Di­rect to Video: Steve Beck’s Cam­era­less Tele­vi­sion


Session Title:

  • Arabesque, Mandala, Algorithm: A Long History of Generative Art

Presentation Title:

  • Di­rect to Video: Steve Beck’s Cam­era­less Tele­vi­sion




  • Panel: Arabesque, Mandala, Algorithm: A Long History of Generative Art

    A live video cam­era pointed at its own mon­i­tor cre­ates a ver­tig­i­nous hall of mir­rors in its feed­back loop. The shal­low dis­tance be­tween lens and screen is si­mul­ta­ne­ously flat­tened and ex­tended to­ward an ever-re­ced­ing hori­zon. The ap­par­ently au­to­matic re­al­ist codes of the video cam­era turn sud­denly sur­real by ex­ploit­ing an in­her­ent ef­fect of the medium. If one then tilts the cam­era at a 90-de­gree angle, this loos­ened hold on rep­re­sen­ta­tion slips away com­pletely into daz­zling ab­strac­tion. The image of a mon­i­tor placed per­pen­dic­u­larly in its own frame morphs and swirls under the pres­sure of feed­back. It pulls from the cor­ners of the screen, and re­con­fig­ures into tum­bling pin­wheel that grows more and more com­plex over time.

    This live feed “man­dala” ef­fect is a sim­ple means of di­vorc­ing the video cam­era and screen from the iconic and rep­re­sen­ta­tional codes that usu­ally gov­ern it. Nam June Paik and Shua Abe ex­ploited this ef­fect and oth­ers to cre­ate their first video syn­the­sizer at WGBH in 1969. They sub­jected live video im­ages to a set of dis­tort­ing processes that turned the vis­i­ble world psy­che­delic and strange. The Paik-Abe Syn­the­sizer, how­ever, was still tied to the cam­era and its mimetic prop­er­ties; it needed the cam­era’s im­ages as the basis of their ma­nip­u­la­tions. At the same time, Steve Beck was work­ing on his own syn­the­sizer at KQED in San Fran­cisco. Beck’s syn­the­siz­ers, VSI#0 (Video Syn­the­sis In­stru­ment Num­ber Zero) and The Beck Di­rect Video Syn­the­sizer did away with the cam­era com­pletely. His syn­the­sizer was “con­struc­tivist in na­ture, not dis­tor­tion­ist.” He cre­ated cam­era­less video by di­rectly ma­nip­u­lat­ing the basic com­po­nent of video – the elec­tron. This paper ex­am­ines how Beck’s syn­the­sizer, as well as cam­era-based syn­the­siz­ers, pro­poses an al­ter­na­tive un­der­stand­ing of video and its es­sen­tial qual­i­ties. Far re­moved from Ros­alind Krauss’s read­ing of the in­her­ently nar­cis­sis­tic qual­i­ties of early video and its feed­back loops, this his­tory of syn­thetic video grounds it­self in the ma­te­ri­al­ity of the screen rather than the trans­parency of the image.

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