Case Study: BLKNWS® Original Variations (Unique Variant #6) (2018-) by Kahlil Joseph


A particular technology or medium withholds a diverse range of characteristics that are either explored by the artists or simply a consequence of the technology’s nature. As a result, artworks that use certain technologies are inherently dependent on specific infrastructures and the problems that come with it, including its variability. This variability can be both a condition of this dependency and technological obsolescence, and intentional if it is seen as part of the artwork’s identity. In this context, external dependencies often include proprietary hardware and software on which the work relies to function. Thus, LI-MA’s ongoing Infrastructure for Sustainable Digital Art project investigates several of these works to increase knowledge and collaborate for defining best practice.

LI-MA is using case study based research, in which one case, representative of a larger number of artworks, is used to determine methods for finding solutions to similar challenges and questions. Works like the one examined here, are intentionally variable in their nature and have an open end linked to a changing feed conveyed through the internet. These works may also display proprietary hardware and software issues, as well as dependency on paid services. External dependencies, such as these, make these works difficult to conserve using traditional methods, as their nature often derives from the inherent vulnerability the dependency creates. BLKNWS® Original Variations (Unique Variant #6) (2018 - ongoing) by Kahlil Joseph (Seattle, WA, USA, 1981 - present) is the fifth case study in the project, and was submitted by the Bonnefanten Museum, who has the stewardship of this Unique Variant of the BLKNWS® project. 

To contextualise the decisions that were made regarding the work’s preservation, BLKNWS® was researched in regards to its art historical background, technical properties and the opinions of stakeholders. To do this, first literature research and technical analysis were conducted, followed by a series of interviews with the Bonnefanten. The gathered information was further analysed and used to put together interview questions directed to the artist and his studio. Further interviews addressed to other stakeholders from institutions where the work was exhibited were scripted, however, up to this date, contact greater than the exchange of emails has not been reached. Simultaneously, several attempts were made to engage the artist in an interview, but only brief replies were received. The artist interview is nevertheless vital for this work’s preservation strategy, and strong efforts have been and will be made in order for this to occur. These include the development of a proposal for the expansion of the project, which is outlined further below. 

Kahlil Joseph's BLKNWS® Original Variations (Unique Variant #6) as displayed at the Bonnefanten Museum from June 18th, 2020 to April 3rd, 2022
Figure 1 - Kahlil Joseph's BLKNWS® Original Variations (Unique Variant #6) as displayed at the Bonnefanten Museum from June 18th, 2020 to April 3rd, 2022

Brief Description of the Work

BLKNWS® Original Variations (Unique Variant #6), is one variation of the ten that make up Kahlil Joseph's fugitive television broadcast, BLKNWS®. It is a continuously updated newscast that assembles historical and contemporary found footage with newly created scenes that make use of a newsroom format. For presentation, two juxtaposed flat screens play corresponding digital video files that are in dialog with one another. In addition to the two-channel display, BLKNWS® is presented against a photographic backdrop consisting of a specific wallpaper that features a historic portrait of black people employed in professions typically associated with white people, which are for this specific Variant a group of students (Roger Williams University, Nashville, Tenn., Academic class, 1899).

Case Study Questions

Questions raised by the work that were hoped to be addressed with this case study included:

  • How can a work that is dependent on a live feed live on? 
  • How to keep track of different iterations?
  • How to apply a community based preservation strategy?
  • What exactly is happening between the artist’s side and the exhibition?
  • What are the dependencies that are in play and what are their different conceptual layers?
  • How to replace the proprietary hardware and software with more sustainable options?

BLKNWS®: Exhibition and Acquisition

The work is part of a group of ten variants created by Joseph as artwork manifestations of what he considers the bigger enterprise that is BLKNWS®, the media entity. BLKNWS® Original Variations (Unique Variant #6) has three (3) licences that allow the work to live in accordance with its community-based principles. These effectively enable the Collector to participate in shaping the future of the artwork in an active collaborative effort. The work enacts these principles by requiring licences for two black owned cultural spaces, thereby creating the opportunity for wide-spread dissemination and public engagement with diversified audiences. 

BLKNWS® was conceived as a cable news program and was always intended for a broader audience. It found a place in the art world with presentations in art galleries, museums and biennials. Described as one of the best artworks presented at the 58th Venice Biennial, the work also touches on diverse dissemination, being shown in black-owned markets, hotel lobbies, and barbershops. BLKNWS® belongs in all these worlds amid numerous calls for BLKNWS® to become an actual television network, which seems likely.
When Bonnefanten acquired the work in 2019, six BrightSign LS424 media players pre-programmed by the artist were delivered, as well as documentation concerning the work’s installation and licensing. Two of these media players were delivered to LI-MA and included one micro-SD card each, containing several files of code, logs, screenshots and video files. A couple of months later a custom made case for BLKNWS® Original Variations (Unique Variant #6) was also delivered to LI-MA containing: two variant specific BrightSign HD4 players, one hard drive, and one flash drive. Included on the flash drive and the hard drive was further documentation, namely the Certificate of Authenticity, the Acquisition Charter and the Installation Bible.

BLKNWS®’ Licensing Scheme

The Bonnefanten acquired the right to exhibit the Unique Variant #6 in its institutional space, and is also obliged to show it in two black-owned spaces paralel. These were previously selected on the occasion of the artwork’s exhibition in 2021 - OSCAM in Amsterdam and the Hiphophuis in Rotterdam. The licensing scheme is detailed in Figure 2.

Figure 2 - Licensing scheme for BLKNWS® Original Variations (Unique Variant #6)

Characteristics of Proprietary Software and Hardware

To utilise the BrightSign media players, an annual subscription must be paid. The artist studio - programs the footage and uploads the video content to each player in BrightAuthor to BrightCloud, an Amazon Web Services (AWS) hosted cloud service. The media players, when connected to the internet, download the last uploaded file from the cloud, as scheduled via BrightAuthor. The installation setup is done by connecting each player to the internet and then each (left and right) to a flat screen via HDMI. Both BrightSign players need to be connected to power simultaneously in order to sync using the company’s video wall feature, BrightWall. BLKNWS® Original Variations (Unique Variant #6) is dependent on an internet connection. If this connection is interrupted it will play the last downloaded video content The video format is mp4 and the duration is variable, the accessible videos stored on the BrightSign LS424 players have a duration under 30 minutes.

Understanding the Artwork’s Vulnerabilities

Any extensive preservation strategy requires active participation on the artist’s side. In the artist's own words, “Art at its best is unstable.” Referring to this characteristic of unstableness as one of the conditions for great art and perfectly describing his approach to the BLKNWS® project. Three layers of vulnerability for the work have been outlined, as follows:

  1. A Social Layer - The work cannot be updated and conveyed as the 'live feed,' intended by the artist, without the network of contributors and editors that support it. Especially as to this date, it has not been possible to reach the artist in order to discuss his plans to ensure the continuity of this primary layer. Additionally, the new content uploads are done without the institution's awareness.
  2. A Proprietary Layer - The conditions for the work to be updated and played rely on the BrightSign subscription and on the continuity of BrightSign. More so, BrightSign is adding an additional proprietary layer through its use of AWS. The artist’s use of BrightSign means that the institution cannot ensure the preservation of the work without the artist's cooperation. 
  3. A Spatio-Temporal Layer - the video content changes with the different venues where it is shown. There seems to be evidence of the incorporation of specific footage according to where it was installed, but this lacks confirmation. 

In view of this, the main questions that should be addressed by the artist related to how he sees this artwork’s legacy on the feeding and editing side, but also on the dependency of BrightSign and possible alternatives.

Conservation Measures

To address the vulnerabilities, some conservation measures were recommended to the museum including preserving the ‘Original Program’ of BLKNWS® Original Variations (Variant #6) in LI-MA's Digital Repository. Additionally, it was advised to document other collectors’ Variants as completely as possible, and save video content updates for documentation purposes. This last point is relative to the content that is shown in each exhibition and is not a recommendation from the artist, as it is not the artwork, and would exist as research material only. A further recommendation to bring to the artist’s consideration is related to the use of AWS. This chain that connects BrightAuthor to the BrightSign player can be broken if AWS no longer exists. Files saved in the cloud could be lost. Given the artist's socio-political engagement, other open source Cloud options would provide a more ethical, conscious method of executing the same effect. This could also improve the sustainability of the work without affecting its aesthetic.

Additional Conservation Measures - Public Program 

To address BLKNWS®' foremost vulnerability, its community-based process of production, a future public program was outlined by LI-MA, that includes the presence of the artist. An exhibition of BLKNWS® in several venues in the spirit of the Made in L.A. city-wide exhibition, will be the departing point for a program of talks, conferences, and other public initiatives. A funding application will be submitted to the U.S. Embassy in The Hague and to additional funding institutions. Partners to be associated with the Bonnefanten and LI-MA will ensure a successful dissemination of the BLKNWS® enterprise and its social effects.

Research completed by: Francisca Sousa (PhD intern, LI-MA), Olivia Brum (Junior Conservator, LI-MA), and Gaby Wijers (Director, LI-MA)
In collaboration with: Charlotte Franzen (Head of Collections, The Bonnefanten Museum), Charlotte Fijen (Collections Assistant, The Bonnefanten Museum), Mirjam Meisen (Collections Registrar, The Bonnefanten Museum), Carlo van den Brand (Audiovisual Technician, The Bonnefanten Museum), Kahlil Joseph (Artist), Sylvia Herbold (BLKNWS® Studio), Antonio Buyard (BLKNWS® Studio), Joost Dofferhoff (Registrar, LI-MA), Wiel Seuskens (Senior Technical Conservator, LI-MA), Mauricio van der Maesen de Sombreff (Engineer and Junior Conservator, LI-MA), and Claudia Röck (Conservator, LI-MA)

See LI-MA’s MediaWiki for “BLKNWS® Original Variations (Unique Variant #6)” for more information. Full case-study report and artwork-related documents only available upon request.