Steina & Woody Vasulka. Machine Vision - Exhibition text
Amy Budd

Working both independently and in collaboration since the late 1960s, Steina (born 1940, Reykjavík) and Woody Vasulka (born 1937, Brno) are pioneers of ‘cathode-ray tube expression’, [1] investigating the basic elements of video technology – the electronic image and signal – as an artistic medium. Sustaining an ongoing dialogue with machines throughout their careers, they have consistently drawn upon audiovisual inputs, at first powered by frequency and voltage, and

later by digital code, to create a new type of synthetic image. Developing a catalogue of new devices, the Vasulkas found ways to disrupt and manipulate sound and image signals in real time to create illusory machine-generated imagery. Through their experiments with electro-magnetic waves in televisions and digital image pixels in computers, they consider how the unique articulation and structure of audiovisual technology can be examined and aesthetically interpreted. Specifically, they explore the peculiarities of video feedback as a source of new image behaviour.


Meeting in Prague in 1962, the Vasulkas relocated to New York in 1965. Although both artists

established respective careers prior to and following their migration – Steina as a professional musician and Woody as a film editor and engineer – by 1970 the Vasulkas began to invest their creative energy into deciphering video technology. Acquiring the first portable video equipment, the Sony Portapak video camera in 1969, by 1971 they had moved away from working with documentary images captured through the camera lens to produce predominantly machine generated imagery.


Soon they were attempting to reveal the inner structures and architecture of the machines they

were collaborating with. They began by interacting with television signals, using an oscillator (a waveform generator) as a basic instrument, combined with a Putney synthesiser and television monitor. Through interference with the electro-magnetic signals emitted by the cathode-ray tube inside the television, sound and image signals were distorted with immediacy, creating a chaotic heterodyne interference pattern on the monitor screen. These early technical studies were

produced in ‘states of unsupervised performance’, [2] with the artists adjusting and altering sound and image waveforms in real time to produce mesmeric images suspended in virtual space. The artists only witnessed the results once the scan process was completed, and as such were often the first viewers of this highly original video vocabulary. A selection of these early technical studies, predominantly taking the form of screen-scans and prints, are exhibited both on monitors and as projected video environments at Raven Row.


To realise these pioneering works, an index of bespoke image-processing machines were engineered in collaboration with numerous technicians, programmers, musicians and artists. These ‘userbuilt folk instruments’ [3] included the Video Sequencer (1972), also known as the Field Flip/Flop Switcher, which produced the seminal work Noisefields (1974) – showing on the first floor at Raven Row – in which the transcoding between audio and video is visualised, rendering image as sound and sound as image. The Rutt/Etra Scan Processor (1973) was used in Violin Power (1978) and Orbital Obsessions (1975–77), and later the Digital Image Articulator, which took eighteen months to develop from 1976, was demonstrated in Cantaloupe (1980). A scan processor – the basic tool of the Vasulkas’ video production – can pull the electro-magnetic waveforms from a cathode-ray tube. This innovative audiovisual equipment provided the artists with compositional tools, enabling them to carve out and transpose both analogue and digitally generated images for the first time.


While working in New York, they recognised the need for artists to produce and show electronic art. In their own words ‘we were just looking for a show place for our friends and ourselves’. [4] Together with Andy Mannik, the Vasulkas opened The Electronic Kitchen in 1971. Later shortened to The Kitchen, this artist-run space (which continues to this day) provided a platform

for video makers and later avant-garde musicians, dancers and performance artists to create and

present their work at a venue that favoured discussion and experimentation. The Vasulkas departure from The Kitchen and Manhattan in 1973 coincided with an invitation to develop the production laboratory of the Centre for Media Study at the State University of New York in Buffalo, the first study course in media art in the United States. Alongside fellow permanent

faculty members Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharits, James Blue, Tony Conrad and Peter Weibel, the Vasulkas were to make Buffalo an international centre of avantgarde media and documentary film. The majority of works presented at Raven Row were produced during the Vasulkas’ time at Buffalo, in collaboration with their colleagues, and through unique access to pioneering technicians and equipment located in the Centre’s production lab.


Significantly, the Vasulkas maintained both their independent and collaborative practices throughout their careers. Steina’s work is characterised by her distinctly poetic conception of time and space. Her works tend to directly implicate the body of the artist, employing machines and video technology to query human and artificial modes of perception, and pursue an ‘impassioned dialogue with the machine’. {5] Steina has also developed mechanical environments. Her electro-optical mechanical installation Machine Vision (1978) rejects the hierarchical relationship between the passive consumer of images and the active artist-producer. In this machine arrangement, first configured in 1976 as Allvision, videotape is excluded in favour of the ‘live’ analysis of physical space, comprising a kinetic environment of rotating cameras and moving mirrors that transmit a live video feed to a display of monitors. Whereas a bodily frame restricts the human eye, Machine Vision is designed to set the camera eye free from incumbents. Here, a cluster of cameras constantly survey each other and their surroundings, exceeding the limitations of human perception.


In contrast, Woody adopts a strictly scientific approach in his electronic studio work, examining or violating certain rules of signal input and output so that images and sounds display their own inner structure. He instinctively hacks computer and television systems to produce electronic images in real time and reveal the architecture of their construction. That is, using a visual language of multi-keyed layers, dense grids and waveform structures he reveals electronic images to be constructed with a mathematical precision akin to architecture, built both in real and in video feedback time. As a result of this quasi-scientific agenda, a consistency emerges in the vocabulary of both his video works and still images of television waveforms; he tangibly conveys images as objects by uncovering the processes by which they are made.


The Vasulkas understand images and objects on the basis of their technical composition and

representational potential. Through formal introspection, or rather working reflexively by entering into a creative dialogue with audiovisual technology, the Vasulkas give voice and shape to the inner life of video, articulating the alchemical logic and structures through which electronic and digital image can be expressed. Through their sustained formal experimentation with image production, Steina and Woody Vasulka laid the groundwork for future developments in image making techniques and technologies. Their work is consistently realised as a wholly collaborative enterprise, produced by and with both human and non-human agents, sharing the creative process with the machine at every stage. All of what you see is based on protocols between a human and a machine, or between machines. They were the original analogue video prosumers, and as such, examples of their work spanning their prolific period of experimentation from the early 1970s to the early 80s reveal how the Vasulkas’ methods anticipated the virtual modes of image making so dominant today.



[1] Woody Vasulka, ‘Five Lectures’, in Buffalo Heads: Media Study, Media Practice, Media Pioneers, 1973–1990, Woody Vasulka and Peter Weibel (eds.), exhibition catalogue, ZKM/Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, Germany (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2008), p. 411.

[2] Ibid., p. 415.

[3] Steina, quoted in ‘Orbits of Fortune with Steina and Gene Youngblood’, Steina: 1970–2000, exhibition catalogue (Santa Fe, New Mexico: SITE, 2007), p. 21.

[4] ‘A Conversation between Steina and Woody Vasulka, Don Foresta and Christiane Carlut’, (Paris, France: December 5, 1992), in Buffalo Heads: Media Study, Media Practice, Media Pioneers, 1973–1990, op. cit., p. 498.

[5] Steina, quoted in Buffalo Heads: Media Study, Media Practice, Media Pioneers, 1973–1990, op. cit., p. 469.