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Yvonne Spielmann

Interview with Steina

Steina, Violin Power, 1969-1978
Steina, Orbital Obsessions, 1977 Steina and Woody Vasulka, Cantaloup, 1980
Steina and Woody Vasulka, Tissues, 1970 (full version) (video)
Steina and Woody Vasulka, Tissues, 1970 (full version) (video)
In the context of her project as researcher in residence at the Daniel Langlois Foundation, Professor Yvonne Spielmann (PhD) interviewed Steina in September 2003 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Here is the transcript of the interview:

Yvonne Spielmann: To my understanding, in the very early works, in particular Orbital Obsessions and Violin Power, you would use standard tools that were available on the market. But you were using these tools in unusual ways and also connected tools to each other. I would like to know how you explored the tools to generate interesting results?

Steina:  Violin Power and [Orbital] Obsessions are both from the mid seventies and at that time, I was very deeply steeped into experimentation, where the idea was not to have a preconceived idea, but rather work with a kind of "what if" attitude… meaning what happens if you patch this tool that way, instead of this way. Kind of an endless exploration, and though you always have to start with some idea, it was very important to not let the idea interfere with your exploration.

Yvonne Spielmann: In these early tapes, when you were interested in processing both sound and images, was there a priority or were you rather interested in balancing the two ways of signal processing, aural and visual, in order to unfold the full range of electronic noise?

Steina: I was free in the visual field but not in the aural, because as a trained musician, I carried with me, a heavy burden, you know – Mozart and Beethoven and all of that. So I wasn’t free and it’s very typical of our early works that I did the visuals, but Woody with his filmmaker background, did the sounds. That way we were both in the exploratory realm. Like in Violin Power, there isn’t much I could do sound-wise, just bowing long-toned frequencies that kept the image stable. So the eye was the captain of this ship and the sound just kind of trailing. In Violin Power, I was moving the image with a musical instrument, which was quite inhibiting. In Orbital Obsessions, I was much freer and as a matter of fact, at one point, I was just listening to the radio, a Beethoven quartet, which leaked into the sound track. I thought of removing the sound; it was Beethoven’s, not mine, but it set up the mood of exploration. It’s an Adagio and my performance was Adagio, so I decided to keep it; it is one of the few instances ever where I use somebody else’s music or sounds in my work.

Yvonne Spielmann: I like to explore the use of tools that were built for modulating and processing video, most prominently the Multikeyer by George Brown. I imagine that in the seventies when video itself was in an experimental phase of development, it must have been difficult to address specific needs to an engineer and anticipate what effects you wanted. What were your expectations when approaching George Brown and in how far did his Multikeyer meet your ideas?

Steina: We tried as much as possible to use existing tools but there were so few available and fewer that met our needs. The word modification was on every video maker’s lips. Everything had to be modified, even the standard Portapak but especially when it came to mixers and keyers. People in New York who did this kind of work were sought after and that’s how we found George Brown. I remember when we discovered a keyer for the first time - which was like one and a half year into our exploration of video - Woody exclaimed: Now we have our first compositional tool! I was kind of perplexed; I though that we had already been composing for a long time but that’s exactly what it was. One could really start composing, carving out bits of the images to have other images seen through. Of course a commercial keyer was very primitive; we could only feed in two signals at a time. So we explained to George Brown, what we needed, and I remember explaining: a man, the sun and a mountain on three separate cameras. The man is standing in front of the mountain and the sun is behind. Now if we reverse this, the sun will be first; through it we see the mountain and through the mountain we can see the man. It was hard; we didn’t have the vocabulary; we just had certain demands. Georges Brown always surprised us by making tools that far exceeded our expectations, like when we explained to him that it wasn’t enough to be able to dial keying priorities, we would have to be able to instantly recall them, in a predetermined order. He built us a little memory device, and at the time we didn’t realize that he had moved into the digital era. In the early seventies, the word digital was hardly ever used in our circles; there was no analog/digital, everything was analog. So, he designed us digital tools, including the flip-flop switcher.

Yvonne Spielmann: Another avenue of video operation is signal processing where you are dealing with the energy content and also the interchangeability of audio and video signals. Could you elaborate a little on the different phases of experiments around signal processing? What exactly was the specific task of the Rutt/Etra Scan Processor and how could a scan processor be connected to other tools?

Steina: The Scan Processor. This is what Nam June [Paik], in a primitive way, did in his early experiments with deflection of the yoke through magnets. A commercial tool was already in existence when we got into video, initially called the Animac. There were several people taking television sets apart to alter the image but Rutt and Etra were interested in making this into a comprehensive tool contained in a box. This is where our philosophy differed from almost anybody's; we didn’t want multipurpose tools contained in a box, usually referred to as a synthesizer. We wanted to have a free run of boxes from various sources that we could combine and re-arrange. Then we realized that a lot of our recorded images couldn’t be played back because we had been violating the very concept of the video frame, those rigid frequencies that hold the frame together. The remedy was to get both a signal generator and signal processor. The signal generator was the first on the line, and then came any amount of tools, cameras, keyers, colorizers, whatever, but at the end, we would use a processing amplifier to restore our collapsed video image to broadcast signal. Maybe it wasn’t broadcast in an engineering sense but it had a rigid frame, horizontally and vertically. This is very fortunate; now that I am restoring those old tapes, they have a stable playback signal.

Yvonne Spielmann: You were saying that – in contrast to a box of tools - the variability of tools that could be used is important. I am wondering how this concept could be maintained or needed to be revised when you were moving to digital image processing. When Woody and Jeffrey Schier started working on the Digital Image Articulator in the late seventies because the market did not provide the device that Woody wanted, how did this step into digital processes affect your understanding of processual video?

Steina: Yes, we didn’t even know that we needed the image articulator. We knew that we wanted a computer control of our analog tools, something programmable. So we jumped at the first mini computer on the market, a device called LSI-11. Then it sat in our loft as a baby without speech, because as we learned the hard way, a computer – the hardware – it’s nothing, it is software that brings it to life. It was the unpredictability of analog that had interested us, the drifting, the oscillation. If nothing was going to be set adrift, the images were just excruciatingly boring. At this time, we were teaching in Buffalo and a student Jeff Schier was intrigued by a computer in somebody’s private place, unheard of in the mid-seventies. He started suggesting to us ways we could bring the computer to life, how it could be a specific video tool. So he actually proposed the image articulator to us, figuring a fairly small tool, just a few circuits. We bought a rack mountable box for circuit boards, and in no time the box was full. We bought another box and then a third. We ended up with ten boards in three racks, because with every new concept, you needed to expand the hardware. It is an interesting observation because today, the boxes are always given. The box is Macintosh or Toshiba, whatever, and you just fill it with software. But it was good to go through this, to learn this way. It was building a tool and it was also advancing from analog to a digital world.

Yvonne Spielmann: This reminds me of Bad where you used the Digital Image Articulator. Could you describe your experience in incorporating the digital machine into video? What was the challenge?

Steina: Yes it was interesting, I had a very hard time programming, which consisted of setting bits on and off. So I just set the whole registry into counting, every next number set another bit: from empty blue frames to frames with a full image to frames that were dissected into two, four or eight images, scrambled or straight. But, we clipped directly into the hardware with alligator clips and connected the other end to our audio synthesizer. Now we could hear how it was counting, how every dissection jumped the audio in octave intervals. Listening helped us to read the picture and understand what we were getting. In a way it is a didactic tape; I just find it funny. I used the image articulator some, like in the tape Cantaloup, but I never used it that seriously; it was Woody’s baby. He applied the tool in Artifacts, in The Commission, Progeny and Art of Memory

Yvonne Spielmann: In performing Violin Power over the years, you have changed the technology and, step-by-step, implemented the computer. Violin Power started out as a video-violin performance, then you improved the setting and introduced MIDI violin, which had programmable applications and where you had storage on a video laserdisc. Even more recently, you've been performing with a Powerbook. I am interested in knowing how these three different settings of the video-violin performance evolved and build up upon each other? Also, in what ways did you eventually have to reconsider initial aesthetic ideas because of the change of technology?

Steina: The evolution from analog to digital has been so slow for me, so natural, that I never saw it as a revolution. Often moving into the digital world felt rather like a step backwards, everything slowing down, being clumsy, involving programming. This is not the case anymore; digital has progressed at an amazing rate, slowly replacing analog, soon to eliminate it all together. Now the analog is more cumbersome. I would never be able to perform on stage the kind of signal processing I did on the original Violin Power tape, because the patching and implementation takes too long. So when we discovered the laserdisc player, which in addition to an instant access to any frame on the disc, could perform functions like fast forward, rewind, jump, still frame, stop, via MIDI control, all I needed was a MIDI violin. I had already tried to move a tape on a video player with my acoustic violin and it worked. But without random access, I was stuck with moving the tape in a limited area. But now that Laser Disks are obsolete, I have moved these performance functions into the computer as QuickTime movies using the Image/ine software. Now all I need is a Laptop and MIDI Violin.

© 2004 FDL