The Vasulka Effect

Director: Hrafnhildur Gunnarsdóttir

Featuring: Woody Vasulka and Steina Vasulka

Words – Natalie Mills

“They’re the shoulders that most video art has stood on.”

An introduction to the weird and wonderful world of video art, this quirky documentary centres on Steina and Woody Vasulka.

A pair of pioneering video artists, who were prominent in the 60s and 70s, they’re introduced as “two of the most important artists of the 21st century”. The Vasulkas inhabited a world where Patti Smith was new in town, Andy Warhol was getting hit on by all genders, and Salvador Dali just casually turned up to theatre performances. The Vasulka Effect feels like part time-capsule, part art history lesson, part reality TV show.

Prepare to feel like you were born in the wrong decade, and to learn that most art repurposes other art. As a (slightly bitter) ex-art student, I connected to Steina’s observation that “humans are more interested in archived, past art than anything that’s happening now”. Indeed, we see the Vasulkas painstakingly archiving their huge body of work, explaining how it’s “now seen as historical and important”.
As someone who “made films” for a bit, it was amazing to be introduced to Woody and Steina. I was reminded of the gut-punch you get as a student, when you think you’ve had a new and interesting idea, that someone back from the 60s or 70s has been doing it for decades. Their work, featuring multi-screen installations, Fantasia-like electronic waves, and image distortion similar to today’s “glitch art”, has aged remarkably well.
Here, the vintage monitors and lo-fi aesthetic you see in many of today’s exhibitions are no stylistic choice. They were being used for the first time. They were fascinated by the mixture between art and technology in a way none of their contemporaries were exploring. Their works weren’t about anything – they were “just like a feeling”. If someone scoffed “But you’re just playing”, they took it as a compliment. Purity, no bullshit needed.

The film gives a vaguely chronological history of the two artists, interspersing archive footage with them bickering cutely in the present day. After getting to know their beginnings – him a Czech film student, her a chamber musician from Iceland – we hear how they ended up living in a loft “in this new thing called Soho”. They lived the kind of free, magical life every art student dreams of (before we inevitably end up in marketing).
There’s a lot of great footage from the 60s; you wonder how Boomers dare criticise anything with all this mad stuff going on in their day. The Vasulkas reminisce about parties, saying “We couldn’t even go to bed, the house was full of people” and “What was this orgy here?” like they’re discussing breakfast.

Surrounded by drag shows, contacted by people “dying to do pornography”, and even noticed by the FBI, they belonged to a community desperate to push boundaries. The Vasulka Effect sometimes feels like a showreel of famous names, but it helps hit home their influence. The couple set up The Kitchen in New York in 1971, as a “home for the homeless, or artists across disciplines”. Still an iconic performance space now, nobody needed an invite – people would just come to them to volunteer their time. Talking Heads, Phillip Glass and Laurie Anderson were all Kitchen alumni, alongside artists like Cindy Sherman. “If you believe in electronic music, this is the place” … is it possible to get FOMO 50 years too late?
Living out their twilight years surrounded by obsolete video equipment and debt, in the strangest house you can imagine, the Vasulkas feel like characters in some surreal indie sitcom. You half expect Louis Theroux to walk in at any time. There’s something very open and honest about Woody and Steina – they were so ahead of their time; you get the feeling that they’ve barely had to change their lifestyle in decades.

Their love for analogue tech is charming, cooing “This was an important machine” and “This beautiful turntable” as they wistfully handle old equipment. They seem nostalgic for their past, and you feel nostalgic for it too. From Vaporwave to Stranger Things, my generation is obsessed with old school formats. While at university, it was cool to make films that looked like shitty VHS tapes. I can only assume that it’ll one day be cool to make art about looping DVD menus and the iPod click sound. With the growth of YouTube, obscure, vintage films are now easy to ‘discover’.

Many artists never get discovered the first time around, so it’s a real happy ending to watch Steina and Woody get rediscovered in the 2010s. Despite initial distrust of an interested art dealer, “God spare me this” moans Woody, they cooperate to archive their work and create The Vasulka Chamber. It’s wonderful to see their art being appreciated in Iceland’s National Gallery, where their multi-media installations look fresh as ever.
As the Vasulkas recreate their first meeting in a Prague dorm, and share their first words of “Marry me, get me out of here”, you realise The Vasulka Effect is also a love story. I can’t imagine how hard it was to make their relationship work, being partners in both your personal and ‘art’ lives, in a foreign country in your second language. Their archive is testament to their love of video, and how it can be preserved for everyone.

“We’re showing up in the art magazines” they observe, still humble and playful, as though they don’t realise how important they are.