A Video History of Upstate New York III: Electronic Media as Second Skin: Proto-Digital Public Pedagogies of Intermedia Television Art

cover photo credit 1994 Barbara Moore/VAGA, New York, NY

A Video History of Upstate New York III
Electronic Media as Second Skin: Proto-Digital Public Pedagogies of Intermedia Television Art

(This is the THIRD installment in a blog series on the Experimental Television Center exploring the community and institutional culture of experimental media education in an under-examined area of the first decade of video’s history. The series investigates issues of educational structure, access, technological and media literacy, collaboration, discourse, and public outreach at the nexus of higher education, public humanities, and the emergent media center.) 

For Valentine’s Day this year, I decided to revisit the connections between New Music, television art, and the media ecological uptakes of the emergent video art center into museum public humanities pedagogy.

It happened in a strange way, when I reached for an LP of “choice classics ‘turned on’ with the moog synthesizer” by Ruth White from 1970 on Valentine’s Day.

In her day, Ruth White was a celebrated “avant composer-artist” in electronic music and a pioneering crossover ‘filmmaker’ in pre-vhs cartridge television (1).  Hearing it in hindsight on Valentine’s Day, however, the 1970 Short Circuits LP as self-professed product of one of “today’s most gifted arbiters of what is termed ‘the new music’” in 2019 sounded clunky, technologically primitive, and…not very sexy at all, really.

So from there I moved on to Isao Tomita’s 1974 Snowflakes are Dancing, whose “Virtuoso electronic performances of Debussy’s beautiful tone paintings” were much more sexy, a complexity achieved in just a few short years of advancement in experimental nuance. According to “synthesizer pioneer” Ikutaro Kakehashi, this especially owed to Tomita’s “painstaking” synthesizer process with the “same equipment” that had been available to Wendy (Walter) Carlos in 1968, which here involved Tomita “taping individual tracks on a four- or eight-track, analog recorder and then splicing the tapes together. This put a high price on the time required to produce a single completed recording.” (2)

Even if I am to consider such prior landmarks in the history of new music’s melodic e-evolution as the industry-shattering, Grammy Hall of Fame winning, 1968 album Switched-On Bach—I have to admit, my admittedly historical relativist ear for negative capability can keep me from getting switched-on now.

Just putting on these albums can epically ruin your Valentine’s Day (though I’d argue the Tomita still holds at least). But on any other day they reveal a great deal about the experimental dedication—and time involved—before Hollywood and the contingencies of history could reap the rewards of decades of complex synthesizer innovation and programming leading up to an album as hot and sophisticated as, say, Vangelis’  1985 Blade Runner (IMHO).

Interfacing New Music with the Television Art Mainstream

In a previous post, I investigated institutionally networked media educational uses with the Paik-Abe Video Synthesizer through the flexible not-for-profit infrastructure of the Experimental Television Center, touching upon its concerns for real-time electronic media literacy in concert with musicianship:

“At its simplest the Paik/Abe Synthesizer is like a big paintbrush and the color monitor a canvas. The various images and patterns input to the Synthesizer may be abstracted, mixed and colored under the control of the artist. However, television involves the added dimension of time; like film it is a moving picture. So why not use film? Admittedly most of the effects available to the video artist are also available to the filmmaker. But the video artist has an important advantage—he works in real time. This immediacy is the interesting and challenging aspect of video art. The video synthesizer becomes an instrument and the artist an image musician”. (3)

A May 1972 Playboy article exploring the immediate playback with lip-sync sound of the porta-pak explored future possibilities for users’ awareness of television consumption and content creation, as well as their performative feedback at everything from parties to professional sports training to sex recreation. Early video programs via media centers at the University of Massachusetts and SUNY Binghamton (most likely taught by Ralph Hocking) were cited. (4)

Beyond this appeal to abstract art’s aesthetic synesthesia harking back to Der Blaue Reiter (now liberated to new heights in the technical medium of video), several New Musicians were crossing over and working at the cusp of television art as it emerged, fractured, and became integrated into the mainstream museum. As Alexander Wolf pointed out, Nam June Paik and Charlotte Moorman were deeply collaborative fluxus artists who entered into the performative and “expressive painting” space of television art from musical training, with four works designed specifically for her by Paik including TV Cello and TV Bed (5). Such intermedia works “built for physical interaction” that also employed elements of live television as “canvas” [think Kandinsky meets Pop Art] were part of Paik’s overall oeuvre that predicted “conflations of tech and the body”, and asked the audience in real time “to distinguish between reality and recorded representation.” Ultimately, Wolf points out, Paik sought to “naturalize advances in technology, particularly in TV, video, and radio” that would converge at the mediation of our very envelope of perception; “‘Skin has become inadequate in interfacing with reality,’ Paik wrote. ‘Technology has become the body’s new membrane of existence’.” As Charlotte Moorman performs with her TV Cello in her Google Glass-like TV Glasses, or with her cello outfitted in Paik’s TV Bra for Living Sculpture, can it be argued that these shamanistic screen media practices of montage with the phenomenological body actually fracture the mirror of our wrote perceptions of technological being, running counter to Joseph Beuys’ complaint upon his exodus from Fluxus that the movement “held a mirror up to people without indicating how to change things”? (6)

A still under-recognized geographical hub in the continuum of critical conceptual and socio-cultural commentary on technological perception from the pre-digital leading to the digital, Upstate New York hosted many an emergent video artist to gain notoriety (7), including Nam June Paik. Paik worked with Ralph and Sherry Miller Hocking of the ETC to build the “apparati” for his TV Cello and TV Bed (upon which Moorman played the cello). (8) His excursions to the area also included Ithaca, NY, where he and Charlotte Moorman performed a NYSCA-funded program at Cornell University, including TV Cello, in 1972 at the Andrew Dickson White Museum (since replaced by the Herbert F. Johnson Museum). (9)

On a more interactive and didactic level, the Experimental Television Center asked that this invisible skin of altered real time perception be discerned by the viewer through integrated media literacy museum activities and workshops in their intermedia television art exhibitions for the public. Including crossover New Musician-Video Artists who collaborated and worked in horizontal administrative roles at the Experimental Television center like Peer Bode and Walter Wright, such exhibitions structured public interaction with video composition that echoed intermedia laboratory structures of the artist-led alternative space movement. (10) In this sense, artists more closely associated with the Experimental Television Center extended the experiential ethos of the emergent media center into such museum exhibitions for the public.

The ETC exhibition “Information, Works and Activities” at the Everson Museum (a museum connected to early video history via Syracuse University’s emergent video program) accompanied interactive “Permanent Systems” in the gallery, such as Peer Bode’s Untitled “playback of picture and sound waveform images recorded of Everson’s permanent collections” with scheduled hands-on video synthesis workshops (NOT to be confused with the tidy, coming together notion of synthesis in Bloom’s taxonomy). (11) The exhibition also incorporated public discussion formats based on real time “improvisational… orchestra flow” abstract video upgrades to the age-old art teaching technique of live demonstration.

Another collaborative intermedia exhibition co-sponsored by the ETC at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum titled “Movements for Video, Dance, and Music” by Meryl Blackman, Peer Bode and Company explored “body movements, live video display, … delayed video display, live music,… recorded playback video display, recorded playback…[and] delayed recorded playback video display”, defining the piece as “an energy system at work articulating its mode of being present”.(12) Although this present-ness included a fluxus-like note in the program that “(It is not necessary to read this before viewing this piece)” the work defined its position with the audience as one of a socially reconfiguring opportunity to pierce the veil of mindless consumption and relations at the point of spatial and inter-dimensional intermediation at the prosthetics of emergent technology:

“This performance event is an opportunity to experience through the interplay of the mediums of video, dance, and music, the tensions which exist between the event and your perception of it. It is an attempt at defining the nature of seeing; what we can and can not see; the dynamic and the elusive. The viewer is an active participant in such a process, simultaneously audience and creator.”

Aren’t we all, co-creatively and post-humanly?

Looking back on such artist-led, process-embedded emergent media social practice activities can speak of the utilitarian fracturing inherent in the institutional mainstreaming of certain forms of intermedia television art into the market-driven gallery, as well as the inspiring structures of collaborative public humanities programming that might be recovered from our historical ignorance of this invisible integration of experimental, interdisciplinary pedagogical exhibitions activities based on the intermedia artists’ center laboratory.

The absorption of these programming structures—focused on process and experimentation in concert with the new music, performance art, installation, social practice, and intermedia art movements emerging from conceptualism and fluxus—into the mainstream institution from the decentralized emergent media center is yet another alternative history for us to explore in this skin we’re in now, the contemporary institution.  How can we unearth these practices as a resurgent possibility for renewed pedagogical and interdisciplinary flexibility to address emergent media literacy at the skin of the post-e ecology of the digital-to-physical?

Technology changes but some things stay the same. Let’s love and value the time and work and interaction process takes again.

(1) “Avant Composer-Artist Sets CTV Firm,”Billboard magazine. 17 July 1971.
(2) Ikutaro Kakehashi, I Believe in Music: Life Experiences and Thoughts on the Future of Electronic Music (Milwaukee: Hal Leonard Music Publishing, 2002) 191.
(3) Flyer for “Video, Walter Wright at Anthology Film Archives”, Box 60, Folder 9, Experimental Television Center Collection. Rose Goldsen Archive, Cornell University Libraries.
(4) “Shoot & Show!” Playboy article, annotated May 1972, Box 60, Folder 7, Experimental Television Center Collection. Rose Goldsen Archive, Cornell University Libraries.
(5) Alexander Wolf, “Life and Technology: The Binary of Nam June Paik”, Gagosian Quarterly, Summer 2018, https://gagosian.com/quarterly/2018/10/16/life-and-technology-binary-nam….
(6) Tom Finkelpearl, Introduction to The Art of Social Cooperation What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation, (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2013) 21.
(7) “Central New York Legacies: ETC, Cornell, and the Region”, Signal to Code: 50 Years of Media Art in the Rose Goldsen Archive, Exhibition website, http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/signaltocode/exhibition/cnylegacies/index.html.
(8) Nam June Paik, Attestation of Assistance from Experimental Television Center, 25 February 1978, from “ETC Video Processing Tools”, Signal to Code: 50 Years of Media Art in the Rose Goldsen Archive, Exhibition website, http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/signaltocode/exhibition/etctools/index.html.
(9) Charlotte Moormans/Nam June Paik 1972, Performance – program at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., from “Collective Concerts by Nam June Paik and Charlotte Moorman 1965-1980”, Fondazione Bonotto website, https://www.fondazionebonotto.org/en/collection/fluxus/moormancharlotte/….
(10) Gary Nickard, “Whatever Happened to the Alternative Space Movement?”, Contact Sheet 86 (1996): 26-27.
(11) “Information, Works and Activities”, 1976-1977, Box 60, Folder 14, Experimental Television Center Collection. Rose Goldsen Archive, Cornell University Libraries.
(12) “Movements for Video, Dance, and Music”, 9-11 April 1976, Box 60, Folder 7, Experimental Television Center Collection. Rose Goldsen Archive, Cornell University Libraries.

Works Cited

“Avant Composer-Artist Sets CTV Firm.”Billboard magazine. 17 July 1971.

“Central New York Legacies: ETC, Cornell, and the Region. “Signal to Code: 50 Years of Media Art in the Rose Goldsen Archive, Exhibition website. http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/signaltocode/exhibition/cnylegacies/index.html.

“Collective Concerts by Nam June Paik and Charlotte Moorman 1965-1980.” Fondazione Bonotto website. https://www.fondazionebonotto.org/en/collection/fluxus/moormancharlotte/….

Experimental Television Center Collection, #8229. Rose Goldsen Archive, Cornell University Libraries, Ithaca, New York, United States.

“ETC Video Processing Tools”, Signal to Code: 50 Years of Media Art in the Rose Goldsen Archive, Exhibition website. http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/signaltocode/exhibition/etctools/index.html.

Finkelpearl, Tom. Introduction to The Art of Social Cooperation What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation, 21. Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2013.

Kakehashi, Ikutaro . I Believe in Music: Life Experiences and Thoughts on the Future of Electronic Music, 191. Milwaukee: Hal Leonard Music Publishing, 2002.

Nickard, Gary. “Whatever Happened to the Alternative Space Movement?” Contact Sheet 86 (1996): 26-27.

Wolf, Alexander. “Life and Technology: The Binary of Nam June Paik.” Gagosian Quarterly, Summer 2018. https://gagosian.com/quarterly/2018/10/16/life-and-technology-binary-nam….