Interviews

Upstate and Down with Pioneering Media Art

NicholasEconomos
Signal Culture resident Nicholas Economos (all images courtesy Signal Culture)

Last month, the New Museum held a public dialogue, hosted by Rhizome.org, in response to the recent publishing of The Emergence of Video Processing Tools: Television Becoming Unplugged, a collection of essays edited by Kathy High, Sherry Miller Hocking, and Mona Jimenez, that, among other things, makes clear the central role of upstate New York in global media history. That vast, often vague, less metropolitan expanse that New Yorkers usually call “Upstate” has been a major force in the evolution of contemporary media art. Upstate New York artists and engineers designed some of the first technologies that took media-making out of industrial control and into experimenters’ hands, and institutions like the Experimental Television Center helped to transform people’s relationships to media, providing funding and support in New York State, New York City, across the nation and beyond.

Because one of the book’s editors, Sherry Miller Hocking, is also director of the Experimental Television Center, The Emergence of Video Processing Tools also serves as a sort of historical archive and closing statement for the ETC, which has been rolling back its activities in the last few years. And yet just as ETC closed its art residency program, another media arts organization appeared, located in the same small upstate village of Owego. Since its founding in 2012 by media artists Jason Bernagozzi, Debora Bernagozzi, and Hank Rudolph, Signal Culture has garnered support from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, mediaThe Foundation, Wave Farm, and the New York State Council on the Arts. Through their residency program and by facilitating exhibition opportunities, Signal Culture seeks to create an innovative “laboratory” space for media practitioners — from artists and toolmakers to curators, critics, and art historians — and to support the creation of experimental media in light of upstate NY’s unique history of technology and the arts. I recently interviewed Jason Bernagozzi, co-founder and vice chair of the board, about what’s going on these days in upstate New York.

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Leila Nadir: NYC is such a global art world force that people often don’t realize that upstate New York not only has its own rich media art history but that it also has influenced and shaped media art history and many prominent media artists. Can you give me your truncated version of media history in upstate New York?

The Signal Culture building
The Signal Culture building

Jason Bernagozzi: Upstate New York was always a hotbed for innovation in technology and the arts. Before the emergence of video art collectives, the upstate and western New York region has been home to some of the most important innovators in electronic audio, including Bob Moog and Harald Bode. The emergence of personal video came during a time of massive social change, and with that came this notion of people making their own media to combat the problematic messages of mass media. Several groups in the late 60s and early 70s emerged almost at the same time; the Videofreex, while organizing initially in NYC, moved to Lanesville, NY, to establish the first truly alternative low power TV station by and for the community. At Syracuse University, Jack Nelson ran the Experimental Studios program that inspired Bill Viola to create videotapes. David Ross, a good friend of Viola during that time who also worked with Jack Nelson, curated the first US media arts exhibition in a major museum at the Everson Museum in Syracuse NY.

The Experimental Television Center, which began as the Student Experiments in Television project at Binghamton University, was founded by Ralph Hocking in 1968. By 1970, with funding from NYSCA, it moved into a storefront in Binghamton, New York, and became a center for technological and artistic innovation, giving people the opportunity to explore the medium of video as signal. The first Paik-Abe Video Synthesizer was developed at the center, known as an important tool used by Nam June Paik at WNET in NYC. Paik’s “TV Cello” and “TV Bed” were shown at the Everson Museum in 1972, with interfaces designed and built by Ralph Hocking. Several more innovative tools were created over the years by artist/engineers Dave Jones, Matthew Schlanger, Walter Wright and many others. So many artists came through the center over the years, including Gary Hill, Nam June Paik, Barbara Hammer, Peer Bode, Jud Yalkut, Kristin Lucas, and LoVid just to name a few. Many of Gary Hill’s award-winning installations were engineered by Dave Jones, whose studio still exists and is busier than ever in Owego, New York. Sherry Miller Hocking is responsible for so much, including being a champion for electronic media funding with state officials, organizing an important video history conferences, spearheading the video history project and co-editing a new book with Mona Jimenez and Kathy High called The Emergence of Video Processing Tools: Television Becoming Unglued.

In a sense there is no origin story when it comes to the emergence of this medium. These groups emerged and worked as a part of a larger rhizomatic cultural purpose. Perhaps what made these histories so important was that they all came about in an environment where selling one’s work was not a part of the dialogue. These individuals and organizations grew organically out of a very new and challenging cultural time, and many of them saw this as a way to push the medium beyond being an attractive commodity. I suggest that people who are interested in exploring these histories refer to the Video History Project, one of the Experimental Television Center’s ongoing projects.

Signal resident Benton C Bainbridge
Signal resident Benton C. Bainbridge

LN: For many years Experimental Television Center (ETC), located in Owego, was a hub for media artists across New York State, including many NYC artists who made regular trips there for residencies. With the downsizing of ETC’s activities and the recent opening of Signal Culture, also in Owego, how do you see Signal Culture picking up where the ETC left off?

JB: Signal Culture was created because we saw that there was a space that needed to be filled when ETC left in terms of creating a laboratory space that encourages new explorations into the possibilities of video, sound, and new media art. The founders of Signal Culture were all very influenced by the philosophy of the ETC. Hank Rudolph, our residency director, was program coordinator there for 25 years. Debora Bernagozzi worked for the center on some projects and was an artist in residence several times. If it were not for ETC, I would never have transitioned to visual arts from experimental music.

While we created Signal Culture in the spirit of the Experimental Television Center, we also developed our own philosophy. We believe that media tools from any era have their own unique language worth exploring within a fluid, real-time system. For instance, while we have some high-definition processing and imaging tools, it is not because of a mainstream notion of quality of image. We are more concerned about the qualities inherent to specific cameras and processes. So unlike the Experimental Television Center, we also have a wide range of alternative cameras like the Pixelvision, a dental camera, a microscopic camera and, the residency favorite so far, the Barbie Video Girl camera. We also have Raspberry Pi microcomputers, Arduino microcontrollers, a Leap motion controller, a Kinect, a wide range of MIDI controllers, etc. The system we have set up allows these media devices, new and old, to talk to one another, allowing the artist to discover new forms that their home studios could not produce.

Signal resident Barbara Lattanzi
Signal resident Barbara Lattanzi

LN: Residency programs often get to see artists experimenting with new directions and material. What sort of work are your first residents doing at Signal Culture’s studios?

JB: We are looking for residents that will take advantage of the opportunity to experiment and play with media, rather than trying to produce a polished product while they are here. We believe that all media making tools are relevant, and Signal Culture gives artists the chance to interact with old and new technologies. During their residency Jax Deluca and Kyle Marler tried to use almost every device and process we have available. They shot footage with the “Barbie Video Girl” camera, a low-res toy camera with unusual looking color sampling that is literally a Barbie doll, and ran the footage from that into a Jones colorizer, a rare analog video machine from the early 80s. They also processed archival film footage using control voltage interfaces. If you understand the specific languages in each media tool and explore how those specific languages can interact with one another, then you have interesting hybrid forms born from the specific qualities of those materials.

Most artists have been generating content in the hybrid analog/digital video processing system. Pat Cain, an artist from Washington D.C. whose work had been primarily centered around direct animation and markings on 16mm film, spent the majority of his residency working with visualizations of analog signals using our colorizers and pattern generators. Eric Souther spent his residency combining animations of images by Eadweard Muybridge in Processing and running those through our analog system in real time. Benton C. Bainbridge finished a new interactive installation, Picturing You, which he began at Eyebeam in NYC. The piece débuted at the Frieze Art fair recently and allowed users to do real time video processing of each other. The combinations of techniques have been fascinating.

Signal resident Phillip Stearns
Signal resident Phillip Stearns

Other residents from our first round who are scheduled this summer include Peer Bode, Rebekkah Palov, Kristin Lucas and Joe McKay, LoVid, Lee Montgomery, Darrin Martin, and Andrew Deutsch. These residencies will coincide with researchers in residence like Pam McLaughlin, Liz Flyntz, Kathy High, Gerar Edizel, and Mona Jimenez. Researchers will be working on curatorial projects, doing research for written works, and learning more about experimental media art practice.

LN: How has Signal Culture’s location in the small village of Owego, NY, shaped the development of the residency?

JB: Our residents love Owego. Our location is less than two blocks from the Susquehanna River. We’re in a small village where the majority of buildings are from the 1800s, with a beautiful landscape surrounding it. Residents enjoy walking alongside the river, biking in the countryside, or just taking in all the historic homes. It is a really funky place with interesting antique and trinket shops. The Hand of Man, a store on Front Street is an art installation in itself and we always try to get residents to go in there. More importantly, residents are finding the various stores really useful in securing equipment and props for use in their work. During their time here, Torsten Zenas Burns and Colleen Keough picked up some great retro games and magazines they used, so there is a kind of experience not only in our studios but also with the town that is unusual and exciting. Our NYC people in particular really get into a groove here. It is definitely a slower pace in Owego, and the environment and feel of the village helps them focus in new ways.

Signal Culture has organized Performing Media: Works by Signal Culture Artists in Residence, an exhibition of media art, at the Everson Museum (401 Harrison Street, Syracuse). The Everson show continues through January 15, 2015. 

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