Woody Vasulka, whose video art extended boundaries, dies at 82

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Woody Vasulka, whose video art extended boundaries, dies at 82
The video artist Woody Vasulka with his wife and collaborator, Steina, at the Kitchen, the Manhattan performance space they founded, on June 27, 1972. Woody Vasulka, an experimental video artist who found inspiration in sources as diverse as René Magritte, nuclear war and technology, died on Dec. 20, 2019, at his home in Santa Fe, N.M. He was 82. Larry C. Morris/The New York Times.

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Woody Vasulka, an experimental video artist who found inspiration in sources as diverse as René Magritte, nuclear war and technology, and who was a founder of the Kitchen, the landmark avant-garde performance space in New York, died Dec. 20 at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was 82.

His death was confirmed by his wife, Steinunn (Bjarnadottir) Vasulka, known as Steina, who was an occasional collaborator on Woody Vasulka’s projects. She said she did not know the cause.

In the early 1970s, Vasulka was one of a group of avant-garde artists who saw video as an emerging medium as compelling as film, sculpture and painting.

“Video is an art unto itself, with its own reality, visual language and its own conception of time and space,” he told The New York Times in 1972 when he organized a video festival of mostly abstract works at the Kitchen, which he and his wife had opened a year earlier in SoHo. The low cost of videotape, he added, encouraged experimentation.

Vasulka, who recognized in Magritte a spirit of fantastical adventure like his own, adapted Magritte’s surrealist painting “The Golden Legend” (1958) — which shows loaves of baguettes floating past a blue sky — into an even more bizarre adventure in bread.

In “The Golden Voyage” (1973), Vasulka, his wife and two other collaborators turned Magritte’s loaves into a mobile brigade: Baguettes fly across desert and island landscapes, surveil a man walking on a beach, gather in the sky like an invading force, soar in balletic flight and hover over a nude woman in outer space.

A year later, the Vasulkas conceived “Noisefields,” a hypnotic visualization of the energy of an electronic signal. In that work, a pulsating, flickering circle with ever-changing colors is set against a throbbing backdrop of snowy, colorized static and whirring, repetitive clattering noise.

“Our goal with ‘Noisefields’ was that it was like our ancestors looking at fire, as something that you’d look at very intensely as it changed colors and it kept going and going,” Steina Vasulka said by phone. “When we’d introduce our work, we’d use it to tease the audience, and when they were teased enough we’d turn it off.”

Bohuslav Vasulka was born Jan. 20, 1937, in Brno, Czechoslovakia. His father, Petr, was a metal worker in a factory, and his mother, Florentina (Semorova) Vasulka, was a homemaker. The Vasulkas lived near an airfield in Brno that by the end of World War II had become a graveyard for military aircraft.

“My first interest as a kid was to take apart the most complicated machines of that era, the German fighter planes,” he told Crosswinds, a New Mexico alternative weekly, in 1992. “You can find everything there to drive your fantasy crazy. Europe was a huge junkyard after the war — you could find weapons and human fingers in the dump.”

After graduating from an industrial engineering school in Brno, he served in the army and then earned a diploma from the Film Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, where he studied documentary production. While in Prague he met Bjarnadottir, a violinist and artist from Iceland; he also wrote poetry and made short documentaries. The couple married in Prague and moved to Manhattan in 1965.

As the Vasulkas immersed themselves in video and sound experimentation, they opened the Kitchen for avant-garde video artists, dancers, actors, playwrights and musicians. (It got its name because it was located in an unused kitchen at the Mercer Arts Center.)

“This place,” the Vasulkas wrote in their manifesto for the Kitchen, “was selected by Media God to perform an experiment on you, to challenge your brain and its perception.”

They left the Kitchen after a few years, and Woody Vasulka (as he became known) joined the faculty of what is now the University at Buffalo, where he taught video art. The Kitchen remains a vibrant cultural home to emerging and existing artists at its current location on West 19th Street.

While in Buffalo, the Vasulkas both won Guggenheim fellowships, which helped fund their video work. But after several severe winters there, they moved to Santa Fe in 1980.

By then they had been using an arsenal of technical instruments — a video synthesizer and image processors, among others — to bend and manipulate video and audio to their creative wills. With the design engineer Jeffrey Schier, Woody Vasulka developed a device — the Digital Image Articulator — that breaks video images, pixel by pixel, into manipulable digital components.

“Art of Memory” (1987) became Woody Vasulka’s best-known work — a reshaping and manipulation of photographs and newsreel footage of 20th-century wars that rolls, unfurls and overlaps on screen like jagged, disturbing nightmares. It unfolds against a tableau of imagery of the American Southwest.

“Through constant electronic transmutation, every ghostly image becomes a malleable sculptural form that morphs into the next to achieve a poignant and ultimately tragic memory theater,” Gene Youngblood, the author of “Expanded Cinema” (1970), an early examination of video as an artistic medium, said in an email. “The most telling legacy of Vasulka’s career is that all those ‘effects’ are now standard presets in professional video studios.”

Steina Vasulka said that “Art of Memory” arose from her husband’s childhood during the war.

“He saw dead bodies when the Russians liberated Brno from the Germans,” she said. “It occupied him so much; if you look at Europe during that terrible time, it never goes out of your mind.”

In addition to his wife, Woody Vasulka is survived by a sister, Vera Skyjova.

“The Brotherhood” (1998), one of Vasulka’s most ambitious projects, took shape throughout the 1990s and was not made for a screen. It is an installation of six interactive machines made from military equipment, much of it discarded around Los Alamos, New Mexico. All of it fascinated Vasulka.

A system of projectors, speakers, screens, lights and sensors controls the way each machine turns, twists and extends in response to the motions of viewers. The robotic head in one of his six machines came from a bomber’s navigation unit; another part was a bombing rack.

“I’ve surrounded myself with these war machines,” Vasulka said in an interview on his website, “and have adopted them.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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