The Current Situation
Video art continues to be a slippery medium. When I first started writing about it in the early 1970s I often commented on the many disparate threads and how they might be reconciled. What is video art? Is Rosenquist an artist or a pop artist? From the start the field was defined broadly including structuralist to documentarian, performance art to gallery installations. If postmodernism is defined by hazy boundaries and intentions, video art was one of its early manifestations. Whatever the art historians and theorists decide, this medium for artistic kinds of expression will always be murky as it floats between representation and abstraction, high and folk art. We must remember that before Paik, the Vasulkas, and Vostel there was Ernie Kovaks, Pinky Lee, and Shari Lewis, among many others playing with the structural potentials of the public/private box. As we saw at the EAT Nine Evenings, technical innovation and art are natural playmates.
Who would have thought that video art would be everywhere in the capital A Art world? While public funding has almost disappeared, the low cost equipment is easily purchased, self publishing to one’s own channel on Vimeo or YouTube is easy, and (internet) television is just a step away. However, the casual museum or gallery visitor would most likely not see the connections between work, let’s say Dara Birnbaum’s Wonder Women with Barbara Buckner’s Lost Pictures. Edin Velez might be shown close to Peer Bode or Shelly Silver. There is nothing in the content, style, or basic intention that unite these works, except they are vaguely experimental and personal. In retrospect, what we called image processing should be thought of as formalism, since it it is media specific and based on structural elements of video. A painter uses a canvas of some kind and applies pigments; the image processor uses a moving canvas and applies pigments. Wouldn’t it be more helpful to outline a new understanding of the field based on analogues in art. In this way performance art on video is seen as another way to create and distribute performance art, rather than calling it video art. If formal video is painterly and graphic, consider it not only in relationship to other video of its kind, but to any art work that plays with color, light, and form.
In the early 1970’s it was hard to find a place willing to publish writing about video art. The Village Voice wasn’t at all interested. The SOHO Weekly was somewhat better. Changes in the Arts editor Susan Graham recognized its relevance to her bi-monthly magazine and was great at making my words coherent. I liked to shadow an artist to observe how they worked or wrote about places like The Kitchen and the work I was seeing there. I often went to talks by Woody Vasulka, Hollis Frampton, and other didactics as they shared their conceptions of the new medium. It was exciting to watch the early days of something that seemed to have great potential.
After a prolific career as an artist who practiced formal experimentation with new and hybrid systems to present personal observations about life in NYC and while visiting other places, I decided to abandon narrative to focus, for awhile at least, on color, light, and compositional elements inherent to the kinds of digital processing I am now experimenting with. Inexpensive computer software absorbed all of the processing systems I used at ETC and in my own studio. One can now simulate oscillation, frequency generation, and voltage control with precise, real time control. These provide access to the breath like patterns that have always suffused my work.
I often tell students that without John Cage’s influence, there would probably not be sound art, video art, performance art, and many other forms of media and postmodern art. I would not be teaching new media or meditating. Naturally syncretic and interdisciplinary, that is, naturally curious about life and its mysteries, he flung open the doors that DuChamp, Beuys, and others had nudged in visual arts. As a high school student I was more interested in electronic music than rock. Listening to John’s records or hearing concerts/dance performances (while reading Burroughs, Zen texts, etc) I felt permission to allow and accept chance into my life and work. This was a direct massage of my wired brain. It was reinforced later when musicians I liked in the Beach Boys and Beatles discovered TM and our eyes moved East during the 60s and 70s.
Last year was a big one for remembering John Cage. I have several albums from the iTunes store and a John Cage station on Pandora that veers from lively music by Tangerine Dream to purely experimental play with electronics by Asmus Tietchens. His books are on my nearby shelf. In one of them he mentions my brother. My mother has some amazing visual art work that John gave her: glass frames in a box that can be moved in layers to change the patterns and associations. Its interactive nature gives it a flow and changeability lacking in most art. My mother has many pictures of John and others at art and social events.
A few years before he died, on 6th Ave., I’d just left therapist, he was coming out of Balducci’s with two bags. We hugged and I helped him carry the bags home.
I’d started carrying bags for him in the mid 60’s. He was my father’s client. A few times a year he’d come to New City, dump his receipts on my father’s desk then go upstairs to have coffee and gossip with my mother. Sometimes they talked while walking strategically on the lawn to find anything edible or medicinal. My father asked John to keep receipts for everything. John was good at keeping them, terrible at sorting. For my mother this kind of natural scavengering came from Europe, for John an American/Zen respect for living creatures.
I knew he was a macrobiotic before I knew what it meant. I heard he kicked addiction to aspirin. I should probably read some of the books about him that might also trigger memories. Usually I get upset that my father is not mentioned. I watched how my father helped organize the artists and helped find ways for them to make living wages for their labors as cultural workers. John and others were fixtures. Since they lived in Stony Point, my father could easily meet them there or in New City. Certainly other accountants might have helped them, but none would love them more than my father. He believed in John as a person and artist and was actively involved in the financial side of his career.
A few years later, 1970 or 71, LA, John and Merce are preparing for a concert in Pasadena. Peter Kirby and I have lugged over video equipment, black and white reel to reel portapaks to demonstrate how video might be useful for dancers.
Daniel Nagrin told me that once he saw Merce Cunningham and Fred Astaire coming out of a building together.
I asked my father why John wasn’t married. He’d say, he’s married to art.
Parking, walking up the side of a hill to a house perched above the others. Spare furnishings and belongings. Japanese style seeming even for a young kid like me, sitting on the deck, drinking tea, talking bout everything. Like he was my calm Uncle, the one who knew how to listen. And I’d read his books and seen his performances and experienced the fury they sometimes caused, so I was totally in awe of a man who always seemed to smile.
I had many teachers who opened doors. John inspired me to read about Zen and McLuhan. He was always effusive about his passions.
I remember, he was older than even the oldest dancers and they deferred to him. Nevertheless, when I drove them, in his mustang to the airport for the long European tours of the Cunningham dancers, the dancers we’d pick up along the way chattered openly about the traits and sexual preferences of the troupe. I learned more about sex during these car rides to and from the airport than my parents ever taught me.
I remember when David Weinrib and I got grants to video three poets and John was one of them and he was living in Stoney Point, but not at the Gate Hill Co-op anymore. He read from Empty Words, a project in which he emptied the text of Thoreau’s Walden Pond of vowels and read the entire work that way as a performance. Through most of the video recording, I let the camera drift in extreme close-ups over his face as he read the sounds of clustered letters, vaguely sounding like an eastern european language. I remember thinking that the video was somehow related to the Empty Words in which one can never get an overall sense of the text, this would be an extremely intimate portrait of a well known and documented artist.
I remember dance concerts, John sitting on the side of the stage reading his one minute texts or fussing with radios, electronic sound generators, and other audio devices. Dancers moving, sculptures in space. Everything we hear is music, John said; everything we see is dance. No stories except the ones we bring to it; no statement except structure, boundaries, and chance. They’d say, watch it (and listen for the ways disconnected things become connected) the way you watch people in the street, disinterested interest, detached attachment. Zen, wabi sabe, things fall in the right place. I knew it then, in high school, that the dancers never left the stage.
John told me about Antioch College and encouraged me to visit. His friend Keith McGary taught there. He became one of my most enduring teachers, along with Ben Thompson. Since we weren’t graded and could develop our own curriculum, I took McGary’s Aesthetics course at least twice and Thompson’s a few times as well. McGary’s was very zen and fun; Thompson’s infuriating and challenging, until, at some point “I got it.” Anyway, John wrote my recommendation letter. Peter said that he was a student rep on the admissions committee and it was John’s letter that got me in.
My father liked the idea of Antioch because of its work-study schedule.
Once accepted, Peter took me under his wing. The first quarter experience was part of the Unlearning Center, with courses geared toward shaking foundations of previous knowledge, experience, and perceptions. A slow learner, I had to repeat this after my first work experience. I finally understood that I was responsible for my own learning and that it didn’t have to be crammed into 4 years in one place. Experience is the best teacher. The best professors left plenty of room for silence.
I remember (after Cal Arts graduation, probably while Dienes’ assistant) walking in the woods with Paik, Dienes, Cage, and various others, shooting the mushroom hunt with a super 8 camera. Wonder if that film exists somewhere? Slightly aware of shifting relationships, starting to realize that this wasn’t about friendship with an odd bunch of fun eccentrics. They were getting famous suddenly, recognized and acknowledged in good ways.
Neither were good drivers. John liked to be driven and if I was around, I was happy and careful. He was always good natured. I wish I could remember what we talked about. Was I just shy and distant, clearly in awe? Did I tell him about my life as a 12th grader? I must have talked to him about using chance methods to make a score based on the NY Times Want ads and an experimental film edited in the camera of the ad texts. My amazing English teacher at Clarkstown HS encouraged this filmmaking. I guess John took interest in me as an enthusiastic, somewhat naive son of his accountant and fan.
I want to mention that my father and rabbi Louis Frishman, RIP, invited John to create a Sabbath service, which he did at Temple Beth El in Spring Valley. I was at Antioch and missed it.
After years of portapak carrying, my lower spine got a pinched nerve and I crawled to the hospital. As I recuperated I listened to music and news on a small radio with connected speakers. I got interested In how the vibrations of the speakers felt on my body. For the Avant Garde art festival at the Floyd Bennet airfield in Queens, Rip Heyman and I constructed a jacket made out of small speakers pointing inward. We also had a small chair with vibrating speakers. We welcomed people to experience this sensual multimedia experience.
When Bob R. Was around, after he’d become rich and famous, or at least on the way to it, conversations became very slippery and full of word play. Bob was a great story teller and charmed people no matter what he talked about. At the same time he seemed somewhat self conscious, to me, a high schooler or in the late 70s when I visited him in Florida.
Somehow, I found the one girl in Rockland County who knew who John Cage was and was impressed that she was riding in his car! When she let me touch her breast I felt satori.
My mother says that when she and John hunted mushrooms, Merce would also come, but he walked straight, with his eyes toward the sky, rarely watching them.
John always seemed relaxed and welcoming when we’d go backstage. I understand that the mission of the “avant-garde” was to subvert its mission as art, but I couldn’t figure out why people would go to a concert with tomatoes and other vegetables to throw at the stage before storming out. Why would people buy tickets to something just to disrupt it and walk out?
Some thoughts- again on my work
The colors resonate from a place of silence. Rhythms in the overlayed electronically processed visuals. There is no meaning. Relax into the colors and compositions. The movement is the movement of electronic signal.
Deceptive cadences- the presence of a (color) tone not really present