Saturday, January 5, 2008

Intermedia: forty years on and beyond, J. Sage Elwell


Forty years ago artist Dick Higgins coined the term "intermedia" to describe works of art that seemed to "fall between media." (1) Although delimiting concepts are contrary to the spirit of intermedia, two defining features have marked intermedia art since its inception. The first is what Higgins called a "conceptual fusion" of media. The second is an eager appropriation of new technologies. The following will trace intermedia's historical embodiment of these two principles, outlining its performative origins in New York, its experimental development in Iowa, and its surprisingly uncertain future.

Intermedia art fuses traditionally separate artistic media and often incorporates media outside the established parameters of the arts. The self-constituting nature of this fusion precludes the possibility of separating the various media from one another, while simultaneously preserving the integrity of either the constitutive elements or the work itself. For example, in 1962 Elaine Summers presented the film Overture at the first Judson Dance Concert that consisted of an amalgam of 16mm images of W.C. Fields's films and original footage she and John Herbert McDowell shot, fused through the "chance mechanism" of a telephone book. This complete media synthesis is intermedia art.

An equally important feature of intermedia art has been its appropriation of new technologies. Nam June Paik captured this theme when he proclaimed, "as collage technique replaced oil paint, the cathode ray tube will replace the canvas." (2) Because intermedia is by definition an exploration of the new and uncharted, it has never felt bound to a singular tradition that would inhibit the use of media not explicitly recognized as "artistic." The technology revolution of the late twentieth century thus introduced a panoply of provocative new alternatives for exploration. The advent of video recording technology offered a locus for the conceptual fusion at the heart of intermedia's vision by acting as a virtual funnel through which media could be poured, manipulated, and represented. And, as will be seen, video and digital technology played a key role in defining intermedia as it developed.

After Higgins's article appeared, intermedia was often confused with multimedia. In a 1993 interview Higgins sought to clarify the difference between the two by comparing a recording of an opera to a happening. He explained:

Now, if, for example, I play a recording of an opera, what I'm hearing
is the music of the opera, and perhaps the text as well--but I'm not
seeing the mise-en-scene. That means that the opera is a mixed medium.
If on the other hand I go to a Happening or I look at some of Dick
Higgins's theater pieces, there the musical element is really
inseparable from the textual or the visual. (3)

Whereas multimedia highlights the static juxtaposition of media (the music and text of recorded opera), intermedia attends to the fluid dialectic between media (the interplay among the visual, musical, and textual features of a happening). And inasmuch as dialectic entails movement and process, intermedia resists the constraints of final categorical definitions. For this reason the question arises, Does intermedia fail precisely where it succeeds?

In securing a disciplinary place for itself at the table of the arts, intermedia has become its own media. For example, when the fusion of the visual and the textual becomes poesia visiva it teeters on the precipice of becoming a medium itself--a concept in itself, and not a conceptual fusion. Ken Friedman, editor of The Fluxus Reader, observers that, "The most successful intermedia forms will eventually cease to be intermedia. They will develop characteristics of their own ... [and] become established media." (4) For this reason those working "between media" have tended to understand intermedia as a space for, or ingress to, new media convergences rather than a monolithic "movement" or "style." And yet when fusing incongruous media has become the artistic media of choice, and media boundaries have largely been relegated to historical or critical heuristics, is intermedia necessary? In brief, has the success of intermedia's vision made intermedia superfluous? To approach intermedia's uncertain future, we turn to its intrepid past.


By the early 1950s abstract expressionism had fully blossomed in New York. By the late 1950s even its advocates like Harold Rosenberg began to note that the flower appeared to be wilting on the vine. The growing conviction that abstract expressionism had lost its cutting edge was confirmed by the artistic innovations of John Cage. Perhaps more than any other individual, Cage stands as the most significant catalyst of late twentieth-century art. His experiments in music, composition, and performance were the progenitors of concept art, and intermedia art thereby. During the summers of 1948 and 1953 Cage taught at Black Mountain College, the art school-commune in North Carolina. In the summer of 1952 he staged his historic Untitled Event, calling on painters, musicians, dancers, writers, filmmakers, and non-artists alike in a project that would pave the way for happenings, performance art, assemblages, and installations. From the late 1950s to 1960 Cage taught a series of courses on experimental music and performance at New York's New School for Social Research, where he also began to experiment with assembled environments akin to Kurt Schwitters's Merzbau work. Several early concept artists including Higgins, Bertolt Brecht, Allan Kaprow and others attended Cage's classes and it was Kaprow who, by adding time and action to Cage's notion of art-as-environment, would stage the first "official" happening, 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, in 1959.

This disregard for discrete artistic disciplines exhibited by Cage and adopted by Kaprow was concretized in Fluxus. "Founded" by Lithuanian-born American George Maciunas in the early 1960s, Fluxus was a loosely organized group of artists who stressed media openness in works of whimsy, provocation, humor, and critique. Examples of Fluxus-associated works range from happenings, instruction paintings, vocalizations, and theatrical events to musical performances, mock protests, and video work. This atmosphere of media transparency was the soil from which intermedia would grow. As art critic Peter Frank points out, "it is possible, and in fact historically justified, to trace the majority of intermedia activity realized since the early 1960s to Fluxus." (5)

When theatrics were added to static environments artists were liberated from exclusively material mediums and were given direct contact with the spectator. This allowed artists to bypass the system of critics, curators, and dealers affording them greater control over the installation and display of their work. Moreover, this made it possible to create "art-as-idea" instead of "art-as-commodity." However, new problems accompanied these new possibilities; namely, the issue of documentation and preservation. Intermedia artist Hans Breder explains:

[The issue of documentation] is a really big problem. Early on in the
'60s it was about the experience, so it didn't even occur to me to
document. And so several of my major early works are not documented
because I didn't care about it. It was all about the moment and the
experience. (6)

The increasing need for documentation and the Fluxus spirit of media experimentation came together in 1965 with the introduction of Sony's personal video camera, the Portapak. With new technology in hand, the course was set for the "official" arrival of intermedia.

In the early 1960s Paik had been creating sculptural works out of television sets and purportedly created the first work of video art in 1965 when he recorded Pope Paul VI's procession through New York with a Portapak and showed the video that night at a club. Artists quickly moved beyond documentation and began to manipulate the image and turn the video recorder on itself, making video a self-reflexive medium. For example, Peter Campus combined the signals from two Portapaks in an electronic mixer to produce a discordant image in his 1971 work Double Vision; and in her 1972 piece, Organic Honey's Vertical Roll, artist Joan Jonas recorded the playback of pre-recorded material on a television with the vertical hold setting intentionally misadjusted. And yet just as artists were mastering the potential of video recording, digital recording arrived with a host of new possibilities.

In 1946 the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) was constructed at the University of Pennsylvania. Weighing eighty tons, the first digital computer could complete thousands of calculations per second. But it was not until Douglas Engelbart of the Stanford Research Institute introduced the concept of bitmapping and direct manipulation via a mouse that digital technology became generally accessible. In 1983 the Macintosh computer was introduced, and the digital revolution began in full. Since then digital recording and processing has steadily replaced all other visual and audio media. Media arts scholar William Mitchell cites 1989 as the dawn of the "post-photographic era" when the digital began to displace all former technological media in a complete digital convergence. Media theorist Friedrich Kittler describes this convergence: "Once optical fiber networks turn distinct data flows into a standardized series of digitized numbers, any medium can be translated into any other." (7)

The ability to document performance-based concept pieces, the capacity to transform video into a medium itself, the birth of digital technology and the ongoing realization of digital convergence have all combined to yield a media fluidity Kittler dubbed the "post-medium condition." (8) In this post-medium condition everything is a potential medium for artistic creation, including digitization itself. The questionable status of intermedia art in such an age thus returns: When the very concept of isolated media is being replaced by a radical media fluidity, has intermedia become anachronistic?


Born in New York out of Fluxus, named by Higgins, and set in motion with video and digital recording technology, the development of intermedia art then veered roughly one thousand miles west. From New York City to Iowa City, Breder brought intermedia to the heartland.

In 1968 Breder established the Intermedia Program in the School of Art and Art History at the University of Iowa, making it the first program to offer an MFA in intermedia arts. (9) Apprenticed as a painter in Hamburg, Germany, Breder came to New York City in 1964. In New York his minimalist sculptural works such as Cubes on a Striped Surface (1964) received critical praise, and in 1966 the University of Iowa asked him to join the faculty of the School of Art and Art History. When his peers in New York questioned his decision to leave the art mecca for the "breadbasket" of the United States, Breder insisted, "I will bring New York City to Iowa City."

Breder characterizes the atmosphere of the New York he was leaving as one of "flowering new concepts, new media, new forms: Happenings, Pop Art, Op Art, Minimal Art, Concept Art ... to say this was a wildly liberating time in the arts is an enormous understatement." (10) His first major step toward bringing this artistic liberation to Iowa was the creation of the MFA program in Intermedia and Video Arts. (11)

Because the media boundaries traditionally separating the arts were quickly crumbling, Breder realized that the School of Art and Art History had to adjust to avoid being left behind. As such, the Intermedia Program was conceived of as an arena where he and his students could explore the spaces between the arts. According to the program's statement of purpose penned in 1968 by Breder and Ted Perry, the program was designed "to expose the participants to technical and aesthetic considerations of various arts, to provoke creative work and experimentation and to stimulate speculative work on a scholarly, theoretical and aesthetic level." Moreover, because the program was premised on the artificiality of media and disciplinary boundaries, it was established without an "overall intermedia 'style' or philosophy." (12) This rejection of false boundaries created a space for interdisciplinary cross-pollinations as painters, dancers, filmmakers, musicians, poets, and performers collaborated in works ranging from the aural to the tactile.

In the 1970s and 1980s this liminal space expanded beyond the fine arts and into the liberal arts. As rumors about the Intermedia Program spread through the University, faculty members from other departments began to visit Breder's weekly Intermedia Workshop. These visits opened doors to collaborations across academic borders with faculty and students from comparative literature, communication studies, psychology, anthropology, and religious studies. (13)

The Intermedia Program's visiting artist initiative was equally crucial in maintaining and fostering a progressive intermedial environment. The list of artists Iowa has hosted reads like a "Who's Who" of contemporary experimental art. From Robert Wilson, who developed Deafman Glance (1970) while at the University, to Karen Finley, who took Breder for a crank caller when he phoned to invite her to her first university engagement in 1985, the visiting artist program was another way Breder sought to bring New York City to Iowa City. (14)

Breder retired as director of the Intermedia Program at Iowa in 2000. His tenure was iconic of intermedia's development throughout the artworld--reflecting the merging of traditional mediums with one another and with media beyond the fine arts, as well as the continual integration of innovative techniques and new technologies. The legacy he left to the program at Iowa, and the trajectory he continues to set for intermedia art generally, is the ideal of perpetual liminality--to always dwell in between.


But has intermedia become superfluous with the realization of its own ideal? To return to where we began, what is the future of intermedia in an artworld without discrete media to "fall between"--where media fusion has itself become a medium?

It seems there are at least two possible futures for intermedia: either the term "intermedia" must be abandoned as a genre of contemporary art (and accept relegation to the dustbin of art history), in favor of a nomenclature that reflects the present circumstances of media convergence, or alternatively "intermedia" must reclaim the spirit of the term Higgins coined in 1966 and continue to dwell in the liminal by going beyond the exclusive purview of the fine arts and into the borderlands between extra-aesthetic disciplines falsely separating the media of the singular human project.

The first possibility is already occurring. The language of intermedia is being displaced by the language of "new media" as the reality of media convergence is increasingly realized. A trivial yet telling example of this is the name of the visiting artists program launched in 2002 by the Intermedia Program at the University of Iowa: "Intermedia/New Media--A Visiting Artists/Scholars Program." Like intermedia, the language of new media connotes a conceptual fusion of divergent media. However, unlike intermedia, the language of new media escapes the threat of obsolescence posed by ever-encompassing media horizons. That is to say, like the "contemporary," the "new" is always now.

And yet perhaps this nominal adjustment entails a subtle abandonment of the original ethos of intermedia. Ostensibly Higgins coined the term as a way to talk about specific works of art being produced during the late 1950s and early 1960s that fell between media. However, these works and those that would follow stand only as particular embodiments of the idea of intermedia--an idea that began at the dawn of the twentieth century with the ongoing media revolution in the arts, and yet entailed a conceptual sensibility that went beyond the parameters of the arts.

The second possible future for intermedia requires an expansion of its province by drawing on and drawing in extra-artistic fields of inquiry. We often fail to recognize that we are intermedial beings and our seemingly disjointed endeavors and inquiries are merely different appearances of the singular human endeavor to reconcile ourselves to ourselves--to reconcile our materiality and necessity with our consciousness and freedom. And yet our colleges and universities, institutions we've established to further this very project, are cordoned off into discrete disciplines whose territorial walls are fiercely defended. In addition, the fear of dilettantism and the demand for increased specialization have made interdisciplinary (intermedia) work scarce--much to the detriment of the disciplines themselves. The future of intermedia then is perhaps best conceived of as a guiding precept ripe for appropriation and actualization by a new Fluxus collective drawn from art buildings, English departments, business programs, divinity schools, and chemistry labs in a radical new conceptual fusion.

Forty years after Higgins coined the term, the future of intermedia demands that it recover itself in order to advance beyond itself. Intermedia's vision of a conceptual fusion of media is increasingly being realized in the arts, but innumerable extra-aesthetic media await intermedial convergence. As Higgins once said, "Here, our life is largely controlled by people in the university, and until we have departments of the arts in which the visual artist or professor is seated side by side with the poetry professor, it's not very likely that people will get beyond their areas of specialization." (15)

J. SAGE ELWELL is currently completing a dissertation on theology of culture and contemporary art at the University of Iowa.


1. Dick Higgins, "Intermedia," Something Else Newsletter 1, No. 1 (1966), 1.

2. Amy Dempsey, Art in the Modern Era: A Guide to Styles, Schools & Movements (New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc. Publishers, 2002), 257.

3. Nicholas Zurbrugg, ed., "Dick Higgins," Art, Performance, Media: 31 Interviews (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 201.

4. Ken Friedman, "Intermedia: Four Histories, Three Directions, Two Futures," Intermedia: Enacting the Liminal, Hans Breder and Klaus-Peter Busse, eds., (Norderstedt: Dortmunder Schriften zur Kunst, 2005), 53.

5. Peter Frank, "The Arts in Fusion: Intermedia Yesterday and Today," in Breder and Busse, 30.

6. Hans Breder, conversation with the author, January 26, 2006.

7. Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), 2.

8. Ibid.

9. It should be noted that in 1967, one year before the founding of the Intermedia Program at the University of Iowa, Ken Friedman organized a one-time intermedia class at San Francisco State University Experimental College.

10. Hans Breder, "Intermedia: Enacting the Liminal," Performing Arts Journal Vol. 17, No. 2/3, (May-September, 1995), 112.

11. See the accompanying interview with Hans Breder for an account of how the Intermedia Program came to be.

12. See

13. Breder recalls this sense of disciplinary fluidity: "If I had an idea I could call someone up and say, 'Hey, I was thinking about psycho-physiological responses.' And they say, 'Yea, we have a guy here who does experiments.' And I didn't know this, and so I called him up and the next thing you know, I'm over at the Psychology Department making a film." Hans Breder, conversation with the author, January 26, 2006.

14. A sampling of artists visiting between 1969 and 2000: Hans Haake, Allan Kaprow, Robert Wilson, Vito Acconci, Mary Beth Edelson, Nam June Paike, Ben Vautier, Dick Higgins, Nicholas Zurbrugg, Willoughby Sharp, Kenneth Gaburo, Elaine Summers, Phill Nibblock, Dennis Oppenheim, Lucy Lippard, RoseLee Goldberg, Richard Kostelanetz, Ann-Sargent Wooster, Jean Dupuy.

15. Zurbrugg, 204.

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