The Vasulka’s anarchic playground

Still from Noisefields, courtesy of the artists and Vasulka Chamber, the National Gallery of Iceland



Steina and Woody Vasulka – Machine Vision at Raven Row Gallery until 5 June

Unlike most of the youthful video art fans/liggers at this exhibition opening  who were either new arrivals or merely a distant gleam in their parent’s eyes in the 1970s,  I found this a real nostalgia trip. In 1974 the Vasulkas were exploiting the early “portable” video cameras. I was in my gap year assisting a budding artist keen to make a documentary about my old school. We secured the loan of a Sony Portapak camera from a local teacher training college and as we played with it I had a glimmer of what I would later learn to label “technological fetishisation”. Those were innocent times. The artist thought we should interview the Headmaster dressed in clownsuits.   This element of safe anarchism was all that remained of the intense political  fervour of 1968. It was fun but not likely to change the world.

Steina Vusulka recalls how people detecting the pleasure she gained from her artistic creativity accused her  of “just playing” to which her amused response was to take it as a compliment. Hearing the Vasulkas talk about their pioneering days in the sixties conjours up visions of lunar explorers feeling their way into the darkness of a new medium. Exploration is a serious business but it also involves a childlike daring and curiosity. They were not absolutely sure what their computers and video cameras were doing to their inputs but they were excited by their outputs. As Steina puts it: artists must live on the fringe and not “kiss the ass” of the art establishment. Seen in this context even playful artistic anarchism is political.

The curator has usefully restricted the works in this exhibition to the 1970s,  the Stone Age of video art technology, which provides us with a case study of the emergence of a new art form. In any transition like this an experimental approach is unavoidable. Some of these works are like video sketchbooks where the struggle to mould the new technology to artistic ends is presented with post-modern transparency. In Orbital Obsessions (1975-77)  the couple are initially heard discussing the set up for the filming. Steina is seen heaving around a huge monitor to keep pace with a revolving camera that is recording it. The cumbersome equipment and the tangle of power cables add to the sense that knotty problems were being solved on the hoof. When a doorbell rings Steina walks out of the frame to answer it, playtime suspended temporarily.

The most exciting feature of their collaboration is Woody’s engineering expertise melding with the warmth of Steina’s musical sensibility creating some startling sound/image correspondences. In Violin Power (1978) computer manipulation converts the pitch of the note played on Steina’s violin into a visible oscillation of the bow. Noisefields (1974) has reached a certain iconic status with Youtube views exceeding 12,000. Its appeal derives from the frenetic and layered audio track which includes bleeps, squelches and squeaks of differing tempos in lock-step with the eye-popping but schematic video track. The circle in a square is constant but the colouration and flicker vary, leading to thoughts of the big bang, planets, suns,  global warming, black holes and our own extinction. Its relentless energy is not just a prescient metaphor for our current information overload but taps into the atavistic brain restlessness that is a cost of our human consciousness.

Steina’s Machine Vision (1978) is real crowd pleaser. It is a complex and  playful real time closed circuit installation with crazily rotating cameras and mirrors displaying the gallery visitors on multiples screens raising questions of voyeurism and exhibitionism. Peter Campus created several interactive video installations of this type  in the 1970s but their more formal simplicity had certain advantages.

Woody’s Reminiscence (1974) is the most moving of the video works (also  viewable at His footage of a visit to his rural childhood home in Moravia is processed so that the visual signals are degraded to a set of contour lines which we gradually learn to decode like a blind man suddenly having his sight restored. Skittering humps on the ground are farmyard animals. This misty experience so redolent of confused nostalgic visits ends in resolution with warm greetings from two recognisable human figures.

I left this exhibition reflecting on not just the value of play in the artistic process but on its necessity when new technologies present themselves. The challenge of the new technology also seemed to encourage artists to move away from the political activism of the sixties. The less threatening gently subversive approach in the seventies was very evident in the works on show here and in my  own experience of being asked to don a clown-suit to video my headteacher .


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