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Gene Youngblood

A Meditation on the Vasulka Archive

Steina, Violin Power, 1970-1978
Woody Vasulka, Object 1, 1978 Woody Vasulka, The Art of Memory, 1987 Woody Vasulka, Knot 1, 1978
[Editor’s note : Mr. Gene Youngblood, collaborator and a long time friend of Steina and Woody Vasulka, was commissioned to write this text in order to introduce the Steina and Woody Vasulka fonds, October 2000]

Those working in the pioneering days of the media arts had a keen sense of their historical moment. Yet few responded with the seriousness and lifelong dedication of Steina and Woody Vasulka. Not only were the Vasulkas in the centre of electronic culture from its inception, they were the centre of that culture during its formative decade and beyond.

Steina, The Maiden, 1998 Steina, Orbital Obsessions, 1975-1977 Steina, Summer Salt, 1982 Steina and Woody Vasulka, Nam June Paik Interview, 1977

The Vasulkas arrived in New York from Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1965, the year Sony introduced the first portapak. Steina, from Iceland, was a violinist. Woody, from Czechoslovakia, was a poet and filmmaker. In New York, two things captured their attention: the decadent social demimonde and electronic technology, around which a new culture was forming. They had an epiphany. They devoted their hearts and minds to electronic technology with a force and vision that inspired the new culture and shaped the new art profoundly.

They brought a European respect for history and for intellectual traditions to the emerging electronic culture. "We so admired the camaraderie and affinity the whole video community had," Steina says. "It was probably like that in Paris in the twenties. I was fascinated by the force of the momentum, how everyone just went into the swing of things. We supported each other, went to each other’s events." In the mounting fervour there were conflicting claims about who had done what first. Between Global Village and Raindance, who had made the first closed-circuit loop, the first delay loop, the first feedback? Steina decided "it would be nice to hold all this together and remember it." She began saving posters and program notes and brought her portapak to concerts and lectures.

In 1971, Steina and Woody opened The Kitchen. Billed as "a live-audience test laboratory," it became the leading venue for electronic culture in New York. The Kitchen was a deliberate effort to create an open laboratory where events were designed around specific concerns–for example, modes of perception involving multi-screen displays. Steina kept a journal with daily entries. But when friends took over programming at The Kitchen two years later and Steina instructed them to continue the journal, it was not done. As a result, a transitional period in the history of that seminal institution remains unclear.

There are larger collections than the Vasulkas’, though not many. What distinguishes this archive is the remarkable breadth of its technological and cultural purview. On one hand, it’s evidence of one of the most inspiring investigations into the nature of a medium in the history of any art form. At the same time, it documents a ferment of activity across a constellation of avant-garde art and culture. It’s a panoptic portrait of a society and an era.

Oddly enough, Woody’s passion for video wasn’t about creating avant-garde art. He was interested only in examining, like a scientist, what he called "the new material." He wanted to be the one who gave the world "a structural understanding" of the video signal as a platform for future art.

This enterprise was comparable to the theoretical projects of the Soviets and of Stan Brakhage in film insofar as Woody sought to articulate the "primary codes" of the electronic moving image. Even partial success would have guaranteed him immortality, and across two decades of continuously funded research, he was spectacularly successful.

Using the video synthesizers and image processors that were the user-built folk instruments of electronic culture, Woody exhaustively explored, demonstrated and categorized the "primitives" of electronic imaging. The visual manifestations of this research he called "artifacts" rather than art. But the material was so hypnotically beautiful that almost everyone else called it art–and it lived as art in the art world. Thus, a man who claimed to be uninterested in an art career became one of the seminal figures in the history of video art.

Steina, meanwhile, pursued two related paths. In a series called Violin Power, which began in the mid-70s, she "performed" video by using her violin to control real-time image processing. Later, she controlled laser discs with her violin in live performances. She continues to refine both techniques today. Her other body of work, called Machine Vision, involved robotic camera controls that removed human intentionality from the camera’s point of view. Together, then, the Vasulkas participated in developing (when they didn’t single-handedly pioneer) almost all the audiovisual possibilities intrinsic to video as an electronic moving-image and performance medium.

In 1973, Woody and Steina began a six-year tenure at the Center for Media Study at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where Gerald O’Grady had assembled an important faculty in the avant-garde moving-image arts. In addition to the Vasulkas, the faculty included the experimental filmmakers Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharits and Tony Conrad. James Blue was there too, and he organized an ambitious oral-history project of interviews with independent filmmakers from around the world. There was also an alternative-arts space, Hallwall’s, which frequently showcased electronic arts. So Buffalo was a centre of avant-garde activity that served as a resource for the Vasulka archive.

But the Vasulkas were, and are, a centre unto themselves. They’re provocative and stimulating individuals of high intellect and broad culture. Passionate about ideas, generous of spirit, they approach life with curiosity, zest and humour. And so it’s great fun to be around them.

Because of this, and because of the scale of their projects (there’s always a big project), the Vasulkas are magnets for all kinds of people and cultural currents. It’s thrilling to visit their studio, with its walls of monitors, rows of computers, stacks of electronic devices of every description in monumental disarray (Woody is a legendary scavenger). Most of the pioneers of electronic culture made pilgrimages to the Vasulka studio. There always has been a constant flow of visitors, and the Vasulkas took advantage of this to record interviews with them.

Woody has told the story often about how his childhood world was a junkyard after the war. Whole cities had been destroyed and thrown into holes. He rummaged through them and collected photo albums. It was his first anthropology lesson, recovering what had been destroyed. History was in peril and its value became immeasurable. When he came to the United States and saw how obscenely Americans treat their history, how they undervalue and discard it, he realized that documenting electronic culture was his destiny.

It wasn’t a systematic enterprise. The Vasulkas followed trails of history indiscriminately, taking advantage of whatever opportunities presented themselves. In general, Steina collected print materials (catalogues of every kind, program notes, posters, academic and journalistic articles and interviews) and documented the social scene on video. Woody interviewed their contemporaries on video and audio tape, and transcribed them later into print. The Vasulkas were interested primarily in people who were pushing the electronic aspect of video and music, especially the toolmakers. There’s a rare 80-minute interview with Nam June Paik in which the patriarch of video uncharacteristically talks tech. "Only tools," Steina says about the topic of the interview. "We looked at him with renewed respect. We understood he went through the same struggles as everyone else."

The Vasulkas moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, on New Year’s Day 1980, and built a studio-home there in 1982. Certain rooms were designated to house the archive. The videotapes were stored in the basement, a cool, dry space created when earth was dug out to make adobe bricks for the Gaudí-esque edifice. In this video kiva, boxes of tapes were stacked 10 feet high on rows of metal shelves discarded by New Mexico’s atomic laboratories.

The unpacking, sorting and organizing of the archive for its transfer to the Daniel Langlois Foundation proved a revelation. The Vasulkas knew the print materials established a chronology and a cultural profile. But even they were astonished by the sheer volume of activity documented in these papers on early video. It forces a rethinking of the place of this art form in the cultural history of the late 20th century. If the Vasulka archive is an accurate indicator, the overall audience for the videotapes of that pioneering generation will be surpassed only by the Internet.

In Buffalo the Vasulkas built their own imaging device, called the Digital Image Articulator. The schematics are in the archive, as well as a video diary of its construction and tapes of the "artifacts" the machine generated. Only one in 10 were released publicly. The rest were archived. Woody and Steina say they knew what they were looking for when they began using the machine. They understood which artifacts would be historically important, but they had to build the machine to see them. The Digital Image Articulator was the last user-built folk instrument to emerge from video’s pioneering era, whose beginning and end were marked by the vision of two extraordinary human beings.

Gene Youngblood © 2000 FDL