Contemporary Arts Museum Houston director Bill Arning is terrifically suited to helm the first major museum survey of VanDerBeek's work, having been a curator at the List Visual Arts Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where VanDerBeek was a fellow in the late '60s and early '70s. Arning presents (with co-curator João Ribas) a fascinating appraisal of VanDerBeek's cache of pioneering works.
"Stan VanDerBeek: The Culture Intercom" is a perfect title, referencing VanDerBeek's obsession with communication through images, as well as an outdated form of communication technology — the intercom.
An extensive selection of VanDerBeek's films screen continuously, including early stop-motion works like Science Friction (1959) and Breathdeath (1963), both of which include magazine cut-outs of political figures and zany, slapstick humor. Breathdeath features a recurring audio motif, Screamin' Jay Hawkins's "I Put a Spell on You," and it underscores the madcap animation. The director Terry Gilliam has said that VanDerBeek was a very early (and major) influence, and it can be seen in Gilliam's cut-and-paste animations for Monty Python's Flying Circus.
VanDerBeek's experiments were some of the earliest in multi-discipline performance, going back to his 1950s Black Mountain College days, where he pretty much taught himself to make movies and witnessed collaborative group artworks by avant-garde composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham and visual artist Robert Rauschenberg. He would eventually collaborate with Cunningham and Cage on Variations V (1965-1966), a performance that incorporated his own film projections, a rhythmic industrial score by Cage and Cunningham's choreography. Nam June Paik's film of the piece is projected onto a wall at the CAMH, and it has the feel of a revolutionary performance, both highly conceptual and deeply visceral. Some of Cunningham's dancers (himself included) are obviously struggling with the difficult and physically demanding choreography, and it underscores the piece's potential interpretation as a symbol of a machine, or technology, breaking down under the weight of our dependence on it.
Inspiration for VanDerBeek's imagery came from a sense of inevitable nuclear annihilation during the Cold War, along with his hope that humanity could pull back from the brink of destruction and achieve a kind of utopian existence through art and technology. In the program notes for one of his early group shows he wrote, "Man does not have time to talk to himself. Man does not have means to talk to other men. The world hangs by a thread of verbs and nouns. It is imperative that the world's artists invent a non-verbal international language."
This call to arms particularly manifested itself in Panels for the Walls of the World (1970). In his December 9, 1969, proposal for the work, sent from MIT's Center for Visual Studies, VanDerBeek describes the project as a "telephone mural," in which the mosaic components would be sent, one by one, over a telecopier (an early fax machine) to its intended installation sites and constructed. Each eight-by-ten-inch paper unit, or "tile," a sheet of copy paper with collaged imagery, would take ten minutes to send over a phone line, so VanDerBeek proposed to send 15 units a day for four weeks. That mural has been reconstructed in the CAMH exhibit, along with extensive documentation of its original installations at a handful of Boston venues, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Smithsonian.
It isn't a particularly sophisticated or visually impressive mural, with its black-and-white palette, large human-head profiles, corner "sun" with line-beams as in a child's drawing, and hippie "Wage Peace" message, but it's powerful as a technological artifact, and perhaps even more powerful for younger generations, those for whom a fax machine is as stone-age as a cassette tape.
But VanDerBeek was well aware of his technical constraints. He called using the tools at hand "fooling around," and predicted that new technologies would "open higher levels of psychic communication." He attempted this kind of psychic interaction in works like Violence Sonata, a two-channel video program broadcast simultaneously on two Boston television stations in 1970. VanDerBeek's recommended method for viewing the work was to place two TV sets next to each other, each tuned to the specific channel. That piece is re-created at the CAMH, and it's predictably hit-and-miss. VanDerBeek was experimenting in random juxtaposition of imagery, exploring the hidden meanings in arbitrary sequences, as well as emphasizing what he identified as a culture of violent interaction.
A similar concept fueled VanDerBeek's Movie Murals, which were mass conglomerations of film and slide projections, designed to display endless combinations of motion and still imagery. Again, a re-creation was made for "The Culture Intercom," and it's confusing, intriguing, entertaining and tedious — meaning, "successful." The psychic effect occurs in moments when wavelengths of significance seem to flow between pictures, until the connection is severed.
It's an exceptional exhibit...up to a point. A gallery can be a difficult place to watch films and video. In one enclosed screening room, a loop of 20-some videos plays, and most are an average of ten minutes long. Video loops are frustrating, because you often walk in midway. If it's a particularly intriguing piece, you're faced with the decision to watch until the loop starts again, in order to see what you missed. It would take a few hours to view them all, and an hour or more to soak up the rest of what's on display, so two or more visits would be necessary for a casual museumgoer to experience the exhibit's entire catalog. Also, sound from nearby installations bleeds into others, creating a general droning that either distracts or lulls the viewer into a blank stare of information overload.
But perhaps it's a fitting atmosphere for a survey of Stan VanDerBeek. It's noisy, electronic, kaleidoscopic and illuminating.