Upstate Video History Conference: A New Happening

The following is a series of observations and reflections on my experiences at the "Making Connections: Upstate Video History Conference" held in Syracuse back in October 1998. Rather than focus on the overall proceedings of this conference, I though I would be recount my observations about specifically in regards to the performances, which I think will be more useful in the context of this on-line research project.

Generally speaking, I hate conferences.Well, not necessarily hate, but there is a certain dread of feeling like I'm going back to junior high school for a few days. Lots of walking around, sitting in rooms with panels talking stiffly with pitchers of water and cups on the table, three people sharing a microphone and a warm humidity in the room sparking the occasional cough or sniff. So I hoped I would be able to last this one for two and a half days.

As soon as I arrived in Syracuse having driven Friday morning from Troy, 2 1/2 hours to the east, I already had the feeling this conference might be different. Due to a problem in the server at Alfred University which was hosting the Upstate Video History web site, including all the conference information (I only had the one brochure that didn't list specific times of the activities), was temporarily unavailable until the morning of the conference, I had no idea what would be going on when, or what to expect. I found the registration desk and finally got situated.

The conference on the first day included a day-long presentation called "Video Rewind: A Seminar on Early Video History", with a panel of several educators, curators, and people involved in the field of video from the early days. Having driven from Troy, I missed the first part of this presentation. I did arrive in time to hear stories by Paul Ryan about some of his early experiments with video as a social tool. He spoke about his experiences in Upstate New York, in Woodstock/New Paltz and elsewhere around the state. Paul was instrumental in creating the earthscore system, a system for producing video that focused on the natural environment as the guiding principle for any creative action, including video production.

I've heard some criticisms of conferences that don't deliver as promised, and was wondering what it was people expected to be delivered. I believe that an event such as this can be many things to many people. I find myself likening this conference to the happenings of the 60's a la Allan Kaprow and the parties of Andy Warhol. The interesting thing about this conference is how it blended together elements of discussion, video screenings, displays and performance with seemingly little regard for integration. But I think it that lack of integration on the planning side that made it so successful (at least for me). I've always had a fascination with just wandering around to see what's happening, much in the same way the Surrealists and Situationists were interested in the chance encounter, and the derive. Conferences in many ways are one big derive, although many attempt to counter that sense of lack of cohesion by planning many events to keep all conference participants busy the whole time. In an practical application though, people will always gravitate towards what interests them at the moment, nobody pre-plans their entire trip.

The conference was highlighted by several performances on Saturday. After a day long session of two hour panels on such discussion topics as artists and tools, history of magnetic media and video preservation, the evening gave way to a series of performance, both formally staged and more loosely organized.

The first set included Steina Vasulka, one of the video art pioneers. She along with her husband Woody, first started The Kitchen in New York in the early 70's For the past 5 or 6 years, Steina has been working with an electric violin which she uses to control a videodisc player. Steina hadn't played violin in almost 20 years, having moved into video, never looking back. Her work with musically controlled video is an interesting hybrid of music and video which is neither. It is as though she has created a new instrument and we need to learn the language of this new instrument. It become very interesting for those who have seen her work before, because much of the video material she uses will be familiar to them from earlier performances (I've seen her perform three time now), but it is always interesting to see how it will be performed, since it is possible to create radically different performances with the same piece of footage.

Following Steina was a group performance titled "Ausprobieren," a German term for experimentation. The group consisted of Peer Bode, a long-time upstate resident and video artist, using his father's creation, the Bode Vocoder, an audio vocoder capable or processing voice and other sounds in unique ways; Kevin and Jennifer McCoy, who work with computer based video and audio sampling with real-time control; and Andrew Deutsch who works with similar real-time processing environments and has played for several years with Kevin and Jennifer. Ausprobieren was a short unplanned performance in which the members of the group operate their instruments mixing everything to one video screen and an amplified audio system. The visual are densely layered, collage-like flowing seemingly at random from the players instruments. I have to say there were some criticisms of this performance and of that type of performance in general. These criticisms focus on the obvious question of performer interaction with the technology - nobody but the performer knows what they are doing. When something happens on the screen or a sound plays, it becomes difficult to tell who created it, how it is currently being manipulated, or what bearing it has on the other images and sounds being created. I discuss these issues in greater detail in the "Technology and Performance: From Demonstration to Improvisation" essay found elsewhere in this document.

The final performer in the early shift was Tony Conrad. Tony is an eccentric character who has been involved in many video art activities in upstate since the early 1970's. Based in Buffalo, Tony's early performances involved playing long, droning, monotonous and dissonant violin sounds which would last for hours, until the last member of the audience had left. The performance he gave at the conference went on for over half an hour, although it may have seemed longer to some people. A large veil across the stage obscured his backlit shape as a per-recoded video of a close-up of his violin being played showed on the front of the veil. The piece was loud and cacophonous, obviously not designed to be "aesthetically pleasing" in the normal sense. The vibrations were so loud at times, the speakers sounded as though they were about to pop. I'll bet they had to replace some of those cones. Since his piece had to end by 9pm, we didn't get the full effect of his performance, but with today's short attention span audiences, I think it more than fulfilled its mission.

Things got much more interesting later in the evening. The second half of the performance bill was at a party at The Creamery, an old dairy creamery in Lafayette, south of Syracuse by about 15 minutes. The place is immediately identifiable as one of those classic old artist communes loft over from the 60's but updated to modern standards in terms of the audio-visual technology, in a way that integrated it more fluidly with the older more organic/natural philosophy of the alternative commune. The space was large, with many rooms connected in unusual ways (after all, it used to be a dairy plant). There was art on the walls everywhere, and you could see the interesting visual sensibilities of the artists living there.

The place was the site of many outdoor parties in years past which prompted the other local residents to push through legislation to the local town board prohibiting such large-scale outdoor festivities. Most of this festivity stayed inside, although as the evening rolled along, the crowds pushed out into the side and back yards, where a large inflatable walkthrough sculpture/space had been blown up for the party. In the basement a DJ was spinning dance records by an area that had been set up as a dance floor while a pyramid shaped matrix of monitors blasted a variety of random processed images in various sequences and live camera feeds from the dance floor and elsewhere in the building. Traveling up the stairs from the basement you arrive in the main living room area, which was the heart of the party (that's where the refrigerator containing the beverages was located...). Here five video and music "workstations" were set up, including the video rigs of Walter Wright, Carol Goss, Carl Geiger and musician Boyd Nutting. All throughout the evening, these artists were "jamming" away on their instruments while people milled about, stopping to simultaneously enjoy the individual experimentations of the artists on their monitors while then staring at the larger projection screen randomly displaying the output of any of the artists. The output of this switcher was also broadcast live via pirate transmitter to residents in the Lafayette area for their enjoyment (nothing like community outreach). The artists would play around for a while and take a break. Others would sit down and take over the controls and experiment around for themselves. There was a genuine come and go feeling to the whole night. There was no prescribed starting time to anything, with the only ending point being one's individual tolerance and ability to keep awake into the wee hours of the morning.

What I found so fascinating was that the art seamlessly blended with the party. There was no border where you crossed from one to the other. People were encourage to sit down and collaborate with the artists spontaneously, yielding many impromptu "performances". I always find myself at some point during a formal "stage" presentation wriggling in my seat and ready for a break, but the piece is still going. I am distracted for a few minutes by my desire to move an experience something other than what I am currently exposed to, and so I lose a little something of the performance. In this party setting, there is nothing to hold to any place for a prescribed period of time other than my own experience. If something grabs my attention, I'll stay and enjoy for as long as I want, and then move on. Or maybe in the middle of it I'll run into someone I haven't seen in years, and get sidetracked into a conversation with them.

Not only does the party blur the distinctions between formally presented art and unstructured social activity, but it also blurred the definition of the conference itself. Having seen all there same people during the day in a more structures "talking heads" format, it was great to see the same crew again in a social setting where there was no pretense of intellectual debate and criticism. It was about people conversing in a typical fun social setting more conducive to frank conversation, heightened by the vast array of audio, visual, beverage and food delights.

And in the end, we all benefitted. We had our art and ate it too.