Interview with Chi Tien Lui (CTL Electronics)

CTL Electronics, New York, May 30, 2011


Chi Tien Lui, an electric and electronic technician born in China, founded CTL Electronics in 1968. The shop was among the first to help artists using early amateur video formats and systems such as the famous SONY Portapak1 by renting equipment and providing training to use them. During this period the CTL Videotools Catalog2 was published giving precious information to artists and other enthusiasts on available video tools. In addition to this, CTL Electronics has been an official maintenance and repair service for several generations of electronic devices. Emanuel Lorrain (PACKED vzw) met Chi Tien Lui to talk about his experience with video equipment and the new role that he has embraced in recent years by helping museums keep video installations alive.


  • 1. In 1967, Sony introduced the first PortaPak, the Sony DV-2400 Video Rover. The first ”portable” video system, this two-piece set consisted of a large B&W camera and a separate record-only helical ½” VCR unit. It required a Sony CV series VTR to play back the video. Even thought it was clunky and heavy, it was light enough for a single person to carry it around.  However, it was usually operated by a crew of two -  One shot the camera and one carried and operated the VCR part. (Source: The History of Camcorders, Mark Shapiro.)
  • 2. See :

PACKED: What is your background? How did you start CTL Electronics?

Chi Tien Lui: Since I was a young kid, I've been an electronic hobbyist. It started in Taiwan while I was at a junior high school for electronics. With one of my schoolmates I used to build batteries and burn my clothes with the oxide. Today we're still working together.

As a kid I built crystal radios, tube radios, amplifiers, motors, etc. or whatever a kid liked at that time. After high school I went to work on American ships as an electrician. That is how I got to know about electrics. I know how to repair and maintain everything here in this building, including the elevator. In 1960, when I was 19 years old, I came to the USA. First I worked in a repair shop for radios and then went back to school to refine my electronic technique. In the sixties, every electronic company was space oriented. So I worked on a number of small electronic devices for flight simulators and on the Apollo fuel tank.


 Chi Tien Lui with his schoolmate and colleague. Photo: PACKED vzw.


PACKED: When did you start working with video?

Chi Tien Lui: When I later went to work with a company owned by Harry Lefkowitz called GBC Corp. of America. The company was involved with SONY through Sam Adwar who worked for them, and I was the first technician trained to maintain their CV video recorder 3. It is also how I got to know a lot of famous customers because at the time only rich people could afford to buy such equipment.

Then I thought that it was the right time to start a business. I set it up three blocks away from where CTL Electronics is today. At the beginning of video, I was working with movie producers, schools, advertisers and the government, but most of my customers were artists.


 C.T.L. Electronics, authorised dealer for SONY and Panasonic plates. Photo: PACKED vzw.


PACKED: Is that how you met Nam June Paik4?

Chi Tien Lui: Yes, Nam June Paik came one day to my shop with a camera that had a terrible picture. I said I'd fix it for him. We became friends, and he would call me when he needed help for an installation. I still have some equipment here that belonged to him, as he had no storage space to keep it.

Nam June Paik was using colorizers that a Japanese engineer had built for him. At that time video was only in black and white. When people saw that you could put a black and white signal in a box and get something in colour out of it, they all liked it. It was very psychedelic because the colour isn't real. Back then everybody got stoned and liked psychedelics (laughs). So I built a hundred colorizers and sold them. Everybody was buying them. After that my business really took off. When your business is going well, you begin to become careless and to think that whatever you'll do it will work. Several times the business really plummeted. It stabilized when I moved to the present location. But today, with the introduction of new electronics, the business of video servicing is gone. A DVD player costs 40 dollars. Why would you want to repair it if a new one costs less than the price to repair it?

PACKED: How do you continue your activities?

Chi Tien Lui: I continue my activities with videotape transfers because you still need the old machines to do it. Not everyone has a collection of old machines and knows how to maintain them the way I do. That is why I moved to working on tape transfers and also to taking care of some of Nam June Paik’s works that are part of museum collections.


PACKED: When did you start working with museums?

Chi Tien Lui: About 5 years ago I went to a meeting at the Museum of Modern Art in New York5 where all the museums were talking very theoretically about how to save Nam June's artworks. I raised my hand and said "you know, I could extend Nam June's life". Because I knew him and worked with him, I know what he did. That is how I started picking up that business.

At the moment I'm working on replacing 450 TVs from The Chase Video Matrix6 for the J.P. Morgan Chase collection7. I'm also working with the Whitney8 and the Guggenheim museums9. I am retired but I like this type of work. I am glad that Nam June extends my life too (laughs).

Most people don't realize that Nam June Paik’s artworks require heavy maintenance. Can you imagine 450 TVs going on and off everyday? Maintaining a video wall is almost like painting a bridge. When you have finished painting it, you can do it all over again from the beginning.


PACKED: What is your approach to maintaining these artworks?

Chi Tien Lui: We are heading into difficult times. The way that we currently maintain them is to get replacement sets. When we maintain a piece, we try not to repair it but always to replace the entire device. Today this is the best way to do it because it costs us much more to refurbish a picture tube10 and to realign it than to get a replacement set.


 Stacked CRT monitors at C.T.L. Electronics. Photo: PACKED vzw.


PACKED: Do you personally collect equipment?

Chi Tien Lui: I used to rent out equipment but I no longer do that. I'm not an equipment provider anymore but I have a lot of equipment. If I don’t have a particular device in my stock, I often know where to find it because I have been in the video business for a long time. I started in 1968 and I have never thrown anything away.

I have a lot of spare parts from old generation equipment but I mostly have monitors, TVs and players. I also have cameras and projectors. If anyone would like to show Nam June Paik works using Portapaks, I even have brand new ones. I don't think even SONY has that! I have a lot of tri-tube projectors11, including some very early types, and a large number of top loader U-matic players12.


 A spare CRT tube for tri-tube projectors. Photo: PACKED vzw.


PACKED: Building a stock of spare equipment is important but when the equipment is very specific and no longer available the only solution is to repair it.

Chi Tien Lui: Yes. Right now I'm working for instance on a Nam June Paik piece that is in the Whitney museum collection. It uses a Conrac television set13, an American brand. I can't replace the TV set because it has a particular look. Also another TV set would probably behave differently as the work uses a big magnet to distort the image14. In this case the picture tube is still okay. I just have to repair the electronics, get new parts and new substitutes.


A monitor being repaired at C.T.L. Electronics. Photo: PACKED vzw.


PACKED: What is the origin of most problems with TVs and monitors?

Chi Tien Lui: Most of the time the picture tube itself is the problem, and also the high voltage parts15. Most failures come from the beam and the phosphor layer. When people ask me how long a picture tube lasts, I always answer that it all depends on how good they want the colour to be. In a picture tube the blue normally goes first because it is the colour that requires the most energy. When the blue fails, the picture becomes orange. Then the red goes and finally also the green.


PACKED: Is there anything you can do when this happens?

Chi Tien Lui: In previous times when a picture tube got old, we would reboost it so that the filament would give more brightness to the tube. This is something I can still do.


PACKED: Do you mean by using a rejuvenator?

Chi Tien Lui: Yes, exactly.


PACKED: What did you do with the Nam June Paik piece using a magnet?

Chi Tien Lui: With that piece we spent one month looking for replacement parts and understanding how much voltage the tube used, etc.


PACKED: Is this because the high voltage parts are particular to each tube?

Chi Tien Lui: Yes, that's correct. That is why it sometimes takes time to find the right parts.
You also have to experiment because the new part could damage the tube. Especially in the case of this work where Nam June Paik used a magnet to distort the picture: how will the magnet behave with the new part? We will have to experiment a lot and adjust the voltage in order to get the picture that the museum wants.


A CRT out of its casing being maintained at C.T.L. Electronics. Photo: PACKED vzw.


PACKED: This is an old television. Is it more difficult to service modern equipment?

Chi Tien Lui: Yes, because today the manufacturers don't want anybody to do it. Take for example modern monitors. I can't modify the colour temperature, even if I know that there is a slight difference between two monitors. These settings are in an integrated circuit. To change them I would have to get a code to go into the service mode and to change the colour temperature. They make it in such a way that you just can't do it. Since the devices are digital you can't go inside anymore. For analogue people like us there's also no fun involved in the process anymore.

When it comes to the picture tube, the older it is the easier it is to service. On the contrary integrated circuits can be very hard for us to substitute. Sometimes we can find another circuit and put it in, but this is very time-consuming compared to replacing the complete set.


PACKED: What about the monitors for the video wall piece at the Smithsonian16?

Chi Tien Lui: I work with the Smithsonian and have told them to buy as many spares as possible for any type of monitors they have. In the end it all depends on how long you plan to keep the artwork alive and how often you want to show it. Right now, if anyone has a video wall, it is the right time to buy whatever monitors that are still available and to store them.


PACKED: What storage conditions would you recommend?

Chi Tien Lui: Storage conditions are very important. You should avoid humidity when you store electronic devices; water is poison for them. In Taiwan for instance, the humidity level is so high that electronics can get rusty in a month. That is also why the U.S. government is taking all its machines to Arizona to store them. Arizona is the driest state in the United States.


PACKED: Would humidity also create condensation problems?

Chi Tien Lui: Condensation only occurs when the temperature changes. If you take a device from storage to room temperature, you should be careful and allow enough time for the equipment to accommodate. Don't use it right away. Humidity can also provoke high voltage leaks in a monitor.


PACKED: Would you recommend covering or storing the equipment in a box to keep it dust-free?

Chi Tien Lui: Yes, the equipment should be sealed and treated like new equipment. Most of the time this happens in museums. They even ask me to put gloves on to work on the equipment.
Dust is bad for the machines. It is like sand or crystals. It eats up the video heads and wears them out. This is the reason why it should be vacuumed. I use alcohol to clean the heads. One must also be careful not to damage them by using cheap cloths.


A VTR and cotton swabs to clean it. Photo: PACKED vzw.


PACKED: Is there anything that should be done in case of long-term storage, like for instance replacing the oil?

Chi Tien Lui: Of course, you should always make sure that there is enough oil in the mechanical parts. For this, regular maintenance is always better but it is hard for a museum to have a technician in charge of such work. It all depends on how rich the institution is. But yes, if you could go through such maintenance procedures every year or two, that would probably be ideal.


PACKED: What spare parts should a museum buy and stockpile?

Chi Tien Lui: It is hard to say which parts should be collected. My advice would be to buy a whole set instead of loose parts. Moreover, it is often cheaper to buy a whole set rather than loose parts.
I recently bought some spare flyback transformers for European TV sets. It appears that they are not reliable. They cost 30 dollars and they all have different specifications. Why would I want to buy that? But of course if you can't buy the whole set anymore, then you should buy the picture tube and the flyback transformers and maybe also some other more modern parts.


Spare colour monitors on shelves at C.T.L. Electronics.  Photo: PACKED vzw.


PACKED: New electronic parts seem easier to get in the long term and are not so important to collect. Would you agree with that?

Chi Tien Lui: Yes, you will for instance always find capacitors17. But for electronic parts I also store a lot of old equipment, just to get hold of substitutes.


PACKED: Do you mean to cannibalize them?

Chi Tien Lui: Yes. I do it a lot to keep my old reel-to-reel video machines in working order because you can't get parts like rollers for them anymore. That is what I do now, but when it gets to the point where I have no choice I will have to spend a lot of money and have the heads refurbished.

It's always better to keep the whole machine, as there's more chance that a technician will be able to do something with it. Maybe when I no longer have any spare cameras I will begin to change the vidicon tube18 for instance with a spare one that I have in stock. That’s still easy to do.


Spare video heads for Panasonic VHS players.  Photo: PACKED vzw.


PACKED: Do you always consult the documentation when you have to do this type of repair?

Chi Tien Lui: No, sometimes we have no documentation and then we have to re-track and retrace the schematics ourselves. As technicians we are capable of doing some of that but it all depends on how much time the client wants us to spend on making the set work again.


PACKED: Should a museum collect both documentation and equipment?

Chi Tien Lui: Yes. Museums should collect all the schematics and service manuals for their equipment. When a problem arises, this will be a big help for repairing the device.


PACKED: Where do you find manuals? Do you find them on the Internet? Do you for instance also use Internet resources like forums?

Chi Tien Lui: Internet is a great help for finding manuals. In general it saves us a lot of time.


PACKED: Once they have the spare parts and the documentation, the problem for museums will be to find someone who can use them to repair the equipment.

Chi Tien Lui: Yes, slowly we technicians are dying out. We are people from the World War II period. Nowadays people merely program. They just push fingers and are afraid of high voltage (laughs).
With the arrival of the LCD TV analogue electronics have sort of disappeared. While digital technology might be much more expensive to develop, it is also cheaper to manufacture. However, all Nam June Paik's artworks are analogue and have to be maintained.


PACKED: Are you still able to get all monitor types?

Chi Tien Liu: No. There is for instance no way that I can get the 5-inch monitors any longer. I need to repair them by buying other sets and by replacing parts. It is getting rare to find the exact same model on eBay. For the 5-inch TVs for instance the prices are going up because a lot of museums want to buy them as Nam June Paik used them. They now cost 100 dollars and yet their quality is very poor. For the 9-inch tubes I can still use CCTV security monitors but this will soon also be over. I often go to recycle places and find them smashing up working CRTs because everybody's buying LCDs nowadays.


A small CRT monitor being maintained at CTL Electronics.  Photo: PACKED vzw.


PACKED: What about the Sony Trinitron cube monitors19? Can you still find them easily? They're very common for showing video art.

Chi Tien Liu: No, you can’t really find them any longer. I had Sony Trinitron monitors and sold 15 of them to an artist recently. Nowadays you have no choice of brands anymore. You have to take what you can find. Every museum should do it now; it is the right time to stockpile monitors.

PACKED: Should stockpiling spare sets be the priority right now?

Chi Tien Liu: Yes, because if you take a video wall like the artwork of Paik at the Smithsonian, refurbishing hundreds of TVs would be such a huge job. One day we might have to do it but let's try to avoid it now that it's still possible to have enough spare sets.


Spare parts on shelves at CTL Electronics. Photo: PACKED vzw.


PACKED: Would you recommend specific ways of using the equipment in an exhibition situation?

Chi Tien Lui: I think that you don't want visitors to be able to turn the equipment ON and OFF. Having the TV go automatically to video mode is also a nice feature if you can have it.


PACKED: Would you lower the contrast of the monitors?

Chi Tien Lui: Yes. To make the picture tube last longer, the contrast and brightness should be lowered.


PACKED: What would be the best way to continue having these works shown when the stock of equipment is really empty?

Chi Tien Lui: I think that we should have a company set up with a production line only for preservation purposes. It is feasible if there is enough demand from the museum field and enough artworks to support and maintain such production. In this case I would do it and then get someone younger to take over the business. What we are talking about is getting a factory that has stopped manufacturing, somewhere in Taiwan for example. This might be necessary in the next fifteen years because no manufacturer is going to produce CRTs any longer.

What are museums going to do in the next ten years with a Nam June Paik artwork like this video wall when I'm no longer able to deal with it? Someone told me recently that a museum is like a temple or a church. Art is almost like religion. We are not talking about fifteen years, but about hundreds of years. So we have to find a system to continue.


PACKED: Having equipment is one thing but the practical knowledge that technicians like you possess should also be preserved.

Chi Tien Lui: Yes. I think that is why an organisation should be formed and maybe even a school. Once again, that would only be possible if there are enough artworks to financially support and fund it.


PACKED: Do you mean forming something between a factory and a foundation for the preservation of technology?

Chi Tien Lui: Yes. I think that it is coming.


PACKED: In the future new technologies may also be capable of imitating old technologies efficiently enough to avoid having to rebuild CRTs.

Chi Tien Lui: Yes. Maybe with technologies like OLED20, if the resolution is sufficient. That might be another strategy because the brightness of OLED screens is good.





  • 3.  Introduced by Sony in August 1965, the CV-2000 was one of the world's first home video tape recorders. 'CV' stood for 'Consumer Video', and was Sony's domestic video format throughout the 1960s. Ten models were developed in the CV series: CV-2000, TCV-2010, TCV-2020, CV-2100, TCV-2110, TCV-2120, CV-2200, DV-2400, CV-2600 and CV-5100. The CV video recorders fell into disuse with the arrival of the EIAJ Type 1. (Source: Wikipedia)
  • 4. Nam June Paik (1932 –2006) was a Korean-born American artist. He worked with a variety of media and is considered to be one of the most important video artists. His works often comprise sculptures and installations with TV sets and modified CRTs. In 1969, he created the Paik/Abe synthesizer with the artist/engineer Shuya Abe. See:
  • 5. Chi Tien Lui is probably referring to the panel discussion held at MoMA on February 16, 2007 entitled Preserving Nam June Paik's Video Installations: the Importance of the Artist's Voice. See:
  • 6. The Chase Video Matrix is a video wall work from 1992 by Nam June Paik.
  • 7. The JPMorgan Chase & Co. is an American multinational banking corporation of securities, investments and retail that possess a collection of artworks. See:
  • 8. See:
  • 9. Originally founded on a collection of early modern masterpieces, the Guggenheim Museum is now an institution devoted to the art of the 20th and 21st century. See:
  • 10. The Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) is a vacuum tube containing an electron gun (a source of electrons) and a fluorescent screen, with internal or external means to accelerate and deflect the electron beam, used to create images in the form of light emitted from the fluorescent screen. The image may represent electrical waveforms (oscilloscope), pictures (television, computer monitor), radar targets and others.
  • 11. Most modern CRT projectors are colour and have three separate CRTs (instead of a single, colour CRT), and their own lenses to achieve colour images. The red, green and blue portions of the incoming video signal are processed and sent to the respective CRTs whose images are focused by their lenses to achieve the overall picture on the screen. A main advantage of CRT projectors is the superior black level compared to LCD and DLP based projectors. But compared to LCD and DLP based projectors they are larger and heavier, and require far more time to set up and adjust. The absolute ANSI brightness achievable is also lower.
  • 12. U-matic is an analogue video format developed at the end of the 1960s and consists of a ¾ inch magnetic videotape in a cassette. It is the forerunner of the analogue Betacam. The first models of U-matic players and recorders like the SONY VO-1600 or the VP-2030 had their cassette loading system on top. The more recent models have a front-loading system.
  • 13. See:
  • 14. Magnet TV is a work by Nam June Paik from 1965. In it Nam June Paik altered the flow of electron in the picture by applying a magnet to the TV set. "The magnet’s force of attraction hindered the cathode rays from filling the screen’s rectangular surface. This pushed the field of horizontal lines upward thus creating baffling forms within the magnet’s gravitational field. If the magnet maintained its position, the picture remained stable—apart from minimal changes caused by fluctuations in the flow of electricity. Moving the magnet caused endless variations of the forms." (Source: Edith Decker, Paik Video, Cologne, 1988, p. 60ff.)
  • 15. High voltage parts are an essential part of a Cathode Ray Tube. Their main function is to ensure a voltage of around 25 Kilovolt for colour monitors or colour TVs and 15 Kilovolt for black and white televisions and monitors.
  • 16. The Smithsonian American Art Museum is a museum in Washington, D.C. with an extensive collection of American art. Part of the Smithsonian Institution, the museum has a broad variety of American art that covers all regions and art movements in the United States. Among the significant artists represented in its collection are Nam June Paik, Jenny Holzer, David Hockney, Georgia O'Keeffe, John Singer Sargent, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Albert Bierstadt, Edmonia Lewis, Thomas Moran, James Gill, Edward Hopper, and Winslow Homer. (Source: Wikipedia)
  • 17. A capacitor (formerly known as condenser) is a passive electronic component consisting of a pair of conductors separated by a dielectric (insulator). When a potential difference (voltage) exists across the conductors, an electric field is present in the dielectric. This field stores energy and produces a mechanical force between the conductors. The effect is greatest when there is a narrow separation between large areas of conductor; hence capacitor conductors are often called plates. Practical capacitors are available commercially in many different forms. The type of internal dielectric, the structure of the plates and the device packaging all strongly affect the characteristics of the capacitor, and its applications.
  • 18. The vidicon is a storage-type camera tube in which a charge-density pattern is formed by the imaged scene radiation on a photoconductive surface that is then scanned by a beam of low-velocity electrons. The fluctuating voltage coupled out to a video amplifier can be used to reproduce the scene being imaged. The electrical charge produced by an image will remain in the faceplate until it is scanned or until the charge dissipates. (Source: Wikipedia)
  • 19. Sony trinitron cube monitors (e.g. PVM 2030) are common devices used to show video art in museums and galleries.
  • 20. An organic light emitting diode (OLED) is a light-emitting diode (LED) in which the emissive electroluminescent layer is a film of organic compounds that emit light in response to an electric current. This layer of organic semiconductor material is situated between two electrodes. Generally, at least one of these electrodes is transparent. OLED displays can be fabricated on flexible plastic substrates leading to the possibility of flexible organic light-emitting diodes being fabricated or other new applications such as roll-up displays embedded in fabrics or clothing. (Source: Wikipedia)
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