JAIC 2001, Volume 40, Number 3, Article 6 (pp. 259 to 266)
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 2001, Volume 40, Number 3, Article 6 (pp. 259 to 266)




Between Cinema and a Hard Place is a complex installation comprising 23 monitors that have been removed from their casing, exposing the circuit boards and cathode ray tubes and rendering them dangerous and vulnerable sculptural objects. These are arranged in groupings according to size to evoke the clusters of rocks that demarcate farmland. Via a computer-controlled switching device, Hill distributes the images to the monitors according to a defined pattern alongside a spoken text. The images are accompanied by three tracks of audio: on the first track a woman reads an extract from Martin Heideg-ger's “The Nature of Language” (Heidegger 1971); on the second track there is an echo of this voice; and on the third track there is a series of abstract sounds that punctuate the piece three times in its eight-minute cycle.

Hill's work focuses on the relationship between the viewer and language and image. Among the devices he uses to explore these ideas are the choice of the text, the relationship between the images and the text, and the rhythm of the spoken word. The time it takes for the text to be spoken defines the duration of the piece. Against this duration Hill explores ideas of time that are possible within the medium of video—for example, feedback, delay, and ideas of “real time. ” In experiencing the installation, one is aware of the strong rhythm of the words as they are spoken while the images play in different patterns like an accompaniment set against the notes of a melody. The interplay of sound and images is very precisely controlled and choreographed, providing a strong sense of a mathematical structure under-pinning the work.

Hill steers us away from the primacy of the image and has said,“If I have a position, it's to question the privileged place that image, and for that matter sight, hold in our consciousness” (quoted in Morgan 2000, 12). He has also said, “Language can be this incredibly forceful material—there's something about it where if you can strip away its history, get to the materiality of it, it can rip into you like claws, whereas images sometimes just slide off the edge of your mind, as if you were looking out a car window” (quoted in Furlong 2000, 196–97). As conservators trained to deal with visual media, it is all too easy to overlook the importance of the audio. If the meaning of the work is to inform our conservation practice, we need to understand the significance of the sculptural elements of the monitors, the time-based elements of the video and audio, and the nature of the space to develop an adequate conservation plan for the work. In many cases discussions will center on what changes are acceptable. Making and documenting these decisions are established features of traditional conservation practice.


At Tate we have established fairly standard procedures for managing the conservation of the video elements of an installation. When Hill's work was acquired, the Conservation Department transferred the master material onto a noncompressed component digital tape format at a professional video facility. A conservator is always present for the transfer of master material, and in some cases the artist is also present. The conservator's role is to check the authenticity of the master material as a copy of the original and to check that the color, brightness, and audio levels are correct. In addition the conservator documents any specific features of the master material for the conservation record and confirms that there are no queries arising during the transfer that should be discussed with the artist before the new archival master is accepted. The archival master tapes all have color bars and a reference tone for audio at the beginning of the tape, and the color is correct when viewed on a standardly calibrated monitor. At present the most widely supported noncompressed component digital tape format in London is D1. D1 is a professional video format that was introduced in 1986 and complies to the CCIR 601 Digital Video Standard. As a component video format the luminance and the chrominance information are recorded separately. At present D1 is the highest-quality magnetic recording format in use in the video industry, and it allows extensive duplication without loss of quality.

Videotape deteriorates and tape formats change, and it is essential that the master tapes are transferred before there is any loss of information. These archival master tapes are checked regularly and transferred onto new stock and new formats when necessary. We expect transfer to be necessary at least every five years (Laurenson 1999). The Tate's master tapes are played only when being checked or transferred or if they are needed to make new discs for display. In addition to making the archival master tapes, we also make a copy on Betacam SP (a professional analog tape format) and a VHS with time code recorded in picture for reference.

Gary Hill's installation uses laser disc as its display format. The production and management of high-quality archival master tapes make it possible either to make replacement laser discs if the originals are damaged or to convert material to a new display format when laser disc technology becomes obsolete.

At present all video material is stored in a fine art store conditioned to 45% RH and 18C, although in the future we hope to develop an area with a cooler environment for the storage of video.


The Conservation Department also manages the display equipment for works in the Tate Collection. On acquisition of Hill's work, schematics and manuals were acquired and manufacturers were contacted to discuss parts and spares.

The conservator together with the curator is responsible for ensuring that a work is accurately installed. To achieve accuracy, all equipment must be fully operational, set up correctly, and in good condition. As in the case of the monitors in Between Cinema and a Hard Place, this process is not necessarily straightforward, and it is important that the conservator understand enough about the technology to make the necessary judgments.

The display equipment in Hill's installation can be placed in two categories. The first contains those pieces of equipment that have become sculptural elements, namely the cathode ray tube monitors. The second category comprises those elements that are not visible and whose value is functional—for instance, the computer control system and laser disc players. In the following section I will use these examples to illustrate how this distinction affects the conservation strategies employed.


The 23 cathode ray tube monitors used in this installation have been modified by the artist and are essential to the look and feel of this work. Of the 23, 12 are 13 in. color monitors by Panasonic (model CT1383Y); 5 are 9 in. black-and-white monitors by Sanyo (Model VM4509); and 6 are 5 in. monitors by Panasonic (Model WV-5200). These monitors have been taken out of their casing and displayed as exposed tubes and circuit boards. The artist has said that he would not want the cathode ray tube monitors to be replaced by an alternative technology such as liquid crystal display panels or plasma screens, although he would accept the replacement of a deteriorated cathode ray tube with a new tube of the same shape and size.

Cathode ray tubes are today common elements of our domestic televisions and desktop computers, but certainly they will eventually become rare, given the rapid developments in alternative technologies. This is not a unique problem in the conservation of contemporary art. For example, in the 1970s Dan Flavin (1933–1996) made sculptures from standard colors of fluorescent tube, which were easily available at the time. Some of these colors are now no longer made, as manufacturing methods have changed due to the toxic nature of the components.

To exacerbate the problem of obsolescence, the cathode ray tubes also deteriorate with use. As the tube deteriorates, the brightness and color balance of the monitor are affected. The monitors of Hill's installation are set side by side so discrepancies in the color balance of the tubes are acutely visible. As the tubes get older, color-matching them becomes harder. Color is produced in television monitors by mixing the colors of red, green, and blue. Three scanning electron beams hit the phosphor screen at slightly different angles to excite different phosphors to produce red, green, and blue dots. The strength of the beams can be adjusted with potentiometers, altering the color balance in the picture.

The process of color balancing takes many hours and much concentration and needs to be carried out while the monitors are powered up. The close proximity to high-voltage elements makes this a dangerous procedure. In addition to the risk of electric shock, there is also a high risk of the boards shorting out. It may not be necessary for the conservator to carry out this procedure but rather to understand it and ensure that the desired effect is achieved.

The majority of the monitors were made by Panasonic. Panasonic will usually hold spares for specific components for eight years after production has ceased. Recognizing these threats to the long-term life of the cathode ray tubes, we have obtained spares and schematics to facilitate replacement and repair when necessary. On acquisition of the artwork, a full set of spare monitors was acquired; however, even in the few years between the making of the work and its acquisition by Tate, aspects of the design had subtly changed. To date, individual components in three circuit boards have failed; two were successfully repaired by a commercial company recommended by Panasonic.

Since the monitors deteriorate while being used, we must also be mindful of the amount of time the work can be on display, in the same way as we are with a watercolor or a light-sensitive photograph.

The laser disc players, discs, audio equipment, and computer control system are the functional elements out of view, and the conservation strategy is different from the approach to functional elements that are visible. If the technology fails and these elements become obsolete it would be acceptable to the artist to substitute these components with an entirely new technology but only if their function were the same. This strategy accommodates the problems of obsolescence and enables a work to continue to be shown. However, the complexity of precisely mapping the function of a particular technology should not be underestimated. As conservators, it is appropriate that we should be reluctant to change any element of the original technology and consider it a loss. It might also be argued that precisely reproducing the function is impossible, in the same way that purists argue about the difference between the sound of a CD and a vinyl recording. However, just as it might be necessary to replace old varnish in order to be able to see a painting, it is important to prepare for the replacement of these elements of equipment in order to continue to be able to show the work. As with any intervention, the conservator must justify such a change in accordance with the code of conservation ethics that governs the profession.

Each part of the display equipment is dependent on the others for creating the resulting play of images and sound. If one element is changed—for example, the use of laser disc technology—there is a risk that the whole system could collapse and no longer work correctly. It is therefore necessary to understand the precise role of each piece of equipment—what it does and how it relates to other pieces and how the system functions as a whole.


The system that controls which images are sent to which monitors at what time is made up of the laser disc players and discs, the laptop computer, the time code reader, the synchronizer and the video switcher.

The value of the laser disc players is largely functional, and the risk factors to consider, in this case, are mechanical failure in the short term and the obsolescence of the whole technology in the medium term. The actual object, the laser disc player, is not visible, and its appearance is not significant to the artist's choice of the model or the technology. Rather, it is the ability of the laser disc players to provide a frame-accurate reference in delivery of sound and images that is the basis of their value to the installation.

The display format of the audio and video is the constant angular velocity (CAV) laser disc. These discs rotate at a constant speed, and one revolution of the disc corresponds exactly to one frame, making it possible to accurately reference one frame on the disc. Each disc has three sections of video recorded, each of which is exactly, to the accuracy of one frame, 8 minutes and 15 seconds long. Each section has two audio channels. The audio channels for the section played by player 1 provide the analog time code signal on one channel, which is sent via a standard phono plug to a time code reader, and the spoken text in English on the other. The audio channels for the section played by player 2 provide the echo of the spoken text in English and the spoken text in German. The audio channels for the section played by player 3 provide the echo of the German text and the abstract sounds that punctuate the piece. When installed, it is possible for the text to be spoken in either German or English. A synchronizer built and designed by Dave Jones Design tells each of the discs to start playing a portion of the disc at a particular frame, providing accurately synchronized playback.

The second audio output plays an analog time code signal and is connected to the time code reader. The time code reader converts this analog signal to a digital data stream that goes to the computer. When the computer receives the time code information, it looks it up in the data file; if there is a match, it sends the information to the video switcher. The video switcher treats these as instructions and sends the video to the monitors as instructed. The work is created with three possible streams of video image plus black, and the switcher can show those images in any combination on any of the monitors.

The computer control system is not a mass-market product but was developed by Dave Jones Design (Jones 1996). Using this system, Gary Hill wrote the specific program that runs Between Cinema and a Hard Place. With the help of Dave Jones, it has been possible to access the program and to write a description of the data file. The result is akin to a score describing the 3,199 different actions written in the program. The actions or changes determine which section of the laser discs are played at what time, on which monitors, and for how long. Table 1 shows a sample of one row from the documentation for the control program. It tells us what is happening at a particular moment 6 minutes, 37 seconds, and 20 frames into playing the discs.

With the complete document it would be possible, if it became necessary, to use this as a basis for writing a program using a different system, possibly for a different display technology, and map the function of the original. Mapping the function of the elements in this way helps reduce the dependency of the installation on any particular technology or item of equipment. The software designed by Dave Jones, the program written by Gary Hill for this work, and a copy of the DOS operating system are stored on the Tate's main server and also on CD.

Hill says,“Between Cinema and a Hard Place plays with the construct of frames as it relates to photography and cinema. Images from single sources are distributed by computer-controlled electronic switching to several monitors. There are certain sections where scenes divide into two scenes, three scenes and so on. With each division all the scenes slow down—half-speed, third-speed, quarter-speed, etc. It is a kind of telescopic time that makes the viewer aware of the process of seeing—of beholding the world through sight that exists in the folds of time” (Hill 1993, 295).

Table . Sample from the Documentation for the External Control Program

With the information from the program, it is possible to pinpoint a section Hill gives as an example of the ideas referred to in this passage using a time code reference. There is a section where images that have been recorded in real time are played back on four monitors. Each monitor displays a particular sequence—a trowel digging the soil, the removal of clothes hanging on the back of a chair, etc. When the scene is not being played on any one monitor, there are two frames of black. This has the effect of making the images appear to be slowed down. In the same way as we might be interested in the way a painter employs brush stroke to create the intensity and energy of the image, here we can see how the artist has manipulated the medium of video to create a study of the world, time, and language.

Copyright 2001 American Institution for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works