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Orbital Obsessions, 1977

Steina, Orbital Obsessions, 1977 (full version) (video)
Steina, Orbital Obsessions, 1977 (full version) (video)
Orbital Obsessions superimposes and alters the different image sources through processing, keying, and sequencing devices that simultaneously "record" and "play" the effects as they occur. In using two cameras in different positions, the twice depicted space of the studio (including Steina maneuvering the machines) appears segmented, multiplied, and as if moving on different axes at the same time. Spatial complexity results, for example, from the image of a camera looking at a monitor that interferes with the zooming-in and-out of a second camera pointing to the reflected image of the camera on the monitor. The camera that is looking at itself on the monitor is part of a feedback structure where the multiplication of the image creates distortion through seemingly endless replications of the same image. The feedback is also audible here so that the circuit of internal response self-reflexively builds up machine interaction. While this frame-within-frame setting resembles the construction of mise-en-abîme familiar to painting and film, spatial distortion more specific to the electronic medium happens when, through a switcher, the divergent movements of one horizontally and another vertically turning camera converge, thereby confirming that the electronic signal moves in both directions.

In another setting the spatially moving image of a camera on a turntable is juxtaposed with a stationary camera that focuses on the first camera. In the imagery presented through frequency modulation and keying, the interrelated presentations of image fields are variable in speed and can revert from positive to negative. Using the Video Sequencer (George Brown, 1972) Steina shifts the voltage and manages to speed up or slow down the switching speed of two or more image sources that present differing views, which are switched in such ways that they produce flicker effects. That is because the Video Sequencer allowed very rapid switching up to the point where the switching that technically occurs during the vertical synchronization becomes almost "invisible." Once more, the image operation transgresses any notion of a "coherent" single image. In addition to this visual distortion, cameras tracking each other creates a spatial disorientation, in particular when one camera rotates at 360 degrees from floor to ceiling and Steina walks into this setting of temporally flickering and spatially distorted imagery.

Incoherency is further increased when Steina, in addition to altering from positive to negative in the same segment, operates the Multikeyer that keys and layers vertical segments in real time. The last sequence also works with superimposition, as a layering technique, so that we see Steina multiplied in slightly different positions. Zero-interval keying decides on the visibility of the image. The tool, the Multikeyer (George Brown, 1973) allows up to six video sources to be manipulated and layered into one single video output, as if they had "real" foreground/background relations. Interestingly, this real-time process, which allows the re-assignment of the plane-location, has a digital element that, like any other programmable tool, operates with a built-in clock and enables basic programming and storage applications. Although in the early seventies almost every tool was analog, the Multikeyer with integrated circuit chips had memory, so it signifies the introduction of a digital tool: "An example of elaborate digital control of an analog video keyer is the George Brown Multikeyer. It consists of a programmable digital sequencer wired to an analog processing rack, where a digital 'key priority encoder' combines with multiple analog keyer/mixers... The analog keyer/mixer prioritizes the six video sources, sorting them into multiple image planes, which are routed to a single output... This multi-level keyer was built for the Vasulkas in the early 1970s... A computer interface was appended in 1977 to allow remote storing, loading and control of the program sequences." (1) Most important to analog video was the "unique aspect of the keyer" which allows heirarchical over-layering of multiple inputs resulting in a coherent final output. It is the encoding key element that determines the "image planes" according to brightness: "This stacking and sequencing of image priority and key, makes for an image layering not easily attained in conventional video mixers, without using multi-generation tape loops." (2)

Yvonne Spielmann © 2004 FDL

(1) Jeff [Jeffrey] Schier, [Description of the George Brown Multi-Level Keyer] (April 21, 1992) n.p., Daniel Langlois Foundation, Steina and Woody Vasulka Fonds, VAS B37-C2-3.

(2) Ibid. n.p.