Today is Sunday, a great day to leave the CRT workshop and head out into the wide world and not think about retro games for a while. Why not go experience some fine art?
Kumu is the main building of the Art Museum of Estonia and I took my camera to see if they had any visual art displays which involved CRTs. My friend Steve’s has been doing work at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts to help them preserve their CRT collection so they can continue to display visual art in the same way the artist intended. We made a whole podcast episode talking about the issues a museum faces when trying to display a visual art piece which was originally constructed with CRTs.
Background on Preserving Visual Art with CRTs
If the artist originally made a visual art piece with a certain type of CRT it can be VERY important to use that same kind of monitor when reproducing the installation. Some of the factors involved are:
- Did the artist intend to use such a high quality monitor as a PVM?
- Did the artist use a consumer CRT because that is all that was available to them at the time?
- How does an artistic piece change if the artist meant for their visual art to be displayed on a kinda blurry composite set however the curator instead uses a super sharp PVM?
PVM 2030s are often used because they can be easily stacked together, however we also have the Korean artist who uses cheap Korean consumer sets because that’s all he had at the time.
Also, don’t even consider switching to a flat screen when the original installation used a CRT. That is considered changing the art so drastically it is unacceptable. Often a particular display will have a documentary which plays on a loop to inform visitors. If the display used a CRT for this back in the day, the curator will often want to find a CRT for this purpose again, even if the installation had nothing to do with CRTs. Sometime it is the small details which makes it period correct.
Next up, something must play the image which is displayed on the CRT. For early pieces it was probably a VHS tape. So what would a curator do now? VHS tapes are already starting to degrade. How do you preserve this? VHS copy? We know that will definitly degrade the image. Digitize it? Sure but that’s harder than it seems. To do it right you need a time base encoder and then ideally something like a RetroTink 2X. Then you need to ask, do you pass through 480i and store the image interlaced? Or do you line double the 480i signal to 480p and store it this way? That sounds good but how do you then display this on a CRT again later?
This is where many of the technologies we use as retro gamers become relevant to the art world. I already mentioned that our favorite upscaler, the RetroTink has a valid place here. What about when playing it back? Something like a GBS-Control can help here too.
To a retro gamer, the whole analogy here should be not too foreign. How would you like to view the waterfall scene in Sonic 1? With composite blending so it seems like we can see through the waterfall? Or do you prefer razor sharp RGB which make the waterfall look kinda weird. What was the artists intent here? Did they even have an intent and blurry composite is all they had. These ideas transfer directly into the art world when recreating classic visual art pieces.
My Trip to Kumu in Tallinn
When I visited the museum today they had several exhibitions showcasing modern Estonian art from the 90’s and 2000’s. Estonian regained it’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and it triggered a huge social upheaval as society moved from a failing planned socialist state to a free market economy. While the pieces from the 90s only used moving images sparingly, by the 2000s this was more common. This exhibit was not focused on CRT visual art and I only found a few exhibits which used them.
Firstly I am sorry for the dark and not sharp images. The museum environment is low light and the sign explicitly forbid flash photography.
In one room they displayed a piece called Punk. Fem. CollectioN from 2003 by artist Anu Vahtra. It was a very colorful piece about 21 minutes long. This was displayed on a consumer ~20 inch Phillips CRT which has nice rounded tube and I believed this added to the retro feeling to the visual art.
Across the same room was a very large ~30 inch Panasonic CRT displaying archival footage
For me, the most prominent piece was “Violence Without Reason” which is a video documentary about riots which happened in 2009 in Tallinn when a Soviet War memorial was relocated from the center of town to a proper war cemetery. This sparked a night of riots where frustrated ethic Russians took the streets to protest the move and then rioted, pillaged and looted stores all across town. One car was over turned by the mob. I actually remember the night myself, I was in Tartu at the time however Estonia is a very small country and we were getting updates all night long both from the media and directly from friends on the scene. Remember this was 2009 before social media became the news juggernaut it is today.
“Violence Without Reason” runs for almost 9 minutes and is displayed on a beautiful looking Sony Trintron KV-21CL10E. This model has built in speakers either side giving it the profile of a widescreen monitor while the picture is 4:3. Unfortunately the speakers were not in use and one could listen to the audio through a set of headphones.
Of course I had a look behind each monitor and I discovered they were all using a composite input. In the above picture you can see they use a composite to SCART adapter because the TV only has a SCART input, however this is still composite. Having said that, the video footage looked really great. You would not think the image is composite as it looks clear and smooth. I watched the 9 minute presentation in full TWICE as I was captivated by the footage. As well as looking fantastic, it brought back many memories of that night and the effects the riots had on Estonian society.
You can also see in the last image that the footage is being played from some sort of Western Digital media player. Given the footage is from 2009, it was probably filmed directly in digital.
My Thoughts on the Video Quality
Despite the installations using composite video I would say overall the museum has done a fine job of preserving the footage. Most of the time the archival footage displayed on flat screens looked quite good and to me it was obvious the museum knows what they are doing. When the footage looked unclear, I suspect it is the fault of the original material and not the digitizing process.
One video I saw was displayed on a ~50 inch flat panel and showed views of Tallinn from the 70’s. The footage had been AI up-scaled to 60fps and it looked really smooth and pleasing to the eye. Given this piece was not visual art piece but rather a documentary, I felt the up-scaling to 60fps worked here as I got a better idea of what Tallinn would have looked and felt like back then.
Tallinn is a small place and I am happy anytime I can find one of my passions out in the wild. While not a dedicated visual art exhibition, I enjoyed what Kumu has on display as it was about 90s and 2000’s Estonian modern art. When I saw some of the punk rock type artists who emgered in the early 90’s, I could identify this attitude in Estonian artists I have met through my work running Stand Up Comedy shows in Tallinn. Some of the artists I even knew in person. That is Estonia, a small country where everyone knows everyone.