Panel: Arabesque, Mandala, Algorithm: A Long History of Generative Art
A live video camera pointed at its own monitor creates a vertiginous hall of mirrors in its feedback loop. The shallow distance between lens and screen is simultaneously flattened and extended toward an ever-receding horizon. The apparently automatic realist codes of the video camera turn suddenly surreal by exploiting an inherent effect of the medium. If one then tilts the camera at a 90-degree angle, this loosened hold on representation slips away completely into dazzling abstraction. The image of a monitor placed perpendicularly in its own frame morphs and swirls under the pressure of feedback. It pulls from the corners of the screen, and reconfigures into tumbling pinwheel that grows more and more complex over time. This live feed “mandala” effect is a simple means of divorcing the video camera and screen from the iconic and representational codes that usually govern it. Nam June Paik and Shua Abe exploited this effect and others to create their first video synthesizer at WGBH in 1969. They subjected live video images to a set of distorting processes that turned the visible world psychedelic and strange. The Paik-Abe Synthesizer, however, was still tied to the camera and its mimetic properties; it needed the camera’s images as the basis of their manipulations. At the same time, Steve Beck was working on his own synthesizer at KQED in San Francisco. Beck’s synthesizers, VSI#0 (Video Synthesis Instrument Number Zero) and The Beck Direct Video Synthesizer did away with the camera completely. His synthesizer was “constructivist in nature, not distortionist.” He created cameraless video by directly manipulating the basic component of video – the electron. This paper examines how Beck’s synthesizer, as well as camera-based synthesizers, proposes an alternative understanding of video and its essential qualities. Far removed from Rosalind Krauss’s reading of the inherently narcissistic qualities of early video and its feedback loops, this history of synthetic video grounds itself in the materiality of the screen rather than the transparency of the image.
- Kris Paulsen is Assistant Professor of Contemporary Art, Film, Video and New Media in the History of Art Department and Program in Film Studies at The Ohio State University. She studies contemporary art with a specialization in time-based media. In particular, her work traces the history of technology in the arts and the rhetoric of “new media” from photography to computational art. Her current research addresses artistic engagements with television and experiments with telepresence. Drawing on psychoanalytic theory, film theory, and semiotics, she examines the phenomenological and epistemological effects of technologies on space, time and bodily presence. Additionally, Professor Paulsen is interested in the legal and philosophical stakes of forgery, reenactment, appropriation, and copyright in the digital age. She is currently working on two book manuscripts, “Mass Medium: Artists’ Television 1965 to the Present” and “Real Time over Real Space: Telepresence and Contemporary Art”.
Full text (PDF) p. 1866-1871