Back in the 1960s, when Woody Vasulka and his wife, the artist Steina, began experimenting with video technology, there was an assumption that, when people watched films and TV shows, they were separate from the machines around them. Woody and Steina knew this wasn’t true, however. “It sounds a bit silly because machines have no identity, but Steina and I discover certain unexpected nooks and crannies in the way machines connect to humans,” he said in a recent interview for the website Memory of Nations. “I use it as a teacher.”
Vasulka, who died on December 20 at 82 years old, spent a career using his pioneering videotapes to bring viewers into closer contact with new technology. Working as an artist, a professor, and a founder of a major New York art space, Vasulka advocated for video as a key medium in our technology-obsessed time, and wound up inspiring generations of artists making moving-image works. His death was confirmed on social media by an institute in the Czech Republic dedicated to the couple.
When Vasulka first began working with video, it was not yet considered art by many. Critics, historians, and curators were more focused on painting and sculpture during the 1960s, and though artists such as well-known artists such as Nam June Paik and Wolf Vostell had embraced non-traditional mediums in their work, major presentations of art making use of digital technology and video at the time tended to elude. But Vasulka and Steina pushed forward anyway, producing some of the prime examples of early video art.
Working collaboratively at the start, the couple began producing formalist experiments in which image and sound were manipulated to a point of near-incomprehensibility. Their early works feature warped pictures that appear to float across the screen and cacophonous soundtracks. These videos are all very abstract, though one gets the sense that, originally, before the images were fed through various technologies, the footage was all very straightforward.
Among their most well-known early works is Golden Voyage (1973), a video based on a similarly titled René Magritte painting featuring a group of baguettes that seem to fly through a countryside landscape. Taking a re-created version of the Magritte canvas as its opening shot, the video animates the painting, sending the breads through what appears to be a succession of places that span multiple countries, if not multiple dimensions. There is a sequence in which the loaves dance around a nude woman’s body, and another in which they loom like clouds over an ocean. There is no plot, but the work seems to suggest that these images—by turns funny and alluring—could only be possible through video.
Vasulka and Steina’s enthusiasm for video did not end there, however. With the creation of the Kitchen, one of New York’s most important alternative arts spaces, in 1971, they wound up spurring on an increasingly tight-knit community of video artists in the city.
When the couple founded the Kitchen (which is now in the city’s Chelsea neighborhood), they opened it in NoHo, a district that was, at the time, presumed to be a wasteland—a place where people were unlikely to go for video screenings. They launched the space on Mercer Street, and Vasulka named it after the space’s former function, as a kitchen at the Mercer Arts Center.
“This place was selected by Media God to perform an experiment on you, to challenge your brain and its perception,” the couple wrote in a manifesto penned on the occasion of the space’s opening. “We will present you sounds and images, which we call Electronic Image and Sound Compositions. They can resemble something you remember from dreams or pieces of organic nature, but they never were real objects. They have all been made artificially from various frequencies, from sounds, from inaudible pitches and their beats.”
The Kitchen wound up moving in 1974 to SoHo, and then in 1987 to Chelsea, and while it was initially founded specifically to host video art, its programming soon expanded to include works made in other mediums, such as sound art, performance, and film. The space has since played home to work by many of the world’s most important video artists, including Bill Viola, Dara Birnbaum, and Mary Lucier, and it is now considered a go-to venue within the New York art world.
Having gotten his start collaborating with Steina, Vasulka also worked prolifically on his own. His most important solo work is often considered to be Art of Memory (1987), a 36-minute video in which footage of landscapes in the American Southwest becomes a canvas for moving pictures that have been stretched by digital means. The images that Vasulka appropriated for it came from newsreels and films of the Spanish Civil War and the Russian Revolution, though they are so abstracted that it can be hard to identify them. Cryptic, entrancing, and strangely moving, the video can be seen as a statement about the difficulty of reconciling pretty pictures with the ugly histories of those portrayed in them.
Occasionally, there was an explicitly political dimension to Vasulka’s work. He sometimes identified technology with warfare and unchecked masculinity, and he attacked longstanding notions about artistic genius with works such as The Commission (1983), a video about two composers—Niccolò Paganini and Hector Berlioz—that made use of an operatic structure.
In addition to their artistic practices, Vasulka and Steina established became educators during the 1970s. In 1974, they moved to Buffalo, New York, and began working in the State University of New York’s media studies department. Together, they created the Digital Image Articulator, a device that they used to produce some of the warped pictures seen in their videos. In 2000, Gene Youngblood, a pioneering historian who has written extensively on expanded cinema (a kind of filmmaking in which what is seen on a screen is extended into a three-dimensional space, often in the form of an installation), called the Digital Image Articulator the “last user-built folk instrument to emerge from video’s pioneering era, whose beginning and end were marked by the vision of two extraordinary human beings.”
Woody Vasulka was born in 1937 in Brno, Czechoslovakia. With World War II having ravaged much of Europe, Vasulka became interested early on in some of the wreckage he saw around him and the technology that had wrought it. “Europe was a junkyard where we could find clumps of war equipment,” he said in the Memory of Nations interview.
Vasulka then pursued a career that combined engineering and cinema, studying metallurgy and mechanics and, later, filmmaking. While studying film in Prague, in 1960, he met Steina, who had a background in music, having studied violin at a conservatory there. By the mid-1960s, they were married and living in America.
Though he never achieved the widespread fame, Vasulka is considered a pioneer in his field. Over the course of his career, he won a Guggenheim Fellowship (in 1979), and with Steina, he won the Siemens Media Art Prize, a prestigious award given out by the ZKM Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, in 1995.
He continued to have a genuine belief in the power of technology throughout the full of his career. In a 1992 interview, he said, “It is difficult to express why technology became the most suitable method for my own work: Let me just say that there is a system of muses, and the muses allocate the tasks to the workers, and these workers—the artists—then work for the muses who have some concept of whatever the hell this is all about, and if they assign you to technology, they nurture you from childhood, and they groom you for the task, and eventually you are employed by some metaphysical corporation.”