Frameless Continuum: Image Processing in Early American Video Art

April 30, 2015
Pacific Northwest College of Art, Mediatheque
Portland, Oregon

For Cinema Project in collaboration with the PNCA Video & Sound Department

“There is a certain behavior of the electronic image that is unique… It’s liquid, it’s shapeable, it’s clay, it’s an art material, it exists independently.” — Woody Vasulka, 1973

In the late 1960s, analog video technology was blossoming into a viable moving-image format as the portable consumer-grade Sony Portapak hit the markets. The initially murky black-and-white imagery was seen as aesthetically inferior to television and celluloid film, but its relative affordability and accessibility made it attractive to a number of artists “who were looking for a new means of expression to transgress the vocabularies and territories of established institutions” (Spielman). What emerged was a handful of inspired applications, from community media (in the form of video collectives like Videofreex and TVTV) to video art installation (Nam June Paik) or performance documentation (Vito Acconci or Bruce Nauman).

Frameless Continuum focuses on image-processing in video art of the 1970s and 80s in which video signals are altered through a variety of processes such as colorizing, keying, switching, and fading (now mimicked and automated in today’s digital apps). In order to realize these experimental techniques, artists entered the scientific research environment, working alongside scientists, engineers, and equipment designers to build the tools that would build and manipulate the video image. This was also an environment of rebellion against the television industry in addition to one of experimentation and tinkering. As curator Robert Pincus-Witten wrote in 1974, “[t]he important work, then, of the first generation was the very creation of the tool, the video synthesizer.” Artists and scientists sought to distill the video image to its essential element: the signal, the “temporal event” (Furlong) of voltage and frequencies, understood through interaction with and performance of the tool. “The video image is a physical phenomenon. It is in its form structural and architectural. The image in its simplest form is voltage and frequency” (Bode).

Included in this overview of early video art, distributed through Chicago’s Video Data Bank, is but a sampling of a vast number of videos (both analog and early digital) that deliberately demonstrate how these tools work, like the short tutorial from Dan Sandin in Five-Minute Romp through the IP (1973) and Woody and Steina Vasulka’s Cantaloup (1981) which follows their effort to build their own computer imager.

“Because timing pulses control the stability of the video raster to create the ‘normal’ image we are accustomed to seeing, viewers rarely realize—unless the TV set breaks—that the video image is actually a frameless continuum.” — Lucinda Furlong, “Tracking Video Art: ‘Image Processing’ as a Genre,” Art Journal, Vol. 45, No. 3 (1985).


The screening was followed by an open discussion lead by Kris Cohen (Assistant Professor of Art and Humanities at Reed College), Carl Diehl (Assistant Professor in Liberal Arts, Video and Sound at PNCA), Sue Slagle (independent artist in video, new media, and electronic music), and Stephen Slappe (Associate Professor in Video and Sound, Intermedia, MFA Visual Studies at PNCA).

Works Cited: Yvonne Spielman, “Video: From Technology to Medium,” Art Journal, Vol. 65, No. 3 (2006).
Robert Pincus-Witten, “Panel Remarks,” in The New Television, ed. Douglas Davis and Allison Simmons, (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1977).
Lucinda Furlong, “Tracking Video Art: ‘Image Processing’ as a Genre,” Art Journal, Vol. 45, No. 3 (1985).
Peer Bode, “Representation and Abstraction in Video,” (paper presented at Perspectives on Television conference, Owego, New York, 1981).

— Mia Ferm

Five-Minute Romp through the IP by Dan Sandin (1973, video, b&w and color, sound, 6.5 min.)
Icron by Bob Snyder (1978, video, b&w and color, sound, 11 min.)
Vibratory Sweep by Peer Bode (1978, video, b& and color, sound, 3 min.)
Cantaloup by Vasulkas Inc (1981, video, color, sound, 24 min.)
Artifacts by Woody Vasulka (1980, video, color, sound, 23 min.)
Keying Distinctions by Peer Bode (1978, video, b&w and color, 3 min.)
Triangle in Front of Square in Front of Circle in Front of Triangle by Dan Sandin (1973, video, b&w, sound, 1.5 min.)

Inventor and practitioner of the Image Processor (IP), Dan Sandin is a seminal figure in the technological development of the video medium. In 1973 Sandin successfully designed and built the first Image Processor (IP) as a modular, patch programmable, analog computer optimized for the manipulation of gray level information of input video signals. The IP allows artists to freely play with the color and composition of a video image. Trained in nuclear physics, Sandin first became interested in video in 1967 while helping organize student demonstrations on the University of Illinois campus. He considers his career has having three main thrusts: “the design of electronic instruments for visual performance and personal growth; the development of educational facilities and programs related to the use of electronic screens (electronic visualization); and the production and exhibition of visual works for personal expressive reasons.”

Bob Snyder is a Chicago-based composer and video artist who has been experimenting with sound and video synthesis since the ’60s. As a musician, his interest has always been in the relationship between music and imagery. In Snyder’s work music is the central generative source of meaning, although he also considers the dialogue between nature and architecture.

Working in film until the early 1970s, Peer Bode was first exposed to electronics by his father Harold Bode, a developer of the first modular audio synthesizer. He worked as program coordinator for the Experimental Television Center in Owego, New York, collaborating with resident artist/engineers in constructing prototype imaging tools, thus continuing his commitment to “tool expansion” and “personal studio making.” Recognizing the limits imposed by designers of industrial and consumer technology, Bode sought to externalize the “hidden coding and control structures” of the video signal. His videotapes investigate the semiotics and phenomenology of the medium, specifically through the synthesis of audio and video signals.

Steina Vasulka was born in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1940. She studied violin and music theory, and in 1959 received a scholarship from the Czechoslovak Ministry of Culture to attend the State Music Conservatory in Prague. Woody and Steina married in Prague in 1964, and shortly thereafter she joined the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra. After moving to the United States in 1965 she worked in New York City as a freelance musician. She began working with video in 1969, and since then her various videos and installations have been exhibited in U.S., Europe and Asia. Although her main focus is creating videotapes and installations, Steina has recently become involved in interactive performance in public places, playing a digitally adapted violin to move video images displayed on large video projectors.

Born in Brno, Czechoslovakia in 1937, Woody Vasulka studied metal technology and hydraulic mechanics at the School of Engineering in Brno and filmmaking at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. In 1965, he emigrated to New York City with his wife, Steina. Working as a multi-screen film editor and designer, he began experimenting with electronic sound, stroboscopic light, and video. Moving to Buffalo, New York in 1974, he taught at the Center for Media Study at the State University, and continued his investigation of the machinery behind the electronic signal. After working with the Rutt/Etra Scan Processor, Vasulka collaborated with Don MacArthur and Jeffrey Schier in 1976 to build a computer controlled personal imaging facility called The Digital Image Articulator. Vasulka wrote articles about video’s particular electronic vocabulary that were published in Afterimage.

All biographical information from Video Data Bank.


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