Vasulka Archive
Dimitri Devyatkin

The House of the Horizontal Synch

Early in 1971, in Santa Barbara, Nam June Paik told me about an experimental video theater called The Kitchen that had recently been organized in Manhattan, by Woody and Steina Vasulka. Immediately on returning to my family's home in New York, in June, I went to a Wednesday night open house at The Kitchen and met Woody and Steina. They'd signed a lease in March, completed renovation, and begun inviting people to show tapes.

The original Kitchen space was the kitchen of the old Broadway Central Hotel, on Broadway and Bond Street. At the time, the hotel housed welfare recipients, but in the late 1800s, it had been one of Manhattan's most luxurious hotels and the subject of many tales. For instance, the kitchen of the Broadway Central had once been run by caterers named Trotsky, a name that was appropriated, it was said, by a hotel guest named Leon Bronshtein, a Russian revolutionary hoping to avoid the Tsar's police. The hotel's kitchen also saw a shoot-out involving Diamond Jim Brady, in an affair involving the affections of a young lady.

The June night on which I first visited The Kitchen was one of the most decisive of my life. After screening a piece I'd done in California, I received a strong reception from the circle of video artists present. Within hours, I was holding the keys to both The Kitchen and the Vasulka's private loft. A long relationship began between me and Woody and Steina, who became my "mama and papa" of video. When they went off to visit Iceland, Steina's homeland, they invited me to run The Kitchen for the summer.

Woody and Steina had invited Rhys Chatham, a young composer, to be music director, so we began an ambitious program that involved music, with events taking place almost every night. An early collaboration I conceived was called "House of the Horizontal Synch," which featured Rhys on piano, Woody on video synthesizer, and me on electric violin. A microphone on the violin was patched to the horizontal synch of a video monitor. As the violin changed pitch, horizontal lines on the screen changed width. The lines were keyed through an image of the violinist playing "House of the Rising Sun."

The Kitchen showcased video art, music, and performance. It both reflected and stimulated the convergence of art, politics, and technology. Soon it was the #1 place in New York to have tapes screened. Pure video art coexisted with social-issue videos from gay activists, rent strikers, and Chinese immigrants. We welcomed collaboration and original work. Wednesday night open house remained a tradition. And while directing The Kitchen, Woody, Steina, Rhys and I also actively pursued our own work.

At the time, the New York State Council on the Arts was spending around $20 million annually on video. Most recipients showed their work at The Kitchen; it was a ritual of project completion. We hosted many groups and individuals. Several young electronics designers came to The Kitchen -- designers who went on to have successful careers. Gallerist and Electronic Arts Intermix founder Howard Wise was very supportive, making introductions to NYSCA, as well as personal contributions. I organized a Computer Arts Festival, which drew participants from all over the world.

Our Kitchen collective came to include Shridhar Bapat. Son of an Indian diplomat, educated in London, Shridhar became co-director of video. We were fast friends. A man of high intellect and a wonderful nature, Shridhar battled acute alcoholism. He died seven years ago, homeless, on the Bowery.

Upstairs at the Broadway Central was a welfare hotel. Downstairs became the Mercer Arts Center, a schmaltzy performance bar where the legendary, heroin-soaked punk band, the New York Dolls, performed in the wee hours. The band went on to find fame and megabucks. In 1973, after The Kitchen had moved to Wooster Street, the Broadway Central Hotel fell down -- physically collapsed! No one was hurt. In its place now stands a modern apartment building.

The Kitchen's first two years of operation were high spirited and non-commercial. After moving to Wooster Street, things changed. The Kitchen became a prestigious performance and gallery space for music and video performance that was driven more by grants than street-level, social issues. The artists and audience became increasingly white, better-off, non-native New Yorkers, a population not so interested in politics or the lives of common people. Then again, SoHo itself had become a syndrome of artists pitching projects to foundation executives over expensive lunches.

My tenure at The Kitchen lasted two years, from June 1971 to June 1973. Invited to Moscow's famous film school VGIK, I left to study under director Roman Karmen. Today I make video documentaries, and my programs have aired on ABC, PBS, French and British television. I had stints working for CBS News, Worldwide Television News and Metromedia. After spending six years in Moscow, Bucharest, and Amsterdam, I now live in Brooklyn, with my wife Olga, and children, Pavel, 5, and Sonya, 4.