Using grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, The Rockefeller Foundation, and The Massschusetts Council on the Arts, hundreds of artists streamed through the studios of the WGBH New Television Workshop.
Ros and Harris were two of the earliest artists, along with fellow artist Allen Finneran who had banded together into a group called ZONE.
These were exciting moments as we allowed artists to take control of the television equipment and broadcast to an audience who were just beginning to hear the phrase “video art.” Ros Barron worked closely with David Atwood, a very talented producer/director at WGBH, producing some amazing videos.
A new website celebrates the work of these two artists who I met while running the WGBH New Television Workshop. It was a real pleasure working with such talented and serious artists as Ros and Harris.
By John Minkowsky — for the Museum of Fine Arts Boston (excerpts)
Over the past four decades, Ros Barron has created a remarkable body of video works that evolve gracefully around a consistent corpus of themes, images, and personal stylistic motifs. Time, self-deﬁnition, and the nature of consciousness itself — these are among her central concerns. She has often made use of the mannerisms and attributes of surrealism as well as elements of the occult to accomplish these ends.
Among her 18 video works there is a notable quartet in homage to Rene Magritte, some of whose characteristic images and strategies she has embraced and built upon to her own ends. The Artist speaks to the Artist who speaks to Art as it pertains to the Life of the Mind, and the results are an impressive achievement.
The video works she has produced at the New Television Workshop at WGBH, Boston, as a Rockefeller Artist-in-Television, and independently have not been in wide commercial distribution, but instead in visual art contexts: The Museum of Modern Art; Mobius; the Helen Schlien Gallery; and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, as well as in university Visiting Artist Programs …
After meeting Harris Barron at the Massachusetts College of Art in 1953, her marriage to him (she was 18; he was 25) was life-changing.
Her painting and Harris’s sculpture, growing larger, more complex and simpler — shown in Boston and New York galleries, along with his large-scale works commissioned for architecture — preceded the 1968 development of a unique visual theater, ZONE, an intense collaboration with Harris Marron and Allan Finneran — Harris’s former studio assistant.
After ZONE’s initial and very successful 1968 sold-out performances at Brandeis’ Spingold Theater, WGBH producers offered the three ZONE directors Rockefeller Artists-in-Television grants to work at the station’s studios. Ros’s video focus began there with a major work, Headgame. Barron’s involvement with video process and a developed philosophy has deepened considerably with the 18 video works made over the years since Headgame.
The ZONE group went on to tour 13 New York State SUNY campuses with complex visual theater programs. In 1971 they were commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum to design and realize a major performance work based on the existing 1909 notes for Kandinsky’s never realized Der Gelbe Klange for the museum’s 1972 Kandinsky retrospective.
In 1967, Ros and Harris Barron and Alan Finneran — a former assistant in Harris’ sculpture studio — began talking about widening the sphere of their works to include elements of new technologies, to collaborate on what they saw as integrated “visual theater performance works.” This sample footage of ZONE productions was filmed in 1970.
This short film clip was taken during WGBH’s election coverage in November, 1966. Using my trusty Yashica Super 8 camera I shot only about 50 seconds of film, but I slowed it down a bit here. (I would’ve shot more but I had to save film for the Bruins practice the next morning. There were priorities!)
I’m not sure what my role was that night but obviously it wasn’t that crucial since I found time to shoot home movies!
In the clip you may recognize Dave Atwood on camera (and possibly Russ Fortier) as well as Connie White floor directing. Hanging around the AP Teletype machines is Dee Dee Morss (I think). Michael Ambrosino is shown briefly. Bob Baram is host and Louis Lyons interviews the newly elected US Senator from Massachusetts, Edward Brooke, who was the first African-American senator elected by popular vote. A very heady evening.
Although it was a fairly ambitious project, election night was child’s play in comparison to the first Channel 2 Auction just a few months earlier.
My tenure on the production crew at ‘GBH lasted from October 1965 to May of 1967. Bill Cosel was my TV Production Instructor at Northeast Broadcasting School (2nd and 3rd floors above the Hayes-Bickford Restaurant on Boylston St. across from the Pru).
He convinced me to intern at 125 Western Avenue every Wednesday afternoon and evening. I was hired full-time the following spring. The first show I worked on was “Jazz” (directed by Cosel) a live show in Studio A featuring all the great jazz artists who usually were in town to play at Paul’s Mall and the other active jazz clubs. Jackie and Roy were guests on that first show.
Other memorable shows included BSO concerts, Museum Open House, Elliot Norton Reviews, a science show at Harvard with a little-known scientist named Carl Sagan. After that we saw him “billions and billions of times.”
We taped a play in Studio A over several days. It was a Gertrude Stein piece called “Yes is For A Very Young Man” put on by the Theater Company of Boston and featured an unknown by the name of Paul Benedict who later became Mr. Bentley on “The Jeffersons.”
And, of course, the numerous Navy submarine college credit shows. One I worked on quite a bit was “Psychology” with Professor Bernie Harleston. Nice jazz organ theme music.
One VERY memorable day was spent at the home of poet Anne Sexton. We did an all-day shoot from the 1948 Greyhound bus production unit. She was to read several of her poems that we would videotape and produce as filler during breaks in Channel 2’s broadcast schedule.
I was floor manager and all was going smoothly until Ms. Sexton insisted we break for lunch at an Italian restaurant in Hopkinton. After 2 or 3 Martinis, Ms. Sexton agreed to go back to her home in Weston to complete the tapings. It proved to be quite an afternoon. Six months later she won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry and a year or so later, she committed suicide.
Because videotape was so expensive most of these historic events were erased and the tape re-used. Who knew?
And, of course, we all have stories and fond memories of Julia.
Unfortunately, layoffs began in 1967. New Public TV stations were going on the air with all-color cameras and were threatening to dethrone ‘GBH as the main supplier of programming for NET. To pay for the new color equipment, personnel had to be cut. Being one of the last hired, I was on my way out and on to a career in radio in Fitchburg and Central Mass.
I retired to Maine this year after several years working in Access TV in Fitchburg.
Thank you Bill Cosel and WGBH for the experience of a lifetime.
WGBH New Television Workshop existed mainly because artists didn’t have access to TV cameras. These were the days before Portapaks.
I was doing a local show, What’s Happening, Mr. Silver?, which had been brought to the attention of a NET show, Public Broadcasting Laboratory.
Dean Opennheimer, executive producer of culture, asked David Atwood, Olivia Tappan and myself to come to NY and show off our little experimental shows. After watching our stuff, the artists and the exec. producer decided that we might be the best TV types to help give artists control of television.
This little story is about the day I worked with Nam June for the First Time and how he came to create his video synthesizer.
Paik and the Video Synthesizer
Fred Barzyk, TV Producer/Director
Boston, Massachusetts 1969
I always remember Nam June Paik standing in a television studio, in big old rubber boots, his hands somewhere inside an old TV set, telling me to stand back since TV sets sometime explode when he does this. I backed off. The TV did not explode but gave forth a dazzling array of colors, buzzed and slowly died, never to live again.
“Don’t worry. I got more TV sets,” said Paik.
And more he did. That day, in the television studios of WGBH-TV, the flagship station of America’s Public Television network, Paik burned out more than 12 TV sets. Fortunately, this time their dazzling images were captured on 2 inch videotape.
These “visual moments” became part of a six minute video piece which was included in a half hour program called Medium is the Medium. This was the first time that artists where allowed to control the professional TV cameras, producing their own unique vision for a network show. And quite a show it was.
Paik was one of five artists who created video pieces for this segment of Public Broadcasting Laboratory, a weekly two hour show supported by the Ford Foundation. The artist’s had been selected from a 1969 gallery show, TV as a Creative Medium, at the Howard Wise Gallery, New York.
For his video piece, I had to deliver Paik a videotape of a Richard Nixon speech and a woman dancer in a bikini bottom and pasties for her nipples. He did all the rest, to the great delight of the TV crew. This was not the normal PTV show!
This program began my long association with Nam June, along with my partner Olivia Tappan and colleague, Dave Atwood. The three of us became the supporters, defenders and co conspirators in the creation of the Paik/Abe Video Synthesizer.
Why did it happen at WGBH? with me? I had been interested in using television in a more “artistic” way for a long time. My background was theater and art and I was longing to find a way of expressing it. I got into an aesthetic argument with our senior producer/director about WGBH’s coverage of the Boston Symphony concerts. Why couldn’t the cameras paint pictures instead of showing old men blowing horns and bowing violin strings? Not possible, not at WGBH.
I finally convinced a group of engineers and camera people to stay late a couple of nights and we created what is suppose to be the first video experiments, Jazz Images (1963). You must remember, we were like a closed society. No one had TV cameras except TV stations. They were just too big and too expensive. We were like a fortress surrounded by a moat, and no artist was allowed to cross over. So we, those on the inside, had to put a break in the structure.
This kind of experimentation gave the three of us (Barzyk, Tappan, Atwood) a reputation for being “far out.” We were bringing this kind of “experimental” look to a local jazz show and a local series called, What’s Happening Mr. Silver? This kind of continued experimentation within the system was what brought Paik and us together. The producers had heard of our work and we lugged heavy 2 inch tape to New York to show to the artists. Fortunately, they liked our work. We agreed to collaborate.
Howard Klein of the Rockerfeller Foundation became the next major player in the creation of the video synthesizer. Klein offered an artist-in-residence grant to WGBH. I was asked to head up the project. Paik was one of my first choices.
He was brought to Boston for an extended stay as a Rockerfeller Artist in Residence. We tried small little video experiments, but Paik was frustrated because using WGBH’s TV studios, crews, etc. were very expensive. He saw his small grant disappearing without any major creations. He looked for ways to make his work “as inexpensive as Xeroxing.”
One day he presented me with a most complicated looking diagram. I am not an engineer and sometimes had trouble understanding what Paik is saying, and was totally unsure that day of what he was describing to me.
What I was able to fathom, was that he wanted to go to Japan and work with a Japanese engineer (Abe) to create a low cost video machine. This machine would cost $10,000 and give Nam June the ability to create constantly without worrying about costs. He further explained that the $10,000 would include his travel, the engineers time, all the electronic equipment, and bring the machine and engineer from Japan to Boston to set up its operation. Was this possible? He insisted he could do it. And he did.
Paik and I had a lunch with the head of WGBH, Michael Rice, to try and sell him on the expenditure of the grant money to create this video machine. Michael sat there and listened as Paik went on and on about the beauty of the synthesizer and the images it would create. We laid out the diagram on the lunch table, and Paik gave his best presentation yet. To his credit, Michael Rice agreed there, on the spot.
Nam June would soon be on his way to Japan.
“That’s the easiest $10,000 grant I ever got!” said Paik.
For the next three months, I heard from Nam June every once in awhile. Back here in Boston, I had convinced the station to give over a very small studio to house the synthesizer. Finally, passing through customs, Paik and Abe arrived with boxes and boxes of equipment. Paik had also purchased an old record turntable on which he would construct objects and spin them at either 33rpm or 78rpm. This was the focus of the synthesizers black and white cameras as the two men set up their video machine.
I knew the day it was working, when Nam June showed me a mound of shaving cream whirling around on the turntable, which was being transformed into a mélange of color and images on his color TV sets. The Video Synthesizer lived.
The first broadcast of the synthesizer was a video marathon, broadcast live from 10:00 pm to 1:00 AM. Paik called it “Beatles, from beginning to end.”
That night he played every Beatle tune that had been recorded (some several times) and created abstract image after another. People, friends showed up to help.
The costs of this three hour television broadcast, including shaving cream, tin foil, and assorted objects plus supper for Paik and Abe was $100. He had done it. He broke the back of expensive broadcast TV.
The only problem with that evening’s broadcast was that he blew out the TV transmitter. The chroma level coming out of the synthesizer was much too high and destroyed a component. It had to be replaced and it was very expensive.
“What’s television coming to?” said WGBH’s head engineer.
“I can’t believe what’s happening on my TV,” said a TV viewer
“Beautiful. Like video wall paper,” said Nam June Paik.
“The Club” began on channel 44 as “Club 44.” I think it was around 1977-80.
Studio A was converted into a bar/club where each Friday night we would tape four, half-hour, back to back, “live” 30 minute segments. These featured local bands and musical acts, cooking segments, political editorials from Barney Frank, interviews with local celebs, and a variety of Boston based info segments. It was made more interesting by the audience who was served wine and beer. They roamed about standing, sometimes tripping on camera cables and generally being helpful. As the night wore on the fun increased.
Silvia Davis was the Executive Producer. She and her team did a great job coming up with fresh talent and ideas for the show. I recall Dick Cavett doing a guest host spot, as did Garrett Morris from SNL. We did segments on CB radio (all the rage at the time) and hot tubs (one night we had a 6′ wooden barrel that mostly didn’t leak all over.) There were movie, book and eatery reviews and even the odd pet segment.
Some might remember the unique innovation called “the stick”. This was used to ID guests. During a segment, David Atwood who was the ringmaster and chief would call out, “Okay, give ’em the stick.” At which point a piece of foam core attached to a dowel would be thrust into the frame…usually in a mostly lower third position. The guest’s name was painted on the sign. This all happened in the days before Chyron. You will hardly ever see it done today.
I’m sure others have fond “Club” memories… Care to share?
Needing a job fresh out of college in the fall of 1965 I made an alphabetical list of Boston’s TV stations. The first was WBZ. I set out from Woburn, found WBZ and went in looking for work. They said they might start me in the mail room. I was devastated. I had four years of TV production experience at two commercial stations, one educational station, and one closed circuit facility in Maine.
I wanted to go home and sulk but next on the list was WGBH which was close by on Western Avenue, Allston. The operator in the lobby asked me to wait then Al Potter appeared. We interviewed in his office near the studio and he must have given me a tour. They had, as I remember, ten black and white cameras distributed among the three studios and mobile unit. In Maine TV I had never seen more than two studio cameras in one station. Impressive and scary.
Al told me to come back after lunch to interview with Greg Harney. Greg hired me as a lighting director after asking me if I knew what a key light and a back light was. I did … because I’d read it in a book recently. (In Maine we named our pets but not our lights.) I started two days later on the crew, mostly hanging lights up at the grid on an Eco Lift, terrified of heights but never saying so. In a few weeks they discovered I knew how to run camera so the only event I ever lighted was the Christmas party that year. Red and Green.
In 1967 Al called me into his office and told me they needed a director and that I was it. As a cameraman I had watched closely the stable of directors at GBH and was convinced I could do a better job than any of them. I had lots of ideas, especially during a show as they went from shot to shot.
Sitting in front of the monitor wall in the studio A control room on my first directing assignment I immediately forgot everything. I could barely stammer “take 2”.
Six WGBH Alumni — Fred Barzyk, Michael Ambrosino, Olivia Tappan, Bruce Bordett, and David Atwood — tour the studios and offices at 125 Western Avenue, WGBH’s primary home from 1964 to 2007. Recorded in June 2006.