Beck was born in Chicago and was interested at an early age in electrical toys and radio. He worked in the electronic music studio at the University of Illinois at Urbana, and holds a degree in electrical engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. At Urbana Beck became involved with Experiments in Art and Technology, and built his first video synthesizer in 1968. In 1970 he began to develop his synthesizer for National Experiments in Television at KQED in San Francisco. He created video and toured with his synthesizer, producing video music and live performance works. He was artist in residence at NCET from 1970 until 1973. His interest was in pure video and the inherent qualities of the medium. Like many of the early video tool designers, Beck was interested in exploring the relationship between synthesized images and human perception. Beck built the Video Weaver in 1974 and created the Video Weavings in 1976. He was principle in several electronics design consulting firms. His work is available from Video Data Bank and Electronic Arts Intermix.
An Informed Look at Steven Beck - The Video Artist
"It is we ourselves who see an image. We either see it or we donpt. It is as simple as this or that. The Way lies not in the equipment." - 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, "I made my video synthesizers in the very pre-digital era of 1968." 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 Beck's 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 apprentice's first solid contribution to the harsh make-it or break-it world of 'art-as-a-living'. 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 ådigital logic gatep chips around. What made the Beck synthesizer different from others of the time period (late 1960s to early 70s) was that instead of simply distorting an image that was already made, Beckps synthesizer actually created the colorization and distortion of the images on screen by åconstructing it only from the electronsp 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 image's 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 Kandinsky's, "Point to Line to Plane", and Beck soon saw great similarities between their two ideas.(Beck, p.1) To think that Beck had no prior knowledge of Kandinskyps 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 "The Electronic Box Office", "The Beck synthesizer is the ultimate tool in today's electrical video arsenal." (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 åseep. These images otherwise referred to as phosphenes and hypnogogic imagery were also seen later in Beckps life, but this time on account of the hallucinations from the experimental drugs that were so prevalent during the late 1960s. 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 "Cycles" (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. Beckås ultimate goal was to create light and imagery åin a video system itself without any external inputs=. (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 Beck's 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 Weaver's 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, "hypnotic, 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." Stephen Beckps dream of creating the "absolute television", where he could "make something beautiful with television" 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 Beck's 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