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[Nettime-ro] FW: Syndicate: Interview with Steina Vasulka
Alexandru Patatics on Tue, 7 Aug 2001 15:15:14 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-ro] FW: Syndicate: Interview with Steina Vasulka

A conversation between Steina Vasulka and Raivo Kelomees on July, 26th
during performance and video art festival *GooseFlesh*
http://www.rakvere.ee/~muuseum/, in Rakvere, Estonia

RK: I would ask some simple questions not in very historical and logical
way. What is happening with video now? Video is somehow old medium but
we can still see interest in video. In  paradoxical way quite a lot of
artists, big names, like Bill Viola and you as well are using very
simple visuality with digital technology, digitized material. How can
you comment this?

SV: I actually donīt consider digital video per se a different medium,
it is just an extension of analogue and nothing really changes in that
sense but in another sense digital of course changes everything and puts
it in different context. Because filmmakers traditionally hated video,
they thought that it is a terrible medium. When it became digital they
all seemingly accepted it. So this must become this kind of like a
stable medium and accepted medium. In same time it is dying as film. I
am talking about this kind of experimental film that seems to be getting
weaker now....

RK: Donīt you think that  video (video art) has become after quite a
many decades of technological experimentation simpler because to be a
contrast to very technological massmedia audiovisual world.

SV: See, every person takes different interpretation, different point of
view to things. My point of view and Woody Vasulkas point of view was
always the signal. It is so interesting, because he came from film,
where the frame was always given and it was celluloid. I came from music
which is a stream of information. And we started using video, we used
magnetic tape first. So, this idea that it was invisible, this was a
signal. And as a signal it was put together from voltage and frequency.
You can build endless world from that simple principle. And digital is
even simpler in that sense, because it is on and off. You can build this
kind of a perfect universe out of that simple signal.  It have always
interested us enourmosly. We always like to work with that phaenomena,
like to take a sample of some phaenomena and try to visualize it. Or
take something that is visual and hear what it sounds like. These kind
of things. For other people video is iconic, image is most important or
that is the message, thatīs even more... Nowadays artists are using
video because it is given, artist are able to tape their performances.
But they are using it as journalistic medium which I am not interested
in my art.  I am interested, I have a camera, I am interested
personally, but not as some art material.

RK: Thatīs interesting. You and your husband were famous in late 60s and
beginning of 70s specifically as a players with that signal. You
constructed synthesizers and equipment and edited a signal, not a

SV: The first image generating device that we bought was an audio
synthesizer. And we bought audio synthesizer as an image making device.
It has been totally consistent with us and still is. I always have to
have some kind of ... it is also has to do with time and space. That is
material also. But signal is time and space. The signal is ...time, this
axis .... and space ... this axis... So, as soon as it was possible to
slow images down or speed them up, thatīs very much apart of the medium.
And this is what I rely and say in the violin performance. Laserdisc
players play fast and slow and backwards and forwards. It is fluidity
actually that DVD does not have. I have not really starting using DVD,
because I find this signal wise inferior. Manipulative wise..

RK: If we try to understand what happened in so-called history of video
art. In late sixties and beginning of seveties quite a lot of people
worked with equipment to develop some new ways to look at world and to
edit visual picture which was very static and not changeable. There was
an exhibiton what you and your husband curated which was in the context
of Ars Electronica, 1992, *Eigenwelt der Apparatewelt*. It was like an
overview of experimentation in those times. So, can you say that a lot
of people worked in parallel way in same direction?

SV: Yes, because there was nothing before. You can say that portable
camera when it came out caused a revolution. And it came from Japan and
it was very risky idea. And they somehow believed that american consumer
would be interested in this. But as soon as it was acknowledged, video
as a medium, you couldnīt be such fight with a little black and white
portable system with a very low resolution. ... This equipment was
bought primarily by artists, not by the public, not by rich people. It
was immadiately understood as an artists medium. And reporters, they
used it somehow to. That idea came right away that it have to be
improved and fixed and what you call modified. They would made
modification for mixing two signals. There was no keyer, you couldnīt
buy one from the shelf. It had to be made. Actually Sony made the first
mixer but it was poor mixer and we needed to modify in order to have
more. Somebody would build like a colorizer, because we couldnī t afford
colour equipment.

It was obvious to everybody right away that we have to modify and build
equipment and do things like synthesizer. Audio synthesizer came out in
mid sixties. So it was natural next step to do a video sythesizer.
Nowadays there is no reason to build everything. You can buy everything
from shelf. The most interesting signal manipulating - I would say
equipment - , that is not the right term, devices are in software. Some
people are writing interesting software. To manipulate images.

RK: Have you used software in your last videos what you have made ...

SV: Thatīs a software called *Image/ine*.

RK: Is it a ready made software, or is it made by your programmer?

SV: No, it just happened to be made by my programmer but it is now
commercially avalilable software.

RK: You want to say that there is so much equipment available now, that
we do not need to develop and invent anything. Did you had contacts in
those days with corporations who developed equipment?

SV: No, they were completely uninterested. Whole world was totally
non-interested in new media. It was until the VHS came, it was then
consumer item. People started to realize a potential of video, people
outside the artist community. There was never any help. We would go to
Sony and ask them to fix this and modify that. And they say, this is not
equipment for artist, we are not interested.

RK: I thought that contact was deeper, that contact at least existed.
But contact between television companies existed in those times? Why
they where interested in artist contributions?

SV: They werenī t interested. They were public corporations. They were
supposed to be cultural. They got a big grant from Rockefeller - these
are three stations in United States, in Boston, in New York and San
Francisco. They got a big infusion of money in order to make art for
television. Whatīs interesting, they thought that they are gonna make
art programmes for televison. When artists came in and saw the equipment
and said - no, no, no ... this is the art material, what they want to

RK: How position of video artists who used social material in 70ties
have changed now. Can you see that they won quite a lot because of
lightweight of the equipment?

SV: Yeah, they won everything. I mean, there isnīt really difference
what I have here, my DV camera and a broadcast  camera. Except that at
least on the stage they put like a frame around and say it is amateur
video and announce otherwise you wouldnīt know that it is amateur
camera. So, there is no difference in quality. The interesting
phaenomena is that once you donīt have this obstacles and everything is
given to you, it is much harder to make art. This is the phaenomena.

RK: Thatīs true. Many artists have experience if you have unlimited
possibilites it is much more confusing and need more professionality to
exclude quite a lot of possibilities. How you identify yourself using
different means and material, I understand that signal is primary, but
what kind of visual *stuff* you prefer, what you like, what is your

SV: People think that I prefer nature. Because I have taken a lot of
nature and they say that I am like a nature photographer. It is not
really true. I just take whatever is in front of me. And my material in
basically the world. Like when I went to Japan and I was only interested
in people. So, I made an installation only about people. So, and I
actually find it interesting that, as you say, we all work with
limitations and if you donīt have them we make them in order to work.
Quite a lot of artists call them ground rules, or template, and youīll
say to  - why didnīt you take inside … Oh, my god, I couldnīt take
inside, it is outside piece. And they realize in that respect what
limitations they have given themselves. I think this is very common
among artists, to make limits. If you donīt have them, you make them.
So, I was gonna to say something about limits. Of course I do the same
things. One time I can only have water. Another time I have only what
growes - nature textures. So, different templates. Not any fixed art

RK: Your homeland, Island, has it influenced your mind?

SV: There is no question. Just to grow up in that kind of environment
influences you for the rest of your life. I like to go there and I like
to take there. And I did it also in order to go out and be alone in
nature. It is very good excuse when you go out to either take a fishing
rod and go and fish or you take binocular and you are watching birds and
I take a camera and I watch nature. There is enourmos amount of
material, that becomes sort of material used in my installations. That I
would say that it is rather that way that I really go and say today I go
out and collect material for my next installation.

RK: Your everyday activity is connected with education as well? What are
you doing for your living?

SV: I am actually full time artist.

RK: Is that possible?

SV: Itīs possible. For a long time it has been to be in deep and depth.
I am not in depth anymore either. It takes kind of determination that
you rather borrow money as go and  work. I mean, it worked out for me.

RK: You donīt have experience of teaching video art?

SV: Very short. Just a few years and I didnīt like it.

RK: Really?

SV: I didnīt like to teach.

RK: Why? You felt your own limitation or system was build up so that it
was hard to bring something to people?

SV: I have just never believed in the educational system. I mean, I
didnīt go to school as a kid, because I didnīt like it. I just read the
books and showed up for the exams. I have very little patience with
other people. The idea of school doesnīt fit me.

RK: As you know, video art and media art has become part of classical
art education.

SV: It is interesting. I donīt know what they are teaching, because what
I teach would be craft. Because it is good for people to have a craft
and to know how to do things, how to frame things and how to be able to
make the images in way they want them to be. But I donīt know how to
teach art, not a clue.

RK: There are different positions in that subject. Most normal is
tolerance between both, between craft and so-called art teaching. To
teach people to understand what is the quality of good art, *where* it
is and how it is made. Or to try to bring to them something which is
verbally hardly definable. If you teach people only craft and not
developments in theory, history, is it enough to them for being artists
only to know how to make things?

SV: I learned it by just being around. Itīs a matter of knowing how to
learn. I mean, there is not really even books. I know people like video
engineers, who know. I would always listen and ask questions and find
out. I think that it is certain technique how to learn. If my students
donīt know technique how to learn, I canīt teach them anything. If they
know the technique, they donīt need me.

RK: Sometimes you can find very professional technical guys. They can be
very intelligent, but they are not going to do art. And you can find
artists who donīt touch technological things but they do technological
art. Those are the contrasts. Inbetween are quite a lot of variations.

SV: Yeah, of course. The most of them like Bill Viola and Gary Hill are
technically very well knowledgeable, but they use crues, they use other
people to do it. I find it hard if you donīt know to be able to... Well,
it depends what kind of art you want to do. I am interested in art what
I can do myself. You canīt never do everything. You canīt build the
hardware, you canīt write the software, but you have to get your hands
little dirty. I wouldnīt like to go around with some assistant and ask
him can this be done because I donīt know if it can be done. So, I donīt
face that problem.

RK: Your position is that artist should live as much as possible not
being involved in systems, in society, in institutions?

SV: Thatīs for me. Definitely, I accepted that for me. I donīt have an
agent. To me having an agent ... then you are already in the system. You
have a gallery. You are mainstreamed into the system and then you have
to follow their deadlines and commissions... I donīt want any of that.

RK: As I understand, in the United States it is possible to be
professional video artist, I mean ...

SV: I wouldnīt say so. I know only few of them, like Bill, Gary, Tony
Oursler and Nam June. I donīt know many more, maybe in the last few
years some more people will become. From long ago there are very few,
who are able to make it. You know, most people teach.

RK: Under professionality you mean that they live with their art or that
they are very good, in skills and knowledge...?

SV: Itīs a combination of that, but you know... Other people I mentioned
they all have galleries. Once you are in gallery, you have some
financical security. I am not willing to exchange that security what the
gallery imposes on you.

RK: How do you localize yourself in history of video art? Are there some

SV: It is an interesting question, how you place yourself historically,
because people are starting now to discover us historically. I mean it
is very funny, they wouldnīt look what we are doing today but are
fascinated what we did 30 years ago. So, we are historical relicts in
that case. Because all this question and all that interest we started
collecting all this material and send it out on the web
(http://www.artscilab.org). It is unorganized. If you look after
historical information, there is a lot about us and other people. There
is good reference.

But, you never know how you are gonna be placed historically. Like, see,
Nam June Paik is placed historically, but he was also before us and he
did his magnetic manipulations. In science you always have to be a
discoverer and if you are the first, just 5 minutes before youīll become
famous scientist. This is not true in art. Somebody can be first that in
art eventually itīs the one who is the best. Just think about
it...Picasso and Braque, whatever... It didnīt matter who started, who
was the first, but whoīs works remain.

RK: You want to say that Nam June Paik was first and the best?

SV: I donīt think Nam is the best. But Nam is OK... What I am saying,
historically we also did some things first and I donīt think that just
because we did them first it is that important. If you did something
important what we just discovered, then we will have a place in history.

RK: So, importance will be evident after next events maybe.

SV: Yeah.

RK: Donīt you feel that Nam June Paiks role in history is under pressure
of some cultural cliches. Everybody wants to see a hero, a man,
discoverer, first guy.

SV: It is very much that. He wants that too and everybody else wants
that. Everybody likes Nam. We all say itīs OK even if we know it is not
quite true. It was a role he wants. I would never want that role... He
also did important works in the sixties and beginning of seveties, but
then... I donīt like the work he has been doing lately. But maybe I am
only one who doesnīt like it, but it is ok, it is up to me.

RK: Proportions of fame, what belongs to Nam June Paik and to others are
not right? It should be *devided* in different way?

SV: I think it would be healthier. I actually personally think it would
be nicer to give more people credits, you know. But, this is how the
history is gonna be written. And I was there and I know that it is not
always true, but then, I am not gonna go and then say no - he didnīt
discover this first... But maybe I will...

RK: Thank you!

Raivo Kelomees
GSM +372 56 235 191
e-mail: offline {AT} online.ee
Mail address/Postiaadress:
Box 2663
Tallinn, 13802

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