CAMH helps resurrect the work of a new-media pioneer
By DOUGLAS BRITT Copyright 2011 Houston Chronicle
June 17, 2011, 11:18AM
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The most recent works in the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston exhibition Stan VanDerBeek: The Culture Intercom are nearly 30 years old, making them dinosaurs in the young field of new-media art.
VanDerBeek was an inexhaustible experimenter whose work drew attention from the likes of the U.S. military, NASA and IBM. But many technologies whose artistic possibilities he once tested are virtually obsolete. Anyone who brings a cellphone to the exhibit has more computing power in his pocket than VanDerBeek could ever tap, even when he was making computer-generated films using the first moving-image programming language at Bell Labs.
Yet the first museum survey of this underground filmmaker, installation artist and new-media pioneer's work couldn't be better suited to an institution that defines itself as "an idea and a place shaped by the present moment." Technology wasted no time leaving VanDerBeek's innovations in the dust, but we're still catching up to their implications.
CAMH director Bill Arning, a former curator at the List Visual Arts Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, where the show recently appeared, sums up VanDerBeek's currency in the exhibition catalog, which should become an indispensable resource for scholars of an artist who nearly vanished into obscurity after dying in 1984 at age 57.
"Throughout the 1960s, '70s, and early '80s, VanDerBeek was an inspiring one-man-research-and-development department for using untried forms and forcing them to reveal their interior poetics," writes Arning, who co-curated the survey with his List successor, João Ribas.
Take VanDerBeek's 1970 "telephone murals," created while he was a fellow at MIT's Center for Advanced Visual Studies. Wishing to allow for the simultaneous exhibition of artworks at multiple sites, VanDerBeek composed a mosaiclike mural of images he could transmit — one at a time, requiring about 10 minutes to send an 8½-by-14-inch unit — using a Xerox Telecopier to any location with a phone line and a similar machine.
Did VanDerBeek's experiments usher in a global golden age of telephone-mural art? Not quite. One was simultaneously exhibited at five Boston-area venues in 1970. Minneapolis' Walker Art Center and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., also commissioned telephone murals.
Yet it seems uncannily prescient in anticipating today's media simultaneity, as does his contemporaneous proposal — one of many — for an "Artist in Residence to the World" program that was not only international, but also multimedia and multidisciplinary in nature.
"What VanDerBeek points to as the current capacity of artists - and indeed almost anyone with access to the technology and bandwidth - to collaborate on new-media projects, especially involving web interfaces, as 'portability, compatibility and technical integration of new medias' has indeed become 'an essential style for the artists of the future," catalog contributor Michael Zryd writes.
The show includes photos of VanDerBeek's Movie-Drome (1963-1965) the prototype of which he converted from the rounded top of a mail-order grain silo to an audiovisual laboratory and theater outfitted with dozens of film, slide and overhead projectors along with a mixing board and other editing and sound equipment. Hinting at part of what drome visitors might have experienced, the show includes an approximate restaging of VanDerBeek's 1968 Movie Mural, a semi-chaotic installation combining film excerpts with slide and acetate projections in a constantly changing collage. A VanDerBeek manifesto "called for a multitude of 'dromes' to be positioned throughout the world, each linked to an orbiting satellite that would store and transmit images through the various sites," catalog contributor Gloria Sutton writes. "Through the Movie-Drome, VanDerBeek sought a model for a real-time, programmable communications system."
Like his Movie Murals and Robert Rauschenberg's "combine" paintings," VanDerBeek's surreal early films, made by combining disparate pieces of footage with animations of collaged elements he cut from magazines, were part of an shift toward what art historian Leo Steinberg called the "flatbed picture plane," one that became "a surface to which anything would adhere. It had to become whatever a billboard or a dashboard is, and everything a projection screen is."
VanDerBeek's association with Rauschenberg dated to their overlapping student days at Black Mountain College in Asheville, N.C. Theater Piece No. 1, a 1952 event there simultaneously combined poetry readings atop ladders by John Cage, M.C. Richards and Charles Olson; Rauschenberg's pre-minimalist White Paintings hanging from the ceiling while he played scratched records; a piano composition by composer David Tudor; and a spare dance performance by Merce Cunningham. Later described as the first art "happening," the event profoundly influenced VanDerBeek's thinking "about how you can make things grow and collage things together."
Years later, VanDerBeek would team with Cage, Cunningham, Tudor, engineer Billy Klüver and composer Gordon Mumma on the multimedia Variations V (1965/1966), which was staged at New York's Philharmonic Hall and for a German TV broadcast in Hamburg. VanDerBeek's films — a mix of archival newsreel footage and popular film and TV programs — were projected on screens as dancers' movements triggered photocells that were wired to tape recorders and short-wave radios. Video artist Nam June Paik added television manipulations from the Hamburg performance, a projection of which is included in the CAMH survey.
For all his technophilia, VanDerBeek's writings, as well as films like Science Friction (1959), which bombard viewers with mad-scientist imagery, often relayed concerns about technology's dark side, particularly in a nuclear era.
Still, the survey's overall impact is exhilarating. (It also includes early paintings, collages made as stills for early stop-action films and Poemfields, hypnotic computer-generated films that used early image-processing systems.) The VanDerBeek survey and its catalog join CAMH's outstanding 2010 retrospective for long-overlooked Fluxus artist Benjamin Patterson as major achievements, the kind of reclamation projects that demonstrate the crucial role contemporary kunsthalles have to play in the development of art history.