Interview with Ernest Gusella (by email) by Anna Sophia Schultz, June, 2017
In 1969 you moved from San Francisco, where you’d studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute, to New York. What did this move mean for your artistic work?
I had been doing hard-edge geometric paintings in graduate school. When I arrived in New York, I had a kind of crisis, seeing new minimalist works by Robert Morris, Richard Serra, etc. It also looked to me like curators, critics, etc. were only interested in Frank Stella and a few others working in this style. So I started experimenting with pouring fiberglass paintings on the floor. I did this for a year and was in a show at the OK Harris Gallery in Soho (the second gallery there after the Paula Cooper Gallery). Shortly after, I became ill from the fiberglass thickener, so I stopped painting and started reading books on John Cage, and Expanded Cinema by Gene Youngblood, and started looking around for something else to do. I was always frustrated with painting because it didn’t involve sound. I stumbled upon Woody and Steina Vasulka one night showing work at a church in Greenwich Village near NYU. They invited me to a show they were doing at Westbeth in the West Village a week later, where I met Nam June Paik. The Vasulkas started The Kitchen shortly after this in the kitchen of the Broadway Central Hotel (where Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh used to work as a dishwasher!) and away we went.
What kind of equipment were you using back then? In 1969 you had a Sony Portapak, is that correct?
I bought a Sony reel to reel Portapak (AV series). Fortunately I missed out on the discontinued CV series! A painter friend who rented a studio below my Bowery loft, Paul
Tschinkel (who still tapes the series “Art/New York,” interviewing famous artists and critics), also bought a Portapak, and we used to hook up the two machines to mechanically edit between them. It was a real pain in the ass, requiring the reels on both machines to be wound back by hand for six seconds in pause and then released. Half the time you got a screen roll. Later I acquired a black-and-white Sony reel to reel editing machine, the 3650, which was kind of better. Then I acquired a pair of Sony 3/4” editing decks with a controller, and then moved to a JVC system 3/4” Portapak and 3/4 editing system.
As you already mentioned, you met Nam June Paik and Steina and Woody Vasulka in New York. What interests did you share?
Interestingly enough, Nam June, Woody and Steina, and myself were all musicians. Nam June studied with Schönberg (Nam June described himself as “the worst piano player in the world”), and worked with Karlheinz Stockhausen in his revolutionary experiments with electronic music at a radio station in Cologne, Germany. Woody played the trumpet in Czechoslovakia, and Steina was a serious classical violinist who played with some orchestras in New York. I studied violin as a child in Canada, played and won prizes in music festivals, and took exams with adjudicators from the London Conservatory of Music. I stopped playing violin at 13 years old when Elvis hit and my mother took all of my trophies and threw them out the door because she was so angry at me.
Who were the other artists who influenced your work with video? What exhibitions or events were important?
Actually, there were no other artists influencing my work in video because there were only a handful of people working with video. Since I came from a fine arts background, I was not interested in using video as a documentary tool. I was also teaching modern art history and drawing at several universities in the New York City area. I would say I was more interested in modern art and was trying to figure out how to use this new medium of video to make a new kind of art. I was an abstract painter and was not interested in realism per se. Some of the first videos I saw were abstractions generated by the Vasulkas. I had also seen some experimental video done at KQED in San Francisco prior to coming to New York, but that was all big studio stuff which was out of reach to individual artists.
You studied with John Cage and Steve Reich. What impact did contact with them have on your work?
I was teaching video in the summer at the State University of New York in Buffalo, where the Vasulkas were teaching and living. The music department in Buffalo was very forward-looking and every summer they ran a one-month course in modern music composition: “June in Buffalo.” I attended these classes for several years while I was teaching summer courses there, while people like Cage, Xenakis, Reich, Feldman, and other well-known composers lectured. The impact they had on my work was more of an experimental attitude than anything specific. Most of the students were undergrad and grad students in music. I was the only so-called “visual artist” in the classes, as far as I knew. I remember reading a book by John Cage in which he said: “If you don’t know what to do, do something else.” I thought that this was a very important statement for getting out of any kind of artistic “blocks.” I was always interested in all kinds of music, and saw modern avant-garde music and electronic music as functioning on the same level as video, i.e., moving electrons around.
In 1971 you took part in a group exhibition, the Video Art Show, at the Cable Channel D in New York. Can you tell us about the exhibition?
As I mentioned above, my friend Paul Tschinkel became involved in video at the same time I did. We went off in different directions over the years. He began documenting the punk bands that were emerging at CBGB’s and other venues in New York. At the same time, he had a show on Public Access Television in New York, which provided free access for neighborhood groups or anyone who wanted to have their own show. I can remember little about this exhibition because I did not have cable TV in my loft. I believe I provided some tape to Paul and he exhibited it.
Your fist solo exhibitions with video took place in 1972, in New York and New Haven, including at The Kitchen. How were your works presented in the exhibition space? What were the possibilities and what were the limits for presenting work in the 1970s?
The first time I saw work presented by artists was by the Vasulkas and Nam June. Woody and Steina purchased a bunch of Seichel-Carlson monitors from Les Levine’s restaurant “Levine’s” on Park Avenue. They hooked them all together and the same image was duplicated on every monitor. This approach fit right in with the “minimalist” repetitive style of art and music of the time, i.e., Phil Glass music, Donald Judd art. Look—there are only two ways to present an image: all by itself, or repeated over and over. Besides showing on multi-monitor situations at The Kitchen, the first individual show I had was at the Artist’s Space above the Paula Cooper Gallery in Soho. This was a space in which famous artists invited interesting young artists to have an exhibition. I walked in one day and asked for a show because I had a bunch of new work I wanted to get out. They said: “Sure—but you provide all of the equipment.” So I went out and rented one of the first large-screen Advent projectors being distributed by my friend Gregory Leopold. A friend and I carried it down by hand and taxicab from Greg’s business above the Bottom Line rock and roll nightclub. I made ads and put them on telephone poles all over Soho. 300 people showed up. Many people were artists and had never seen video before or had never seen a large-screen projector before. There were some, but not many video artists around from 1970–1980. (I know because I quit teaching university in 1977 and was going off to Europe and Japan several times a year.) Equipment was very difficult and expensive for individual artists to acquire at that time (which is why so many artists who wanted to work in video formed co-ops). On my initial travels to Europe I had to borrow equipment from Canadian and US embassies to present work at alternate spaces or museums. During this period, people would link together several normal TVs using amplifiers between the video machines and the cable connection on the back of the TVs. The attitude of many artists was: the more TVs the better—just because it would allow more people to get close and see the work, since the TV screen was so small. Of course people like Nam June started arranging the TVs and monitors to create installation spaces.
Could you describe the importance of The Kitchen to the early video art scene in New York in general and your own work in particular?
The Kitchen was VERY important for introducing people to video as an art form. It was also a space where artists could come together to see video, and listen to music made by young artists such as Rys Chatham. When The Kitchen moved from the rear of the Broadway Central Hotel down into Soho on Grand Street, other artists such as video artist Ralph Hocking, musician Yoshi Wada, the dancer Yoshiko Chuma, performance artist and musician Laurie Anderson, and others were presented. The Kitchen was THE cutting-edge place to see the latest work by artists pushing the envelope.
As you already mentioned, many of your works were originally presented in a multi-monitor situation. What was the function of this presentation form within your work?
As I stated above, it was a result of necessity, not desire. At that time, large-screen projectors were rare, expensive, and generally unavailable. As I said, an image that is repeated becomes an image that gets repeated in the mind. This could be good or bad—depending on whether the image is good or bad. However, this is also true with just one monolithic image.
You developed your own sound and imaging tools for working with video. What were the possibilities back then and how did the tools you developed extend the scope of these possibilities?
Not having the proper tools to make art is a major frustration for an artist. In the late sixties and early seventies, a number of visual artists such as Robert Rauschenberg were collaborating with engineers like Billy Kluver at Bell Labs, which led to EAT (Art and Technology), so there was a rising awareness by artists about technology and its possibilities. Through the Vasulkas and others, I discovered some electronic engineers such as Hugh Sangster (who worked for CTL Video in Tribeca), and Bill Hearn (who was an engineer at a federal research lab at Berkeley, and who had his own company, Electronic Associates of Berkeley, building custom video and audio equipment). They built and modified for me video equipment such as colorizers, video keyers, voltage-controlled switchers, etc. All of these devices allowed me to manipulate the video signal in sometimes crazy ways. I also had purchased a Putney VCS-3 audio synthesizer made in England around 1970–71, which allowed me to patch into the custom video equipment and further manipulate the images. Ironically, the Vasulkas had purchased the same synthesizer at the same time I did. This was also the same synthesizer that Brian Eno used when he was manipulating sound as a member of the British group Roxy Music.
Many of your tools translated video into audio signals, or vice versa.
From my university art history teaching and personal interests, I knew that artists have always wanted an art form that could move in any direction, i.e., integrating sound and image, and even smell. The Dadaists of Zurich made noise-making machines to augment their performances, and Kurt Schwitters, the German visual artist, even wrote “Ur-Sonata,” which is a vocal performance of sounds. Of course with the digital revolution today, these goals are very easy to achieve by moving bits and bytes around between visual and sound environments—triggered by movement, analysis of data, etc. Midi instruments or guitars can trigger or transform images. Digital painting can manipulate sound. I just find it interesting that the information derived from something can be transformed into something else.
For a period of around three to four years you worked mainly on the relationship between sound and image, exploring the possibilities of manipulation. Gene Youngblood has spoken of “visual music” or “music image,” and in 1983 he identified you as one of the main exponents in North America. Then you shifted the orientation to working more and more with performance. What was behind this step?
I prefer to work in the abstract realm; however, I went through another artistic “crisis” similar to shifting from painting to video in 1970. You must understand that the period under discussion was primarily ANALOGUE, and that frustrations over the lack of equipment to achieve what I wanted to do artistically forced me into other areas. You remember my John Cage quote: “If you don’t know what to do, do something else.” As I was aware of Dada and Futurist and Surrealist performances in music, film, etc., I decided to start using my own image around 1974, and mixed my own image and that of my wife, video artist Tomiyo Sasaki, into my work. Then around 1980 I strung together a bunch of short pieces into a longer one-hour tape entitled Connecticut Papoose, for which I was awarded the only Guggenheim Fellowship for video. I figured that people on the panel, such as the critics Dore Ashton and Robert Hughes, or artists such as the sculptor George Segal giving confirmation to my work meant that I was going in the right direction. I subsequently started using modern dancers as props in various longer pieces about the history of Mexico, Stalin, Ezra Pound, etc. These were much bigger productions and presented other challenges which were much different than working by myself in the studio. However, I still used electronic image manipulation in all of these tapes.
Could you tell us a bit more about the collaboration with your wife, Tomiyo Sasaki?
Tomiyo and I met at the Alberta College of Art in 1963. We began living together in San Francisco while we were pursuing our graduate degrees in 1965, so it makes 52 years of the two of us being together nearly 24 hours a day. She started working in video at the same time I did, since we had the equipment around. She has always been interested in videotaping real-life situations and then re-editing sequences in repetition, in a kind of visual equivalent to Terry Riley or Phil Glass. Her interests have taken us to the Falkland Islands for penguins, Japan, Galapagos, India, China, Tibet, etc. I make a joke that on the road I am her donkey. We usually shoot with two cameras and I use a camera mounted on a Steadicam JR with a wide-angle lens attached, so I never have to focus—everything is always in focus. I take the moving shots and she concentrates on what she is interested in shooting. She has had complex multi-monitor exhibitions of her work all over the world and I have functioned as her technical director in setting up these exhibitions. On my larger projects, Tomiyo has worked as a costume designer, and she has been my assistant in all of my video works.
Besides your own tapes, you’ve also worked as an audio and special-effects technician for video artists and musicians, for example Shigeko Kubota, Nam June Paik, Sara Hornbacher, Doris Chase, Count Basie, and Benny Powell. Was there this kind of cooperation in the early stage of development in video art?
In the early days of video, it was common for people to help each other on projects. Using Bill Hearn’s Videolab, I worked on tapes for Nam June Paik which were broadcast on PBS and in his exhibitions around the world. We also performed live together at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where I manipulated Nam June playing a piano with a video camera in front of an audience. I also worked on images for Shigeko Kubota, Nam June’s wife, for an exhibition she was having while on a DAAD German government fellowship in Berlin. (I myself was a recipient of a DAAD grant in 1981.) I assisted Sara Hornbacher and Doris Chase on some aspects of exhibitions; however, I don’t recall exactly what I did. I did collaborate with the video artist Celia Shapiro and her husband, jazz trombonist Benny Powell (formerly of the Count Basie Orchestra and Merv Griffin’s TV orchestra), and did a live performance with them using the Hearn Videolab at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York. I also have worked on numerous occasions as a sound technician for Paul Tschinkel on his “Art/New York” video series.
You also released two albums with Earwax Records in the 1970s: Japanese Twins and White Man (1977) and The Lone Arranger Writhes Again (1980). What is the relationship between these two albums and your video art?
To date I have released two record albums and seven CDs: Japanese Twins and White Man, 1977, The Lone Arranger Writhes Again, 1980, Zen O’Phobia, 1987, I Will Not Be Kowed, 1990, DaDa Raga, 1993, Strum und Twang, 2000, In Dead Ernest (His Gravest Hits), 2002, Icycle, My Ice Cycle, 2003, and Hotrod Golgotha, 2003. Since I had audio equipment in my studio that I used in my video tapes, I decided to try my hand at making a record. I had a little 4-track tape recorder and some other equipment, so I went ahead and made a signed limited edition record of 250 copies. You must remember that at this time, the punk/rock scene was starting to take off, with many visual artists in the US, Canada, and Europe starting to make their own music. I actually wrote some pieces to be used in videotapes, such as Words and Arrows. These pieces were less songs than words stuttered out on top of a music or rock background. To me, rock and roll was a legitimate vehicle for the artist, but I always had Dada processes in the back of my mind when I made these records and CDs. On my later video pieces in the eighties and nineties, I made a lot of sound tracks to be used as backgrounds for images, or made music that would actually interact with the images. For what it is worth, some of my records have been sold on eBay to collectors for $500 EACH! I actually believe that I am more interested in music than visual images. For the past two years I have been building cigar box guitars, which have three or four strings, are open tuning, and are much easier to play than their six-string bigger brothers. I have sold these boxes to both musicians and non-musicians and they are all electric and sound GREAT.
There’s a letter by you to Woody and Steina Vasulka in the Vasulka Archive, and attached to it is a list of recommendations, namely “a list of people in Europe who are ‘more or less real’ when it comes to showing or buying video on a fairly consistent basis.” One of the names on the list is Wolfgang Becker, the founding director of the Neue Galerie. Did you ever meet Becker personally?
In 1977 I quit teaching university and spent one month traveling around Europe, meeting people and trying to set up exhibitions of my work. During that trip I met a lot of people. I do remember meeting Wolfgang Becker one afternoon, although I did not stage an exhibit at the Neue Galerie. After this trip, I returned to Europe three months later, and in forty-five days I did twenty-two exhibitions—mostly one-night stands showing work at museums, galleries, and alternate spaces in England, France, Germany, Holland, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, and Italy. I also sold work to eight major museums and collections. Since then, my work has been acquired by a number of international institutions, such as MoMA and the Whitney in New York, the Tokyo and Kawasaki Museums in Japan, Lenbachhaus and the Berlin Museum in Germany, the Pompidou in Paris, the National Gallery of Canada, and other places I can’t remember.
In the Ludwig Forum are Collected Works 1974–1978, which includes Dude Defending (03:03 min), Heads and Hands (02:45 min), Neoplastic Key (05:16 min), Pistol (00:34 min), Playing Catch I (01:34 min), Playing Catch II (01:13 min), Portrait (02:35 min), Pound (01:18 min), Rash (01:15 min), School (01:15 min), Deviated Septum (01:59 min), Arrows (05:03 min), Blank (01:25 min), Sundae (01:18 min), Two Figures (00:34 min), Vere- Composition (02:23 min), Video-Taping (03:01 min), Video-Wiping (04:13 min), Wolf-Zooming (05:55 min), and Words (06:03 min). Can you tell us something about the production and its context?
In all of the above pieces, video cameras were run through the Hearn Videolab in my studio in downtown Manhattan. I used multiple cameras simultaneously, or gen-locked onto pre-recorded tape, which I then ran through the system again. I would set up the Videolab to do very fast digital clock voltage-controlled switching, wiping, or colorizing of the images. I was always watching a monitor while I did these pieces. I also used the Putney VCS-3 music synthesizer to “screw up” the voltages. This allowed me to get aberrations and effects that were impossible with other more professional switching systems. I would also use two cameras with one zoomed in on my face and body and another zoomed back, and then engage in “trompe l’oeil,” fool-the-eye impossible visual situations. I also used an extreme wide-angle lens screwed onto the front of the camera in Wolf Zooming, with extreme back and forth zooming of the image on my face, which totally distorted the live image. This was done in the first and only take. A lot of these pieces were “happy accidents” resulting from playing around with the equipment. To me, that is the most interesting way for an artist to work, i.e., “screw the result, the process is where it’s at.” Today, with digital effects and programs such as Adobe AfterFX, a lot of what I was trying to do would be very easy. Of course it takes a certain type of mind to want to do this in the first place and have the conception of a certain kind of image. Actually, a lot of what I did with the Videolab would be impossible to reproduce digitally, because a lot of what I did was done live.
What kind of specifications would you set out today for the presentation of your works?
I have no specific recommendations or specifications for presentation. To me, the images and sound speak for themselves. I am frustrated that the quality of the images from the days of reel to reel, VHS, etc. is markedly inferior to digital images today; however, there is nothing that can be done about that. It would be impossible to reproduce my images today.
What are you working on at the moment?
Currently, my wife, Tomiyo Sasaki, and myself own a shop called The Social Studies Store, in Cumberland, Maryland. We are open from mid-June through December. From January to May, we are traveling in Southeast Asia: in India, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Nepal. We buy fair trade and recycled goods from tribals, people with HIV, poor people, and marginalized craftsmen, which we import into the US and sell in our shop. This is our tenth year. We started shooting digital video at first, but it was too disruptive. Instead, today we both take photographs, which we use in the shop. Besides that, as I stated, I have been building cigar box guitars. This year I am going to start recording music again.