“The Video Artist”: A profile of pioneering polymediast and video synthesist Stephen Beck

By on June 29, 2017

This special profile on Stephen Beck, a pioneer in the video synthesis medium and interactive video art, comes from The Video Artist, a sixteen-part limited series about major video artists, produced by Night Flight’s founder/creator Stuart S. Shapiro and Eric Trigg of Electronic Arts Intermix [EAI]. This eleventh episode in the series was originally seen in 1982 on “Night Flight.” You can now watch it now in its entirety on Night Flight Plus.

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Among his many inventions, video artist and writer Stephen “Steve” Beck invented the Direct Video Synthesizer (1970-’72), a machine that could create abstract analog colors and patterns on a television screen.

He also invented the Video Synthesis Instrument Number Zero (1969) (while he was still an undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana), and a digital synthesizer, the Video Weaver (1973).

“My interest is using the video synthesizer as a compositional tool,” he says as he walks Night Flight through his process in this special series, broadcast nationally over the USA cable network in the early ’80s.

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Beck Direct Video Synthesizer (photo by John Minkowsky)

Stephen Beck grew up on the south side of Chicago, the oldest of six, where he says he was just five years old when he realized he had a natural affinity for electricity and electronics, beginning with a crystal radio that his father — a structural engineer who worked for a company who designed the first nuclear power plant — helped him build.

The family made frequent visits to the Chicago Art Institute and the Museum of Science & Industry, where Beck became fascinated with a single-color cathode ray tube which had a little magnifying lens — you could look through it and see tiny phosphor dots — and three dials, which allowed you to dial up the red, green and blue colors.

Beck credits the cathode ray display with drawing him into the world of video, and powerful reflections of light.

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The Museum of Science & Industry was also home to WTTW, Chicago’s public TV station, and through a family friend who worked for Bell Telephone, he and his other family members occasionally got to go see the live children’s TV shows being shot in the station’s studio, and that’s how Beck knew early on he was more interested in the cameras and technical studio gear than he was in what was being performed onstage.

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The Museum of Science and Industry Chicago, located in Jackson Park between The University of Chicago and Lake Michigan in Illinois

By the age of twelve, he’d learned how to repair televisions, and often fixed the broken TV sets brought to him by his neighbors.

At Christmas, he would rig the family’s Christmas tree to respond to the Christmas music playing on the family stereo, making the lights blink and flash, pulsing along to the beat of the music.

He and his siblings were also encouraged by their parents to enrich their lives with music, and they were all given musical instruments and music lessons, playing in the school band.

Like a lot of kids in the early 1960s, in the Beatles-era, he had a lot of friends who played in little rock ‘n’ roll bands, and so he spent a lot of time hanging out with them, no doubt repairing their amps and helping with the other electronic gear, as needed.

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Stephen Beck (photo by Penny Dhaemers)

In 1967, Beck began attending classes at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, which turned out to be the perfect place for him at the time (he’d applied to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but didn’t get accepted).

He ended up reading every book the university’s library had on television, about seven hundred different titles.

He soon learned the school’s experimental music studio  (the second experimental music studio in the country, apparently, opening after Columbia University’s) was looking for somebody to help wire things together, and he was given the part-time job after first passing a test showing that he knew how to properly use a soldering gun.

The university had one of the first Moog synthesizers and they’d also built something called the Harmonic Tone Generator, and since Beck had already built amplifiers and liked to mess around with electric circuitry and experiment with instrumentation, getting fuzz-tone effects among others, he couldn’t have been happier to get a set of keys to the attic studio.

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Robert Moog

Beck — who studied electronic music and composition with composer John Cage at Champaign-Urbana — started teaching music students how to use synthesizers, and he began experimenting with a monochrome green oscilloscope, and a cathode ray tube, along the way designing conceptual circuits that would go beyond what the the oscilloscope and vector could display.

He wanted these devices to be used for some higher purpose than just creating Lissajous figures, which are those wavy patterns created by parametric equations (also called Bowditch Curve patterns) produced by two intersecting sinusoidal curves.

He also learned that, since the 1950s, a lot of artists had already been making oscilloscope films, and he began going to a little coffee shop on campus that used to show these little films to on Saturday nights, exposing him to the artwork and films by Oskar Fischinger, John and James Whitney, Jordan Belson, Mary Ellen Bute and others.

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Protestors and Chicago Police Officers, Grant Park

At the time, there was a tremendous amount of resistance against the Vietnam War, on campus at Champaign-Urbana and across the country, and a lot of the students were caught up in protest marches (many were in danger of being drafted). Beck abhorred the destructive side of the war in Vietnam, and was so adamantly opposed to the war that he burned his draft card. In the summer of ’68, he would be tear-gassed during a protest (read more about ’68 Chicago here).

There was also a lot of experimentation with LSD-25, mescalin and other consciousness-altering substances. Beck and some of his fellow students got together for shamanic rituals, to chant and induce visions and hallucinations.

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For a long time, just like all of us, he’d seen those little squiggly images — called phosphenes — whenever he’d closed his eyes (from the Greek “phos-,” meaning light, and “-phenos,” to see), created by photons entering your eye, impinging on your retina.

He was also fascinated to learn all about this type of imagery — hypnogogic, hypnopompic, the things you see when you’re falling asleep and waking up, meditational imagery, psychedelic imagery, et al — all of which led to him wanting to find productive ways to channel his interests in technology into something positive, rather than destructive ways that technology was being used during an era chock-full of transformative events.

An excerpt, from The Phosphotron by Stephen Beck:

“As we go through daily life our eyes are open most of the time. During sleep our eyes remain closed, but often exhibit movements. The visual aspects of these two contrasting states of consciousness have long intrigued me. Much of the visual imagery in my video and film compositions is drawn from the substance of images seen with the eyes closed.”

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Stills from The Direct Video Synthesizer

In the summer of 1968, Beck was working as an installer for Western Union during the day, and at night, he was working at the Electric Theater on the west side of Chicago, building and operating analog light shows, including strobe lights, which were shown during performances by some of the big acts of the day, including Pink Floyd, the Doors, Led Zeppelin, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Jefferson Airplane and dozens more.

The Electric Theater was owned and operated by Aaron Russo, who opened its doors at 4812 N. Clark Street on April 3, 1968, right before the assassination of Martin Luther King. The venue underwent a name change to the Kinetic Playground after Russo was sued by the owners of NYC’s Electric Circus, just prior to a performance by Nova Express and Little Boy Blues on August 9–11, 1968.

The interior of the venue can be seen in a great little scene in Haskell Wexler‘s Medium Cool (1969).

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A scene from Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool filmed inside The Electric Theater, Chicago

By the way, the Electric Church had a fire in November of ’72, and then re-opened again (without the light shows) in December, but it was ultimately forced to close for good in June of 1973 due to neighbors’ complaints about the behavior of concertgoers. The building was demolished in 2003.

Beck was also a founding member of the Chicago chapter of EAT (Experiments in Art and Technology) in 1968, and because his electrical engineering studies had led to him wanting to make something beautiful out of television, he began creating little oscilloscope movies in the school’s famed electronic music studio, inventing something he called the Phosphotron, an electronic phosphene stimulator.

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Sal Martirano, who was one the music faculty’s most progressive and daring professors — he’d taken it upon himself to learn electronics, circuit theory and digital logic late in life, in order to make his own artist endeavors more up-to-date — liked to invited students to his home, and sit around and play music and have discussions with him, and Beck admired him.

Martirano — who had his own performance group, the SalMar group — saw what Beck was doing with his oscilloscope and asked him to perform in front of the students at his house parties, and soon Beck and Martirano were patching wires together, designing gates and digital circuits and try to wire together all of this electronic gadgetry in order to put on these public performances.

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Sal Martirano’s work “Underworld” (1965), featuring the Contemporary Chamber Players of the University of Illinois, (David Gilbert, conductor), appeared on Electronic Music from the University of Illinois

The success of these home performances led to Beck taking it on the road, where it was displayed for performances at the the Art Institute of Chicago, the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and the University of Iowa in Ames.

Beck was invited to come out to work at San Francisco-based station KQED — today the NPR-member radio station is owned by Northern California Public Broadcasting — making the move westward in August of 1970 (right before Governor Ronald Reagan began ordering that tear gas be sprayed on Berkeley’s anti-war hippie protestors).

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KQED was located in a warehouse, right around the corner and right behind the offices of Rolling Stone magazine, located at 746 Brannan Street, not far from the San Francisco Flower Mart. Beck would frequently run into Jan Wenner and others from RS in local bars.

There, he immediately began trying to build his own synthesizer, and started ordering equipment, designing voltage range inputs which needed to be compatible with the Buchla Synth he was building, and once again he found himself collaborating with others who were interested in the same types of things he was.

Beck became immersed in Northern California’s vibrant ’70s experimental film scene.

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Don Buchla, inventor of the modular synthesizer

Because he was working at a TV station, he soon had his first opportunity to work with videotape, and he began synthesizing images to produce imagery without the use of camera (as with the Phosphotron).

While many video artists were working with abstract feedback, Beck’s devices allowed him to bypass the camera and its conventional mirroring effects to invest his work specifically in the formal elements of the screen and pure electronic signal and feedback.

According to Beck, feedback is the television in a “self-meditative state. Input focused on output, its eye focused on its vision.”

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Beck’s experimenting led to him working with a modified color TV, and using his Buchla Electronic Music synthesizer led to creating new ways to “visualize sound” by using external analog mixers, and distorting the audio signals with the oscillators in order to create colorful images.

Beck’s first video synthesizer expanded on some of the experiments he was doing back at University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

The color images he was producing were coined “Direct Video” by Brice Howard, director of NCET (National Center for Experiments in Television), and his video synth was later called Direct Video Zero, usually abbreviated Direct Video #0 or DV #0.

On May 19, 1972, Beck — who would go on to get an electrical engineering degree from the University of California at Berkeley — went live on-the-air of station KQED to perform with his Direct Video Synthesizer, although, at the time, people watching at home weren’t quite sure what they were watching, and many viewers flooded KQED’s telephone switchboard, some of them saying they loved what they were seeing, while others complained that the broadcast had broken their television sets.

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Stephen Beck playing the Beck Direct Video Synthesizer live on KQED-TV for the first performance of Illuminated Music I, May 19, 1972. This image comes from the Cinefamily’s presentation of films from Stephen Beck’s own collection, provided courtesy of Stephen Beck. ©1972–2012 Stephen Beck. All Rights Reserved.

He had by then joined KQED – NCET for the National Center for Experiments in Television (NCET), a nonprofit, non-public group that relied on grants from Ford Foundation, and then later from the Rockefeller Foundation and Howard Klein, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

NCET offered Beck a position as artist in residence in order to create video art (1970-1973) and Champaign-Urbana film professor Ron Nameth — who had shot Andy Warhol’s “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” — filmed him operating his video synthesizer, thereafter showing the film around the country, something that bothered Beck, who felt that it was as much “his” film as Nameth’s, which led to him subsequently being involved in shooting his own films of his work.

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In early December of ’72, Beck brought his video synthesizer for a public performance of what he was working on (not yet called “Illuminated Music”) to a big NEA conference for all its membership in Washington, D.C., which was being held in auditorium at the National Academy of Sciences Building.

At the NEA conference, he was introduced to Nam June Paik, who invited Beck to his studio on Mercer Street in New York City, which is where Beck was heading next.

Over dinner, Paik told Beck he’d like to collaborate with him on some projects, and asked if he would come to New York to continue his work at WNET, Channel 13, an invitation that Beck declined (although years later, in 1988, he would bring his then-girlfriend Laurie Anderson over to his Mercer Street studio in order for the two of them to meet).

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Over the years, Beck — whose still lives in the Berkeley Hills, in a beautiful home called “Casa Bella” which overlooks the northeast side of the valley that encompasses San Francisco Bay — has made frequent trips to New York City, attending various conferences and going to museums and galleries which featured video artists.

One of those was Beck’s aforementioned project “Illuminated Music,” which was a series of live performances in which he and composer/musician Warner Jepson (1930-2011) reworked pre-made compositions directly before an audience, linking the video synthesizer to synesthesia, comparing the immaterial origins of its forms to the colorful and mysterious mental images that have no direct origin in the phenomenal, existential world.

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Warner Jepson

Beck created the visuals with his Direct Video Synthesizer, while Jepson created musical sounds using his Buchla audio synthesizer, which was first explored by Morton Subotnick in his 1963 piece “Silver Apples on the Moon.”

Illuminated Music 2 and Illuminated Music 3, both collaborations with Jepson, first aired on November 6, 1973. They made up the very first installment of NCET’s series “The Videospace Electronic Notebooks,” a showcase of work made at the center.

On January 23-25, 1974, Beck attended “Open Circuits: An International Conference on the Future of Television,” which was held on held at The Museum of Modern Art, and that’s where he first saw Thomas Wilfred’s works of “sculptured” light, which he called lumia, and described as an “an eighth art” where light would stand on its own as an expressive art-form.

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In this excellent article in the New Yorker, (“Lumia,” June 27, 2011), Wilfred’s lumia compositions are described as “both feats of bric-a-brac engineering and ethereal works of art.”

“Wilfred used reflective mirrors, hand-painted glass disks, and bent pieces of metal — all housed in a screened wooden cabinet, or, in one case, mounted on a walnut ‘tea wagon,’ — to transform beams of light produced by a series of lamps and lenses.”

The article also spells out how Wilfred’s “Opus 161″ (1965-66) was used to accompany “the divine light,” which periodically appeared throughout the Terrence Malick film, The Tree of Life, one of Night Flight’s personal favorites (read our post about it here).

The composition is owned by Thomas Wilfred curator, Eugene Epstein, who allowed the Lumia composition to be filmed for the movie.

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The “Divine Light” as seen in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life

The exposure Wilfred’s lumia also encouraged him to continue pursuing creating imagery with the same kind of immediacy of video (he didn’t want to shoot images on film and wait for it to be developed before manipulating the images), and by using late ’70s/early ’80s-era synthesizers, he was limited by speed rates and tempos, which all led to a kind of temporal flow of images.

Beck’s film Cycles (1974) was his collaboration with another well-known Video and Film artist, Jordan Belson, whose work had had an artistic influence on Beck.

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Cycles (Stephen Beck & Jordan Belson, 1976)

Throughout the rest of the ’70s, and into the early ’80s, Beck continued to give public performances, including many in the greater San Francisco area, often in concert settings at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where he gave the very first video art performance event with the Videola sculpture, a giant reflection sculpture.

Beck’s work was also frequently aired nationally on the PBS network, on a number of arts programs, including many which were historical significance as an early experiments in live electronics.

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In 1976, Beck participated as part of a the WNET TV Labs “Video Visionary” series, where one edition of his Video Weavings made its national debut on the PBS-TV network.

It was a project he’d begun in 1973, thanks to a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, and by ’76 he’d already been giving large multimedia performances of it, including an excerpt called “Dance of Shiva” in Dallas, Texas, at Southern Methodist University, for a performance evening called “The Electric Concert.”

The first public performance, however, had been a screening of the video at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1974. The audience response was very enthusiastic because no one had ever seen digital video synthesized before (remember, we were living in a pre-digital, all-analog world at the time).

Here’s an excerpt about Video Weavings from an essay by Stephen Beck that appeared in the catalog for the “Info Art” exhibition at the Kwang-Ju Biennale in Korea.

Beck:“My work is to make something beautiful with technology. I believe in spiritual technology. Video Weavings is a link between the modern (video) and the ancient (weaving) technologies. Video Weavings are based on poetic mathematical rhymes, or algorithms, visualized in real time on the warp and weft of video’s horizontal and vertical scanning electron beams, color phosphors, plasma cells, and LCD pixels.”

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“In my Video Weavings, millions of patterns appear, many of which resemble or replicate the same patterns found in textiles woven by ancient peoples such as the Pueblos of the southwestern North American continent, the Nairobi of Africa, the Hindu of India, the Aborigines of Australia, and by many peoples in China and Japan. The idea, then, for Video Weavings, is to reflect upon, acknowledge and honor the links between the most modern electronic visual display systems, and the ancient art of weaving, though the common connection of the matrix.”

The initial design idea for Video Weavings involved the binary logic of weaving and computing.

Beck’s vision was to play video (light) like a musician plays live music. He devised a digital video synthesizer capable of processing video in real time. His algorithm, which he refers to as Chromatic Numerical Sequencing, assigns colors to numbers and systematically moves pixels up, down, and across the screen. This is synchronized to great effect, such that the pixels appear to “weave” a virtual cloth.

One reviewer described it as looking like “‘a Navajo blanket in motion.”

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Beck’s Video Weavings was later licensed by an Italian textile company for manufacturing its fabrics (which came about after Beck and other American video artists attended the INPUT 78 World Public Television conference in Milan, Italy).

In 1978, Beck founded a company, Beck-Tech, which designs energy control systems for buildings and numerous video game and computer products. They now employ ten staffers and several outside contractors and have annual revenues exceeding $1 million.

In 1982, Beck was commissioned by the Douglas Brothers — record producer Alan Douglas and his brother Jerry — to create two music videos of Jimi Hendrix live concert of “Voodoo Chile” for a home video VHS tape the Douglas Brothers planned to release.

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Voodoo Chile (1982)

Beck had met Hendrix in the wee hours of the morning, after a performance at the Electric Theater back in 1968, but Alan Douglas knew him well, having lived near Hendrix in NYC’s Greenwich Village (Hendrix had bought stylish leather jackets at a shop in the Village owned by Douglas’s second wife, Stella Benabou).

Douglas knew that Beck was definitely the right person to create the work, which plays today like an homage to the analog light show motifs he’d created back in Chicago. It took him three days, using his Beck Direct Video Synthesizer.

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Video Weavings on the first Diamond Vision giant video screen at Shea Stadium, New York Mets night game (1982)

1982 was also the year that Beck’s Video Weavings was shown during all of the New York Mets home games at Shea Stadium in New York, appearing on the then brand new, 30-foot wide Mitsubishi Diamond Vision screen (licensed after someone had seen Video Weavings on display at the Tokyo Museum of Art’s “Video Tokyo” exhibition).

That same year — in addition to Stephen Beck being featured in The Video Artist series on “Night Flight” — Beck’s Video Weavings was also presented on multiple CRT video screens in the window displays of Bergdorf Goodman on Fifth Avenue in New York City, as part of their spring textiles presentations.

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Today, Stephen Beck’s work is collected by the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive, the Getty Center “California Video: A History” the Smithsonian Hirshhorn “Visual Music” and other major institutions. You can watch videos on his Vimeo page.

Beck holds several patents in video, phosphene-based display technology and energy management. His writings have appeared in Wired Magazine, and the New York Times.

Much of the electronic “polymediast”‘s work is now available from Video Data Bank and Electronic Arts Intermix.

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Stephen Beck wearing his Phosphotron invention as of 1979

Beck served on the faculty of the College of Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, from 2005-2013, in various appointed positions.

Watch our special 1982 profile on this pioneering video artist — The Video Artist: Stephen Beck — part eleven of our sixteen-part limited series about major video artists, co-produced by Night Flight’s founder/creator Stuart Shapiro, now streaming in its entirety on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.