Yvonne Spielmann, Video and Computer
The Aesthetics of Steina and Woody Vasulka
"After we got the computer, the concerns became totally different. Before we could even perfect the control of analog tools, we plunged into digital ones where, in fact, everything is a product of control. It is in 'interactive real time’ that I feel video becomes a category apart from the others (film on one side and computer graphics on the other)." (Robert Haller, An Interview with Steina, 1980) (e)
Yvonne Spielmann © 2004 FDL
It is the aim of my article to situate video in technological, aesthetic, and media cultural perspectives and to underline that video is a medium of its own and not an intermedium that became obsolete with the advent of digital technologies. On the contrary, early examples by Steina and Woody Vasulka, Nam June Paik, Jud Yalkut, Stan Vanderbeek, and Ed Emshwiller demonstrate that there is a tight and inherent connection from video to computer, so that on the whole, the introduction of digital technologies continues to enrich the medium and its aesthetic-cultural potential. From this perspective, digital tools can be seen as an evolutionary step in the development of electronic tools, which together in video foster the articulation of an original electronic vocabulary of image.
By the same token, it would be shortsighted to classify video as the new medium that simply took over from film. Rather, video relies conceptually on experimental film practices and pursues similar formal approaches and explorations of vision and visuality (i.e., the quality or state of the visual imagery). Of course, the results differ due to the function of the apparatus specific to each medium. However, a closer look at the two media reveals that, strictly speaking, video has no apparatus function comparable to film. More precisely, the notion of film as a medium can be attributed to a fixed apparatus: the dispositif defines a spatial order consisting of projector, spectator, and screen onto which previously recorded transparent images (developed on a fixed film strip) are vertically projected in continuous motion creating the impression of moving images. In contrast, video does not engage a consistent spatial order but arises in immediate presence equally in the camera and screen, and often in scanning and synthesizing devices as well. Furthermore, video does not consist of a proper "image." Video is defined by its manipulation of electronic signals: that is to say, it is a simulation of an image.
In a didactic approach toward the new medium Dan Sandin demonstrates the phenomenology in his videotape, How TV Works (1977) (c), and he explains the mechanism of the electronic medium in contrast to film.
Apparently, there is no coherent image — neither in the scanning within the camera nor inside the surface of the screen — but a stream of imagery capable of moving not only in vertical directions (such as a film strip) but also in horizontal directions. In fact, the impression of an image results from incoming information that through a scanning device is transformed into electronic signals uninterruptedly transmitted in scanning lines, which on a normal screen run from left to right and top to bottom — like writing on a page in Western culture.
While the moving image of film in recording and projection is bound to the restrictions of the vertical order of single frames, video supersedes such requirements: the signal travels vertically and horizontally, thereby constructing and reconstructing images. Drawing a distinction between the temporal-spatial unity of an image as "frame" or "tableau" (as in painting, photography, and film) and the electronic information "encoded" in scanning lines that generate transformative video images, I characterize the flexible image forms of electronic transformation as "imagery."
The non-fixity, fluidity, and transformative characteristics of video are furthermore highlighted through the possibility that in the electronic medium the image can arise in different places of the technical setting: such as camera, screen, and multiple scanning and synthesizing devices. Early experiments with "closed circuit" between camera and monitor and with other processing devices (without videotape recorder) revealed that the fixity of electronic imagery on magnetic tape connotes but one possible way of displaying video. Alternately, in video processing, the real-time visual effects can be directly presented on the screen, as with Scan Processors, and, in contrast to film, the screen is not solely a display surface for "projection" but becomes the very locale of the video’s creation — a place where video making and displaying converge.
Though film can be generated without camera (scratch, chemical baths, etc.) it cannot avoid its material basis. However, video can exist without videotape and recording is not a fundamental requirement of the medium. There are multiple choices for input before recording, but more importantly, video can be simply "signal processing" without recording at all. Of interest in the case of the Scan Processor (f) which affects the time-based structure of video through re-timing the electronic signal, signal processing interferes with and dislocates the television raster. As signal processing demonstrates, there is no fixed place or determined setting for producing, transmitting, and displaying electronic imagery; instead, video engages multiple aural and visual options.
In the following examination of experimental approaches, an introduction to some fundamental principles of video is needed in order to discuss the experiments in signal processing that, to my mind, represent the essence of video as an electronic medium. A second level of discourse relates to the general media debate involving consideration of the surface (or content) of video images, which is generally the focus of art history if video is discussed there at all. What I find needs further discussion is the status of the electronic image with regard to similarities and differences between analog and digital image processing. This leads to considerations of the medium’s specificity in order to discuss video in a larger media setting: I build my argument that video is essentially transformative, omnidirectional, and multidimensional by relying on media theories that reflect on electronic and digital forms of "matrix" imagery. The third level of inquiry here deals with a description of selected works by Steina and Woody Vasulka: works that highlight various phases in the development of video from technology to medium, and that incorporate, in exemplary ways, analog and digital computers as a tool in image processing. These three levels are closely intermingled below, as I find it necessary to analyze the technical and aesthetic components together, in order to understand the essential character of the electronic audio/visual medium, video.