Paik and the Video Synthesizer

This entry is part 5 of 22 in the series The Fred Barzyk Collection
Fred Barzyk (2007)

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.

Fred Barzyk Honored For “Personal Vision in Television”

This entry is part 3 of 22 in the series The Fred Barzyk Collection

From Don Hallock

At first glance this man looks sane enough. In fact, his lifelong career has been skating the crazy edge of the barely possible, a madcap minister to the risky marriage of art and broadcast. And it’s won Fred Barzyk (shown here speaking at the 2000 Reunion) yet another round of honors.

In 1998, the WGBH Archives, under a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, moved to preserve several inNOVAtive and experimental video art series, many of which were produced and directed by Fred. The goal of the project, called the New Television Workshop Collection, was to organize the programming assets and create a Web accessible guide to the video art series New Television Workshop, Rockefeller Artists-in-Television, Artists’ Showcase, Music Image Workshop, Dance for Camera, Framee of Reference, VIsions, Alive from Off Center, Soundings, Poetry Breaks and The Contemporary Art Television Fund.

This summer, that collection is being shared with the museum patrons of Milwaukee in an installation of Fred’s work at the Haggerty Museum.

From Dan Beach

Old-timers Peter Hoving, Fred Barzyk and Dan Beach at the Fred Barzyk/New TV Workshop Retrospective exhibit at Decordova Museum, Lincoln, MA.

From the Decordova Museum

The Search for A Personal Vision in Broadcast Television: Fred Barzyk

The exhibition The Search for A Personal Vision in Broadcast Television: Fred Barzyk brings to the forefront the dramatic changes occurring in television through artists’ experiments with broadcast television and the development of video art.

The television, first introduced in the 1930s, has become a medium of unparalleled influence shaping much of America’s history and culture. In the late 1960s, some of the most inNOVAtive experiments in television broadcasting were occurring at the public television station WGBH-TV in Boston.

Under the direction of Fred Barzyk from 1959, the WGBH television studio sought to introduce new approaches to television programming. It brought together artists, choreographers, photographers and writers, and encouraged experimentation. It pioneered the use of new technologies and broadcast many of the resulting programs nationally.

The Korean-born artist Nam June Paik became an artist-in-residence working with Fred Barzyk at WGBH, Boston in the early seventies. During this time, Paik and Shuya Abe built the video synthesizer used to create some of the first artist videos including The Medium is the Medium (1968), Paik’s Video Commune: The Beatles from Beginning to End (1970) and Tristan and Isolde (1973) by Ron Hays.

The exhibition includes several broadcast firsts such as Jazz Images (1961), dubbed the first attempt at video art on broadcast television, and the double channel programs from the late sixties. The first TV series shot with a portable broadcast quality camera occurred in 1972, when Fred Barzyk and Jean Shepherd went “on the road” to produce Jean Shepherd’s America. In 1978, the first interactive TV drama aired on public television.

The environment at the WGBH New Television Workshop fostered the early videos of Nam June Paik, William Wegman, Peter Campus, Bill Viola and Patrick Ireland in the exhibition. William Wegman came to the Workshop’s studio and created Man Ray, Man Ray (1978), a video narrated by Russell Connor, which intermixes the biography of the famous photographer with that of his dog. In Peter Campus’ Three Transitions produced by Barzyk, the artist not only demonstrates the use of a chroma-key or two camera set-up, but challenges traditional ideas about painting, sculpture and photography by demonstrating that video can capture the very process of creation.

During the 1970s and 80s, the art of capturing movement and dance on camera was the focus of the Dance Workshop at WGBH. The contributions made to dance by choreographers Trisha Brown, Rudy Perez, Dan Wagoner, Louis Falco and Mimi Seawright are presented in the video wall of dance in the exhibition.

As a producer and director, Barzyk was instrumental in bringing such literary work as Charles Johnson’s Charlie Smith and the Fritter Tree, Ursula Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s Between Time and Timbuktu or Prometheus-5 to television. He was equally resourceful in creating such original documentaries such as Negro and the American Promise (1961) and People (1975).

Fred Barzyk, a Marquette University graduate, was founder and first director of WGBH New Television Workshop in 1967. For his work in broadcast television, Barzyk has received the Venice Film Award, three Emmys, two ACE awards and the George Foster Peabody Award from the University of Georgia. He is currently president of Creative Television Associates.

Exhibition Sponsors
Andrew W. Mellon Fund of the College of Art and Sciences
Wisconsin Arts Board
An Anonymous Donor

Go, Fred!