Seattle CyberArt in the 70s

Posted by Rhizome | Thu Apr 17th 1997 1 a.m.

Here is a summary of a talk I gave about an earlier era of cyberart:

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Burt Webb: Seattle CyberArt in the 70s

At the Speakeasy Internet Cafe Backroom

I am a computer consultant in Seattle. My current interests include
writing and playing music, writing science essays and articles,
collaborating on scripts for science fiction and fantasty films, working
VRML for the WWW, and local polical involvement. In the early 70s, I
dabbled in the Seattle CyberArts scene and will share some recollections
and samples from those times:

1969 - Experiments in Art & Technology was a New York based organization
providing a national matching service for artists and
scientists/engineers. They published a newsletter and held events in New
York. You could register as an artist or a scientist/engineer. If you
wanted help on a a project, they sent you several names of people in
your area.

I attended several meetings of members in this area and met some
interesting folks like Vernon Chi, a Boeing engineer. He was working on
using a row of speakers to generate a planar hologram so that you could
have an apparent source of sound coming from anyplace in the room. Loren
Carpenter was also a Boeing engineer. He was into using fractals to
generate landscapes. I saw some of his early work. We once had a
conversation about cosmology. He thought of the universe as a giant
hologram. The granularity of space at the Plank length was the high
frequency cutoff of the hologram and the red shift was related to the
low frequency cutoff. He went on to work in Hollywood and his fractal
programs were used to create the Genesis effect sequence in the Wrath of
Khan - Star Trek movie.

In 1970, I played around with color organs, chase and random sequences
of sets of lights, black light effects, strobes and other visual

1971 - The Retina Circus was the premier light show company in Seattle.
They were regulars at the Eagles Auditorium where all the big acts
played. They had banks of slide projectors, 16 mm projectors running
film clips, color wheels, liquids on overhead projectors and other
optical effects. I really enjoyed the liquids which were colored oils
that an operator squished between two transparent curved glass dishes.
The image on the screen looked like an amoeba of light, pulsating to the
music. The Circus also toured with their own production which featured
recorded music provided to them by Pink Floyd. I once suggested some
special effects for a film they were working on.

1973 - The Global Village Conference was held in Olympia at the
Evergreen State College for the producers of Expo 74 in Spokane. We were
trying to get them to make the coming revolution in computers, video and
global telecommunication the theme of their exposition. I was the
curator of a small computer art show at the conference.

While hanging out at Evergreen, I also experimented with video feedback
effects. They had a small conference on computer art and I got to meet
some of the early pioneers in the field such as John Whitney, Sr. who
was a visiting artist at IBM. He went on to write a book called Digital
Harmony about attemps to create visual analogs to melogy, harmony and
rhythm. I upset the proceedings by asking if there was any sort of
biological basis for aesthetics.

1973 - Some of the people that I interacted with at Evergreen were
studying film making. I was also into parapsychological studies at the
time and was interested in how technology might interface with the human
brain. One the people I discussed this with approached me some months
later and asked if I would be interested in being in a short movie that
he was working on. I agreed and went to Olympia to participate. The
movie was a satire presented as a documentary exposure of a cult that
used video, biofeedback and computers to achieve a technologically
assisted enlightenment. It was called "Eat The Sun". I was the spirtual
instructor and just adlibbed my lines, drawning on my research and
speculation. The casting was great. We all had fun. The movie went on to
win awards, tour the world in a package of short features and played
over national public television. The man who put it all together, Jim
Cox, now works for Disney.

1974 - The And/Or Gallery was a hotbed of experimental art in those
days. I saw some really wierd performance stuff, some great computer
graphic short films and got a chance to play with the Buchla
synthesizer. It was constructed of modules which either generated sounds
or performed some manipulation such as modulating one signal with
another. You had to run patch cords between the modules. I especially
enjoyed the 1/f noise generator. Sounded like the ocean in a cavern. Got
so lost in the stuff one day that it took about 3 hours after I left for
all the weird sounds to die away in my head.

1975 - Bumbershoot 75 was the biggest and longest they ever produced. It
ran for 10 days. I got the chance to put together a video pavillion for
it. Among other things, I had one of the first Novabeam video projectors
in town for a video theater, experimented with connecting computer
output to video, and showed off an Akai 1/4" reel to reel video portable
that was really cutting edge at the time. I copied some computer graphic
films to video tape and presented them on the video projector.

As part of the exhibit, I produced a video synthesis of astronomical
images, music and narration based on a book titled "As Above So Below".
The book used illustrations and short text passages to trace the levels
of reality from the galaxies to the atomes. We set up at a local cable
studio. There were two guys on cameras with easels to hold art work. A
tech ran the video gear, doing the fades and messing with the color
values. I did the narration, directed and ran the sound board for the
Zen flute music background. We did a one hour video in one take, real
time, sort of a video performance art piece.

1977 - Some friends and I got our hands on an industrial laser and
played around for a few days. Shot it down a mylar tube and massaged the
sides. Ran it through lenses and projected it on walls. There is
something visually appealing about the purity and intensity of laser
light, sort of like hearing a pure tone.

I showed EAT THE SUN, brief exerpts of As Above, So Below, and a
fantastic computer graphic film like an animated mandala by James
Whitney, brother of John Whitney, Sr. He was a Zen Buddhist and his
film, "Lapis" was an attempt to portray the approach to Samadhi. It was
made in the late 60's and I still think it is one of the most profound
and powerful computer graphic films ever made.

I have always enjoyed exploring the intersection of art and technology
but have just been a diletante. I don't claim to have any great artistic
talent and I have great respect and admiration for those who have the
talent and drive to produce real art in this new and rapidly evolving
field. It was a great pleasure to share my memories of an earlier era of
CyberArt in Seattle.
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