|Benton Bainbridge/Pulsating OK (1998)
Interview by Benton Bainbridge at the Not Still Art Festival Cooperstown, NY, April 25, 1998
Carol Goss and Walter Wright
interviewed by Benton Bainbridge
at the Not Still Art Festival
April 25, 1998
Carol Goss and Walter Wright are pioneer performers of the video medium. Their
backgrounds in improvisational music, theater, abstract painting and film cross-pollinated with upstate New York's analog synthesizer and custom electronics tradition when the Experimental Television Center opened in the early '70s. Along with other artists and engineers of that era, they conceived that video was meant to played, and started jamming in studios,galleries, concert halls and bars, trucking around overweight gear and yards of co-ax cable with
musicians, dancers and other performers.
When I and my cohorts leaped into the live video thing as the '90s kicked off, we had the same conviction that cinema was a performable medium, but little knowledge of our predecessors. In the Postmodern '80s, the abstract qualities of the medium, a fundamental issue to wrestle with when trying to 'play' video in concertwith others, was not really up for discussion. (The
critical 'bottom line' was that all video art is about TV, because that's how most viewers encounter a television monitor. What a load of crap- I grew up with the CRT as computer display, video game output, closed circuit monitor, home theater, and info terminal, and
my mom only let me watch TV for an hour a day. . . This critical cop-out is like evaluating all painting against billboards and magazine ads 'cos that's how we absorb most still images.) Joan Jonas, the Vasulkas, Nam June Paik's televised Fluxus freakouts and Ernie Kovacs' sight gags were the only video performers the post-mod crits would acknowledge (and Kovacs was really
more a performer ON video).
Then my prof Reynold Weidenaar turned us on to the Experimental Television Center. Get a residency, he insisted. The first visit proved our suspicions- video was meant to be played, like music. ETC's weird gear and the layout of the loft enabled us to approach video as a realtime collaborative medium. Kick out the jams!
The copious legacy of gear in the studio and tapes in the library made it apparent that this had been something big. So, um, why was this history largely ignored after "Expanded Cinema"? Why was Kit Fitzgerald the only person making the rounds then? Well, now I know things were still happening, just not in New York City. Yup, another great example of the 'Art Capital of
the World' being totally clueless.
Meeting Carol Goss and Walter Wright was a blast. They unloaded a big chunk of the 'secret history' of live video. Their initial excitement about the handmade toys, giddy experiments with the medium, and later misadventures on stage presaged many of our experiences. In this strange phase when video has become so hip it's almost commonplace, when the tools are so cheap that everyone's a VJ or 'visualist', the time has come to hear their story.
Note: comments added after the interview are in [brackets], courtesy of Benton unless otherwise noted.
BB- Tell me about your collaboration, "Live Blue Light".
CG- Live Blue Light is really a subterfuge.
WW- Go ahead, tell him what it means.
CG- Alright, you have to promise to not reveal this, because by saying these words, you're being indoctrinated into the Evil Blue Light Society.
WW- Tell him where it came from. It came from Stan Brakhage.
CG- No, it came from George Quasha.
WW- Oh, it came from Stan Brakhage!
CG- How come it came from George Quasha two years ago and now it's from Stan Brakhage?
WW- Stan Brakhage always refered to video as the 'evil blue light'.
CG- It's on the website. . .
WW- I know, you got it wrong on the website
CG- No, man, you and Peer [Bode] both said it was Quasha. . .
WW- Not me!
CG- . . .he's a film person, and he put down video as 'the evil blue light'.
WW- Well then, Peer must know.
CG- Peer's not here.
WW- Right, he can't defend himself, so it's his fault.
WW- What about our first video performance, 'Axis in Soho'?
CG- We met before that, though. We met at the TV Center. That was sort of a performance. There was no audience, but that's a performance space, because making art is an act of performance.
WW- Well, we did a performance.
CG- There was some history that preceded that. So we met at the Experimental TV Center in Binghamton, Walter was Artist in Residence, second ever, 1972, after Nam June Paik. I started doing video before that in New York. He moved up there as Artist-in-Residence, and I came up as an artist having a residency. There were a lot of interesting tools there, analog, that lent
themselves to realtime processing of images. At the same time I had a record company with Paul Bley, and we did a lot of recording sessions. I think it was 77,78,we had this gig set up for Sun Ra and some of his Arkestra at Axis in Soho. There were double sets, Paul Bley and Glen Moore did alternate sets. I called Walter up and said, hey, why don't we do some video at this
thing, this is really loose, we can do what we want. . . and what did you do?
WW- I brought the Paik/Abe [video synthesizer].
CG- No, you brought the David Jones Colorizer (laughs).
WW- I brought the David Jones Colorizer. [ I did take the Paik/Abe lots of other places: Visual Studies Workshop, SUNY Buffalo, Grand Valley State Colleges ...]
CG- You ran it though, you ran the switcher. It was a 4 input colorizer. We had two cameras, I did a camera, and a guy named Zoa, who showed up and disappeared, he had some long Dutch name,. The lights were very bad, so we had hand-held lights, and hand-held cameras. That was the first time we did it. It's a good tape, you should check it out.
BB- This is the one on the IAI label?
WW- That's right! In distribution. . .
BB- This was your first collaboration?
CG- Well, we both had performed individually in other contexts in that period.
BB- Where did your collaboration go from there?
WW- It went nowhere for a long time.
CG- Oh yeah, til last year, 1997. 20 years later. We picked up where we left off.
WW- When I moved to Boston, Carol came to Boston. Since I was now in the area, we visited, and she had her Amigas and all that set up, and we said why don't we do something with it? There's no abstract video art out, there's nothing going on, if we don't, nobody will!
CG- It takes 20 years to gestate these ideas.
WW- We got together again at the Experimental Television Center. I'd been going back there yearly between the holidays when it's closed. Being one of the early ones I could sneak in between Christmas and New Year's. So Carol and Vanessa [Carol's daughter] came down, and we did a studio jam for three days. Kept Vanessa up to three or four in the morning, she was a
real work horse. We just kept going, making tape. . .
CG- By the way, live performance is a really big let-down. You do this stuff for an hour and a half, and that's it!
WW- And you're just getting warmed up. This is our particular mode, since none of this is pre-set, we're doing this all as an improvisation. When it's all hooked up and it's all running, that's great, but it might take 3 or 4 hours or it might take the next day. Vanessa Goss-Bley - I want to go back to the Experimental Television Center. It was not what I
thought it was going to be like. I thought there'd be lots of lights, but it looked like an apartment to me. I could live there! I brought my own CDs, played music and danced. I was fooling around on the keyboards, you can make all the colors and pick different clips out
from the video. He [Walter] had the Shredder there. I was fooling around and making all the colors change, and that was fun, and I asked my mom if I could do it again and she said no
CG- [just kidding].
CG- The Live Board, colorizers, switchers- it's all sitting in our studio, you can use it anytime you want. You just have to spend 18 hours getting going. VG-B- I like staying up until three in the morning, it's not every night I get to do that.
WW- Now we know why she likes doing this. So, that was exciting. We thought maybe we could do this as part of a Not Still Art [Festival] thing and get it down to an hour or so.
CG- In the beginning, in the 70s, the thrill, just the pure absolute joy of the screen, the pixels, the palette. . . Walter had an architecture background, I have a theater and film, but mainly painting, background. We were very stimulated by the pixel, by the electrons, by the electricity. When we went into performance, to improvise with musicians who were improvising, so you had absolutely no preset references- everything had to be intuited. The sense of form of a piece was something that everybody was breathing together. There were no Aristotlean crescendos, diminuedos, finales- we didn't have that, [though] you have a musical background and I do too. That kind of performance is what we are still doing. A live performance I did in California with Skip Sweeney a year after that we tried something different. We wore headphones, we had three cameras and we had Bill Hearns' Synthesizer, The Video Lab. We had more cable than the audio people from the record studio. They were really miffed. The video cables were coming in truckloads, they couldn't stand that.
WW- Cable envy.
CG- We tried to cue things. I did the switcher with headphones and microphone talking to the camera people. We did that with the first piece and that was terrible. You'd say, "The sax is doing a solo, try to zoom in. . ." By the time they figured it out, the solo was over. Everything was out of sync. After that first piece, we took off all that gear. So we tried it more than one way. The only thing I haven't done is to script, to score. I don't know that I'd want to hit a cue, I like the process evolving in realtime.
WW- I've done some [live video] based on a script. We did some in Michigan were we used a prerecorded background video rear screen projected behind us. We were in front of it, working over top of it. Because you knew the background video, we could have a sheet for transitions, so if the background video was such that if it made slow transitions, you could keep along with it, we could keep pace. You would have base images to work with. In Virginia we did ones with written note scores. One of the guys doing music was a painter, so he painted the scores. Kind of like Cage. He painted them out in colors and symbols, and we were to interpret what he meant by it. In a way it was an improvisation, but he would tell us where we were in the score. The ones in Michigan were done at the Michi-ana Improvisational Music Festival, a small event at the University of Indiana at Southbend. There's a composer, now head of the department, his name's David Barton, and he hosts this conference. A lot of the people who come are not musicians. Because musicians tend not to improvise. . . [Carol gives him a look]
WW- His musicians tend not to improvise. Not you! Think about all musicians. Think about the schools. Think about all the classical musicians. They do not improvise! Think of academia.
CG- That's a downer!
WW- So anyways, this conference, a lot of the people were not musicians, they were video people. The festival has been going on for the last 10 years, so when I was in Indiana, I would attend it regularly. It's a music, video and dance festival. It's usually around SIGGRAPH time, in July.
CG- Why don't we perform there next?
WW- We could certainly do that, he has all the equipment, and you don't have to stop at 11 o'clock at night, you can go until four in the morning.
CG- Walter, why didn't you think of this?
WW- Oh, because it's a long trek out there.
CG- Oh, I've gotta go to Wisconsin!
WW- And Chicago, right? Well, we'll do it!
CG- You booked our next gig. Thank you, Benton!
WW- I was in Indianopolis 88 through, whatever, I stayed out there about 6 years. Those were people I knew when I taught in Michigan. They're a group that has been together almost 20 years. 12, 15 years.
CG- Walter thinks we should have this guy Dr. Barton out here at Not Still Art. He doesn't make tape, but he does this thing that's important that we should know about.
WW- Barton is usually doing music, the people with him are doing the video. He has a person he's been playing with for 12 years in a group called Plato, in the western tradition! That's Boyd Nutting and David. I think they're up close to 700 tapes now, which are all improvisations.
CG- And Boyd has this fantasy of programming the Live! Board.
WW- Boyd's a filmmaker and video maker. The two of them together always have this mix of media. David's wife is a dancer, so they've always got dance going on.
CG- What were you performing on?
WW- We performed on tin cans and stuff we found in the alley.
CG- No, video!
CG- Pinhole cameras!
WW- I usually did music, Boyd used the Live! Board, If I brought video I brought prerecorded tape.
BB- Can you talk about what you two were using in the early shows?
CG- At Axis-In-Soho Walter was using the Colorizer, you were doing all the switching. I was producing the event, shooting, sorta directing from the performance camera. Which was very loose, we were doing feedback, a lot of the images were upside down, it was very related to the music- there were no rules. Rules are made to be broken.
WW- The Jones Colorizer was a box with four input channels, each input was a black and white video camera. David designed it so that you plugged the cameras directly into the Colorizer and it would all get synced up. You had four black and white Portapak cameras, their images fed into the four channels. Each of the four channels had gain control, you could mix by varying the level of the different signals coming in. There was also the pedestal control, which is the
brightness control, so you could make some images white out. And you had red, green and blue color control, so you could separately color each one of those input channels.
CG- It was beautiful. You had a lot of control over the hue.
WW- Yes, you had much more control than the Paik/Abe,which had set hues across the inputs.
CG- Which did a lot of things in a subterranean,automatic way. The Paik/Abe had a mysterious way of mixing colors. Beautiful effects, but you didn't have 100% control.&127;
WW- You had almost no control. It was very watercolor-like. David Jones' could be atercolor-like, but he also introduced the idea of keyers on the channels. You had two keyers on each channel. One of them would key from white down, it would take away the white of the image. The other would take away the black, it would work from black up. So you could narrow
these in and create bands on the inputs. And then you could add color to that. You could make an almost cartoon like image, with sections of the image sketched out, and each one would be a different color and they would overlay each other. Or you could fade that off and make a watercolor image. You could vary the color channels individually. You could invert an input coming in, so if you had the same camera on two inputs you could have both a positive and negative at the same time. If you adjusted the keyers right, they would appear inside each other. He created a device that later on started to show up in special effects hardware. He created a system for constructing or deconstructing video.
CG- Was that 1972 when he built that?
WW- He started then, it didn't get built until later. It required a lot of development. He started with the keyers. Then he moved into the Colorizer, which was more daunting. The thing that David did which was unique is all of his devices were voltage controlled. On the front of the Jones Colorizer, you didn't just have potentiometers, you could plug in oscillators. That was another problem. They worked on oscillator banks to control this later on.
CG- Why was that a problem?
WW- Well, building stable oscillators. . .
THE PURE JOY OF THE PIXEL
CG- Oh, well, oscillators period. That was an art form in itself. We didn't do that in live
performance, but playing oscillators, having the oscillator be the image source. I have a wall of tapes with oscillators as the image source. The business of live signals and the balance between stasis and strobe, is an ongoing saga, and now of course, everything is stasis in digital, and you're trying to give the illusion of movement. In that period, there were a lot of different [devices], Dan Sandin's and Bill Hearn's. Sandin's was really a colorizer. . .
WW- Sandin's was a lot more. He called his the Image Processor. He had a colorizer module, but he also had a various other image processing modules. He had differentiators, he had filters, he had a quantizer. He had a bunch of different modules.
CG- I must have just used his colorizer. I did a recording session [ with Marion Brown and Gunter Hampel] with his colorizer. Well, it was a keyer too.
WW- He had the different modules that you built up. His was unique in that you didn't get a piece of equipment. You got a loose-leaf notebook, the designs and lists of parts, and hints on how to put it together.
CG- Which was how they used to do the ARP audio synthesizer, you ordered the modules and put them in this enormous case and you had to patch everything.
WW- Well, the Serge modules were like that. He went a step further than Sandin. He would send you a plastic bag of parts and a circuit board. You put the parts together. You put the module together with a piece of paper on the front.
CG- I don't know this instrument.
WW- Serge Modular Music System.
CG- Oh, it's music.
WW- Gary Hill had one, I had one. There's a bunch of them around. They were probably the most advanced of the modular music systems. Not necessarily in terms of the sophistication of the components. He figured out a way so truly any audio signal could be a control signal. It didn't matter. They all were one or two volts peak to peak. The only difference between the two was that the audio signals were AC coupled, the control signals were DC coupled. Everytime you plugged an audio signal into a control device it would couple. Everytime you took a control
signal out to a mixer, it would decouple. You could use all the oscillators as a controllers or as sound sources. You could take a sound source, put it through filters and use it as a controller. They were all the same voltages. Gary Hill was the one who got David Jones and those guys to build him video components that used the same control signals. So he could have his Serge modular system and Gary's Digital Frame Buffer was also voltage controlled. It used the Serge oscillators and Serge ramps to control the video. The two became one. It's the same thing at the Center, those oscillators at the Center are really built from Serge's system. You're using redesigned Serge components, they're using the same control signals.
CG- One of the problems in the early period was that there wasn't much of this equipment. You had the impression that there were like two of these instruments. How many Colorizers did David make? How many Paik/Abe's are there?
WW- Paik/Abes, probably a dozen. There's a few in Germany, a couple in Boston. Ralph probably has the rest.
CG- Quartered in his barn.
WW- Yeah, there was one out on the West Coast, they were spread around.
CG- Well, a dozen in the world. And David's Colorizer?
WW- Half a dozen.
CG- There was a lot of equipment that was used. To do live performance, you bring one piece out, and the cameras, and 3/4" decks. it was a heavy transportation trip. It still is with computers. Who all was moving this stuff around and doing performance in that period?
WW- I moved them around from the Center. I took the Paik/Abe out to high schools and the other public access centers, like the one in Rochester, Visual Arts, the one in Jamestown, to Syracuse, to Synapse. I took it down to Woodstock. Sometimes I would do a performance, and then a workshop. There's an old Afterimage that has our program in it. I took it to some galleries, to Ottawa, to the museum in Montreal, the museum in Toronto. I took it down to New York, the Kitchen of course. We took it out to over a dozen locations. I used Ralph's truck.
CG- Who's we?&127;
WW- Mainly it was just me.
CG- What was the image source?
WW- I used the system itself as an image source. I used Paik's own little monitor that we built. I used 4 cameras, but we used the light from the system was the input for the system. We used input from the monitors themselves. I put stuff in front of the monitors, in front of the cameras. It was basically one person.
CG- So you're a one man band. You don't need six people, you can do this yourself. That's a relief!
WW- I had to use prerecorded audio. Unless I had someone to play with me. That's why when Gary Hill and I got together, that was a lot of fun. Because we could switch off. We both knew how to use a Jones Colorizer, we both had EML synthies. We both knew how to use the equipment so we traded off, back and forth.
WW- The [old Experimental TV Center in Binghamton] Center's not that far from Woodstock. A couple of days a week, I would go down to Woodstock, I would do workshops and hang out with Gary. We did a number of performances with a dancer called Sara, I forget her last name. She was a resident of Woodstock. The three of us got together and did dance, music and video. We
actually used live cameras. We always had camera people available. That was fun. We did one at the Woodstock Artists Center, we did one at Joyous Lake [a local pub] We did a couple in the Woodstock community video barn. We also did a weekly cable thing. Sometimes Sara would come over and dance. That worked very well, because the audience is out there looking at their monitors. The performances by myself were '73, '74, '75. The later stuff with Gary were like. '77, '78, '79. After that I left for Michigan.
CG- Did you have tapes from this?
WW- Who knows?
CG- Does Gary? You erased them! You used the same tapes every week!
WW- We couldn't afford tapes, we didn't even tape- it just went straight out to cable.
CG- I taped everything, I have every tape I ever made!
WW- That's a terrible mistake that I made. If you're going to be an artist, it's important that you keep all your stuff. I never taped my stuff. It was live!