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a wealth of important, often unpublished documents, is the Center’s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.