Bill Gwin
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Bill Gwin
Photo by Warner Jepson
  Bill Gwin  
  An image from Bill's work Point Lobos.  

The following piece on Bill is excerpted from an Adobe Acrobat file at Radical


William Gwin (Capricorn), 1/1/47. Gwin's resume reads, "1950 (age three) decided I was a writer...1966-7 decided I didn't want to write and became a sculptor. Met my wife. 1968-9 married my wife...painted...sold three paintings. B .A. in English Lit from Dartmouth."

In 1969 Gwin became a general assistant at the National Center and in 1971 he became an artist in residence . Gwin, during his residence at the Center wrote a definitive treatise on his work and experimentation entitled Video Feedback: How To Make It: An Artist's Comments On Its Use: A Systems Approach. Excerpts of his paper cannot convey the depth of the work entirely but are of great interest .

To quote: Video feedback is produced by aiming a camera at a monitor; the camera actually takes a picture of itself. The patterns thus engendered can be altered in several ways, by exerting various controls over the electronics, and by affecting the optical path of the picture/monitor loop.

Every slight movement affects the pattern. If the camera is moved haphazardly, it will flash by things that haven't had time to appear. Miniscule, gradual movements are absolutely necessary in order to begin to attain some kind of control over the pattern.

Changing the relationship between the camera and the monitor will alter the feedback. A camera standing upright will give a spiral pattern; when the camera is tilted slightly, a circle occurs; a camera placed at a 90° angle produces a rectangular shape. Work at the Center is done with small Sony cameras; broadcast studio cameras are obviously too heavy to juggle in this way, so under these circumstances tilt the monitor. After the camera/monitor relationship is set, the optical variables to manipulate are the f-stop, zoom and focus of the camera's lens.

Combining elements-any kind of material-with feedbacks means introducing other images into the
light pattern of the feedback loop, thereby changing the original feedback pattern. Using two cameras, this can be done with any sort of object, a person, or with reflective surfaces such as pieces of mirror mylar. In the latter case, feedback becomes the fixed element, with the camera set and unattended, and the changes are produced by moving lights on the mylar pieces and by moving the camera which is picking up the mylar reflections.

Use of feedback becomes more sophisticated as electronic variables are introduced into the loop-additional cameras, level control from a switching device, reversed polarity, color, "special effects" (particularly keying), and time delays.

Negative polarity allows the same possible variety of patterns that occur with positive feedback.

Feedback's primary drawback for the artist is that, because of the ease with which one can produce lovely patterns, it is tempting to get caught up in the process of discovering it to the exclusion of anything else. Several years ago, a poet visiting the Center observed: "feedback is a whore." Its prettiness can be so enticing that time and energy are destroyed without leading to any serious expression or work. In this situation, it's been fun, but may be almost counter-productive to art.

Making with feedback is just like making with any other artistic tool : it takes patience to learn the use and control of it. This is time consuming, since there are so many variables involved in each feedback pattern. Often it is difficult-or impossible-to return to a form once produced. It's advisable, therefore, to videotape an intricate kind of feedback; you may never find it again. These tapes can form an "image bank" of material to be used later by themselves, or to be fed into another combination of images.

People often deal with feedback as an interesting "effect."As an effect, it's not very interesting. What's important is what's done with it. In my own experience, I prefer carefully using the same feedback as a different element in many tapes to concentrating on finding a new feedback form for each new work. They young state of video art tends to emphasize the new. So often with feedback it's just new, but compositionally rather uninteresting.

Is feedback a whore? I'd ask, "Are you an artist?" And, "is feedback something you can use to make art?" It can be anything you make it.


The following lengthy article was intended for inclusion in issue #6 of Radical Software. It was never published. The article and interview seem to date from a time after Bill had left NCET, and was then working in the Television Laboratory of WNET in New York. Since there is little visual material from Bill's work available to include here, his thoughts on his art, both in painting and video, are given this space. The richness of Bill's thought and sensitivities make for interesting reading. (Web posting)

Radical Software Draft for Issue #6 - Unpublished

Title: Inside-Outside: The View From The Hyphen - By Roberta Kass

Reflections On Two Media
By William Gwin

William Gwin is a painter. He was the first artist-in-residence at the National Center for Experiments in Television at KQED in San Francisco, and is presently working at the Television Laboratory of WNET, Channel 13, in New York. During the summer of 1973, he was again artist-in-residence at the NCET, and has had his video work broadcast by KQED and exhibited in museum and theatrical environments in Paris, Mexico City, and Tokyo.

Video is a very new medium, painting a very ancient one. This fact inevitably creates great difference in the two, but not nearly so great as the confusion of this moment makes it seem. What I hope to do here is to verbalize the sensibilities underpinning my work and to point out a few of the similarities between the two media, or at least between the two ways I have come to use the two media. In this effort I find myself returning to four concerns: naturalism, surface, a respect for the properties of the medium, and motion. These things do not represent the goals of my work, which are creation and expressiveness, but they do represent the ways I have devised to reach these goals.

Naturalism is the context within which I work; it describes the basic attitude from which all my work comes. Naturalism describes a synthesis of memories from the visual world and feelings produced by confrontation between nature within the artist and nature outside the artist, and does not depend on any particular observation. Naturalism represents a very different concept from realism, has very little to do with photographic or even nearly photographic representation, and may manifest itself in very abstract forms; but there is always a strong reference to a world outside the work, to a world shared, in a general way at least, by all people.

Surface means the visual feel of the work. This notion includes the development of formal relations between various pictorial elements. These relations provide the structuring that allows a work to have the internal integrity that is necessary if it is to have the freedom to be expressive. Colors, shapes, lines, and textures create and combine within some sort of spatial framework to generate the image which carries whatever message the artist might wish to convey.

Motion is either real or implied and is not usually the clearly directed movement of a discrete pictorial element happening in a precise interval of time, but a more general fluttering of the entire field activated at times by currents. The motion of leaves in wind is a close analogy.

Respect for the properties of the material means searching out those qualities within the chosen material which best lend themselves to expressiveness and shaping them by combining them with an intelligence rather than using the material only as a vehicle for ideas.

Naturalism, surface, motion and a respect for the properties of the material are the four cornerstones on which my art is built. They support the video and the painting, but not always in the same way nor with equal force. By looking at these four ideas and the differences or similarities in the ways they function within the two forms it should be possible to arrive at a clearer understanding of my work and of the potential for creative expression within these two media.

Since the context provided by my notion of naturalism is a very general one and has to do with basic attitudes, including the ways I respond to the visual world and the place I want my work to take in that world, it has basically the same function in my painting and my video. While the framework alludes to the natural world, the working out of each image is a more formal and involuted matter which deals with the nature of the medium, with color and with textural, linear, and spatial relations rather than with any relationships between the work and the world outside the work.

Surface is the visual feel of the work. Since I've defined this word to include most of what one is looking at when he looks at my work, it might be valuable to see what sort of surface is created, why, and how it is done. Color, texture and discrete pictorial elements, the basic components of surface, are developed by building up interrupted layers. This is achieved in my paintings by applying the paint so a great number of transparent, translucent or opaque layers are produced. In IRVING BRIDGE, my most recent video work, it is done with layers of videotaped imagery. These layers relate to one another in a very dense and complicated fashion, and are defined basically by color, although shape plays some role as well. These overlapping layers create a sort of shallow, ambiguous space; there is no use of perspective or other illusionistic devices in the painting and only little in the video, so that very dense images can be created without losing the breathing space which is necessary for the interaction of the various elements within a work. Video has an advantage here because unlike painting, you can move the elements around, get rid of some, substitute others, and keep the surface from becoming clogged. On the other hand, painting has a decided advantage in the fact that the actual surface can be altered; at present, video must be displayed on a glass television screen. The size and shape of a canvas is flexible, but video must always be a 3x4 rectangle, and is most often quite small. Image resolution is also a serious problem in video but no problem in painting. Many of these factors will one day, no doubt, be eliminated or at least relieved by technological advances; but for a time they erect serious, though not insurmountable, blocks in the path of the creation of video art.

The method of working in successive layers has an analogy to the dynamics of the creative process itself. I begin with a notion, and usually have a fairly precise idea of how it might be realized; but I carefully stay prepared to receive feedback from the work as it progresses, or from any other source, so that the final work is a composite of my beginning ideas and many other ideas which might have developed as the work was in progress. It is a non-linear kind of act, capable of shifts, reversals, and changes when unforeseen possibilities present themselves, appropriate, I think, to the property of non-linearity which can be an aspect of both painting's and video's expressiveness. These potentials are things I'm always interacting with as I work. In the end the work shows the layers of thought and activity which combined to create it.

It is this ability to receive feedback and shift to make use of it that allows the notion of respecting the particular qualities of a medium to play such an important role. Whenever something happens as a result of a combination of whatever materials are being used, it is important to be able to see the possibilities inherent in it and then to build on these possibilities rather than having an idea which is so inflexible that every chance happening deviating from that idea becomes a mistake, something to be done away with. That isn't to say that there is anything sacred about a medium or that every chance relation which develops while a work is in progress is necessarily good; and certainly it doesn't mean that materials and chances are enough to make a work of art. Whenever something happens that runs contrary to the idea behind the work -- and it frequently does happen -- then that thing must be eliminated or modified. The ideas must always remain the most important things; but good ideas are fairly flexible and can usually accept a lot of change without being violated. The point is that each medium should be approached as a unique possibility rather than as only a way to carry the aesthetic.

I think things have particular qualities in them, whether they are pieces of wood or pieces of cloth or paint or electronic systems. And some of these things are very, very beautiful. The more completely these things are used the more they can contribute to and increase the overall impact of the work. A videotape of a tree can be made and played back onto a monitor bringing a moving picture of a tree into your living room. This uses video as a storage and transmission device, and ignores many possibilities for creative expression. On the other hand, that picture can be made in such a way as to be useful as a compositional element in a video work made by synthesizing form, color, texture, other pictorial elements in motion to produce something that utilizes many more beautiful possibilities inherent within the medium of video.

In television and in most experimental video, time is structured in a linear, basically filmic fashion. Compositions, even the most abstract, have a beginning, a middle and an end. They have a duration and move linearly through that span. This notion of time creates movement, a very different matter from motion. Motion is created when time is thought of as something other than the interval-measures used to structure the daily flow of peoples' lives, when time is thought of as unrestrained change, rhythm, the turning and exposing of another part of the prism to the sun. Motion expresses the kind of time one experiences with Nature.

Ideally, my video pieces would be presented in a loop, running continuously. There would be no beginning, no middle, and no end, and no particular duration, save the length of time a viewer wanted to spend with it in much the same way a person spends time with a painting. I don't want to structure the viewer's experience, to tell someone: if you want to see what I have done you have to come in and sit here for fifteen minutes or an hour, and if you look at it again, you'll be looking at a repeat. The notion of a repeat has no meaning in relation to painting and need not be a part of a video experience. The work is there and what you see will change to the degree that you're perceptive. I would prefer presenting a work in such a way that it didn't require one to take a particular length of time out of his life and give it to the work, which is what film does or music in concert does. I would let you move in and out of it in the same way you can move in and out of the things that you see when you're walking in the woods, or sitting by a window, or doing most of the things you do when you're alive. That lets the tape, the work of art, have the same position that any other object has. It is there--you can look at it, and stop looking at it, and come back to it, and you haven't missed an important point in its development because it is not developing in that way because time is not a deliberately compositional element. It exists in time as you exist in time. It is of the flow, of that same continuum in which we all exist. It is closer to the kind of time one experiences with Nature, and much less of the intellectual idea we impose on experience to order it, structure it, attempt to control it.

Video's non-linearity does have its other side, which is the danger of sloppiness in the making process. But if the maker has mastery over his craft he can give the viewer a great deal of freedom. Obviously the artist does shape the experience -- red is a very different feeling from blue -- but Nature does that too. Walk into a desert and Nature shapes you in one way. Walk by the ocean and Nature shapes you in another.

The way this concept of time expressed as motion structures video brings this medium much closer to painting than to film. In video, motion is real, in painting it is implied; but both can fit into the flow of a person's life in very similar ways. It is like the difference between looking at a rock and looking at water. If you look at a rock the changes you perceive will be internally generated changes initiated by the presence of the rock. It is moving too slowly for the eye to see. Water, on the other hand moves at an easily perceivable rate so the changes we see when looking at it are both internal and external.

These notions are evolving because video art itself is evolving. It has almost no aesthetic history of its own, only the aesthetics of other media. In a sense it is too new for an aesthetic to be formed about it, but any art form that is a living, vibrant art form is always too new for an aesthetic about it to be formed. If it stops being too new, then it is an historical phenomenon and is probably no longer being done. That is true of painting as well as video. - Copyright 1973 by William Gwin


Further Reflections [interview expanding on the foregoing article]

After reading William Gwin's article, we addressed several questions to Mr. Gwin. Following are the questions and his responses, abbreviated in some instances.

RS: In paragraph 1, you speak of sensibilities rather than theories. Have you deliberately chosen to speak of a sensibility rather than a theory? Is your artistic sensibility derived from a body of artistic works or more from personal experiences?

GWIN: Art is never created out of theories. Theories are often created as a way to verbalize and/or justify art; but the creative impulse springs from a need to manifest a response to the human condition and hopefully to achieve a greater understanding of one's own situation through that manifestation. Sometimes one's work affects some other person and allows a greater understanding. When that happens it's a very happy situation, and if the artist is allowed to be aware of the connection that is made, he may be enriched in turn. My artistic sensibilities derive from everything to which I have ever responded. That, of course, includes certain works of art. Most things I encounter affect me in some personal way; and everything that affects me affects my life and art. This might be taken to be the beginnings of a theory about life and art, and I certainly don't discount it; but I do recognize it as an attempt to verbalize and make understandable to the intellect something that is made of as many non-verbal, non-intellectual parts as verbal parts.

RS: Not many people talk much about Nature; those that do tend not to sharply differentiate between Nature and themselves, as did many European theorists. People in video tend to talk about the environment as the primary element of experience and consciousness. What do you mean by Nature as an idea?

GWIN: Nature is oneself and the place in which one finds oneself.

RS: In the last line of paragraph 4, you refer to a work as carrying the message of the artist. What do you understand by "message "?

GWIN: The message has to do with offering someone the chance to use the waste-product of a personality's notions toward wisdom through interaction with Nature.

RS: In paragraph 5, you say, "... lend themselves to expressiveness and shaping them by combining them with an intelligence, rather than using the material only as a vehicle for "ideas." What kinds of materials have you used, and with what ideas?

GWIN: The best way to understand the nature of something is to use that thing. To use something well, it is necessary to place yourself in an interactive relationship with it. If this doesn't happen the meeting of the artist and the thing chosen for material will produce an object incapable of carrying energy from one personality to another. My main materials are acrylic paint and cotton duck, video systems, pencils, ink, and paper. Occasionally I use other things like film and words. Each of these things allows me to do particular things. I've managed to understand a few of the many attributes of these things. I'm always trying to understand more because I've found that by understanding more about my material I manage to understand more about myself. I mean that all my activities are a searching, but never the expression of something I've found. This searching takes place within a combination of my personality, my thoughts, my physical being, and the portion of the world in which I share.

RS: In paragraph 8, you speak of the "visual feel of the work". What are the difficulties you have getting the effects you want with video on a flat, smallish screen? Besides the layer effects you talk about, what other ways have you developed to compensate for these difficulties? For instance, how have you dealt with a classical problem of visual arts, such as perspective?

GWIN: This is the hardest thing to verbalize in any meaningful way. There is little that is less verbal than the means used towards something that is purely visual.

The basic question is how to create a situation on a basically two-dimensional surface that allows for the greatest possible involvement of the artist and others who might look at the work. Since two-dimensionality is the thing that most sets painting and video apart from the world and most strongly conditions the creation of a reaction to the work, questions of illusion -- its use or elimination -- must be central to my search. The layering I spoke of is one way to deal with this question. It allows the development of very dense images which remain, nevertheless, open, thereby allowing entrance into the work. Perspective is another tool designed to deal with the same problems. It isn't something that has been very helpful to me. Whether it ever will be or not, I don't know. The strict limitations of tv screens is certainly a serious problem in video. It is a problem that must await technological development for a solution. The limitations are somewhat offset by the pressure of real motion and its accompanying possibilities for change.

RS: In your opinion and experiences what are the differences between looking at one of your video paintings and a painting on canvas? Is there a difference due to the way time is shaped and experienced in each? How do you expect or want people to interact with each?

GWIN: The main difference between video and painting is that a painting is clearly an object, while video has time and motion as a basic attribute. It is in this that video is closer to the traditional notions of music and theater than to traditional painting. It is in its two-dimensionality that it is closer to painting than to music and theater. One thing I'm trying to do with video is to use time in a way that is uniquely appropriate to two-dimensionality. I try not to have particular notions about the way someone else might respond to my work.

RS: In paragraph 11, you say that the "more completely" things are used, "the more they can contribute to and increase the overall impact of the work. " Do you mean that you wring from materials all their qualities? Do you, for example, spend much time feeling into things, studying them from all angles, including their histories and uses, or do you work with them until you know them intimately? Do you feel that video can mediate between a tree and a person by itself, or does an artist have to mediate between the tree and man by first creating the essence of the tree, as he sees and feels it, on the videotape or canvas? Is looking seeing and feeling?

GWIN: All the things you said. I don't think materials or tools, and that certainly includes video, can do anything by themselves. The only thing that carries my value is the personality that is preserved on canvas or videotape or anything else.

RS: Do you have a usual way of reaching the most comfortable internal time experience which allows you to create? For example, do you bracket or suspend the world before you create?

GWIN: I don't think the kind of separation of my life into clearly defined functions exists in the way you seem to treat it. I try not to bracket or suspend the world. My work is a major portion of my existence and the flow between it and other portions of my life is very smooth and unbroken. I feel that I never stop working; that my art is something that underlines the whole of my life in much the same way my heartbeat does.

RS: What is the flow of time you experience with Nature?

GWIN: For the sake of efficiency man decided that it would be good if everyone decided to do similar things at similar times. This has become more basic to our lives than it should ever have become and has therefore become arbitrary. There is another ordering of motion that is more natural to life. It has nothing to do with appointments and everything to do with the pulsing of the organism.

RS: You talk of your works as objects existing in time, as other things exist in time. Yet people on occasion feel themselves to exist or be outside of time. A usual test of great art was that it would exist through time, and when people looked at it, they would not know at that moment the real time of the world, wherever that particular social reality was. Have you abandoned this position for your art? Does it have the quality -- do you even want it to have this quality -- of existing out of time? Do you want people to feel this when they view your work? Do you think that reality is coterminous with experience? Do you think that reality is on a continuum with experience? Which would you prefer your audience to fee l when they look at your works?

GWIN: I have never been able to understand the notion of forever. I can't imagine the boundaries of reality or experience. I cannot comprehend a reality outside from my experience.

(Complete article file) (Internet Posting)


To read a another (brief) biography of Bill Gwin go to the Experimental TV Center archive >>>>


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