Stephen Beck gave a talk at MoMA Friday evening October 27. There were retrospective pieces going back to the early 70's when he was building a performance video instrument which is currently on display at UC Berkeley's art museum. (In response to Aaron Ross' earlier question, Stephen said that the instrument is not being exhibited in a working mode and that he didn't anticipate spending the time it would take to make it fly publicly). He showed a tape of a live performance carried on KQED in San Francisco when he was with the National Center for Experiments in Television. His instrument was later modified to include a digital section that did video "weaving." Stephen contrasted his videos with native American weaving that has a similar appearance. He observed that the chanting of the Navajo was developed, in part, as means to memorize weaving instructions.
Stated influences on Beck include Kandinsky, Theosophy "thought forms", Fischinger, the Whitney brothers, and Jordan Belson with whom he has collaborated. His masterpiece, Union, shows a strong influence of Jordan Belson and James Whitney. Stephen composed the sound track for Union after the work was edited. This sets it apart from many other of his works that were made to an existing track. The Union soundtrack seemed to strike a strong chord in composer, Laurie Spiegel, who was present at the talk. I think that the visuals are among the most successful ever achieved in a motion graphic. The interaction between bounded forms and random stochastic fields of points create a balance that I find very satisfying.
Beck spoke of his inner motivations which included studying phosphenes that he noticed as a child. These are "floaters" and other apparitions that occur in the optical cortex when the eyes are closed. He built an electronic unit that stimulates phosphene generation. It looks like a blindfold but has patented circuitry. More recently, Beck has done installation work (monitors buried in Japanese stone gardens) and initiated a project that resembles Arabian mosaics. He showed two slides of the latter which were fascinating. Personally, I saw little to appreciate in his Japanese monitor installation. He said that the slides he was showing couldn't adequately convey their real appearance. Perhaps I should have been impressed with the sheer size, since they contain tons of gravel, but this just isn't for me. Another recent project of "Beck Tech" has been electrolumanescent broches. He wore two examples in the course of the evening, one triangular and another made of concentric circles which was animated by a heart monitor. These trinkets are very effective. Wish I had some for Halloween.
Stephen seemed to have a need to verbally characterize his approaches to art, and he made somewhat didactic points about analog vs. digital, self-illuminated vs. reflection illuminated. The latter distinction was somewhat ironic, since apparently in 1974 he was dragged into a pointless argument about film vs. video at this very museum during a conference, a story he retold to my amusement since his antagonist was Frank Gillette who was being goaded on by Gerry O'Grady. It's easy for me to imagine the mindless diatribes these two must have unleashed on the young Stephen Beck, who was a truly inspired and gifted young artist and had no stake in this kind of academic b-s. Even more ironic, at the time of the encounter Beck was taken by Gillette be on the film side of the equation, although obviously Beck's greatest achievements have extensively expoited video. This all might have served as an object lesson in the futility of trying to put an external verbal structure around a spontaneous visual inspiration (something Gillette may have never experienced nor O'Grady recognized), but the mature Stephen Beck (seemingly quite reflective now that he's "over 50") couldn't resist.
At the end of the evening Stephen seemed anxious to leave before the Museum doors were shut. Apparently he was once locked into a museum and couldn't get out.
"Those who have learned from history,
repeatedly condemn it."
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