RIP Bill Etra

Artist engineer who with Steve Rutt created the pioneering Rutt/Etra video synthesizer has passed away. Here is a video of Bill demonstrating his hardware:

His technology was used by artists such as Nam June Paik, Woody Vasulka & Brian O’Reilly – here is an early example of work created with this, ‘Scan Processor Studies’:

Lastly, Felix Turner created a webtoy to drag and drop images and apply a Rutt-Etra effect, which you can try out here

The Bill Etra Wikipedia page can be found here

Bill Etra

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Bill Etra (Born March 27, 1947, Died August 26, 2016) was a live video pioneer and the co-inventor (with Steve Rutt) of the Rutt/Etra Video Synthesizer.[1]

Etra worked briefly as a professional cameraman, then studied film at NYU. He began teaching experimental television at NYU before he graduated.[2]

In 1971, Etra and video artists Woody and Steina Vesulka started a performance space at The Kitchen.[3]

Using the Rutt-Etra synthesizer, Etra made Narcissikon with his wife Louise.[4]“This was my first Rutt-Etra piece. The initial picture is Louise sitting against a black background. She’s got an output monitor she can watch, and I put it in a circle wipe, feed it into the Rutt-Etra synthesizer, get a white line wipe, put Louise’s face into that, take it out of the Rutt-Etra, and outline it in the synthesizer, and Louise is on the intercom, and she’s talking to me and I’m talking to her, and we actually ran through it twice.”[5]

Another early piece was Heartbeat, in which Louise Etra sits in a chair in a studio, while a circle bounces on screen, blipping in time to her amplified heartbeat. Bill comes in and kisses her; the sound grows; the circle bounces larger. Then he goes back to the control room, she relaxes, and the circle returns to normal.[6]

At WNET, Etra created a video based on an Edgar Allan Poe story, Silence, with David Silver narrating. “That scared me so much I stayed away from narrative for years and years,” Etra commented.[7]

Etra attempted a symphonic work at the Strasenburgh Planetarium in Rochester, New York, when Central Maine Power Music Company played space music, to the accompaniment of the star maps of the planetarium, plus Etra’s video pictures of the musicians projected onto the stars.[8]

He has worked for Warner-Atari, Sun Microsystems, and LucasFilms, and produced digital video for New York clubs and theater.[9]

He has cooperated with Benton Bainbridge on a documentary about his life.[10]

He is currently developing (with Anton Marini) a video synthesizer plug-in that emulates the Rutt/Etra Video Synthesizer.

Mr. Etra holds several patents, including developments for 3D television and text-based (versus time-code based) editing of video.

His video art work is in the permanent collections of the Museums of Modern Art in Mexico City, Tokyo and Cologne and the Musée National d’Art Moderne at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

References[edit]

  1. Jump up^ “Rutt-Etra VSynth”. Retrieved 15 July 2012.
  2. Jump up^ Logan Hill (January 19, 2000), A Multimedia Life, Plus Weasels Wired. Accessed 14 July 2014
  3. Jump up^ Logan Hill (January 19, 2000), A Multimedia Life, Plus Weasels Wired. Accessed 14 July 2014
  4. Jump up^ Bill and Louise Etra, Narcissikon on YouTube. Accessed 13 July 2014.
  5. Jump up^ Jonathan Price, ‘Video Visions: a Medium Discovers Itself’, New American Library, New York, 1977, ASIN: B00ECDT4V2. Chapter reprinted athttp://museumzero.blogspot.com/2014/07/bill-etra-starts-out-in-video.html. Bill Etra Starts Out in Video. Accessed July 14, 2014.
  6. Jump up^ Jonathan Price, ‘Video Visions: a Medium Discovers Itself’, New American Library, New York, 1977, ASIN: B00ECDT4V2. Chapter reprinted athttp://museumzero.blogspot.com/2014/07/bill-etra-starts-out-in-video.html. Bill Etra Starts Out in Video. Accessed July 14, 2014.
  7. Jump up^ Jonathan Price, ‘Video Visions: a Medium Discovers Itself’, New American Library, New York, 1977, ASIN: B00ECDT4V2. Chapter reprinted athttp://museumzero.blogspot.com/2014/07/bill-etra-starts-out-in-video.html. Bill Etra Starts Out in Video. Accessed July 14, 2014.
  8. Jump up^ Jonathan Price, ‘Video Visions: a Medium Discovers Itself’, New American Library, New York, 1977, ASIN: B00ECDT4V2. Chapter reprinted athttp://museumzero.blogspot.com/2014/07/bill-etra-starts-out-in-video.html. Bill Etra Starts Out in Video. Accessed July 14, 2014.
  9. Jump up^ Logan Hill (January 19, 2000), A Multimedia Life, Plus Weasels Wired. Accessed 14 July 2014
  10. Jump up^ Benton C Bainbridge and Minou Maguna, Teaser for documentary about his life. Accessed 14 July 2014

Bill Etra, a former Yippie, a founder of the Kitchen performance space, an inventor of video effects machines, is now a seminal figure in video history. His video art is in the permanent collections of the Museums of Modern Art in Mexico City, Tokyo, and Cologne and the Musée National d’Art Moderne at the Beauborg in Paris.

Here’s a report on a visit with him back when he was getting started, in the mid 1970s. (From my book,Video Visions).

Bill Etra looks like a Saracen archer, with his mustache stroked down, his eyes wide open, and his breath heavy.  He reads Egyptian books of magic, teaches oceanography, studies aikido.  He is also one of the earliest explorers of video.

“I’ve been in video seven years.  It makes me a pioneer.  I come after Nam June, and the Vasulkas started three months before me. “And yet seven years isn’t enough.  If someone brought me a piano now, and said, ‘In seven years, be ready to play Carnegie Hall’ it wouldn’t be enough.  It would be a tremendous demand, even if I had supernatural talent.   “And yet, because of where I stand in video, people expect me to be playing the equivalent of Rhapsody in Blue at Carnegie Hall on the synthesizer.  They’re expecting too much from a new field.  “When I’m forty or fifty, I’ll understand the tools I’ve built right there, so that I might be able to do something like that with them then.   “When I’m sixty, I expect to be good at them.  Of course, it may not be video then, it’ll probably be computers, or we’ll print it all on frog brains, or it’s going to come flashing into our minds with electrodes.”

The phone rings in the Etras’ loft.

“It’s Grand Central Station,” he says.  “Yes, Holly,” he shouts, “Holly, pick up the Princess phone by the bed . . . OK . . . in that case, this outfit has to be gotten out of here.”

He wanders over toward a Moorish arch built into the wall, containing a bronze gong, two torch holders, and cushions.  He fusses with an open tape deck as he listens.  Behind him there is a large video-beam screen, under a plastic bag.

“This place is not usually in this state,” says Bill, coming back.  He fast-forwards a tape, gives us a black-and-white grid on the video-beam screen, then snaps it to color bars.  I see his face.  “Hi, I’m Bill Etra.”  He grins on screen, patting the Rutt-Etra video synthesizer.

 

Building a synthesizer

Etra built Nam June Paik’s video synthesizer from the instructions.  His version made video wallpaper, fabric designs.

Etra was not satisfied.  He and Steve Rutt built a new synthesizer to control positioning of the image.

He now demonstrates how he can wipe a picture off the screen to the left and to the right, to the top or bottom, or through the center of some special effects.

Narcissikon

Having set up his own synthesizer, Etra made Narcissikon.

In Narcissikon, we hear metallic sound for a few seconds; then silence takes over, extending throughout the rest of the tape.

A purple circle divides into three shapes, then four inside.

Louise Etra looks at herself, kisses herself, followed by the same picture below in miniature.  The lower circles rise, bringing a realistic picture up.  She bobs in her circles.  She lobs her head into the center for a skin blob, then pulls back.

We pull back and see the lower circles shrink, then the top pair kiss, merge, noses alone visible.
“This was my first Rutt-Etra piece.   “I replicated Louise’s image four times, in groups of two.   “The initial picture is Louise sitting against a black background.  She’s got an output monitor she can watch, and I put it in a circle wipe, feed it into the Rutt-Etra synthesizer, get a white line wipe, put Louise’s face into that, take it out of the Rutt-Etra, and outline it in the synthesizer, and Louise is on the intercom, and she’s talking to me and I’m talking to her, and we actually ran through it twice. “This is a real museum piece, very sensual.  They wouldn’t play it on Channel Five because it was too sensual.  They won’t play it on WNET unless we put music in the background, because everyone will think their set is broken.”

Primitive?

Etra calls the piece primitive
“The controls aren’t as tight, the transitions aren’t as smooth as I’d like.  Also the image I would have had a little sharper, maybe twenty-five percent.  But the first machine didn’t do any better than this.”  

What’s the point of the piece?

“I’d say that one of the purposes I see in art is to show that everyone is the same.  What we really like to do is kiss ourselves.  No one else is as perfect as us.  Humans seem to be human beings.”

Repeating it

Etra felt he was now beginning to gain “repeatability”—
“It’s my idea of mastering the equipment; it’s a way of training myself.”  With this idea of learning, Etra bases his pieces on only a few techniques at a time, so that his control is maximal, and his results are fairly simple.

Heartbeat

In Heartbeat we see Louise Etra grinning in a chair in a studio; then a circle bounces on screen, blipping in time to her amplified heartbeat.  Bill comes in and kisses her long and well.

The sound grows; the circle bounces larger.

Then he walks back into the control room, she relaxes, and the circle returns to normal; then we go to black.

This brief masterpiece plays natural images off the mechanical signals, in an apt and funny performance.

Lady of the Lake

In the Lady of the Lake (“another Gothic horror”) we see Louise underneath a pool of light; she screams, and her face veers up to become a wave, kept down by some quirk of machinery, as if she were struggling to break through to air.
“I set up the technological thing, and Louise executed it.  What it is, she’s sitting in a pool of light, and whenever she moves, it increases the amount of light on her.  It appears to distort what is actually the whole TV screen—that’s the lower part.  Then there are ripples of reflection off her silk blouse.”

Silence

Still consciously a student, Etra became an artist-in-residence at WNET’s TV Lab.  I met him there, with David Silver; the three of us made Silence, taking off from an Edgar Allan Poe short story.  We made rivers out of feedback, sunbursts, monsters.

David Silver narrated the story, and we all felt the results were clumsy.
“That scared me so much I stayed away from narrative for years and years,” Etra comments.  Also, that was a crude machine.  “That was a rougher machine.  The earlier machines are always rougher than the modern machines.  Primitive instruments have less control than modern instruments, not that they don’t do a lot; it’s just that there’s less control, that’s what we’re going to in synthesizers.  ” That’s why I stay with synthesizers.  That’s what we’re dealing with—more control, tighter control.  And before you can get it, you need a machine that is more complex than Nam June Paik’s.  It doesn’t have to do more; it just has to do it in a more repeatable manner.  And, all respect to Nam June’s for being the father of it all, in a lot of ways, what I see happening is, I see this control happening.”

The Story of our Lives

In his next venture into narrative Etra succeeded in exercising control at the TV Lab.

Charles Dodge, a computer composer, had made an audiotape of two people reading a poem by Mark Strand, called “The Story of our Lives.”

Dodge had modified the voices by computer, so that they seemed to whine, then to drag out, then to clot up.  They repeated the same dull lines over and over—“the parked cars never move”—and indeed, the actors never moved.

“It’s really a washed-out world,” comments Etra.
“It’s like watching a soap opera that’s so real to life that nothing ever happens.”  The set resembles a soap opera home.  As the two actors repeat the same dreary phrases over and over, they hardly move.  We look out the window, and there they are again, the same room, saying the same thing.  “Night after night you were waiting; I lean back and watch you grow older.”

“We only had four studio days.  There are three characters, two people, and that book.”  We move in on the book, and as it opens, we find the same scene unfolding.

“It is endless,” says Etra.
“It is boring.  The immediate temptation when you get something like this is to make it flashy, but you make it flashy, you lose the boredom.  In the end, whatever they read happens, and whatever happens they read in the book.”

Chroma key

The trick is chroma key: blue in the window, blue on the book.

That blue cues the machinery to substitute a videotape of the same scene in that space.
“This piece represents a tremendous problem of time distortion, repeated time.  There wasn’t enough money to do it on video disc, which is the only medium which really distorts time, slowing down and speeding up actual time.  As a result, I videotaped it three times, twice live, and when it goes from one layer to another, you’re actually going from one performance to another.”

Electronic still lifes

The urge for control led Etra to make short takes of individual effects, electronic still lifes.  He has collected more than 300 shapes, totally electronic images generated within the synthesizer.

These resemble complex wire structures in architecture school, masks, double diamonds, cutouts; they move in and out, revolve, flip-flop, expand, contract.
In one we see three rotating white fields that flash and rotate as planes in the air; the sound jolts like water slapping metal; the snapping increases, and the fields turn into three waves.
“These are short tunes.”  But his dream is symphonic work, whole operas, putting many melodies together into a grander unity.

Space Music

His first attempt at this came at the Strasenburgh Planetarium in Rochester, New York, when Central Maine Power Music Company played space music, to the accompaniment of the star maps of the planetarium, plus Etra’s video pictures of the musicians projected onto the stars.

Long single sounds, a hypnotic, repetitive music, usually meditating on a mantra or a gigantic concept, like winter or spring, came from musicians bathed in a strange red light.  (The red did not interfere with the star effects; the Tivicon cameras were set to pick up red.)

The image was fed to Danny Buciano at his special-effects generator, Mollie Hughes was making mandala-like feedback patterns, the Rutt-Etra synthesizer was turning out its own abstract pictures, and all these pictures were sent to a switcher run by Skip Blumberg, then through Eric Siegel’s colorizer, which added colors according to the gray scale of the black-and-white image, then sent the picture out to two light-gate projectors.

Two forty-foot diagonal pictures faced each other across the dome.  The spiral mandalas repeated the forms of the theater; the weird “om” suggested the primitive worship of the stars; the vision of the musicians in heaven changed with every beat.  It all was done live.

Yet Etra found difficulties, even here, with control.

“You can flow with it, but you can’t say, aha, now we’re going to go to this sequence, and you can be prepared for it.  I was also two years overoptimistic about how quickly I could control things with the computer.  The technology is just now coming into being.   “See, what the computer does is to move all the knobs.  There are over a hundred and seventy-five knobs in my system, not to mention, right here there are eighty places you can put patch cords, which means millions of patches.   “Now in a live-performance situation, you can’t change enough of those easily enough to do significant work, but you can do it by programming the computer to play it back controlling the time, the speed, two or three parameters.  The computer doesn’t take over.   “It’s still interactive.  But you say I’m going to go to Riff Z, I’m going to control Riff Z, I’m going to fade to Riff W.  What we were doing is playing tunes, I can compose tunes fairly well.  What I want to do are large orchestral works.”

Headed for the computer

A computer, he feels, will give him the opportunity to compose such large-scale works.  It will allow him to repeat a given effect, to pull it in when he wants it.

It will allow him to write a program that someone else can use on his or her own computer, to generate the same effect.  The test is like science: reproduceability.

“I want to be able to show someone else how to get these same effects.  With computer control, there is suddenly mobility with which to treat a whole cohesive product, too.  The artist can now view, and change, and review, until totally ‘satisfied.’  “More important, the work can be played back in sections or in entirety, and modification can be made on any specific movement without disrupting the rest of the work.  “And all of this refinement can be made before the actual video recording is produced, thus eliminating the problem of generation loss.”

Interruption

Another phone rings.

Etra answers it, says, “No,” and hangs up.  “I have no idea what that was about; that phone almost never rings; that phone is used exclusively to tie me in to the computers at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center.  We have free access.”

Etra points to Bill Malvern, who is checking a penciled diagram and attaching wires in a two-by-three-foot box.  “Now this machine can colorize, outline, do eighteen layers of key, twenty-two layers of key; it can do an infinite number of keys.”

“You got another soldering gun, Bill?”

Etra picks up one.

“I like this gun.”

He motions toward the array of wires, panels, switches, video displays, and cables.

“It’s a conceptual breakthrough, rather than a mechanical breakthrough.  You’re no longer so limited by time.”

Looking forward

Doesn’t he get tired of being a pioneer looking for power?

“I realize that all the work I do enables the next generation to do it better than I could ever do, and I’m jealous, because the guy who comes in when it’s all written down, he can just compose.  He’s got to have an easier time than I do, who’ve got to sit here.  I had to learn computer; I had to learn how to troubleshoot power sources.  I had to get people like Bill to help, who really knows electronics the way I’ll never know it.”

The Zen of it

Isn’t his later work going to be better for having such a deep sense of his tools?

“The only book I require for my courses is Zen and the Art of Archery, because if you can’t begin looking at things in that sort of extension-of-yourself way, then you can spend your whole life fighting with something.  If you can’t love it, you might as well not be doing it, because there’s something else you could really get into, like cooking.”

After talking with Etra, I pulled Eugen Herrigel’s book off the shelf.  I opened to this:

Far from wishing to waken the artist in the pupil prematurely, the teacher considers it his first task to make him a skilled artisan with sovereign control of his craft.   The pupil follows out this intention with untiring industry.   As though he had no higher aspirations he bows under his burden with a kind of obtuse devotion, only to discover in the course of years that forms which he perfectly masters no longer express but liberate.  He grows daily more capable of following any inspiration without technical effort, and also of letting inspiration come to him through meticulous observation.   The hand that guides the brush has already caught and executed what floated before the mind at the same moment the mind began to form it, and in the end the pupil no longer knows which of the two—mind or hand—was responsible for the work.

Fade out

Making his own experimental TV lab in his loft, Bill Etra is becoming a master slowly, refusing to be called an artist until he gains control over his tools.  His work seems brilliant and brief—études.  He has outgrown the video synthesizer and the lab; now even one computer may be too small for the systems he hopes to weld together.

Tags

B

Buciano, Danny

C

Carnegie Hall

Central Maine Power Music Company

Channel Five

chroma key

Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center

D

Dodge, Charles

E

Eric Siegel, Eric

Etra, Bill

Etra, Louise

études

G

Gothic horror

Grand Central Station

H

Heartbeat

Herrigel, Eugen

Hughes, Mollie

L

Lady of the Lake

M

Malvern, Bill

N

Narcissikon

P

Paik, Nam June

Poe, Edgar Allan

R

repeatability

Rhapsody in Blue

Rutt-Etra synthesizer

Rutt, Steve

S

Siegel, Eric

Silence

Silver, David

Strand, Mark

Strasenburgh Planetarium in Rochester, New York

T

The Story of our Lives

Tivicon cameras

TV Lab

V

Vasulkas

video synthesizer

W

WNET

WNET’s TV Lab

Z

Zen and the Art of Archery

This text is an excerpt from Jonathan Price: Video Visions: a Medium Discovers Itself, New American Library (A Plume Book) 1977 ASIN: B00ECDT4V2

Resources

Rutt Etra Video Synthesizer (1972)

http://www.audiovisualizers.com/toolshak/vidsynth/ruttetra/ruttetra.htm

Mona Himenez, Interview with Steve Rutt and Bill Etra

https://archive.org/details/BillEtraSteveRuttInterview

Demonstration:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hdL7teOKdtg

Narcissikon

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3op2UJo4rVI

Tales from Beneath the Sheets, with Rutt-Etra, and Louise Etra: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GeSzj9AaOFA

Bill Etra channel on YouTube

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC-QpXkflfS8tYfxBkBdY7YA

Biography

Logan Hill, A Multimedia Life, Plus Weasels, Wired

http://archive.wired.com/culture/lifestyle/news/2000/01/33494

Benton C Bainbridge and Minou Maguna, Teaser for documentary about his life

http://vimeo.com/61152072

–by Jonathan Reeve Price

 

I’m Jonathan Reeve Price, an information architect, writer, and artist.

Google+ Profile: google.com/+JonathanPrice000 (That’s three zeroes)

Linked In: http://www.linkedin.com/in/JonathanReevePrice

Amazon Author Page:  https://www.amazon.com/author/jonathanprice

Twitter: http://twitter.com/JonathanRPrice

Museum Zero on Facebook:

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Www.webwritingthatworks.com

www.webwritingthatworks.com

 

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