The Emergence of Video Processing Tools, Vols.1 and 2
by Kathy High, Sherry Miller Hocking and Mona Jimenez, Editors
Intellect, Bristol, UK, 2014
736 pp., illus., 44 col, 170 b/w. Paper, £60,
Reviewed by Ellen Pearlman
School of Creative Media
Hong Kong City University
Parsons/New School University, New York
The Emergence of Video Processing Tools is an exhaustive, thorough, encyclopedic, Rashomon-like survey of the moment of inception of video processing tools. The two-volume set weighs in at a whopping 736 pages, including index and additional color pages, as well as lists of lists, and enormous amounts of reproductions of original documents originally typed on carbon paper. It is a heroic undertaking, and the copy editing alone must have taken up to a year to complete. Is it the Encyclopedia Britannica of video art's origins, or a book of critical analysis of its methods and processes? The answer is both, as its view shifts between artistic and critical thinking about technology and process to personal interviews establishing a timeline, as well as a published repository of historical documents.
Unfortunately for those who want to forge ahead thorough both volumes the content, meant to be inclusive, can become repetitive, recounted from so many diverse sources. The husband and wife team of Woody and Steina Vasulka, pioneers who also founded The Kitchen performance space in New York City, are mentioned repeatedly throughout all two volumes, an understandable, but tedious read. I suspect very few people will wade through both volumes cover to cover, and instead will pick and choose their topics according to either the authors or the areas of interest, as a good amount of artists' statements and essays are included.
Pinning down the moment of inception of 'image processing' is critical. Video technology was first imported from Japan to the United States with Sony's 1965 release of the first model CV-2000 video decks. Video art was born in the midst of cultural conflicts of the 1970s, and the search for a utopian existence outside staid organizational structures. It did not belong to more traditional mediums like television, film, radio or photography. The book focuses mainly on New York at ETC (Experimental Television Center) in Owego, partially funded by the New York State Legislature through a NYSCA (New York State Council on the Arts) grant, the Media/Study program in Buffalo, TV labs at public television stations around the US that were partially funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, and university programs like Circle Campus in Chicago, as well as individual artists. The idea was to put video tools into the hands of actual artists to see what types of transgressions they could come up with, to take it out of the realm of abstract modernism thus forming the beginnings of a DIY (Do It Yourself) culture. Many questions are raised in the book - why did artists made certain tools, how were they used, and were there sociopolitical and technical particulars that enhanced their development? Could such a time be repeated, or was a once in a generation event - questions relevant in today's media saturated startup environment.
The narrative dovetails into describing the seminal October 1966 evenings of E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology) in the Armory in Manhattan, where John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Billy Kluver and Yvonne Rainer made '9 Evenings: Theater and Engineering' in collaboration with engineers from Bell Labs. They used closed circuit TV, fiber optics cameras, infrared TV, wireless FM transmitters and amplifiers and Doppler sonar devices to take movement and speech turning it into amplified sounds and controllers for light and video. Howard Weinberg points out with his essay that the first video art exhibition was mounted in May 1969, titled "TV as a Creative Medium" at the Howard Wise Gallery in New York. It showed Nam June Paik's Participation TV, Paul Ryan's Everyman Mobius Strip, Thomas Tadlock's Archetron, Eric Siegel's Psychedelevision in Color, Charlotte Moorman's first performance of Paik's TV Bra For Living Sculpture, and others. By 1971 Howard Wise had shuttered his gallery and went on to founded the infamous EAI (Electronic Arts Intermix).
In 1972 ETC purchased the latest version of the Paik/Abe Video synthesizer, first developed in 1969 by electronics engineer Shuya Abe and video artist pioneer Nam June Paik through funding from a NYSCA grant. With that boost video processing or 'image processing' tools gained momentum launching new grammars, discourses, and modes of thought in video art using 1/2 inch and 3/4 inch tape, a technology so new it only allowed for one audio track. The Vasulka's and Hollis Frampton created a Digital Arts Lab working on the unrealized IMAGO computer animation software, and at SUNY Albany Joel Chadabe launched the Electronic Music Studio. All of these projects challenged the notion of broadcasts one-to-many hierarchy, and certainly presaged the use of Internet networks.
Christiane Paul and Jack Toolin take great pains in their essay to clearly define the transition from analogue to digital media art, new media art and more specifically tools, grouping them into categories of software and hardware for cinema, video, drawing, media production, music interfaces, web platforms and "tools for activism." This last category is striking as most advances in computer-based technologies have their roots in the military industrial complex, the antithesis of an activists' tool. They also discuss process-based interactive real-time participatory, generative modular and non-linear aspects, which gave way to today's installation, cinema and immersive virtual reality projects.
Sherry Miller Hocking defines video as an "art of space time" unlike film that is essentially photographed stills. Film is viewed through reflected light, but video requires gazing directly into the light source itself. Video art is encoded images of electrical point-to-point codecs of impulses that oscillate through time and voltage. The voltage control, so essential in defining video, originally derived from audio synthesis and electronic music. Technological innovation was able to move forward by using a combination of controlled waveform signals of frequency, amplitude or phase.
Mona Jimenz's essay on public sector funding shows that the importance regional support played in the development of the video scene in the West coast San Francisco Bay area, the Midwest in Chicago, and the East coast both New York State and Boston. In Boston WGBH public television fostered Peter Campus, William Wegman and Ross Barron. It also hosted Nam June Paik as the first Rockefeller Foundation artist-in-residence, followed by others including Stan VanDerBeek. These stimulus funds further opened up entire new areas for arts and technology including cooperatives for video production, and alternative content for TV distribution. The story of the history of the seminal Paik/Abe Video Synthesizer and the Rutt/Etra Video synthesizer are preserved in meticulous detail, since use of the actual technology has now fallen by the wayside. Early experiments in motion capture occurred in 1977 at the Lab at WNET (PBS) New York with Tom DeWitt and Phil Edelstein where a dancer held a color tag and the camera followed nothing more complex than a chroma key signal.
Timothy Murray's essay on the de-commodification of artworks emphasizes a refreshing conceptual framework, starting with Yves Kline's 1959 lecture at the Sorbonne about "The Evolution of Art Towards the Immaterial," where Klein used forty minutes of electronic sound to prove his point about overcoming the limits of time. IRCAM in Paris developed a programming language for musicians, and eventually artists when French composer Phillppe Manoury collaborated with American programmer Miller Puckett to write a "proto language for controlling the 4X sound generator" that eventually became the open source programing language Pure Data. This era also led to the beginning of Open Source software as a media form, investigations of digital processes, the emergence of cyberfeminism, Steve Kurtz's arrest concerning bio art and politics, and Ricardo Dominguez's Electronic Disturbance Theater and Floodnet, as well as the technosexual exemplified by the recent transgendered virtual performances of Micha Cardenas.
John Minkowsky's essay focuses on the Buffalo Conference from March 10-13, 1977, funded by New York State Council on the Arts, The NEA and the Center for Media Study at SUNY (State University of New York) Buffalo, as well as the Media Study Center in Buffalo. It included three types of participants; conceptual designers and theorists of art, technology and system designer/builders, and artists and designers of images and sounds who made use of these tools. This conference took place a mere 10 years after the invention of the Sony video PortaPak, just as the very first home computer was being introduced for the general public. The keynote speeches called for large-scale restructuring of the mass communication system from a one-way central distribution to a two-way point-to-point user controlled system. A second keynote discussed the problems of technological art, and wondered just how far an uncomprehending public could be pushed in understanding the use of tools they themselves had very little knowledge about.
Eventually there is a drift away from the east coast to examine the Chicago Group, consisting of Dan Sandin, Tom DeFanti and Phil Morton, who made the analog image processor and the 'Pantomation' a type of early motion capture or notational device. The compendium concludes with an essay by Mona Jimenez examining the irreplaceable part of any historical process - the archiving of fragile technologies, and its difficulties and timely necessities.