Quaking Aspens: An Autumnal Adventure in Archival Preservation

My involvement in the exhibition Videofreex: The Art of Guerrilla Television (February 7-July 12, 2015) has led to a new preservation initiative: the multi-channel installation Quaking Aspens. This came about as a result of a Google search related to filmmaker Shirley Clarke whose process-oriented work in video had a strong influence on the Freex. That search took me to a Bay Area Video Coalition blog post describing the preservation of the Clarke Collection, located at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research. The article refers to tapes from a 1974 Hampshire College event presented by Clarke’s Tee Pee Video Space Troupe, an ensemble that included Videofreex members. My colleague Jon Nealon, who with Jenny Raskin is getting closer to completing the forthcoming documentary film Here Come the Videofreex!, encouraged me to request the complete Clarke inventory from Wisconsin. Reviewing the list, Jon spotted Quaking Aspens, a set of four ½” open reel copies by Videofreex member Davidson Gigliotti. Apparently, Davidson gave these copies to Shirley as a gift.

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Very early in the development of the exhibition, the Videofreex and the Dorsky were eager to include a multi-channel work by Davidson, who was among the first artists to explore this art form and also one of the first to write critically about it. A multi-channel video installation consists of two or more display devices used in the same work of art, in proximity to each other and in the same viewing space. In Beryl Korot and Ira Schneider’s Video Art anthology, Davidson wrote, “One of the things that video art has to be is a search for new methods of structuring information. Multi-channel work seems to offer flexibility and precision, both visually and temporally, and so it seems attractive to me.”

While living and working with the Videofreex at Maple Tree Farm in Lanesville, Davidson generated a series of landscape-based installations using a structuralist approach. The first was Quaking Aspens (1972), a 20-minute four-channel work shot near Maple Tree Farm, the live/work space of the Videofreex in Lanesville, NY.  It features 90-second segments of tape recorded several times a day over a period of one month. The result is a lush, painterly study of nature and its formal qualities. Translucent leaves flutter in the wind like birds or twinkling stars. Insects fly, waters rush, and woodpeckers peck. A chainsaw buzzes as the camera fixes on group of sturdy tree trunks. A voice asks, “This is a Quaking Aspens isn’t it?” The work was exhibited the following year at The Kitchen.

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A still from one of four reels of Davidson Gigliotti’s Quaking Aspens shot at Maple Tree Farm.

Davidson and Maurice in an editing studio

Davidson Gigliotti and engineer Maurice Schechter at DuArt.

There are 1” IVC masters of Quaking Aspens held at Anthology Film Archives, but regrettably the original equipment was lost, a problem because that deck had some particular idiosyncrasies. Using another 1″ deck (and they are rare!) would require some expensive time-based error correction. Our cheaper and more efficient alternative is to remaster the first-generation ½” copies from the Shirley Clarke Collection. The Videofreex preferred that we work with DuArt, a venerable New York post-production facility that restored Beryl Korot’s Dachau 1974, currently on view at the Tate Modern. After much deliberation with Videofreex members, DuArt’s chief engineer Maurice Schechter and his colleague Erik Piil (who also doubles as Digital Archivist at Anthology Film Archives), we decided to restore the first of the four ½” reels as a test. Davidson and I met with Maurice to view the transfer.

There’s dropout—white lines on the image that representing missing information—but Maurice assured us that this damage is from the original 1” master. This copy was likely not played all that much. Yes, if we transferred the 1” IVC master directly to digital, the audio would be cleaner and the image would be a touch sharper. However, Davidson declared the quality of the transfer suitable for exhibition. Here’s hoping a pending grant comes through to support editing the tapes precisely for synchronization and cleaning up some of the errors. But not too clean! Davidson declared the work an historic “artifact” produced using rather primitive video technology. In a brief conversation I had with Beryl Korot concerning the restoration of Dachau 1974, she stressed that the goal should not be a shiny, polished HD-like image. It’s critical to retain the original texture of the work.

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