Through the Artist Instrumentation Database Project, I set out to create a prototype database template for cataloging technological devices used or invented by artists working with audio, video or computers. The project reflects my longstanding interest in these devices: as an artist who has used them, as a media preservationist keenly aware of the impact of equipment obsolescence, and as a researcher fascinated with the technical structure and history of electronic tools, especially those that are custom-built.
The database is available at no cost as a downloadable FileMaker Pro file
to encourage testing and revision by users from multiple disciplines and professional communities. The database is intended as a highly practical contribution to documentation strategies that support the understanding and conservation of technological devices as art-making tools and as components of electronic art works.
The study of electronic instruments and devices designed or used by 20th century artists is in its infancy. More information must be gained from artists and inventors to ensure an understanding of this period by future generations. While there have been a few important research projects, most notably the 1992 exhibition Eigenwelt der Apparatewelt: Pioneers of Electronic Art (1)
at Ars Electronica and the Experimental Television Center’s Video History Project (2)
, this history is largely undocumented. Neither the location of the devices themselves, nor primary and secondary materials about their development, structure and use are widely known.
Moreover, conservators working to preserve time-based media installations have been challenged to understand and describe the electronic devices used in these works. Case studies such as those published as part of Modern Art: who cares
, TechArcheology: A Symposium on Installation Art Preservation
and the Variable Media Network (5)
have provided concrete examples of how critical equipment documentation is to the longevity of these contemporary artworks.
Because I am neither a collector nor on staff in a collecting organization, I needed to ground my research by choosing a few specific devices to investigate; this investigation was necessary to define the structure of the database and provide test data. Having worked as an artist-in-residence at the Experimental Television Center, I was aware of Sherry and Ralph Hocking’s concern with the history and longevity of the varied tools used by artists in the early days of video art. My interest in the preservation of technology-dependent installations had driven me to co-organize the symposium TechArcheology
, where I came to better understand the role of documentation in the conservation of these works. Reflecting on these experiences, I realized that the database should work for both commercial and custom devices. I also realized that I was most interested in devices invented or widely used in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s and those used primarily for time-based media art and performance incorporating media.
I settled on two custom-built devices as the objects of study: the Sandin Image Processor (IP) and the Rutt-Etra Scan Processor. Both represent major themes in the development of artist instruments during the 1970s.
The Sandin IP was developed in or about 1972 by artist Dan Sandin who worked in the Chicago area. Based on the modularity of the Moog synthesizer, video signals are patched through a series of processing modules, allowing the user to create real-time visual effects through mixing, keying, color processing, and other techniques. The design of the IP was well documented – through the efforts of Sandin and artist Phil Morton - including schematics and parts information to enable others to build the device. The documentation was then sold for the cost of photocopying as a kind of early model of open source. It is thought that approximately twenty IPs were built. The template describes an IP built by artist Dick Sippel. Now owned by the Experimental Television Center, this IP incorporates custom modules built by Sippel that expand the “classic” IP created by Sandin.