The following text is an excerpt from a full Assessment Report written as part of my course work in the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation MA program at NYU in April of 2015. If you are interested I would highly encourage you to read the full report here.
The collection of video artist, theorist, writer, and educator Paul Ryan is housed in an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where Ryan lived and worked for much of his career. Ryan’s widow, Jean Gardner, lives in the apartment and is the current steward of the collection.
Paul Ryan was a pioneer of his field and can be considered one of the first video artists. “In 1969, Ryan participated in the landmark exhibition ‘TV as a Creative Medium’ curated by Howard Wise, which served to link the kinetic art movement of the 1960s with the emergent medium of video art. The first exhibition in the United States devoted to video, ‘TV as a Creative Medium’ signaled radical changes and defined an emerging artistic movement.” Other notable exhibitions in Ryan’s career as an artist include: "The Primitivism Show" in The Museum of Modern Art (1984), "The American Century Show" at the Whitney Museum of American Art (1999-2000), and the Venice Biennale (2002).” (1)
Ryan’s interest in video developed out of theory, studying under thinkers like Marshall McLuhan, whose prophetic concepts about the “global village” and the inherent biases of media are now common place. It was while working for McLuhan at Fordham University that Ryan met Frank Gillette. Their shared interest and passion for video eventually spawned the Raindance Corporation in 1969. “RainDance Corporation” a play on the term R&D, and mockingly reminiscent of the Rand Corporation, was later renamed the Raindance Foundation in 1971, when the group became a 501(c)3 non-profit. (2) “A self-described ‘countercultural think tank,’” Raindance was a kind of breeding ground for video art and an exploration of video’s implications. (3) One of Raindance’s major projects was the publication Radical Software, first release in 1970.
“Issue one of Radical Software contained an article by Gillette on media ecology and another on the evils of EVR (a proprietary playback system developed by CBS); by Paul Ryan on the communication possibilities of cable TV; by Gene Youngblood on ‘The Videosphere.’ Nam June Paik weighed in with ‘Expanded Education for the Paperless Society,’ two pages of observations, quotes and news clips.” (4)
Though acting in an instrumental role in the development of Raindance, Ryan later reflected in an interview that “eventually small group dynamics split people up,” (5) and by spring of 1972 Ryan had left Raindance, and moved upstate to pursue his own artistic practice. (6) It was there, in the Shawangunk Mountains of New York that Ryan began developing Earthscore. (7)
“Earthscore, based largely on the writings of philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce and Gregory Bateson's work on cybernetics, provided the theoretical and logical underpinnings of both the ecosystem documentation and interpretation process, and the triadic rituals of interpersonal behavior, that became the core of Ryan’s work for much of his life. These ideas were implemented in a wide variety of projects such as eco-channel design, video scores specific to certain locations, threeing projects exploring interpersonal behavior with video and computer technology, and a curriculum for combining media production training with environmental education.” (8)
Over the much of last thirty years, Paul Ryan lived and worked in the aforementioned apartment on the Upper West Side. Much of the collection was created there, and has always been stored there. The exception being the ½” open reel tapes, which had previously been stored in a garage in Northern New Jersey.
Ryan’s work is on a variety of formats, reflecting the constantly changing video market of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, and Ryan’s commitment to engaging in new technologies as a way of exploring his theories. While the majority of the collection consists of Umatic (or ¾”) tapes and ½” open reel video, the collection also contains VHS, Betamax, MII, Betacam SP, and digital video files stored on hard drives and optical media.
There are two inventories describing the collection. One is a handwritten list of titles or brief descriptions, with a corresponding number to the left of each title. The document is titled “Originals.” Jean Gardner was able to confirm that most of this list is in Paul’s handwriting, although someone else has made notes on the document as well. For example, one entry on the list reads:
“'88 Paul Dorothy George' and then, in a different penmanship, ‘Lots Noise, Too Dark, Did Not TR’”
The second list is typed, and much more thorough. It is labeled “Paul Ryan Tape Database” and is divided into two sections: “Tape List,” and “Contents List.” The Tape List has nine fields: Category Number (either T###, M###, or W###), Project Title, Title, Subtitle, Format, Development, Generation, and Tape Condition (usually “Good,” “Some Signal noise,” or “Faulty Picture,” one labeled “Not Viewable”).
Besides illuminating the possible contents of otherwise unlabeled tapes, the “Tape Database” inventory is crucial to understanding the collection because it relates individual tape titles to broader projects. In general, it’s unclear what point of the production process much of the collection comes from, particularly the ½” video, whether these are camera originals, edited works, or some combination of the two. This, of course, excludes tapes that are specifically labeled “master,” of which there are several. This is further confounded by Ryan’s tendency to build works on ideas explored elsewhere, and his practice of creating multiple versions of works (now common practice in contemporary art, particularly among artists that work in electronic media).
Prolificacy was essential to Ryan’s oeuvre. Ryan pointed to a study conducted by Al Sheflin in the 1950s, in which a team of researchers closely examined behavioral relationships through recordings of family therapy, frame-by-frame. (9) The idea being that through extended, thorough observation of patterns, one could internalize and understand those patterns. This concept is present across much of Ryan’s work, including Video Wake For My Father, Earthscore, and Threeing.
This explains then, why Ryan recorded “45 hours of people running around in threes.” (10) He was documenting groups of three people in the Raindance Foundation’s studio, and then studying the footage in order to discern patterns. While all 45 hours are certainly not accounted for in the current collection, many of the tapes have annotations referring to Triadic behavior, threes, or a delta symbol (∆), as do many of the titles on both inventories. An understanding of this artistic practice provides insight into many aspects of the collection.
For example, the tapes numbered 384 and above are all labeled “Wake” (page 15 of the “Paul Ryan Handwritten List.pdf,” or line 499 of the “Ryan Collection” spreadsheet). Ryan’s book Video Mind, Earth Mind, explains the reason for the amount of tapes in this series, in a passage reflecting on the death of his father: “The funeral mass was an atrocity of insensitivity and I bolted. Three days later, I went to the Raindance loft, replayed tape of my father I had made while he was alive and shouted and wailed and carried on in front of a recording camera all night long. In effect, I produced a spontaneous, twelve hour Video Wake For My Father.” (11)
The tapes in the Wake series, then, cannot be considered traditional production “elements.” This footage was not intended to be edited down to a final product, as it would be in traditional video production, but rather to function as a kind of “study.”
The Sony DVK02499 “Video Rover” Portapak (also sometimes written “Porta Pak”) was released in the United States in 1967. Portapaks utilized ½” open reel tape, and were highly mobile, condensing the VTR (Video Tape Recorder) into a shoulder pack attached to a handheld video camera. The Portapak is legendary for its portability, and the role it played in enabling video artists, journalists and amateurs to democratize media creation.
During his interview with Harold Channer, Ryan described getting his first Portapak camera in “67, [or] 68,” while working as a fellow with McLuhan.
Channer: Cause I think you got the first Portapak off the boat, almost.
Ryan: Well, Nam June Paik claims he did (laughs). My first Portapak came from a man named Buckner. Who owned 1% of Sony stock... He thought McLuhan was the biggest thing to come down the pike since Jesus Christ and he went to Fordham and donated some of the first portables to Fordham. And [my colleague] looked at it and said “What are we gonna do with this?” And I said “Don’t worry about it, I’ll [gestures, as if taking the camera] (laughs).” (12)
Ryan’s ability to obtain a Portapak at this time, and loan it to other artists, such as Raindance members like Gillette, is significant. At the time of its release in 1967 the “$1495 price tag was still rather high for the domestic market.” (13)
½” video tapes are known for their problems with sticky shed syndrome, “the most common problem with videotape deterioration.” (14) When a tape develops sticky shed, its “binder absorbs moisture and undergoes chemical changes through a process called hydrolysis. These changes cause the binder and magnetic particles to become sticky and to detach, or shed, from the base film. When these substances are shed during playback, the machine can stop playing altogether.” (15)
The approaching obsolescence of magnetic media is considered a crisis by the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA). The Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC) stated in 2009 that it is “no longer practical to make archival analog copies of… recordings to preserve their content. High-quality recording equipment (and the pool of replacement parts needed to keep existing equipment working) and tape are increasingly difficult to obtain; within the next decade or less, it is likely that finding recorders and tape will become even more of a problem.” (16) Similarly, The Library of Congress has urged institutions to prioritize the digitization of magnetic media, stating in 2012 that magnetic media must be migrated to digital formats within 15–20 years, before “the challenges of acquiring and maintaining playback equipment make the success of these efforts too expensive or unattainable.” (17) This is not to mention the growing risk of degradation as many of these materials are approaching their maximum life span.
Given the age of many of the materials in the Ryan collection this threat of obsolescence is only magnified. ½”, MII, and Betamax are particularly at risk; migrating all of the magnetic media to digital formats as soon as possible should be considered a priority for the preservation of the collection.
A visual inspection of magnetic media can only reveal so much about the condition of the tape. Fortunately, Paul’s assistant, Aistė Jankauskaitė, has recently worked with some of the Umatic tapes in Ryan’s collection. Her observations are noted here:
“I worked with Paul on and off for a couple of semesters. I was his TA on 'Semiotics for Digital Producers' and also helped him with his tapes. Initially, he wanted to put together an edit on 'Threeing' for a workshop and screening at (d)OCUMENTA (13) from the material he had in 3/4 inch tapes, which I did. We purchased the 3/4 inch machine, as he said he had bad luck with the one he had. Both of those machines were sent to repairs and so we started talking about what it is that he is looking to show. E Some of the tapes were greatly deteriorated with significant noise and deemed unusable by Paul. On several occasions a tape would get stuck in the machine… They would playback but occasionally got “eaten up” by the Umatic. None were destroyed and we were able to remove them. I believe that is why Paul sent the original Umatic for repairs.”
From Jankauskaitė’s description it seems the Umatics are, too, experiencing sticky shed syndrome. This would explain the difficulty she had getting the tapes to playback, or move through the machine. As particles flaked off of the tape, they could adhere to the tape path within the Umatic deck, “clogging” the machine.
To learn more about Paul Ryan's analog video collection, and see my recommendations for preservation of that collection, read the full report here.
(1) McShea, Megan. "Paul Ryan Papers, 1931-2009." Archives of American Art. 2014. Accessed April 12, 2015. http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/paul-ryan-papers-15614/more.
(2) Gigliotti, Davidson. "A Brief History of RainDance." Radical Software. 2003. Accessed April 12, 2015. http://www.radicalsoftware.org/e/history.html.
(3) "Raindance Corporation." Video Data Bank. Accessed April 12, 2015. http://www.vdb.org/artists/raindance-corporation.
(4) Gigliotti, Davidson.
(5) Channer, Harold H., prod. "Paul Ryan, Video Artist." In Conversations With Harold Hudson Channer, directed by Gloria Messer. Manhattan Neighborhood Network. December 18, 1995. Accessed April 12, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4QtgvLEZJOw.
(6) Gigliotti, Davidson.
(7) Ryan, Paul. Video Mind, Earth Mind: Art, Communications, and Ecology. Page 53. New York: P. Lang, 1993.
(8) McShea, Megan. "Paul Ryan Papers, 1931-2009." Archives of American Art. 2014. Accessed April 12, 2015. http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/paul-ryan-papers-15614/more.
(9) Channer, Harold H., prod., "Paul Ryan, Video Artist." 40:15-42:08.
(10) Channer, Harold H., prod., "Paul Ryan, Video Artist."
(11) Ryan, Paul. Video Mind, Earth Mind: Art, Communications, and Ecology. Page 53. New York: P. Lang, 1993.
(12) Channer, Harold H., prod., "Paul Ryan, Video Artist." Beginning 53:15.
(13) Banuelos, Chris. "A Brief History of the Sony Video Portapak." MIAP Student Work, November 25, 2011, 4. Accessed April 12, 2015. http://www.nyu.edu/tisch/preservation/program/student_work/2011fall/Restricted/11f_2920_banuelos_a2_x.pdf.
(14) Jimenez, Mona, and Liss Platt. Texas Commission on the Arts Videotape Identification and Assessment Guide. Texas: Texas Commission on the Arts, 1997. Accessed March 17, 2015. http://www.arts.texas.gov/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/video.pdf.
(15) Jimenez, Mona, and Liss Platt.
(16) ARSC Technical Committee. Preservation of Archival Sound Recordings. Silver Spring, MD: Association for Recorded Sound Collections, 2009. Accessed March 17, 2015. http://www.arsc-audio.org/pdf/ARSCTC_preservation.pdf.
(17) Nelson-Strauss, Brenda, Alan Gevinson, and Sam Brylawski. "The Library of Congress National Recording Preservation Plan." Edited by Patrick Loughney. 2012. Accessed March 17, 2015. http://www.loc.gov/rr/record/nrpb/PLAN%20pdf.pdf.