A version of this interview appeared in Radical Software, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1970.
(The original conversation between Eric Siegel and Jud Yalkut was conducted in 1970.)
One of the youngest proponents of the video revolution, Eric Siegel, born in 1944, won Second Prize in the New York City Science Fair at the age of fifteen for his home-made closed circuit TV. The next year he won an Honorable Award in the same competition for ﾓColor through Black and White TV.ﾔ After high school, he was employed by several concerns in closed circuit television, and in 1966, worked in the Educational TV Department of the University of London.
In 1968, Siegel produced the PSYCHEDELEVISION videotape program for the closed circuit TV theatre, Channel One, and designed and built the special effects TV components for Serge Boutourlin and Susan Buirgeﾒs TELEVANILLA at the Martinique Theatre, all in New York City. He exhibited his PSYCHEDELEVISION IN COLOR in the Howard Wise Galleryﾒs TELEVISION AS A CREATIVE MEDIUM, and his BODY, MIND AND VIDEO at Brandeis Universityﾒs VISION AND TELEVISION in 1970.
JUD: You entered television at fifteen?
ERIC: At 15 I did the first outward thing with television, building my first TV camera, and it continued from then on, building more and more equipment.
JUD: What had you been doing before that time?
ERIC: Electronics. Pure electronics.
JUD: So you entered into television through an interest in electronics quite directly- no other art form?
ERIC: Yes, it was electronics, and then I ﾑ got turned on to TV through electronics by getting hold of TV equipment, and playing with it. And since I built the first camera Iﾒve continuously been interested in it, and still am.
JUD: When did you actually first get to work with videotape?
ERIC: About two years ago (NOTE: The date of this interview is 1970.) somebody gave me an old videotape recorder in pieces.
JUD: A Sony tape deck?
ERIC: No, a big two inch Ampex helical scan. And they said, if you can make it work, you can have it. Then I spent six months making it work. After which, I took the camera I had built and I started to make some tapes which youﾒve seen at Howard Wise.
JUD: That was a color machine?
ERIC: No, it was black and white. The Howard Wise tapes were black and white and I made them into color with another electronic circuit.
JUD: Which you built yourself?
ERIC: Yes, the first circuit was built inside of the color set, but now itﾒs been expanded so that itﾒs a separate thing which connects to the back of a color monitor, and it should be out on the market soon. I donﾒt know whoﾒs going to market it, yet.
JUD: When did you first show your videotapes?
ERIC: The first showing was just one day at the Channel One Theatera preview, and the second showing was continuously at Howard Wiseﾒs.
JUD: How did you get involved in the Wise show?
ERIC: Tom Tadlock told me about the show, and Howard Wise called up and said that held heard about me through Tadlock, came up and saw the tapes, and said please be in the show.
JUD: Did you know the work of other people in the field, like Nam June Paik, at that time?
ERIC: I saw some of Paikﾒs work at MOMAﾒs MACHINE show, and it turned me on- I liked it. Iﾒd already had some of my tapes completed then, but I didnﾒt meet Paik until the Wise show, didnﾒt even know what he looked like, until someone said ﾓthatﾒs Paik.ﾔ
JUD: Would you say anything influenced your approach to TV- anything from people working in the field to McLuhan?
ERIC: No, I was doing the work before I read or even knew of McLuhan. I found out afterwards. No, I wouldnﾒt say there were really any external influences. It was just watching TV itself, what the stations were doing, saying ﾓOh, forget it,ﾔ and just trying to do completely different things. Basically, I was making videotapes that I enjoyed watching myself, and my friends enjoyed watching, and at the same time trying to make the tapes so I was expressing myself through them, on a certain level. And thatﾒs what Iﾒm going to continue to try and do.
JUD: Were the Channel One tapes the same as the Howard Wise material?
ERIC: No, the Wise tapes were different material. The Channel One tapes were meant to be paid to see, and portions of the tape were straight video- you know, a camera pointed at a person talking and performing, and you have to have this straight kind of video if youﾒre expecting regular people to pay, because theyﾒre not going to pay to watch abstract patterns for an hour- you have to give them something else. But things are changing, and there are ways of making TV programs now where reality and abstraction can be intermixed in the right proportions so that you can hold the attention span, and keep a rhythm going so that just when you feel like youﾒre getting bored, it changes, and the change comes just at the right time, if you feel it out as you go. But the Wise tapes were all abstractionﾔ music and abstraction.
JUD: What was the music on that again? There was a section reminiscent of ﾓ200l.ﾔ
ERIC: THE SYMPHONY OF THE PLANETS, the last piece, had music vaguely similar to ﾓ2001ﾔ, but I must stress that I made the tape before seeing ﾓ2001ﾔ It must have been in the air, or something. The Wise tapes were edited so that the EINSTEIN section came first, then the Beatles section, TOMORROW NEVER KNOWS, and the SYMPHONY OF THE PLANETS.
(ERIC: Naturally, I had started experimenting in making a number of tapes, but it has all been filtered down now. Of all those tapes that I was making, it has filtered down to EINSTEIN, TOMORROW NEVER KNOWS, and SYMPHONY OF THE PLANETS as one tape- all those three things have been put onto one tape. Then thereﾒs an other tape called WAR TRIP which not too many people have seen and so,, an hour has been distilled out of all those two hours of two-inch experiments I was doing at that time. And actually that was the first time that I was actually doing video- making tapes and so forth. So a very low ratio of things were kept, to much taping was being done. Now, in 1/2ﾔ work, the ratio is a little bit more even.
JUD: All the early tapes originally constituted part of the PSYCHEDELEVISION show at Channel One.
ERIC: Yes. That was one showing. In other words, it was the first and only- just one.
JUD: You showed the major tapes again at the Kitchen, together with a live piece. (NOTE: A showing in 1973.)
ERIC: Right. At the Kitchen, what I did was- I got hold of one of the better copies of EINSTEIN that was still on two inch helical scan and made a redub of it. So that the people who have just seen it recently at the Kitchen, not only have they seen it in better quality than the last time, whenever they saw it the last time, but they saw it through this new colorizer that Iﾒm now marketing in New York.)
JUD: How would you characterize your basic orientation to videotape?
ERIC: Itﾒs a way I express myself as an individual.
JUD: What of its relationship to other people?
ERIC: Well, thatﾒs not with the videotapes- only vaguely, but not really- thatﾒs with the other experiments that I do, like the Brandeis piece. Rather than a direct expression of myself, thatﾒs more an expression of how people should perceive themselves, so in that piece they see themselves in color, delayed, and thereﾒs music playing. The music is supposed to trigger them off to move, to dance- and theyﾒre supposed to watch themselves moving and dancing. Usually, this is a mind-blowing experience, if theyﾒve never seen it happen before- watching themselves delayed a few seconds. But this is another kind of statement. Iﾒm not saying anything about myself- not giving anything of myself in this kind of thing. Itﾒs really like letting people get high on themselves, you know, get all involved with themselves, because thatﾒs what they want to do anyway.
JUD: Itﾒs a feedback situation.
ERIC: Right. The videotape is myself into tape. Right now, Iﾒm getting ready to design a video synthesizer, which will enable me to do live video- like in the old days there would be a concert with a piano, not thereﾒll be a concert with a video synthesizer. And this is something that Paik is into also. And itﾒs the next step of video. Theyﾒre making new video devices, or getting ready to, in Japan, with large displays in color, possibly flat non-projected.
JUD: Flat tube.
ERIC: Yes, that you hang up on the wall. So that, everyone knows that TV is going to change into something new--into an expanded medium, and a few people are getting ready for it, by making the hardware that will enable the new kind of programming, the new kind of video communications thatﾒs going to happen.
JUD: Do you think flat tube will make TV Projection obsolete?
ERIC: Oh yes, if they perfect it.
JUD: What about holographic television?
ERIC: Thatﾒs so far away, so Iﾒm not tied up in that right now. As far as I know, you wonﾒt be able to get three-dimensions out of the flat screen thing, so if people get more turned on to three-dimensions than-a large flat picture, then holograms will become popular in TV. But Iﾒm more tied up in what will be a possibility in the next year.
JUD: In Truffautﾒs film FAHRENHEIT 451, people have wallsize color television in their homes, during an era of bookburning.
ERIC: Well, video will become like books with the advent of cassettes, so if theyﾒd be burning books, theyﾒd be burning videocassettes.
JUD: You donﾒt think there would be Instamatic video cameras?
ERIC: Yes, itﾒs getting close to it already. Video will become like 8mm film is now. Theyﾒll have miniature plumbicon tubes inside miniature video cameras, with videocassettes you just throw in. However, I donﾒt think the film industry should worry yet, because video quality is still lacking. But thatﾒs the fault of the equipment manufacturers- theyﾒre only interested in making money, not in making something right. So perhaps one company will make some equipment right, and when that happens, people will find out, and the other companies will have to follow or go down. Right now, theyﾒre all making crap.
JUD: Do you think the better equipment will be made by the Japanese?
ERIC: Possibly. But theyﾒll have to get feedback from us. We have to write the Japanese companies, telling them what kind of equipment we want them to manufacture, instead of just taking whatﾒs given us. We have to tell them what is needed on the American market, what kind of new technology is needed, because the American technology is just not going to keep up with it. The Japanese are giving us all our media, supplying us with the media tools, so we have to let them know what we want in the future.
JUD: How did you find the video situation in Sweden when you were there?
ERIC: Video is state controlled there- state controlled television. They have some experimental programming, however it was quite boring--what I would call low-key. I donﾒt know if they plan it or not, but itﾒs meant to keep the people tranquilized. They donﾒt want to excite ﾑthe people for some reason. So all TV is lowkeyed- itﾒs boring.
JUD: More boring than American television?
ERIC: In general, Swedish TV is boring, but itﾒs more informative than American television. American television is just insane. The first priority with American television is that the commercials must go. Commercial television must end.
JUD: Do you think pay TV or cable is the answer?
ERIC: Some kind of alternate system where you donﾒt have to be bombarded, buy this, buy that, every fifteen minutes. This whole consumer crap must go.
JUD: That first step is pretty far-reaching.
ERIC: At least letﾒs get people talking about it. First letﾒs just say, advertising must be stopped- letﾒs get it around. Then, once it gets around, the momentum will carry through to the end. But a lot of people arenﾒt even thinking about it.
JUD: Do you think a show like Brandeis or Howard Wiseﾒs can help change peopleﾒs consciousness about the concept of television?
ERIC: It does have an effect, but not much of an effect, because not that many people come. A very small minority of people are getting exposed to whatﾒs going on. Nobody knows whatﾒs happening with TV. Nobody even knows that thereﾒs television art already- they donﾒt know the alternatives of what theyﾒre watching at home. The only effective way is getting on the networks. There has to be a network consisting of television artists, which is broadcast across the country, so it reaches the backwoods of Arkansas. Television is the last communication link we have to change this country. The whole country is tied together with television. The only way to effect a real change in this country, to get it together, is through television. One of the major network chiefs admitted to the fact that heﾒs broadcasting shit, and said thatﾒs what the public wants. What television artists are doing right now, is fanning the fire, trying desperately to let it be known that TV art exists, that itﾒs a real thing, that there are people who are turned on to TV and know what it is and what to do with it. And when the word gets out, people will start clamoring to see it on their home TV screen. However, if they donﾒt, there are alternatives, because the videocassette recorders will be out in about two years or .less, so you wonﾒt need the networks after a while- you could rip out the tuner from your TV.
JUD: It would have to be quite a different kind of network to implement what youﾒre talking about.
ERIC: Right- control rooms with pillows on the floor. We have to get onto a network, not work FOR a network, because thereﾒs a certain atmosphere in network TV stations. If you come in and your mind is okay, youﾒll find it gets messed up somewhere along the line. Right now, we have to take the technology that exists, and exploit it, use it., for our own benefit, not for the benefit of the advertisers. I donﾒt think thereﾒs enough time to start making a new technology. After weﾒve gotten rid of the evils, and can sit back, relax, and have a smoke. THEN we can start making the new fantastic Aquarian age technology- the pleasure technology. But we canﾒt do that yet.
JUD: One of the lessons I think weﾒve learned from the Art and Technology collaborations is that the artist has to learn some of the technology himself. As Paik says, you have to make your own mistakes so you can make your own discoveries.
ERIC: Itﾒs true. I admit that Iﾒve had it easy. But,, probably, individuals artists will find technical people to work with them. Thatﾒs an immediate solution.
JUD: Thatﾒs happening right now. Perhaps eventually the engineers will become artists themselves.
ERIC: The future trends will be art and science and technology all coming to a point at some- point. Itﾒs all going to become one- all headed in that direction. And if the scientists would realize that now, and the engineers, and the people controlling the whole formation of whatﾒs happening on this planet- if they would all wake up and say, itﾒs going to come together anyway so we might as well come together right now, then we could really start correcting a lot of the shit thatﾒs fucking us all up.
JUD: What are your immediate plans?
ERIC: To build the video synthesizer, which will be the preparation, the new instrument for television. In the future there will be people who will learn to play it very well, like any instrument., and talk through it.
JUD: Do you-see the video synthesizer making television a performing art?
ERIC: I see it doing several things. Itﾒll enable live performances because no sets are needed, you donﾒt have to control actors- you can present abstract visions, images, with music. Itﾒll work especially well with music, with live groups. And then, for making videotapes, there are two kinds of tapes you can make: the documentary which gets dated., and the other kind which doesnﾒt get dated. For making non-documentary tapes, itﾒll be very usefulfor things which donﾒt have to do with time. Actually they do, but they donﾒt become dated because theyﾒre not anchored to one year.
JUD: Are you more interested in color than in black and white?
ERIC: I want to go to color, and then to three dimensions, and then, whatever comes after that. But color for now. Black and white is over.
JUD: Do you feel any affiliation with the movement right now?
ERIC: No, I feel as an individual. I feel totally alienated from all movements.
ERIC: Completely. Iﾒm just concerned about the planet that I live on. The major concern that I have is mind pollution. Aside from the noise we hear on the streets, when you go home and turn on your TV set, youﾒre getting mind pollution, and your brain is being screwed up and fucked around with- the commercials are the biggest culprits. They have scientists, psychologists, psychiatrists, all working on the staffs of the major advertising companies, knowing all the tricks, how to influence peopleﾒs minds, so that they can make their millions. If I can get into TV, Iﾒd like to try and clean up some of that pollution. Some TV programs could consist of a beautiful abstract trip for an hour, with the right kind of music. And that too can trigger off thoughts, but youﾒre not triggering off any specific thoughts. Youﾒre triggering off a flow, a pattern of thoughts.
JUD: In which each individualﾒs thought patterns can take their own form.
ERIC: Right. And one of the things that will get the country back together is when people get their minds back.