Steina and Woody Vasulka at BERG Contemporary, Reykjavík
It is not easy to encompass the career of Steina and Woody Vasulka and boil it down to few lines, as extensive and varied as their field has been for more than fifty years from when they started their collaboration in the domaine of the video. It was precisely in the mid-sixties when the Japanese firm Sony launched its Portapak unit, the first camera recorder to be carried and controlled by one person although the the video recorder had to be carried separately in a bag on the shoulder. This unit, now considered uncomfortable and primitive, immediately created a flux of experiments with a medium, which started living its own life independent from the cinematic camera and the film. Although the video did not offer colour in the beginning it possessed various advantages over the motion picture, which attracted the film-maker and the hydraulic engineer Bohuslav Woody Vasulka, or Tímóteus Pétursson as he chose to call himself when accorded Icelandic citizenship in the late sixties.
A lot has been said about Woody’s and Steina’s first encounter in Prague 1962, where Steinunn Bjarnadóttir had come three years earlier to complete her violin studies. They married in 1964 and moved to New York the following year where Woody soon became a freelance multi-screen editor and industrial display designer. In 1967 he became a part of the team responible for the technical arrangement of the interior of the Biosphere created by the system theorist and inventor Buckminster Fuller for the US Pavilion at the Expo 67 in Montreal. At the same time he began experimenting with electronic sound, stroboscopic projections derived from moving images and light-activated screens. Experiments with video soon followed.
Meanwhile Steina kept faith with the violin despite continuous auditions at symphonic orchestras in New York and proximity, which tended to sour the enthusiasm. Finally both got enough of the drudging and decided to plunge on their own into research of the new medium. The year was 1969 and together they had been producing documentaries for Alternate Media Center at New York University School of the Arts. By the end of the decade they had acquired their own Sony Portapak unit and a VCS3 Putney audio synthesizer, of similar kind as the first mass-produced Putneys used by rock musicians as John Entwistle, David Gilmour and Brian Eno in the sixties.
In 1971 Woody and Steina created the experimental group Perception together with their colleague Eric Segal, obtaining a grant from NYSCA, the New York State art council, which allowed them further research into the evolution of multimedia. In the summer the same year they opened The Kitchen, the experimental electronic space, together with the carpenter and stage-hand Andy Mannik, in the former kitchen of the historic but derelict Broadway Central Hotel, once the biggest and the most luxurious hotel in America. Among other events Woody and Steina organized there the first video festival, in addition to a special video presentation at the Whitney Museum. A good year after the opening of The Kitchen Steina, together with film director Susan Milano, organized the first women video festival, finding as did Woody that women video artists were badly represented within the new media. The yearly festival was to continue into the eighties. Woody and Steina expected The Kitchen to last perhaps three to six months, yet it is still in full activity as the world’s most famous venue of its kind.
Together the Vasulkas also worked to develop the Center for Media Studies at the State University of New York in Buffalo. They have received numerous honors and awards and their work has been exhibited at major museums and festivals around the world, including the Whitney Museum, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Berlin Film Festival, The Venice Biennale, in addition to becoming Guggenheim fellows in 1976. In 2014, the Vasulka Chamber, a center of electronic and digital art in Iceland, was established at the National Gallery of Iceland. The Vasulka Chamber is a collaboration with Steina and Woody Vasulka, and includes a part of the Vasulkas’ archive.
Their respective individual aesthetical styles come across clearly in their work, as their exhibition at BERG Contemporary will come to demonstrate, presenting historically important video works by both individually, in addition to prints, some never exhibited before.
Dr. Halldór Björn Runólfsson
at BERG Contemporary, Reykjavík
until 4 August 2017