Stephen Beck Biography


An Informed Look at Steven Beck ­ The Video Artist

³It is we ourselves who see an image.
We either see it or we don¹t.
It is as simple as this or that.
The Way lies not in the equipment.²
Stephen Beck

Stephen Beck was born in 1950, and he studied music and electronic engineering at his first school the University of Illinois, Urbana, switching schools to the University of California, Berkley. He stayed in California after school, as he found the location and art influences to his liking, and became an artist-in-residence, in 1970, at the National Center for Experiments in Television (NCET) in San Francisco. That lasted for three years, and after it ended Beck turned his energy toward forming his own electronic design and consulting company which he aptly named Beck ­ Tech. (EAI, p.1). Beck was doing many projects for the NCET and on his own and with other talented filmmakers who he befriended as he grew not only as an artist but an engineer as well.

Steven Beck put it best himself when he said, ³I made my video synthesizers in the very pre-digital era of 1968.² Beck built these video synthesizers for his VSI #0 (Video Synthesis Instrument number zero) and in 1970 -72 for his Beck Direct Video Synthesizer which was not only grander in size than the VSI #0, but this instrument really cemented Beck¹s name in the history of Video Art and was the first one of its kind. Back then his new image making machine was only seen as a young apprentice¹s first solid contribution to the harsh make-it or break-it world of Œart-as-a-living¹. The Beck Direct Video Synthesizer had over twenty thousand connections that had to all be attached by hand. While the majority of connections used were mostly analog circuits, some of them were the earliest Œdigital logic gate¹ chips around. What made the Beck synthesizer different from others of the time period (late 1960¹s to early 70¹s) was that instead of simply distorting an image that was already made, Beck¹s synthesizer actually created the colorization and distortion of the images on screen by Œconstructing it only from the electrons¹ themselves. Beck, in essence, synthesized imagery directly onto video tape. Images were programmed into the machine, yet contrary to what one would think the images were not totally structured or totally random. There were specific patterns that are assembled by the image¹s electronic structure, yet many times random images would occur, some of them art and some not. (Beck, p.1) Beck structured his video synthesizer into four key elements: color, shape, texture, and motion, and four elements of shape: point, line, plane, and illusion of space. A while after finishing his Direct Video Synthesizer Beck was informed about the painter Wassily Kandinsky¹s, ³Point to Line to Plane², and Beck soon saw great similarities between their two ideas.(Beck, p.1) To think that Beck had no prior knowledge of Kandinsky¹s work, yet their ideas are so similar toward the world of art, is really just an unbelievable occurrence. (VS, p.1) It was said best in 1974 in the book ³The Electronic Box Office², ŒThe Beck synthesizer is the ultimate tool in today¹s electrical video arsenal.¹ (Adler, p102)

Stephen Beck had first started to see visions of his video creations when he was a little kid by simply closing his eyes, and then observing what his mind would Œsee¹. These images otherwise referred to as phosphenes and hypnogogic imagery were also seen later in Beck¹s life, but this time on account of the hallucinations from the experimental drugs that were so prevalent during the late 1960¹s. The most fascinating thing about the images that Beck saw was that, unlike the rest of us, he was able to work with a synthesizer that could come as close as possible to mirroring the images in his head, then portraying these images on a television. Beck was also one of the early video artists to put color bars before the video so that viewers could tune their television sets before the art itself would be seen. This act of tuning could be compared to the kind of tuning a musician might do prior to a concert or live performance. (Kostelanetz, p.55)

Jordan Belson, another well-known Video and Film artist, was very much a part of the Beck film ³Cycles² (1974) and he had an artistic influence on Beck. (Kostelanetz, p.55) Beck worked with many different filmmakers in his time, and he would contribute to their work the way that they contributed to his. Artists like Nam June Paik, Bob Lewis and Jim Weisman all helped Beck bring the video synthesizer into the ever expanding world of video/film art. BeckŒs ultimate goal was to create light and imagery Œin a video system itself without any external inputs². (Adler, p.102) He not only did this but he created a whole new art form that would make any aspiring artist jealous, and is even running his own video art company today.

Today Beck lives in his old stomping ground of Berkeley, and he is president of Electron Video Creations. Since Beck¹s breakthrough of the Beck Direct Video Synthesizer he has gone on to create more images and synthesizers like the Video Weaver I and II. Video Weavings (1976). was produced by the first Video Weaver. The Video Weaver¹s main job was to take a pattern that was programmed into the memory then have the machine weave a pattern onto the screen. The Video weaver, unlike the Direct Video Synthesizer, was run by using a digital format. (VS, p.4) As seen on Video Weavings, colors and textual patterns mix with groovy music to create this very cool piece. Richard Kostelanetz portrayed Video Weavings as, ³hypnotic, metamorphosing geometric shapes that change color rapidly. The syntax of change consisted of mainly pulsations, in and out, but the speeds of change are quick and the colors ethereal.² Stephen Beck¹s dream of creating the ³absolute television², where he could ³make something beautiful with television² just shows how much work and effort he really put into his dream. It also shows how with a little work a dream is much more likely to turn into reality, and Beck¹s dream became so close to reality that even he was astounded. (Beck, p.1) Stephen Beck was, and still is today, a pioneer and an inspiration for aspiring film artists.

--Paul Mannion, 2003

Stephen Beck