Calling the CRT doctor

The Jeff Bezos Post reports [poss. subscriber-only] on a company called Dotronix that services cathode ray tube (CRT) TV screens in the era of LCD/LED dominance (hat tip E.D.). Dotronix almost failed in the early 2000s but thrives now, by acting as a special consultant to all the museums that have pricy video art from the '60s to the '90s that they are trying to keep functional.

Occasionally the museums' contortions necessary to keep a work "authentic" veer into absurdity:

The throwback vibe is more obvious in [Gretchen] Bender’s 1986 work “Untitled (People With AIDS),” on loan from the Gretchen Bender Estate. The work is a 13-inch television with rabbit ears airing live TV. The screen bears the phrase “People With AIDS.” [Hirshhorn assistant director of exhibit technology Drew] Doucette and his team converted a high-definition signal from a digital antenna outside the museum to a standard-definition signal of a live broadcast that plays on the television. The rabbit ears are basically a prop.

The monitors used to display the art are only part of the conservation equation, Doucette said. As old technologies are left behind, conservators and exhibition specialists must grapple with preserving work in the most stable format, such as digital. Then, as is the case with the Hirshhorn show, they must connect it back to the retro displays. It’s like fitting a square peg in a round hole, and then a round peg in square hole, Doucette said.

From a sometime CRT user, a few observations:

1. My first CRT works came at the tail end of the monitors' availability in stores. (See, e.g., this used Toshiba 13-inch.)

2. The Bezos Post article talks about analog video content that's converted to digital media for preservation purposes and yet must still be ultimately played with analog hardware for that true '80s vibe. Arguably, the content and meaning of the work changed when it left the analog realm; once digitized, it became a Baudrillardian simulacrum. "Basically a prop" is the phrase used by BezosPo to describe the CRT arrangement. Let the artwork go, it's become an empty gesture. Discuss it in words.

3. Exhibiting animated GIFs in 2004-6, when they were presumed to be a dot-com relic, while displaying them on CRTs, which were another, different type of '90s relic, was confusing the issue as much as possible! In my case it wasn't a "statement" so much as a practical solution to showing "digital" work without having a gallerist call every other day to report some new issue with the computer. The DVD-CRT combo just sits there and loops (usually). Some work is impossible to historically contextualize -- you go with what you have.

4. Having said that, any current user of a CRT might have to scour eBay for a screen "ideal for retro gaming" just to keep a show up and running. Or, possibly, to email Dotronix.