Woody and Steina Vasulka, Don Foresta, Christiane Carlut

A conversation, Paris, Saturday 5, December 1992

Christiane Carlut: How did you get into video?

Woody Vasulka: When I arrived in New York in the mid-sixties, I edited films for living. I hung around people who made exhibits, World's Fair types, and ended up cutting multi-screens. Through my colleagues at Harvey Lloyd Productions I stumbled over a small format video recorder. Harvey had bought the whole rig for his new project and Sony at that time gave everybody who bought it a paper saying, "You are a new breed of inventors". Sony was aiming at the industrial world; they had no notion of the independent, the individual, the artist. This was 1969 in New York City. "Television as a Creative Medium" had just opened at Howard Wise Gallery. My co-workers, and I went to see it. It changed my life.

S.V. You got me to see it too...

Don Foresta: It was uptown, 56th or 57th street?

S.V. 57th.

D.F. Had he exhibited painters before?

S.V. Possibly, but at the time we met him, it was all advanced technology: magnetic forces, lights and computers. It puzzles me still today, why Howard?

W.V. Anyway, we just went with this fantasy. Harvey Lloyd invited Frank Gillette. Frank talked and talked for hours. The next day Harvey Lloyd had it all transcribed and prepared for the American Can Company presentation. He just ripped Frank's rap right off. Harvey was so excited and well prepared that he got the job. That was a break-through. He immediately bought a lot of 1/2-inch equipment and we started to play.
Frank got, of course, quite outraged by the Harvey's scoop. The following day a brand new company was formed. "Information Structures" (a typical Gillette acronym) and a lawsuit was filed against the American Can Company. A sum of One Million Dollars was mentioned. This new alliance was remarkable: John Reilly of Global Village, Ira Schneider of the Raindance, Paul Ryan and Frank. At least for a while it seemed they could suspend all their differences. But here I have no data; I was a complete outsider then. I have no idea how it all ended.
Shortly thereafter the video community went through its first public fall out. It was over New York State Council on the Arts funding. All the groups were bitterly divided and suspicious of each other. This was my first encounter with what I considered to be the American Left. I was quite perplexed at the ease with which the American cultural manners dominated ideology.

S.V. It was after this clash in the video community that Russ Connor was hired by the New York State Council to head a video department. He started going to everybody suggesting: "Become a non-profit group and you can legally get money." He went with this proposition to people like Ralph Hocking (founder of the Experimental TV. Center): "You are in the upstate doing video, you qualify for grants if you become a non-profit organization." He also suggested this to Eric Siegel, who had just come back from the west coast with his colorizer.

D.F. In a cigar box.

S.V. In a "Siegel box" which Siegel had done in cahoots with Howard Wise. Connor told
Howard, "Organize a group, and apply for a grant." To be a group Siegel suggested us, and that is how we became a group. Eric also suggested the name "The Perception," and indeed, we did get money. This is how we paid the first years' rent for the Kitchen. The group "Perception" was a sub-group of "Electronic Art Intermix" which succeeded the "Howard Wise Gallery".

W.V. "Electronic Art Intermix" was another acronym by Frank Gillette. He fabricated a lot of linguistics around video and systems in general and made it quite respectable. He brought McLuhan down to the people.

C.C. How and why did you start the "Kitchen?"

W.V. There were just too many people coming to our place to watch video.

S.V. We couldn't take all these comings and goings. There were also a lot of drugs. We had this friend, a carpenter who really knew New York and could smell out places. His name was Andy Mannik and his big passion was modern dance. He became our partner and the three of us decided to start the Kitchen.

S.V. The next year "The Kitchen," and Perception became two different groups under the Electronic Arts Intermix's umbrella. In it, besides Eric Siegel, were Ira Schneider, Beryl Korot, Frank Gillette, Andy Mann and Juan Downey, all doing their individual projects. This was a very elegant way to get around the State Councils rules that legally could only fund institutions

C.C. Why did you do video, Woody?

W.V. Because I understood it was unlike film. I had just graduated from the famous Film Academy of Prague where the artistic agenda was very clear: to perfect the language of the indirect, the ever changing code of metaphorical encryption. It produced many successes such as the New Czech Wave of the sixties. Legitimate film in the USA was an industry. I had neither the temperament, nor interest for industrial filmmaking. Of course, there was something else and it took me no time to find it: the American avant-garde film. I was very skeptical at first. We Europeans had had the REAL film avant-garde but it was long over. On a second look the Americans were magnificent. It set me straight. I thought it was now possible to break the literary bonds with moving images and set the filmic syntax free again, but for me it was too late. I had already abandoned film. I was now in the world of electronics: first through sound making, then video. It went very fast. We got our own theater. We did exactly what we wanted and never had to deal with the world of the Galleries. We made our own world of Art.

S.V. For us, coming from film or music, the gallery had no meaning.

W.V. Galleries never found any use for film anyhow. Film had its own cultural environment.

D.F. There was not a bad distribution system for experimental film at that time.

W.V. That is right. It was a very powerful medium. Film was very good at that time. It was the best that America had to offer.

D.F. In 1970 there was the Doug Davis thing in Washington, Hokkadim, were you in it?

S.V. No. We had only been doing video for a short time then.

W.V. But a year later we had our own "gallery" so to speak. We did festivals at the Kitchen and had media events every day of the week. We did not need to go anywhere.

S.V. I remember before we had The Kitchen we would go over to Harvey Lloyd's studio, set all the machines into motion, watch feedback, invite dancers to control a feedback loop, which in turn triggered synthesized audio, etc. Then we started taking out the Portapac, which was very lightweight and very wonderful. The second-generation portapac had a lot of weight added, but the first Portapac was completely stripped down. It did not even have "Rewind" or "Playback" function. You shot like film, never knowing what you were getting. There was a little turnkey for manual rewinding. We used to call up people and ask to tape them. The typical responses would be: "What is taping? What is video? What for? Why would you want to tape me?" This went on for the first year. We taped jazz musicians, dancers, and artists. A photographer friend asked Woody if he was interested in coming along to the Fillmore East. Jimi Hendrix was performing. The sound engineer gave Woody the house mix from the sound booth, so the sound was excellent. The picture was of course low resolution Black/White. This was kind of our school. And then more and more equipment started accumulating in our loft. The Portapac was not returned to Harvey Lloyd anymore, stayed in our place, then a recorder or two. Sandy Devlin laid two cameras and a Special Effects Generator on us when she did not need it. I became addicted to the medium. Since I had been manipulating audiotapes, video seemed just like an extension. I had always wanted to do film but I had no entry into it. A housewife is supposed to greet her man with a hot dinner, but I would be waiting for Woody with a hot tape. He would come home from work and say, "Honey, show me your tape." (Laughs). Actually he didn't really say that. He said, "This is intolerable. Why am I at work and you are playing. I quit!" So, he quit. That way we not only lost the income, we also lost access to a lot of equipment. But it was one of the luckiest things we have ever done. Now also Woody was doing video fulltime.

W.V. There was virtually no structured media education, but everything around us was educational. We would go to a concert of LaMonte Young and he would perform two oscillators adrift. It went on for several hours. You could move your head slightly to hear the standing waves. The Automation House had fantastic programs of art, interactive technologies and early electronic music environments. The whole city was a sort of huge educational experience. There was also "Experiments in Art and Technology," which was Billy Kluver's baby. And there were brain wave concerts by David Rosenboom.

S.V. Also 3-D experiments and binocular vision phenomena.

D.F. Was that the time of VanDerBeek's "Newsreels of Dreams" at Stoneybrook?

W.V. That is correct. He later brought the "Dreams" to the Kitchen. We were quite privileged to meet many people that way.

D.F. What was the exact date of the opening of the Kitchen?

S.V. June 15, 1971. In the fall, LaMonte Young was the first one to give a formal concert. He was a bit pompous. He said he could not give a concert for free, but could on the other hand promote his new record. And after LaMonte's concert everybody else wanted in. At first the avant-garde music was presented every Monday and then it spilled over to Tuesdays. For the two years that we ran the Kitchen, we kept congratulating ourselves on how lucky we were that these people would be so kind to come and perform, even as we had no fee for them. In reality it turned out, we were it - the only outlet. On Wednesdays we had something called Open House. Whoever showed up could show their videotapes. On the other nights there were other kinds of media events. Saturdays sometimes had disco, like "The New York Dolls," who actually started in the Kitchen, or this group of transvestites who called themselves something like "El Trocadero de Monte Carlo."

D.F. Who named it the Kitchen?

W.V. It was really a kitchen.

S.V. Woody named it. Then we added to the name. We called it "LATL: Live Audience Test Laboratory." It was actually called "Kitchen, LATL." We did not want to announce to the audience that they were some kind of laboratory rats, but that is what they were. They were our last concern. This place was for the artists to experiment in. If the audience did not like it, too bad.

C.C. Can you say how far Marshall McLuhan influenced you, and what kind of criticisms would you make about him at this period?

W.V. At that time it was all second hand information siphoned through Frank Gillette and the Raindance group. They went to the McLuhan seminar. They all came back converted, especially Frank. Paul Ryan had been an assistant to McLuhan prior to his video involvement. We met Marshall McLuhan in Toronto around '73 or '74. At that time he was not speaking about media at all. He held a weekly seminar at McGill University in Toronto. Usually, he would construct a virtual linguistic machine. Something like a pinball machine. You would throw a verb or a noun at him and the apparatus started to click. It was wonderful to see the words processed. They bent, squeezed, stretched and finally came out inverted. As far as I could tell, he was wholly unconcerned with art and would not play with anything related to it. I think that all his famous quotations came from this kind of an imaginary linguistic engine.

S.V. He was no closer to us than a professor of French, or biology. At a certain point he suggested that the people in the group introduce themselves. The participants introduced themselves by name and profession and we stood up and said that we did video art. He obviously did not want to ask us anything further and got quite insecure at that moment.

W.V. But I think he influenced all of us. The terminology that he invented became perpetually quoted and it made him into the "New Media Guru." It was the most provocative language surrounding the subject of media. Whatever he said was skillfully used by the word-people, like journalists and critics. They eventually gave it great meaning, even if McLuhan had not necessarily meant it that way.

C.C. What have been your main philosophical influences since you started working with video?

W.V. We are practitioners. I mostly learned from music in the sense of how to organize these new patterns. You know, all of these waveform controls and means of composition for our early video artifacts were developed first as audio. They were directly related to the development of early musical instruments. In video, the instruments played similar functions. I believed that what I was doing was a form of practical philosophy. For the first time I understood the speed of light as not just a part of a formula by Einstein. I suddenly could see how the signal struggles through the wires, how it gets mangled, how matter and energy combat each other. When we saw an early laser from Bell Labs brought to an artist's loft in Manhattan, we were amazed by the physicality of these phenomena. It was an experiential and practical philosophy. All of the ideas of composing through non-traditional means came from the machines.

S.V. Philosophy or media theory was never directly connected to what I wanted to do. My background is in music, which as a medium exists only in time. This gave me the entry into video, an understanding of composition in time.

W.V. There was another great issue here: the hallucinogens and what resulted in the establishment of the "new aesthetic norm". Before these experiences I had only art to refer to, but suddenly there was something that actually performed profound transformations of perception: interactively, aurally, visually, and tangibly, something that art could only suggest. Sound could influence image and image could influence movement. I recall watching television snow synthesize images that I had never seen before. I can still remember them. It was a great teacher. I could never figure out why the mandala was so attractive until I saw the first video feedback. This was all a magnificent cultural opportunity.

C.C. Besides all this, you said yesterday that a work of art must not illustrate an idea. And then speaking about the way you were working together and independently, the idea that you are playing with things. Could you go through this?

S.V. There is a danger in being infatuated with an "idea" and then trying to impose it upon the material. Fortunately the material has a way of confronting you: "This is not very interesting, but let me show you something else." If you are alert, you can drop all preconceptions and catch that moment. You enter this dialogue and end up with something completely different from what you intended to do.

D.F. One of the things I tried to lay out in my book was a series of phases that I have seen in video and other technologies that artists have used. Where the first phase is the playful phase, where they play with the machines. Basically as a way of learning, trying to figure out what it is all about, getting into it. And then the second phase comes in like kind of a mastery of it. You begin really to turn into what you wanted to be. And then the third phase comes in, which is I think the most important phase, where you start building machines yourself because you are dissatisfied with the limitations of the technology.

W.V. I think you are getting dangerously close to what could be called the notion of craft. We know what confusion this brought to the Moderns. I have never heard a talk of craft in the context of video. There are different artistic strategies in dealing with that. Take two second-generation artists, Bill Viola and Gary Hill. Both are superb craftsmen. One denies the manifestation of the building material in his work the other promotes it. Video promised the freedom from craft, which many explained as freedom from tradition. Many willingly accepted the theory of the black box as the final formulation, this attitude that now promotes art made by "office machines", which is what computers really are. I think that Gillette summarized this in his early speech at MOMA (1974) when he said: "Here comes everybody." On the other hand, this ambiguity of the craft must be maddening to the competitive artist. I love my colleagues when they come and say, "I am probably the best." They tell you that with such naked honesty. I love it because it is impossible to know if you are the best; there is always some bastard out there that you do not know about. There are so many aspects of the craft that we don't recognize as such, like a circuit board, which may from the long view of history, become the most significant factor.

D.F. The most essential thing for you is just keeping the system open.

W.V. Time to time I try to be didactic about it. It mostly manifests in forms of photo essays as summaries of what I have learned. The first essay was titled "Didactic video" (1975) with a subtitle: "Organizational Models of Electronic Image." It addressed the basic definition of the state of "time/energy objects", as I called them at that time, in an analog state. The second essay came two years later under the title "Syntax of Binary Images." It dealt with image in a state of digital code. I am convinced that the second half of this century was about learning systems and new patterns.

D.F. I think it is probably important in a certain sense because there has to be almost parallels to any kind of evolution and technologies and a certain amount of attempted formalism periodically, to see if in fact you can do it. After a while you reject it, you realize that there is no formalism almost by the nature of the thing.

W.V. Yes, there is something in this, this longing for stability in form. One could even eventually become so conservative as to attempt a masterpiece. But it does not seem a part of today's vocabulary.

D.F. Well, we stop at a certain point in the evolution of the thing and say, okay, this is the language, and now I want to communicate with that language. Three years later that language is completely passé. One of the things I have said in classes, when I have been presenting your work is that the two of you for me are artist's artists. I mean, I really consider that in the last twenty years of your work, you're basically training the art world. And a lot of the work that you have done would mean that if you hadn't done it, some of the video art that we see today would not exist.

W.V. It would be nice if this would all be true (Laughs). See, there is already a certain arrogance in our class now. We all used to treat video as a tribal affair. We were humbled by the learning experience then. At the beginning we had a need for each other in an almost pathetic instinct of survival. But you are right, we took video beyond the call of beauty. We found a message in the way we disseminated it. The show and tell became ritualized, formalized and certainly didactic in parts. Our generation was willing to accept this form of instruction. It became a rewarding part of our making. In that sense, the educational system has totally failed.

D.F. It has failed. One of the things I think about the educational system, and this is a big debate in France right now, is that as the idea of using new technologies to create became more and more accepted on an official level, it became sufficient for schools just to supply machines and then after that something magical was supposed to happen. And basically, that's all we have ever taught people was how to make them work, and how to make them work according to the manual. And I mean computers are the best examples. Most of the schools that teach computers, teach how to run particular software. But they don't tell you how the whole damn thing works, so that you can turn it upside down and backwards like anything else. And that part of it is lacking. Totally.

W.V. There was a time we believed we were a part of a reform movement, we believed in a sort of intellectual media supervision in the style of the left. Now we feel that the evolution is becoming automatic. Technology is driving a certain part of it. We are trying to adjust to it, but it is beyond our grasp. This unbelievable need for change is conceptually here but there is no curriculum through which you can put a finger on it. It is not within the experience of a teacher. It is not a matter of intelligence. Even if you are an excellent artist, have a fabulous reputation and all the abilities, you still get stuck in this moment of history and the latest technological invention.

D.F. It's a problem finding exactly the key to bring that kind of energy to people twenty-five years later. It is very, very hard to find that point where they can get into it with the same mentality, to go profoundly enough into the technology to understand what it's all about, to know that you're not just manipulating images on a screen, but that you're manipulating something much more profound, both technically and psychologically. One of the things we talked about yesterday was this revival of feedback and the fact that my students are all hooked on feedback. When they're not in class, they are out there playing with feedback. I think it's kind of funny.

W.V. All this talk about "high tech" makes me crazy. It is not about that, it is about understanding. On a certain level, once you understand, you can make it obsolete.

D.F. What we are talking about too, is trying to find exactly that key to get people into the new technologies. What's the right mentality? And not the fact that they're not going to use them the way the manual says it's supposed to be used. Educationally, it's an extremely difficult thing to do, and I think that a lot of so-called pedagogues that are involved have never even understood that. So, thinking that it's sufficient to understand how to operate Photoshop to make art with the Macintosh is just absurd.

W.V. We might say that the generation of "Desktop Artists" is in mortal danger because they write their proposals and budgets on the same machines they make art with.

D.F. When you taught in Buffalo, what approach did you have in breaking down that attitude?

W.V. We had machines. We got a Rutt/Etra Scan Processor there and later a Bill Hearn machine. I had just cracked the Rutt/Etra for myself and was eager to tell everybody about it. The digital machines turned things around. Now the teachers had to learn from the students. Our student Jeffrey Schier told us everything about binary code, how to operate digital machines and how to write programs. We got such an exquisite educational experience.

D.F. You really learned from your students as well?

W.V. Absolutely! We also built the machines together. I think it was very good for the students, but generally we got more educated than they did.

D.F. I think that's one of the reasons why people are teachers.

S.V. In this field the teacher is not ahead of the student. If a teacher has any role at all, it is just by being older and therefore having the respect of those that are younger. If you as the older say, "This is not good enough," the younger might do something more challenging. You cannot really do much else.

W.V. Also, the teacher provides connections to the world, in all practical senses.

D.F. In that same fashion I considered your Theater of Hybrid Automata made for Artifices 2 in Saint Denis to be a "teaching piece".

W.V. Yes, it is a didactic piece.

D.F. And what I saw there was a so-called intelligent space that is going to become a more common environment. What do we do with it? And what is the artist's relationship to it? And what does it mean socially and so forth? By the same token, because of that a lot of people that I took, because I took more than a class, I took two classes, some of them were frightened by it. They saw this thing existing there independently of themselves, with certain intelligence. It was once again the Luddite fear of technology, which in some respects is legitimate, it was like "oh, I want to have nothing to do with those."

W.V. But you see, in this particular piece my interest was to bring the process of calibration out into the open, out of its ordinary context. Here calibration means that the instrument is in a continuous process of alignment to some predetermined coordinates. This process has been preceded in the real world by a purely human need. Take the most established way of establishing North, South, East and West. It has been a cultural property for very long and our science has performed countless ritualistic dances within these coordinates. But this ritual of calibration is all around us. We live in the midst of a technological environment that performs calibration regardless of our awareness of it. In some strange way, these play out for me as small dramatic forms. It is quite similar to what I experienced in video. The micro-drama of creating a cognitive frame of image out of time sequences and varied energy fascinated me endlessly. This was almost a clandestine pleasure. No one would talk about this in the video conferences. Art and media theories seem to prefer to be aligned to the social sciences rather than to the exact sciences. And this goes on in my work with technology. The constructions of images or whole sensorial environments are the most intriguing structures that I know about.

S.V. We know that every tool has to calibrate. Every camera and tape recorder has to be calibrated. What we do not see is that it is an emulation of the human system. We calibrate constantly. We wake up in the morning, asking, "Who am I? What is this place I am waking up in? What time is it now and how long did I sleep? What do I have to do today? We are constantly reinforcing ourselves saying, "I am I! I am in Paris now!"

W.V. But I think this is the question: what constitutes a trivial system, or trivial behavior? And what constitutes intelligence? How do these new behaving systems work? What is their language? This comes back to the same questions we had about early electronic image. Does it have a language? Does this newly acquired interactive space have a new language? A new syntax? Art as a social phenomenon is facing certain challenges from this. The question of what is intelligent did not play much of a role because art seemed to have its own intelligence. It even created its own styles and art movements. But suddenly, there is something that talks, performs gestures, captures images, recognizes speech, or performs rituals that we can relate to. It is becoming more and more human like. This kind of work brings me to dimensions where I have to ask these questions. It is not even a theater. The word for "theater" in Czech grammatically means the instrument you look at. It is of a neutral gender, passive like a table.

S.V. The word means the container or vessel for seeing things in.

D.F. It's a good mirror of the old debate about artificial intelligence as well. Because you begin to debate what in fact is intelligent.

W.V. That is right. I know it has something to do with space. I was trained to practice intelligence in a two-dimensional filmic space. Eventually, it becomes nonsense and outright deception.

C.C. A last question: I have been thinking about this for a while. Right now in France there is a big debate concerning contemporary art. A lot of people are criticizing it very strongly. So there's a sort of crisis about the aims of contemporary art and I would like to know from both of you: what would be the biggest danger concerning what you're working on?

W.V. The art as commodity is something I cannot square in my mind. Any which way it is done, it is absurd.

D.F. My feeling is, the domination of the galleries and why it is so strong today is because there are no more values. There are no shared values whatsoever, so you can't use a shared value as a way of describing art anymore, the only way you can is through money.

W.V. That is an interesting point, of course. On the other hand, artists used to deliver advice on how to live, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, even the modernists would teach you about ethics of the left:, that it is good to hate money and that capitalism is bad. Today there is no serious way to address the public. What do you tell them? The old ideological systems are really discredited. I do not think there is even a chance that art could look like it did, or be useful the way it used to.

S.V. An artist often was this person who could not really function in society and therefore was an artist. But now there are these hordes of artists who function completely within the society and are indeed very much a part of it. And that seems somehow for an artist to be a wrong role.

D.F. Because they are not out ahead of it, which is where they really should be.

W.V. Unless they would sacrifice themselves every afternoon. If there were some self-immolations, some hara-kiri and wrist slashing, I think artists could gain a kind of leadership again. But who is going to go through that?
So darlings, are we going to go and have a good dinner?