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Modern Technology and Modern Art: MoMA Commissions ‘9 Screens’ Video Installation

As part of an ongoing effort to expand the offerings at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the institution’s associate director, Kathy Halbreich, commissioned freelance artist Nicolas Guagnini to put together a video installation above the admission desk in the lobby. The result, 9 Screens, is an exhibition of multi-channel video projects that runs on the nine 40-inch LCD screens that have generally been used to display generic information about admission prices and exhibits.

Excerpt: Alejandro Cesarco, “Turning Some Pages,” 2010
Trouble seeing the video above? Click here.

The presentations run between 12 minutes and over three hours in length and take a variety of approaches to the use of the space. Each artist’s presentation is run on a continuous loop for three weeks during the run of the exhibition. “Usually there’s just ticket and exhibit information up there,” says museum multimedia specialist Howard Deitch. “For the most part, people ignore it, which is sad because it is quite nice.”

Guagnini didn’t want to impose difficult restrictions on the individual artists, so they were permitted to shoot and post in whatever format worked best for them. But this freedom introduced technical challenges into the process of getting the videos, all of which were shot in different formats and frame rates, onto the museum’s screens without degrading image quality.

Deitch explains that the museum uses a Dataton Watchout multi-display program, which was state of the art five years ago and was more than powerful enough to handle the data load required for the original purpose of the screens as signage. The system involves an individual computer for each screen and a master computer that controls them all.

Excerpt: Union Gaucha Productions, “As Long As It Lasts,” 2010
Trouble seeing the video above? Click here.

“When a video artist makes a piece, that might look great,” he says, “but if you want to play it back on a computer, you have to make sure you can convert it into a video format that the computer and display system can handle and still retain the quality you’re hoping to see it at. You can take any type of video and play it, but it won’t necessarily play right because there are details specific to every type of system.”

Artist Lior Shvil was brought in to configure the exhibition in Watchout. “We had some HD, some HDV, some DV,” he says. “I would work with the artists, helping them export their finished videos to some format that the system could handle technically so that it wouldn’t stutter because of the frame rate or just look terrible because of compression required. There were different issues for just about every artist’s work. One project used the newest QuickTime compression, which doesn’t work on PCs, so we recompressed with a different version of QuickTime. HDV doesn’t work on the Watchout, system so we had to export that material as MPEG-2.”

“For a project like this,” says Deitch, “there will always be some kind of compression necessary to play back something shot with today’s technology using a system that has aged a few years and doesn’t have the speed or processing power necessary to display it in its native format.” Today’s QuickTime and H.264 are powerful and effective codecs, but Deitch says they were by no means the answer to every display challenge that came along.

That said, reports have it that the exhibit has been well received by the museum’s patrons, and Guagnini is very happy with the project and the museum’s willingness to experiment in this way. “This is my first work at the Museum of Modern Art,” he says. “It’s a major breakthrough for me and many of the artists involved in the project.”

And Deitch, who’s been responsible for this bank of monitors since long before 9 Screens came about, is likewise quite pleased with the project. “You walk into the area now and it doesn’t just feel like a lobby,” he says. “You get the feeling as soon as you enter that you’re in a space where an artist has a work installed.”

9 Screens runs through May 18.

Exhibition Schedule
Feb. 3–22, Alejandro Cesarco, Turning Some Pages
Feb. 24–March 15, Union Gaucha Productions, As Long as It Lasts
March 17–April 5, Bernadette Corporation, Take Your Time
April 7–26, John Pilson, Frolic and Detour
April 28–May 18, Fia Backström, Misty Harbor—at your leisure

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