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Yvonne Spielmann, Video and Computer

The Aesthetics of Steina and Woody Vasulka

Image Becomes Object

Summer Salt, 1982
Summer Salt, 1982
Allvision, 1975
Steina, Orbital Obsessions, 1977
Steina, Orbital Obsessions, 1977
Steina, Violin Power, 1978
Steina, Violin Power, 1978
Lilith, 1987
Orka, 1997
Warp, 2000
The concept of a synthetic image is by definition transformative, dynamic, multilayered, and not bound to the constraints of a "frame." In short, the electronically simulated image characterizes not only the transition from film to video and from video to computer but, particularly in the work of the Vasulkas, expresses an "instantly moving image" that is multidirectional, multidimensional, and "open-ended" in a number of ways.

Bad, 1979 Lilith, 1987 Orka, 1997 Warp, 2000

In Steina’s work, since she was trained in music, her interest in process and synthesis underlie the creative principles for rendering and interrelating audio and video in spatially condensed, flowing motion. That is most clear when "the frame" (as known in photography and film) is scrutinized and seen to be quite irrelevant in video: the image "field" can be treated as an object that has behavior of its own. "I recognize video as frame-bound and frame-unbound," states Woody. "In frame-bound video, you’re basically following the cinematic reliance on the frame. Cinema can’t leave the frame unless it makes a special effort. But with the new generation of tools in digital video, it is possible to remove the image from the frame and treat it as object." Equally, the idea of an "image object" is a driving force in electronic processing, because the notion of "building" an image from scratch in real time has an architectural component and treats the image as a visual object that must not necessarily follow the model of a frame. Therefore, the image has spatial appearance and behavior.

In various explorations of how video and space can be interrelated, Steina departs from the common treatment of space as being "what is in front of the camera," as it is mainly realized in performance video. To a certain extent, she engages the concept of extending visual perspective through an apparatus that derives from film, but her video-specific interest manifests in modifying and modulating images, equally with external input or internal generation. In these kinds of works — where performance, videotape, and installation are intermingled — Steina closely deals with the ability to control and repeat, such as waveforms for instance. Again, the question of authorship becomes a critical issue in her concept of "machine vision," since Steina determines her own view of the medium. A departure from Woody’s experiments with man and machine co-creating (where he uses the metaphor of hand to signify "handcraft") Steina has, since her early demonstrations "on how to play video on the violin" (Violin Power), involved her bodily appearance in the modulation of audio and video signals, so that, in a way, she shifts Woody’s "dialogue" with the machine into a wedding of body and machine.

Where Steina approaches the technological setting of video, variable as it is, with an encompassing perspective, we may conclude that her early concept of "machine vision" renders aspects of virtuality visible. In more recent years of media development, such aspects have been extensively carried out in the field of immersive environments, beginning with DataGloves and Virtual Reality headsets. However, Steina’s work is crucially different: where most Virtual Reality environments demand the interactive encounter of a viewer/user, Steina’s approach is more subtle in that it demonstrates an already immersed aural/visual surrounding where she is, for the time of the performance, fully spatially immersed in the machines arranged around her, observing and manipulating her own image. "All my installation pieces have involved rotating cameras, explorations of space/time... My pieces are an analysis of space, or even a surveillance of a space." Through such processes, it is possible to also create "immersion" for the viewer of a performance, videotape, or installation. In other words, the spatial relationship is part of the video itself and not something that video imparts in relation to an exterior. Thus, Steina is able to demonstrate that space is an internal category of video. And, as result of her creating an experience of immersion or embedding, we may rethink the kind of interactivity that the artist/author maintains with the machine.

There are different stages of spatial immersion in Steina’s work: Orbital Obsessions (1977), and Warp and Mynd (both 2000), are all "enveloping" video objects that indicate the interactivity between body-and-machine and machine-and-machine is not an activity with external features but an internal process. However, in experiments with "machine vision," Steina also explores the collision of shape and frame (Violin Power, Orbital Obsession), and the spatial exchange and reversibility of perspective and imagery generates a paradoxical and open system of external machine-based language.

Other explorations of space can be seen in the five sections of Steina’s Summer Salt (1982), where each part engages a unique way of using the optical means of viewing. The camera is not used as an extension of human vision but as a tool of independently functioning machine vision. (a)

In the installation Allvision (1975), (b) the interplay of observing a system of cameras as they observe each other has been altered from that of Orbital Obsessions.

In the installation Machine Vision (1978), the set up of Allvision is incorporated as one of seven parts: Allvision, Rotation, Zoom, Pan, Tilt, Double Rotation, and Bird’s Eye. Here, the mixing of fields of vision becomes even more complex because the monitors combine spatially distorted images of Allvision with other camera images: for example, the optical device used in Somersault. In visual terms, the sphere installation creates the impression of an image en creux that I understand to be an intentional deviation from the common assumption of perspectival continuity in spatial perception, which, according to cognitive perception theory, is an operation of inner schema in human perception. However, it is possible to demonstrate this internal mechanism through a deviation that is meant to create awareness of the construction of the perceptual environment. The image of the viewer entering the installation is transposed via the mirrored sphere into the abstract virtual space of the video monitors. Allvision redefines space so that concepts such as inner/outer, left/right, forward/backward, and up/down have no meaning. Steina explains: "The cameras alone scan the whole room. The idea was of course that the whole room can never be perceived or understood by human vision. Inserting the sphere in between emphasized the absurdity. When I mount the camera on the car, I define it as machine vision, but when I use the sphere, it is the concept of allvision."

Regarding the two cameras installed on the horizontal revolving axis (Allvision), the insertion of exterior space into the field of vision of a recording device is a way of multiplying the visibility of space. But the construction also presents the enlarged space in a continuous horizontal drift, causing instability and disorientation with the image en creux, because the two cameras circulate around each other on a horizontal axis. In this installation, visual representation of space is no longer bound to horizontal-vertical categories following the Cartesian grid but instead enlarged spatial categories transgress the surface image limitations. Such expansion clearly means a multiplication of possible spatial forms that a camera installation in motion, but more likely a computer through algorithms, can intersect, converge, and constantly reshape.

It is especially clear in Allvision that Steina is experimenting with mirrored sphere devices in order to transcend the limited spatial perception of the human eye’s perspective. Nevertheless, machine’s "vision" is not an issue in itself, but the encounter between machine vision and human vision is part of the idea of enveloping and immersing the viewer in a perceptual space that is disorienting and incoherent — a departure from Cartesian coordinates. This multi-perspectival view also revolts against the current concept of a "picture plane" in electronic arts, which is bound to the notion of a surface image. In contrast, Steina subtly and playfully demonstrates that not only is the image in video no longer an image because of its drifting, but it is also an image that potentially employs virtual space.

One way to immerse herself (Somersault, Warp) and the viewer (Allvision) in the virtual space of her/his own surrounding is to construct the impression of an image en creux, by which I mean an intentional deviation from the common assumption of perspectival continuity in spatial perception. A second way is to multiply facets of image fields in image synthesis, where parallel streams of segments, multiple layers, and metamorphosis together stress the multidimensionality of the image as object (such as in Lilith). A third way relates to image processing and reversibility where, again, incompatible visual events occur, events that de-familiarize the scale and pace of the image while expanding its directionality and maneuverability (as in Orka, Mynd, and Bad)

Another kind of machine performance, such as in Bad (1979), presents an early programmed self-portrait of Steina where the memory command in the buffer of the Digital Image Articulator is used to carry out varied functions with preprogrammed speed that manifest in image resolution — such as stretching or squeezing the image, and reversing up/down and left/right. (e)

Initially, Steina’s concept of the "constantly moving image" (which began with electronic imaging and is developing through computer generation) expands the "vocabulary" of operations for image simulation. In Lilith (1987), Steina intersects vibrating layers to render the presented imagery multidimensional. (f) In Orka (1997), Steina combines both techniques — processable imaging and synthesis — to render visual imagery in spatially condensed, flowing motion based on principles of musical composition. (g)

In a reverse process to create immersive experience through dissociating and synthesizing visual perspectives generated from events of the "logically incompatible," Steina’s "digital spaces" also investigate the notion of parallel events that can be mapped in high density to create the impression of being immersed, and, for example, of being squeezed by accumulating picture zones. In Warp (2000), Steina uses her own body in motion, when compressing and stretching segments of her body in digital real-time computer processing so that multi-perspectival "objects" are built up — sculptural forms of the traces of movement. (h)

Similar to the videotape Warp, the installation Mynd (2000) uses the "time-warp" and "slit-scan" mode of the software Image/ine to create real-time processing of the frame: reading the incoming image, line- by-line from top, bottom, or either side. The video material selected for this process is Icelandic landscapes, horses grazing, images of the Atlantic Ocean. Mynd uses identical images for both processes, the moving of "warp" type images and the freezing of "slit-scan" images, in order to comparatively explore and unfold the multiplicity of digital manipulation. In the "time-warps," the optional direction becomes particularly apparent when, in reprocessing, the initial edits of the source material become visible as lines traveling horizontally or vertically up and down and side to side through the frame. The "slit-scan" operation differs in that a single line once captured remains frozen, creating an endlessly scrolling still image that is multiplied over the entire frame. The resultant frozen image presents itself as a continuous stream of running images, similar to an uninterrupted pan. These processes then build the content of a new frame. This inversion of a moving image into still-image appearance — where always the edge line of any incoming streaming image is processed — nevertheless presents the characteristics of movement in such a way that the image seems to be scrolling through the frame.

In the six-channel video installation of Mynd, these different kinds of processing (of the same imagery) are set next to each other on adjacent large screens, spanning the room. The resultant paradoxical visual experience, of parallel moving images and frozen images of movement, surrounds the viewer immersively. Here the two processes, warp and slit scan, are not only combined, as in Warp, but have been applied to an already existing analog video. Mynd exhibits the interaction of video and computer as another step in multidirectional processing of the visual. Similar to the two available options for scan processing in the 1970s, where the electronic signal could be manipulated through either raster or line modulation, here we see that digital processing of video also affects line and raster.

Yvonne Spielmann © 2004 FDL