Media Art Histories research; Conversations and interviews; Genealogies; Education;
COPY-IT-RIGHT! Media Art Histories of Open Collaboration and Exchange - jonCates (2009) [PDF]

On the Couch – Capturing Audience Experience: A Case Study on Paul Sermon’s Telematic Vision - Rolf Wolfensberger (2009) [PDF]

Music to be seen The Diatope (1978) by Iannis Xenakis -
Eleni Michaelidi (2011)

Informal Documentation - Florian Wiencek (2012) [BLOG]

Re-construction – re-installation – the role of the authorised eyewitness. A conversation with conservators Joanna Phillips and Agathe Jarczyk - Rolf Wolfensberger (2008) [PDF]

"Interactive telematic art defies a means of mechanical reproduction" A conversation between Paul Sermon and Rolf Wolfensberger (2008) [PDF]

Jane Veeder interview - criticalartware (2003) [VIDEO]

Chronology Tools from

MediaArtHistories masters program, Danube University Krems

Media Art Futures - jonCates (2011)

Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Program (MIAP), New York University

Jane Veeder interview - criticalartware (2003)

"Multiple histories are great; the problem you have is when there's no history.


You know, there were no programs at that time, so everybody thought: well to do anything with computers, you learn to program. And that's what all of us started doing.


You are at one with not only the technological environment but the culture, at least at that moment.


I love that space of 'OK, where are we? And how does gravity work? What's the physics of the situation.' And this is what everybody was doing in the beginning. 'What is this? Oh, look! Somebody did this!' That opens a whole new way of thinking about this.


Multiple histories are great; the problem you have is when there's no history. The discourse on, what do you want to call it, electronic art, digital art, didn't really start until 1990. Before that it was art history majors who had done their thesis on an abstract expressionist painter, deciding that their niche was going to be writing about video art. And then they thought they had a handle on video and then it started going digital. So that got really confusing. You would get these articles that were reportage, they weren't any kind of real analysis or critical insight because they just weren't makers themselves. Dan Sandin said, 'Computer art is unusual because you can't understand it just by looking at it.'

One of the only lone voices during this time was Gene Youngblood, who was very enthusiastic - some people thought he was overly-enthusiastic and not critical enough. But the valuable thing that Gene was doing was connecting it to things. He was connecting it to economics, to political dynamics. And so it wasn't just this weird novelty - it wasn't this new form of painting. It was something that meant something in terms of the culture. At some point, the culture had absorbed enough about digital technology, to where they had enough of that stuff you didn't get just by looking at it, to understand it. They were in a position to apprehend what was going on. In the beginning they were just looking at it, and there wasn't much there.

I went on a campaign in the early '80s when I finally sort of dropped away video, and by '82, I produced my first completely digital animated work. I did a lecture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in '86, where I said that interactivity was idiomatic to the digital medium, and that it was really the only way in which anybody was going to understand a digital work of art; that they had to engage it somehow. I was very plugged into the idea of interactive micro-worlds.

So I was interested in the idea of interactive micro-worlds where you would create an environment that was interactive. A viewer was turned into a player. They would interact with the work, and thereby come to know the territory of the work. The two main interactive installations I did, 'Visgame' in '85, 'Warp it Out' in '82, provided you with this environment - a simple menu - and you would create something out of the possibilities that were there. It was the idea of subcreation. An artist would create an environment and a player would subcreate within it, and comprehend something about it.

So about 1990, you've got people who have had some experience in this, and they could talk about it with some legibility. Much of the history of the early video experimentation is completely gone. It's just gone. And the early computer art is just not there. People would write articles about you work in video game magazines. The flipside of this was that it was this incredible kind of novelty; anytime you did an event, the television news people would come, and the headline was 'Artists do television!' or 'These people are making art with computers!' Imagine...

So it was this incredibly exotic thing and you would rate just below a hideous automobile accident. People would come and we would talk about how to set things up in events and installations so that the television news camera lights wouldn't completely fade out the scene. We developed a thing where when we would set stuff up we would always have a line level feed for audio and video out. We'd say to the camera guy, 'OK, here you can just plug this into your camera, you don't need to point your camera at the monitor, you can just take this.' There was one camera broadcast camera guy who didn't know that he had line in to his color camera. Artists are alert, you would figure this out, so we'd be there ready with a line level feed for them.


You know, at that time the thing about video, that decade of video, during the '70s, almost into the early '80s (but really the '70s) was a time when the avantgarde, whoever those were at the time, had a decade with video before anybody else nailed down how to make it proprietary, how to make it cheaply manufacturable, how to interface it - and by video I mean portable, not the big drive-it-around studio equipment. So there was really a lot of time to work on things, to really investigate, to explore. What is the grammar? The vocabulary? The syntax of this new area? They had a really meaningful period of time to map that out. Today, it lasts about 15 minutes. The corporate world has learned very well how to deal with this. You don't wait until you've got it perfect - you get it out there. Apple showed everybody this. You distribute the hell out of it in a simplified form, and then you see what people do with it. And then you nail it down and make it proprietary.

There was a whole network of people all over - and it was during this decade or a little bit more where video was firmly in the hands of the avantgarde. Technologically, people doing independent video had a territory as their content that the mainstream broadcast video realm was precluded from grasping because they were stuck in studios. So the whole rest of the world belonged to everybody who was doing any form of independent or artistic video. You felt like you were on new planet that was uninhabited. Because the previous inhabitants were stuck in studios. They hadn't gotten out.

In 1978 Barbara London came from the Museum of Modern Art; she made this safari to the interior, to see what was happening with Chicago video, and acquired a number of pieces and my tape, 'Montana', which is about a two and a half minute ZGRASS animation piece. It's somewhere in the vault of the Museum of Modern Art. Chicago had a sort of appropriately constructivist approach to video. I remember sitting in critiques where people say, 'Well, if you haven't really built your video camera, are you really a valid video artist?' There were people who got to that extreme.

I went to Chicago to go to graduate school, and was admitted to the ceramics/sculpture program. I'd always done photography, and my father was a photographer, and so that's probably my first media type of experience. You can see that in the early video work that I did. I have a good lens in my brain. As soon as I got there, I started taking filmmaking classes. Robert Fulton was a visiting filmmaker and he was taking the place of the person who was the permanent faculty member there, who was very orthodox filmmaker. Very narrow. Robert Fulton was very expansive. He was open to films about anything, so that was really great. At the end of that year I moved, and I met a neighbor of mine, named Phil Morton, who was the head of the video area at the School of the Art Institute. And I never met him - being at school I never ran into him. I became interested in what he was doing. We basically fell in love and then went off for our first of a number of summers doing video traveling in his van out to the mountain west. I was from the west, so that worked for me.

I started moving into video - that year I did a video piece that was was on open reel black and white, where you had to mark the tape and then back it up and then do these running edits on the fly. So that was my beginning. So it was kind of a photography, filmmaking video. Doing film I had bought a little regular 8 black and white camera, got myself a light meter, a little editing - I was ready to go. And I was kind of the filmic equivalent of video at that time. Very basic, very simple. Then I took my first video class and thought, 'Well, you can know more, earlier, so I'll switch to this.' Plus, the hard ass guy had come back into running the film department. I knew it wasn't going to work, so i was grateful for the terrific start I got with film in terms of moving imagery and starting to think about all of that and then sailed off into video.


I'm impressed that any information even remains of that. Basically, the electronic visualization center - and Phil decided he wanted to create this after Tom and Dan had created the Electronic Visualization Laboratory (the EVL, which still survives in a very different form than it was then). That was before CIRCLE was a research university. And I said, 'Well, they've got the EVL, where going to be the EVC - why don't we come up with a different name?' No, it had to be the EVC. So basically, the EVC was just really a front for Phil and I doing whatever we were going to do. I think we got one grant. Phil was really good at making people feel like what they were doing was really important, and so he would give things good names. We did a number of events; I did an event at the editing center, which was the state of two way, it was on two way television based on all this research I'd been doing.

We had an account in the School of the Art Institute that some of our donations and grants came into. Never amounted to very much, but it made us look kind of official. So that was it; it was a front, really. It was Phil and I, doing our things, and I think the tour that we did in '79, where we rented the GMC motor home, we did a week long workshop at Sacramento State, and we did visiting artist gigs and workshops. At that time, largely supported by those bing funders - the Rockefeller foundation and the Ford foundation - there were media centers all over the country showing independent video, and they were sort of the early venue for digital work for image processing stuff and then digital work as it first came out. We did something in California, we did something in Santa Fe, New Mexico, various places; so I think that was an Electronic Visualization Center tour.


It's a little hard with Phil just dying recently. Meeting Phil changed my life forever. He opened up a door to artistic activity that completely changed my life. I had the brains and energy to go 'Ah! This is a great door! I'm going through this! I am not looking back...' There was a whole batch of us that did that. Some came in a little later when it was ZGRASS, some came in with the Image Processor, but the people who went, 'I see the door, I am going through it,' their lives were changed forever. Because of that terrific early start, they've been able to have wonderful paths.

He was wired in a very special fashion that made him more creative than 99 percent of the population. There were times where he was too creative, for people just to handle. He was that kind of a person that could come at something diagonally, and just screw up everybody's thinking. They thought, 'We're doing this!' And then Phil would come in and then they'd go, 'Oh no, maybe that's - what am I doing?' So he was really good that way. But as I said before, some people really made that transition into the digital realm into symbolic means of control compared to tactile control languages. Phil didn't really make the digital gap. I thought he did the most beautiful image processing work of anyone that I had seen. But he just didn't sync with digital realms of control. He couldn't get beyond the fact that an error could be fatal, that an error could lose a file. He thought that was cruel. There was something about it that just didn't resonate with him. So he kind of backed off and stayed with the analog, and then just became really lens oriented after being really with his IP work. Very much about visual design. Not animation particularly, but about abstract and designed visuals, and then ended up being devoted to a fairly clean version of video, aiming his camera at the world. Gene Youngblood called him the poet hero of Chicago video, and I think he really was.

Phil Morton started the video area. I think in the early '70s he was originally hired there to teach painting and drawing. He found a portable video setup, one of the first ones – probably around 1970-71, something like that – he found it in a closet. Somebody from the Art Education program had gotten it on a grant. So his first video course was called something like, 'See yourself on television.' People would enroll for the course and he would set up the equipment, and they would record it and students could do anything in front of the camera that they wanted to do. They didn't touch the equipment, but they got to be on camera and then see themselves recorded. That was the class. Then he was sponsored to start an area – not a full department because, you know, new departments are threatening to existing departments. He was sponsored by D. Roger Gillmore to get started this little area in video. And they started with black and white open reel video, and little portapacks. I think around '72, Dan Sandin and Tom Dafonte were both at CIRCLE. I think Tom arrived in '72. Dan – you undoubtedly know his background. from fine arts photography and then moving into video. I met Phil in the spring of 1976 and they already had one of their Electronic Visualization events; they got together and Phil had done 'General Motors' the year before. So they'd all been doing things for a few years, maybe three, four years, because Dan designed and built his Image Processor. But if you know Dan he is profoundly dyslexic. As he in his own words said, 'Give me a piece of paper paper and a pencil and I'll make a mess.' Phil undertook to build the first copy of the Image Processor and document it as he did so. Thats how the first generation of documentation for the IP was created. Phil was very meticulous and good at that kind of stuff.

I have one picture I want to show you that shows Dan and Phil together and Phil is dressed up as a cowboy and Dan has some kind of a pirate hat on. They both have long hair. They were not easily acceptable personalities because they had the independence of being academics. That was different than a lot of people. It's more hierarchical, automatically, but there is a context. You can do things, there are venues. There is a build in legibility for people doing artistic things there. In Chicago there was just nothing on the course created – what was it called? It was video something or other. It was a monthly gathering. She had a little office and she got equipment; it was her version of the Electronic Visualization Center. She was one of the top value television people. She created this little bubble. Everybody was creating bubbles, calling them something and trying to get grants. Then after that was the Center for New Television. In New York it's just a different setup. These three or four guys who had their rent payed through their academic roles so they could do just about anything they wanted to do, including mounting massive personal charisma campaigns.


Phil was really famous at the time for copying everybody's work – he was always famous for copying people's tapes. There was that early counterculture [sense], and it's strong in the digital realm as well, that counterculture sense that information should be free. Now it's actually gaining momentum. Look at the open source software development movement. Look at Linux (a lot of people find fault in Linux but nevertheless), it's certainly got a lot farther than people thought at the time, and I am sure there are many that are threatened by it. Phil had an expression that was, 'Copy it right.' The idea was to make a faithful copy – take care of it, show it to people – and that justified making a copy of anything.


The whole thing with the IP with people getting the plans, making copies, was also inherited when we all got into the Balley Arcade, and to a certain extent the ZGRASS machine. It was all one community with different special interests, there was the independent video...

TVTV – Top Value Television, which is a loose coalition who all did independent video. They had a number of representatives in Chicago, and at the other end of the scale there were people doing image processing, abstract work with ZGRASS or the Image Processor. We had the image to journalist spectrum. Except Bob Snyder doing emu work; that was hybrid analog/digital instrument. Tom, and people he knew like Jay Fenton (later one of the founders of Macromedia)...we started knowing people who worked in video games. Jay Fenton was a video game programmer and worked for DNA, Dave Nutting Associates, which was a little company which did one of the first graphics board for Balley Midway Games (Atari did their graphics) – it was in the early mid 70s. Atari did their's, Balley Midway did their's, and it was DNA that did the one for Midway. We started knowing those people. Once they had this video game board, they thought maybe they could introduce a home machine. They had this brilliant strategy where they would give people a little game machine and you would use little tape cartridges. People would buy the unit, but then would start programming. That was the idea at that time. The first Apple machines that were sold in the early 80s had, on the fifth page of their documentation, explained parsing. Parsing is a fairly technical programming term, and they really thought people were going to learn to program in order to do their laundry list, record their memoirs...I don't know. There were no programs at that time. So everybody thought that to do anything with computers you learned to program. And thats what all of us started doing. Jay Fenton was hired to create a language interface to the Balley Arcade and to this game chipset that were used in the arcade games. It was called Tiny Basic, and it was basically a command language where you would say, “Box, x coordinate, y coordinate, this wide, this tall and this color.” But you could say, “skip minus ones, skip minus tens,” so you could do little loops. We all bought those and the first thing that anybody did to it was jeep a composite video out of that. All of a sudden we were doing video graphics and people were doing interactive things. Instead of learning the language of patch cables and knobs and dials, we started switching to a more symbolic language of programming. The were some of us, for instance myself, who really went for that. I have a pretty logical mind so that kind of interface was really terrific. Also the equipment was all owned and controlled by guys, though there were a few women that built Ips. Mostly at that time, the gender-based power dynamic was that the guys had the hardware (there was Tom, Dan, Phil, Bob Snyder). There were a number of women who went, “Ah! There is this middle way, this engagement with this evolving medium, this seems to be an escalator thats going somewhere.” For a while there was a hybrid thing, which you saw from some of my prints."

Media Art Histories group (Facebook)
Media Art Histories blog
Digital Art Histories listserv

The Database of Virtual Art
The Video Data Bank
The Phil Morton Memorial Research Archive
Video History Project, Experimental Television Center
Bay Area Video Coalition
Radical Software
Rhizome | ArtBase
Independent Media Arts Preservation . IMAP
Variable Media Network
Atelier für Videokonservierung

MEDIA ART HISTORIES RESEARCH organized by jonCates && Rolf Wolfensberger (2011)
connected to the ongoing research & development of the field of Media Art Histories