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WOODY AND STEINA VASULKA : From Feedback to Paganini

life was invested, and picked up the


video. (Laughter)
SV Boy, was I glad to get rid of that
violin .
WV The first day I came home, she
had already produced a half-hour
tape.
SV We got so involved that Woody
decided, very rationally, that he
had to quit work. There was no way
he could be bogged down with some
stupid job when all this was going
on.
WV She sent a letter to her father in
Iceland, who had never heard the
term video: "I'm involved in video
now, Daddy. Send me some money."
And he did! It wasn't much, but it
bought us a ports-pack or some-
thing.
SV My parents always believed in
me, totally . The only time they didn't
was when I was going to marry a
foreigner . (Laughter) My mother
was alarmed at that, but a friend
came in and said, "Why are you so
alarmed? Don't you believe in
Steins!" My father saw video once
when I was asked to give a lecture
at the American Cultural Exchange
in Iceland . And he was quite dis-
gusted with it. "I cannot spend a
minute on this. It gives me a head-
Woody Vasulka, Studies from Time - Energy Objects, 1975. ache," he said. So we laughed and
that was it. It didn't matter .

Artists in the late 1960s picked up the electronic tools of tele- AL To start off, would you give us a AL How did you learn to use all this
vision and with them began creating works in the new medium short history of TheKitchen? sophisticated equipment? Did you
called video . Much of the early video activity centered in New SV First we had the space, and be- go to school to learn about com-
cause we had the space, all those puters?
York City, where a community of video artists emerged, and things could start happening . It was WV No, I could never learn that
Woody and Steina Vasulka were prime movers within that a beautiful space . . . way . They teach you how to do
community. Woody, afilm maker from Czechoslovakia with a WV Others would say otherwise a payrolls, that sort of thing. The only
background in engineering, and his wife, Steina, a concert rat hole. way to learn how to use one is to buy
violinist in her native Iceland, had emigrated to the U.S . in 1965 . SV That's what it was, totally gutted . it.
But it had this feeling! We cleaned it SV You buy one, you read the
A few years later, they discovered video and began the experi-
up, and asked everybody we knew manual, you wonder, and, for a long
mentation that eventually led them to a synthesis of their to come and do something there, time, you're very intimidated by this
individual interests and talents in music and moving images . and we filled up the schedule that powerful thing in your living room.
Starting with a hand-held camera and an audio synthesizer, way . That's what we need in Santa We would get our friends to come in
they learned to generate images with sound frequencies, and Fe-a space with the rent paid. The and make it conversant . They would
income from the gate is enough to say things like, "Oh, you need a
conversely to use images to generate sounds . Their fascination
run the rest of it. bootstrap ." Then we'd have to find
with the creative potential of electronic tools has expanded to WV We started out with the general someone else to tell us what a boot-
include computers, which they use to generate both camera-less policy that we would present elec- strap was and where we could buy
images and images recorded by computer-controlled cameras. tronic arts there music, video- one of those. We had to learn every-
because there was no place to show thing the hard way .
Steina and Woody have been awarded numerous prizes and these things. But people eventually
found everything experimental AL Artists such as yourselves have
grants including several Guggenheim fellowships for video been using video for more than 15
there. When we started, we had jobs
between 1976 and 1980. In 1971 they established The Kitchen, years, but it's still a very esoteric
to pay the rent. When we left it was a
a free-form gallery and electronic arts performance center in $40,000 operation. Now, it's $250,000 medium.
SoHo . They lived in Buffalo, N.Y., for a number of years before -an institution . But there was a WV We should demythify it. We
should regard it in the context of the
moving to Santa Fe in 1980. Steina's piece, Machine Vision IV, difference between the old Kitchen,
which literally and symbolically other arts. In other art forms artists
received a first prize at last year's Armory for the Arts open admit to playing with the material .
collapsed-the building actually
awards show . She has offered the prize, a 1982 show to be co- collapsed, killing two people . But Inspired by the material, they revert
sponsored by the Armory and the Fine Arts Museum, to a number just before that, The Kitchen had to non-intellectual working, playing
of video artists from around the country who will exhibit their with hand or whatever. These are
been transplanted into another
notorious processes maybe the
video tapes as part of a group show . The Vasulkas, who fre- location and changed hands and
become more established. basis for the working of art . But
quently travel about, lecturing and jurying competitions, are when our kind lapse into play-
dedicated ambassadors of the still fledgling video medium . AL It's become a myth . ing with this stuff, people begin
They are also dedicated artists whose newest work is an ap- WV Yes, but that was due to the to differentiate, as if this crap,
plication of the traditional dramatic form of opera to their skills particular vacuum that existed . computer-video-electronics, should
at generating images and sounds electronically . There was nothing else. So it be- mean something intellectual, while
came . . . it took life on its own . We it is very much the same process of
The Vasulkas were interviewed for ARTlines by MaLin Wilson gave it an openness. It doesn't have play. If people do not play, then they
that anymore . move into the category of . . .
and Jackie Melega .
SV That's the way to run this kind of SV Professionals .
place . Let anybody who wants to
take it over, and just let people keep AL So, you are saying that all art is
taking it over. People know what to play, or is there also professional
do with a space, instinctively . art-some kind of art that is not
play?
AL How did you two get into video? SV We play very seriously, I would
SV I just got into video because say . We get up in the morning and
Woody got into video, so this is a sit until late night at the computer,
question for him. and you don't call it serious?
WV I was swept away! So romantic, WV One of my motivations to play
so desperate to believe in what I around with video and audio in-
was doing . I was trying to believe in struments was I very early recog-
my writing, I was trying to believe nized that it's the same material-
in film, which I was educated in. it's energy in a particular arrange-
And suddenly, there was this primi- ment in time. There's only a fre-
tive medium, video, and I saw this quency range and organizational
totally primitive material called difference between video and
feedback . I was lucky, too . The audio . That unity of material in-
place I worked had small format spired us to exchange all video
video, and so I could start taking it events into audio, interfacing all
home. That's when Steina took it sorts of video events into control for
over. "It's mine!" she said. She threw audio synthesizers, and vice versa.
Steina and Woody Vasulka with Machine IV, by Steina Vasulka, installation away her violin, in which half her It became a mutually comple-
at the Santa Fe Armory for the Arts, 1980. mentary inspiration . That taught us
8 ARTlines
Price, 1981 .
Woody Vasulka, from Visiting with Anthony
Woody and Steina Vasulka, Scapes, 1981 .

AL Where did the idea come from?


only authorship we would take kind
-of making a mandala with feed- SV A story about Hector Berliozmusic
the most dramatic lessons about the would be to control it. I do process- was a
back-I think is much more inter- of triggered it . Berlioz
material; what it is, how you move it ing on a lot of Steina's tapes . I am critic for a newspaper, because he
esting in an anthropological context
around, change it . It's very close to not in the least bit interested in couldn't make a living as a com-
than in an aesthetic one . gathering images . You see, that
what a sculptor would do with other poser . His editor talked to Paganini,a
SV Like the other day, Woody was reminds me of my film background .
materials, with clay. Instead of and got him to go on stage beforehe
mixing two different elements into a
using our hands to mold the image, I'm interested in the conceptual performance and announce that
picture, and it made for a very
we use time and energy to mani- part, the pictorial part is kind of write
interesting picture, so I said, Hey, I was commissioning Berlioz to
pulate it. arbitrary to me. But it evens out . I Berlioz did,
want to record this. But he said no, I a piece for him . Which
make programs that she shame- it, saying it
am just playing around . But some- but Paganini rejected
AL And in working with computers, lessly . . . . And so we
you organize the effect of time and times we have sessions and record was awful or something
SV I shamelessly rip them off, and got interested in Paganini,people
how
energy with the computer program? these phenomena, though it is not
his sounds too, because he makes pitiful looking he was, how
WV Yes. Any work through a com- discovery anymore .
good sounds . laughed at him with his extremely
puter will demand writing a pro- WV It is a very strange thing, I think:
WV Basically we collect found long arms and ugly face, laughed
gram first . In our case, the program when you study the work, some of it
objects . We virtually find things . until he started to play. He was the
is intended to work with or work on Whether by coincidence or because is ambiguous enough to have been first real superstar, the first real mix.
the image. Putting an image through produced by either of us, but some is
of the architecture of the machine, of classical and popular performer
a program is where the magic artifacts are produced which we extremely specific-like Steina's devil
happens . It is here where the med- But there was something of the
have never looked for, or never tried optical work. She tends to work with
ium-all this hardware-becomes about him, too .
to produce . But they are there, so reality as I tend to get away from it. ;It's
bearable, teaching and inspira- WV So Paganini is about him. the
you find them. But then she uses it in a way that is art politics, about
tional . It is also here where it con- also about
similar to conceptual work. It is very the
nects to the world of art . It sorts the right and left hemispheres of it's
AL You're using the word artifact in abstractive, so I can accept it. I can brain, about landscapes . And
realities, it summarizes the styles . a somewhat different way . Would like her work.
Some programs are very cubistic, about technology.
you elaborate?
some remind one of . . . WV I mean two things by that. First I SV Woody's work is always slightly AL Who are the actors?
thought of artifact as the result, more didactic. He likes to put it into WV Ernest Gusella, certainly, who
SV Seurat . . . what you see on the screen, but a context of some kind of . . . himself is a video artist. He walked
WV Seurat with the pixilated or now, more and more, I'm thinking ofa WV I like primitive magic, essen- into our studio one day with a video
pointillist canvas .But these systems artifacts as the process of creating tially . Like a hand, and what hap- tape he'd done-called Exquisite
have to be watched very carefully . specific result . A computer program
Obsession with application can be pens around it . Basically a hand is Corpse, by the way-and he looked
is composed of artifacts . Artifacts very unambiguous . I like to work so much like Paganini .
the ultimate trap of art . People are a set of visual devices, them-
should learn to look behind the with that kind of minimal image,
selves without meaning . and put it into the context of some- AL Steina, are you doing the synthe-
pictorial structures . With time, of
thing absolutely abnormal. sizer music?
course, the dominance of a pictorial AL Would you give some examples? SV No, that's a natural for Woody . I
surface will become more transpa- WV The device of the zoom-zoom- in traditional music
rent, showing more of the processes AL You've mentioned that you're was so trained
ing in on the image or any number that I wasn't free .
behind the image, pointing towards working on a new project, an elec-
of other ways of manipulating, WV I have a secret background
in
tools, resources, creative environ- tronic opera, tentatively entitled
electronically, the image: rotating composition, but I have no precgn-
ments in almost . anthropological Paganini . Why opera? Will it have
it, splitting it in different ways . ditions about it or hang-ups .
rather than aesthetic preference. any traditional structure?
What we do is take these aesthetic- WV What I'm interested in with
less artifacts, put images through AL Are others working along these
AL 1 didn't follow that. What did you Paganini is making a transforma-
them, and find out the meaning of same operatic lines with video?
mean by anthropological pre- tion from one reality to another, we're
meeting of the two-image and WV It's a new area, and what new
ference? from a photographic, filmic sort ofI it, probing
artifact . doing is probing
WV I'll give you a typical example : reality, to an electronic reality . electronic genres . Robert Ashley is
when we started to work with video don't want to be too specific about it,
AL Steina, you've said that your working along similar lines . Even
in 1969, the first common artifact of because it all may change . But it
work is very different from Woody's, Robert Wilson is. Because it's on
that medium was a video feedback . will be scripted, pre-planned-the such a larger scale than anything
and his from yours. How would you
It became overnight everyone's first time we've worked this way .
characterize the differences? else we've done, it's also the biggest
art-worship of electricity, one We'll build a set, and use some live
SV The first two years our work was risk we've taken . I enjoy it.
could say . It was so easy to make, actors, which is also a first for us.
virtually indistinguishable, and
you just take a camera, connect it to There will be some straight spoken be very
sometimes we don't know anymore AL Film and video appear to moving
a TV set and then point the camera text, some straight music, and in
who did what on those old tapes . similar, both deal with
into the TV screen . It makes a struc- some other places the human voice
The way we worked either of us images . But you obviously regard
tured image instantly, something that and real images will be used as
would take over some process that the two as being very different .
very closely resembles a moving models-they'll be synthesized . I
was already set up by the other. WV One of the principal distinc-
mandala . That happened to have a don't think of it as a musical opera,
WV We were kind of observing the tions is in how each regards what
certain cultural validity at that but rather as a sound opera .
phenomena in those years, so the (cost)
particular time. This phenomenon

Woody Vasulka, Artifacts 11, 1981 .


Steina and Woody Vasulka, Voca-
Woody Vasulka, from Visiting with
Steina and Woody Vasulka, Voca- Anthony Price, 1981 .
bulary, 1973.
bulary, 1973 .
we call real time. A film person happen? How's that going to effect
would regard real time as film or your time?
tape that has not been edited . But SV I'll do whatever I can to make it
for us, the notion of real time is the happen, but I don't have the time to
actual continuity of time within actually do it. It's an incredible
an electronic system, a computer, challenge to, set up a low-power
that ensures that the time of the station and make it a total cultural
recording process, the filming, will station,run it likeThe Kitchen,where
be virtually the same as the final anyone can schedule a time and
product . The manipulation of the isn't asked what he or she is going to
image the process that with film do. Let it go out, let it fail when it
includes the developing of the film, must.
any other processing-with video is
AL How much has been done?
almost instantaneous. But if you
SV The engineering study is done,
involve the computer, the picture
the application has been submitted
must be disassembled and as-
to the FCC, and we've put out
sembled again, point by point,
feelers for funding . If we're on the
number by number, and this can
air a year from now, I would con-
take a much longer time than neces-
sider that a miracle. But it's pos-
sary to represent a moving image .
sible .
So we say if a system can not pro-
cess or originate pictures as con- AL Are either of you concerned
tinuously moving, we lose real time. about the proposed cuts in federal
When we lose the illusion of con- arts spending? To a large extent
tinuous movement, we lose real you've been funded by grants,
time. haven't you?
SV It's the most important thing, WV Yes . Our work may have to
because I don't have the skill, the change, somehow become more
interest, or the attitude to work with product-oriented. It is a strange life-
a frozen frame, to work with any- style, and something of a mystery to
thing except a moving, real time me that we've been able to live this
image. That is number one . I would way : our hours are our own, no
sacrifice any kind of image resolu- obligations, commissioned by
tion, any kind of perfect image, something . By what? Survival has
rather than sacrifice real time . always been a team effort. I cer-
tainly couldn't have gone this far
AL We're edging up here on philo- alone .
"70.110 Eight" 1981 141/2 X 8 1/4 X 1/4 Steel sophy. Does the functioning process SV Video couples do better. They
of your equipment alter or relate to can share equipment .
your personal life perception?
WV But I must confess that the most
Constance De Jong SV It is very referential . Like every
other medium you learn so much free support I ever got was from the
government. In teaching there was
about yourself. But the computer is
always a payoff, and the direct work
different because it is even more for business was always the least
involved in giving you an idea of
honest .
who you are. It is a philosophy in
A.*k"4;;~ itself that a signal is either there, or
it is not there. The opposite of good
SV It's interesting to think how art
flourishes where the money is. We
saw it in New York, where the New
is not good. What is important is the
O 0+-%; '
400 Canyon Road absence and presence of things, York State Arts Council was so

QvQ,
active and really radical in its
and not the contrast of one thing
v~~5 Santa Fe, NM 87501 505-988-1313
with another .
WV There is another thing that the
funding . The money came there,
and the creativity exploded. It's
probably the same thing that hap-
computer gives you . It is not the
pened with the Medicis .
medium, it is not the hardware, but
something in between called the WV We're basically interested only
in supported art, rather than art that
code. You have to master the code.
makes it commercially . I'm inter-
,_V
Out of the computer comes this
ested in imperfections, ambiguous
majestic flow of time that brings products, the dying, the weak. For
these waveforms of the analog
by TRADE STONE DESIGNS world . We chop these waveforms me, the strong, established things
eventually become oppressive and
into little pieces, and each piece
boring .
then is reduced, so to speak, into a
number, and that number then AL Who benefits from your work?
propagates inside of the computer SV I ask myself that every day. I
as a representation of reality . It don't know.
represents certain reality that is WV Not many people seek what we
translated from the code to certain do, except for our own colleagues.
value light, color-and once it is In the future, however, our work will
in the computer it is in the form of a inevitably be relevant . Perhaps
code. The code is this intermediary even popular .
between you and the world .
SV It's the code that brings us AL So, in that way, the federal and
pictures from Jupiter . state funding agencies can be very
WV Yes, and that introduction of farsighted .
code into our processes I find very WV Yes . The early funding of video,
significant . Many people would not in the'60s, was done with the idea

1 r~" r . .,
want to bother with it because they that art could cause social change .
think it is not the creative part of the Video looked like it could be a tool in
~111U process . We have discovered other- the hands of the people . It was very
vVrise . The code should be controlled seductive in that way, and politic-
and finally specified by creative ians wanted to be on the side of the
people, artists . people, so they backed video. That
evaporated in the `70s. But there's
I ,1 ~~!~." I l AL Some artists are very affected by
place . Others feel they produce the
still a tradition in this country of
supporting experimental work.
same work whether they're living in That's the way the system works .
New York or Santa Fe . . .
o .o WV I could be anywhere. The reality
of my struggle is that machine and
the pictures that come out . The
rest-the trees, the hills-are very
beautiful and if I can go out for two
or three minutes, I get refreshed . But
the work is unrelated.
THE FINAL TOUCH
SV We need a larger space, which
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WE'VE MOVED
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TRADE STONE DESIGNS rupted volume of time we get here is Between Birch and Montoya
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(505) 758-4676 758-1177 establishing a low-power television
station in Santa Fe. Is that going to