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Stephen Beck

Stephen Beck's work stands a little aside from the rest of the center's [NCET - San Francisco]. Beck built a non optical synthesizer at the center; this tool is different from the Paik-Abe synthesizer in that it need not use cameras. The imagery is all generated electronically. In some ways, Beckís work is the most traditional of the abstract color video artists. He takes painstaking care with the structure of his works ó they tend to be short, precise, and rich with references ó just as he was methodical about his choices when building his synthesizer. This structured approach to abstract art is not new in this century. Beck speaks of his respect for Kandinsky:

He's really the painter who has influenced my own thinking the most. I think this ties my video into a tradition within the arts... the non-objective tradition. On the Spiritual in Art [a book written by Kandinsky] is really a masterpiece of someone putting down in words what the experience is about... I had experiences of seeing the visual field break down into elements, and when I was doing the design for the synthesizer, I structured these elements: color, shape, texture, and motion. And I further took the element of shape into sub-categories of point, line, plane, and illusion of space. I later read Kandinsky's work and I found it was really close: I had no foreknowledge of his work when I arrived at the same, or a very similar scheme. I was astounded. I was reading his notes for his class at the Bauhaus and there it was, the very same analysis.
Many of Beck's works take as a theme a central idea; he structures the work from inside out to make that idea visually manifest. One piece was Conception; another, done in collaboration with filmmaker Jordan Belson, was called Cycles. This last work deals with layers and layers of cyclic images, organized into a cyclic structure:
The point is, the cycle is, again, a phenomenon without magnitude; there are small cycles and there are big cycles. This work involved a lot of study of the phenomenon of cycles, and in as much as they were studied and understood, their concepts were embodied visually and dynamically, and incorporated into the work. The only word in the work is the title, "cycles." Everything else about the concept is expressed in the visual language.
Some of Beck's most interesting works manage to present to a wider audience ideas normally available only to specialists. He likes to use scientific and mathematical imagery because he feels itís part of our times. This interest may come from his own electronics background:
...what about the circuit designer, the circuit builder as the real electronic artist... as opposed to people who are expressing more traditional concepts with video, with electronic imagery? What about the guys who are actually building the instruments, designing the circuitry? Is the circuitry not capable of being recognized as being a real accomplishment and achievement in and of itself? An aesthetics that the average man has no inkling of other than, "Wow! Itís a lot of wires and switches and knobs."
His latest patterns, which he calls "VIDEO WEAVING", are based on ideas from a time when artists used mathematics as subject matter:
It comes from the magic squares devised by Arabian thinkers of the sixth and seventh centuries, when they mastered algebra and applied algebra to their art. The religion of Islam forbids any representational image. It's a totally different concept of visual expression than what we have; youíre just not permitted to portray an object of creation. It's largely based on portraying what we would call mathematical harmonies. Their wonderful arabesques and domes and patterns are all manifestations of mathematics, which in our day and age we would find in some equation in a book, which perhaps makes it less vivid, and less important to many people. People ask me sometimes, "Is this mathematical? How does this relate to mathematics?" And I say, "It is mathematics, just like music is mathematics." You have implicit structures of harmonies and ratios. Instead of music, where there is vibration of air, here it's the vibration of light, with different colors and patterns. You don't have to relate to it as a drab mathematical theorem or equation. It takes on a much more vivid presence.

The center entered a highly productive period in the spring of 1972. Don Hallock, Bill Gwin, Willard Rosenquist, and Bill Roarty all produced some of their most beautiful tapes. (Some of these tapes will be discussed in the third section of this report.) In the fall, Warner Jepson and Stephen Beck embarked on a concert tour around the country, giving performances with their audio and video synthesizers, respectively.

- Johanna Branson Gill: VIDEO: STATE OF THE ART, 1976


The most common "special effect" available on commercial switchers is the geometric pattern called the wipe. The technique for generating wipes is quite straightforward and is used by Beck and others in artist oriented synthesizers. The pattern of the wipe is formed by the waveshape of an oscillator, and such wipes as diamonds, ellipsoids, and boxes are easily formed with an analog oscillator.

One of Steve Beck's contributions to video synthesis was a perceptive analysis of spatial composition. By dividing the image into components of point, line and volume he was able to design modules to achieve each objective. Among his inventions were devices that took complex images and reduced them to these spatial elements. In many ways, this paring down of images is important because it allows the artist to simplify complex spaces and combine them inside a single frame.


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