes. And we represent the artists, so when we sell or rent the work, we pay royalties to the artists. So our mission, then, is to promote video art, to represent our artists and get them recognition and reimbursement for their work, and to also keep video art alive and available to future generations.
The collection started with Kate and Lynn doing interviews with visiting artists and other artists talking about art and art practice, as well as just things that happened to be around in the school and in the video department. And then they started taking on other work and actively distributing the work. Then sometime around the early to mid-90s they began to realize, "Oh, we have to not just be a distributor, but we have to be an archive as well, because we have this large collection of stuff. In some cases we might have the only copy or the best copy of this work." And they started, Kate started to think about preservation more and getting some of the old work transferred from early obsolete formats.
Q: When did the Video Data Bank first start thinking about preservation?
TC: When we started out in the 70s, I don't think people were thinking about preservation yet because there hadn't been that much time for the machines and tape formats to become obsolete. I think the main thing that started us thinking about it was in the mid-90s when we released a box set called "Surveying the First Decade", which was a retrospective look at work from 1968 to 1980. And we compiled a lot of work. We worked with Electronic Arts Intermix [eai.org], so some of their work was on there, some of the work that we represented, and some work from other places. It was meant to be an overview of all the different streams of video making in the 1970s. So while doing that we realized, "Oh some of these tapes are in really bad shape. They're on formats that we're not able to copy - if we're going to go back to the original and try to get better a copy, then we don't have the players." So doing that got us into preservation and thinking about it more. And then it just evolved.
WORKING WITH ARTISTS
Q: To what degree do the artists that you work with want to be involved with the preservation of their work, and how does preservation factor into the acquisition process?
TC: It's all over the place with the older work that we have. Some artists, for example William Wegman, who has a studio, access to big facilities and cares about his work—he went ahead and did preservation on all of his work and then just gave us masters. And then in some cases we are the only—the artists may have lost the originals, or have them, but no means of playing them or the funding necessary to do it. So in some cases we lead it. Some artists are like, "Yeah, do whatever you can," and somewhat be involved. So, it's all over the place. In some cases we're transferring the best master we have to a digital master. And in some cases we are working with the artist to see if they have a better master than we have. We seldom have the artist here working on it with us really, really close together on that. So there's a wide spectrum. But in general, we are doing it ourselves from the original masters that the artists gave us at some point along the way.
It really depends, because we work with so many different sorts of artists who have different levels of technical capabilities themselves, and different levels of financial resources and different sorts of work. Like some artists have lots of short work that's really easy. It doesn't add up to be really expensive. But then some artists have lots of really long work and it's all over the place.
Q: Do you find that some artists expect that that's your job? That they don't want to think about preservation really, but they're prepared for you to deal with that?
TC: I think most of our artists understand that they need to take some responsibility. I think particularly there is an awareness of it with our younger artists, or artists who are still producing work that we are taking in. I think that most of them are pretty good about it. They may not be doing it in the best possible ways, but they're at least keeping everything on hard drives and copying it over when they get a new hard drive. It seems like there is an awareness of people needing to keep their own archives. I could be wrong on that. But I think it's easier too because it's all digital. You just copy all your stuff over. And in some ways I think it's easier with video art, which is different than television productions and feature film type work which can get really complicated. Video art is often one person shooting it all and one person editing it all. It's often personal work. So with video art you usually don't have all the extra footage - the raw footage and outtakes you have with other types of productions - you don't end up with all this stuff that you have to worry about preserving as much as the final piece.
Q: So you don't get full-on collections with all the papers, raw footage, outtakes and all that.
TC: We don't. That's something we don't deal with at all. An artist gives us the final piece and we do preservation work on that final piece. So that in some ways makes preservation a lot easier when you're just working with final title and not all the elements of things.
Tom Colley manages technical services at the Video Data Bank at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and is responsible for fulfilling orders and organizing the collection. His activities involve cataloging, preservation, digitization, dubbing, and equipment maintenance. In addition, Tom collaborates in running the Butcher Shop, an artist-run studio space in Chicago. He is also an active member of AMIA, the Association of Moving Image Archivists. He received a bachelor's degree in Art and Anthropology from Oberlin College, and a master's degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois.