Barbara Sykes


Barbara Sykes is a video artist, documentarian, and curator whose work in the 1970s and 1980s pioneered striking new forms of visual abstraction using image processors and video synthesizers. Trained in more traditional forms of art and design, including lithography and silk-screening, Sykes discovered video in the early 1970s and quickly embraced the medium, showing an immediate talent with the Sandin Image Processor and other tools for creating and manipulating video images: “Although the idea of a newly emerging art form was exciting, it was the power of the medium itself that was extremely provocative. It was the real-time interactive capabilities and the absolutely beautiful radiant colors, translucent at times, and luminescent at others, that fascinated and intrigued me.” (from New Media Futures: The Rise of Women in the Digital Arts)

Working with Dan Sandin, Tom Defanti, and others at the Electronic Visualization Laboratory, Sykes distinguished herself through the precise, sometimes figurative effects she could achieve with the technology. As a student and teacher at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle from 1974-1979, Sykes was a central figure in the Electronic Visualization Laboratory, creating videos of her own like Circle 9 Sunrise (1976), Electronic Masks (1978), and By the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak (1978), and performing in a series of “Electronic Visualization Events” (EVE’s). The first EVE took place in 1974, followed by EVE II in 1975 and EVE III in 1978, blending music, performance, and video to create an utterly unique, concert-like experience in which Sykes and others created and manipulated footage live, accompanied by musicians.

In 1979, Sykes enrolled in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s MFA program, where she expended her image-making repertoire, incorporating the Rutt-Etra and Moog synthesizers into her practice. Her work had always been lyrical, but in this period she began more fully incorporating poetry into her videos, frequently inspired by stories, myths, and traditions of indigenous cultures from around the world. She expanded her work into multi-channel work with pieces like I Dream… of Dreaming and Witness.

Sykes organized and curated the seminal show “Video: Chicago Style,” which traveled to New York, showing at the Global Village screening space. This show included abstract pieces by Sykes, Phil Morton, Tom Defanti, Dan Sandin, Jane Veeder alongside documentaries. Sykes would follow that in 1988 with the international traveling show “Video & Computer Art: Chicago Style,” which brought a similarly eclectic selection of Chicago videos to audiences in Japan, China, Spain, and Australia.


After a productive residency at the Experimental TV Center in New York, Sykes was hired at Columbia College, Chicago, where she would teach video and television production until 2005. Her work had always included documentary elements, but in the 1980s she increasingly turned towards documentary as her primary mode of working. Her documentary work is poetic and meditative, finding similar inspirations to more abstract videos from this period. Both an abstract video like Kalyian (1986) and a documentary like Shiva Darsan (1994) take inspiration from religious practices and traditional stories and beliefs, but while Kalyian blends dance, theater, and video effects Shiva Darsan uses documentary footage to create a lyrical, suggestive exploration of death and spirituality. Shiva Darsan was the first documentary in the series “In Celebration of Life… In Celebration of Death,” which documented and ruminated on traditional cultures’ spiritual approaches to death. Sykes filmed the footage for that series, which also included Song of the River (1997), during a 14-month international residency across Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.

In 2007, Sykes completed the documentary Amma: A Documentary of a Living Saint, about spiritual leader and social activist Mata Amritanandamayi, popularly known as “The Hugging Saint.”

Sykes now lives in Florida. Her work gains in prominence each year as historians recognize her centrality to the history of abstract and experimental video, and as new viewers discover the stunning, intricate images that Sykes was able to create with rudimentary video technology. She was profiled in the landmark book New Media Futures: The Rise of Women in the Digital Arts and has been featured in a number of events focused on the history of digital and electronic media.

Our complete collection of Barbara Sykes’ work can be found here.

Subjects: Image Processing, Chicago Videomakers, Abstract Video, Experimental Video, Ethnographic Documentary, Religion and Spirituality

Selected Videography:

Circle 9 Sunrise / Reflections (1976)

Ngoma Dance (1976)

Electronic Masks (1978)

The Crimson Bands of Cyttorak (1978)

The Poem (1978)

I Dream… Of Dreaming… (1981)

Sketching a Motion (1981)

The Witness (1982)

Kaliyan (1986)

d/stablize/d (1987)

Shiva Darsan (1994)

Song of the River (1997)

Amma, A Documentary of a Living Saint (Excerpt) (2007)

Barbara Sykes interviewed by Gene Siskel (1977)


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