Introducing Electronic Art Pioneers: Steina and Woody Vasulka

This week’s blog post is written by Emily Schmierer, Exhibitions, Collections, and Programming Assistant at the Henry and 2014 UW Museology graduate.

© Steina and Woody Vasulka. Photo credit: Jane Hartman
© Steina and Woody Vasulka. Photo credit: Jane Hartman

If you’re familiar with the video and digital arts scene, you may have heard the hubbub around town over Steina and Woody Vasulka over the last few weeks. If you haven’t heard of these video art pioneers, you’ve at least seen the direct result of their pivotal work in the video art world. Since the early 1970s, their experimentation with video as art, foundational development of electronic imaging tools, and exploration between analog and digital processes have paved the way for new media and video art as we now know it today. Their contributions have impacted the evolution of the medium tremendously, namely creating an articulate electronic vocabulary of image-making. Their early work centered on using analog signal, a convention since replaced by digital code used widely today.

The pivotal works of Steina and Woody Vasulka have influenced the genre since the late 1960s. Steina (who goes by the singular moniker when producing her own work) trained as a classical musician before receiving a scholarship at the Prague Conservatory in 1959. Woody trained as an engineer, and studied television and film production at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. The couple relocated to New York City after meeting in the early 1960s, where their video works were shown in a first major exhibition of the medium, presented at the Whitney Museum in 1971. That same year, they founded The Kitchen, a nonprofit, multidisciplinary art and performance space.

Involved in the burgeoning underground video art scene, the Vasulkas began experimenting with video equipment, revealing the ability to isolate specific video elements, building what have been termed a syntax and visual vocabulary specific to electronic imaging. The Vasulkas began to question the widely accepted role of video to reproduce the function of the human eye, and approached the medium in various ways. In Steina’s words, “[Video] was the signal and the signal was unified. The audio could be video and the video could be audio.”[i]

The Commission_Ernie Gusella as Paganini
The Commission_Ernie Gusella as Paganini.jpg Woody Vasulka. The Commission. 1983. Videotape (single-channel video with sound). 40 min. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Since 1980, the couple has been based in Santa Fe, NM and have received numerous awards and recognition, guest taught, and presented works internationally. After a 20-year hiatus, the Vasulkas’ work is once again being shown in Seattle. Organized by Robert Campbell, 4×3: Data, Flux & Strange Objects: Video Pioneers and New Media Explorers opened at Cornish College of the Arts in late October, and will bring the Vasulkas to Seattle this month.

In partnership with The Institute of Emergent Technology + Intermedia (iET+I) at Cornish College of the Arts, the Henry is hosting a conversation with the artists, moderated by Edward Shanken, art historian and Visiting Associate Professor in the UW Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media. This conversation, scheduled for December 13th, should shed some light on the Vasulkas’ paths, and passion for video art, but could also lead just about anywhere. Read any interview or biographical piece about this pair, and you’ll see that they are charming, surprising, and offer anecdotes and trains of thoughts that tangentially lead the conversation in fascinating directions.

We’ll also be screening three works: The Commission (Woody Vasulka, 1983), Voice Windows (Steina, 1986), and In the Land of the Elevator Girls (Steina and Woody Vasulka, 1989), on Friday, December 19th.

We invite you to come by the Henry and hear from the artists themselves, view their works, and make sure to check out the exhibit, 4×3: Data, Flux & Strange Objects: Video Pioneers and New Media Explorers at Cornish College of the Arts, on view through December 12th.


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