Creating video art from the Beursschouwburg archive

Beursschouwburg, the Brussels arts organisation, celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2015. They organised lots of festivities to mark this special occasion – looking back at their history but also providing a glimpse of what lies ahead. Young artists were given the opportunity to do their creative thing with the institution’s past. Floris Vanhoof, for example, was commissioned to create a video wall using the video archive. But how do you go about making a new piece of work with videos from an arts organisation’s archive?

The following report looks at the possibility of re-using archive content in a new creation. We don’t discuss how to preserve video and media art in any detail here, but you can find more information about this on the SCART website.

Problem

To celebrate its 50th birthday, Beursschouwburg resurrected some past performances, showing old works again and shining a spotlight on certain events and initiatives. The arts centre also commissioned several young artists to create new pieces of work about the organisation and its history. Or as they put it themselves: ‘The Expo The future = Beurssc50uwburg, brings old acquaintances from its 50-year history together with (young) artists to work with the building and its past.’ Floris Vanhoof was one of these young artists, and he got to work with Beursschouwburg’s audiovisual archive.

Method

Video identification

Beursschouwburg’s audiovisual archive was located in two separate places:

  1. At ARGOS, Centre for audiovisual arts, where Beursschouwburg has transferred its video archive.
  2. At Beursschouwburg itself: a shopping trolley and a number of boxes were ‘discovered’ here – containing video tapes in various formats such as Betacam, U-matic, Betamax, VHS, MiniDV and DVCAM. Nobody knew what content was on these video tapes.

Floris felt attracted to Beursschouwburg’s history and the role the organisation had played in developing Belgian video art. Experimental and new work has always been central to what Beursschouwburg does, so multimedia and video art has always occupied a prominent place. There was the Videotheek (‘Video store’) in the 1980s, for example, where visitors could watch art films at all times. Floris had himself been taught by Frank Vranckx, who was responsible for the Videotheek in the 1980s and worked for De Nieuwe Workshop, which later became Beursschouwburg.

But because nobody knew what content was on the videos, Floris had to play back and watch the tapes one by one. Fortunately, Beursschouwburg had the right playback equipment for each video format.

What was on the video tapes?

  • filmed annual reports;
  • shows;
  • interviews;
  • meetings;
  • performances;
  • concerts;
  • theatre productions;
  • video art;
  • lectures.

Floris then selected the clips he found most interesting from these video recordings. Among other things, this included footage of:

  • A lecture by Mark Pauline about Survival Research Laboratories combined with demonstrations by Luc Steels, founder and former head of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB);
  • A lecture about a new house style for Beursschouwburg;
  • Hollywood fragments, a found footage film by Albert Pepermans and Frank Vranckx;
  • Recordings of the interior of the Beursschouwburg before it was refurbished.

Using videos stored by ARGOS

ARGOS was founded after De Nieuwe Workshop was disbanded in 1985, and it focused on distributing video art. The videos from the Videotheek therefore became part of the ARGOS collection. Beursschouwburg also transferred its video archive to ARGOS in December 2000 - January 2001. Frank Vranckx was one of the sources of inspiration behind De Nieuwe Workshop and a driving force for video art in Belgium. He was a director at the Audiovisual Department at KUL and made videos with various performers. He also started the Beursschouwburg Videotheek, where he took care of the programming for video and visual arts. Visitors were also able to watch video art in the Videotheek, and Beursschouwburg had agreements in place with major distributors such as Montevideo and Electronic Arts Intermix for this. Some of the tapes were not returned to the distributors afterwards and remained at Beursschouwburg.

Floris was planning to also watch the Beursschouwburg videos that were in the ARGOS collection and use them for his work, but he encountered some difficulties here. The videos that he picked out from ARGOS had not yet been digitised and could no longer be played for preservation reasons. Old video tapes like these are too susceptible to damage to be played back. The people at ARGOS also incorrectly understood that Floris wanted to use the actual video tapes for his installation, and not their digitised versions, which ARGOS – as a collection management institution – of course couldn’t sanction. Floris was however allowed to look at the video tape covers on their premises.

He then decided to interview and film Frank Vranckx as they browsed through the Videotheek’s paper catalogue and looked at the Beursschouwburg footage. Frank had compiled the catalogue himself during his time at the Videotheek, after all. Floris was fascinated to see what memories and associations these written archive items evoked for Frank.

He used this new footage for the video wall.

Building the video wall

The video wall was built using 26 cathode ray tube monitors, which Floris chose to use for several reasons. First of all, they are the display equipment of choice for watching early video art. This equipment is also obsolete and wearing out, just like video tapes themselves. He used a magnetic switch to distribute the video signal over all the monitors.

Sint-Lukas Brussels digitised and further processed the videos to create the montage. They made the images clearer to make a big impression on the cathode ray tube monitors, and digitised them for their long-term preservation. But conversely, it was precisely the aspects of decay that Floris found interesting. He also didn’t intend for his work of art to last forever. The strength of the magnetic switch that distributed the video signal across the monitors distorted and weakened the signal, making the images less and less clear as they were spread across more devices.

Opening the video wall

Beursschouwburg’s festive period kicked off with a 50-hour marathon party offering some 50 activities. One of these was the live launch of the video wall, which Floris held a performance for.

Results

  • A video work was created using the Beursschouwburg video archive. Floris managed to view and identify the Beursschouwburg videos, and digitise the clips he wanted to use.
  • As a result of the work carried out by Floris, the videos at ARGOS were ‘rediscovered’ by current Beursschouwburg employees. The video tapes left behind at Beursschouwburg were inventoried and transferred to ARGOS. Steps were undertaken to digitise this audiovisual archive so that it will also be preserved for the future.

Author: Nastasia Vanderperren (meemoo)

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