Remembering Bill Etra, Media Art Pioneer (1947-2016)

By September 2, 2016 Uncategorized

Bill Etra on Wards Island in 2007 by Benton C Bainbridge

This summer has come to a very sad end as we’ve lost one of the great pioneers of Media Art, my good friend Bill Etra. Bill is best known as the co-inventor, with Steve Rutt, of the Rutt/Etra Video Synthesizer. The Rutt/Etra remains one of visual music’s most playable and powerful instruments, with a once-unique and now oft-emulated luminance displacement effect and distinctive visual timbre.

Rutt/Etra Video Synthesizers. photo by David Last

Rutt/Etra Video Synthesizers. photo by David Last

 

Bill considered the Rutt/Etra Video Synth his first attempt to create the moving image counterpart to the pianoforte. Bill’s life obsession was “total plasticity of the moving image”; the Rutt/Etra was meant to give artists the power to compose visual music which could then be performed by other artists. Bill found his passion early, quickly moving from photography and film making to video’s realtime performative potential.

I met Bill Etra at the VIDEO HISTORY: MAKING CONNECTIONS CONFERENCE, organized by Experimental Television Center, Sherry Miller Hocking, Mona Jimenez and Kathy High. Bill walked in to a panel that included Steina, and shouted out “I want to know what artists need their tools to do.” After the panel, Dave Jones introduced me and Nancy Meli Walker to Bill. Bill was full of amazing stories and fantastic ideas, living up to his legendary stature and cementing his indelible impression by pulling out his pet ferret and showing off his fake leg.

Bill Etra at Video History: Making Connections Conference
by Pamela Sue Hawkins via the Experimental Television Center

I was shocked when Bill showed up to our visual performance (as NNeng, me and Nancy’s realtime media improv trio with Brian Moran) shortly afterwards, at a small stage in a Lower East Side club called Baby Jupiter. Bill shared more colorful stories and far out predictions about art, technology and society (many of which have since come true). I began documenting Bill, rolling the camera often as we met in our studios or at events around NYC. I was trying to learn as much as I could from him. Some of Bill’s wisdom I’m still trying to comprehend (18 years ago Bill told me that a good place to hide metadata is in the motion blur part of the image); much of his advice I strive to follow (“don’t be a purist, Benton!”) Though Bill dedicated most of his career to the development of digital hardware and software, he still had a virtuosic hand, delicately guiding the frequency knob of drifting oscillators.

I was lucky to collaborate with Bill many times over the next few years, including several visual performances at UnityGain.

UnityGain 02AUG00 lineup

UnityGain 02AUG00 lineup. Click here for a Program Feed Excerpt

 

Along with Tom Zafian, we built a few devices like a color wobbulator. Bill even brought out his Rutt/Etra Synth for a few sets, including a memorable UnityGain at Chashama in the abandoned Times Square building where the Bank of America Building now stands.

Bill Etra performs on the Rutt/Etra Video Synthesizer for UnityGain at Chashama Times Square

Bill Etra performs on the Rutt/Etra Video Synthesizer for UnityGain at Chashama Times Square

 

After September 11, 2001, our collaboration deepened into a friendship. Bill brought me to George Stoney’s yearly mid-Summer party on Long Island, where I met my son’s mother. Bill became Ezra’s godfather, visiting us while he was still able to ride in a car.

Ezra Bainbridge-Powers with Godfather Bill Etra and friend Kathy Coogan.

Ezra Bainbridge-Powers with godfather Bill Etra and friend Kathy Coogan.

 

Though Bill Etra had great success with several of his inventions, in his later years his fortunes were lost to the health care industry. A congenital affliction of spinal stenosis caused Bill extraordinary and incessant pain as his vertebrae slowly fused together, confining Bill to a mobility scooter and later his bed. While he was still able to get out via the unreliable and rough riding NYC Paratransit, Bill was a regular participant at share, playing Elektronika on his laptop.

Bill Etra at Share.NYC

Bill Etra at Share.NYC, photo by o.blaat

 

Unable to work, and with exorbitant medical expenses including surgery to install and maintain an intrathecal pump, this former millionaire became homeless for a time, as Bill documented with me and Minou Maguna in our gonzo expanded documentary project Brother Islands. This immersive installation/performance, performed with Matthew Schlanger, Ryder Cooley, Dan Winckler, Eric Barry Drasin, Jesse Stiles, vade (Anton Marini) and Ross Goldstein at Eyebeam‘s first MIXER, included Bill’s stories of his stay at a homeless shelter on Wards Island. Bill credits our gonzo journalism with his escape from Wards island. The shelter disliked my regular visits with a camera and microphone. The social workers found Bill an apartment in The Bronx.

Bill Etra at Wards Island homeless shelter, superimposed with North Brother Island quarantines

Bill Etra at Wards Island homeless shelter, superimposed with North Brother Island quarantines

 

Bill lived with incessant pain for nearly a decade here in The Bronx, enduring the agony because he loved life, his wife Rozalyn Rouse Etra, their weasels, and his many friends and fans.

My last collaborations with Bill were Telematic Etra, which used Google Hangouts On Air as a way to host Bill’s and Q&A sessions, along with a set of Pecha Kucha format lectures, never completed as Bill became too weak to continue.

Bill was thrilled to see all his technological predictions coming true one-by-one. Also, Bill simply couldn’t stop making his visual performance art. Prone in his bed, as the paralysis crept into his hands, Bill began integrating networked systems of Android tablets and realtime 3D software to make his work. “…play with the old machines, learn from them, then build something better…. Believe me we have barely begun to scratch the surface of what will be…” wrote Bill in an email this Spring. Click here for a recent artwork on Bill’s YouTube account.

 

Bill Etra and Roz Rouse Etra with their new family member, Blondie Ferret, as Matthew Schlanger and I brought them together.

Bill Etra and Roz Rouse Etra with their new family member, Blondie, the night Matthew Schlanger and I brought them together.

 

Bill’s stubborn refusal to submit to unimaginable pain, and his ability to bounce back from frequent hospitalizations, led us to feel like Bill was undefeatable. So it was quite a shock when Bill’s heart gave out while he was in the hospital with another complaint.

As I’ve been connecting with fellow friends and colleagues, we’ve begun to talk about how to memorialize Bill. After Steve Rutt’s memorial at SVA, Bill told us that he wanted his life celebrated by an audiovisual jam session. Plans are emerging to host a set of events in Europe, New York and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Along with Bill’s friends and collaborators we’ve been gathering stories, papers and artworks from Bill’s lifelong work. I’ll be sharing them here at my website, on my Instagram account and on the Project Etra YouTube page. If you have anything to share, or would like to be notified about Bill’s memorial events, please email projectetraATgmailDOTcom. We’d love to hear from you.

Benton, here in The Bronx at Summer’s end

Bill’s obituary in the New York Times: Bill Etra, Who Helped Make Video an Art Form, Dies at 69