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Yvonne Spielmann

Interview with Steina

Steina and Woody Vasulka, In Search of the Castle, 1981 (excerpt) (video)
Steina and Woody Vasulka, In Search of the Castle, 1981 (excerpt) (video)
Steina and Woody Vasulka, Voice Windows, 1986
Steina and Woody Vasulka, Voice Windows, 1986
Steina, Warp, 2000
Steina, Warp, 2000
Yvonne Spielmann: In what ways did the change of technology shift your conception of performance and live playing? Does it describe your experience to say, the more you work with computers, the more you need to ‘share the creative process with the machine’, as Woody has put it?

Steina: In the seventies, when I did Violin Power, it was live. It was cameras pointing at me, with the option of just playing or being recorded. Now the computer gets me back into this real time possibility. I can have live streaming images to perform as well as pre-recorded QuickTime movies.

Yvonne Spielmann: Was the notion of performance in Warp, where you again perform in front of the camera and become part of the depicted space, essentially different from Violin Power? Or could you rather see a close parallel between the two performative works regarding your part in the performance space?

Steina: My tape performances have a lot to do with a lack of body, meaning I use my own body for the lack of somebody else’s. I have set some processes into motion, I am ready and now I need a body, and mine is available. These tapes become like a series of auto portraits, Violin Power, Somersault, and Warp.

Yvonne Spielmann: In these processes of enveloping yourself in front of the camera and thereby making the space in front of the camera very conscious to the viewer, are you carrying out a more general interest in spatial relations that I see in parallel with your installation works where you immerse the viewer in large size, multiple-screen environments?

Steina: I see myself working in parallel in several directions. Machine Vision, I see as different from the tape installations, performance or single tape making, but in another sense, they are of course all the same. And as every maker, you get into a certain style. I’m sure that somebody can look at my work and say: Oh that’s a typical Steina tape, although, I think it is drastically different from any other tape I ever made.

Yvonne Spielmann: Would you agree that there is a spatial behavior of images that you are interested in exploring in Voice Windows where you work with different layers and the sound and image develop in different dimensions? And I was wondering how far this notion of spatiality comes from music?

Steina: In Voice Windows we set up two pre-recorded landscapes and Joan La Barbara had a microphone. Her voice became a video special effects generator as well as the sound generator. But for me, the drama was that she performed this by looking at a monitor while singing.

Yvonne Spielmann: Similar to Voice Windows in Lilith, you use the voice of painter Doris Cross, but the words she speaks are not clear, so that somehow verbal communication is disrupted. What was your specific goal to use speech in this video, a medium that you normally don't employ in your works?

Steina: Doris’ voice is not in any way modulating the video. The video is one stream and her sound another. You see, Doris already had a problem. She was a phenomenal linguist and often used the dictionary as her art material. But she had had a slight stroke, causing some impediment in her speech, and if you were not used to listening to her, she could be hard to understand. Of course I did process her voice too. I am kind of just playing around with this phenomena, how she was so extraordinarily articulate but hard to understand. In fact in Lilith, there is no importance to what she saying, but in not understanding it, it seems to gain an enormous importance.

Yvonne Spielmann: What is interesting in this particular work Lilith, is the contrast between a landscape and a person. But more generally, since you were saying that in other works you acted in front of the camera because you needed a human body in the scene, it strikes me that you are interested in exposing close relations between the ‘human figure’ and the surroundings, in particular the natural landscape. How do you select the surroundings and what is the role of natural landscape in video?

Steina: My early attitude was to just take whatever image was in front of me. In my studio I do not go out of my way to rearrange the space, like remove a chair or straighten a picture on the wall, in order to make the space more picturesque. So my idea of not arranging space is deeply felt. Later, I did a lot of urban things because suddenly the urban was available to me with portable cameras, and I could take material from the outside in. I was living at that time in Buffalo, so I did In Search of the Castle with Woody and then I did Urban Episodes which is urban like hell. Most of my tapes from Japan dealt also with people and urban events. So I always assumed that my attitude to landscape was on the same level, something accessible, something available. And that I just happened to come from a place where this landscape was very extraordinary and extraordinarily available. You don’t see telephone poles, asphalted roads, cars, any indications of a human inhabitation.

Steina: But by now I suspect that my interest in landscape and specifically Icelandic landscape is much deeper. This is where I grew up. My memories are of this natural beauty, natural danger. I did not grow up in a metropolitan setting, hardly even urban, I grew up in nature. So, it is hard to say where the cerebral ends and the emotional kicks in but, at this point, I suspect that there are some deep emotional ties for me to be going back again and again to this landscape, because it’s not a very modern thing to do!

Yvonne Spielmann: Interestingly in your work there is a particular stress on movement in nature, movement of the wind, the water, and so on. It looks like the landscape in some regards performs the motion that you are interested in exploring in electronic arts. And when we take a look at how landscape is dealt with in the history of media, we find that to a great deal landscape/nature is conceived as still image; this is not only in painting and photography, but surprisingly, the depiction of natural movement in film for the most part employs immobile camera. So differently from these practices, you seem to be more interested in dealing directly with the motion and mobility that you find in nature?

Steina: Yes, as you said, if I am using a tripod and there’s nothing moving in front of the camera, I do not have a movie. But when nature moves and specifically when Icelandic nature moves, it moves fast like the waters, oceans and rivers. If they move too fast, I usually slow them down. Another way to induce movement into landscape is to move the camera. This is why I got so obsessed with turntables, pan, tilt, rotation and zooming.

Yvonne Spielmann: In recent works like Warp and Mynd, the contrast between moving and the still type of images becomes apparent and I have the impression that you try to test the limits in both directions: freeze images and ‘freely’ moving images to the point where both coincide. I assume there must be an internal intention to explore diverging principles at the same time in the same works?

Steina: We are talking about “Slit Scan” and “Time Warp” effects. Both deal with real and past time inside the frame, an exclusive property of digital image. In “Slit Scan” the movement is an endless pan or tilt of a continually grabbed and stored image, but if the video coming in has nothing moving, there will just be some meaningless streaks coming across the screen. “Time Warp” on the other hand becomes dynamic by employing a large amount of buffers that continually grab, store and retrieve the incoming signal. The ”Slit Scan” effect and to a degree Time Warp too, remind me of our earliest experiment with horizontal Raster-Drift. These are the motives that just follow you in life, the movements of the camera, and the drifting, and everything I discovered in the first few years I am seemingly still working with.

Yvonne Spielmann: When we look at your work in the frame of broader media development, what do you think is the importance of video today? What can video contribute to contemporary media?

Steina: It can’t contribute anymore. Analog video is a dying medium. But digital has luckily picked up almost all the attributes of analog. I’m not going to miss it personally; I like digital a lot. But against the gain of subframal image events like Slit-Scan and Time-warp, the coming digital standard, progressive scan will eliminate interlace, the analog way of processing scan lines. We are facing a big shift, and I cannot even start to fantasize about it.

© 2004 FDL