Since Nam June Paik and other artists started using video technology for experimental imaging in the early 1960s, the medium has had a complicated relationship with art, television, and cinema. Paik began by stacking monitors and playing different images through them to make a collage-like effect. The Kitchen at the Mercer Street Arts Center in the early 1970s also featured sculptural arrangements of tv sets and monitors by the Vasulkas, Dimitri Devyatkin, Shegeko Kubota, and others. The construction elements were easy to understand relating to mass, gravity, and repetition. What was new, and to me, more interesting were the wave-like graphic designs that were pulsing through the installation. There was a relationship with structuralist films by the Whitney Brothers, Paul Sharrits, Klaus Wyborny, Andrew Noren, and others, but within an electronic realm.
For more than two decades, beginning in 1971, the Experimental Television Center was the intellectual and practical hub for research into the aesthetic potentials of the signal and raster. Hundreds of artists including Gary Hill, Dara Birnbaum, and Edin Velez learned and worked with the system designed and built primarily by David Jones incorporating his own imaging tools with other systems created by Nam June Paik and his Japanese collaborator Shuye Abe; Matthew Schlanger; and Richard Brewster, among others. Situated far from any urban center, unassuming ETC was a unique and much loved place, but almost completely unknown to the wider cultural community.
This brief essay is homage, elegy, obituary, and note of gratitude. It is not technical or theoretical. Rather I have jotted down memories of incidents, conversations, and visits with genius inventor David Jones, impish Videofreak Chuck Kennedy, visionary and loner Ralph Hocking, and others I encountered there and in the video art world during 20 years as a visiting artist.
David Jones fell asleep under the editing console. He’d come to the studio in Rhinebeck to check out my video. “This is what they’re doing at ETC,” he told me.
“Experimental Television Center in Binghamton. I’ve been building colorizers and other analog image processors there.”
“Cool. How does it work?”
“You get a residency for a few days or a week and get left alone. There’s a cot, small refrigerator, hot plate, and a bathroom, or you can stay at a motel nearby.”
“I was a student of Nam June Paik’s at Cal Arts.”
“A raster deflector and one of his first synthesizers are at ETC. He helped start the place with his friend Ralph Hocking who teaches electronic imaging at SUNY.”
We’d had too many beers at the Arnolfini Art Center restaurant around the corner and I invited David to the Artist’s TV Lab where I had a short residency to edit video for my cable television show RASTER. I showed David work that I’d been doing with doctored, electro-magnetically enhanced special effects generators and by manipulating the physical video over the playback heads in ways similar to a dj spinning an LP.
“Where did you do this?” We were watching processed footage of material recorded of the Indian Point Nuclear Power plant from directly across the Hudson River in front of a Church of Christ Chapel, an apocalyptic sect with their signature cross across from this dangerous energy source.
“Mostly in Lanesville at the Videofreex studio. I was always more interested in the form of the medium than the content. In some ways the images are simply shape carriers of light and color. I don’t want to make documentaries or tell stories.”
“You are certainly a good student of Paik’s. You’re finding ways to process with conventional tools.”
“Do you know Chuck Kennedy?” I asked.
David smiled. “I sleep in a hippy school bus on a secluded old railroad trail in Chichester when I’m helping Chuck. Too many people in that house.”
“I go to Lanesville about once a month for intensive editing for my cable show.”
“I help Chuck trouble shoot.”
I wasn’t surprised. Chuck Kennedy, chief engineer for all of the equipment collectively available to the commune, took delight in the deconstruction of devices created for limited and conventional television use. He showed me simple switches built into cameras that would change aspects of the signal/image.
“The Freex love fx.” We filled a pipe and I showed David some of the goofy videos I was doing with an ensemble of actor and dancer friends for a segment on my cable show called Life in the Reel World.
“I thought you said you weren’t making stories.”
“Just messing around with friends. They’re making it up as they go along and I’m pointing the camera.”
“How does Marsh feel about you tampering?” Ken Marsh, a video art pioneer and founder of Woodstock Community Video and the Artist’s Lab, was good natured and prepared for artist interventions.
“I forgot to ask him,” I admitted.
“I’ll show you how to re-cable.”
“I couldn’t have done this without you, David.”
I wanted to add a third layer of keying so that I could play with three channels of simultaneously running videotapes. I’d seen other artists, like David Cort and Shirley Clarke use this third channel for mixing and morphing objects, space, and geometries. Jones knew how to add the modular components I’d brought along.
David Jones was squirming under the console pulling cables and rerouting the mixer. We’d just met. He was a big guy, the kind of gentle giant that you hear about. He told me he was from Detroit and didn’t want to go back. He’d always tinkered and after he stumbled onto early video art he decided to use his skills creatively in collaboration with artists and public access centers around NY State.
After awhile we had the beginnings of a more open architecture system so that I could access details of the image with more control. David showed me how to saturate and mix layers of color. “At ETC you’ll be able to access the color signal directly and use wave form generators to shift any part of the color- chroma, lumen, contrast.”
“Sounds great.” I’d buried one of the actors in sand and other performers were aiming fans blowing sand on and off her body. David enjoyed watched her body take various shapes and finally revealing her nude. I wanted to color just her body to make it appear that she was part of the sand. “This will be a big hit on cable.”
“The key-through should work and help with the mixing of the channels.”
In 1976 the equipment was cumbersome, prone to unexpected errors, and accidental glitches that I came to love as an artist. For example, I learned that transmission and power poles in a concentrated area can effect the battery of the camera. I knew that what David was helping set up was experimental and ultimately I would let the machine lead the way.
“You must know Woody, Steina, and that gang.” I’d been covering the Kitchen and its incredible video experiments for Changes an underground alternative culture magazine during the early 1970s.
“Yeah, all of them. We’ve probably been there at the same time. I think I heard about you from Bill Viola as someone writing about video art in an art magazine. I left Detroit to get out of the city and prefer being upstate in the country with Ralph and Sherry.” He described the pastoral settings of Newark Valley.
Sherry Miller Hocking was the director of ETC. “Can’t wait to get up there.”
I started to mix and edit. David sat next to me for awhile and we got silent as the images took over. Later, while I fine tuned, he tuned out on the floor. In the early hours of the morning, when my eyes would no longer stay open, we shuffled through the chilled Dutchess County night to the guest house and slept it off.
I forgot, or didn’t have the energy to re patch the system and Ken Marsh was mildly pissed off while he watched me the next day show him what David had done. He admitted his awe for David’s ingenuity and inventive, out of the box approach.
Chuck Kennedy would have approved. A few years earlier the video art commune called the Videofreex left NYC, settled in a big house in Lanesville, NY, and changed their name to Media Bus. I’d collaborated with the Freex and they allowed me to use their editing studio regularly during the year when Raster was on cable. While all of the members of the group were comfortable with technical aspects of equipment, Chuck was an engineer and trained to install, maintain, and fix studio and portable systems.
During the 1976-77 residency at the Media Bus studio, I hope Chuck was as happy to see me as I was to see him. He gleefully tried all kinds of probably dangerous things to help me “fuck up” the image while not losing the ability to play something back. Like many young vidiots, I loved the texture of the tape itself and tried many physical experiments to deteriorate the image by effecting the electro magnetic signal. Chuck didn’t mind if I ran wrinkled video through the equipment. “There’s more where they came from,” Chuck opened a closet door crammed with video decks. “Anyway, I love changing the heads on these suckers.” Chuck Kennedy had the impish charm of an electronic trickster.
ETC was something else altogether. When I first visited as a guest artist in 1975, it was on a main street in downtown Binghamton. Ralph Hocking, a professor at SUNY Binghamton, had been a ceramic artist. He recognized something in Paik’s work with the plasticity of the signal that was analogous to shaping clay. With his life partner Sherry and the flow of support from NYSCA, NEA, and other sources who recognized the importance of research and experimentation with analog and digital video image processing he had opened the Center in the early 1970’s for visiting artists to experiment with prototype, hybrid, and low end processing systems.
The drive from NYC to Binghamton was therapeutic and part of the process of being there. The solitary ride up full of promise and big ideas; the ride back hazy memories and sense of accomplishment. The first time I needed lots of help. Peer Bode, an important artist and innovator, was my teacher and David Jones was close by. The ETC console was literally a tangle of cables.
In 1965, Nam June Paik had introduced the idea that the television image was plastic and malleable through his synthesizers and wobbulators. These tools provided physical control over the lines and dots that make up the raster, the dot/scan palette for the television image. The confluence of Fluxus philosophy, technological breakthroughs, and psychedelic environment provided by his tools, video art was born with humor, insights into the nature of a mediated society, and alternative possibilities for programming and aesthetic entertainment.
The basic idea of electromagnetic manipulation of and play with the signal had a long history in music before Paik and his Japanese collaborator Shuye Abe built their video synthesizer. Like the Moog and other analog sound instruments, the shaping and creation of new images requires craft with three kinds of wave forms- sine, triangle, and ramp. One selects the kind, duration, and intensity and what to control. I was immediately interested in the breath-like quality of the wave forms and Peer showed me how to do basic patches to make details of color rise and fall in a repetitive way.
The heart and genius of the ETC studio was the matrix through which any source material from a video or camera could be processed and mixed with several simultaneously flowing channels. I combined three or more video images through simultaneously processing devices simply by moving the switches on the front of the matrix. For example, one channel might be going through a colorizer with voltage controls set to change the reds so that they oversaturate, return to normal in a loop. A second channel might be going through the wobbulator so that the image is gently waving. A third channel might be going through the prototype digital frame buffer set to sequence grab/release of the visuals. Each of these might then go through a series of image enhancement or signal correction filters before getting mixed on three separate special effect generator tracks.
Peer, an artist I list with the “structuralists”, was an efficient and effective teacher, after a few days I got the logic and was ready to more seriously try imaging experiments. Watching Peer Bode’s work was also very helpful in see ing permutations of processes, often created with his own personally built tools. Bode and others focusing on pure experimentation were inspirational, but seemed somewhat quixotic. I told them often that I saw beauty in their work and they insisted it had nothing to do with beauty. “The object is the subject, the subject is the object,” Peer Bode might have said.
I’d heard this kind of paradox from John Cage and the Zen writers he introduced to his fans. “Are you saying that we shouldn’t use cameras?”
“Everything should be electronic or digital,” was Peer’s usual response. “Neutral, no politics, no psychology, no aesthetics, no point of view. Does a scientist working experimentally have an ideology or principle beyond the truth?”
“You make a compelling case.” Conceptual art was everywhere during those days. Structure had supplanted content in visual art a long time ago. “What about Paik?” This was a delicate subject since all video nuts loved Paik personally and for his contributions. But Paik created pop entertainment full of cultural referents.
“I’m getting tired of these debates. Any more technical questions?”
During my first or second visit, David Jones drove me out to meet Ralph and Sherry who were living in a remote and rustic country home. Most of the large residence was the studio where Ralph and Sherry did their experimental performance pieces and David often tinkered with gadgets on a well appointed tech table. I’d met Sherry several times before on panels and at video art events and she was a very hospitable and kind host at the studio and in her home.
“Don’t be put off by Ralph. He’s gruff but a good guy,” David warned me as we approached. I was a bit trepidatious since I’d heard Paik call him the video hermit.
Ralph was a hard person to get to know. “I only use tools that I make myself,” he announced as I got a tour of the studio.
“You’ve got the beginnings of a museum,” I said, admiring stacks of early tvs.
“You haven’t seen half of it.” With his sprawling real estate and two floors downtown for ETC he followed his passion for buying old sets. “Check out those round screens.”
“Do you think of doing something with them?” I innocently asked.
Ralph stormed away and Sherry continued the tour and served lunch.
“Did I say something wrong?”
“We’re very careful about language and certain things rub Ralph the wrong way,” Sherry tried to explain.
Ralph had a master teacher’s way of demanding attention to intonation. “We’re not about product. We don’t think about doing things.”
“In a Zen way?” As in many Zen stories, the teacher doesn’t answer the question.
“We’re offering a place that’s meant to be purely for experimentation and process, not programs or alternative television.”
Ralph was very emphatic. He was of another generation; had served in the military before devoting himself to art and education. He was severe with the students who were soldering and creating new “boxes” for voltage control or sequencing of images. I tended to be reactive and defensive around people with strong points of view.
“I’m not sure what you mean. Is this a kind of conceptual art lab that exists to create ephemera; for only the time the artist is present? What is the record deck for if not to collect the results of the session.”
“It’s what happens next that troubles me. For us, our guiding philosophy is that the intention should be first and foremost to study the signal for its imaging potentials. If the results are shown simply and with the only objective to show what you’ve explored, that’s fine. I don’t like seeing artists pledging to this then making things that show up on Educational Television or in discos.”
I could tell David didn’t feel comfortable with the direction of this conversation. He knew that cable shows and dance clubs were featuring my videos. Sherry hovered with food and beers.
Sometimes beer makes one more mellow, other times more mean. I was a punk Jewish urbanite in a remote valley town nestled with dairy farms. Ralph was an enigmatic mix of visionary artist and border control guard.
“For me it’s got to be more than that. I want my videos to be accessible to the public in ways that they understand. I’m interested in the structure and conceptual framework, but mostly I’m a dumb, blind artist going where the machines take me.”
Ralph rolled his eyes, “OK.” He smiled, the clouds parted, I went back to Binghamton with new energy.
In 1979, when I got back from time in southern Spain, visiting a small mountain village, I brought the footage to ETC which had moved west 30 miles to the rustic town of Owego. The studio was even larger and convenient to a few restaurants and stores. The back of the building looked down on the S usquehanna River and Pennsylvania rising defensively in the distance, not far from Three Mile Island.
David Jones appeared and offered to tour me around the village of Owego and the pastoral surroundings.
“We’re much closer to Ralph and Sherry’s house.”
“This is a very quaint town.” ETC occupied the third and fourth floor of the building. On the ground level there was a popular store that had gifts, supplies, served breakfast and lunch, and generally brought good cheer to the street.
“It was falling apart until a few years ago when IBM moved in, tax base grew, property prices soared. All of a sudden the downtown stores are important again.” There was a good supermarket, a movie theater, and many other reasons people at IBM would like living nearby.
“What are they building here?” I innocently asked.
“There’s a surplus electronics supply store in town!” David evaded my question. “Come on, I’ll show you.
“I’m happy for Owego, I guess.”
As we drove to the other end of town where there were a few upscale motels and a nice park, David filled me in on his understanding of what was happening at the plant. “It’s located just off a public road in plain sight. There are lots of fields and cleared land surrounding it.”
“This doesn’t sound good.” This was in 1979. The world was tense. The US Military was getting smarter about weapons for future wars.
“Smart missiles. Actually I think just the eyes.”
“Pilots can remotely steer the missiles or drones, like on star wars, from a ship or airport. From what I’m seeing in the surplus store they’re looking for ways to capture what the camera eye is seeing.”
“I remember hearing about these. Smart missiles that can be programmed to fly through windows and other barriers toward precise targets.”
“I think they’re making a future generation here. I have a feeling that this kind of work is being done at separate locations with only a few people knowing how the various systems will be synched and weaponized.”
“Ironic that ET C would find itself in a town that is prospering because of the war industry.” I mused. “This is right out of Isaiah: swords into plowshares. You’re finding the left-overs and using them to empower art.”
David showed me a place where he’d sometimes park not far from the IBM plant. “They have these little planes, like the ones I like to fly around a meadow or park, but the IBM kites would hover and dart without visible controls. I heard from a friend in town that he saw these small planes without pilots rising and falling in precise vertical directions, more like a helicopter.”
“This sounds very futuristic.”
“What would you think about war between pilotless planes conducted from a distant, safe site?”
“As long as it’s done away from populated places. You think they’d fight until the last weapon is destroyed like a game?”
“You’re kind of thick, “David teased me. “This is going to be a different kind of war, urban, always in the midst of innocent lives.”
I finally got it. “Sure, countries have to hunt subversives in congested urban areas.”
Back in the studio I was more interested in showing David some footage from Charles Chamot’s house in the Andalusian Mountain village of Busquistar, which is a Moorish word for hidden garden. Several people told me that this was the region where Kabbalists and Sufis met and instructed each other. The first floor of Chamot’s house, like all of the other homes in town, was for the animals. The second floor was for human living. The surrounding high peaks and vistas reminded me of Chinese Mountain paintings when at certain light, the peaks seem to vibrate.
I was telling David about the story behind my video idea for the residency. “I had a car and agreed to take a neighbor to a doctor. I didn’t know enough Spanish to understand that it would take all day. I understood that I should have the car ready early in the morning, before sunrise. We drove down one range and up another and after many hours of challenging curves, broken asphalt, and animals in the road, we arrived at a white washed village and I slowly understood that he had to get a number and the public square was already full of patients. He called the doctor “el corandero” which I later learned meant faith healer.”
“Hot. I was in the middle of a desert mountain range in a car without air conditioning. My portapak was in an orange back-break pack, and I got stung about ten times when I stepped out of the car with it on my back. I think I was slightly hallucinating.”
“Glad you weren’t allergic.”
“I had the sense to find a small stream and put mud on the stings I could identify.”
“Thank God for boy scouts, right?”
“They forgot to tell us not to wear orange around bees. Anyway, then I shot these images of empty mountain roads, olive trees, century plants, and finally the village where I’d dropped off my neighbor.”
We watched a few minutes.
“I’d like to patch the system so that the part of the signal controlling luminance would dissolve or fade in and out over similar, but slightly different timed video channels.”
David could always do things more quickly and efficiently and I was supremely grateful when he was willing to teach me and set up a basic structure that I could experiment with. I might not understand some of the engineering vocabulary, but I could see how I could layer several channels of video in a way that resembles the flow of breath while causing vibrations and juxtapositions between the flowing videos.
Going to ETC for a week or more several times a year became part of my life for about twenty years. As a young artist it is where I had the time and support to “find my voice.” It was still relatively unknown. Once you showed a commitment to the core principles a long term relationship would grow between many artists and the Center. During the 1970s I had a flexible schedule doing odd jobs to pay bills. I once walked out of a new job when Sherry phoned from ETC and told me there was time at the studio.
Being an artist is not heroic; it might seem romantic to those who haven’t tried. It’s hard enough to make art and be romantic when one is poor. Art is inherently undefinable: a paradox wrapped in a conundrum rocked by time, cut through space, watered down by life. Was our collective work about the studio, the medium, time in history? As a writer about video art, my first articles for Changes were about Barbara Buckner’s delicate Lost Pictures which I saw in NYC in the late 1970’s and changed my way of seeing. In Rhinebeck, I’d also met Gary Hill for the first time, and wrote about his logical transition from sculpture to electronics. Both young artists were experimenting with the formal content but also connecting to contemporary realities, philosophy, beauty, and language in ways that made sense for the medium. What lasts in these early works is the harmony between content and technique; narrative and structure. If there is a heroic element in their work it is their perseverance and dedication to home-made processing tools.
At the same time there are risks that an artist might make beyond the psychological. Working alone in and around The Meadowlands, in NJ, for example, I was often stopped by police, buzzed by trains, and assaulted by the smells. In Israel after innocently pulling out my camera in the city of Beer Sheva, I was almost immediately surrounded by soldiers with drawn weapons demanding the tape I hadn’t even started to shoot. I’ve been hours away from being in places where terrorist bombs exploded in Spain and India. In making US Sweat, one of my early ETC projects, I survived weeks of tornadoes only to get shot-at during 4th of July party in Kentucky by the drunk host on a rooftop near the banks of the Ohio River. “Don’t worry,” he told me. “I’m shootin’ into Ohio and I don’t care what I hit there.” Golan Heights, unexploded mines. Haiti, guards with machine guns glare at me when I try to record Sweet Mickey. South Bronx, 1984, “What’s to stop me from taking that camera,” he said with menace. I glanced over my shoulders at the watchful eyes of Malik el Amin. The would be thief followed my deliberate nonverbal move and walked away. I can go on but I’m afraid it would already add to more than nine (lives). I wanted to be everything, a student, tourist, friend, journalist, artist, contemplative. Now I will settle for lucky.
ETC reflects the (eschatological) tensions in the souls, hearts, minds, and physicality of artists. Capable of jaw dropping beauty and unwatchable violence, the system, reconfigured by each artist who visited, became unique and personal. When I studied works in the extensive library at the Center as a writer, educator, and curator, I was always astonished at the diverse visions. Peer Bode’s work was cool and cerebral; Sara Hornbacher’s fast and pounding; Henry Linheart’s witty and conceptual. As the years went by and video art became ubiquitous in museums and galleries, the numbers of applications for residencies rose dramatically. As Ralph approached retirement age, he announced that the Center would close because funding was drying up. Hundreds of artists and patrons rallied with passionate pleas to preserve the unique place. ETC sputtered on a few more years. As a retreat, a residency, a time away for electronic artists the Center’s passing is mournful. In retrospect the vision of Nam June Paik, David Jones, and other systems designers predicted the revolution brought by digital technology which essentially subsumed analog processing into a more controllable and increasingly real time tool for video- graphic imaging.
ETC is ultimately about everything else. I’ve had a career long simmering debate with the purists like Ralph, Peer, Woody Vasulka, and Matthew Schlanger. I admire them all. I understand how their work is historic and crucially deserving of more attention. My instinct during the ETC visits was to let the machines take over while I could fine tune details in real time. I turned the record deck on when I saw something that interested me. Some of these moments made their way into my short videos. I usually tried to relax myself into learning about new hardware and software; review the matrix and make sure that the cameras were in synch. After a few hours of a lesson from Peer or David, I slowly begin patching cables and setting up monitors. During the residency I might accumulate 3 or more hours of visuals on 3/4” cassettes. Later, I’d log these “master” tapes and transfer them to VHS or Hi8 for rough editing with a time code. Through grants, low cost studios, and former students who wanted to do favors for their good ole prof, I was often able to edit in high end postproduction houses where I could also correct the often funky ETC signal. These embellishments, while low cost and “down and dirty” meant that my videos could be broadcast or shown on cable, an anathema to Ralph. However, I never felt personal animosity though our discussions over the years could be philosophically heated.
My friend, mentor, and the well-known “fool” Bob Rauschenberg famously said he worked in the gap between art and life. It never occurred to me not to jump off the deep end. Life is messy, funny, anxious, and unpredictable. I generally carry a small video camera with me and record clips that resonate with my interests as an observer of life and nature, most importantly movement; repetitive constant movement is the best. Just as a painting can take on many means over the years of its presence on a wall, video can be used like poetry or music, for solace and for expression. Ultimately, the viewer will make associations and interpretations that might have nothing to do with the intention. If the work created at ETC has any lasting value, it is in the vortex of rapid technological change in almost every field at the same time there is rapid environmental deterioration and destruction that threatens the future of the planet. ETC artists, like their colleagues in the Videofreex/Media Bus and many others, were generally idealistic about the subversive and noncommercial reason for the Center’s existence. While the form, style, and personality of each artist was distinct, there was still an ETC look. The artists who regularly used the Center fell between the scale of purists and popularizers, those interested only in the structural qualities of the medium and those incorporating those elements with a story or polemic.
ETC lost its purpose when inexpensive software replaced physical hardware as the dominant feature of postproduction and processing. Ralph’s often stated vision that everyone have their own home studio quickly became real. MTV, fashion, and the wider culture benefited from the ambitious engineering and artistic experiments at ETC. YouTube is full of processed video made by young people who have never heard of David, Ralph, Peer, Sherry, and the Center they nurtured. One can draw straight lines from students of the hundreds of artists who did imaging research at the Center and the evolution of PhotoShop, Final Cut Pro, and Studio Artist software. While many of the once new visual techniques have now entered the lexicon of conventional TV, the original experiments often remain shining testaments to this idealistic, pragmatic, and now archaic place.