In Europe, France has taken the lead in the use of electronic media. The MINITEL data exchange system (which uses home terminals) is a well-known example along with the techno-fun-fair of La Villette. The technology itself is not unique, what is is its radical introduction and marketing. MINITEL is a succès fou in contrast to all those moribund BTX, VIDITEL, PRESTEL or whatever-they're-called systems abroad. The strongest proof are the billboards throughout Paris that show amourous couples or sexy girls: Jamais seul avec LENA! MIN/TEL 34-15. SM? MIN/TEL 34-23! Je suis ULLA ... 36-36. In other countries people make do with heavy breathing panting on ansaphones, small ads and porno films on commercial (subscriber) TV stations, in France it's interactive real time.
Of course, the French don't only use the new media to seek sexual relief or for demonstrations per se. In MUSEE D'ORSAY (which opened at the end of '86), alongside the traditional educational devices such as panels of text and architectural models one also encounters a splendid series of interactive video (touch screen and laser disc). They're worth trying out: the touch screen gives completely direct access to the information on the disc. If you don't do anything, the program runs its course as a conventional slide show with sound and some extra text on screen. However, when you touch the screen a menu appears with a ·number of possible choices around the subject that's just been discussed. If you've been looking at a program about architecture, then, after touching the Eiffel Tower, you can select from: world exhibitions, steel constructions or more architecture. You wander through the program and search for specific information in an extremely relaxed way, no keyboard, no learning - splendid!
This educational technique offers visual possibilities that are generating more and more interest from artists: for example, JEFFREY SHAW has been working for years in the Netherlands with virtual universes through which the viewer can move, the VIDEOLABYRINTH group in Berlin is working with interactive adventure games, BILL VIOLA is involved with the technique, BILL SEAMAN is working on a project, The Watch Detail, which will probably be ready in January '89 and JUAN DOWNEY will present his interactive BACH Project this summer at The Hague's Image and Sound festival.
The presentations of the interactive programs are, from the viewpoint of exhibition techniques, an interesting new category within video-art. Up till now there have been two forms. Firstly the video installation, a medium with no serious problems; after all the presentation is part of the work, the artist does it well or badly, an exhibition or museum curator can't change much. Besides money, the only worry is keeping disturbing factors at bay, such as: noise, light, other videos or the public. The second form, the videotape, is constantly subjected· to compromises. Everyone involved in video knows how to work with videotapes: they're sent by post, someone brings one, or you've got one on a shelf. If you want to see it, you put it in a video recorder and watch it on a TV. On your own or with a couple of other people you've invited for the occasion. Everyone involved with video art also knows that generally things aren't like that: the tape's projected in a stuffy hall as if it were a feature film. Or it plays the whole day in some corner of a museum so that passers-by may catch some of it. Or it's transmitted on television so that hopefully everyone may catch some of it. Generally, there's a TV guide or program for you to check up when a particular tape begins.
Did we in our naivety think that the tape was a democratic medium, that would bring art to the people, by post or two-way cable. It shouldn't be so: on the one hand, art itself was not at all democratic, on the other hand, the tape seems to be handicapped within visual art's socio-economic milieu. Things are even more difficult with interactive video. On your own, or alternatively with two three others, you must operate the equipment, decide how long and what you watch. That makes it unsuitable for Sunday afternoon art tourists. It is not possible to show it to groups, unless someone (who does it very nicely) makes a show out of it. The equipment needed for the presentation is more expensive and less standardized than video and also becomes more rapidly obsolete. In short, the plucky pioneers of media art still have some gruelling adventures in store.
So a hyper-modern organization has been opened in Paris for consulting (now rather old-fashioned) videotapes: the VIDEOTHEQUE DE PARIS in the subterranean Forum des Hailes. The VIDEOTHEQUE DE PARIS is a Paris City Council project. Taken from an idea by the poet PIERRE EMMANUEL, it is intended as an audio-visual memory of the city. The videotheque maintains a collection of more than three thousand tapes: copies of feature films, news items, documentaries, commercials, music videos, recordings of concerts etcetera. All these programs take Paris as their subject or setting. Considering the fact that it is probably the first audio-visual city archive in the world, the way in which the material has been made available in Paris is especially interesting. Obviously, the heart of the videotheque is a large book-case with tapes. However, this case isn't watched over by a librarian in a dust-coat but by a robot. A gigantic machine which, at the bidding of the videotheque's central computer, grabs tapes from the case at high speed and puts them into video-players. If a particular tape has to be shown in one of the center's halls, an operator in a central control space gives a command and everything works automatically. Efficient, labour-saving and hygienic.
The SALLE DE CONSULTATION PIERRE EMMANUEL is really interesting, a space with thirty elegant video terminals, each with an office chair on castors and built-in headphones. The public can look up the videotheque's electronic catalogue in natural language by means of these terminals (for that matter, subscribers can also do this. at home: MINITEL 36-15 VDP 15). Then it's just a press of the button: the robot does his job and the selected tape is shown 60 seconds later on the same terminal (not, of course, on MINITEL but soon on cable). You have complete control of the player while the tape's playing by means of a separate remote control unit: searching forwards and backwards while keeping the picture, pause, replay, stopping halfway through and seeing another tape - everything is possible. You have absolute freedom to browse through the stock, or ferret through eleven documentaries in one hour in search of something special or analyze the trailer of GODARD's Alphaville for four hours. You never need to pester the staff because you want yet again to ask for something else, you never have to sit through something that wasn't what you expected. Ideal! In addition to the single terminals, there are halls for small groups and study cubicles. Experiments are to start soon to connect the local high school. Paris seems to be on the verge of an audio-visual Valhalla!
It's simply rather unfortunate that for the whole city (of 2.2 million inhabitants) only a hundred people can use the catalogue at any one time (52 in house, 48 MINITEL) and that there are only thirty Postes de Consultation. But it's a start, the basic research has already been financed, one can gain useful experience with this set-up. Hopefully the world's most important collections of video art will soon have this kind of set-up. (Tip for the lady curators: buy the thing for the educational department, there will always be a few hundred spaces left for your tapes). Meanwhile one can make a start in Paris. At the time of the VIDEOTHEQUE's opening there were still more than two thousand empty places. Space enough for the whole of the CENTRE POMPIDOU's collection (as a matter of fact it was curator CHRISTINE VAN ASSCHE who told us about the VIDEOTHEQUE). There is also room to spare for temporary exhibitions such as Art for TV and Revision. It will be a bit crowded at the openings but for the rest isn't thirty chairs a good number for a continuous video-art presentation? After all, the SALLE DE CONSULTATION PIERRE EMMANUEL is only in use ten hours a day for the videotheque and it's just five minutes walk. Unfortunately, this kind of collaboration between city and state would encounter insurmountable difficulties. Anyway, this set-up is an interesting initiative for the developing of suitable screening arrangements for video-art. And certainly worth a visit.
Translation: Annie Wright