Sam Chan: Technological Intervention in Video

With AI applications becoming increasingly accessible in today’s technological landscape, there have been especially promising advancements in the field of video restoration. Restituo is a Hong Kong-based tech startup specialising in digital image restoration. We spoke with its co-founder Sam Chan to learn more about his work with media artists and archiving institutions.

Sam Chan at the Festival Lounge, 2024. Photo: Annabel Preston

Q: How does working with Restituo differ from using mainstream AI-based image restoration or enhancement software?

A: The AI industry leans quite heavily towards automation, and as a result, people can only use these end products with limited flexibility. This is where we come in. We are offering a service instead of just a product, so our clients can become more directly involved in the decisions made around the use of AI without having to learn the technicalities. In a way, we are the 'interface' between the client and AI, working with the artist or archiving institution to understand their needs. Ultimately, AI can replace a lot of manpower and provide better solutions to many traditional problems, but it cannot fully replace the human in the restoration process.

Q: Would using AI during restoration affect the integrity of the original video?

A: Some people may think that the intervention of AI, or even any technology, would damage the 'originality' of a work. However, video as a medium is already thoroughly mediated by technology in the first place. From recording to playback, there are many agents involved: recorder, mixer, corrector, digitising is almost like a black box—people who use it don't actually know what's happening inside.

In fact, what we are trying to do is repair issues with previous technological uses, such as poor filming or incorrect settings. Usually we would consult the artist and conduct our own research to retrace how the video was filmed, find out whether it's been modified, and try to solve these problems. In instances where the artist is unavailable for consultation, especially given the age of some materials, we'd have to use objective standards or consult the relevant experts. We want to open this black box, or at least make it more transparent, so that the client is at least aware of the options available to them during the restoration process.

Q: So is the final work still considered ‘original’, or is it something else?

A: Restoration can be very idealistic but also quite practical, and our work leans more towards the practical side of the spectrum. We are very aware of the implications of technological intervention in the production and dissemination of video, and there is no 'pure' art form in the first place. It's also like restoring a painting—it is certainly not going to become the 'same' artwork after being restored, but what we want is to allow more people to experience the artwork once more. That's why I consider the work we do akin to that of conservators.

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