PRINT March 2009


IN THE 1960S, Jonas Mekas wrote that video artists should make silent video, just as “serious” film should ideally be silent. But I thought this was strange, because video was not simply a little stepchild of film. It was an entirely different field, with divergent views of the relationship between sound and image: We might even treat the visuals as a byproduct of the audio, since we could process both components as electronic signals.

There has to be equity between the two elements of audio and video. This credo informed my earliest efforts in developing and adapting video-production tools—as when my husband, Woody Vasulka, and I first used the Putney sound synthesizer for electronic image and sound compositions in the late ’60s. However, we specifically did not want to throw arbitrary songs or classical music over videos. This was frequently done in Europe at the time; artists would make a video and just put some Beethoven with it. By contrast, we were strangely more aligned with what would become the MTV format—generating original tracks to go with original visuals.

I was a musician by training, and Woody came from the film world—he couldn’t stand the separation of audio and video, typified by Hollywood’s narrative illustration of images, where they gave you (and still do) mood music to sadden, to excite, and so on. Even before we were working with video, we were interested in the film-sound experiments of Oskar Fischinger and in instruments such as the light organ. We felt a great kinship with Nam June Paik’s early use of oscillators and mathematical patterns; in the early ’70s, we went to Bell Labs and met [computer-music pioneer] Max Mathews and [experimental psychologist] Béla Julesz. And abstract sound and light were literally in the air: At Max’s Kansas City restaurant in New York, there was a laser beam that the artist Forrest Myers projected from his studio on Fourth Avenue. It came through the window; hit a mirror affixed to a speaker, whose vibrations would make the laser bounce and tremble; and then redirected to the back room, where the famous customers (like Andy Warhol) would sit.

We began holding performances and events where we wanted to change conditions of perceiving. We played slowly paced tapes on multiple channels, in venues like Judson Church and the WBAI Free Music Store. The audience always enjoyed it; they would be sitting or lying on the floor. People had time. It was before this great rush came on.

When I started the Kitchen performance space with Andreas Mannik and Woody in 1971, we didn’t have any equipment, so people would have to drag in their own synthesizers to participate. But we could use the same tools for different purposes: We understood that audio synthesizers could also be used for video. There were three ways to do this: You could send the audio signal into video and permutate the video signal by the audio, or vice versa; you could send the video signal to an input on the synthesizer and have it interact with the audio; or you could use the synthesizer or any other sound source as a simultaneous generator of both video and audio.

In Violin Power, a project begun in 1970, I aimed to control images with an acoustic violin, translating my movement and the sound waves into a visual analogue; in the ’90s, the project changed significantly, upon the realization that you could directly control video signals with midi [musical instrument digital interface]. I used a laser disc and would find certain points at which to move back and forth or faster and slower. But as software capabilities caught up, we developed a system with electric violin and QuickTime movies. I am amazed that to this day, when I perform the piece, there are always people in the audience who are totally confused: They are hardwired to think that one cannot do that.

Steina is an artist based in Santa Fe, NM.