The Vasulkas: Video as a Pure Signal

By Michael Connor
October 07, 2010

In an earlier post, Hanne Mugaas described the near-mythical arrival in New York of the Sony Portapak. That same year, 1965, Steina and Woody Vasulka also came to roost in the Big Apple. Their presence would prove equally crucial to the development of the city’s media art scene—not only through their own work, but through their founding of experimental venue the Kitchen, which is basically where the non-CBGBs part of the 70s happened.

In those early Portapak years, it was a great novelty to record video in the streets or nightclubs of New York and gather in someone’s loft afterwards to watch the footage. Immersing themselves in this fertile underground scene, the Vasulkas began to ask a critical question: why must video always imitate the function of a human eye? They saw that video could be approached in other ways: as a musical instrument, a writing instrument, even a composite of time and energy. As Steina put it, “[Video] was the signal and the signal was unified. The audio could be video and the video could be audio.”

This new construction led to experiments such as Steina’s work Violin Power (1970–78, one of my personal favorites). As Steina, a trained violinist, draws the bow across the strings, the image onscreen oscillates and changes. In one segment, the audio waveform is displayed as she plays; in another, the violin triggers a device that switches rapidly between two camera angles as she plays.

In 1974, the Vasulkas were commissioned by WXXI, a PBS station in Rochester, NY, to produce a half-hour episode as part of a series called “Homemade TV.” Collaborations between public television stations and artists weren’t unheard of at this point. WGBH in Boston’s series “Laboratory” in the late 1950s basically allowed “just about any member of the production staff a chance to test new techniques.” WGBH also produced The Medium is the Medium in 1969, which featured artists including Allan Kaprow and Nam June Paik.

Still, when the Vasulkas’ half-hour deconstruction of the electronic image appeared on Rochester-area TV screens, it might well have mystified many viewers—in a good way. The analog signal that once formed the heart of the Vasulkas’ explorations has now given way to digital code. Video is no longer a signal, but a series of numbers and a set of operations performed by a computer. But in a world of proprietary algorithms where one can get sued for pulling apart a DVD, has it gotten harder to deconstruct video as a medium? Or has this project only become more urgent?

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1.Nicholas Croft
October 08, 2010 3:43 AM
I don't know about you, but I've painted our living room black, placed our computer monitor on a white pedestal, invited a good selection of artistic friends onto Facebook and am now playing their YouTube posts in our computer's full screen mode.

Since almost every type of video you might want to share in a public place like The Kitchen is now is available for free on YouTube, anyone that wants to can now practice their curating skills by creating and sharing a Facebook Wall with the work that they feel might serve as proper food for the soul.

Since Steina Vasulka told me back in 1983 that this is why she named The Kitchen as she did, because it was intended to be a venue that would provide food for the soul of the audience, then we are now in a potentially utopian time in human history.

So, to me, the dilemma is only as urgent as you might want it to be, in order to improve or maintain the quality of your own life and the life of your friends online.

To say that everything imaginable is now available, but that nothing stimulates us as much as we might want, perhaps indicates that our common shared ethos might be developing in the wrong direction....

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