Online video symposium: coming soon!

Taking Measures
Usages of Formats in Film and Video Art

International video symposium in cooperation with Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst

The symposium “Taking Measures” is dedicated to the epistemic and discursive practices of measurement in film and video art. Here, the focus is placed on artistic works and practices in which the technologies and ideologies of measurement, their many validity claims and areas of application, are addressed through the use of formats.

Artistic media are subject to various practices of measurement and assessment. They are described and evaluated according to their size and proportions, depth and width, length and duration, rhythm and timing, etc. These categories are aesthetic; however, beyond this, they are also effective in a social and political sense, as they subject the use of artistic media to certain conditions of production and distribution. Accordingly, the title of the symposium—Taking Measures—can be understood in two ways: as a reference to the practices of measurement with which the use of artistic media is intertwined as well as to the political potential derived from this use.

Formats are linked with measurement practices in numerous ways. They are often expressed in metric or numeric data. The designation of film formats such as 35mm, 16mm, or 8mm, for example, is determined by the width of the filmstrip, which in turn corresponds to the size and aspect ratio of the single frames, as well as the duration of the film projection at a given frame rate. Magnetic video tape formats, such as U-matic, Betamax, and VHS, or digital media formats, such as floppy disc, CD-ROM, and DVD, are differentiated according to their image resolution, running time, and storage capacity. As units or ensembles of technical specifications, formats are the result of historic processes of industrial standardization that are subject to the laws of uniformity and profitability. Format standards guarantee technical compatibility as well as economic competitiveness on the global image market. They determine not only the technical conditions under which media operate but also where and by whom they are seen, the speed at which they circulate, the channels through which they are disseminated, and how visible and effective they are. Thus, in a broader sense, formats determine the conditions under which images come to be publicly displayed in a social and political regard in the first place.

In view of its significance for artistic and curatorial practices, format has recently become the focus of increased attention. Despite all the differences one can observe between the theoretical approaches of David Summers, David Joselit, Jonathan Sterne, Haidee Wasson, and others, they share a common objective, namely to address the contexts of the use of format in specific historical situations. Hereby, interest in format is principally focused on artistic practice after art, on the multiple dependencies of artistic production, its technologies, and methods of political and economic interests. In this regard, David Joselit speaks about format as a structure or a “connective tissue,” wherein the worldly entanglements of images—the techniques of their production, the efforts associated with their creation, the mode of their circulation, the historical conditions of their making, etc.—become visible.

The techniques of measuring time and space that have accompanied film and video throughout their history to the present day are subject to various processes of negotiation in the interest of science and politics, industry and commerce. Consequently, film and video have themselves served as measuring instruments for scientific and analytical purposes, whereby they are employed beyond exhibition spaces and movie theaters in a variety of fields such as anthropometry, criminology, forensics, physiology, psychology, statistics, operations research, and tactical analysis in sports and military intelligence, respectively. In these fields, they contributed to the acquisition of knowledge and enlightenment, believing it to be for a good cause; to the same extent, they were also involved in the “politics of large numbers” (Alain Desrosières) and the history of the “mismeasure of man” (Stephen Jay Gould)—in the governmentally and ideologically motivated production of evidence through the collection and management of useful data. However, in acknowledging these dependencies, in view of which art jeopardizes its autonomy, also lies the opportunity for art to test its own effectiveness in the public arena and to uncover potentials for resistance in artistic action. Formats indeed regulate the use of artistic media; they are scripts that contain guidelines for action through which historical knowledge and experience is accessed and distributed. At the same time, however, they are a showplace for negotiating, verifying, or dismissing the knowledge and experience they make available in standardized form.

Last but not least, formats represent a particular challenge in the conservation and curation of collections. On the one hand, in addition to the works of media art that exist in obsolete formats, the technological systems and devices on which they can be played must also be preserved and kept in working order. On the other hand, the question arises as to the conditions under which these works should be converted into current digital formats to ensure that they can be exhibited in the future and possibly to retain a work’s original artistic concept—or even to realize this concept for the first time in situations in which it was impossible under the prevailing historical technological conditions. Conversely, conscious artistic recourse to “retrograde technicity” (Gabriele Jutz) can also be considered an act of falling short of technological standards, which is associated with subversive modes of format usage. Formats can circulate between the areas of normative and alternative usage or can be recontextualized through acts of appropriation and translation. At the same time, along with the artistic decision in favor of a certain format, the institutional practices that decide whether films and videos can be exhibited in the different contexts of museums and movie theaters as well as on television and on the Internet also come into focus.

Out of these considerations, a variety of questions arise: How can technologies of measurement and data analysis in art be used politically and made operative for the public sector (Forensic Oceanography, Liquid Violence, 2018; Hannes Rickli, Afrikanischer Buntbasch #3, 2020, etc.)? How can they subversively interact with the history of the “mismeasure of man” by repeating historical strategies of legitimization of racist and colonialist views in accordance with certain format specifications in compliance with existing schemas and standards (Dani Gal, White City, 2018; Artur Żmijewski, Glimpse, 2016–2017, etc.)? In which non-artistic practices of measurement, of the production of knowledge and evidence in the interest of useful research, is the use of formats intertwined? In what way can artistic practice be used to make these involvements visible (Harun Farocki, Bilder der Welt und Inschrift des Krieges, 1988; Omer Fast, CNN Concatenated, 2002; Clemens von Wedemeyer, Transformation Scenario, 2018, etc.)? How can formats themselves, as key conditions of visibility and epistemic politics, be exhibited (Alexandra Navratil, Under Saturn (Act 1-3), 2018; Warren Neidich, Rumor to Delusion, 2019, etc.)? How can they be put in relation to the exhibition spaces of museums and movie theaters in an institutionally critical way, and how can this relationship be assessed (Philipp Fleischmann, from Main Hall, 2013, to Austrian Pavilion, 2019; Alexandra Gelis, Doing and Undoing: Poems from within, 2020, etc.)? What challenges arise regarding formats in conservation and curatorial practice (Marijke van Warmerdam, Koor (Choir), 1997; Philipp Fleischmann, philipp fleischmann 2012/2013; etc.)? In this respect, what kind of power over formatting must be given to institutions, to their respective infrastructures and mechanisms of value creation and tradition formation?

The international symposium promotes a creative and experimental form of exchange through video correspondence and conversations that foster dialogue between art and research. It will be published online soon and is organized by Fabienne Liptay, Laura Walde and Carla Gabriela Engler (University of Zurich) in cooperation with Nurja Ritter and Nadia Schneider Willen (Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst). It is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation as part of the project “Exhibiting Film: Challenges of Format.”

With contributions by and conversations with Erika Balsom, Kris Dittel, Burcu Dogramaci, Monika Dommann, Omer Fast, Dani Gal, Alexandra Gelis, Carla Gabriela Engler, Philipp Fleischmann, Ursula Frohne, David Joselit, Fabienne Liptay, Jacqueline Maurer, Alexandra Navratil, Warren Neidich, Volker Pantenburg, Hannes Rickli, Dorota Sajewska, Benoît Turquety, Laura Walde, Haidee Wasson, Marijke van Warmerdam, Clemens von Wedemeyer, Eyal Weizman.

An edited volume based on the symposium will be published by Scheidegger & Spiess.


A cooperation of the University of Zurich with

Funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF)