Home COMMON PROBLEMS Nu•tka•, Stan Douglas

Nu•tka•, Stan Douglas


Stan Douglas, Nut•ka•, 1996

Stan Douglas, Nut•ka•, 1996

Stan Douglas, Nut•ka•, 1996, Video installation, The National Gallery of Canada. Photo © 1997, NGC.
Stan Douglas, Nut•ka•, 1996, Video installation (detail), The National Gallery of Canada. Single-channel video still © 1997, NGC.


Nu•tka• by Canadian artist Stan Douglas was created in 1996 and purchased by the NGC the following year. The work was selected as a case study, because the projector used to display it has become obsolete and must be replaced. Moreover, this type of projector has an impact on the definition and clarity of the image, the effect of which is vital to the conceptual aspect of the work.


Nu•tka• is a 6 minute 45 second single-channel videotape projected in a dark room and accompanied by a quadraphonic (four-channel) soundtrack. Douglas filmed two sequences of the same landscape in Nootka Sound, British Columbia. The video image is comprised of 485 interlacing horizontal raster lines over two tracks. Douglas removed the even lines from one sequence and the odd from the other, weaving the two sequences together to create a new video. The resulting image is difficult to absorb, as it presents two different landscape shots in one. Overlapping, simultaneous and separate narratives—one from an English captain and the other from a Spanish commander—are broadcast in the room, with the voice of one heard at the front and the other at the back. At six moments during the video, the two sequences present exactly the same image and sound (the monologue texts, said in unison, are the same for the two officers).


Stan Douglas, Nut•ka•, 1996

Stan Douglas, Nut•ka•, 1996. Examples of modified odd and even raster lines. Drawing © 2009, Alexandre Mingarelli, MMFA.


First problem: obsolescence of cathode-ray tubes

The work was initially presented using a Barco tritube cathode projector, which has since become obsolete. The high cost and low availability of this type of technology has made the purchase of a tritube difficult and is not a viable conservation option over the long term.


In order to replace the Barco projector, tests were conducted with liquid crystal projectors (LCD), but the visual effect of the interlacing of the two sequences as conceived by Douglas was unsuccessful: the pixels were too visible, the image blurred and darkened. Because of its visible pixilation, LCD technology was deemed inappropriate for the projection of a work offering an image as detailed as that in Nu•tka•. Tests with DLP (Digital Light Processing) projectors produced better although still unsatisfactory results.


Unlike DLP and LCD projectors, which use digital technology where the native resolution is fixed, the Barco projector operates in analog mode and can render the resolution of the image on the presentation device as it was recorded. In an analog operational mode, the projector need not be systematically scaled to the incoming video signal. Digital projectors (DLP/LCD) reinterpret and scale the resolution of the Nu•tka• images through interpolation (the adding of intermediary pixels alongside existing pixels to fill in the otherwise fixed display matrix). This interpolation alters the interlacing effect of the two sequences.


Ethical problems


Migration by the artist

Stan Douglas has already conducted a technological migration of his work. Nu•tka• was initially exhibited using a videodisk (laser disk), but in 2003, the artist replaced this equipment with a DVD format. In doing so, he made use of new technology that offers improved image quality and above all, better sound (four digital channels instead of two analog and two digital channels). This migration also allowed for a simplification of the sound equipment, having enabled the removal of an amplifier, splitter and equalizer. It also entailed a change in the speaker enclosures and of course in that of the player.


Douglas was unable to successfully migrate the tritube projector to the new technology, but with the addition of a high-quality external scan converter, it is possible to present the work using a DLP and even an LCD projector. This equipment circumvents the projector’s electronics to convert the resolution itself, thereby reproducing the original visual effects with greater success.


Authenticity and integrity

Douglas was unable to effect a direct migration of his work; the new projectors compromised its integrity. The artist therefore decided on emulation as a transitional step towards full migration. To complement the migration of the equipment, it was necessary to somewhat emulate the video signal using the scan converter to allow the image to be displayed as it was in 1996. It is likely that at some point in the future, the electronics associated with video signal processing will improve considerably, thus dispensing with the need for a scan converter to successfully present Nu•tka•. We can then look forward to a full migration with no emulation.


Because interpolation changes the image resolution by adding pixels that did not originally exist, the authenticity of the work is compromised, albeit with few consequences, since its effect remains virtually imperceptible. It should be noted, however, that to the trained eye, this interpolation could distance the work from its technologically historical positioning (1996), because to a certain extent the interpolation generates an image with a more contemporary appearance. The loss of authenticity resulting from the migration has little impact as long as the integrity of the image is preserved.


Problems particular to this case


Nu•tka• highlights the phenomenon of interpolation from a conservation perspective. Interpolation increases the resolution of an image by creating new data that results from a mathematical algorithm. Interpolation adds new pixels through the mathematical manipulation of the surrounding pixels. In most cases, the technique is used to adapt a low resolution image to a display matrix offering higher resolution.


Interpolation is often perceived as an improvement, but within the conservation context, it is seen as destructive if applied to a source device. It modifies the original image by adding new data. We observed that if poorly executed, such as in the case of Nu•tka•, its effect becomes undesirable, because it greatly compromises the integrity of the work and, more importantly, alters its authenticity.


Emulation for migration

Douglas expressed his desire to migrate the equipment used in his work to new technologies that are more efficient and easier to procure. Emulation was used here as a transitional strategy, since the existing projectors do not yet allow for a true rendering of the interlacing effect of Nu•tka•.