16. Tektronix Oscilloscope Music


911 Mar 2018
@ Piksel Studio 207, Bergen

'VECTOR SYNTHESIS' is an audiovisual, computational art project using sound synthesis and vector graphics display techniques to investigate the direct relationship between sound and image. It draws on the historical work of artists such as Mary Ellen Bute, John Whitney, Nam June Paik, Ben Laposky and Steina & Woody Vasulka, among many others, as well as on ideas of media archaeology and the creative reuse of obsolete technologies. Audio waveforms control the vertical and horizontal movements as well as the brightness of a single beam of light, tracing shapes, points and curves with a direct relationship between sound and image.

The Vector Synthesis library allows the creation and manipulation of 2D and 3D vector shapes, Lissajous figures and scan-processed image and video inputs using audio signals sent directly to oscilloscopes, hacked CRT monitors, Vectrex game consoles, ILDA laser displays or oscilloscope emulation softwares using the Pure Data programming environment.

During this workshop, the attendants learnt how to use a custom library in the Pure Data programming environment to directly control the vertical and horizontal movements, as well as the brightness, of a beam of light. They then explored Lissajous figures, waveform representations and other multiplexed, audio-driven visual shapes and forms which can be displayed and manipulated in real-time on an XY oscilloscope, Vectrex game console, ILDA laser display and other analogue vector displays, or with oscilloscope emulating software directly on a laptop.


A theoretical and historical text about the concept, written by Derek Holzer, 23 Nov 2016, Helsinki

THE VECTORIAN ERA: An Investigation into Analogue Computer Graphics

The Vectorian Era opens with a screaming across the sky. Analogue electronic computers pre-date their digital counterparts by several decades, and one of the first practical applications of the analogue computer was in controlling the trajectories of German V2 rockets as they traced their rainbow of gravity from Flanders towards London during the Second World War. As Friedrich Kittler has observed, the relationship of media technology to military tools of destruction was sealed by moments such as these.

Post-war developments continued in this direction. An example is 'Tennis for Two', programmed in 1958 by William Higinbotham on an analogue computer at Brookhaven National Laboratories in Long Island, New York, using an oscilloscope as the display. It combined a two-player interface with physics models of a bouncing ball displayed as vectors in motion, and is arguably the first publicly playable video game. The laboratory itself performed government research into nuclear physics, energy technology and national security.

In the early 1960s, the composer Morton Subotnik employed engineer Don Buchla to help him create 'the music of the future'. Buchla redesigned the existing function generators of analogue computers to respond to voltage controls of their frequency and amplitude. This gave birth to the realtime-controllable, analogue modular synthesizer, which was subsequently expanded by others such as Bob Moog and Serge Tcherepnin.

In 1967, the Sony Portapak revolutionised video by taking the camera out of the television studio and into the hands of amateurs and artists. And by the early 1970s, an interest in cybernetics, systems theory and automatic processes brought the analog computer closer to the worlds of art, music and architecture. Figures such as Heinz von Foerster, Gordon Pask, Nam June Paik, Steina & Woody Vasulka, Iannis Xenakis and R. Buckminster Fuller all speculated on the effect of computers on society, and used computer-derived forms in their work. The 1972 Rutt-Etra Video Synthesizer, used famously by the Vasuka's in several works, employed an analogue computer to manipulate and deconstruct the raster of a conventional video signal with very otherworldly effects.

Vector graphics were widely adopted by video game manufacturers in the late 1970s due to their computational efficiency, and the wealth of experience using them that the history of analogue computing provided. Perhaps the most iconic of these games is Asteroids', a space shooter released by Atari in 1979. 'Battle Zone' (1980), 'Tempest' (1981), and 'Star Wars' (1983) all stand as other notable examples from this Vectorian Era, and also as rudimentary training tools for the future e-warriors who would remotely guide missiles into Iraqi bunkers at the start of the next decade. As electronics became cheaper, smaller and faster in the 1980s, the dated technology of using analogue vectors to directly manipulate a Cathode Ray Tube fell out of favor and rasterised graphics and animations, and moving image quickly took their place.

Informed by the discourse of media archaeology, my own personal interest in analogue vector graphics isn't merely retro-for-retro's-sake. Rather, it is an exploration of a once-current and now discarded technology linked with specific utopias and dystopias from another time. The fact that many aspects of our current utopian aspirations (and dystopian anxieties!) remain largely unchanged since the dawn of the Vectorian Era indicates to me that seeking to satisfy them with technology alone is quite problematic. Therefore, an investigation into 'tried-and-failed' methods from the past casts our current attempts and struggles in a new kind of light.


Derek Holzer was invited for the event 'PUSHING' on 20 Jan 2017. He did a reading of his text 'Schematic as a Score' alongside a live concert derived from his research on analogue visuals with the oscilloscope.

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