The Art & Science of Virtualization: Interview w/ Mark Hellar

Posted on: Friday, August 31 2012
image has published the following interview with Mark Hellar, BAVC's Technology & Broadcast Engineer.

PACKED: Could you tell us about your background and how you began to work with media art in general?

Mark Hellar: My education is both training and some autodidact education. I have a humanities degree and I augmented that with evening classes. I worked in corporate IT from 1996 to 2003, where I built Linux servers. My very first IT job was to build and maintain a cluster of Unix servers. Those jobs were all very cut and dry IT work. Even if I liked them, after seven years it felt a bit mundane. As I had studied video editing in college, I applied for a scholarship for 300 hours of training at the Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC). There I studied video engineering and worked with software such as Avid, Final Cut Pro, Max MSP Jitter, Flash and all the Adobe tools.

With these new skills I found a job at the San Francisco Art Institute, in North Beach. I worked there for about five years as the manager of academic technology. This job meant that I was overseeing the digital media labs, the digital classrooms, the digital dark rooms, etc. A lot of artists in residence came there, like the Raqs collective from India. They had technology requests much different than the ones you get in a traditional IT setting, like setting up a sensor on a staircase so that when someone walks by, a projection plays, etc. It was out of my realm, but I found out that I was happy to work in both a creative and technological context. I really developed skills and sensibilities around that over the years.

PACKED: So that is where you applied your IT education to art for the first time?

Mark Hellar: Yes, and in this art context I really enjoyed it, because in pure IT the requests are very formulated and standardized, there is a recipe for almost everything. In the San Francisco Art Institute requests were more like “hey, I want to have an application that slows down video”. So I had to make Jitter patches, use Arduino boards, microcontroller boards to set up sensors, etc. There was no formula, I just had to do it and figure it out in some really interesting ways. Later BAVC offered me a job, as they had a gigabit fiber connection to the Internet. I thought that they were really at the center of technology and that there were a lot of possibilities for artists with this infrastructure.

PACKED: Are you still working for BAVC today?

Mark Hellar: Yes, but not as an employee. I run a company called Hellar Studios LLC where I'm alone and through which I have a number of contracts with the Bay Area Video Coalition. I’m overseeing a lot of their broadcast systems and also taking on a lot more of their overall IT responsibilities. I worked at BAVC for a while, but I left to become the IT director of a children’s technology museum downtown where we were working on interactive exhibitions and things like that. I came back to BAVC to facilitate the move of a television station that they had taken over. It was on the other side of town. We had to move the transmitters and all the equipment. As the television station is a 24/7 operation, we had to keep a signal up without interruption.

In addition to BAVC, I have a three year contract with SFMOMA under the Matters in Media Art program where I focus solely on the preservation of digital artworks. Last year we worked on pieces such as Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Agent Ruby and Julia Sher's Predictive Engineering2 where we used the technology of virtualization for their preservation.

Mark Hellar: I started having conversations with SFMOMA when I worked at BAVC. In San Francisco there was also a smaller art institution called ‘New Langton Arts’ that had been around for about 30 years. They contacted me in 2008, because they had a grant sponsored by Richard Reinhard from the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. The grant was for a case study on John Ippolito's Variable Media Questionnaire (VMQ), in which a number of people like Christiane Paul, and institutions like the Franklin Furnace or the Performance Archive in New York had entered works. There were different types of works, like installations, performances, etc. I assisted in entering one of the New Langton Arts' works in the VMQ. It was my first introduction to media art preservation. I thought that what they were trying to do was interesting.

Later, Jill Sterrett, Head of Conservation and Collections, called me through a mutual introduction. From 2001-2002 there was a curator at SFMOMA named Benjamin Weil, who was interested in digital art, and they created an online gallery, the ''. There was an online exhibition with works by Julia Sher, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Mark Napier and a number of other artists, but the SFMOMA never acquired any works officially. A couple of years ago, Rudolf Frieling became the new curator for new media works and got interested in acquiring these works in a formal way. When BAVC’s preservation department was asked what they should do with Agent Ruby, the executive director referred them to me.

PACKED: Was the SFMOMA looking for a strategy in order to preserve these kind of works?

Mark Hellar: Yes, to summarize, Rudolf Frieling first asked “how do we collect this?” and then Jill Sterrett asked “how do we conserve this?”. When I first saw the work, it was on an old Redhat 5 Linux server current in 2000 running on an old PC in their basement. The work was running from this old computer with a floppy drive and PS2 ports. It was online and had been on in their server room since the exhibition. It was still working, but it was about ten years old.

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