Transcript of interview with Woody & Steina Vasulka, Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA. Sept. 5th, 2000
C.M-A: Woody, you have said that “video negates film”- what did you mean by that?”
W.V: The idea that you can take a picture and put it through a wire and send it to another place- you can broadcast from one place to another- this idea of an ultimate transcendence- magic- a signal that is organised to contain an image. This was no great decision, it was clear to me that there was a utopian notion to this, it was a radical system and so there was no question of deciding that this was it. Also I was not very successful in making films- I had nothing to say with film. This new medium was open and available and just let you work without a subject.
C.M-A: So taking up video freed you from the ‘subject’.
W.V: Exactly. I didn’t have to follow what was the strength of the movie- that intimate voyeur narrative system that was very successful. I like movies of that period, as you know, but I also knew well the avant-garde, the left Avant-Garde, and as I grew up in a socialist system that was something the regime couldn’t forbid. So we were fed very much by these products of the avant garde. Later, when I came here and saw what the Americans called avant-garde, I was very sceptical about it because we had this in Europe and that was the true avant-garde. But then I gained a great respect for the American avant-garde because they did it from the belly of the beast-
S.V: Because in America it wasn’t a priori art. In Europe it was “Art”. It isn’t any more, but in especially in Czechoslovakia, it was art.
W.V: Maybe it wasn’t, but you could deny that it wasn’t art.
S.V: It wasn’t all art, but we thought of it that way. It was in the academy- the same academy as music and painting.
W.V: Also in that milieu of Prague this elitist art was so much the only art.
S.V; That was why the American avant-garde was so much more interesting, because it lived in this hostile environment where the movie wasn’t considered art to begin with.
W.V: But they had an ethical explanation for it. P. Adams Sitney, for example.
C.M-A: I have the impression that the so-called ‘structural’ film-makers didn’t like Sitney’s formulation. Hollis Frampton for example felt very constrained by it.
S.V: Yes, but they were also flattered.
W.V: He never understood them I think, that was the problem. But nobody could understand Frampton, he was too complicated. But Jonas Mekas did most of the footwork. He was the man that gave this movement total legitimacy by a simple ethical statement such as “this film is beautiful, just because it wasn’t made in Hollywood”. So he transcended the aesthetics through ethics. This gave a complete self assurance to a whole generation, because they made their films as individuals outside of the industry- in fact, in protest to the industry. They had the same strength, in fact a greater strength- a moral right, than the film industry. This was a very much cultivated opinion which I was very interested in, because coming from the other side, where film was the government- even if there were radical movements in film. At that time, even if there was any significant film made, it had the same ideology- forget the medium, forget the scratches, and simply deliver the ideology- fulfil the narrative system or whatever. Hollywood had the same interest.
S.V: That’s why when we conceived of video as being the signal- the energy and time and all of that, we though we were right there, smack in the middle of it. These were the radical times in experimental film and there were all these people starting up in video. We were all discovering this together. We erroneously thought that everybody conceived of video this way; this ‘time/energy construction’. Now I realise we were very much alone. We were never lonely because we thought we were in the middle of it, but we were. We never had any followers who practised this time-energy organisation.
W.V: The schism- the problem was between what Paik was doing, and what this new generation of Americans was doing. Paik- and Vostell in particular, were never comfortable with this internal organisation of the image. Paik successfully used magnets to distort the existing artefact, this was his strongest period. He took external forces such as magnetism and produced images, but they were very traditional in the sense of their residual context.
The whole American movement was trying to figure out what makes the picture. How is it scanned? How do you encode this image on this new canvas which is constructed in time and drawing on lines, and soon after, in the same decade- the 70’s, how to define the digital in which the horizontal and vertical territory of the screen is then divided into binary numbers- the coincidence of time produces an image. This was the most radical thought which is never mentioned. Paik never entered this; the peak of his of effort was colourising, keying and mixing with his synthesiser, and altering the magnetic state of the cathode ray tube. But we were interested in this new icon- the signal which was initially analogue and later digital- the organising principle of the image.
C.M-A: But this had nothing to do with ‘television’. Paik was coming in from a reaction to television as an object. Drawing on ideas of Cage’s about the piano as a cultural object. All of Paik’s images seem to be in reaction to broadcast television- even the things he processed. Your work on the other hand seems to have nothing to do with television at all- or does it?
W.V: Its like this. Paik’s pictorial world was the world of known symbols-not primary symbols- but secondary. For example, he would always take famous people if he could- the more famous, the more desirable. He was the shadow of everybody: McLuhun or Cage, or Nixon. You actually could see the effort of taking the established codes, putting them on television, destroying or altering them by the prescription of, lets say, Fluxus. So there was this anti-bourgeois effort. But Vostel was much more explicit about it. Vostell’s use of the object of television was much clearer-putting television sets and turkeys in the same pan. It was interesting and I really liked his work because he was demeaning.
Paik was caught in the middle of this transition because as he says openly: as music became electronic, and then ‘art’ and eventually ‘high art’- in the same way television- the electronic image, will eventually become material for high art. This was his struggle- to achieve high art at any price. This meant that he would violate any of the rules- the rejection of the popular, of the bourgeois, of the successful . But I think he had no strategy for this. As a man coming from the Orient, success is a condition for the definition of your significance. He fought it at times, but eventually settled to this notion that if he was not famous, or at least a famous Korean or Asian, then he had failed. So he carried this huge baggage of playing this specific role- and he became the first internationalist.
There is a nice essay on the subject- that in half a year he made six international projects- satellites, etc. But since defining himself in this way he left our interests which was to seek common images or common codes- we were trying to build another set of codes, which is in a way in the tradition of the European avant-garde. You have to invent everything, There’s no way you can incorporate, or appropriate cultural symbols. Then of course Worhol broke it completely because he’s the guy that just put it right there completely- he said: “this is it, this is what is allowed”.
C.M-A; Worhol was very influential on the ‘structural’ film-makers too, in the sense that he was the one who broke with the earlier important American avant-garde tradition- abstract expressionism, and especially Brakhage’s romantic ‘personal’ mythopoeic films. Worhol’s approach of switching on the camera and leaving it running- the ‘stare’ of the camera becoming a significant thing. I’m wondering whether all of that fed into your work, because there’s another perhaps more important strand which is the sound. What’s interesting about all of your early work is that the sound signal and the picture signal are compatible, and most importantly interrelated. There’s a whole musical language which is the other possible way of making abstract art which has nothing to do with any kind of narrative- there’s no narrative expectation, even though there’s a time-base. I would have thought this was an important strand feeding into the work you were doing.
S.V: Very much. It was the signal, and the signal was unified. The audio could be video and the video could be audio. The signal could be somewhere ‘outside’ and then interpreted as an audio stream or a video stream. It was very consuming for us, and we have stuck to it.
I remember that Jonas Mekas didn’t like video very much, and he said “why don’t those video makers just make silent video? We all started with silent films.” This was the biggest misunderstanding of the medium I’ve ever seen. Video always came with an audio track, and you had to explicitly ignore it not to have it. It seems that even in this respect there was no one else who did that.
W.V: Our first synthetic visual tool was the audio synthesiser- the “Putney” (EMS) How do you interact with the television screen? Its a ‘time construct’. Normally it constructs a frame- the illusion or representation of a frame, and its normally organised so precisely that you are not supposed to see that its actually organised line by line using some kind of oscillators inside and if you turn the television on when there is no broadcast signal, there are free-running oscillators- two horizontal and vertical oscillators. As soon as there is a broadcast signal it locks onto it, it becomes a slave to a master which is the broadcast signal. The signal itself governs. So we would put into the input a sound oscillator- or oscillators, and we saw for the first time that we could get an image from a source other than the camera. So our discussion was about departing from the camera, which television insisted upon having, and still does. The second principle was to get the tools to organise time and energy in order to produce a visual or other artefact. So we started with interference patterns. Interfering with that time structure, anytime you interfered with that it would organise itself and that was our entrance into the synthetic world from the audio tools. Since then we understood the affinity between the sound and image. Also we inherited an important thing from the sound instrument which was the architecture of the sound synthesiser. The signal itself is only one component, which is the timbre, or pitch. Also there is an overlaid structure called the voltage control principle in which at times you could exchange the voltage that you could control to became the source of the image, and then the material itself became the control. So you could work with this architecture and eventually present some form of a development or sort of a control which could be almost like a composition. We understood that this was too primitive to claim that, but there are some people that spent years composing. But when we look at each other soberly we recognise that it was a struggle of immense problematic dimensions. But these bright Americans like Steve Beck and Eric Siegal really fought, piece by piece, inch by inch, point by point to define that event in that particular part of the screen.
S.V: It was the cameraless image. They were interested in a principle that could no be obtained from the camera obscura. (Richard) Monkhouse did the same. And then what did they do, they introduced the camera! If not as feedback, then images of the face, or something. Woody was also obsessed. I was never that obsessed though I was also interested in this cameraless way of constructing images from energy.
W.V: We all eventually used the face as a reference. I also used a hand as a reference. You cannot really make abstract video. This was never really an interest of any of our generation- not a single member. There were some people that tried to do a genre of abstract sound and music, but it had no genre definition generically, it was arbitrary and had no analytic quality whatsoever, and it disappeared anyway, as we said about Larry Cuba, it became a one-man computer-generated film. But he was actually analytic- I would put him into this idea of trying to represent a genre.
Most of the problem was not really to mix the images, but to deconstruct them, and we went through a long charade of building these machines that would deconstruct the images- meaning they would show the elements- including the codes, because that was the mystery. What you compose with it was usually the banality. If you look at the work of the last thirty years in video its a pathetic movement. It tries to present a synthetic or synergistic possibility, but only as an environment it succeeded, but not as a genre. All my narrative work- I had to do it, but I call them total failures because they are supposed to speak about something else, but they always address this interest in the audience to see a dramatic form, the proscenium, the dramatic form . So that’s where it became very problematic because we did not want to make abstract images, we wanted to make concrete images, but how do you build generic images that belong to themselves only? That is the dilemma. We tried to do it through tools- the ‘dialoguing with tools’ – which was sort of true- simply trying to find the least or the most generic images to describe the medium itself, including the behaviour. Later the computer made clear that there was no new language- just some additions to it such as the power of transformation, or endless variations which we already had in video. Film was a very difficult medium to do endless variations, it had limited variations.
C.M-A: This ‘dialoguing with machines’ that you have engaged with, and also Steina’s Machine Vision, are they both the same thing?
W.V: The dialoguing lead towards the Machine Vision, because I constructed the first one, but I never had a use for it.
S.V: Yeah, you walked away from it. See that’s the thing. Woody could work technically. He could take motorcycles apart or sewing machines, and then put them back together.
W.V: Aeroplanes actually. During the war I was living across from an airfield.
S.V: It was so natural to him. I have never done that. Woody would construct something and then say..”Oh well”, and I would say “No! This is good.” I would come in and want to use it. That’s actually how a lot of things were with us. I would also construct something; get something going and then I would walk away and Woody would see that there was a whole piece in there. That was kind of our collaboration.
C.M-A: Thats the other strand that we haven’t yet touched on. This collaborative interaction between the two of you which is quite unique as well. Not only were you involved with thinking about the video medium from the inside, making tools which were specifically intended to uncover or deconstruct video, but there was the interaction between two people who had come from very different but compatible backgrounds and specialisms.
W.V: We’ve always been united by an interest in the signal. That was something that we could never think outside of any machine or an installation. We’ve really struggled together, and we still do. She does something and there’s a signal involved, and that unites us, looking or appreciating. But I was never interested in the object- I was interested in the screen only until about ten years ago. In Steina’s case she was always interested in the instrument ,probably because of the violin, and she adopted these instruments as instruments of play. But I always denied that because instruments came too easy to me. I knew that life had to much more miserable. So I thought to try to find the secrets of the metaphysical content of the time-energy and the code. This were the highest calls. But I couldn’t do these machines. You will see on these tapes, I’ve even built them and eventually I have given up. But it is something that comes so naturally that I denied it. I would never discuss anything about a machine with anybody. It is something forbidden in me because I know if I follow that I would probably discover the atom bomb.
S.V: But Woody was good, because my idea was that he could build them for me- he could make it. But he would say: “Do it yourself woman!” Collaboration or not, I had to drill the holes , and they were always wrong and always kind of off-centre.
There’s another thing about all this machine stuff. First of all, we have always wanted to be inspired by the machines, we always wanted to have an equal partnership where the machines will suggest to us what we do; or the machine shows us. You put a camera on a machine and you see what it does. It’s not imposing your ‘superior’ view on the camera. Especially for me it led to this whole thinking about what is the hegemony of the human eye, and why are we showing everything from this point of view , and who is the cameraman to tell the rest of the world what they can see, wasn’t it just out of the view of the camera that all of the action was? All the things that I had never thought about before because I was a musician. This whole idea of the tools as hardware, and then the tools as the signal and signal processing was very important, and there was the dialogue in between. In the middle of this we come into the computers. We came into them very early; we bought our first computer in 1976.
W.V: Yes, we built this first complicated machine in the 70’s.
S.V: That was the thing. We first bought it because we could never control anything, if you tried next day to repeat what you had done the day before it was impossible, so we thought we would get a computer. In that sense the computer was completely boring because it did exactly what you wanted.
W.V: Fortunately again our systems were always open systems, they were not really ‘black box’. So we could actually take a whole ‘bus’ such as an addressing bus and take it away from the pins and put it elsewhere. So you could start really screwing around with the machine. We could even do some feedback, because we had a machine that was ‘real time’ at not too many points in the image but when the top was shown, the bottom was being prepared in the buffer, we could achieve a feedback and we plugged it all back and we could see how the machine resonated inside. All the bits we could hear, you could wander around and pin yourself into various portions of the machine. So if we had built a black box we would never have known what was inside. So we had our strategies and we understood what we wanted to explore. Some of the things came totally by surprise, some we could predict. So we made it as an adventure.
C.M-A: Where does the notion of ‘art’ come into this. There seems to be an assumption that it was art, where does that come from-does it come from the culture?
W.V: Yes, it is a societal overlay. It is not you who decides where it belongs, because in fact, this has always been problematic. The whole area in fact. When you look at Malcom (Le Grice); I read what he said. He only knows about Nam June Paik. He always puts him as the reference. He forgets about the huge society of Americans smoking pot, thinking daily about how to make these images. How to communicate without wires and be totally utopian in political and other senses. And then Malcom tells us that in fact Europeans were much more systematic, and he gives me these three names I have never heard. And so I am very entertained. I can use it to start a little discussion in my own mind and see if there is any need to write about it. This idea of defining this as an art form came from the sixties in which ‘experimental art’ as a funding code was coined. It also appeared via England as well. (“Cybernetic Serendipity”) Also in the mid-west in the small universities. Video was at first closed-circuit remember. Each university got a camera and maybe a recorder.
(Tape ran out and turned over, bits missing here…)
W.V: That was the ‘invisible majority’, and we were only vaguely informed about it. Only nine or ten years ago finally this generation came out. This is very new to us also. In some strange way video was just an aberration on these two coasts. (East & West) and Chicago maybe and something in Dallas. But the whole practice of this as art or as electronically assisted music, dance and drama has been more or less established. Then of course the funding came- the Rockerfeller funding, State Council for the Arts- they came for the purpose of social change. There was an agenda that could maybe be changed by video. They put a lot of money into this, believing in the potential for a decentralised television. The idea that they may arrive with a solution to the social injustice- the riots, the war in Viet Nam. This was a very interesting time.
S.V: But there was a discussion- a “but Is this art?” kind of argument, but we were never interested, because if it wasn’t art- then it wasn’t art , and so what?
W.V: Then what was it? It was up to you to say. There was actually no discussion about if it was art or not- it was proclamation. The society decided that this was an art form and it appeared immediately in the gallery because there was nothing else at that time that was interesting. Film was at its peak, but it died rapidly. In the mid-eighties it was actually extinct. It was very tragic.
S.V: But while film was stronger than video, I remember another Jonas Mekas complaint. He said: “Why are video makers called video makers, and video artists called video artists?” He just couldn’t understand why we had become ‘video artists’.
W.V: obviously film didn’t find its niche in the gallery. Showing film in a gallery is still such an oddity. Video somehow fit there so well because it’s a sofa sized….
S.V: Well it didn’t in the beginning. Bruce Nauman couldn’t show his tapes in the gallery because people didn’t know how to rewind the tapes.
But you see film was at its peak in that Montreal thing (Expo ’67) where film went out of the boundaries of the frame, and being this thing in an auditorium for the audience, and became all these other things- it happened in this Montreal environment.
W.V: Yeah, in the steam and the glass….
S.V: Little did we know that was the peak. It looked like it would be the beginning.
C.M-A: Keeping connected to video. There’s something about the technology. By that I’m referring to the fact that its on a small screen, (leaving projection out for a minute) and most people, though they’ve often never seen video art, are still bringing to bear on their viewing the fact that it is on a television set, and they have a social relation to the set. So video’s technological restrictions- the business with the frame, the low resolution of the image, the fact that its on a screen which is socially acceptable, those were its strengths.
W.V: Not always, but look at it this way. There was a whole different camp in video. What Shirley Clarke did at the Chelsea Hotel, on the roof. She had a group, they just kind of strung around these wires and the created these social environments in which the community shared events which they recorded.
S.V: Unfortunately they kept recycling the tapes!
W.V: These video freaks were living together in this little community and struggling daily with the rednecks that saw them as an alien force. But the variety of video produced at that time exceeded any other idea or genre or style or medium. Film was a close community- there were documentarians, and the independent film-makers, but they had nothing much in common. Video was far beyond control, far beyond definition. Some of them completely rejected the galleries. In early “Radical Software” we (W&S) were kind of joked about a little. They used to say “They will make you hand-made colour-on each of the special tapes” – kind of little snotty remarks.
S.V: That’s because it was the only method we had to colourise- because we didn’t want to go one more generation. We did ‘live’ colourising, so no copy would be the same. It was just for us an obvious technical thing. They saw it as something we were doing to identify ourselves as artists.
W.V: You are right, we were never truly accepted in a way- we are not defined. People refer to us gladly because they need the niche of the “pioneers”. Once it comes to the end of the Mid- eighties, then there’s a silence. As I say, Steina produces many installations a year, but they’re never mentioned except the one because that’s the one that goes around. That doesn’t impair us from doing things.
S.V: No thats fine I show them. I get to show them in Czechoslovakia, or in Iceland…there’s no complaint, but…
W.V: Its just like that, you know. You’ll probably have the same in your own life. You fill in a certain vacuum, or moment, what I call a ‘window of opportunity’. You play a significant role for a few years, and if the critic has a name for it, you live in that period. You could be good or bad, it doesn’t make much difference, as long as its useful.
So eventually it was not the quality of the judgement, it was simply functional, and Americans are very practical about it, so they kind of maintain us- and there’s a few of us in the same undefined genre- they don’t even ask what it is, because somehow it fits into the idea that it should exist, and should fulfil that role. So we are at the mercy of something that we don’t have any control over. We have a market.
C.M-A: Did that ever influence the kind of work you made? There was a critical environment- people were writing about this work- relating it to other work you either knew about or discovered through the writing. Did it ever cause you to channel your creative ideas in a particular direction?
W.V: No. We were somehow always ahead of it. When they were criticising something. Steina collected every scrap of writing. I’m very picky about how people grappled with the problem even describing what we had been doing. There was this famous article called ‘Video Aggressive’. There was a certain amount of impact or perceptual impact which was the first frontier. People catch that. There was a relentless, very imposing amount of light, time, flicker, or whatever, very disturbing. But before they can organise themselves to write something about it, it has already gone. Its another period. So we have never been put into a specific position of defending ourselves. There’s one wonderful comment which was made by a critic of our very important show in San Francisco which said: “Two avant-garde artists stuck in Rewind”. We found it very charming, except that the rest of the article was completely uninformed. He just had a good line.
On the other hand we have never been truly analysed, except by the French, like Bellour. There were a couple of scuffles. Its what you’re describing in a way. Its that location in time, and a way of thinking that we’ve been kind of significant. Not by the work -people that like our work have never seen it.
S.V: What do you mean?
W.V: There are a lot of people who only like us because of what they think we are. There is some kind of a notion we fulfil just by being. Its a nice sort of transcendental position…
C.M-A: But you were able to create your own context. There was a small group of people who were interested in the medium for a number of different reasons, and you all had your own particular approaches- but you were in control of it. You didn’t wait for a critic to define the genre for you.
S.V: We were even in control of the exhibition because we made our own exhibition space. Actually we did sort of knock on everybody’s door and said: “Hey, we have some videos- do you want to see them?” in the “Radical Software” days, but they all said “No” because our stuff wasn’t related to what they were interested in. So we just did our own.
W.V: Its kind of almost incredible actually; we don’t have a gallery. We have some distributors but they are so lame that I wouldn’t mention them. We never call a curator anywhere to have a show- we just don’t do it systematically. On the other hand we have always created places such as this (“Art and Science Laboratory”) that we can be in control of. We don’t wait for industry to give us tools because we always build them. We don’t ask anybody to put our work on the internet for us, just have to create a web site, with our own server in the corner. That was always a strategy that worked for us. I don’t know why, because we have spent an enormous amount of money throughout our lives, but we have also got money that comes, in a cheque- you don’t know from where- grants and all these things. So we could always do it. We have never been stopped. There have always been things like the show in Linz. (“Pioneers of Electronic Art”, 1994.) Of course we plunged ourselves into three years of total poverty- but we extended ourselves because we wanted to do it.
S.V: Then we’ve done all sorts of tricks. For example, if you look at “Art of Memory” you would say that there was high production values, but its all done ‘at home’.
W.V: I even built a synchroniser for the three machine. I had to run A, B, C all the time. Sometimes I had to run 6 channels- for that I had to go to a local studio for the final mix. All the A,B,C I did at home. She couldn’t even sleep because I did it next door. I built little boxes to convert a 3 channel audio synchroniser into a video synchroniser. Time-frame conscious points. The whole thing is done to an exact frame.
S.V: We got some money to do that, so we bought our house with the money because everything was done. So we were lucky in that sense.
W.V: We always apply for work that is already done. You can not commit yourself into the future because then you are in trouble because then you have a deadline and then its like a commission. We don’t accept commissions because they are so threatening to your life.
S.V: Well, you accepted a big one from Japan.
W.V: Well it cost me. I wanted to do it, but it cost me almost my artistic life. I will never go back again and do such a thing.
C.M-A: We have this medium which is ephemeral. You spoke at the beginning of the interview about the fact that it passes down a wire, and that’s what you love about it. It a pure signal, and its everywhere right now in this room. and yet, to engage with it you have to assemble all of this equipment, all of this technology. Its expensive, its clumsy, it takes up a lot of space. Its obsolete before you get it out of the box. That’s the paradox of the medium. But you are always one step ahead. You are constantly abandoning one bit of technology to take on the next.
W.V: Look at it this way. In order to reactivate my old concepts- lets say I would decide to make interactive pieces- I would have to completely re-invent every component of it; the software, the machines. So it would not be practicable. As artists, all our colleagues are very prolific when they repeat their work. In the style that we live and work there is no way that you could go and re-create the work- it would just be commissions. We would have to be paid, and we would have to accept what is called ‘salaries’. I live a utopian life. I don’t feel that I have ever been given a salary in my life. Yet this organisation now forces me to think that way. It is an organisation that we have created, but its turning into an external monster, which will eventually force you to work for it. So I am trying to stay actually outside of it. I don’t want to be salaried, because I find its the lowest way of living. But this forces you into unknown directions- to work at something that you cannot have a salary. You put every minute of your life into it so nobody can accuse you, and you don’t feel guilty, and you create your utopian set up. I feel I have been very successful, but it may not all be true, because I must have done something to get paid- she couldn’t afford me really.
S.V: I afford him- that’s right.
W.V: There is a way that one can arrange ones life like a theatre almost, in which you don’t have to know all the components, like where the money comes from. In television they always tell you- “first think about the money”-Social security; Your children; Then you die. But you don’t have to do it this way; you can deny all of that.
S.V: I didn’t know you were a preacher!
W.V: This what I’m trying to explain- that I don’t understand really, fully, the mechanism of this way of living- since you ask.
C.M-A: I was thinking of the archive too. Clearly there’s a lot of material- I know not all of it is directly connected to your own work, but a big chunk of it is, and thats important. You are having to create another whole body of work which is all the material which documents the process you’ve been talking about- this making of ephemeral work that goes out into the atmosphere. All of this documentation is the bi-product, but its crucial to an understanding of the work- this is how it will live, what many people will come to first.
W.V: Yes, its kind of devious. Its a strategy because I had the momentum. It was not my personal momentum. In this labour world I have to use a sort of semi-collective. In this case it was one person from British Columbia who was not really allowed to work too much. She wanted to. Its the status of an emigrant probably. With the momentum she had for six months she actually arrived with the volume.
Now, I understood from the beginning that this would be flawed because, as everybody advises, you have to sit down and design things in order to succeed. I knew this was impossible because you cannot design momentum. I had this collective and David (Dunn) was editing everything. I paid them from family money because we got the grant, and everything was rolling, so I couldn’t interfere, I couldn’t say “wait a minute” lets do this systematically. But I had to inject at a certain point, certain parameters into the process. I knew there would be catastrophic gaps, which now fascinates me, because now I am going to try to salvage an operation which I knew was flawed. The process is to try to contain victory and defeat at the same time. That kind of keeps me going, otherwise I couldn’t really work on something that is designed. It would probably not be interesting. So these autonomous actions that exist in time and space are those that I’m interested in. I have been lucky- we have all been lucky, that they have always landed in a more or less a historical context. It is sort of a strange way of looking at it but it works. Of course you have to limit your life- you cannot have children, dogs, no carpets- it just doesn’t work that way. Maybe some other more genius-like person could do it. None of us wanted to get involved with real life.
S.V: We haven’t had health insurance for twenty years. We always say: “Wow! All that money we’ve saved.”
C.M-A: Which works would you say are the most important- most significant- the ones that you’d stand by?
W.V: If you are asking me which are the most interesting, that I would want to revisit, it would be the early works. Works that we by-passed very early because the technology changed so rapidly. Not that we could repeat them, but to see if they actually mean something.
W.V: When we worked with codes, we prepared these tables. (“Time/Energy Structure of the Electronic Image”: 1974-75) These kind of scholastic tables. They are all part of the heart of the computer. These binary tables, but they never visibly appear as artefacts outside the computer ever- they are all contained inside. I just wonder what is the power of such a code. We know that by building on a code, larger codes and them combining them with a strategy, the power of that kind of simple primitive code grows logarithmically. I still question whether this mystery which I have encountered has an aesthetic meaning, or is it purely the variation of a system.
C.M-A: Thats the power of this really. You can’t classify these can you? When I saw these reproduced, I asked myself what is this I am looking at ? I think that is its strength, that it is somehow unclassifiable.
W.V: Yes. They are actually primitive. Waveform primitives, and Boolean primitives. Yet they are the building blocks of whatever there is – a composition eventually, but it is not on this level. You have to organise. You have to start it from a process of organisation, like from tones. I never really explored the whole process, but its done anyway. Its done by ‘Black Boxing’ it and naming it, so that the whole nomenclature now comes with the tool. Its organised software and so-forth.
C.M-A: Is the work on tape, or is it still images?
W.V: Still images.
S.V: The tape “The Matter” is the closest to this. These panels stand six feet tall, and when I show “Machine Vision” I take them with me and I put them on the wall, so the machines can look at something. At lot of people look at the machines, but there is always this odd person who doesn’t even notice my machines, but goes right over to these tables and gets totally involved in the sine wave and the triangular wave and the square wave. Its like a hidden message to special people.
W.V: Actually I wasn’t originally interested in images. I come from the writers. I just landed there by co-incidence. What I always struggled was to have something which is called practical philosophy- something that I could understand the world through, and these were the things that gave me that knowledge. I wasn’t able to get it through narrative works you see, because they were all illusionist works of psychological interest you know, coming from a Sigmund Freud environment. When I was born it was all “old hat” to us all. I just despised this psycho-pathology. But this was a new purist idea. An idea that was not contaminated by human ideas and ideologies and psychology. The machine just came up with electronic systems; so innocent, so clear and clean. They carried no bias. So I think it was the problem of all my generation. We believed in purification through worshipping that God, that purity or nothingness. It was the only thing that said that there was no purpose unless you put it in. Yet it had the structure, the architecture, it had the systemic consciousness.
C.M-A: That’s why you work with the building blocks of the medium- because you’re going back to that purity. But its not dehumanised though, is it? If you take Malcom’s point that all technology has embodied into it the intention of the designer- the culture that the machinery comes out of is built into the technology. Thats the mystery of this, and it comes in that last panel with the hand. There is a way of symbolising the fact that beneath the technology, no matter how far into the wires and components you go, that hand is implied.
W.V: It purifies it to a very minimal amount. Its just a model of it. Its just the most pure product of the hand. Its just the surface.
Later, I have a whole computer past which I’ve never shown, but there is a number of works in which I always built spaces of infinitely thin elements, like there’s no wall, there’s none of that-its all like, force. I tried very hard to imprint energy on them. Making images, analysing the content- contrast, brightness, modelling with this force- nothing. This type of work I like the most, of course, I have no idea of why I get involved with this zoo of the instruments. The tape. I had to do it, but it was just probably the idea of the network which I couldn’t otherwise use and understand, so I had to go through this, but I still haven’t understood what actually happened and how and why.
S.V: In the end Woody introduces the camera obscura principle. The early images in the series are pure, strictly ‘A’ and ‘B’. It shows the arithmetically logical chip of the computer. In the later images, he introduces the camera obscura, and he shows how they mix together. This is where video was different from audio, because audio could stay absolutely pure.
C.M-A: Because it doesn’t end up having to use the lens. Its not the camera that’s the issue here, its the lens.
W.V: It’s the pinhole- the pinhole is the archetype of the lens. You don’t need the lens. Again, the pinhole is a purely metaphysical construct. You cant really explain why the pinhole can organise the image the way we can understand it. If you take a plane across the universe and make a pinhole, one side will be reflecting half of the universe, the other side the second half, through that goddamn little pin hole. Thats why a lot of people in the sixties went back to the pin hole, because its just a hole in a piece of paper, or whatever. Of course our eye is also a pin hole, but why would that be the affinity, why would the instrument pause on the eye, how does our consciousness accept it, deconstruct it, analyse it, or interpret it as an image. Its the kind of mysterious thing that we discussed in the sixties.
S.V: I wish everybody would use the word ‘pin hole’, because if you start talking about lenses, or eyeballs, you are already abstracting. Its as simple as taking any sheet of paper and poking a hole in it, and if you have enough light…
W.V: How is it possible that from this redundant pattern with no known organisation, once it passes through the hole becomes highly organised? What’s the power of that edge of that hole? Why is this event happening?
S.V: Its kind of the biggest miracle of them all.
C.M-A: What it does do, presumably, is to impose something onto vision, or at least onto the presentation of the visual world, that you’ve both been interesting in exploring and usurping, in some way, wouldn’t you say?
W.V: No, no, I’ve been using the pinhole as a critique. You can only look at the older medium from the newer medium- you cannot look at the new medium from the old perspectives, it doesn’t work. We were always hoping that we would have a system that was more than 25 frames per second. Video was too slow for our thinking at the time, we were hoping for a very high rate scanning system and we were talking about when you move an edge, a blade over the frame, the field, what was the interaction between the apparatus that scanned and the edge which has to follow by each time that it interprets the scan and the line. These were the micro-aesthetics, and many people devoted their lives to it, discussing how many frames are cognitive. Was it one as Nekers would say, or if it was two as Kubelka would say, or if it was three like Sharits would say. Sharits was the romantic, so we said, OK three- you probably receive a narrative impulse of sentimental power. These were the discussions that were seriously contemplated. That’s when Gidal and Malcom were here in America, travelling all over the place talking about such a strategy of the image. That was the same time, but that time has disappeared. There were these exciting possibilities, that were very close to metaphysical possibilities.
W.V: We’ve made ourselves completely physical- this world of camera and image- especially when we build instruments. You know, how time propagates, how sluggishly it goes through components, how it degrades the integrity of the leading edge. It becomes unusable for the technological representation of time. So you can learn all the deficiency- again its the deficiency of the system that tells you something.
Again, it gives you some kind of an idea when Paik (we were actually kind of friendly, respectful of each other) but once when he visited us in Buffalo, he noticed we had a ‘scope- a waveform monitor, and he became very agitated, he said: “This isn’t an instrument for an artist- you cannot have this!”
S.V: “….This is for broadcast engineers!”
W.V: He drove himself into this paradigm from which he couldn’t escape. That he did not want to escape from. He was intelligent enough to understand; but it was just how the oscilloscope folds the image. Thats why again I would say he contained his knowledge and interest in certain paradigms, and time.
And then there were these young Americans who invented what did in fact decode, deconstruct the signal, in order to understand where each point lives and exists. This was for me the only difference. It wasn’t the artistic merit on either side, it was the dilemma, or the interest, the curiosity, or the necessity to take this knowledge from one place and bring it to another place.
C.M-A: So its using the machines to understand something thats beyond the machines, and understanding that limitation as something which can be used to help you to see it.
W.V: This is what we had in house all the time, it was the signal. We looked at the signal , we understood that there was an event that was completely dynamic, and yet was completely static. In a signal like a bar generator, there was no change, but we know there was an unbelievable amount of activity…
S.V: That pushed through every second.
W.V: The burst of 4.5 megahertz all the time, ringing, as a clock. So this was the allegory. What was the knowledge that was brought from that- from the discipline, from the acoustic world of Paik’s experiments in Germany to here. How it actually got translated literally. How it actually influenced this generation.
C.M-A: Has it been lost?
W.V: I think that interest and knowledge has been completely lost.
C.M-A: It seems to me that there were very valuable things done. Do they need to be relearned?
W.V: Its is impossible- there is no ‘scope any more. They can’t see the signal- they can only see the result- the image. The way it is packaged digitally now escapes any rationale that you can think about. Its now packaged in eight segments, I guess, on the small format, there are like hundreds….
S.V: You can’t influence it.
W.V: You can not enter that world. There are some devices that act like processing amplifiers, but they are not available at the lower end. The whole thing has become, on purpose, the industry is interested in eliminating the human individual.
C.M-A: They want consumers, not practitioners.
W.V: Thats right. Even if they are ‘high end’ consumers, they don’t want to bother them, because they couldn’t think about fixing it. Once its constructed, its launched like a ship and it goes onto the ocean and if it strikes an iceberg it just sinks, and they are not worried because they are going to sell another one and they are never going to see it again.
S.V: Well I’m delighted, I have this little camera. I never put it on manual, I would be crazy. Because you just cannot. The human mind and brains not fast enough for those computers who measure this light here and decides what is white and makes it white.
And everything- the focus, you know its so fast. If you put it on manual focus you are lost. The only time you use manual for anything is when you want something very specific.
C.M-A: But your work has come through that. You have all that experience at your finger tips. Its like picking up your violin, you don’t have to do your scales any more. that knowledge is behind the work, and it can be read and felt in the work I think.
W.V: On the other hand, its freedom to reject this. I have read this fabulous article by an Englishman- I forget the name, who says don’t pay attention to the past. It will just bog you down, and you will never be able to live a creative life. It will consume your life completely.
S.V: Then I must say as Alfous Schilling: “Some of my best friends have been dead for hundreds of years!”
W.V: I don’t know…We have to admit that each period has its own vehicle to deliver itself, and this is for us, probably for the new generation, as fascinating as for any other. They’ve got more of that mystery than I was looking into. Now its global, and from many places – from satellites, to these positional systems to engines in cars. Of course, the movies always say “Just live through it, don’t even think about it!” Don’t open these boxes. These are trivial organisms. This transition is also very exciting, and if you negate that world and create your own like I was hoping I could live my life in this utopian disengagement, but then of course disease may come and it will be shattered. It doesn’t matter. I think now we all have to craft our own life like the food, or whatever we consume has to be specialised and be a slice of that. Maybe some people can live it more full- you, but maybe not necessary.
S.V: Talking about food….
C.M-A: Steina, you didn’t tell me about which pieces you would consider to be your most important. (then I’ll stop this)
S.V: I went through it in my mind while he was talking and I didn’t come up with any.
S.V: They are all important to me. I don’t really discriminate. It goes like this: Once I look at a piece, I cringe and I say how the hell could I..” Then I look at it maybe just a month later and I say “damn good piece- its just OK!” and you know, you just swing up and down.
C.M-A: When you let go of it?
S.V: Even when you let go of it you can still say its a stupid piece, and other times think its good. You go through all of these feelings. First feeling embarrassed, and then accepting it, and then letting go of it and then saying : “Its mine!” So if I told you something today it would be a lie tomorrow.