Visual Music and the Paik-Abe Videosynthesizer

story © Michael Betancourt, July 24, 2011 all rights reserved.


An Excerpt from The History of Motion Graphics:

The Paik-Abe videosynthesizer was a powerful video processing device. It enabled an experimental transformation of video, and was designed to create complex, visually dynamic imagery, but had only a limited ability to reproduce that imagery at a later time. Constructed by Nam June Paik and engineer Shuya Abe, the ability to recreate its imagery was systematically developed by another video artist, Ron Hays, who explored and documented what was required to create a specific range of visual forms on screen in order to produce a lexicon of forms to use the videosynthesizer as an electronic visual music instrument.

The first version of the videosynthesizer was built in 1970 following Paik’s work at the PBS station in Boston, WGBH; it would later be joined by other versions housed and built at WNET in New York, and the Experimental TV Center in Oswego, NY. This device was constructed under grant from the NEA and the Rockefeller Foundation specifically to address the difficulties encountered in the translation of the artistic demands on video and entirely different constraints of the broadcast signal and engineers trained to meet the industry standards for signal quality, strength, etc. This discrepancy between the innovative aesthetic form and the limitations of commercial media is a recurring issue throughout the field of video art.

Starting with the show The Medium is the Medium (1968), organized by producers Pat Marx and Ann Gresser in conjunction with the Howard Wise Gallery in New York, and under a Ford Foundation grant, in collaboration with Fred Barzyk, Olivia Tappen and David Atwood from the Boston public TV station WGBH, artist’s videos came to television. In March 1969 the program aired nationally, showing six short videos done at the station by Allan Kaprow, Nam June Paik, Otto Peine, James Seawright, Thomas Tadlock and Aldo Tambellini.

Medium is the Medium was followed by a more ambitious program, the Rockefeller Artists-in-Television residency, that ran until 1972. It was a pioneering effort that was supported by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, the same organization that had funded MoMA’s “Television Project” in 1952. This new program grew from existing relationships between Howard Klein, the foundation director, artists such as Nam June Paik, and televisions stations interested in experimentation—KQED in San Francisco, then WGBH in Boston, and finally WNET in New York.

Again, WGBH allowed artists work produce videos with their facilities, and then broadcast the results in a series of artists’ programs. Nam June Paik and engineer Shuya Abe constructed their Paik-Abe videosynthesizer to overcome the difficulties he encountered during his first residency at WGBH. Paik’s first WGBH experiment, 9/23/69 (the show’s recording date), aired on the program Mixed Bag. This initial image processing piece required Paik to relay instructions through engineers and technicians; the decision to construct the videosynthesizer was to create a tool that would provide Paik direct, fluid control over his video imagery. The construction was funded by the foundation, and the first videosynthesizer was housed at the WGBH studio in Boston. David Atwood, producer and director at the station remembers the device was custom built and shipped from Japan:

At the heart were two small racks, two mixers—color encoders where you controlled in a very basic way the mixing of the video signals. Each of these racks was capable of putting out a signal, thus: in reality there were two synthesizers, not one. ... Besides these two encoders were two regular full size TV equipment racks. The first houses monitors and scopes etc, the second had a couple B&W cameras pointing at small B&W monitors that had been Paik-ized to distort a video signal. The signals were distorted by tone generators, oscillators feeding amplifiers to hand wound coils Paik had wrapped around the picture tubes of the TVs. The cameras were basically Sony surveillance-grade. These two camera, and the 10-12 odd others fed their signals into the encoder racks where they were colorized and mixed.
[David Atwood, Nam June Paik and the Videosynthesizer, unpublished manuscript]

This complex collection of cameras, mixers and altered television sets allowed the distortion of a video signal in real time in a range of ways—all of which could then be mixed into a single video image. According to Atwood, year later, after building the first video synthesizer and returning from Japan to WGBH with it, on August 1, 1970 for the Video Commune, The Beatles Beginning to End, (a video that used the entire catalog of Beatles songs, arranged in chronological order as the soundtrack), was the premiere of the Paik-Abe videosynthesizer. The imagery shown in this four hour marathon program of Beatles music and abstract video were described by Susan Dowling, a producer at WGBH, in Fifield’s history of the image processing device. What is notable about her description is the use of common, everyday items rendered abstract by their handling in Paik’s video, a catalog of mundane items transformed in the production process that recalls the early abstract films of the 1920s and 1930s:

All the images on the show—surreal landscapes (crushed tin foil), eerie abstractions (shaving cream), bursts of color (wrapping paper)—were transmogrified by the Synthesizer at the very moment of broadcast: “live” television at its most unexpected.
[George Fifield, The Paik/Abe Synthesizer]

As Fifield noted, the Boston TV audience had never seen anything like it, and the kinds of imagery it produced were entirely different from the kinds of video signal that normally aired. Assembled from a mixture of custom-modified, cheap TVs and inexpensive video cameras, the videosynthesizer was “industry standard.” In fact, it was entirely different in construction and function than the other equipment at the station, as David Atwood, the director who became the machine’s custodian and advocate, noted about the image processor:

WGBH in 1970 had close to the top of the line broadcast equipment and prided itself in setting the highest technical standards. In fact, it was a technical leader in the PBS system. The Synthesizer was a collection of the cheapest electronics around, the bare minimum. It was a miracle that it even made an image. But it was open to be used by anyone. And unlike the pro gear in the care of experienced engineers, which would yield precise video results, the Synth was electronically organic. Duplicating an image was illusive, in fact, almost impossible.
[David Atwood, Nam June Paik and the Videosynthesizer, unpublished manuscript]

The device offered a democratic alternative to the strictly controlled, regimented technology that met industry standards; that it created unrepeatable results suggests the underlying complexity built-in to analog equipment that was subject to the vagaries of the physical world. The videosynthesizer was not designed to follow the ‘standard’ since it was, from its inception, a device that created new potentials for video that lay outside the parameters of the broadcasting industry. This difference proved to be a problem for the using the machine to create broadcast-ready material: the signal output by Paik’s Video Commune burned out the station’s chroma filter.

Ron Hays (1946 – 1991) worked with both video art and commercial production, winning an Emmy award for his contributions to the children’s variety show, The Krofft Superstar Hour in 1979 and a nomination for his work on the PBS science show Omni in 1982. In both cases, it was a commercialization of his work as a video artist applied to broadcast design. He organized The Music Image Workshop (June 1972 – January 1974), a video art program that followed the Rockefeller Artists-in-Television residency program at WGBH, again with the assistance of producer/director David Atwood.

The project was explicitly an expansion of earlier work done with visual music, and engaged in explorations of the direct audio-visual relationships. In the grant report, Hays explains how the project developed. His aspiration to create a systematic language of visual form mirrors those of other visual music artists, abstract filmmakers, and the early abstract painters working before World War II:

Our objective is nothing less than to bring to music-image making the beginnings of a common grammar and framework. Without it, music-images will never attain the marks of a mature artistic discipline—to be both demanding and satisfying at a high order of creative expression... The first task of the workshop, led by Ron Hays as project coordinator, will be to screen existing music-image materials and consult with various artists, musicians, critics, filmmakers, producers and directors.
[Ron Hays, Report of Activities: June 1972 through January 1974, grant report to the Rockefeller Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts, 1974]

For Hays, the Paik-Abe videosynthesizer offered the possibility to create not only a language, but a general-purpose performance instrument. This starting point links his project to both the synaesthetic tradition, and places it in relation to other kinds of musical performance shown in motion pictures; among the artists who consulted were both Nam June Paik and Stan VanDerBeek, as well as examinations made of Norman McLaren’s and Oskar Fischinger’s films (via his fragmentary work in Walt Disney’s Fantasia). Atwood recognized the difficulties in trying to use the Paik-Abe videosynthesizer in a controlled, repeatable fashion:

Ron spent hundreds of hours experimenting and cataloguing. He wrote it all down, image types, settings, camera positions. And he could, with time and his notes, recall an image that would be close to the previous version. ... One fraction of an inch difference in camera position, distance, horizontal or vertical, would yield very different results. One tiny twist of a knob on the encoders or an oscillator, would throw it all off.
[David Atwood, Nam June Paik and the Videosynthesizer, unpublished manuscript]

Atwood noted that even the knobs were unmarked—any calibrations had to be done with a pen and piece of tape. The Paik-Abe videosynthesizer housed at WGBH was, literally, a device assembled without concern for creating precise, repeatable imagery. Achieving repeatable results with a highly complex, otherwise undocumented processing machine is impressive, as was getting its results put into programs since the machine was not a favorite of the industry-trained engineers at WGBH. Who Atwood noted “hated” it.

In his description of the project, Hays makes the importance of the Paik-Abe videosynthesizer to the creation of the finished works apparent: it is the image generation and processing capabilities of this device that created the imagery used by his videos. Video feedback was central to how the Music-Image Workshop developed its imagery. Hays described his experiences working with it as being more than just a particular kind of imagery, but as a medium unique to the electronic medium:

Early in my work with feedback, I began to see it not just as an image type, but as a medium of light. I liked to think of it as a new kind of electronic light. I compared it with what the pioneer light sculptor, Thomas Wilfred, had written about and created.
[Ron Hays, Report of Activities: June 1972 through January 1974, grant report to the Rockefeller Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts, 1974]

Wilfred’s work with Lumia was the first variation on visual music to include imagery: skeins of light that slide and rotate through an imaginary space on screen, creating the appearance of a three dimensional, abstract space; the connection of video feedback with the dynamic, organic imagery of Wilfred’s work is not accidental. Both present a continuous stream of imagery on screen; it is appropriate that when MoMA moved his Vertical Contrasts to storage, the room where it was shown became their first video gallery.

Hays found a means to control his feedback imagery by modulating it with the other controls on the videosynthesizer and carefully recreating his earlier set-ups. The basis for his electronically generated “vocabulary” of graphic images was feedback coupled with wave-form, sweep modulation, and sine-square waves. By adding these simple structures to feedback, Hays was able to create and modulate dynamic imagery composed in time. As with other video art of this early period, it was directly concerned with the manipulation and modulation of duration, a connection that Hays linked, in a recapitulation of earlier abstract films and with color organs theorization, to musical form:

This form of image most appropriately conjoins with music because, like music—but unlike painting or other static visual arts—one of its defining parameters is duration.
[Ron Hays, Report of Activities: June 1972 through January 1974, grant report to the Rockefeller Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts, 1974]

While the fundamental organization of his music-image was based on the structure of imagery in time, the problems of synchronization with actual music—one of the goals of his music-image workshop—presented aesthetic as well as technical difficulties:

Almost immediately, upon introducing music to the experiments, I concluded that no single image type, nor even any single combination, could be developed enough to complement the whole of a piece of music. Permutations of the different types were needed to achieve contrasts and complexities, as might be found in the music itself.
[Ron Hays, Report of Activities: June 1972 through January 1974, grant report to the Rockefeller Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts, 1974]

The visual conception implied by these comments is striking: unlike the earlier abstract animation developed by Fischinger were there were direct tone-form relationships, the organizing principle that early video imposed was one where the full image related directly and immediately to whatever was heard in the musical score. This basis in the full frame is much closer to the kinds of immediate, full-frame visualizations that John Whitney was developing during the same period, and recalls Mary Ellen Bute’s work with Schillinger’s ideas in the 1930s.

Copyright © Michael Betancourt  July 24, 2011  all rights reserved.

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