Brice Howard
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"A medium is available.  A very sophisticated, complex technology which human beings invested is available to us. It is dumb, inarticulate, contains no magic.  It is available and manageable and probably stunningly beautiful when managed by graceful people who are bent on acts of expression....  This newer medium is swift in nature.  It demands a new kind of perception.  It moves like light sparked into life as through a nervous prism.  It is another paint, another dance, another music of sound.  Another message meant to catch the quick vision of the inner eye."

"Process is the movement of the unformed toward form."

Brice Howard, Videospace, 1972

 
  Dancer John Graham performs in Brice's production Mother Goose  
     
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BRICE HOWARD’S REFLECTIONS ON THE CENTER IN 1977

By John Minkowsky

I met with Brice Howard in August 1977 during a four-month nationwide research tour on the state of the media arts. He was then working at KERA, Dallas’ public television station, and met me with a kind of gruff cordiality that suggested he might suffer no fools. He did, however, graciously accommodate me, possibly because I had seen dozens of hours of work produced at NCET which were part of a Videotape Study Collection that had been created at Media Study/Buffalo, where I was then working as the Video/Electronic Arts Curator. We spoke for about an hour, but it wasn’t until nearly three decades later that I transcribed the tape and rediscovered much useful material. That interview was one reason that I embarked on my current project, a forthcoming book on the important role played by three public television stations – KQED in San Francisco, WGBH in Boston, and WNET in New York – in the development of video art.

What follows is a combination of information from the interview summarized by me, and of Brice, directly in his own words, as he recalled the growth of NCET, his ideas about the medium, and his goals, his achievements and some of his disappointments. On occasion, I add comments of my own about his efforts

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With a background in theater, Brice Howard began writing for television in the early 1950s. By 1967, he was Executive Producer for Cultural Affairs Programming at National Educational Television in New York when he and his wife Rita, who also worked at NET, were invited by James Day, General Manager of KQED, to oversee the “Experimental Project” – a one-year pilot program funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

…[W]e were really given carte blanche. In effect, the project was so generalized in concept that it permitted one many ways to look at it. And the way I interpreted it was to focus in on the relationship between artists and conventional television practice. … My motivation was to create a context in which the most genuine and authentic search could go on, which meant I really bent over backwards to keep from having any preconceptions about what the year would be about. … I thought it would be useful to bring into the activity what it seemed I could afford: five artists. …We brought in a painter/sculptor by the name of Bill Allen; a novelist, Bill Brown; a poet, Joanne Kyger; a musical composer, Richard Felciano; and a filmmaker, Loren Sears. And none of these people had a very precise, and certainly not a sophisticated understanding of television as either a technical or as a social broadcast phenomenon. And so I made an effort to, in effect, create an environment in which they could learn whatever they cared to learn about what television is about.

The Howards established an office near the KQED studios where, for the first months, the artists would simply meet and talk on a regular basis, preparatory to actual work with the medium. Howard invited guests from other fields – philosophy, psychiatry, theater, history and so forth – to join in some of the group discussions. Later, each artist was provided two days of studio time at KQED; the Experimental Project had no equipment of its own and had to rent that facility like any outside user. The artists worked alongside a full professional crew in the creation of a work or works, generally with KQED staff producer/director Robert Zagone as the coordinator and collaborator. For that reason, the works were always up to broadcast standards, even though there was never any intention of airing any of them.

Howard seemed to place only one aesthetic restriction on the Experimental Project artists:

I felt that the first leg of that journey should be directed pretty much to monochrome black-and-white work. And I’ve always had the feeling that if you move too fast into chromatics what happens is you start to get soothed and mystified into thinking the things you’re doing are much better than they are.

When the Experimental Projects program ended in the summer of 1968, the Howards were asked to extend their leave of absence from NET to write a report of the year’s activities, which became the foundation of Brice’s book, Videospace.

I was subsequently asked in February of 1969: Would you develop a kind of five-year plan for something which would be a quasi-permanent organization that would have some relationship to the whole non-commercial broadcast community, an experimental group that would go on and on and on. And in that plan I designed a place for a scholar-in-residence and an artist-in-residence, and also included a plan whereby we would bring in people elected by the non-commercial stations themselves, for a period of time, to work at the Center. So those first two people who were brought in as residents were Willard Rosenquist [as the artist] and Paul Kaufman [as the scholar].

The internship program that Howard had proposed invited groups from other stations, as well as from colleges and universities, to learn and work in the Center’s facility over several weeks duration.

One of the characteristics of the Center that seemed always to surprise the interns who came in to spend short periods of time with us was that at the end of the first week, which was a lot of looking and listening and seminar – me talking a lot and all exchanging our thoughts – our engineer took them on a tour of our facility – it was one big space – [and] started at the one door, taught them how to operate everything, went through the entire system, which took him most of the day, ended up at the other door, showed them where to turn the lights off, handed them a key and said, “The place is yours. You’re welcome to come here anytime you want to.”

One of the results of this program was the development of NCET satellite programs at Southern Methodist University by David Dowe and Jerry Hunt, Southern Illinois University by Jon Moorman, and the Rhode Island School of Design by Bob Jungels.

At about the same time in 1969, Howard undertook the production of the 90-minute experimental drama, ¡Heimskringla! for NET Playhouse, which was written by Paul Foster, stage directed by Tom O’Horgan, directed for television and  videospace mixed by Robert Zagone, and featured the La Mama Theater Troupe.

…[I]n that ¡Heimskringla! moment, as the producer, I literally picked up an entire television studio and moved it into the outer edges of San Francisco in an old movie production studio that was there from years past and not being used much anymore. I mean literally everything, including power. And for one month we had as an objective coming up with a broadcastable tape, maintaining the integrity wherever possible of the mix and the new kind of video textures. As I say, whether or not it’s successful is to me totally irrelevant. It was successful in that it was done, and that it was broadcast.

In effect, it’s hard to say where the Center exactly and literally started, but its first edge appears right there coincident with that production of ¡Heimskringla!. And as I remember, the first intern group came exactly as we were going into production… At any rate, that was the first full-scale mounted-from-scratch exploratory effort for national broadcast. … It constituted an historical moment that, in benchmark terms, can be described accurately as a first [attempt at] looking at television in a different way, and perceiving its images and textures as a means of making in an entirely new way.

Visually, ¡Heimskringla! was the first illustration of Howard’s concept of the single, real-time, multi-layered “videospace mix,” and however uneven the results of the work as a whole, it manifests a dense and often arresting style. Given the unconventional nature of the signals generated, Howard noted that he and Rita made certain every step of the way that the work always meet broadcast standards, so that technical inadequacies could never be an excuse for any refusal to air it.

It was after the national broadcast of ¡Heimskringla! in November 1969 that NCET began to take the structure that would lead to its most productive years.

There was a time when a certain amount of comfort began to evolve in which you felt like one could explore certain paths better if you weren’t caught up in the traditional conventional studio situation. And the only way I could think to do that was to buy some equipment with the very skillful managing of the money, because we had, literally, for the Center, something within $100,000 a year. … [S]o that the money which previously I’d been putting in to rent this “little city” [the KQED studio] was now going into technology.

He spoke of the acquisition of small format video technology, a Buchla Music Synthesizer, and Stephen Beck’s development of his Direct Video Synthesizer at the Center. When I mentioned to him that, while Videospace implied the creation of new tools, he had never addressed the issue directly, he responded:

There was no theoretical involvement particularly.  It was more a matter of a young man [Beck] turning up one day and saying to me “I want to tell you and I want to talk to you and I’ve come all the way from Illinois on my bike and this is what I’ve been doing” and showing me a kinescope of something he’d done. I had never seen video synthesis before that moment. … I managed to get an artist-in-residency for him, which gave him the money to buy the material it would require for him to explore his head. And I never pressed on him for any objective of any kind, just said “Go, baby”…

Once that fundamental attitude shift had occurred … then I realized that a different working process confronted anyone who wanted to go further. And so what I tried to do was create an environment and a condition in which people who I felt were appropriate and gifted for that sort of thing could do what they wanted to do, and if I could implement them with financial assistance, and with love and care and all that natural stuff, it would come out.

Over the next several years, as all of the core artists and staff came together at the Center, Howard noted that he took some measure to steer them away from the kind of work associated with television that was derivative of other forms like theater and toward something more indigenous to the electronic medium.

I mean, if you’re creating a theatrical environment here of any kind, that’s okay, but know that you’re going in the other direction; and if you want to “authenticate” what you’re doing, you better find an intellectual and spiritual and working context that matches what you’re seeking. It got very, very difficult after a while for those who worked there, got more and more complex and more difficult because the composition of images became more sophisticated, and the mixing process became more sophisticated. And when Larry Templeton came up with his processing equipment … whereby we had much more control of color and texture and such, whole new meanings had to be made because you were moving closer and closer and closer to the way a single artist worked.

Howard regretted the fact that larger group collaborative efforts never seemed to develop at NCET, saying:

[The Center] got to be more and more an atelier than a conventional electronic environment. And also, the group process, it seemed to me, is either fatally flawed in the concept, or I am fatally flawed with respect to realizing it. But at any rate, it was certainly disintegrating, and more and more individuals were working alone or working – if not tactically, then psychologically – with only one other or something like that.

But, I’m afraid I have to tell you that I don’t think [collaboration] is possible. I think that people of good will and of trust and faith can have exciting moments working together, but in an organized way. I’ve finally concluded at this point in my life that there’s no way for that to be until and if the form is precisely defined as in, say, the case of practical ballet or musical composition, where the group is linked to a precise base line.

In this context, it is clear why Howard attempted early on to initiate a large-scale collaborative work, the Mother Goose project, which he described in the following way:

Mother Goose is a multiple-channel piece; it’s eight channels, four video and four audio. And in our presentation of it, it was designed for 11 television monitors and quadraphonic sound. Had you seen us at work over a period of six months on the Mother Goose project, [it would] show you the kind of schizoid place that the internal pressure had put into me, where I was thinking in terms of: Let us explore, let us explore this direction, but, at the same time, let it be shaped in such a way so that if we have to we can move directly into a broadcast context. If you had been present in those six months, it was like being present, for the most part – 80% of the time, I think – at a yeasty generative moment that didn’t seem to stop. Where everyone participated who had anything to do with it. Everyone. And the half-inch record of which must be like 25 or 30 hours of stuff.

From this vague and even puzzling description, it is difficult to discern what exactly Mother Goose was intended to be. And many of the people working at the Center who would have been collaborators in the project have, in my interviews with them, expressed only the vaguest memories of this effort. So Howard’s words on the level of success of Mother Goose possibly have to be taken, in part, as a matter of wishful thinking.

Howard spoke about the overall guiding spirit he attempted to instill among the artists at the Center:

I always felt…that if we entered on a path that raised questions the answers to which I knew we could get, my inclination was to steer people off that and go on to the next one. That is to say, since our means are limited, and since our gift is here, let’s try to raise as many [questions] as we can. The result of it is that, when I left the Center, there was something in the neighborhood, I believe, of 400 hours of videotape record, and yet none of that can be honestly described as completed work. [Author’s note: I think anyone familiar with the many masterful pieces created by the NCET artists would take issue with that.] Some people were immensely critical of me; and I think now, sometimes, it’s because of that prejudice. But I was so much more interested in the question. It seemed to me if we were going to welcome a new history, we’d better raise all the questions we could. … So, that’s what I was hoping, and then I was also hoping that I would have the intellectual capacity to formulate it all, ultimately. And I believe I have, but I’ve never had the time to do that and I’m not sure I have the inclination now.

It is unfortunate that Howard never articulated these formulations, as it would have made an important contribution to video history and theory.

Howard had, for a number of years, shared co-directorship of the Center with Paul Kaufman, who took over and created the Humanities Project when Howard decided to leave in 1974.

Part of the effort that I was engaged in separate from my colleagues was directed at trying to establish the historical connections, the aesthetic, leading to the answer to the question: Can one articulate a precise form which is not the result of theater, which is not the result of film, etc? And yes, I think I articulated those in the combination of three things I wrote: Videospace, Videospace and Image Experience and a third one, which was never published, called Videospace and Performance. [Author’s note: The manuscript of this third book has yet to be recovered, if it still exists.] But first of all, I felt my own limitations so greatly, and got to the place where I was able to say to myself: I know what I need in order to do this. But since I am not a person of any independent financial means, I have to earn a living, so I don’t suppose I’ll ever have the time to do this.

Also, I experienced a great deal of discouragement after seven years of that effort, which for me was one of the most concerted periods of careful attention I’ve ever been able to give. And I’m really grateful for that time, but by 1974 I was weary, I was tired of the political game, trying to raise money, tired of the politics of human relationships, and one thing and another. And also disappointed that what I had hoped, namely that the group creative process could develop with some security, and it never really did.

However much Howard’s comments carry with them the aura of failure at accomplishing some of what he’d envisioned, his achievements were nevertheless monumental in the development of video art. Not only did he create an environment where much of the best of the early work in the medium was generated, and continue to foster such efforts throughout his tenure, but he was also one of the first to think in theoretical terms about the nascent artistic medium. It should also not be forgotten that he was also a tireless ambassador and champion for video art, traveling with a suitcase full of tapes around the country to colleges like the State University of New York at Buffalo, where I was first exposed to the Center’s work as a student in 1973.

There are few giants in the development of any new art form, and for video, Brice Howard was, without question, one of them.

                                                                             Cambridge, Massachusetts

                                                                             August 2009

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  Marvin Duckler and Brice - Asilomar 1973  
  Photo by Penny Dhaemers  
 
 


SOME WRITINGS BY BRICE HOWARD:

Videospace by Brice Howard - 1972 (Adobe Acrobat file) (On-line)

Videospace and Image Experience by Brice Howard - 1972 (Adobe Acrobat file) (On-line)

About Television Reality and Performance by Brice Howard - 1973 (Adobe Acrobat file) (On-line)

 
     
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