Interview with Chris Doyle
Chris Doyle

Chris Doyle is a multi-media artist who has worked in media including watercolor, installation art, and digital moving images. Doyle was born in Pennsylvania in 1959. He received his bachelor's degree from Boston College in 1981 and went on to earn his master's degree in architecture from Harvard University in 1985. Doyle currently lives and works in New York City. This interview was conducted via telephone by Jeff Martin on November 14, 2005.

Jeff Martin: Can you take me through your production process for the kind of moving-image work you're doing right now?

Chris Doyle: I actually have a couple of different processes that I've been working with. The simplest version is that I'm shooting what look to be traditional stop-action animation; I'm shooting them with a digital still camera and putting them into video programs like Final Cut Pro and Adobe After Effects¨, essentially pumping them out as video. That's one type of work that I'm doing. The other type is actually switching back and forth between making hand-drawn watercolors and compositing live-action video into the digital still and making what is essentially a kind of old-fashioned matte painting, with live-action mixed with the digital still.

JM: So, during the production process, in addition to more traditional elements like the watercolor itself, what types of files are you generating?

CD: Basically I work with either a JPEG or a raw file and then produce a QuickTime movie from that. From the QuickTime movie, I usually generate an MPEG-2 file and then burn a DVD from the MPEG-2. What I've typically been doing, in terms of selling work, is presenting the buyer with a DVD, and then also providing a DVD that contains the original MPEG-2 file so that they can archive it on the computer-however they want to archive it-so that when the DVD is burned out they can generate another one.

JM: Which leads to my next question. In terms of preservation issues, what kind of responsibility- beyond the deliverables-do you think you have to the buyer, whether it's an individual or an institution? What if both the DVD and the master fail? Have you ever thought about that question?

CD: I've thought about that question in terms of more complicated projects. If someone is buying an installation, for example, or an object that contains a video, I'm basically willing to maintain it, I guess you would say, in terms of preservation. If someone came to me and said that the archival copy was lost or otherwise unavailable, I would replace it.

JM: Then what elements do you retain once you've created a work. Are your works editioned?

CD: Yes, they're editioned. They're usually in an edition of six, and I almost always keep two artist's proofs. Well, I usually keep one and I give one to my sound designer. So what I end up having is an archival image, an archival piece that is an MPEG-2 file on my computer, and one DVD that is an artist's proof, which I generally use if I'm exhibiting. If a museum or gallery wants to show the piece, I provide my DVD, the artist's proof. I keep one MPEG-2 file, but then I also have a backup file of that, come to think of it, because that's backed up twice, so, the MPEG-2-the archival file-is backed up a couple of times.

JM: What elements do you retain and what do you discard, like stills you may have shot and not used, things like that?

CD: This is a question I talk about with my friends constantly. Right now I keep everything, which takes up a lot of extra space. But for now, everything that I've done-it is possible to reconstruct the entire project, if there's any need to do that. Interestingly, I just had to do that with a video piece called "Gorgeous One Family Detached" that I had not editioned. I had made it for the Queens Museum a couple of years ago and now it's going to be shown at The Katonah Museum, and I actually went back to the originals and recreated a better version of it.

JM: And what kind of documentation is guiding you through that? Are you referring to the copy in Queens and then rebuilding it based on that?

CD: Yes, I mean, I have a copy of the old version. It's interesting, though. As the technology has gotten better, even just in terms of resolution, I've been able to take the original files and remake the piece in a better way just by using a different codec to produce the DVD, for example.

JM: How old was the original work?

CD: I think I produced it in 2002.

JM: So we're only talking about three years.

CD: Three years later, I'm able to use a different codec and produce it at a higher resolution.

JM: But if a conservator were approaching your work and had to rebuild it, he or she would want to figure out what the original resolution was.

CD: I think it's possible. I'm not sure if that's just a visual thing or if there's something in the file. You see, when you're talking about producing a DVD with a particular codec, I don't think there's anything inherent in the files that specifies what that codec is. There's nothing that says "This was produced at a DV-NTSC quality," versus the new thing that I've been using, Black Magic 10-bit, which is a much higher resolution. I don't think there's anything that could tell you that. Which sort of leads me to believe that I would start taking notes; that in every new project file there would be a Microsoft Word document that says "Here's what's going on."

JM: Which is another question I wanted to ask. You're providing a master copy, a DVD exhibition copy.; Are you providing written documentation as well?

CD: I haven't, up until this year. This year I've started to give specs of the way I'd like a project to be shown, along with details about how it was made.

JM: How much control do you want to maintain over your work and its display?

CD: It's interesting, because in the past, I have not suggested that a work be shown in a particular way. To be perfectly honest, I see these projects as moving images and I think there are a number of ways for them to be displayed. Certain pieces work better when shown in certain ways, and for those pieces I suggest it. But I have yet to say "it is made for a flat-screen monitor of this dimension," precisely because they're going to change and who knows? But I do specify whether a piece has to be projected or on a monitor.

JM: You were talking about recreating a piece that's three years old. Have you ever had trouble accessing a work because of obsolescence, operating system issues, things like that?

CD: The only issue that I've had along those lines is that some of my early pieces I created in Adobe Premiere¨, and it still exists, but I don't use it anymore at all. I have the feeling that it's unlikely that I would go back to an early project, but would more likely accept the low-resolution quality of it and just leave it the way it is, as a QuickTime movie file.

JM: Along with your artist's proofs, do you maintain specific playback equipment? Specific monitors, for example?

CD: The early pieces that I made were installation pieces, and I actually did some things on laserdisc. I haven't come up against any of the issues of how those projects are going to be displayed, mostly because they were all done in nonprofit spaces and they weren't in the marketplace, ultimately. The oldest work that I have was made on a Hi8 camera and transferred it to DV tape. So I've got stuff on DV tape that is basically the earliest work I've got. And with that stuff, I have original clips on DV tape and I've also got the final project, printed to tape as well as digital files of them. So in terms of presentation, I haven't had any real issues about hardware obsolescence.

JM: It sounds as if you considered your early installation works to be ephemeral. How did you approach that? Was there a level of documentation you wanted to maintain, even if it was something you weren't selling or keeping?

CD: For those pieces, typically, the installations are well documented in photographs. I also still have the QuickTime movies, so that a piece may have originally been made with a video that used a laserdisc, it would be easy for me to go back. In many cases I also have 1_ tape, I think, which I could go back and digitize and reproduce as a DVD, if I ever wanted to include a piece in a larger show.

JM: Is it more important for there to be a more personal hand in something like the pieces you have at Jessica Murray Projects, versus a site-specific installation like the piece "Leap" [2000], which was at Columbus Circle?

CD: You know, those projected pieces are difficult for a whole bunch of other reasons. I had one at the University of Michigan Museum of Art ["What I See when I Look at You," 2000] that was projected onto the side of a building. We had to decide at that point whether the museum could ever show the piece inside, either on a monitor or projected on the wall, and I had to explain that those pieces are actually made as sort of transparencies in which the video is one layer and the building is another. If you took away the building you'd only be looking at half the project. It's really important that I explain to the conservator that the only way those pieces should be shown again is if the original conditions are actually recreated.

JM: When you're working on a project now, and you're dealing with a large number of still photographs, do you have a system for keeping track of the various elements that are going into the work, or is that unnecessary?

CD: Well, for the work that I've been doing lately, the number of images in a project ranges from about nine hundred to fifteen hundred individual stills. Each individual image is also fairly large because I want to be able to print stills directly from these pieces. So in terms of organization, there's a file of original photography. In the case of several of these videos, every single image has been doctored digitally in Photoshop¨, so some of these become extremely handmade projects. So I've got a folder with all the original photographs in it and another folder with about seven hundred photographs that have been altered, for example. Then I have another folder with the various versions of the QuickTime movie that have been made from that work, and then finally the finished QuickTime movie and the MPEG that go along with it. It's taken me many years but I finally have a very orderly system of doing this stuff.

JM: Which sounds absolutely necessary, otherwise you'd go insane. The next question is-all archivists have a streak of ghoul in them and tend to ask questions like "What if you weren't here?" If someday you donate your files or your materials to an archive or an institution, is this system something you think people would be able to figure out?

CD: Well, that's why I made this decision not long ago where I said, okay, every video that I've made to this point now is finished; this is before I went back into the Queens project. Everything is finished, everything begins with a QuickTime movie, and from that point on, everything that gets made after that, there's a very orderly system in my computer where it moves on from there, so yes, anyone could go back and begin with the finished file. I'm not expecting . . . or it doesn't seem like I would really want people to go back into the project files beyond the finished file. But it's an interesting question. As a purely scholarly pursuit, to go back to the project files might be of interest at some point to somebody, and they do exist. But to answer your question really clearly, I don't expect that anyone would go back to those project files . . . I mean, the system really was mine and I don't think people would be able to figure out exactly how I got from the beginning to the final QuickTime movie in an orderly way because it just hasn't worked that way. I never really thought about the pieces and clips that make up a project as interesting to archivists, but I guess it's something worth thinking about.

JM: In terms of your installation work, do you also maintain traditional documentation for those? Diagrams, that sort of thing?

CD: I guess I don't really have that. I think in terms of re-installing pieces I would have to come up with a set of them on the fly because really it's just the set of photography without too much in terms of plans, diagrams, et cetera.

JM: Are there other things about the longevity of your work that concern you?

CD: I have to say, I've never really thought deeply about it. Believe it or not, actually having had this conversation will impact my process, which is interesting. But I would say the most interesting question for me that we just touched on a little bit . . . I've always been concerned about what constitutes an archival copy of something. So many people expect a DV tape, or some form of tape in addition to the DVD that you're giving them, and it's kind of hard to explain that it didn't start out life as a moving image, it started out life as digital files. So as far as I'm concerned, an archival copy that has been printed to tape, in fact, has loss and is not the original. So I have tried to convince people that the MPEG-2 is actually the closest thing to the original, but then there's always the argument that that format could go away. So then the question becomes whose responsibility is it to maintain the way to get the MPEG-2 to a DVD, for example.

But if you have this MPEG-2, the idea is that you actually load it on to an external hard drive or two. It's sort of the owner's responsibility, as the technology changes, to find a way to do the equivalent of digitizing or converting the file into a new form that's still usable. I mean, that's as far as I've gotten with this, but it is actually pretty interesting. It's moving so quickly. Like I said, I'm using codecs and file types that I had no idea about three years ago. All I can do is try to keep up to this moment, and bring all my work along as I go. If people come back to me and say, "I have no way of reproducing this," I kind of feel responsible for giving them a new version, because they essentially bought the images, the series of images.

I need to keep displaying my work so I will keep transforming it into a form that I can keep showing. It's very easy for me to imagine that I will still be able to keep updating the archival copies.

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