Video Pioneer Comes Home Again

Date December 21, 2007 at 11:00 PM

Categories Performing Arts


Steina Proves the longevity and vitality of community through colloboration

In the world of international video art, everybody knows Steina, and Steina knows everybody. In the Santa Fe art world Steina is singular in embodying a "think globally, act locally"€ ethic. She opts to unveil her new work in Santa Fe instead of in far-flung urban locales; since moving to our little cosmopolitan berg in 1980, she has inaugurated each of more than a dozen new video environments here, at such diverse and ad hoc venues as a basement, a storefront, and a warehouse, as well as more predictable ones like the Center for Contemporary Arts (CCA) and the New Mexico Museum of Art.

To some extent Steina's immersion in Santa Fe's electronic-arts community-now strong, but in the early '80s still fledgling-reveals her anticommercial roots. In 1971 Steina and her husband, Woody Vasulka, founded the Kitchen, an artists collective where video artists, electronic composers, and performers could collaborate and experiment. Located in the kitchen of an old hotel in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, it was among the first places to embrace cutting-edge and cross-disciplinary work in video, dance, music, literature, and film. The Kitchen launched such American avantgardists as Gary Hill, Kiki Smith, Bill T. Jones, and Lucinda Childs.

Within months of her arrival in Santa Fe, Steina mounted one of her MachineVision "optical-mechanical"€ environments in an Armory for the Arts group exhibition. Titled Allvision, two cameras rotate around a mirrored sphere, the camera seeing not only the viewer but also the room, thereby superseding the limits of human binocular vision. By this time Steina andWoody were already embedded in the local scene, working with Godfrey Reggio (the filmmaker behind Koyaanisqatsi) and building lifelong friendships. One of those, with painter and concrete poet Doris Cross, led to the kind of collaboration that Steina has trademarked. In her multichannel video piece Lillith (1987), Steina manipulates raw videotapes of Cross reading aloud, then further alters Cross's dramatic delivery by mixing images, changing color, and running the images upside down and backward.

Equally important is the sound, which she changes in timbre and dynamics. Steina literally plays image and sound-both of which are electronic signals-in an improvisational way. In Lillith the voice and image sometimes are in sync and at other times jarring. The sounds and images tremble, shimmer, and roar. Both Steina-who has always simply used her first name-and Woody, also a world-renowned video artist and native of Czechoslovakia, now primarily show work in Europe and support their work by traveling the world. During the past three years abroad (Steina came home in June) the couple opened a joint survey exhibition in London to standing-room audiences, had a residency in Beijing, and crafted a large show of pioneering work by new-media colleagues from Buffalo, New York, presented at the mammoth ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany.

Steina is currently working with SITE Santa Fe on a major retrospective of her work scheduled to open in February 2008. SITE director Laura Heon first became acquainted with Steina's video work at Heon's previous curatorial appointment, at Mass MOCA, in North Adams, Massachusetts. Yet that Steina's international renown always taps a current off local veins is apparent. As with all of her video environments, SITE's exhibition will benefit from the artist's having on hand every piece of equipment that might go on the blink, from cables to connectors to replacement monitors to backup projectors.

From their first hands-on experiments in New York City, Steina andWoody have made a point of living with all the tools they needed-custom synthesizers, switchers, and hardware. If all these tools didn't exist, they had to be invented, as the artists learned to write software codes that allowed them to create with electronic signals in "real time."€ While many early video artists used public or community television facilities, for Steina and Woody this was out of the question. Electronic tools would be their personal tools. To see beyond the corny content of early TV and perceive it as an entirely new interactive universe marked their explorations. That Santa Fe has been home to Steina and Woody for almost three decades still surprises them. They first passed through New Mexico in 1972 en route to a gig in San Francisco. It was hippie days here; Steina remembers a colorful crowd at a performance at Seven Cities of Spain (now Geronimo) on Canyon Road. She also remembers being invited to crash at Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument by the Park Service family in residence. During the autumn of 1979 they returned to New Mexico, checked into a room at La Fonda, and woke up to marvel at the good coffee and sweets served in the French Pastry Shop. All in one day, they visited a realtor's office on the first floor of the hotel, rented a house, and stopped at the Rising Sun Media Center (now CCA) at the Armory for the Arts, where they met founders Bob Gaylor and Linda Klosky, who made it a locus for electronic arts. With a Guggenheim Fellowship for support, they left teaching positions at the State University of New York at Buffalo, relieved they wouldn't need to endure another brutal winter.

The pair live on southAgua Fria, in a house-studio that grew out of on-the-spot inspirations and the talents of friends. They perceive no division between home and work.A Brad Smith rubber-and-metal figure hangs from the ceiling in the large room where a two-story glass panel admits solar gain. In the kitchen a little video monitor sits atop the stove. Facing the busy road is an elaborately carved door in flames by sculptor Erika Wanenmacher. Steina recently remarked, "Santa Fe is an extraordinarily good place. There are spots and places [in the world] where you get kind of high, like Jerusalem, Iceland, Greece-and northern NewMexico. It is a luxury that there are so many sophisticated artists here."€

If their place has a history pacing that of video art, every generation of electronic sound and video equipment, including oscilloscopes and an array of clunky TV sets, is also in residence. For Steina, the television and a mastery of the tools with which to manipulate it into art are her equivalent of canvas, pigment, and brushes:

"Having been an instrumentalist in music, I regarded the camera as an instrument from the beginning."€

Linda Cathcart, curator of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, talked to Steina about their beginnings in video in August 1978: "I stayed home and experimented"€¦and when Woody came home at five o'clock from work, I would say, "€˜Hey, look, I have a new tape to show you!' He got envious, so one day he came home and said, "€˜I'm not going to go out and work anymore.'"€¦The first thing we bought was a sound synthesizer. The next thing was a [Sony] Portapac, and the third things were identical monitors, which we configured in a row."€ Steina literally trained with their first portable Sony camera by running along a wall to practice fluid movement; she wasn't interested in the "shaky cam"€ effect.

After joining an underground of video innovators in 1970, their new language was an international technical lexicon of voltage, frequencies, codes, oscillations, scans, and deflections. Steina remembers New York then as fantastically uninhibited, a party from day one. Flower power. Central Park. The Vasulka archive includes 300 hours of early raw tapes from 1970 to 1978 that document such freewheeling maestros of the era as Jimi Hendrix, Don Cherry, Andy Warhol and his Factory, as well as long-forgotten cross-dressers and impersonators-and parties, lots of parties. In 1971 they used their first grant money to open the Kitchen. Everyone was invited. If you visited the Kitchen in those early years, the grid of 12 TV monitors (four in a row stacked three rows high) made a neat joke of tinny livingroom TVs from which talking heads emanated. From all the things that could go wrong with your home TV-rolling, drifting, distortions-the pair made magical moving walls of sound and images, glowing monumental tesserae of electronic streams passing and weaving from one monitor to the next. The video performances that resulted are spontaneous, multichannel environments that retain the freshness of a jazz improvisation.

From the beginning, Steina has been a virtuoso of interactive video and violin performances (she studied at the Prague Conservatory of Music from 1959 to 1963). Her musical and poetic sensibilities are grounded in highly developed craft. To this day, whenever possible, Steina plays classical violin once a week with string groups made of "whoever shows up to play whatever is in front of you,"€ she says. All of Steina's video setups, multimedia performances, and interactive environments are means of heightening the perception of sensory phenomena. Mastering a rapid succession of advances in technology, her environments have morphed from a matrix of monitors for The West (1983) to the large-scale, free-hanging translucent screens of Borealis (1993) to the tilted projections of Bent Scan (2004), a live piece that slip-slides across all the surfaces and corners in a space.

Much has been written about Steina's use of the Western landscape and primal images of nature, but she once remarked that videos in Europe often have castles simply because they are there. To the wider world, such New Mexico images as those that animate Steina's hilarious Somersault (1982), videotaped with a small camera in a yard golden with aspens, or her majestic weaving of images from Chaco Canyon, must certainly seem exotic. But Steina simply uses whatever is in front of her camera. Whether the image is of a packed Tokyo subway, a lone cow munching oceanside in Iceland, the mad genius of Santa Fe actor Tim Thompson, or the intense fire produced in the iron forge of Tom Joyce-the artist makes them utterly new in their electronic construction and transmission. Then she plays these streams of sound and image musically, with her hands on the dials and switches and levers to make total environments that wash over and through us like nothing before.