The sun is down and the glow of the computer is up for me to interview two legendary electronic artists via Skype. For 20 years, I've heard about them and read about them, but I've almost never been able to find their works—until I walked down the hill the other day and discovered a whole miraculous handful on temporary view at Cornish College of the Arts. I'm nervous. Steina arrives first. She goes by that single name, pronounced stay-na, and she's wearing an industrial yellow work jacket with metal-rimmed glasses on her round face, which is ringed by an echoing round of floppy, tomboyish hair, white. She sits at a cluttered desk with electronic equipment on a shelf at her right and black wires running up behind her head. Her lips and the edges of her eyes angle frownfully downward, but her demeanor is of someone waiting to play, biding her time until something sufficiently amusing comes along. Her husband of 50 years, Woody Vasulka, takes the chair an hour later. He's got a black fisherman's cap on and a thick white beard fragment jutting off his chin. It's like a tail for his face.
They're both approaching 80 years old, and the interview lasts almost two hours. It is both simple and cryptic, full of circular stories and technical glitches possibly involving fingers being passed over microphones, creating fuzzy gaps in thoughts that are already sometimes a little kooky.
"When I'm talking to you," says Woody, "is a moment of my life. It is nothing that you expected. You're getting an impaired report. Don't even think this is anything realistic, but it is what I can remember and I think it's true—I don't lie—but there are so many, many important things missing and it will take me the rest of my life to recover most of it and maybe it will never come."
Woody always talks like that, which sends interviewers scurrying for shelter in Steina, a faithful holder of the logistical details of their story. Steina is from Iceland. She trained and worked as a classical violinist. Woody was a scrappy jazz player, born into Nazi-occupied Brno, Czechoslovakia. He remembers reveling, as a child, in the explosion in a bonfire of left-behind Russian weapons. His mind also flashes back to the fiery announcements of Nazi propaganda, not long before the Russians had come and gone. From an early age, he says, he was always eager for the next thing, the forward movement of the imagery of his own life. He and Steina met in Prague, where she was at conservatory, and married in 1964. Their artistic partnership gets its juice from the clash of the solid structure of classical music, and the way war bombs structure to bits.
They started shooting video on Portapaks—the first widely available handheld video cameras—in earnest after they saw the epochal 1969 exhibition TV as a Creative Medium at the Howard Wise Gallery in New York. Two years later, they founded the New York performance space The Kitchen, which spawned a generation of experimental interdisciplinary centers like the great On the Boards in Seattle. Bored with increasing success, they left the city and moved outside Santa Fe, into the desert, and into eventual enshrinement in history books and museums.
Early on, Steina thought she'd be a photographer, and Woody went to film school. Video changed their lives. To them, it was a cross between mediums like those, with still images as their visual substrates, and live music, which is a process. Video was from the start fundamentally different from film in that it was not the stringing together of imagery but the constant translation of electronic signals into broadcasts that could be live, that had no need for recording in order to exist.
The beautiful and surprisingly large exhibition of their work at Cornish was organized by Bob Campbell, an artist and professor in media arts at Cornish. There are multiple single-channel videos from the 1970s and 1980s, five four-channel video installations by Steina from the 1990s, and a new set of large black-and-white prints made from castoffs of the weapons industry in Los Alamos by Woody, whose mind is never far from war. (Their works are juxtaposed with video and audio-digital drawings by a next-generation artist duo, NoiseFold.)
It's reasonable to expect that the work of people described as "video pioneers" might have that dated, early-video '80s look, but with a few exceptions, their works are more elemental. Steina's Ptolemy (1990) is a knockout, and as far as I can tell, it has been previously seen only in Iceland and Czechoslovakia. (The last time Steina and Woody showed anything in Seattle was in the 1970s, Campbell says.)
Steina shot Ptolemy in their studio, a place filled with golden harvest light and a dappled landscape seen through big windows. There's an almost excessive, Saturday Evening Post–level of human warmth that draws you deeply into the setting as it twists and tumbles in sequences on the four synchronized channels of video projected on the walls of a dark room. But Steina produced the visuals at a deliberate remove, without using her own eye or hand, in a process she called "Machine Vision." Machine Vision took various forms over the years, but Ptolemy employed a contraption built by Woody from haunted surplus parts from Los Alamos, which he'd buy by the pound. Steina mounted the camera on a mechanical arm that rotated inside and outside a set of mirrored spheres. Reflections of the room, the spheres, the camera, all spin. It's dizzying, and marvelous, and funny, and, yes, beautiful. And the human eye is left out.
"I've always related well to devices," is how Steina puts it; devices are alien friends, not potential overlords. Art that replicates human vision bores her; humans can do that themselves. She gives us things to look at that we could otherwise never see.
At the start of the interview, she explains that they have just come in from outside, but it seems fair to say that they have never come in from outside. They just keep going farther and farther out. Their stated goal is to make art that is "cosmic," "divine," and "extraterrestrial." Such Space Needle Futurist language makes them sound like early adopters left behind by technology, but that's not how their work comes across. It feels instead like they're ahead of a curve only they can perceive.
They could already see 2014 in 1969. Steina and Woody don't do social media and they don't shoot on cell phones; Steina spends most of her time these days transferring earlier work from analog to video and making new art out of the nearly infinite trove of footage she's already shot over the years. But this new world in which anyone can make video doesn't change their attitude toward video at all, she says, because "this is how we started," motivated by a brilliant amateur's distrust for "camera people making us look at their vision." She can remember a colleague's prediction: "Here comes everybody." And then here came everybody. "And it is absolutely amazing," Steina says, "how much good stuff comes out of everybody. This so-called divine art, it is lurking there."