Artist Profile – Steina Vasulka

Published on 2018-05-20

Artwork in the salon: Warp (2000) Digital video, color, sound. Duration: 04:13. Edition 1 of 3. Courtesy of Berg Contemporary

Before she appeared at The Armory Show with Berg Contemporary, before she represented Iceland in the Venice Biennial, before she won National Endowment for the Arts and Rockefeller Foundation and Guggenheim Foundation grants, before she cofounded The Kitchen, Steina Vasulka was a violinist. 

It might be this original medium that made her so finely attuned to time, and to the relationships a human artist can cultivate — or reimagine — with an instrument. 

The Icelandic musician moved to New York around the time John Cage was becoming famous for chance-based compositions and Philip Glass was experimenting with algorithmic, additive, repetitive pieces. As experimental music of the 1960s asked how to remove human agency from creative acts, Vasulka did the same in video. 

She took an interest in creating video and audio experiences that existed of their own accord, separate from the subjectivities of the human creator guiding them. In 1971 she and her husband, Woody Vasulka, opened The Electronic Kitchen, a New York City space for artists to experiment with new technology and display their work to the public. (It’s still open and active today, though it has moved locations and now goes by just ‘The Kitchen.’) They also spent time at the Experimental Television Center in upstate New York, exploring the camera as an “autonomous imaging instrument.” 

Woody tended to take on projects that built new forms of photo capture and projection. He was doing 360-degree photography and projections as early as the 1960s, for example. Steina often adopted his tools and added her musical facilities to create immersive multi-screen displays and otherworldly landscape videos. “My video images primarily hinge upon an undefined sense of time with no earth gravity,” says Vasulka. “It is like a duty to show what cannot be seen except with the eye of media.”  

“The concept of a synthetic image is by definition transformative, dynamic, multilayered, and not bound to the constraints of a ‘frame,’" Yvonne Spielmann writes of the Vasulkas’ approach. “In short, the electronically simulated image characterizes not only the transition from film to video and from video to computer but, particularly in the work of the Vasulkas, expresses an ‘instantly moving image’ that is multidirectional, multidimensional, and ‘open-ended’ in a number of ways.”

In Warp, for example, she films what a human viewer can imagine was, live, a pretty boring scene of her walking around a room, towards and away from the camera. But in this hypnotic, nightmarish retelling of that scene, she twists together and spins apart unexpectedly. She created the effect with Image/ine, a Macintosh program she developed with Tom Demeyer for live midi manipulations of visual materials. The movements can be manipulated in real time, rather than added later as an editing process. The logic of the program the footage passes through is foreign to the human eye. Expectations are subverted in a discordant, disturbing choreography. Maybe it’s the dance we’ll do when the machines take over.