Steina Vasulka exhibition with videoworks from the NIMk-collection
Curated by Martijn van Boven (Sonic Acts) and Theus Zwakhals (NIMk)
Steina Vasulka is one of the most distinguished video artists working in the world today. Born in Iceland, she is a classically trained violinist who played with the Iceland National Orchestra. She relocated to New York in 1965 with her husband and collaborator, Woody Vasulka, where they founded celebrated artists’ venue The Kitchen and began producing innovative video works. Combining a uniquely musical visual approach with complex experimentation in electronic imaging, Steina’s works have been celebrated worldwide.
We honor the groundbreaking work of Steina Vasulka through a public interview session by Arie Altena and Lucas van der Velden on the first day of the festival. You can see the following videoworks at the festival location of Patterns + Pleasure.
In ‘Bad’, Steina rhythmically weaves sound and image to examine the up/down, right/left movement, and squeezing/stretching of a digital image, using her own face as visual material. Steina explained in this context: ‘The work is a play on a computer performance. By a simple command: “add one”, the machine scrambles for its pictorial and tonal expressions, succeeding at random.’ This highly complex image calculation provides an interesting example from the early works of the Vasulkas showing how they creatively forced the medium and attempted to exceed the limitations of the machine.
‘Violin Power’ is an ongoing work, with experiments dating back to 1970. It is a study of the relationship between music and electronic image, in which Steina’s violin becomes an image generating tool. The sounds, movements and vibrations of the violin affect the sculptural patterns and images that we see in live performances, and video documentations. Originally interfacing the sounds of her acoustic violin with a microphone, the classically trained Steina performed for a camera on the violin which was connected to multiple image-processing devices. Since 1992 these acoustic demonstrations have been replaced by performance using a 5-string Zeta Violin with MIDI output, allowing for a much wider variety of control. Since the late nineties Steina has used a PowerBook and the software program Image/ine, which she developed at STEIM in consultation with Tom Demayer.
‘Machine Vision’ is a series of installations created by Steina Vasulka that signify the awareness of an intelligent, yet non-human vision. Where ordinarily the viewpoint of the camera is associated with recreating human perspective, Steina’s vision machines use rotating platforms, mirrors, prisms and cameras to redefine ideas of space while transcending restrictions of human vision. The works do not require the use of video tape, but rather use real-time space surveillance and can be performed in a studio, outdoors or in the context of an exhibition. In ‘Urban Epispodes’, Steina set up a Machine Vision device outdoors in a public plaza in downtown Mineappolis. With a rotating camera that could ‘see’ using mirrors and prisms and an exaggerated fish eye lens, this device was pre-programmed to scan the city plaza with pan, zoom, tilt and rotation movements. The effect is an abstract interpretation of a familiar urban landscape, free from restraints of gravity and human perception. Steina’s intention was to generate images rigorously specific to video, that could not be produced without the machine and therefore understood as being representative of a vision proper to the medium. She explains: “The act of seeing, the image source and the kinetic resources come from the installation itself, choreographed and programmed by the cyclical nature of its mechanized performance.”
Somersault (part of Summer Salt)
Steina’s works from the late 1970s and early 1980s are exercises in the phenomenology of vision and the redefinition of space and landscape. The artificial vision she generates allows the viewer altered perceptions and spatial perspectives created with mechanized devices. Steina’s ‘Somersault’ is an extension of her ‘Machine Vision’ tapes, a series which began in 1975 while she was living in Buffalo, N.Y. The work, however, is unique in this series as it concentrated on herself instead of a public sphere, which is central to the other works. Consequently, it also differs from the ‘Machine Vision’ tapes in the way the image is generated, as she is controlling the movements of the camera with her own body instead of with a mechanical device. In this playful video, Steina uses a camera with a mirrored lens. The effect is a body that looks wrapped around the camera itself. In a merging of artist and machine, each spin and ‘somersault’ of the camera produces a dizzying mutation of the panoramic image.
The West (single-channel version)
Using long pans to trace the contours of the landscape, Steina’s camera work pays tribute to the grandeur of nature in the beautiful American Southwest around her adopted home of Santa Fe. Accompanied by Woody Vasulka’s eerie electronic soundtrack, the imagery takes the viewer on a journey through a vast, arid environment devoid of people but haunted by their past presence.Within in a darkened room, the piece is presented on semi-circle of monitors suspended at eye level from the ceiling, while a four-corner speaker system delivers low frequency sound textures. This environment mitigates all aspects of the standard, carpeted museum but size and emptiness, as the work elegantly demonstrates the way in which imagery and sound, pared down to their barest possible elements, can constitute a complex mapping of space and time. In ‘The West’, Steina draws the image of an awe-inspiring nature, however acknowledging the limitations of the medium video as a representational tool. Steina said in this context: ‘There is no way that you could take this overwhelming beauty and (put) it into a little box successfully.’
(1975 – 1977, 29’03″)
Although The Vasulkas worked within the medium of television during their early experimental years, they rarely created, performed or composed their work specifically for television broadcast. ‘Our work has evolved through the channels of video, which has its own forms of presentation and exists in its own cultural environment.’ It was only after being approached by a local television station, with a a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and Corporation for Public Broadcast, that they eventually attempted to summarise their work in a broadcast format. Six half hours of material from 1969 and 1978 were edited together (‘Six Programmes for Television’), each centered around a single theme indicated by the title: ‘Matrix’ (1969-72), ‘Vocabulary’ (1973-74), ‘Transformations’ (1974-75), ‘Objects’ (1975-77), ‘Steina’ (1975-77), ‘Digital Images’ (1977-78). The character of the programs was informational as well as aesthetic.