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Signal/Form: Video Art by Woody and Steina Vasulka

Woody Vasulka

Woody Vasulka working on The Brotherhood, Table I, 1995

(Courtesy: Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology)

Born in Brno, Czech Republic, Woody Vasulka studied film in Prague. He made several documentaries before relocating to the United States in 1965 with his wife Steina. He then worked as editor on a number of film projects, and experimented with electronic sound and strobe light. In 1969, dissatisfied with film, he started using video.

With Steina, he worked to explore the nature of electronic image and sound, and directed several documentaries on the New York City avant-garde, and more specifically the theatre, dance and music produced at that time. In 1974, the Vasulkas moved to Buffalo where they taught at the Center for Media Studies at the State University of New York (SUNY). Working independently during that period, Woody became interested in the way the Rutt/Etra Scan Processor could modulate a video signal; in 1976, he and Jeffrey Schier created the Digital Image Articulator. In 1980, he left his teaching post and continued research into what he called "a new epistemological space."

Among his recent installations is The Brotherhood: Table I-VI, a complex work whose theme is the dilemma of masculine identity, but that acts as well as a reflection on the link between male violence and technology. Examining the relationship between sexuality and war, the artist casts an ironic look at man's self-destructive tendencies. Finally, using new media tools, Woody Vasulka sets forth a critique of the dramatic space of traditional film and theatre, while exploring new forms of narration. Among his many prizes and awards are an honorary doctorate conferred by the San Francisco Arts Institute in 1998 to both Woody and Steina, and the National Association of Media and Culture's award to both artists honouring their exceptional contribution to the field of media arts.

Woody Vasulka died on Dec. 20, 2019, at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

—Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology

Steina Vasulka

Steina, Violin Power (1978-2006)

(Courtesy: Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology)

Born in Iceland and trained as a violinist, Steinunn Briem Bjarnadottir (Steina) is a major figure, considered legendary, in the field of electronic and video art. She received a scholarship in 1959 to study at the Prague Conservatory, where she met Woody Vasulka. They married in 1964 and moved to New York in 1965, where she worked as a freelance musician. She started using video in 1969, and embraced it wholeheartedly when she discovered that, with it, she could control the movement of time. It was the glorious age of the Portapak (used by a number of conceptual artists such as Nam June Paik, Gillette, Nauman, Serra) and of feedback experiments. In 1971, along with Woody Vasulka and Andres Mannik, she founded The Kitchen, (1) a performance space devoted to electronic media.

Her collaborative work with Woody in that period was remarkable for its interworking of audio and video signals: by attaching the Portapak to a synthesizer, they created video images from the audio signal and sound with the video signal (Matrix I & II). The goal of these phenomenological exercises was to explore the essence of the electronic image and sound. Steina's installations often involved electronically manipulated visual and acoustic landscapes. For example, the installation Orka, shown at Iceland's pavilion at the 1997 Venice Biennale, juxtaposed two transformative natural forces - water and fire - which, in their various manifestations (volcanic eruptions, waterfalls, glaciers), reveal the workings of time. In 1991, she undertook a series of interactive performances with a MIDI violin, which let her generate video images as she played (Violin Power). She performed this piece in analog form from 1971 to 1978. In tandem with Woody, she was awarded the 1992 Maya Deren Prize and, in 1995, the Siemens Media Art prize. In 1992, with Woody, she curated the exhibition and catalogue Eigenwelt der Apparate-welt (Pioneers in Electronic Art) at Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria. Her installations and videos have been shown throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. Since 1980, the Vasulkas have been based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

—Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology