Streaming video – The reformatting of film and video art on the Internet

Streaming video technologies are becoming increasingly important, not to mention useful, for filmmakers and video artists. Technical improvements and advances such as cloud computing, larger data storage capacities and better codecs for high-resolution playback extend the possibilities for distributing moving images. At the same time, they also change the economic conditions under which films can be exhibited and marketed. And, not least, they also influence and change the reception situation for films and the behaviour of their viewers. These changes are taking place gradually and stealthily rather than in dramatic, revolutionary leaps. But they are nevertheless serious and far-reaching. For they are reformatting, in the best sense of the word, the way we view films.


Film storage in the cloud

Among the many Internet buzzwords making the rounds these days, “cloud” is a relatively new one. As with many of the latest developments on the Web, this new trend, too, is nothing revolutionary. Remote data storage has existed for as long as the Internet has been around with the servers that make data available to it. The new dimension here is to be found in the size of the available servers, the decreasing prices for mass storage and the acceleration of network connections, enabling the transmission of large amounts of data, such as those necessary for moving images. The last factor, i.e. network bandwidth and speed, continues to form the bottleneck and the greatest obstacle these days for the online distribution of moving images in high quality.

The simplest use of cloud computing is for storing digital films as files in large network storage facilities. From depots like these, films can be made available individually by means of selective sharing or by sending corresponding links – for example, in order to forward a preview copy to interested parties or to deliver the work after it has been purchased. The advantage of this mode of sharing is the high degree of control it offers, not only over the legal use of the material, but also over its technical quality. Unlike with online streaming, there are no minimum requirements for bandwidth and speed. Digital films can even be stored as original or master, as time permits, while streaming videos always have to go through a compression process.


Streaming video – Continuous improvement in playback quality

The main difference between streaming video and mere storage of film files consists in the necessity of a special interface allowing the material to be played and viewed on a monitor or using other hardware. Particularly in this regard, much has been achieved in recent years. Years ago it was already possible to deliver films via the Internet almost anywhere in the world and to reach a worldwide audience. But the quality of the first-generation embedded Quicktime movies or Flash films was so poor that they could hardly be considered anything more than a cheap simulacrum of the original film. Even as a trailer or teaser for promotional purposes they were more counter-productive than anything else – particularly in the case of visually complex, artistic works. The effect of these technical limitations was to encourage for a time the development of genres and film forms that took a playful approach to the narrow range of possibilities, even making a virtue out of necessity with soap-like webisodes or crudely rendered animations. Such flat films still form the majority on video-sharing platforms.

In the meantime, even video-sharing platforms designed primarily to amateurs offer high-definition quality. A resolution of 720p is long since standard for platforms like YouTube. Full HD has even been available there for a few years, as of course on the more exclusive platforms as well. At the beginning of the year, Apple was the last to jump on the bandwagon, extending the offering on iTunes to 1080p.
A resolution of 1080p for streaming videos – ignoring for a moment the much lower bit rate – is nearly the same playback quality as a BluRay disk. It is, in other words, a quality that is by all means acceptable as exhibition format on smaller cinema screens. This means that the once-important quality argument against online distribution of moving images is being invalidated bit by bit. Nevertheless, filmmakers from the art sector in particular are still very hesitant about putting their works online.


The establishment bides its time

Although all major museums of contemporary art by now document their collections and exhibitions online or offer virtual tours through the galleries, almost no works by established video artists can be found on the Internet. In contrast to illustrations of paintings and sculptures or recordings of performances, the problem here is of course that, in video art, the work as medium is exactly the same item that art dealers and the naturally the artists themselves want to sell. As long as the work does not consist of an installation or single-channel videos requiring a big screen, the streamed digital copy, though not identical to the original, would still be too similar to it, raising the fear that the original could no longer be sold.

Curiously, virtually no authorized works by video artists such as Gary Hill, Bill Viola, Gillian Wearing, Jane and Louise Wilson, or Steve McQueen can be found on serious websites, while on the other hand nearly all their works can be found on YouTube – albeit “illegally” filmed from projections in exhibitions, often using only a mobile phone camera!

A major exception here is the platform Ubuweb, which offers a large repertoire of video art by well-known artists in what is often excellent quality and without copy protection, making it available to all. But this is an isolated case and a very special phenomenon. Strictly speaking, the works on offer there are pirated copies. Their release is only possible when the respective authors, who perhaps even feel honoured to be a part of this collection, do not object.

In an article on the theme of online distribution of video art in “The Guardian”, Jemima Rellie (The Tate) argues that not only dealers, but also curators, are responsible for the scarcity of video art on the Internet. She expresses the suspicion that curators are against online presentation and use their influence to prevent it because they are afraid of losing their (live) audience. Many curators also fear that the online viewers are not patient enough to sit through an entire work and will instead zap their way through an online exhibition.

From the point of view of the curators, however, the parameters might now be changing. More and more of them are discovering the Internet as a platform for their work. The hype surrounding the job of curator also naturally leads to many self-proclaimed Web curators trying to push their way to centre stage (see also article). But, despite what one might expect, it’s not only the inexperienced or unemployed curators who are discovering online curating. A good example is the website Founded by the eponymous lifestyle magazine, the platform sees itself as an online museum and has been offering regular curated video art exhibitions since 2003. As participants, has been able to gain the cooperation of such prominent curators and artists as Ken Jacobs, Pipilotti Rist, Vito Acconci, Kutlug Ataman, Guy Maddin, LUX, John Smith, John Latham, Stuart Comer, Mark Webber and Sophie Fiennes. Even Hans Ulrich Obrist and Philippe Parreno, whose markedly “site-specific” exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery we described in an earlier issue of our magazine, agreed to join in!

Even though there are a whole series of virtual galleries – more or less prominent ones, from Saatchi to the websites of local artists’ collectives – it is mostly the emerging generation that allow their works to be presented online. Much more common are filmmakers’ or artists’ own websites, with which they promote themselves online by documenting their portfolios and posting trailers of their works. Here as well, it is mainly the less-established artists who stream complete videos. But even well-known artists occasionally release streaming videos of their works. Interestingly enough, they frequently use the services of platforms like YouTube or Vimeo to do so.

For her article “Video Art Distribution in the Era of Online Video”, Sandra Fauconnier (Netherlands Media Art Institute) researched the Internet presence of 72 artists whose works were acquired for the collection of the NiMk between 2005 and 2010. She discovered that 81% of the artists had their own website. 17% of them had a YouTube account and 15% used Vimeo to put works online in full length – usually in order to then embed them in their own website. Very few of them – Fauconnier cites Semiconductor as example – were however actively promoting their work on the above-named host platforms.

Presumably, the social and visual environment of such platforms is unattractive for the artists. But there is surely also a practical reason why filmmakers and video artists keep their distance from the major video platforms: namely, the lack of possibilities to present themselves and their portfolios in more detail in explanatory texts accompanying the works, or to provide information for download.


Technical aspects

Many filmmakers and artists use platforms like YouTube or Vimeo simply to upload their films and then download them again in rendered form. However, the quality of this free conversion is not consistent. And most importantly, the process is neither transparent nor controllable. There are dozens of Internet forums on this topic, and on how to outsmart the automatic process in order to get the best out of it. On platforms like Vimeo, conversions in high quality are also possible, but fees are charged for this service (Vimeo+ or Vimeo Pro).

Those who would like to exercise greater control over the render quality, and also over access to and distribution of their films on the Web, must rely on the services of specialized companies. This usually has the added advantage that further services are available – such as communication channels for B2B contacts or watermark-protected screeners. So-called white-label services enable in addition the design-neutral embedding of films in one’s own or a third-party website without the actual host being identifiable. And hosted films, unlike those on platforms such as YouTube, are of course protected from unauthorized access or prying eyes. Only recently, the submission platform Reelport, for example, set up a service of this type, called PicturePipe.

Nonetheless, with the current technical standards, only low-resolution films can be distributed without quality losses as streaming video. It is important to be aware of the technical background details. Although it may be the case that digital technologies can be used to produce identical copies of binary-coded systems in other media, this does not apply to the process of encoding and compressing films. Copying them produces varying results depending on the process and the effort required.

Ultimately, it is not the quality of the encoding that is the decisive factor in the quality of exhibition, but rather the last link in the chain, that is, the capacity of the viewer’s, or “end user’s” display.


Loss of control – Interfaces determine reception form

The more video libraries and film platforms that go online, with more and more new features, the more complex and lastly uncontrollable the reception of the uploaded films becomes. The way in which a film is watched, and the prevailing conditions, i.e. the reception dispositive or simply the consumer behaviour, is no longer defined by the carrier medium or its original platform. The critical factors today are instead the distribution channels and in particular the interfaces of the consumer devices. By contrast, a 35mm print of a film, for example, largely defines all aspects of its reception: it can basically only be screened in a cinema on a more or less big screen and in a dark room. Any interventions in the work’s integrity – for example in the colours and contrast or the running speed and frame sequence – are virtually impossible.

It’s another story entirely with digital films provided on the Internet for streaming. The better the quality of the source material and the more sophisticated the interfaces, the more flexible, but also uncontrollable, does the use and reception of the film become. It is therefore conceivable that one and the same film might end up being beamed by video projector onto a cinema screen or a white wall in the White Cube, watched on a living-room TV screen while ironing, run on a computer monitor during an office lunch break, or watched as re-mix on a mobile phone display by someone waiting at a bus stop.

The possibilities left for an author, i.e. the filmmaker or artist, who allows this type of digital distribution to exercise any influence over how the work is ultimately viewed are nearly non-existent. A presentation that is true to the original work can hardly be enforced through either technical or legal means.
Certainly, attempts are made to do just that in mainstream digital cinema – in particular through encryption and interactive, time-limited decryption. But the effort it takes to achieve this is quite absurd. This can be seen by the space taken up by security and encryption questions in the DCI specifications: around 50 of the 150 pages! These measures of course serve to defend and uphold a certain economic system for the commercialisation of films: the monetisation of the temporally and spatially limited exhibition rights for a work. The consequence is that a considerable portion of the revenues achieved must be invested in control mechanisms; a major share of the costs for the digital retrofitting of cinemas is also owing to this circumstance.

Without such control systems in place, consumers are the ones with the power to determine and decide on the use and reception of films, depending on the technical interfaces they use. It is an open question whether, under these circumstances, the classic concept of the work can even be upheld at all. It follows that the authorship of the artist as subject must also be fundamentally called into question. This is certainly also one of the reasons why so few filmmakers – and even fewer video and media artists, who are closer in their work to digital media – take advantage of innovations such as Web 2.0, which allow for even more far-reaching interventions, for the distribution of their works.

And this is also why classic cinema projection will surely continue to exist in future and to be valued by the audience, and why visual artists as well as most video and media artists will prefer “real-life” galleries and exhibition venues and use them to present their works. The same goes for those on the receiving end, who have the privilege of choosing between various situations for viewing and experiencing works on film and video. After the aura of the artwork is already lost when it is transferred to technical storage media, the aura of its reception as film and as art can perhaps yet be preserved. Part of this aura is an anchoring in place and time, which at least summons the impression of a direct encounter with the film or artwork.

In the case of streaming videos, however, the dispositive of film reception is not determined temporally, spatially, socially or aesthetically by an author or curator, but rather defined by the respective interfaces. As these are continually being developed further and are hence ever-changing, it is scarcely possible to rule out certain uses or to influence them through the setting of parameters during the image production. The digitally streamed film that arrives on a viewer’s screen is in any case no longer identical with the original master. It is above all not an artistic original, but rather a hybrid reformatted work that has been transformed several times along the way.

Further articles and essay on similar themes on

Digital options for self-distribution of short films (11/2010) )

Digital short films – from production to cinema (9/2011)

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