Stan VanDerBeek: The Culture Intercom at the MIT List Visual Arts Center from February 4 to April 3, 2011
Moving through Stan VanDerBeek: The Culture Intercom, the current exhibition at the MIT List Visual Art Center, one experiences a sudden encounter, turning a corner between the entrance space and the large primary space of the gallery, with blinding lights. After visually adjusting to space, the visitor is positioned between, on one side, flickering images – some found, some created, some moving, some static, some inexplicable, some familiar – of stunts, people undressing, classic cinema, geometric transformations, athletes and spatial iconography, and on the other, the projectors – overhead, slide, video – producing those images.
This machinic palimpsest, a recreation of VanDerBeek’s 1968 Movie Mural, immerses the viewer in a relentless montage of image and sound, and the experience, in which embodied affect precedes the synthetic understanding of its cause and meaning, is a productive means of approaching VanDerBeek’s art. It also marks the space of the exhibit in which VanDerBeek’s contribution to art, new media, information theory, his means of working, thought processes and problematic place within art history becomes most discernible. The curator’s refusal to corral this vision – a wall of overlapping and superimposed images that do not fit their viewing screens and the apparatuses emitting and humming with their own life – into the space of the gallery is productively made part of the exhibit.
This environment, at once intensive and extensive, also reveals VanDerBeek’s contribution to installation art, creating spaces that challenge distinctions between various media, machine and human, mental and physical, utopian and dystopian, techne and episteme, as well as art, science and popular culture. The artist employs both established and emergent media to develop themes related to information, communication, visualization and their changing dynamics in a post-industrial landscape.
Throughout the exhibition, the auditory experience maintains a similar cacophony, as sounds from each area bleed into the others, undermining the artificial spatial zones otherwise established by the gallery’s partitions. Noise in this sense becomes a literal sensation marking the spaces VanDerBeek created, thought about, envisioned and in which he worked. Given the importance of new media and information theories to VanDerBeek’s work, “noise” also serves as a metaphorical foil to “signal”. For VanDerBeek the excess of noise is more important than the messages contained by signals and allows the former to productively overwhelm the latter.
Unfortunately, the rest of the exhibition is mostly signal as chaos gives way to order, and the sterile hegemony of the austere gallery space, which constitutes an uneasy yet productive tension in works like Movie Mural, elsewhere acts as a mere container and organizational datum for the disparate works, identities, concepts, media and spectatorial expectations. The exhibition organization also serves to recodify VanDerBeek, positing his work within a more conventional trajectory of art history.
Beginning with a single image of post-cubist space, the exhibition follows a relatively strict chronology, placing VanDerBeek in a pre-existent master narrative of twentieth-century art rather than emphasizing the means by which he worked outside of that tradition, challenged it and revamped it (if in a small way). His works are, however, significant because they introduce some of the motifs the artist would explore later using other media. A crosshatched sun repeated in his metal etchings, hand-painted movie posters and animations, for instance, suggests a personal exploration of thematic content as an eternal return or the return of the repressed.
Given that this exhibition marks the first museum survey of VanDerBeek’s (1927-1984) work, this chronological approach is understandable, providing important background information and reflecting one goal of the List Gallery: to remind visitors of the increased emphasis MIT, where VanDerBeek was a fellow in its Center for Advanced Visual Studies, placed on the arts and humanities in the Post-War era. VanDerBeek himself was also clearly aware of master narratives of modernism and his uneasy fit within them.
His oeuvre can be viewed as a micro-history of late twentieth-century art, moving from abstract expressionist painting and watercolors to experimentation with industrial crafts, including photography and metals, to advertising and cinematic works to multi-media explorations into digital technology, cybernetics and systems theory to performative ephemera, all linked by a Dadaist-influenced emphasis on collage. The spatial and temporal separations in the gallery also highlight VanDerBeek’s effortless movement among media, rarely returning to one once he had abandoned it or discovered a new one.
However, his work might better act as part of a counter-history or documentation of art as an ongoing process in which philosophical questions and social issues remain constant while taking on different materialities and strategies through artistic expression. VanDerBeek envisioned new spaces and new narratives rather than adapting to existing ones, continually returning art and his preferred themes to their creative genesis. His multi-media explorations, immersive environments and “expanded cinema” reflect a 1960s’ countercultural interest in alternative experiences, partly influenced by drugs (which are never mentioned in the exhibition or its accompanying literature), in which expanded consciousness serves as a means toward social transformation. “We’re just fooling around on the outer edges of our own sensibilities,” VanDerBeek contended. “The new technologies will open higher levels of psychic communication and neurological referencing” (Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema 246).
This imagined experience is submerged throughout most of the exhibition. Sometimes this is because the works seem conspicuously acontextual, such as the segregation of Poemfields (1966-69), the artist’s computer-generated films, which explore early digital graphics and image processing created while working at Bell Labs. Other times, this is because the curators were at pains to reconstruct the original context. VanDerBeek’s films, for instance, are shown in a black box theater to small audiences not unlike those viewing these films in Lower East side art theaters (as opposed to museums) in the 1960s.
Similarly, one version of Telephone Mural (1970), a collage of images transmitted via a precursor to the fax machine, is reproduced here, but the device that made this work possible and simultaneously reproducible at multiple spaces, is absent. This is not for lack of trying on the part of the curators. Apparently, there are few (if any) extant artifacts of this rather rare object. Nevertheless, the emphasis on the final product, largely displayed as a mural, while images of the machine and the processes it enabled are relegated to a glass case, is at odds with VanDerBeek’s emphasis on process over object.
These conflicting strategies in which some works resist the gallery system and others are forced into it, seem arbitrary and occasionally ironic. Instead of separating these works via medium and chronology, it might have better served the spirit (if not the history) of VanDerBeek’s approach to simply merge disparate media and periods and assail the viewer with their contrasting but related imagery as a temporally transversal collage, an exhibition-scale version of Movie Mural. This strategy would also highlight the commonalities within VanDerBeek’s art. The tedious nature of punch-card programming reveals the obsessive nature of VanDerBeek’s working methods as much as his revolutionary animation, which entailed an immense amount of archival research, hand-drawn image manipulation and editing.
Most importantly, this alternative strategy would allow VanDerBeek’s animations and experimental short films, which have aged well and maintained their progressive edge, to constitute a more central role in the exhibition. As it stands, these works occupy unfortunately little of the space, relegated (as is often the case in museums) to a side gallery and separate theater that do little to encourage prolonged or repeated viewing.
Movie Drome (1968), the largest and most dramatic of his creations, is the one project that demands a faithful physical recreation. However, while the conceptualization of the project is present and well documented, it is conspicuously absent spatially. Logistically, this is perhaps understandable. The top of a mail-order grain silo, 31 feet in diameter, Movie Drome was an audiovisual “laboratory” and theater in upstate New York that accommodated sound and projection equipment and an audience lying supine on the floor gazing up at the dome covered in a myriad of transforming images. Nevertheless, the participatory, communal and social facet of this work is missed by reducing the project to photographs framed on the wall and ordered documents locked inside glass cases.
VanDerBeek explored this communal and participative facet further as his works became more collaborative. The exhibit most notably includes Variations V (1966), a video, previously never shown publicly, of a performance choreographed by Merce Cunningham for himself and other dancers, whose movement responds to music composed by John Cage and David Tudor, as well as to an immersive multi-media environment created by VanDerBeek and Nam June Paik. Movement through this performative space, unlike most of the exhibition space here, is guided but never prescribed by VanDerBeek’s vision and direction.
As an artist in resident at WGBH, the Boston PBS affiliate from 1969-1971, VanDerBeek explored transdisciplinary works that implicated a viewing public in new ways and treated television as a truly artistic medium. Inspired by his earlier work on Winky Dink and You, a children’s program that encouraged viewers to stick a vinyl sheet to their television screen and draw along with the characters, VanDerBeek created Violence Sonata (1970), a distinctly adult program combining all means of brutality, including professional boxing, KKK rallies, Nazis, beaten protesters, nuclear bomb explosions, Rock’em Sock’em robots, rocket launches, along with culturally sensitive images of bikini-clad dancers and post-coital miscegenation. Competing with the images that addressed violence and race relations in the United States was the actual means of broadcast. A mix of live studio production and prerecorded footage, the show was transmitted on two different channels to be viewed as a dual-screen program on adjacent television sets, a challenging, ambitious and collective proposition at the time that would have required most people to move a heavy set to a neighbor’s house.
Throughout the exhibit and his career, VanDerBeek links such aesthetic communication to aesthetic community. His utopian aims and the increasing ubiquity of technology and information processing today date some of his work. At a time when the radicalism of countercultural practices have been codified and following the transformation of hippies into Reaganites, VanDerBeek’s commitment to an interior, psychological renewal that would mirror a social renewal and his faith in new strategies of communication to ameliorate extreme cultural concerns, including the threat of nuclear annihilation, can seem naïve.
Nevertheless, VanDerBeek’s technological experimentations are more than historical constructs. They are part of a trajectory of thought that is always outside. For VanDerBeek, what is not capable of being incorporated into thought is more important than what is. This complexity applies equally to the artist’s process, his works, his motivation and his reception, much of which is well documented here, constituting a lasting archive of an important contribution to multi-media and spatial installation art. However, the ways in which meaning is produced through the gaps, interstices and slippages between one medium and another, one image and the next, the complexity of this ongoing mental, cultural and aesthetic processes are often submerged. The exhibit does a great job of telling, but often fails to show how VanDerBeek sought to (re)produce a noosphere that would allow culture and consciousness to evolve as rapidly as technology.