Abstract- Kathy High & Carolyn Tennant

The Experimental Television Center

The Experimental Television Center (ETC) is a non-profit media arts space located in upstate New York. Although we will discuss the Center as a residency space for electronic artists as well as its history as a studio in which advancements in signal processing technologies occurred, it is important to note that the Center also serves two key functions: as a financial advocate for individual artists, tool building, and organizations; and as the sponsor of programs that archive and preserve the histories of media arts. The Video History Project, for example, which makes public a wealth of important, often unpublished documents, is the Center’s inclusive, participatory initiative that emphasizes the users’ contributions to trace the histories of media arts practices and technological developments. In addition, since 2005 the Center has embarked on an important archival project funded by the Daniel Langlois Foundation, to document their collection of early video tools.
For nearly 40 years, the Center’s residency program has offered visiting artist a self-directed work environment, personalized instruction and unrestricted access to its studio which houses a collection of rare image processing tools. Known as “the system,” this hybrid tool set—linked by a 64-point push button switching matrix—facilitates interactive relationships between older, historically important analog instruments (such as colorizers and keyers) and new digital technologies that incorporate sonic and visual controls (such as software programs like Max/MSP and Jitter, PD, and others). This rich electronic environment encourages artists to experiment with real time electronic signal processing. In the classic sense of the artist’s studio, visitors to the Center are given both the time and space for exploration and creation; the studio is furnished with a sleeping and cooking area, underscoring the importance of limitless access.
The Center was first established in 1969 by Ralph Hocking, a professor in the department of Cinema Studies at the State University of New York at Binghamton, as the Student Experiments in Television/Community Center for TV Production—an initiative which supplied not only students at the University but members of the larger community with access to video technology and instruction. Hocking, whose background was in pottery, sculpture and photography, became interested in newly developed portable video equipment after meeting Nam June Paik in 1969. When the Center moved off campus it became eligible for funding unavailable at the University, such as support from the New York State Council for the Arts which had recently expanded its funding to include electronic media. Incorporated in 1971, the Center is an example of one of the many media access centers to appear during the 1970s in upstate New York. Because NYSCA needed to demonstrate that its missions was to support art beyond the five boroughs, the Council encouraged artists and collectives based in the city to relocate upstate where funding was less competitive. An example of this type of exodus can be found in the Catskills region, a rural area located 100 miles north of the city, which became home to a number of video collectives such as the VideoFreex, Woodstock Community Video, among others.
Although its initial role was to facilitate access to video technologies through workshops, the Center soon took on a unique role in the research and development of image processing tools and began residency programs for artists interested in experimenting with the properties inherent to video. In collaboration, technologists and artists developed tools in order to experiment with the structure of electronic signals, to generate images internally within the system, and to alter both prerecorded and live audio and video signals. Similar work was occurring at facilities supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, namely at affiliates KQED in San Francisco, WGBH in Boston, and WNET in New York City. Investigations by artists interested in video technologies and television as a creative medium took place at KQED’s National Center for the Experiments in Television, The Television Workshop at WGBH, and WNET’s TV Lab at Channel 13.
But the Center remained distinctive, offering a space neither defined by the complex bureaucracy of a broadcast television station, nor constrained by concepts of expertise. One of the Center’s earliest endeavors in tool development occurred as a collaboration with artists Nam June Paik and engineer Shuya Abe. Though they developed the Paik/Abe synthesizer for installation at the TV Lab in 1972, it was designed and engineered at the Center. In fact, it was at the Center where many details needed to be reworked before the station’s engineers would allow its installation. Nam June Paik remarked that the synthesizer was a “sloppy machine, like me.” While in residence at the Center, he created several of his important video sculptures, including TV Bed and TV Cello, performed by collaborator Charlotte Moorman.
In 1973, the Center began its longstanding relationship with technologist Dave Jones, who left the Catskills to become the ETC’s full time technician. Jones soon began to design and modify analogue tools, such as colorizers and keyers, which were unavailable or cost-prohibitive to independent artists. By 1975, in collaboration with Don McArthur, Richard Brewster, and Walter Wright, Jones began to explore digital imaging systems; within a year, an LSI-11 computer was installed at the Center for use by artists. Research and development of software and physical interfaces was facilitated by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and paralleled similar research by Woody and Steina Vasulka and Jeffrey Schier who were exploring computer-based video systems in Buffalo.
Burgeoning hacker aesthetics, open source politics, and outsider engineering sustained the research and development and tool building at the Center. Often, machines were fabricated by repurposing the detritus scavenged at military and educational surplus stores. With this recombinant, DIY (do-it-yourself) approach, the Center became a model for visiting artists. Both the system and the studio as a space continues to inspire a new generation of media artists who may work with emergent technologies but who are interested in the histories of tool building and are inspired by those electronic art practices that have taken place at the Center.
Over thirty years later, functioning solely on grants from the state and foundations, the Center continues to survive on a gift economy that allows its studio to remain open and its tools accessible to artists from around the world. The Center’s role in the design and development of now ubiquitous tools is unquestioned. For media artists working in real-time, processual video, and generative art, an increased understanding of the history of the Center provides a schematic for how to create social spaces for experimentation and artistic creation.
Remaining true to their original goals, the artists and engineers who started the Center have kept it the same size, in the same location, with the same low-key profile for almost 40 years. They have served over 700 artists in that time. The Center is not institutionalized, not a showcase for work, but rather a place of renegades creating an intentional community of artists and technologists. The Center was born out of a ground-breaking history of media arts communities in upstate New York, and it functions as a model of what Hakim Bey has called a “temporary autonomous zone” – a place where radical actions and creation occurs outside of the constrictions of societal norms and cultural controls, a place that functions like an incubator and a place of generative moments.