VanDerBeek, The Male/Female Ex-perential-information “Bill of Rights” Suit…, 1970
To be means to communicate.
Bakhtin, “Toward a Reworking of the Dostoevsky Book.”
If communication possessed several meanings and if this plurality should prove to be irreducible, it would not be justifiable to define communication a priori as the transmission of a meaning… For one characteristic of the semantic field of the word communication is that it designates nonsemantic movements as well.
Derrida, Limited Inc
I From “Film” to “Computing”: an Emergent Moment Lost
It will become clear only after some pages just how the epigraphs above, which cite two of the last century’s most acclaimed (literary?) theorists, relate to the epiicon “sighting” that same century’s most forgotten (kinematic?) artist. Ahorita, I wish to put the reader in the state of suspended dis/belief. This is a necessary precondition and antidote not only to the specific case of Stan Vanderbeek, but to the particularly sedimented cultural history from which he has been systematically excluded at worst, and systematically disfigured at best. My aim in this essay is twofold: to refigure his importance as both practitioner and thought-maker; and, by so doing, to contribute something toward the critique of modernity’s great wasteland. For Vanderbeek’s project aimed to compel through a specifically “socialist, performative” imaginary, a recognition that the technocultural forces of the period constituted not only a sociopolitical crisis of global proportions, but an imminence for social change that was exceedingly fragile, and the outcome of which would be decided very rapidly, with little chance of recuperation should a positive outcome fail.
More important, inter-culturally, art and life
must do something about the future; the world is hanging
by a thread of verbs and nouns.
I see that certain films, made in a certain way and presented
in a certain way, will help us and will be used as a technique
to understand and balance the senses.
The development of a nonverbal international picture
language that makes use of cinema and other image-
transmission systems is of utmost importance in the
consistent crises of world peace.[i]
In this statement from 1966, we see many of the themes and sensibilities which ran though Vanderbeek’s entire career: tensions between art/life and visuality/language, a concern for the intercultural, recognition of global crises and the need for urgency, a tentative mix of the visionary and the pragmatic, and an agonistic combination of optimism and skepticism. But we can also witness in these poetically structured lines, his commitment to a project for social change predicated on “certain ways” of working and knowing, which aim to “understand and balance the senses.” In what way his project was “socialist” will be developed below. The failure to recognize the importance of his project suggests a lacuna of self-understanding, or a resistance to a particular species of radicalism, within cultural modernism itself as it emerged in the US of the 1960’s and 1970’s. At the same time, this lacuna requires us to question the motives of the historiographical forces, both during and since that period, that have colluded in constructing his exclusion and disfigurement.[ii] “Stan Vanderbeek,” then, is the proper name for a chiasmus in North American cultural history of the “Sixties,” and a diagnostic lens through which a series of doggedly persistent problems of pouvior-savoir, may be perceived as problems of savior-pouvior.[iii]
Vanderbeek’s figure in the epiicon above clearly demonstrates the necessity for a continuous alternation around this particular hyphen-axis. If we have learned anything from the thought that David Hoy recently re-nominated post-critique, it is that all attempts to resolve the theory-practice problem within the neat closure of a term like praxis, are pure fantasy. Hoy points out that a central problematic of post-critical analysis is the “…especially Nietzschean feature that is found in [their] interest in the body rather than in self-consciousness as the source of resistance.” By Nietzschean he means specifically “that much of what we do is conditioned by embodied social background practices that we do not and perhaps cannot bring fully to consciousness.”[iv] This tension, between embodied practices and consciousness of them, is the central motif in “The Male/Female Experiential-Information ‘Bill of Rights’ Suit…” Vanderbeek is hyperbolically, humorously, seriously and thoroughly aware that the technocultural stakes operate within a matrix of the discursive and nondiscursive, of the semantic and nonsemantic, between language and body, philosophy and history, and that the strategic problems of social change, of resistance to social normativity, lies in the social ontologies determined by technologies of pouvior-savoir. This is, as we will see, what he meant by the need to “understand and balance the senses.”
The conundrum of “non-literary languages,” as we know, is at the heart of the 20th century’s obsessions with the “linguistic turn,” and shows little sign of abating. This is another reason to turn our attention to Vanderbeek’s pouvoir-savoir of communication, as it offers us a view of a road not taken, albeit a ghostly one which requires a particular kind of forensic approach to a body of work that intentionally constructed itself as fragmentary and self-iteratively processual, technically and figuratively self-cannibalistic, but must be encountered by us in the early 21st century as a struggle against the ‘other’ pouvoir-savoir of capital, that is now either about to explode “spaceship earth,” or, itself. This historical choice was announced loudly and clearly by a remarkable set of thinkers, also largely forgotten or considered quaint forebears of our now more sophisticated present, such as Buckminster Fuller, Barry Commoner, and Kenneth Boulding in particular. Vanderbeek shared the stage with many of these “prophets of a threshold,” as we might call them, and he saw himself in that light out of ethical necessity. We must measure his work and thought more against that context, than against the far narrower discourse and practice of the US-Euro “aesthetic” avant-garde, and the art histories that maintain its hegemony, often even when critical. This is another way to designate the chiasmus of “Stan Vanderbeek.”[v]
Vanderbeek’s drawing is a visual/textual manifesto that insists on a strategic, agonistic-integration of gender, embodiment, and law, though he perceives this “integration” as always historically and culturally shifting and perpetually on the move, perpetually invented on the fly, so to speak, or in Spivak’s language, as a practice enabled only in its moment of being known. He opposes the universalizing of Platonic forms in Leonardo’s famous ‘proportional man’ drawing, to which his critically stands in relation, and to the persistence of Renaissance techniques of visuality generally. His drawing is not merely a clever reflection, but the critical recognition that the forces of Platonism are ever present in technological development in its essentializing drive to reify media-forms, such as the telephone, TV, the portapac video camera, and of course, the computer. The analogy he poses here is that technologies idealize, normalize, embodiment as much as social ideologies, of beauty for instance, do; but they could, and do, also perform oppositely – if, communication operates on cycles of feedback, on multi-directional ‘communication’ between the body’s sensory systems and technological systems, if they are “made in a certain way and presented/ in a certain way, [they] will help us and will be used as a technique/ to understand and balance the senses.” Vanderbeek’s work must be understood, along with the cultural lacuna of modernism for which he is proxy, in the context of this conditionality.
In 1969, he posited that the only social ontology possible for an art commensurate with the time must assume the form of approximation.
What I want to also talk about is a very nice idea, I think, and it’s a terribly significant one… I don’t know what art is: art [has] kept coming up as well as biography [has] kept coming up, as though there was some special reference to both these ideas in our lives, as though living our life had a particular design or model that we were achieving, like the Renaissance man which Scott refers to, and I think we may all even halfway infer it in much of our thinking about where we are in our life and what this particular of life and time is. Now, I think that’s a very curious epoch to go through. I think we’re in a period of what I’d like to call APPROXIMATE ART and I may even say that none of this stuff is art but this may all be, as Nathan Lyons has said it before me, simply “A MODEL OF PERCEPTION.”[vi]
Approximate art is then, a necessary response to the chiasmus of the Sixties as Vanderbeek understood the epoch – a response, as he put it to: “the dilemma that I think every one of us deals with a sense that we all deal with what we might also qualify as APPROXIMATE LIFE because… the parts are all always very interesting but whether the sum is larger than the parts I’m waiting yet to see.” Vanderbeek, with a Steinian talent for deceptive oversimplification and syntactical eccentricity, with his recognition of the terrible implications of linking conceptions of “art” to conceptions of “identity” without examination, without contextualizing such conceptions with the historical exigencies and particularities of the life and the times that produce them, demands that all epistemologies of totality, of the sum, of metaphorically representation, be subordinated to epistemologies of the part, to the particularlism of metonymic relations. In other words, pouvoir-savoir for Vanderbeek was an attempt to construct – through iterative approximations, through an interminable mode of working, through a techno-figurative self-cannibalism that fluctuates between language and visual productions –a methodology with which to contend and to contest the historical materialism of the Sixties, as actualized on the ground, in technologies in relation to the body’s freedoms then emerging through the cultural side of the “Movement.”[vii] Pouvoir-savoir, in Vanderbeek’s epistemological view, must always alternate with savoir-pouvoir in order to measure the two forms of approximation against each other – approximate art is a social response to the conditions of approximate life, just as knowledge and power, demonstration and construction, continuously and reciprocally co-constitute each other.[viii] This formulation explicitly restates in general form the condition of suspended disbelief I invoked above. The hyphenation of savoir-pouvoir requires suspended belief as the condition of its methodological possibility; as much as pouvoir-savoir requires suspended disbelief as the condition of its methodological impossibility.
[i] Vanderbeek, Stan. “Re:Vision.” The American Scholar 35.2 (1966): 335-340.
[ii] Cite Vanderbeek’s reply to Mekas
[iii] Spivak takes this hyphenated doublet up in a way the helps us understand what is at politically and epistemologically at stake for Vanderbeek: “It is a pity that there is no word in English corresponding to pouvoir as there is “knowing” for savoir. Pouvoir is of course “power.” But there is also a sense of “can-do”-ness in “pouvoir,” if only because, in its various conjugations, it is the commonest way of say “can” in the French language. If power/knowledge is seen as the only translation of “pouvoir/savoir,” it monumentalizes Foucault unnecessarily. The French language possesses quite a number of these doublets. In their different ways, “laissez-faire and “vouloir-dire” are perhaps best know to us. The trick is to get some of the homely verbiness of savoir in savoir-faire, savoir-vivre into pouvoir, and you might come up with something like this: if the lines of making sense of something are laid down in a certain way, then you are able to do only those things with that something which are possible within and by the arrangement of those lines. Pouvoir-savoir – being able to do something – only as you are able to make sense of it. This everyday sense of that doublet seems to me indispensable to a crucial aspect of Foucault’s work.” Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “More on Power/Knowledge.” Outside in the Teaching Machine. New York: Routledge, 1993. 34. Spivak’s note to this passage comments that this “homely verbiness” is simply assumed by native French speakers and readers, and this is as equally important in our “reading” of Vanderbeek as it would be of Foucault. It’s necessarily chiasmatic structure should be obvious here, and if not, will become clear in what ensues.
[iv] Hoy, David Couzens. Critical Resistance: From Postructuralism to Post-Critique. The MIT Press, 2004. 12.
[v] See: economist Kenneth Boulding’s: Boulding, Kenneth. Human Values on the Spaceship Earth. New York : Council Press for Commission on Church & Economic Life, National Council of Churches, 1966.; Commoner, Barry. Science and Survival New York: Viking Press 1966, and Commoner, Barry. The Closing Circle; Nature, Man, and Technology. New York: Knopf, 1972 [c1971]. Vanderbeek participated in many national conference and think tanks such The Design-In, Central Park, May 1967 the agenda of which was to urgently rethink urban planning in the face of what was already then conceived as the environmental crisis; and the Aspen Design Conference in June of 1967. His first Rockerfeller Grant was specifically for research in “Non-verbal Communication Film Studies,” 1965-66, which went at least in part toward the construction of his Movie-Drome, and a second for the work he carried out at WGBH Experimental Artist in Television in 1969-70, which carried on that work, resulting in new techniques of color production. He received a third Rockerfeller Grant in 1974 for similar research in video, also at WGBH. Of note is an unpublished, and unfunded proposal to the Rockerfeller Foundation for creating an “Artists-in-Residence to the World Program,” that would created the infrastructure for global, collaborative artist-technician teams to travel the world for six months at a time to engage with local artist-technician teams for the purpose of visual language research, and to catalog already existing art and technical practices.
[vi] From unpublished transcript of Vanderbeek’s talk at the conference Autobiography and the American Cinema, organized by Gerry O’Grady, Center for Medis Study, State University of New York, Buffalo, 1969.
[vii] It should be noted here that these freedoms are the source of the virulent ultra-rightism that dominates today.
[viii] This a far more complex operation than that now enshrined in the Oldenbrug/Kaprow genealogies of art/life. There’s must be seen, in comparison, in its libertarian form – certain, authorial art to approximate life – it is still the production of art-for, and not art-with.
VanDerBeek, TV-Information Jacket, 1970
V Aesthetic Thought
Epistemology of “Approximate Art”
Pourvoir-savoir in Vanderbeek’s work must be conceived as the chiasmus of the two forms of voir. This is clear from the titles and vocabulary of many of his writings and visual works, such as “Oh, I “see” what you mean” is what you say when you sing “Oh say can you see.”[i] And the specifically socialist, political commentary and critique is always present, as it is here, in his comic/serious linking of the quadruple, interrelated problematics of nationalism, seeing/saying, identity and communication. These are the themes we’ve traced throughout this essay. His critical method is necessarily described as an alternation of technologies of voir between power and knowledge. The aim of his work was to demonstrate the uses and limits of their relations, in terms of modes of communication. Approximate art for an approximate life is his manifesto writ small, that determined the epistemological course of his aesthetic thought.
Spivak derives her reading of pouvoir-savoir from the following passage from Foucault’s “Ethics of Care of the Self As a Practice of Freedom:”
The care of the self is ethically prior [éthiquement premier] in the measure that the relationship to the self is ontologically prior.”
She glosses this with further Foucault quotes:
This is pouvoir-savoir at ground level,, “the working of thought upon itself…as critical activity,” not a degree zero. [Ethics of Care, p. 256] This is “the soil that can nourish,” the “the general form of problematization.” [Rabinow Reader, p. 389] “Liberty is the ontological condition of ethics. But ethics is the deliberate [refléche] from take by liberty.”
This is the ethical form of the chiasmus we found above in Vanderbeek’s comment that he introduced himself, at a national conference on autobiography and American cinema, as a “we.” Liberty means freedom from self as much as it means freedom of self. His aesthetic thought is coextensive with his ethical thought. He continuously put himself, as well as others, communications systems and specific media forms under continuous critical activity. We may say that critique is the fundamental form of his work. Chiasmus is a critical methodology with which to maintain that position because it suspends the belief in savoir, just at it suspends the disbelief in pouvoir. In terms of agency, or care fof the self, this means that liberty of self also requires liberty from self. “Oh say can you see?” requires the preface, “Oh, I ‘see’ what you mean.” This sociopolitical, ethical, and aesthetic principle determines the technological vision, the sequence, and the titles of the epiicons of the first three sections of this essay. And they should be interpreted as visual manifestos carried out in Poemfields, Violence Sonata, and Cine Dreams. Vanderbeek’s “we” signifies an ethic of subjectivity that is fundamentally at odds with cultural modernism’s libertarian identitarianism, demonstrated most explicated in the race and gender components of Violence Sonata. He was tireless in his critique of exactly that species of identity politics; on that basis, he was opposed to modernist claims to authorship and originality, and to the consciousness raising and its personal-is-political motif of much of the identity politics of the social movements of period. And it is both the fundamental reason for his vanishing from the canon, and the fundamental condition that has produced modernity’s visual blindness to anything that did not meet the dual conditions of formalism and media specificity. Modernity has failed in sociopolitical terms because it cannot sing – “say can you see” in the form of “oh, I ‘see’ what you mean” – in the form of pouvoir-savoir chiasmus traced above.
[i] “RE: LOOK COMPPUTERIZED GRAPHICS, “Light Brings us News of the Universe,’” Film Culture, no. 48-49, Winter-Spring 1970
Another historiographical problem that plagues a re-visioning of the social matrix that determined the Vanderbeek chiasmus is the retroactive attribution to him of the “utopian” or “visionary” in light of the perceived naiveté and failures of the period. Because Vanderbeek was well aware that his term, expanded cinema, had been co-opted by Le Grice and Youngblood, it is important to foreground the formers concept against the background of formalist-aestheticist and techno-determinist and psychedelic genealogies that branch from the latter.[i] Licklider’s “all” is our benchmark here. Commenting in 1968 on the techno-utopian saddleback on which Vanderbeek sat, Enzensberger put it succinctly:
“…utopian thinking seemed to meet the material conditions for its own realization. Liberation had ceased to be a mere wishful thought. It appeared to be a real possibility.”[ii]
Enzensberger’s assessment is not only confirmed in a 1967 statement by E.A.T.’s Billy Kluver, but is given an institutional and programmatic form:
If professional engineering is not made available to artists on a large scale, the technical elements that do appear in works of art run the risk of becoming precious, if not ridiculous. We have established a foundation called Experiments in Art and Technology which will attempt to provide a link between the engineering world and interested artists. It is apparent to us that ultimately the problems of the artist must be handled by industrial laboratories and that the development of the problems must be paid for by industry itself. It is the purpose of EAT to convince industry to accept problems posed by artists. Simultaneously, a file of interested consulting engineers will be established who can take care of simple problems directly. It is hoped that EAT will become an efficient service organization that will deal only with the technical aspects of the artists’ problems.[iii] [my emphasis]
Kluver’s statement is particularly important for two reasons: its risk assessment, and its non-instrumental magnanimity. The danger of preciousness and ridiculousness levels the charge and challenge of seriousness against the threat of, what exactly? Preciousness translates into a love of techno-effects for their own sake, of aesthetisization, which makes them ridiculous from the point of view of engineering conditions of existence and pragmatic standards of impact and success. However, Kluver is well aware of a deeper social problem, which E.A.T. was created to mitigate – the enormous knowledge-divide, the problem of pouvoir-savoir, between the arts and the sciences. His politically savvy magnanimity is indicated by his putting industrial scale resources, both economic and epistemological, in the service of “only” the “technical aspects of artists’ problems.” The impact of this program is to put the artist on par with the engineer as an actor with the capacity to effect mass, concrete, social formation. E.A.T.’s concept of an “efficient service organization” is nothing less than revolutionary, funded by industry, and should be understood as itself a social movement which set out to establish a new form of social agency on a par with that of engineer.[iv] E.A.T. was established to maintain the autonomy of the artist and artistic knowledge and epistemological practices, as such, as a form or pouvoir-savoir indigenous to practices found “only” among the problem-solving expertise that artists have. This is the enormous significance of that small word, “only,” in Kluver’s statement. It is in this specific sense that he confirms Enzensberger’s assessment of the concurrence of utopian aspirations and technical means, which has the effect, generally not understood, of transforming mere utopianism into actual pragmatism.
With this background in mind, it is possible to invert, entirely, the usual paradigm: it is not that new technologies finally made possible “socialist” dreams, but that the social values that emerged alongside, “the movement,” that crossed all social movement boundaries, and that extended to everyone, including E.A.T.; constituted a socio-political-psychological imaginary that allowed the pro-social construction of technology to emerge. Technological devices like portapak video cameras were pressed into the service of revolutionary zeal NOT because of some democratizing capacity inherent to the “media,” but because, as spectacle, “media” had already established the conditions for what could even be imagined as “revolutionary.” This is the crux of the Vanderbeek chiasmus, the point on the curve when the trajectory toward the maximum shifts toward the minimum – the break point. And it is this perspective that fueled the urgency that drove him.
Movie-making was for long the most revolutionary art form of our time. Now television touches the nerve-ends of all the world; the visual revolution sits in just about every living room across America. The image revolution that movies represented has now been overhauled by the television evolution, and is approaching the next visual stage – to computer graphics to computer controls of the environment to a new cybernetic “movie art.”[i]
[i] “New Talent – the Computer,” Art in America, v. 58, Jan-June, 1970
[i] Sheldon Renan describes the American formation of expanded cinema in this way:
A whole new area of film and film-like art has appeared in the sixties: expanded cinema.
Expanded cinema is not the name of a particular style of film-making. It is a name for a spirit of inquiry that is leading in many different directions. It is cinema expanded to include many different projectors in the showing of one work. It is cinema expanded to include computer-generated images and the electronic manipulation of images on television. It is cinema expanded to the point at which the effect of film may be produced without the use of film at all.
Its work is more spectacular, more technological, and more diverse in form than that of the avant-garde, experimental, underground film so far. But is less personal.
That it was less personal, did not lead to its becoming more social. Though Renan insightfully realized that expansion led to the “film-like,” to the degree that “the effect of film may be produced without the use of film at all,” he failed to develop that thought, and therefore failed to account for the full significance of Vanderbeek’s writings and work. (Renan, 1967, 227) This lesser conception was reinforced in 1970 by Gene Youngblood’s Expanded Cinema, (New York: Dutton, 1970) which referred mainly to the exploration of new technologies for the more conventional methods of exhibiting moving image works and to the formalist experiments of John Whitney, for example, and those related to new age spiritualism, political quietism, and psychedelia of the West Coast counterculture. The other definition of expanded cinema, pursued mainly in England between 1967 and 1980, was described by Malcolm Le Grice. He characterized the European tradition by a concern for bringing the cinematic experience consciously into the space of the spectator through performed action and installation, as concerned only with formalism, and as remaining safely within the context of traditional art and film venues. He simply assimilates in passing both Vanderbeek’s “total visual environment” approach to the Youngblood lineage, and Weibel’s use of the term, to his conception of the European ‘school’ of expanded cinema. (Le Grice, 1977, pp. 121-122.)
We find Renan and LeGrice’s film historical narratives reiterated much more recently by Rosalind Krauss, as part of the art historical account of modernist formalism. Her version is this:
Into this situation [Greenberg’s construction of formalism] there entered the portapak, and its televisual effect was to shatter the modernist dream. In the beginning, as artists began to make video works, they used video as a technologically updated continuation of the mode of address organized by the new attention to the phenomenological, although it was a perverse version of this since the form took was decidedly narcissistic: artists endless talking to themselves. To my knowledge only Serra himself immediately acknowledged that video was in fact television, which means a broadcast medium, one that splinters spatial continuity into remote sites of transmission and receptions.”
Krauss, Voyage to the North Sea, seems to endorse Le Grice’s description of both European and American lineages, with her reference to the “phenomenological;” and, she is completely unaware of Vanderbeek’s approach. Again, a much weaker conception is promulgated as the singular and unprecedented moment which “shatter[ed] the modernist dream.” Krauss cites Richard Serra’s Television Delivers People, 1973, as the particular work to accomplish this. [ ] Its commentary, as Krauss had demonstrated with regard to Serra’s early sculptures (Castings, 1969-91), is strictly limited to formalist aesthetic analysis, still modernist in its “opticality,” while abandoning “…the materialist, purely reductive notion of the medium.” This shift is considered by her, enough to constitute the radical deconstruction of what she doesn’t, but we must, call, medium essentialism. The question that arises here is whether the shift from reductive materialism, to an “expanded” notion of medium performativity, or, performance within the medium that isn’t tied strictly to physical attributes of its materiality, is a sufficient basis on which to lay claims to a “post-media condition.”
This tiresome avant-garde history was reinforced once again at the SCMS 2007 panels on “Cinema by Other Means.”
However, this is not the place to critique Krauss’ essay. Only out of necessity, in the pursuit of the significance of Vanderbeek’s experimentalism, do I raise these issues, in order to point to the places in film and art historical accounts where their historiographic and theoretical limits are revealed, so that, exactly at these loci, Vanderbeek’s work and terms may be recovered and re-inserted into those discourses, so that we may move beyond them, as his work demands. Vanderbeek’s conception, as we have begun to see, was radically different, and constitutes a third, far more radical definition, based on a conception that moved through phases, from computer graphics, to TV, to Planetaria.
[ii] Enzensberger, Hans. “Television and the Politics of Liberation.” Douglas Davis and Alison Simmons (Eds.). The New Television: A Public/Private Art. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1977. 263. Quoted in Chris Hill’s excellent essay, “Attention! Production! Audience!: Performing Video in its First Decade.” Hill, Chris (Ed.). Rewind: Video Art and Alternative Media in the United States 1968-1980. Chicago: Video Data Bank, 1996.
[iii] Kluver, Billy, “”Theater and Engineering – An Experiment: Notes by an Engineer,” Artforum 5.6 (February 1967): 31-32. Collected in Stiles, Kristine and Peter Selz (Eds.). Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996. 412-415.
“Artists and the art community responded enthusiastically to E.A.T. By 1969, given early efforts to attract engineers, the group had over 2,000 artist members as well as 2,000 engineer members willing to work with artists. Expressions of interest and requests for technical assistance came from all over the United States and Canada and from Europe, Japan, South America and elsewhere. People were encouraged to start local E.A.T. groups and about 15 to 20 were formed. ”Langlois Foundation, Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), Archive of published documents, http://www.fondation-langlois.org/html/e/page.php?NumPage=306
[iv] This is made perfectly apparent when contrasted to the practices of telecom labs which exploit artistic knowledge “only” for their own epistemological and economic benefit, which they then sell back to the cultures from which such benefits have been derived, in the form of consumer goods such as Illustrator or Photoshop.