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Woody and Steina Vasulka.
Woody and Steina Vasulka.

Woody Vasulka (1937–2019)

Woody Vasulka, the trailblazing artist, filmmaker, and educator who cofounded the experimental New York–based nonprofit the Kitchen with his partner, Steina Vasulka, in 1971, died on December 20. He was eighty-two years old. Over the course of his career, Vasulka embraced and advanced the emerging medium of video art, and through the opening of the Kitchen, he helped launch the careers of numerous artists, including Vito Acconci, Laurie Anderson, Robert Longo, and Kiki Smith.

“The esthetic possibilities inherent in video have hardly been thought about at all,” wrote artist Douglas Davis in the April 1972 issue of Artforum. He also claimed, however, that “three recent exhibitions in New York indicate the ways in which art is presently trying to deal with video.” One of the exhibitions—the “Videotape Show” (1971), curated by David Bienstock at the Whitney Museum of American Art—prominently featured works by the Vasulkas. (The Whitney did not begin incorporating video art into its biennial exhibition until 1975.)

Born Bohuslav Vašulka in Brno, Czechoslovakia, in 1937, Vasulka studied metallurgy and mechanics at the School of Industrial Engineering in Brno and film at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. He made several documentaries before moving with Steina, whom he married in 1964, to the United States. Together they worked to explore the nature of electronic image and sound, new technologies, and digital manipulation and tested new devices such as the Digital Image Articulator, which Woody invented with Jeffrey Schier in 1976. The machine was able to process digital imagery by converting it into a form of code.

Among the many notable pieces Vasulka produced are the Golden Voyage, 1973—inspired by the Belgian Surrealist René Magritte’s painting The Golden Legend, 1958—which shows loaves of bread moving across changing landscapes; The Commission, 1983, a narrative conveyed as an epic electronic opera; and Art of Memory, 1987, which premiered at Ars Electronica. Considered one of Vasulka’s most elaborate works, the piece weaves together Robert Oppenheimer’s expressions of remorse for his role in creating the first atomic bomb, scenes from war documentaries, and images of a winged figure against the backdrop of the American Southwest.

With the establishment of the Kitchen—originally dubbed the Electronic Kitchen after its first home, the disused kitchen of the Mercer Arts Center—the Vasulkas created a central meeting place for artists working in video art. In their manifesto for the alternative arts space, the couple wrote: “This place was selected by Media God to perform an experiment on you, to challenge your brain and its perception. We will present you sounds and images, which we call Electronic Image and Sound Compositions. They can resemble something you remember from dreams or pieces of organic nature, but they never were real objects. They have all been made artificially from various frequencies, from sounds, from inaudible pitches and their beats.”

In 1974, the Vasulkas moved to Buffalo to teach at the new Center for Media Studies at the State University of New York. Woody taught at the school until 1970. In 1979, Woody became a Guggenheim Fellow, and in 1980, he and Steina departed New York for Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he continued his theoretical research into what he described as “a new epistemological space.” The couple would later help initiate the city’s Art and Science Laboratory. In 1998, both Woody and Steina received the National Association of Media and Culture’s award honoring their exceptional contribution to the field of media arts.