Available Machines

Remembering the Experimental Television Center, 1969-2011
by Zack Lischer-Katz  posted July 13, 2011
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Without much fanfare, the past decade has seen the death of two mainstays of American video culture: the cathode ray tube (those bulky "standard definition" sets that still populate video studios and residential basements) and the VHS videocassette. While a small contingent of devotees of out of print horror films still collects old VHS tapes at tag sales and flea markets, for most Americans, the loss of VHS and the "tube" TV is only vaguely nostalgic. However, these technologies were instrumental in ushering in an era of widespread home video production and exhibition, capturing three decades of American life on tape. Another loss to analog video culture is unfolding in upstate New York, and although entirely ignored by mainstream media culture, it poses a far graver loss to the nation's media arts community. I am speaking of the Experimental Television Center in upstate New York, which closed its studio doors on July 1.

From its beginnings in 1969, the Experimental Television Center (originally called the "Student Experiments in Television Project") provided support to hundred, if not thousands, of film and video artists. Founded by Ralph Hocking (who became the director of the program) at nearby Binghamton University as "an opportunity for students and faculty on this campus to involve themselves in the production of television as a personal means of communication and expression," the Project moved off campus in 1971, opened up to the larger video community, and officially became the Experimental Television Center. Originally, the key element at play was access, which meant making the basic tools of video production—cameras, Sony Portapaks, playback decks, editing equipment, and title generators—available to the community. Up until the development of the half-inch open reel video format in the mid-1960's, television and video technology had been available only in broadcast studios (even television stations lacked truly portable video equipment, and used 16mm film for newsgathering, later transferring the film footage to video for broadcast), so portable video equipment in itself was quite revolutionary.

Very quickly, the mission of ETC moved beyond merely making equipment available, to promoting more avant-garde uses and to developing its own video manipulation tools. In grant proposals and other writings, Hocking posited, as did many other early video experimenters, a form of television production in direct opposition to the network-dominated television landscape, whose content he described in an early grant application dated August 26, 1970 as "televistic mind pollution controlling our society." While on the surface, the early ETC fulfilled the benign functions of the community access station, from its inception it also embodied counter-cultural and avant-garde notions directly at odds with mainstream television culture. This was most clearly expressed through the importance the Center placed on the development of new video tools and technologies, which broke with the cultural and technological hegemony of broadcast television and its purely passive, two-dimensional, and narrative-bound construction.

Taking inspiration from experimental audio synthesis, the center developed complex systems that used control voltages to manipulate video and audio signals, facilitating greater levels of abstraction and image control for the artist. Using voltage control allows the user to manipulate in real time the parameters of the video signal—hue, chroma, luminance, horizontal and vertical sync—with signals generated by oscillators. Coupled with a variety of other devices, like keyers, sequencers and raster manipulators, synthesizer systems can create unique video effects: "a method of finding what you don't know," as Hocking puts it.

As ETC embarked on tool development, it also began to act as fiscal sponsor for artists' grants, directly providing grants to artists, and offering artist residencies. Initially, video artists like Nam June Paik would stay at the center for several months, teaching workshops, and creating new work. More recently, the residency offered 24-hour access to the ETC studio over a brief but intense five-day period (after a quick orientation, the program coordinator, Hank Rudolph, while always available for questions, literally handed artists the keys). Those who have created work in the ETC studio include filmmakers like Barbara Hammer, Larry Gottheim, Alan Berliner, and Lynne Sachs and video artists like Walter Wright, Gary Hill, Barbara Buckner, and Shalom Gorewitz, to name just a few.

In May, I followed media artist and educator Carl Diehl, 200 miles northwest of New York City to the small town of Owego, to see what actually transpired at ETC's renowned "artist in residence" program. The village of Owego, New York has one main road, one set of traffic lights, and a handful of small businesses. The ETC studio lies beyond a nondescript door with crisp hand-painted letters ("Experimental Television Center, LTD"), up two flights of steep wooden stairs above a storefront on the main road. This intimate loft space contains an audiovisual bonanza—all manner of cameras, video synthesizers, old Amiga computers running video processing software, keyers, sequencers, monitors, switchers, and of course, the eye-catching "wobbulator," officially known as the Raster Manipulation Unit.

The wobbulator is a small TV monitor that appears to have somehow catapulted itself out of its housing; cables and electromagnetic coils hang off its naked cathode ray tube. The machine has been "hacked'" or "circuit-bended," long before this terminology entered the vernacular, and by magnetically manipulating the flow of electrons that scan across the back of the CRT screen, it produces manipulated images that no other machine can come close to producing, analog or digital. The creators of ETC and the artists who use the space are interested in literally and figuratively deconstructing the video apparatus, in the process creating new paradigms of interacting with time-based media that are not only alien to the broadcast studio, but also a bit out of place in the context of the experimental filmmaker's trusty Bolex and optical printer.

The wobbulator

The video processing systems at ETC are very open-ended and they offer many possibilities. "Nothing is pre-patched," explains Hank Rudolph, "so you have all these machines, cameras, decks and so forth, processing tools, and then there's two routing systems so that you can go from any point to any other point." Once a signal is routed into the system there are virtually unlimited ways in which it can be manipulated, rerouted, and further manipulated ad infinitum. Techniques that artists have employed over the years run the gamut. Hank Linhart and Joshua Fried effectively "scratched" open-reel half-inch videotape like a vinyl record while creating It's Gonna Be a Great Day (1981). In Peer Bode's punny Blue, he runs a monochromatic camera into the blue input on the Paik/Abe colorizer, synthetically recreating the blueberries of Larry Gottheim's earlier Blues. Kenneth Dominick's hour-long vérité piece documents the construction of the perfect birch bark canoe in Ideal Canoe. Walter Wright's raster manipulation techniques deal directly with the trajectory of electrons in the cathode ray tube, in conjunction with analog synthesis, in works like Paper Shoes.

When ETC was in its infancy, Ralph Hocking conceptualized a form of video production that more closely mimicked the freedom of the other arts, predicting a future in which video artists would "wake up in the morning and practice their art making as painters, sculptors, others in the visual arts, musicians, dancers and others in performing arts also do. It seemed not enough to occasionally visit the stuff of the art making." Rather than booking time in a production or postproduction studio, he hoped artists would have video tools in their own workspaces. "We were committed to disseminating the tools—to help put them in the hands of individual artists," Sherry Miller Hocking, Assistant Director of ETC, explained in an interview with Kathy High, included within the liner notes of the Experimental Television Center, 1969-2009 DVD set. "Essentially we were trying to put ourselves out of business. Once all artists could have in their individual studios these creative tools, there would be no more need for ‘media centers' like ETC." ETC followed this vision by quickly becoming a test bed for new video tools, starting with the construction of simple voltage control boxes, the installation of a Paik/Abe Video Synthesizer by Nam-Jun Paik and video engineer Shuya Abe in 1972, and continuing through 40 years of experimentation under the guidance of Ralph Hocking, Richard Brewster, Walter Wright, and video synthesizer designer David Jones. In the beginning, the ETC designers modified off-the-shelf video equipment to suit the requests of artists but quickly started to design and build their own video processing tools.

While many of the artists who came through ETC had some technical background—Walter Wright, a frequent visitor, was building his own synthesizer system from scratch—the user interfaces of the ETC system did not require an engineering degree or a complete comprehension of the electronic processes at work in each part of the system. In his final report to ETC, Carl Diehl describes the process by which he was initially trained on the studio's equipment:  "While I was puzzled initially, particularly by the daunting matrix board, I found the system was familiar conceptually by way of my experience with graphical programming environments."  Each artist typically brings his or her own idiosyncratic techniques to the ETC studio and applies them within an extremely flexible framework. When he started his residency, Diehl was "enamored by the wobbulator, finding its eclectic electronic gestures to be elegant demonstrations of imaging processes distinctly unlike film or digital media." He developed an intuitive understanding of this complex machine, and eventually recorded a tape, which he then ran "back through the system to experiment with permutations available on the Jones colorizer."

Controls and cables at the ETC studio

In the residencies, it is fairly typical for artists to bring a small batch of raw material, manipulate it in the system, and produce extensive quantities of new raw material.  In this sense, ETC was most decidedly not a video production studio, in terms of what the artists produced or how they interacted with the system. "If you come from a strict conventional background of production or post-production," says Hank Rudolph, "it might be difficult to get your bearings at first conceptually and technically and try to understand what the system does. Because you could come in here with 20 minutes of raw material, and by the time you go through all the permutations of that material, you may wind up with two hours of... raw, processed material....  I think people who have worked in any kind of performative way have an advantage." Indeed, watching Carl and his sound artist collaborator Nat Hawks processing video and audio simultaneously—audio affecting video and vice versa—it was clear that this was more of a synesthetic performance than an editing session. The artists would be subtly twisting knobs at one moment, and then Carl would suddenly bolt across the room to reposition a black and white video camera passing an image into one of the color inputs on the Jones Colorizer.  At the same time Nat would patch a new oscillator into the audio signal, which was now modulating the video signal through the wobbulator. Carl would go on to mix in some digitally emulated video filters and oscillators from a program called Isadora, and a whole new world of video permutations would open up. There is something very hand-made about these machines, and the video they produce can have a very warm and painterly quality to it. "You can see the hand of an artist making the work," Sherry Miller Hocking says, in an interview conducted by Critical Artware. "You can't always turn a dial completely smoothly.  The artifact of the artist is still there. It's like the texture of brushstrokes."

Carl Diehl and Nat Hawks at work

In January 2011, a notice appeared on the ETC website, stating bluntly that "the Studio will close as of July 1, 2011. This will end the residency program and workshop offerings." The statement also indicated that other ETC funding programs will also cease, and that "ETC is working with the Electronic Media and Film Program at the New York State Council on the Arts to transition the grants programs to other organizations in the State." The statement concluded on a hopeful note, suggesting that the ETC founders are "looking at ways that the Residency Program could be continued, and a home for our archives. Additional information will be posted soon."

While unfortunate, this announcement makes a clear case for why ETC is closing its doors. After decades of innovation and financial and creative nurturing of media artists, the founders and directors of ETC have reached a point where the obstacles to continuing the organization outweigh the benefit to the community. For one thing, the studio is not ADA compliant (i.e., is not accessible for persons with disabilities), which now makes ETC ineligible for certain types of grant funding, and the increasingly cumbersome accounting and organizational laws have become too costly for such a small organization to follow. The founders also feel that ETC has served its purpose and that other arts organizations are able to provide similar services.

Ralph and Sherry M. Hocking are currently in negotiations with local universities and other organizations that could take on the responsibility of maintaining the studio, albeit in a different location. One of their main concerns is that an institution that may want to acquire the studio's equipment may not be able to commit to keeping the machines accessible to the arts community for more than a couple of years into the future.

In June, Ralph Hocking added a cryptic page to the ETC website entitled "Available Machines." Clicking on this link reveals a statement that is half manifesto and half garage sale notice. "If you see something interesting let me know," the statement begins, quickly soliciting offers, cash or otherwise: "Are you willing to pay me for it? If so, how much? You buy it and it is yours to do with it what you will." The statement concludes: "These machines need someone capable of defining and maintaining their purpose. Repair parts might not be readily available."

In my recent conversations with Sherry Miller Hocking, she tried to make it clear that "ETC is not going away." The ETC founders are continuing to work hard to preserve and disseminate the Center's legacy through digitizing papers and ephemera from the past 40 years, maintaining and further developing their Video History website, which seeks to document the history of video technology and art, releasing DVDs, and digitizing the ETC collection of artists' tapes. ETC has already released one DVD set, which, with the help of Bill Seery, owner of the New York post-production house Mercer Media, and Maria Elena Venuto, director of the Standby Program, a non-profit media arts service organization, involved digitizing 100 video works made by artists at ETC. The Experimental Television Center: 1969-2009 consists of five double-sided discs containing works produced by filmmakers like Nicholas Ray, who worked with University of Binghamton students to create performances that manipulated live video using keyers and other video filters, as well as film and video artists like Gary Hill, Barbara Hammer, Alan Berliner, and nearly 100 others. ETC is also planning to release a collection of DVDs that will demonstrate how many of the machines in the ETC studio are controlled and what sort of video manipulations each is capable of producing.

A new book, Tools: Analogs and Intersections: Video and Media Art Histories, edited by Sherry Miller Hocking, Kathy High from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Mona Jimenez of New York University's Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Program will be published next year by Intellect Books. Focusing on a core sample of video manipulation tools, including the Rutt-Etra Video Synthesizer, the Sandin Image Processor, the Paik/Abe Video Synthesizer, and the Jones Buffer, the book will explore "artistic practices as 'dialogues with the machine';" and also contain archival material, including technical drawings, artists' renderings and manifestos, photos and interviews.

Beyond what has been digitized for the DVD set, ETC also has an extensive archive of other videos produced at the studio, as well as "reference tapes" produced by artists at other arts organizations. Much of this material is unique and many early tapes show significant decay (the playback equipment is also increasingly rare and difficult to maintain), making the need for preservation particularly dire. On June 24,  ETC announced an archival partnership with the Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art at Cornell University.

There is also a glimmer of hope when it comes to continued technological development of new video tools for artists. David Jones is finishing a five-year project designing a modular video synthesizer system that could be mass-produced and made available to the video community. While this system would not replicate all of the devices installed at the ETC studio, it would be a giant leap forward in making the desktop video synthesizers long envisioned by the ETC founders widely available to media artists. With the increased worldwide interest in modular audio synthesizers, Jones hopes that the first mass-produced modular video synthesizer will also find a sustainable market.

On July 15, Anthology Film Archives, in partnership with the Standby Program, will pay tribute to the ETC by screening a series of videos produced there. Jason Livingston, one of the artists who will have his work featured at the event, has been to two residencies. On his last trip up to ETC, he had an epiphany about the Center's system: "I finally 'got it,' by which I mean the video image became fully plastic and alive as it only can at the Center. It wasn't like manipulating an image. It was like twisting electricity or voltage."

Thanks to ETC: Sherry Miller Hocking, Ralph Hocking, Hank Rudolph, and David Jones; and to Carl Diehl, Nat Hawks, Jason Livingston, Mona Jimenez, and Leo Goldsmith. 

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Carl Diehl
Still image from Carl Diehl’s work at ETC, May 2011
Photo Gallery: Available Machines

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July 15, 2011 Tribute to the Experimental Television Center

THE AUTHOR

Zack Lischer-Katz works as Archive Assistant at NYU's Cinema Studies Film Study Center and is studying the preservation of digital media in the Communication and Information PhD program at Rutgers University.

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