The Paik/Abe Synthesizer
by George Fifield
There are a few moments in history where a major advance in
the arts is also an advance in engineering and directly responsible
for a major acceleration of popular culture. The invention of
the Paik/Abe Synthesizer is one of those perfect moments.
The Paik/Abe Synthesizer is the first machine designed to
distort existing video. It was built in Boston at WGBH-TV in
1969 by Nam June Paik and Shuya Abe.
At the time Paik was an artist in residence at the public
television station. He had come the previous year as part of
a contingent of artists invited to create a revolutionary broadcast
television show called "The Medium Is The Medium."
It grew out of an exhibition at the Howard Wise gallery in New
York. The idea was to have these new video artists take over
a television broadcast studio to make video art. The producers
Pat Marx and Ann Gresser successfully approached the Ford Foundation
for funding. But at the time broadcast television was an insular
institution, to say the least, and finding a television station
that would allow these artists in was difficult. Marx and Gresser
had seen an article in Newsweek about a TV show on Boston public
television called "What's Happening, Mr. Silver" produced
by Fred Barzyk. This was a weekly program hosted by Tufts University
professor David Silver. The episode mentioned in Newsweek was
called "Madness and Intuition."
During the production of it, Barzyk recalled, "I used
every film chain, every video tape machine, I had groups of thousands
of slides being projected. I had a guy on a motorcycle circling
two old people from an old people's home. I had two guys sleeping
in bed. I gave [director] Dave Atwood instructions that whenever
anybody got bored they just yelled out and we would change to
what ever else was there without rhyme or reason, assuming that
everything would make sense by the time it all came out. Twenty-two
minutes into the show I got up and left. As director I just walked
out. One lady called up [the station] afterwards and said, 'Don't
ever do that again, you've given me brain cancer.'"
With this kind of creative exploration about the structure
of Television already in place, WGBH was recognized from the
outside as a place where artists might be allowed some freedom
to play. Barzyk, producer Olivia Tappen and Dave Atwood were
invited to New York and arrived with 100 lbs of 2" inch
tape of their work to show the Wise Gallery artists. Everyone
got along and the artists came to Boston.
In March 1969, "The Medium Is The Medium" aired
nationally featuring six artists, Allan Kaprow, Nam June Paik,
Otto Piene, James Seawright, Thomas Tadlock and Aldo Tambellini.
Each of them made a short video using WGBH equipment. Paik's
contribution, "Electronic Opera #1" pioneered the idea
of interactive television in his by exhorting viewers to "close
one eye" or "close one eye half way" and finally,
"Turn off your television set".
"Nam June Paik showed up in [rubber] boots and with about
twenty old TV sets." Barzyk remembers, "I asked him
why he was wearing the boots and he said, 'Oh, I get electrocuted
otherwise.' He asked if I could get a nude woman to dance over
a picture of Richard Nixon. I went as far as I could on public
television. I had a dancer who was willing to do it in pasties
and a g-string. But that shook up the station too, because this
was definitely not what they expected. However with the Ford
Foundation supporting this show and getting national recognition
they had to pay attention. Reluctantly, but they had to pay attention."
Later Paik introduced Barzyk to Howard Klein at the Rockefeller
Foundation, who had seen the importance of this new medium some
time before. Klein had already worked with a number of artists
and institutions, like Paik and KQED in San Francisco, funding
video experimentation. When he added WGBH and later WNET in New
York to the process, he was able to design an entire program,
the Rockefeller Artists-In-Television Project, to cover the various
grants. And Paik became a WGBH Rockefeller Artist-In-Television.
Barzyk recalls working with Paik in that summer of 1969, "Nam
June's vision was immense. His language was somewhat limited
and his communication with engineers (and his ideas had a lot
to do with engineering) were threatening to a lot of people.
Nam June had an engineer friend in Tokyo, Mr. Abe, and he came
to me with an idea that he would create a machine for himself
that would be away from the requirements of the [WGBH] engineers.
I remember he and I had lunch with Michael Rice [president of
WGBH] and we laid out this huge piece of paper which tried to
describe the synthesizer and what it was like and what it was
going to do. I don't think Michael really understood, but he
knew that Nam June would be gone for three months and we got
the money needed to send him to Tokyo and to develop and devise
this thing and bring Mr. Abe to help set it up here in the United
States." Paik returned from Japan in the spring of 1970
and made the synthesizer over the summer.
What Paik wanted to accomplish was to make video as malleable
as paint. He realized that all the broadcast studio equipment
in the world was still not enough to accomplish his vision of
"video wallpaper. Nam June Paik saw television as the canvas
for the next generation of electronic artists. The synthesizer
itself was designed to do exactly what all the WGBH engineers
prided themselves on avoiding. It contaminated the video signal.
By wiring up seven old black and white surveillance cameras
to a colorizer and scan modulator, Paik and Abe were able to
distort the color and misshape the image on the television screen.
In the early sixties, Paik had displayed old television sets
with huge horseshoe magnets sitting on top. This wild distortion
of the magnet on one TV was exactly the effect Paik wanted on
everyone's TV. With the synthesizer, he was finally able to achieve
Paik himself described the Synthesizer; "Is sloppy machine,
like me." The original Synthesizer is a jumble of old video
equipment that probably looked scavenged back in 1970. Starting
with seven old black and white surveillance cameras, the Synthesizer
is a colorizer and scan modulator combined. Each of the seven
video signals is passed through its own non-linear amplifier
and then through a matrix into a RGB to NTSC color encoder. This
meant that one camera acted as the red input, one green, one
blue, one as red and green, one as red and blue, etc. Aiming
the cameras at roughly the same object gave overlapping color
images. David Atwood, who was Paik's roommate in Boston that
summer, said simply, "The engineers hated the thing."
The Synthesizer debut in a four hour broadcast television
show called "Video Commune - The Beatles from Beginning
to End" on WGBH, channel 44 on August 1, 1970. Paik took
advantage of a licensing agreement that WGBH had which gave them
rights to air all Beatles songs. So he created four hours of
a wildly colorful broadcast performance to a soundtrack of Beatles
music. Susan Dowling, later director of the New Television Workshop,
described Video Commune as "All the images on the show -
surreal landscapes (crushed tin foil), eerie abstractions (shaving
cream), bursts of color (wrapping paper) - were transmogrified
by the Synthesizer at the very moment of broadcast: "live"
television at its most unexpected." Interspersed with the
Synthesizer video and Beatles music were clips from a tape of
Japanese television, in Japanese, with no subtitles.Viewers in
Boston had never seen anything like it.
After Video Commune aired the engineers came out and said,
"You guys blew up the color filter on the Channel 44 transmitter
and if we ever do this again, we have to have more control."
Later Paik left Boston and built many more Synthesizers, including
ones for the Experimental Television Workshop in upstate New
York and for WNET in New York City.Atwood described his job as
the mediator between the WGBH engineers and the Synthesizer.
He tells the story about the Green Frog. In the Synthesizer room
was a large container in the shape of a green frog. It contained
numerous video cables of different lengths that he had collected
around the station. After Paik left, when artists like Ron Hays
created a new show on the Synthesizer and it was scheduled to
air the engineers would always say something like, "We can't
air that, its 60 degrees out of phase." Atwood knew that
by adding cable to the output of the Synthesizer, he could change
the phase by 2 degrees a foot. So he would go into the Synthesizer
room and pull thirty feet of cable out of the frog and add it
to the output. Then he would return and say, "Look at the
phase now, how is it?" The engineer would then have to air
Today the original Synthesizer is the Kunsthalle in Bremen, Germany,
in a large frame built by Paik himself, which is covered by a
jumble of vintage televisions which show the various videos made
with the synthesizer and their date of production. Wulf Herzogenrath,
director of the Bremen Kunsthalle explains that he insisted that
the dates be there, so the MTV generation of kids who came into
the room realized that these modern looking videos were made
before they were born, not last week.
By exhibiting a simple machine this way, Herzogenrath showed
that he understood the importance of the Paik /Abe Synthesizer
to world culture in a way that few in Boston or the rest of the
United States did. It represents the vision of an artist who
sees a medium of communication and understands that to make art
with it you must first subvert it.
Until NamJune Paik the medium of worldwide broadcast television
was the engineers temple. Artists were not invited. Yet by 1970,
this "vast wasteland," as it was called, had transformed
our culture, becoming the most powerful form of communication
in the world.
Paik revolutionized that. The handful of videos he made with
the Synthesizer had an effect far beyond their audience. Suddenly
the idea of video art made sense in a way that it hadn't before.
Video became a canvas that the artist could literally paint on.
The freedom of creative thought that Paik's creation spawned
spread like wildfire. The Paik/Abe synthesizer and others like
it were used by an entire generation of artists interested in
the formal beauty of the abstract video image. Suddenly artists
started inventing new electronic tools as fast as they needed
them, twisting video signals through a whole new language of
feedback and colorization, processing and disruption.
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© Davidson Gigliotti, 2000CE