Interview with Kira Perov
Kira Perov

Kira Perov is the executive director of Bill Viola Studio. She has worked closely with Bill Viola, her husband and partner for the past 28 years, managing and creatively guiding his work. Perov maintains an extensive archive of all aspects of Bill Viola's work, and has advised and consulted with institutions on the maintenance, documentation and preservation of video and media art works. This interview was conducted via telephone by Jeff Martin on May 17, 2006.

Jeff Martin: I wanted to start by talking about the Artist's Description (PDF file) for Anima (2000) and the work itself. In terms of the work, what are the physical items that are delivered to the purchaser?

Kira Perov: We always include all the equipment--the most current, up-to-date equipment available, or if it is a custom created piece, to include equipment as close as possible to how the first edition was shown. The only time when we do not provide the hardware is in an overseas situation where the collector wishes to purchase the projector or plasma screen for use of manufacturers' warranties in their country. But otherwise we insist on fabricating everything in our studio since often the equipment is custom-designed and proprietary or must be configured in a certain way. In the case of Anima, this piece uses three LCD panels inside custom metal frames, as well as DVD playback equipment. Providing all the equipment means that we can control the quality and that is always our main concern.

So we deliver all of the display equipment and this can include projectors, screens, plasmas, LCD panels, and any objects that are used in the piece. When the piece has audio, there are also speakers and amplifiers. And then behind the scenes we have the playback equipment that in most cases now is High-Definition, which is encoded and downloaded onto a hard drive or a server. If we decide to use DVD for playback, we down-convert to Digital Betacam, encode and master onto a glass disc, then make DVDs. Bill edits almost everything now on High-Definition, even if it's not shot on High-Definition, we find that the quality is superior with the extra resolution and the color range is astounding. And much of that is preserved when you convert it to standard resolution, or NTSC Digital BetaCam.

JM: When you're working with editioned pieces that are born digital, how do you approach the question of authenticity once a piece has been purchased, especially considering that they may need to be duplicated in the future for preservation purposes?

KP: The archival components are quite separate to the display components. We create what we call an "archival box." And that is really the main part of the work that the collector or institution is purchasing. The display equipment, of course, will be upgraded as time goes on. It will change, but the archival box remains. The contents of the archival box always includes the following:

  • Signed certificate
  • Master tape(s)
  • Floor plans
  • Installation instructions

Every edition is numbered and a certificate is issued that is signed and stamped by Bill. Then we include a cloned master of the program. Even though the program might be exhibited on DVD, if it was edited on High-Definition, we provide a copy of the edited High-Definition master, because in the future, in the very near future in fact, High-Definition DVDs will be available, which will make for easier playback. The master tape(s) is the crux of the work. The owner is responsible for upgrading that from time to time in order to maintain the piece. We always offer consulting if a collector is planning on an upgrade.

The floor plans and the installation instructions and information are also important. Sometimes, depending on the nature of the piece, we include suggestions for future upgrades. We also include a CD containing images--either frame grabs or video stills of the piece, or installation photos. This way we can control the quality of the images that are published in books or catalogues.

What we release from the studio is of the highest quality, controlled by us at every point. The reason for this is that we work in a very delicate medium. If you get it wrong just a little bit, you get it wrong a lot.

JM: What can you tell me about your internal archive; what kinds of materials do you retain?

KP: We have several different kinds of archives. First of all, I should say that I've been working with Bill since 1978; not only working with him but I have also photographed both the process and the complete works themselves. So I am very familiar with the methods of working, shooting, editing and all these experiences are in my head.

But let's start with the video archive. In this archive that is housed in our studio, we probably have every kind of video format that was created since 1973. Since 1981 it has been stored in a fairly stable environment with air conditioning system and dehumidifier, so it is not in bad shape. The earliest tapes that we have are 1/2" open reel tapes that were made in the early 70s. Some of these are in PAL format that were created in Art/Tapes/22, an artist's video production facility in Florence that was in operation at that time, where Bill worked for 18 months. There are only a few of these tapes.

In terms of in-camera originals, we have pretty much every image that was ever shot for every project, and in every format. We have hundreds of 3/4" tapes, because 3/4" was around so long. We also have in-camera originals on BetaCam SP, Hi8, MiniDV, DVCam, all the small digital formats. And now that we shot many pieces using high-speed 35mm cameras we have boxes and boxes of reels of film. The selected takes are transferred to tape for editing, color-corrected, and edited--used to be on Digital BetaCam and now on High-Definition.

Anima detail image by Bill ViolaAs for masters, we have the original 1-inch tapes from the 70s; we also have 2-inch quad tapes. Then in 1981 we began using the new 1-inch format. We started mastering on D2 at one point, which has apparently turned out to be not such a great archival format. I think we have one or two D1s, but we do of course have many masters on Digital BetaCam, which is still a good and stable format, but being phased out in the video world. All of the masters are upgraded from time to time, but this is a huge job and is often associated with a new exhibition of the work.

Our archive also contains many audio formats. Audio, very often, was recorded separately from the video, mixed separately, and then added to the video. We have audio-only pieces; we also have documentaries, we have interviews. The entire audiovisual archive is held in one place. We do have masters in other places for dubbing purposes, plus the edit house where we Bill does most of the final on-line editing now has some of our master tapes as well.

The audiovisual archive is difficult to maintain and even to catalogue. We tried to barcode tapes to begin this process and also to scan the outside of the tape cases. There is always a lot of information, often handwritten, on the cover of the box, such as recording date and place, title of project, as well as dub date or the nature of the master and where and when it was created or copied. Unfortunately, this kind of work is the first to drop away since the production and exhibition of the pieces is our priority, with the resources that we have.

Proper storage of the tapes is a constant problem, and I have wanted to move the archive to a safer environment, though the options are quite limited.

JM: Have you thought about an institutional repository or does this remain a working archive?

KP: We have had an offer from an institution to take the archive but since it is still used we always need access to it. Perhaps they could make a copy of it on a high-end format, but that would really take some time because of the volume of items.

Then we have other kinds of archives as well. We have a photo archive that is always in use and since we need to access it, it has a better system. The production stills are all archived chronologically and the pieces have their own order. Since most of the photographs were shot by me, it is easy for me to find what I need. There is an extensive black and white negative archive, and also color slides and transparencies. Of course we are moving away from film and prints and are using digital images almost exclusively. In spite of the ease and speed in using the digital format, this has created a new problem, not only in storage and access, but in terms of preservation. Due to the ease of use, I have now accumulated over 15,000 images in the short space of time that this format has been available. Preservation is of the highest concern because now, not only the video formats need upgrading, but also the photo formats, and they are changing faster than the video.

The third archive I maintain is a paper archive. That includes not only books, catalogues, magazine and newspaper articles, but brochures, postcards, posters, and of course correspondence. The earlier material dating back to the early 70s is not as voluminous, but over the last 35 years a tremendous amount has accumulated--and of course we're bursting at the seams, I never throw anything away. Again the digital format is a concern, what to keep and what to delete and how to store email and other correspondence. That's quickly getting out of hand.

JM: I'd like to step back and talk more about the document you created for Anima. It is very detailed documentation, much more than a lot of artists provide. When did it become clear that this kind of documentation would be necessary; when did you start doing this?

KP: The first installation we sold was in 1986, to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Room for St. John of the Cross (1983) is a unique work. This piece had been shown many times and we had all the equipment, so we were able to deliver it complete. We thus began to work on a system of delivery right away. We were including elaborate and detailed floor plans and installation instructions. We decided to have an architect draw up the plans, and we ended up with three sheets of drawings: the floor plan, the elevations and sections, and flowcharts of cables and electrical. Now all of this is much more easily produced digitally on CAD.

Anima detail image by Bill ViolaWe also realized that we needed a narrative to go with the instructions. How will the curators or conservators know how to upgrade the piece? What happens when the format of the little monitor is no longer available? What about the projector? The narrative took a long time to write because there are so many aspects of preserving a work like this. We are always concerned with the life of the piece itself. Bill took on the task of writing these narratives because the artist needs to impart what it is that needs to be preserved, the essence of the work. Does it matter that the little monitor in Room for St. John of the Cross is that particular object? Can it be replaced with a flat panel in the future when that monitor no longer functions or does someone need to reconstruct that monitor itself? (At that time there were no flat panels so that was not even part of the discussion, and that was only 20 years ago.)

This narrative can be very complex and extremely time consuming. Let's just say that it is an ideal to have this be a part of every piece that is delivered, but it is not always possible given our schedule these days. Often, an institution will provide support in this by interviewing Bill with these questions, and they add this material to the archival box. What we do always send out is a letter from me, with an explanation of the archival box, how the piece can be used, and what are the responsibilities of the owner--to maintain the work, and to read the instructions, and to always install the piece as it should be installed. We also do offer consultation in the future when upgrading is necessary.

JM: Have you had to do that yet?

KP: We have had to do this frequently; in fact, we're doing it right now with MoMA, because they will be showing Stations as part of their next permanent-collection show. They have had the crates for this work in their archive now for probably four or five years. When you count their two moves during construction, we need to make sure that the piece is working well. I am sure that the five huge granite slabs are in good shape, but the piece is still on laserdisc, and the projectors need testing. There are also five thin scrims that are used instead of screens. We are very happy to consult with them.

We have a lot of information to offer them. Our studio director is always researching and testing new equipment, new models of projectors, for example, are coming out all the time--which is good and bad. Sometimes changes are for the worse--we don't get the range of blacks we need in a projector because it is now brighter, for example. Or a piece is designed for a particular flat screen which six months later is no longer available, so what do we do? These are all issues that are always coming up, and we are constantly discussing, revising, revamping, re-fabricating. When we are working on a large exhibition, institutions will borrow certain works, and then we must inspect the components to make sure they are up to our standards of how the work should be shown, and upgrade if necessary.

JM: How do the challenges of preserving these recent works compare to the earlier, single-channel video works?

KP: All of the older single-channel works have been upgraded already. When we did the Whitney Museum survey exhibition in 1997, we spent quite a bit of time on them. In some cases Bill went back to the originals, or to the best-preserved masters, to repair and re master the old black-and-white pieces from the early 70s, and the color works that were created in the 80s and early 90s.

JM: They don't require as much documentation, do they? How else are they different from the installation pieces?

KP: No, the videotapes are unlimited in edition and are distributed in a totally different way. They are available for purchase to institutions as works of art on the most recent and highest archival video medium, which then allows for copies and preservation. Some of them are also available for home viewing use in the same way that movies are distributed, of course in a much narrower market. Then they are under the same copyright laws as any medium.

JM: One of the things that archivists and technicians talk bout a lot when working with artists is how to go back to an earlier work and determine what it's supposed to look like. Are you making it better than it originally was, and is that OK?

KP: We actually are making it better. Unlike some artists who really want the original equipment and just will do anything to keep that maintained in order to keep that quality of the roughness of the medium, and the time and era in which it was made, we often work on the edge of what's possible with the equipment, and push it to do what it cannot yet do. So in these cases we are happy when the technology catches up, when the idea finally can come through with clarity and breadth. There were extreme limits to early video. The inability to do slow motion, or to edit on a frame, the poor resolution (all of these were also, on the other hand, used to beautiful effect in some cases) needed to improve and as the improvements developed, so did the work.

For example, an installation piece from 1976 titled He Weeps for You uses a live camera with a macro lens aimed at a drop of water falling from a nozzle in which the viewer can see his reflection, and which is projected at very large scale on a wall in the gallery. Every time this piece needs upgrading, we use a better camera, a better projector, so you can see clearly the figure that is reflected. The intent of the work was not to produce a grainy, grungy little image with a dusty projector that had lots of scratches on the lens; the intent was to show this drop with the person standing in front of it reflected upside down in it, and amplified to such a large extent that you can see that, even within this little drop, an image is contained. So really, we're preserving the intent, the content of the work.

For a long time, upgrading equipment for the most part did not adversely affect the installations. More recently, however, with some of the smaller pieces that have custom elements, upgrades will need to be approached more carefully. For example, the display equipment for the work titled Four Hands (2001) consists of four small LCD screens that were stripped down, making it more of a sculptured piece. We will need to find a new solution if we need to replace these panels.

It will soon be the responsibility of the institutions and collectors to preserve the works, we will not be around forever. Right now, good conservation practices for the medium of video in institutions is quite scarce, although that is slowly changing as video works are gaining in popularity and being more broadly accepted as a "valid" form of artistic expression. Since the prices of works are matching other contemporary art works on the art market, collectors and museums need to protect their investments.

The constantly changing nature of video for us is very positive. We know that given the right care and attention, video works will always be preserved as long as they are upgraded. The moving image ironically can now have a more permanent life and unlike works that are objects, they can be regenerated and cloned digitally, making them theoretically the only works that can live far into the future.

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