Fotograf Magazine

Woody Vasulka

The syntax of binary images

Woody and Steina Vasulka rank among the pioneers of electronic art. Originally European artists (Woody hails from Brno and Stein from Reykjavik – both met during their studies in Prague), have lived in the USA since the mid-1960s. In their work they explore different ways of manipulating moving images: from the early “vision machines” that Woody created together with Swiss-born artist, Alfons Schilling, shortly after his (Woody’s) emigration to New York, on to their first attempts at documentaries using a portapack video camera, and later on to their experience with modulating TV signals and feedback at the end of the 1960s. In the 1970s they moved on to the area of “synthesizer video”. Together with other artists from this field they worked with moving images, either created and/or influenced in real time with the help of user-made instruments. One of the most important instruments of the day was the analogue scan processor, named Rutt/Etra after its creators (it was put together in 1973 by Steve Rutt along with Bill and Louis Etra). The machine enabled the vertical “stretch out” of image lines and the creation of 3D illusion. Vasulkas began to use this instrument after moving to Buffalo in 1973, and they belong to the machine’s key users – they used it primarily for the deformation of camera imagery, which then appears as if the lines take over the contours of the objects.

This involves an analogue system controlled by electronic voltage, allowing for the manipulation of distorted signals in real time. The image from the video camera is replayed on a small black-and-white monitor, specially prepared for processing TV images with the help of “deflection modulation.” R/E, with the help of an electromagnetic system and deflection coils, changes the common, regular linear formula into an irregular one. Whereas the visual part of the recorded reminiscences (i.e. those that make up Woody’s house in Moravia with images of scanned poultry and people (Reminiscence, 1974), videos from Telč (Telč, 1974) or a street view with the cars view of cars (C-Trend, 1947), gets through a deformation process, the sound remains intact. Here a different relationship between image and sound develops, one unlike that in previous works. The image and sound components do not influence one another, rather they stand in contrast. The sound remains the only connection to “reality.” In the aforementioned works the transformation of images is not achieved only by linear deformation, but rather the shape of the frame – the video screen – itself changes. In the work, C-Trend, the “street-object” moves on its axis in empty space and later attains the image of a left-to-right moving surface. In the end it is slanted.

Since 1974 Woody has, based on his work with the Rutt/Etra machine, begun more to address the theory of electronic images and the possibilities for constructing images without external references. The didactic style and the urge to create a certain summery of work with the machine made their imprint on the photo collection, Time/Energy Structure of the Electronic Image (1974–1975), which is made up of screen image recordings from the scan processor. It involves the simplification of an encyclopaedia of effects, which the machine made possible. Part of the series was printed in the magazine, Afterimage, in October 1975 with a short intro by Scott Nygren and a joint article by Nygren and Vasulka called Didactic Video: Organizational Models of the Electronic Image. Nygren writes that their work looked to capture the interface between light and the encoded signal. The work’s didactic purpose consisted of showing the gradual effects that the machine enabled. As a basis for modification, simple shapes (sine, triangular and square waves placed first horizontally and then vertically) were used in the first and second tableaux. In the second and third, more complex shapes (a horizontal squared wave, two sign waves, horizontal and vertical and also camera inputs, showing Woody’s hands and face) were used. These images always passed through a series of linear deformations, creating 3D effects, typical for work with the R/E machine.

One of the issues in the second half of the 1970s was the move from analogue to digital (media). This is something that Steina and Woody explored on a practical level as well, through the process of constructing and testing their first digital machines. The move to digital systems brought about the need to adapt to the new code language and the “syntax of binary images” transformed dialogue with the machine. Beginning in 1975, physicist, Don McArthur; computer scientist, Jeffrey Schier; and musician and programmer, Walter Wright, worked with Woody and Steina in creating the Digital image articulator. The articulator’s main function was to process encoded images in real time by changing analogue images into digital ones. Fundamental to the process was the requirement for real-time dynamic imaging (even though at the start only low-level image resolution was possible), because the creators wished to continue observing the system they had developed in the analogue field. They tested the Vasulkas’ instrument from 1979–1987; however, it remained only in the prototype stage. The machine transfers video signal into logical binary code values. This numerical content of the “image” is captured and stored in an eight frame buffer system, such that each light value is assigned a numerical value on a 128 x 128 pixel grid.

Similar to the analogue world, Woody also attempted to explain the process of digital image development in a didactic manner. In the text, The Syntax of Binary Images, printed in the magazine, Afterimage, in 1978, he discusses his encounter with digitally-organised imagery. The article includes an image tableau, on which Woody describes changes that can come about from the interaction of two structures (A, B) used as inputs for an ALU (arithmetic logic unit). The goal, once again, is instructional and in no way small-minded: the aim is to create a “universal image score.” The ALU was able to carry operations simultaneously on two sets of 4-bit inputs, that is on image files A and B, containing, for example, either vertical and horizontal features, or camera images. Tableaux 1–13 make up the whole file, whereas each of them contains sixteen photo images, i.e. they went through sixteen different arithmetic operations in different resolutions. Here too Woody continues his research on alternative points of view. Detailed analysis of machine vision allows one to see things in a different way, whereas the observation of the machine’s behaviour itself becomes an integral part of the created work.


(This article is an excerpt from a dissertation in progres on the work of Woody Vasulka.)

Lenka Dolanová