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Yvonne Spielmann, Video and Computer

The Aesthetics of Steina and Woody Vasulka


In line with other avant-garde artists, whose radical modernist approaches have opposed the dominant aesthetics of representation, the Vasulkas see their explorations of video and computer within a larger cultural context, deliberately opposing the predominance of a camera-obscura determined, and thereby limited, view of visual culture. Their idea is to abandon the dominant modes of representation in visual media culture and instead reveal a parallel visual world of aesthetic beauty.

Woody summarizes their critique of the one-dimensional, pinhole-bound principle of visualization: "This tradition has shaped our visual perception, not only through the camera-obscura, but it has been reinforced, especially through the cinema and through television. It’s a dictatorship of the pinhole effect, as ironic and stupid as it sounds to call it that. But it has been reinforced, and eventually we came to accept that as the most real. In painting, where the surface can be controlled to a much greater degree, people have rationally broken down this notion of Renaissance space, into no image — eventually the camera was empty. In electronic imaging, we have discovered that there is an inner model of imaging, which is not related to traditional camera-obscura imaging... At this point it may sound almost popular-cultural, but that’s the fight between reality, and the beauty of the real, and the beauty of the artificial. In some instances the beauty of the artificial has already won."

It can be added here, that seemingly each new medium is subject to competing developments that, on one hand, import and sustain borrowed elements from previous media and favor traditional aesthetics, while, on the other, struggle for a media specific language necessarily beginning with the concept of the tabula rasa. However, the video void is not an empty form in the sense of no information, but, on the contrary, it provides the potential for building up truly electronic imagery.

In conclusion, from the historical-systematic point of view and in light of a broader context of other video experiments over the past decades, I find that Steina and Woody Vasulka, in many ways, were ahead of their time. One reason is that they understood video as another kind of visualization, as a true audiovisual medium not limited to a surface expression. What Steina describes as her interest in "machine vision" signifies a qualitative difference from other media, such as photography and film, which are also grounded in an apparatus function. However, saying that video offered a chance to abandon pinhole perspective means a structural departure from other recording media, bridging the way to an algorithmic generation of "images." In this regard, video works by the Vasulkas are reflexive practices that force the media machines to self-reflexively strip off their components and lay bare the smallest element recognizable in visual/aural output. Starting from this "point zero" of electronic language, Woody is interested in systematically building up vocabulary and syntax so that effects could be controlled, repeatedly maneuvered, and finally stored. This task, together with extreme aberrations of the video image, encapsulates an artist-scientist attitude toward the medium that logically employs the computer and explains the interest in digital spatialization.

From the beginning video was seen as a potential rather than a prefigured medium. The Vasulkas, together with few other similarly interested video experimenters, regarded video as a technology that was not structured but had a potential to appear in multiple structures. As I have tried to elucidate, the video artists’ interest in forcing the matrix image to express scale, pace, and pattern is embedded in comparable encounters in abstract film and connects video to non-cinematic media, namely the computer. And the matrix-experiments need to be recognized as an exploration of the vocabulary from inside — analyzing the specificity of video as a matrix phenomenon. The Vasulkas in numerous ways over several decades have demonstrated that the electronic and the digital share transformative characteristics in exploring process-oriented, multidimensional, and open-ended imagery in creating the "beauty of the artificial."

Yvonne Spielmann © 2004 FDL