Saturday, April 3, 2010


BOMB 84/Summer 2003, ART

In the middle of March Marina Abramovic and I sat around in my studio and talked—or riffed, since it was more like making music than talking. We went jumping from subject to subject: the future of objects, falling apart, teachers, picking up threads, audiences, nonattachment. Marina’s voice is breathless. She purrs, rolls a lot of syllables, leaves out articles. Laughs a lot. Talking with her is as intimate as being in a steam room.

I first met Marina in 1977 when she and Ulay, her then partner in art and life, had wedged themselves into a doorway at the entrance to the Galleria Comunale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Bologna during its performance festival. If you wanted to enter the exhibition you had to squeeze between them, pressing against their nude bodies. Each visitor had to choose whether to face him or her. I loved it! To me it was by far the most challenging performance in the exhibition. I hung around the entrance, and after the police put a stop to their piece I got the chance to meet them.

Since then I have seen many of Marina’s performances. In the late ‘70s I ran into Marina and Ulay here and there in Europe on the art circuit. I remember trotting around after them while they drove their car in endless circles in front of a museum in Paris in a 16-hour performance titled Relation in Movement. Around that time Marina and I became friends, and although there were sometimes long gaps between our meetings, we could always quickly reconnect.

I’ve always loved Marina’s sense of adventure. She also has the rare ability to be in the present and to pay perfect attention to her surroundings. In 1980 we spent some time together in the South Pacific on the island of Ponape. We were part of a group of artists—among them John Cage, Chris Burden, Brice Marden, Bryan Hunt and Joan Jonas—invited to make a record there called Word of Mouth. The day we arrived, a shocking thing happened: the island’s first murder. For some reason the local chief invited us to the funeral. Marina and I were the only ones from our group who attended the ceremony, and it was then that I realized we also shared a fascination with death and strange customs, the stranger the better.

Recently I saw the truly transformative House with the Ocean View at Sean Kelly Gallery in New York. The spirituality that has driven much of Marina’s work was now central. Confrontation with the audience no longer had any props. For 12 days she lived in full view on a shelf in the gallery. She showered, drank water, sat on a toilet, brushed her hair, but mostly sat and looked at the people who came to see the show. It was about as direct as it gets. She was fasting for the duration and said later that this increased her sensitivity and connection to the audience. When I went to see her there I had a very powerful wordless encounter. I also was able to experience the passage of time in a unique way—at a tempo somewhere between music and meditation.

The House with the Ocean View reminded me that Marina can actually transform and direct thoughts. She understands and uses the ecstatic. And she creates transformation out of the simplest materials, featuring her own body. An intensely physical person, she combines it with the spiritual in a completely unique way.

Laurie Anderson I’ve been trying to find a picture I took of you floating in the ocean in 1980. It was a beautiful thing.

Marina Abramoviæ Was it the ocean or was I under a waterfall?

LA It was the ocean, with beaches that go slowly down to the water. There is no cliff, so I don’t know how I got up in the air looking down at you. Maybe when I find the photograph you can tell me.

MA Okay, if I can remember. So let’s start with simple questions and then we’ll come to art. When you were a child, did you have some experiences that you can’t explain rationally?

LA I made them up. I tried to invent situations that were irrational, that had never happened before.

MA Such as?

LA A man is walking down the road. A Canadian goose falls right on his head; at the same moment there’s a triple rainbow and the guy has a heart attack.

MA That’s a fantastic image. Have you ever done something with it?

LA Occasionally I use it to snap myself out of trances. What about you?

MA I have very strange dreams now from which I wake up in complete horror. They repeat during different periods of my life. I can’t explain them. They have something to do with the disturbance of an order that is not supposed to be disturbed. I come from a military family—maybe that’s why I have these sorts of dreams. I have one where I’m in front of a huge army of five thousand soldiers in perfectly pressed uniforms. I’m inspecting them, and I go up to every soldier and take one button from each uniform and throw it away. I destroy the symmetry, and that is not allowed. Then I wake up in a panic.

LA It’s interesting that you use symmetry as an example of order, because to me symmetry is both dangerous and dull. It’s rhyming pictures. Maybe it’s because the two sides of our brains need things to match. In your dream, did you take a different button from each person?

MA No, always the same.

LA So weren’t you creating just another orderly situation?

MA (laughter) The thing is, I’m interested in this idea that we organize everything and then at the last minute, everything changes, takes a different turn. I like that so much. I learned about that from the Tibetans.

LA Remember the mandala the monks created in the Museum of Natural History in the late ‘80s? It took them six weeks to make it, dropping the colored sand grain by grain. I was there when two kids came by and scuffed the whole thing up.

MA And then?

LA The monks laughed.

MA Of course.

LA Because it’s about changing. It didn’t matter how much work they had put into it—they were going to destroy it in the end anyway.

MA To me this is so fascinating about the Tibetans. Did I ever tell you the story about the pyramid? The Dalai Lama wanted to have a concert, with sacred music from the five different Buddhist traditions around the world, all on one stage, singing one song, which had never happened before. It was to take place in the music center in Bangalore, in southern India. They do this deep chanting. It’s fantastic. I was invited to choreograph them. So I went to the monastery with a megaphone. There were 106 monks.

LA When was this?

MA This was exactly four years ago. So I was thinking that the form could be a human pyramid. It took five weeks to build these steps of wood on wheels—it had to roll on and off the stage, and they had one minute and 10 seconds to get all 106 monks standing in position onstage. We had to rehearse a lot; they weren’t used to this kind of stage presence. And when it was finished—I had been in the monastery for more than a month—the chief monk came and said, “It’s so nice, but we can’t use this pyramid.” And I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “Because in the Buddhist tradition there is no hierarchy.”

LA I was wondering who would be on top.

MA You know, I couldn’t understand how they could let me work all this time, every single day, for five weeks and not tell me it wouldn’t do. They told me that they hadn’t wanted to offend me. I was crying. And they said this simple thing: “Let it go.” Then at the concert they sat anywhere they wanted to and sang and it was perfect.

In the performance you have to be in control. Maria Callas once said, “When you perform, half of the brain has to be in complete control and the other half of the brain has to be at a complete loss.” That is the essence of what I want to say. You have to balance these two. How is it with you when you perform?

LA Exactly the same. But let’s talk about the audience for a minute. How do you see the audience? When I was working with actors I learned about the audience through them. They would ask about the motivations of their characters and this really drove me crazy. I kept thinking of that great series of essays called “True and False” that David Mamet wrote about talking to actors. He said that directors should just tell the actors to speak loudly and clearly and forget about their motivations, forget about their “pasts.” They don’t have any pasts! Anyway, there was one actor I was working with who kept asking me, “Who are you when you perform? Who is your audience?” And I kept saying, “I don’t know, I don’t know.” Then I realized—I had never put this into words before because it seemed too stupid—I’m talking to a sadder version of myself, sitting in the middle of the theater. I’m trying to cheer her up, or say something inspiring or funny or sad. That sounds narcissistic, but I don’t know who other people are, and I don’t like it when they assume they know who I am. It’s a very tricky thing when you’re giving somebody something; how open are you to them and how open are they to you?

MA It’s such an important question, because the relation to the audience is the essence of performance. In my case, the need to be completely open and vulnerable, to give everything I can, 100 percent, is extremely strong. Every single person in the audience is important. I don’t have this kind of feeling in real life, but in performance I have this enormous love, this heart that literally hurts me with how much I love them. In the last performance, when I lived for 12 days, totally exposed, in the Sean Kelly Gallery, almost nothing happened. But just being there, with this openness—there is just skin and bones; there’s nothing else but being there for them. I was there to be projected on. The whole thing has to be almost an invisible exchange. You asked what the connection was like in that performance. I really looked at the people in the gallery. To me the eyes are a door for something else, and whatever is happening in their lives, I pick it up. You can’t imagine how much I cried in that piece. This sadness comes because they project their own sadness onto me and I reflect it back. And I cry out in the saddest way, so they are free. People would come like drunks—instead of a shot of vodka they came to have a shot of this connection with the eyes. They came in the morning; at quarter to nine they were there waiting, in business suits. The gallery would open at nine, and they would come in, look at me for 20 minutes and go away. A lot of them told me later that they are not even connected to art. I was thinking that people usually don’t look at them in this intimate way, so maybe they just needed to be looked at in that way before going to work.

LA It reminds me how much of a defense language is. And how distancing it is—it’s called communicating, but often it’s not. Sometimes it’s just these clever things that we set up, and often they actually get in the way of what we mean.

MA But it’s different when you have dialogue. In performance, it’s a monologue, and in this monologue you create so many spaces that we can project onto, so many images, one after another. What’s also special is that the sound of the voice will create certain vibrations. Sometimes it’s not even the word but the space in between the words, a long pause that works magic. A monologue becomes something beyond language; it becomes so strong. The moment it becomes a conversation, I think, we try to be clever, we try to construct things, and then everything falls apart again. But with the monologue, emotions come in a different way. There are two people whose voices that I can listen to for a long time, you and Acconci.

LA Oh, Vito!

MA It has to do with the vibration. You have to be in a certain state to have such a vibration. You can’t just learn it. In performance you get into the state of mind that generates that voice. With Vito it was in his home movies, when he was alone, with just the camera. I think he is shy in public.

LA I wrote a film script once, just for fun, when I was stuck at an airport. Vito was the star. For the first 15 minutes you see him from the back.

MA The script was written for Vito?

LA Yeah, it was one of those art films. I was writing stuff for him to say. He’s so mysterious. He is very open, but I feel like he is always turning away.

MA That’s very funny, because I also have Vito in one of my scripts. Tell me about yours, and I’ll tell you about mine.

LA Mine was a mystery story, Neuewelt 2000, about a European performance festival that was happening on a train going through the former East Germany. The promoter of this festival was a toy-train fanatic named Rolf. It was going to star Vito and Arto Lindsay. I made up other characters, performance artists who were also on the train. A very pale brother and sister from Norway who sing Nordic folk songs together. Michel Waisvisz had a role in it too.

MA But what was Vito doing? It sounds very mysterious, to see him only from the back.

LA Well, Rolf—Vito—couldn’t get a ticket to fly directly from New York because of the East German government. So he had to be routed through Cuba and then through Poland and then take a train into East Germany. It ends almost like Rolf’s toy-train fetish—with Vito on a train that was literally going nowhere—like in a loop around a Christmas tree, a child’s toy train that won’t stop. Vito’s going through the renamed towns of the former East Germany and they can’t be found on the map anymore because of their new names. He has no idea where he is. He is getting more and more lost.

MA My story is a Beckett short story that was not meant to be a play, called Mal Vi/Mal Di (Bad Seen/Bad Said). The story is about an old woman—I would play her—sitting on a chair in a completely empty space. There is a little window and a ray of light coming in just in front of her feet, but not touching them. In Beckett stories, a monologue goes on in the character’s head and as a consequence, in your head, constantly. She is thinking about things; it’s words and words and words. She wants to stand up, to take the chair and put it in front of the light and sit again, so that the sunlight will reach her. This takes about 45 minutes because she is very old and very sick and can’t walk. And all this time she is talking of what’s in her head, about her life, past and future, and old conflicts. She takes the chair very slowly, very slowly, very slowly away and she is lifting the chair, almost putting it in the sun, when she changes her mind and takes another 45 minutes to go back. I wanted to play this woman, but I wanted the voice in my head to be Vito’s voice. I like this idea very much.

LA Why don’t you do that? It’s a great idea.

MA I’ve never done it.

LA So do it!

When you talk to yourself, do you hear a voice or do you just think thoughts?

MA I think it’s a voice.

LA What does it sound like? Is it like, “You should really go get that done.” Or “I’m running out of time, I should get a cab.” Does it have a texture or a sound? I’m using accusatory examples because my voice, when I hear it, is always nagging me.

MA I don’t hear much of my voice. I heard it clearly after I didn’t talk for 12 days, when I came down from The House with the Ocean View and gave a talk for the public. This was the first time I really heard my voice clearly, and it was so strange to me because I had this distance from it, and could really hear it.

Tell me, is it important for you to go to some geographical place—I call them power places—where you feel there is a certain energy you can use? Volcanoes, waterfalls, the sea—

LA They don’t have to be dramatic, but one place that I really enjoyed going to a few weeks ago was Green Gulch in California. It’s a monastery with a group of artists, people from museums and places like that, who have an interest in Buddhism. I was giving a paper called “Time and Beauty.” A modest title. I wrote it when I was in Athens. It keeps going back to belief and beauty and aesthetics.

MA I find that beauty hurts.

LA For me sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. One of my favorite baffling quotes comes from Lenin: “Ethics is the aesthetics of the future.” I guess it means that sometime in the future we’ll all be good to each other and communicate so clearly that we won’t need those things that we put in the beauty category. They’ll just be fetishes, relics. In my paper I talked about how belief and beauty rub up against each other to make something, and how uneasily they rest together. I used the Parthenon as an example. When the Parthenon was a place of worship, everybody brought their beautiful statues to dedicate to the gods, their kouri, to celebrate their victories, their dedications and their prayers. They propped them up all around the Parthenon, which quickly came to look like a museum, there was so much stuff there. So they all went back to the caves and the woods and the rivers where they could find the gods, because they couldn’t find them in the Parthenon anymore.

MA You know, there was a very interesting breakfast in the ‘70s, which a friend of mine, Lutz Becker, invited me to. This old man was sitting there, and I didn’t realize for half of the breakfast that he was Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect. He was just out of prison and he was helping with the maquettes for a movie about Hitler that Lutz was making, called Double Headed Eagle.

LA Lots of symmetry in that, by the way.

MA And I asked Speer a question: “Why did you use concrete for all those buildings?” I’ll never forget his answer. He said, “When they get destroyed, they still look good.” The concrete collapse looks better than bricks: there is more momentum; they fall into big pieces. That an architect, who builds his stuff for forever, was thinking of destruction as part of the process! The other funny thing about worshipping—I was in Thailand, in one of their fantastic old temples where you can go outside and buy a little piece of gold leaf to put on a sculpture. I was looking through this huge place, and in a dusty corner was a big fuse box with all the electrical wires, which somebody had covered in gold leaf. I loved the idea of worshipping electricity as a mystery. And why not?

LA I wonder what happens with gold and copper—you know, as a conductor.

MA The fuse box didn’t work—it was broken.

Laurie, what is emptiness for you? That’s such a heavy word.

LA To me it’s an ecstatic term. Emptiness is as ecstatic as I can imagine being. Emptiness to me is expansive. And I don’t have to be there. I can’t exist in it. I like imagining places where I don’t exist.

MA I don’t. (laughter) But at the same time, like with Buddhism—

LA Do you have a practice?

MA I am unable to do anything regularly. I always do things as part of a project. If I have in my mind that I have to do something, then I generate an enormous discipline and willpower and I get into the space I have to enter to make the performance. But it is impossible for me to do something like wake up every morning at six to run, as people do. I like to make rules and change them all the time. Even when I buy the milk in Amsterdam, I find new ways to go around the canal. The idea of habits, of discipline—there is something within me that can’t function that way.

LA That’s a wonderful thing, to do it differently every time.

MA I like unpredictability. I tell my students, “Go to the train and don’t look to see where it’s going, just sit inside and find yourself in a new situation, and then from this situation see what’s going to happen.” Put yourself in unpredictable situations. If it is not a possibility in life, then I try to do it in performance. I set up rules and I have no idea how difficult this will be or how I will manage, but then it happens. When you make a performance, do you know exactly how it is going to happen? Or is it always open?

LA Oh, it’s always open. The last performance I did, Happiness, was about expectation. I had gotten bored with my own style, my way of doing things. I was just experiencing what I expected. So I put myself in situations in which I didn’t know what to do, what to say or how to act, just to see what would happen. But you know, no matter how hard you try to escape your style, it still looks an awful lot like what you’ve made before. That’s okay, I guess, that there are threads going through everything.

MA It is so difficult to change. Radical change can only happen with some kind of tragedy that totally shakes your life. The only changes I can expect are from my own performance. I don’t learn in life otherwise.

LA Who are your teachers?

MA Not really anybody. I don’t see it that way. There was only one person in my life who I thought could be my teacher, but he died. Just when I found him, he died.

LA Who was this?

MA This was in ‘82 in Bodhgaya, a pilgrimage site, with the Bohdi tree. I arrived on a full-moon night. It was the most auspicious moment. And they said to me, in our town is a very important Lama who is the teacher of the Dalai Lama. I didn’t know at the time anything of Buddhism, nothing. I went because everybody was going to see this special teacher. He was sitting in a Tibetan monastery. He looked like the full moon, a big baby, with a wonderfully shiny bald head, aged somewhere between 80 and 100. You couldn’t tell. And I went to greet him, and he took his little finger and just flicked his finger at my head. And that was it. I looked into his eyes and then I went back to sit. Five minutes later I had a temperature of 102. I was red like a strawberry. I started crying and crying and I had to leave the monastery. I cried for about four hours, just enormously. And I was thinking, Why am I crying? Nothing happened to me; I am not sad. I was just touched by his innocence in the way of the old man and the child at the same time. Something opened to me. If he had told me to jump out the window, I would have done it. I had never felt this before, what must be close to how one feels about a great teacher, the ideal of complete trust. And then one month later he died.

But then I found him again. It was three years later, I was going again to India, to another monastery for a retreat. And in the forest I lost the way and found myself in front of a house, with an old Lama sitting outside washing some dishes. It was dark, and he said, “Come in, come in, have a tea.” I went into the room and there he was, embalmed this time. He was sitting in the room, embalmed in salt. Now he is in the Dalai Lama’s living room in Dharmsala. His name is Ling Rinpoche. The Dalai Lama wanted to have him all to himself.

LA In salt? Can you see him?

MA They put him in a special preparation and he looks completely alive. He’s dressed and sitting; monks die in a sitting position. It was incredible. This is exactly what we have to do, it is so important, losing roads, it’s how you find something else. When I was a really young artist, I was getting ideas for different works. And I was thinking, God, how should I do this, this has nothing to do with what I’ve done before. I don’t see any line, there is no continuation. I was obsessed with the idea of continuation, that one work had to lead to another and another, that you have to make a body of work. But after 20 years you see that the continuation is so logical. You couldn’t have done anything else, and there is a thread in it, everything is connected. We are the connections.

LA Can you imagine being embalmed and sitting in somebody’s house?

MA I like it so much. I am all for this eternity. I’d hate to be burned. I wouldn’t like to be eaten by worms. Maybe a tree can grow out of me. That’s it. But embalming is a very nice idea. I like this forever thing. You?

LA I would like to be burned. (laughter)

MA So this is a big difference!

LA I don’t like the idea of flames so much as particles. I’d like to become many, many particles.

MA I want to live a very long time. This is my obsession. I want to live to be over 100. My grandmother died at 103 and the mother of my grandmother was 116 when she died. I have this idea that after 100 something else happens. When we are young and even now, though I am not that young, there is this idea of emotions and always some kind of suffering involved. I’d like so much to reach the point of nonattachment, of nonsuffering, when you really know things are happening because they have already happened to you hundreds of times before. You can laugh about it all. To have this wisdom and distance and peace!

LA How do you think you can get there?

MA Oh—lots of goat yogurt!

LA (laughter) I mean to detachment?

MA You don’t take things personally. Even if you love someone, you let them be. And if they leave you, still you love them, because attachment creates such a suffering. This is basic.

LA Buddhism 101.

MA Theoretically we can deal with it, but when it comes to your own life, it is so hurtful. Attachment in my case is always about people. I really don’t care about things. I can leave them, change them.

LA You had a partner-lover and art collaborator in Ulay. Have you seen him since you split up 10 years ago?

MA Yes, for seven years we didn’t talk at all, not one word, and then I decided that I’d invite his wife and kids over, give them all presents and lunch. We did that, and it’s fine now.

LA Where does he live?

MA He lives in Amsterdam. He invites me over sometimes, grills a little steak for me, but there is still a lot of pain from my side. It didn’t really finish well. When he left he took all the artwork we did together. I had to buy back from him old negatives, images, everything.

LA You had to buy things back from him?

MA Yes. Actually, I’m still paying. (laughter)

LA Why did he decide that he owned what you had done together?

MA It was very difficult. I found out so many things. Like he was being unfaithful at a time when I thought we were happy. I don’t know, I got disappointed. And now I haven’t talked to my brother for the last two years. After the bombing of Belgrade he came and stayed with me in Amsterdam for two years. So many things happened, it’s complicated, but for him, not talking to me is not having to admit his failure to stay in the Western world. He has completely another state of mind. It is so difficult for him to function in this world.

LA Why is that?

MA In the Balkans, the relation of the mother to the son is very different from that to the female child. Female children have to work. The male will stay home and the mother does everything for him—she irons his shirts, cooks for him, for all his life. When my brother came to Amsterdam, it didn’t even cross his mind that he could do something. For two years he was watching CNN, complaining about Yugoslavia, writing his philosophical text and complaining that I work too much. His little daughter went to school in Amsterdam, and I took care of both of them for two years. I’d had it.

LA And where’s his wife?

MA She was in Belgrade. She is the director of the Nikola Tesla Museum there, Marija Sesic. She showed me the guest book, with your signature.

LA I was very proud to be there.

MA They are trying to rebuild the museum. I told them, “Please don’t, it’s so good as it is.”

LA It makes a good ruin.

MA They should really not do anything. It’s old and it’s falling apart. But it has a special feeling about it. Oh, by the way, she was asking if you or I have any idea, before they rebuild, if we want to do something there.

LA Great!

MA Any of this experimental work, she can make it possible.

LA How about if you sit in a chair reading a book, waiting for the ray of electricity to shoot out from the Tesla Coil. With the Vito Acconci voice. We could combine the whole thing.

MA But then you have to do something. What do you do?

LA Um…I can make the shoes that will protect you from being electrocuted. (laughter) You’d have to trust me.

MA We could put Vito somewhere else. What if we use your voice, and I’m sitting there.

LA That would be great! Wouldn’t it be fun to do something together!

MA The Nikola Tesla Museum would be fantastic.

LA Tesla died in New York, I think on 23rd Street; there’s no marker though.

MA There’s a Tesla Society in New York. Marija showed me all of Tesla’s clothes, a complete wardrobe. He was such a dandy—he wore all these wonderful old suits, crocodile shoes and things like that.

LA Maybe we could just borrow some of his suits.

MA And walk around pretending to be Tesla! (laughter) That could really be something. You know, I’m supposed to have quite a big show in 2005, in Belgrade.

LA It’s the perfect opportunity then.

MA Why do you like Tesla? Because I love him.

LA He wanted to plug into the ground. Free electricity for all. He really believed that would work. Anybody who thinks that, I want to be his disciple.

MA He had mental pictures of his inventions. He was so sure they would work that he didn’t need to try them.

LA I love confidence.

MA And they said he was an alien. And he was in love with a pigeon, a female pigeon. This was his love affair. When the pigeon died, she released some strange sort of light from her eyes, in front of him.

What kind of image could we use for our piece?

LA How about the picture of you floating, if I can find it. And maybe a picture of Tesla? And one of Vito?

MA Where is that image of you standing on an ice cube? It’s one of my favorites—it’s like the beginning of everything. You have the image of ice, which is water. And I have the image of floating, which is water. Then we have the image of Tesla, which is electricity. We are fine.

LA Perfect. Fire and water.

above copied fro:

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Expanded Cinema and Narrative, Jackie Hatfield

Some Reasons for a Review of the Avant-Garde Debates Around Narrativity

Printed in MFJ No. 39/40 (Winter 2003) Hidden Currents

In the second half of the twentieth century the history and theory of experimental film and video was written with a bias towards modernist material concerns stemming from Clement Greenberg’s modernist position and material specific ideas. Similar to other art forms, a schematized formal history has been predominant, with rules laid down in various texts about which artists followed whom. Although it is not materially film or video, I aim here to discuss how interactive moving image practice and its ancestors, expanded cinema, media and performance, have been excluded from the main theoretical arguments that have shaped the histories of experimental film and video. Of course, I acknowledge the historical writings that are pluralistic and celebrate hybridity, for example Gene Youngblood’s Expanded Cinema and Douglas Davis’ Art and the Future, but they are few and far between. Here I am concentrating on the canonical arguments laid down by historians and film theoreticians and why I think they are problematic to future experimentation. Furthermore, I am arguing that the historical uncertainties around the relationship between narrative and the avant-garde have created a reductive climate for experimentation with narrativity. I am concerned with charting the avant-garde that has been multi-screen, narrative, pro-illusion and pro-representation, since expanded cinema and interactive cinema have often been an exploration of all of these elements. I will outline the supposed lineages that have been used to categorize experimental film and video, and why I believe that these ideological positions must be reviewed in the light of current interactive practice, but also in relation to experimental cinema as a whole. The bottom line is that I am against categorizations and lineages that have become institutional, and which have been taken up by curators or funding bodies where they are used to corral individual artists’ work into groupings, and inevitably serve to write artists in and out of history. My position is an artists reaction - no, a manifesto- against conservative positions in a quest for expanded cinema to be given its rightful status, a central position within experimental film and video history. Artists have often struggled against the institutional or the state funded and yes, theoretical and historical texts around practice do affect artists, who need validation and acknowledgement of their work.
Importantly, what needs to be recognized is that in practice experimental film and video, rather than drawing purely from the anti-narrative driven avant-garde, have also derived from the narrative traditions of intermedia and mechanistic invention in primitive film. Though not included in the canonical histories, narrative has been a central aspect of cinematic experimentation often in relation to interactive, expanded, performative and importantly, technological experimentation. For example the highly regarded and seminal volume of P. Adams Sitney’s Visionary Film was written with a bias towards single-screen work, and while I accept that there are narrative dimensions to Anger, Deren, Brakhage, Warhol and Markopoulos who are part of the American canon, it is largely the definition of narrative that I take issue with and the uncertainties about the real intricacies of narrativity. The general tone within avant-garde debates has been that artists were against narrative continuity and conventional cause and effect structures, and the focus has been on work that that can be interpreted as anti-narrative or "liberated" 1 from the "demands of narrative continuity" 2 . This position can be seen more clearly within the British texts, stemming from the structural materialists and epitomized by Peter Gidal’s influential book Structural Materialist Film (1989). On the other hand while the theories have been preoccupied with the anti-narrative stance, artists have often been both pro- and anti-narrative. For example, omitted from the canonical histories were the experiments with expanded cinema, narrative and performance that took place within the movements of Futurism, Dada, Bauhaus, at the Black Mountain College, with the Fluxus group and crucially the art and technology experiments in the 60s and 70s, epitomized by the pioneering activity of the engineer Billy Klüver and E.A.T. at "Nine Evenings: Theatre and Engineering" in New York in 1966.
It was through discussion with my students and with film and video artists that I realized that the seminal single screen based histories laid down by only a few people were in fact acting to define the whole sector for future generations. There are notable exceptions, for example Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, which has been widely acknowledged, but there is a difference between this kind of double screen formation and expanded work where the screens are part of a space, i.e. where the proscenium arch is removed. There are few contexts where artists can experiment with and be innovators of technology and cinema, I believe it needs a concerted effort by institutions and funding bodies to be aware of the history of artists’ endeavors in this area, but more importantly, to support them. I suggest that these two questions be addressed:
What is cinema if it is not film? And what is the history and status of interactive expanded cinema, technological invention, and narrative experimentation within the history and theory of the experimental avant-garde?
Although cinema‚ in itself, is synonymous with spectacle, vaudeville, theatre, circus, performance, narrative, and audience; structuralist filmmakers and conceptual artists of the 1960s and 1970s took a position that was anti-illusion, and the critique and theory around film and video created a modernist-oriented climate for the practice. Artists’ use of video in the early 1960s also initiated debate to determine how film was different from video, and vice versa. Artists and theorists alike were establishing characteristics that were specific to the mediums, much in the same way that Greenberg had defined the "flatness" of a painting as being "the only condition painting shared with no other art." 3 There were a number of key texts by artists that categorized experimental film around its material specificity; these have included, for example, Peter Gidal’s Structural Materialist Film (1989), The Structural Film Anthology (1976), Hans Richter’s The Struggle for Film(1986), and Malcolm LeGrice’s Abstract Film and Beyond(1977). Similarly, in the 1970s there were concerns with video’s intrinsic qualities. For instance, one of video’s distinct characteristics was seen to be its relationship to television. Frank Gillette wrote, "What I’m consciously involved in is devising a way that is structurally intrinsic to television. For example, what makes it not film?" 4 A review of articles such as David Antin’s "Video: the Distinctive Features of the Medium," David Hall’s "British Video Art: Towards an Autonomous Practice" and the catalogue of "The Video Show" at the Serpentine Gallery in 1975 suggest an atmosphere late modernist in tone. Hall has argued that artists were "constructing alternative frameworks and procedures out of the prevailing climate," 5 and that in retrospect the early work was more conceptual than formal. Nevertheless in the UK there were two distinct material specific histories forming around film and video practice of the 1970s that were institutionalized around the London Filmmakers Coop and London Video Arts. Although in the last few years there has been a convergence of these technologies, the material status of film in relation to video and other forms continues to be debated by those who are in love with film as film. The historical lines of demarcation between film and video are problematic, as any preoccupation with filmic-ness located in the material is missing the point. For example, I would prefer to use the term cinematic to describe what I do as an artist. I do not use film, but I do make cinema -- it moves, it is composed of moving images. Bill Viola makes cinematic work, although working electronically; Chris Hales, Malcolm LeGrice and Grahame Weinbren make cinematic work although working electronically and digitally. The formal distinctions with their intrinsic qualities became edifices in the UK for practice and distribution but they were a myth.
As well as the material distinctions insisted on through the 60s, 70s and 80s, there were some influential texts that sought to define experimental film and video further, and it is these conceptual bases that have since become dogma that need to be re-addressed alongside the resulting political outcome. To consider this relative to its historical context, it is important to say that in London David Curtis, Malcolm Le Grice and Peter Wollen were seeking to give film status within fine art practice at the time, and clearly it was their endeavors that were extremely influential on the setting up of the agencies to fund experimental filmmaking. The position developed by these men and their colleagues have had enormous influence on the funding practices of the public agencies of the British Film Institute and the Arts Council of Great Britain (now the Arts Council of England), neither of which function anymore as providers of funding specifically for artists moving image. In "The Two-Avant Gardesâ" published in Studio International 1975, Peter Wollen argued for specific distinctions in avant-garde practices. He established a lineage from abstract painting for what he called the first avant-garde, which he defined by the absence of verbal language and narrative. The second avant-garde remained within the bounds of narrative cinema. He claimed that divisions could be made along the lines of "aesthetic assumptions, institutional framework, type of financial support, type of critical backing, historical and cultural origin," 6 and the institutional and, furthermore, regional frameworks that Wollen referred to were the New York and London Filmmakers Co-ops. Wollen argued that to be included within the first avant-garde the work had to be non-narrative and anti-illusionist, and there were no anomalies to his clear line of demarcation extending through history. Furthermore the work he argued must also have been made, distributed, critiqued or funded within or around the London or New York Filmmakers Coops, and stated that "New York is clearly thecapital of the Co-op movement." 7 So to give an example of how this might have worked, an artist in Scotland or Ireland would have had to distribute their non-narrative work from the London or New York Filmmakers Coop to be considered part of Wollen’s first avant-garde, and be funded by one of the public agencies. Consequently the formal arguments and ideological politics affected practice, either through access to the technology or the distribution network, or through validation by the peer group through funding channels. Wollen’s reviews of experimental film would not have been so problematic for the continuation of avant-garde film and video practice if they had not been used as indicators for what was avant-garde and what was not.
A further influential essay of its time was Peter Gidal’s 1976 "Theory and Definition of Structural/Materialist Film."’ Here Gidal stated that "an avant-garde film defined by its development towards increased materialism and materialist function does not represent, or document, anything." 8 At the time he was almost puritanical in his arguments for a continual attempt to destroy illusionism in his drive to validate film as film. Again, GidalÕs position was representative of ideas that characterized avant-garde film debates in the late 1960s and 1970s. As well as artists’ various approaches to narrative, the history of multiple projection environments, including performance, challenged theorist’s assumptions about the anti-illusionism and anti-narrativity of the avant-garde. After all, what is narrative? There are contradictions as it can be argued that narrative exists as soon as there is a representational image or as soon as there is a subject present. So for example when we see a performance as part of a screening, or when we experience expanded cinema, the bodies of the performer or audience are physically present as living embodiments of their narrative histories, we come from a narrative place. My point is that the definition of opposition to narrative has never been resolved; the lines of demarcation never quite clear.
As I have suggested, the categorizations of Wollen and the general tone epitomized by Gidal around narrativity were not reflected so literally in the actual work of artists either in the UK or US. Artists who gravitated towards film from performance, theatre and dance aimed to expand the theatre stage from the proscenium arch out towards the audience to create happenings or situations that included them as part of the event. For example, in 1958 the ONCE group from Ann Arbor Michigan used environmental projection with performance to "free film from its flat frontal orientation." 9 In 1965, Robert Whitman made Prune Flat, a synchronized projection and performance, and Aldo Tambellini used multiple projections to create electromedia environments. In 1967 Carolee Schneeman staged active performance-oriented cinematic spectacles such as Night Crawlers and Snows, and in 1969 John Cage and Ronald Nameth presented HPSCHD, a multi-media extravaganza that included one hundred films. In the late 1960s the group set up by Robert Rauschenberg and the engineer Billy KlŸver, Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT), staged interactive installations extending the potentiality of art towards an inclusive experience for the viewer, incorporating technological experimentation as part of the event. As one of the works in Nine Evenings of ‘66, Oyvind Fahlstrom’s Kisses Sweeter Than Wine was an extraordinary artwork incorporating technological, synaesthetic, narrative, and performative experimentation. 10
In the UK expanded work was becoming publicly quite visible and some of the uncertainties around narrativity were being aired. In the 1970s, artists like Anabel Nicolson described her work in progress "the wooden camera and projector will also be used as elements in a situation where viewers and performers/film stars will be the sameâ" 11 and Malcolm LeGrice, were incorporating performance with film and also questioning the boundaries between audience and artwork. In Reel Time (1973) Nicolson famously performed with a sewing machine and projector and projected film of a sewing machine in operation, which was simultaneously sewn into a real sewing machine. 12 At the important show "Perspectives on British Avant-Garde Film" in 1977 at the Hayward Gallery there was a great variety of filmmaking reflected in the films from the period 1967-77. Although much of the work played with narrative, performance, and audience expectation and was placed in various other categories, the sections "The Avant-Garde and Narrative" and "Deconstructed Narrative" acknowledged some of the ambiguities around narrativity. In addition, the commentary in the catalogue, the many discussions, as well as the work itself, reflected the real diversity in the artists’ approaches to performance, narrative, and the screen space. The exhibition included expanded cinema, and performance-oriented (i.e., audience or artist), and narrative work (in the widest sense). There was performance based work by Stuart Brisley (Arbeit Macht Frei 77), and Jeff Keen’s (White Dust), which was collage, imagistic, narrative, and performative, and which Tony Rayns described in the catalogue as "an homage to vintage movie serials, a form with very specific, very idiosyncratic narrative conventions [that] can only be described as collage narrative." 13 In relation to the theoretical debates of the time Keen’s multi-layered, multi-screened, projections on projections could be described as pro narrative and representational, and not at all anti-narrative. Sensorial and expanded, Ray Day Film, absorbed the viewer into Keen’s interpretation of kitsch horror and Americanized comic book narratives. Also there was Marilyn Halford’s work, frequently performative, including New Sketchesand Ten Green Bottleswhich was by Deke Dusinberre’s account from the show catalogue an interactive film where the audience "assume that participatory role by playing a child’s game," 14 and described her films as "simple, subversive and wryly humorous; in addition they explore those aesthetic issues which inform all of British avant-garde film-making." 15 Work by Halford included Hands Knees and Boomsa-Daisy (1973) which Halford described as "gaming with a screen image of myself," 16 Footsteps (1974) described as a "game in the making," 17 between the camera and actor, about which Halford said "I am interested in the relationship of theatrical devices in film working at tangents with its abstract visual qualities" 18 and for Rehearsals (1976) "my interests are in the theatrical devices and repeated movement between actors through rehearsalsâ and to present them theatrically." 19 In video terms, expanded work of the late 70s, tended to be modernist in tone, with a focus on time, space and television, but shows like "The Video Showâ" at the Serpentine Gallery in 1975 showcased all kinds of video, including expanded, interactive, representational and cinematic, e.g. Valie Export’s Space Hearing and Space Seeingâ Tamara Krikorian’s Breeze, and Hermine Freed’s Art Herstory.
What I’m trying to demonstrate by listing just some of these works is that despite the modernist thrust of the writing with an emphasis on the lineage of purist and non-imagistic anti-narrative practice, what actually went on was totally different. Rather than this history being weighted towards anti-narrative, the reality has been that, beginning with the Futurists and the Surrealists, through to Fluxus, and to date, artists have played around with narrative rather than being predominantly against it. In actual fact the history of artists’ experimentation with narrativity, representation, interactivity and technology as part of the experimental avant-garde, is un-accounted for and unwritten. Therefore, looking at the work retrospectively the extraordinary and imagistic, textural and sensuous works of LeGrice and Nicolson, seem to bear no relationship to the dry formalist climate around them. Nicolson’s Slides (1970) was lyrical and physical, layered and colorful, teasing the viewer into looking for representation within the filmic-ness. She shows us the process, we see the slippage of the film through the gate, the sprocket holes and the material flicker. We get glimpses of a figure. We are waiting for these fragments to re-appear and are conscious of film’s capacity to record a representation relative to the artist’s action in manipulating the film as a painterly event. Threshold(1972) by LeGrice is a three-screen work including performance, where the artist changes the configuration of the screens by moving the projectors around. This piece is vibrant in color, and imagistic, sumptuous and beautiful. The sound is fragmented, and edited like the image and color into tonal rhythms and cadences. There is representation, and reference to the external world, and it is processed and layered, drawing us in. This work is not about the absence of representation, but the richness of it when it finally appears. Rainbow colors, layers and movement, are pieced together, a rich tapestry of image and sound, figures become shapes and multiply into crowds. It is a work that speaks of the artist and of the process but also the representational and narrative world, and performed live, this work is a physical meeting of artwork, artist and audience. And also with Footsteps (1974), Marilyn Halford toys with the viewer’s expectation of cinema and their place in relation to the screen and the camera. The opening shots are in negative, the figure, a woman, turns to look at the camera, and we seem to be creeping up on her. We ask, who is behind the camera? The figure turns away, then we get nearer, and we realize that we are implicated in a game of statues with the woman. There isn’t any montage, just a cut and a second section, which is the same as the first, but positive this time, with music added. We are reminded of the silent films, ‘primitive’ cinema, games and early American movies. The film is processed to look ‘old’, dragged through dust and grained to appear ancient and crackly. So while these works are structural and formal they are also narrative, they reference cinema, film, and representation, and ask us to question them relative to that.
Although an important and much welcome history of single screen film and video, the tone of the anti-narrative stance has been reiterated more recently in A History of Experimental Film and Video (1999) by Al Rees. I don’t want to be too critical of Rees, since he is the only person lately who has attempted to write an historical overview of the sector, and he is dealing with a minefield trying not to leave anyone out. However, I have one point of contention with his historical lines of demarcation around narrativity, since his views are widespread and influential. Although it is a small point within an otherwise evenhanded historical review of the theories, Rees referred to the "artists’ avant-garde," 20 and discusses the issue of experimental narrative, and its distinctiveness as an "art form," 21 from the "avant-garde." 22 He included within the "art cinema"â as opposed to the "artists’ avant-garde," 23 Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Delluc, Dulac, and Gance. Rees described Richard Abel’s distinctions between the artistsâ avant-garde and the art cinema or narrative avant-garde, and made his own distinctions, "the rise of narrative, psychological realism in the maturing Art Cinema led to its gradual split from the anti-narrative artists’ avant-garde." 24 In Rees’s definition the artists’ avant-garde has again been aligned with anti-narrativization and non-drama. His arguments have been based on the supposed lines of demarcation between dramatic narrative and experimental film. He argued that "the continuous flow of images that editing permits, and which is the basis of dramatic illusionism in film, is in contrast to the equal power of film editing to enforce breaks and interruptions in that flow," 25 and that "the role of experimental film was to push the distinction to its limits." 26 My reading of Rees’s distinction was that while drama based film had narrative expectation built into it, the artists’ avant-garde used illusionism and narrative against themselves‚ i.e. drama was narrative, experimental film was anti-narrative. The problem is, it was along similar lines of definition that the majority of women’s practice of the 1970s and 80s was marginalized as being narrative and therefore not art (i.e. not coming from the abstract or formal film) and not part of the purism debate. This reductive positioning of narrative was challenged by feminist groups in the 70s and 80s who consequently set about distributing work through their own organizations, for example, Circles and Cinenova (UK), Women Make Movies (US), Video Femmes (Canada). Much of women’s practice of the 70s & 80s was narrative-driven, certainly political, and often oppositional, and there is space for an extensive historical review to write this work into the avant-garde. Although some of the work was supported institutionally and debated in the UK as the new pluralism, many of these important works have subsequently been written out of the history, for example, the experimental narrative and performative work of artists like Gill Eatherley and Marilyn Halford and later Rita Keegan, Pratibha Parma, Zoe Redman and Marion Urch to name but a few.
In relation to the formal and material arguments and the narrative distinctions, I believe that in the UK little seems to have changed in forty years and there is currently a sense of déjà vu. Consider the position of women involved with the avant-garde in the 60s, 70s and 80s. In 1979 Anabel Nicolson, Lis Rhodes, Felicity Sparrow and others were so angry at the dominance of the masculinised modernist canon patronised by the Arts Council, that they with held their work en mass from the "Film as Film: Formal Experiment in Film" exhibition at the Hayward Gallery accusing the committee of "denying the space within it to answer back, to add or disagree." 27 They argued that they were not "being left free to characterize our own contributions" 28 and that their "perspectives were tolerated rather than considered seriously." 29 They objected with their feet, on the grounds that diverse practices were being squeezed into the anti-narrative formal abstract debates, and furthermore that they were being used to define retrospectively the narrative work of women such as Maya Deren and Germaine Dulac. There was emphasis on the abstract formal qualities above all else, which were used to contextualize this seminal narrative practice within the male dominated canon, and to re-define and re-imagine it as either formal or anti-narrative or ‘art cinema’ and narrative. The predominance of this position and the totally institutional patronage of non-narrative effectively silenced the variety of practices that women happened to be involved with and which in reality collectively formed the history of the avant-garde. Inherent in the formalist rhetoric was the rejection of the alternative languages of cinema that didn’t fit the prescribed norm, and loosely speaking individual artists were ‘in’ the avant-garde, if their work could be matched to the theoretical categorization. This isn’t exactly surprising given that film discourse was a late starter in the modernist tendency to substantiate traditions and specific artistic trends, but it meant that artists had to be totally oppositional to narrative in the widest sense. The point was that women’s work was included, and was written about, but within the frame of reference of the abstract/formal debates, which left almost no place for the naming of, for example, an experimental narrative language, nor what Laura Mulvey has described as a "feminist formalism." 30 In his contribution to the "Film as Film" exhibition catalogue in his essay entitled The History We Need, Malcolm LeGrice acknowledged that the discourse around narrativity was riddled with ambiguity and unease, and perhaps he felt the potential consequences of restriction more keenly, since he has always fostered an inclusive approach to experimentation. Though as I have said, women challenged this by setting up their own distribution and means of production, in particular Felicity Sparrow and others set up "Circles" which became "Cinenova", and was a central space for the support of experimental narrative work by women, and against dominant forms of representation. To fast forward to date, Cinenova has now closed down, funding withdrawn, and the important historical archive of LUX (London Electronic Arts, and London Film-makers Coop) has also re-located after a critical few months of crisis management by the artists. The sector at present has limited means of distribution, the current LUX organization distributes the back catalogue and a few selected artists works. No freedom here, no equal opportunity, no open access, and certainly no context for exhibition. It is probable that works by many women artists of the 80s and 90s from these archive collections will never be seen again if no-one objects, since they don’t fit into the current zeitgeist, which is, materiality (film not video or electronic) and anti-narrative. The old arguments are being played out again. In 1983, Lis Rhodes and Felicity Sparrow asked, "Do we have to delve into history and re -appropriate it?" well I argue, yes, we (all of us) do. In the current climate there is no place for radical and dangerous work that challenges the status quo. There are many reasons for this, but because of funding streams that encourage all that is anodyne, contexts for disruption and intervention are few. Within the art sector, points of resistance are rare and funding, expertise, and exhibition infrastructures have the potential to be (and are) influenced by reductive standpoints. The small chinks where artists have squeezed their productions have been getting narrower. The point is there is a danger that more selective histories will be written, as to date within the various histories of the experimental avant-garde there has been a gradual writing-out of an enormous body of narrative, expanded, technological and interactive moving image work that does not fit easily into categories. Perhaps it is the fault of the artists, who should have written their own histories, and for future consideration we should start to challenge the way that the writing up of practice takes place. One thing is certain, anti-narrative as definition for what is avant-garde practice or not, is and has been historically, a flawed form of classification.
My review of the avant-gardist positions and ideologies would draw a different picture of the avant-garde to include the histories of expanded cinema and experiments with narrative as a central rather than marginal element of artists’ experimentation. Although drawing a similar lineage to the historical avant-garde debates it would have a different emphasis. For one thing, there would be no material delineation between film and video post digital (I will be extremely unpopular for this position) and there would be wider debate around what has constituted narrative and anti-narrative experimentation. There is no doubt about the historical relationship between anti narrative and narrative in artists’ practice - each drives the other. Though as I have said, within the critique and definition the emphasis on this relationship has been perceived as artists’ work versus mainstream, and the issue of narrative in experimental film and video needs more research to determine a historical trajectory within which to include much overlooked narrative work.
To conclude, within the relatively short academic history of experimental film and video there has been emphasis on the material conditions of the mediums revolving around narrative categorisation. This schematization of film and video artworks has been oriented around what were initially Greenbergian formal concerns and there has been pre-occupation through the writing that the avant-garde has been totally opposed to mainstream narrative conventions. I have tried to point out here that the historical and theoretical premise of avant-garde artists being anti-narrative can be proved unfounded by simply reviewing the practice throughout history. This is not widely available, so similar to a review of the women’s avant-garde in relation to narrative, there is a need to determine a history for experimental interactive expanded cinema that is not guided by anti-illusion, material concerns, or single screen as categories to define it. After all categorization and definition are forms of censorship that have often found their way into institutional funding and exhibition curatorship. There is no doubt that ideologies take their toll on the continuation of certain artists practice. We need to understand how this has happened in the past to optimistically look forward to a climate for radical experimentation with moving-image in the future. At the moment in the UK, artist’s communities are dispersed and fragmented, and there is no place where artists can show their work without a limiting selection process oriented around non-narrative single screen film. In 1972 and before prematurely bringing her expanded filmmaking to a standstill Gill Eatherley said "There have been many struggles with projection ideas, which are impossible to realize, due to lack of situations outside the conventional cinema in London..." 31 and sadly in the UK this statement is true for artists working with expanded cinema and performance in 2002. Artists do need exhibition spaces, but also unfettered funding and collective and empathetic dialogue within which to review their work. I believe that for cinematic experimentation to continue in fertile ground or indeed, at all, it is imperative that the histories are reviewed, in a pluralistic and inclusive way, but that any ideologies around moving-image funding, distribution and exhibition facilitate expanded moving-image and experiments with narrativity, and don’t marginalize them any more than they have been to date.

1. P Adams Sitney Visionary Film The American Avant-Garde 1943-1978 p.4. Sitney is referring to Un Chien Andalou.
2. Ibid , p. 4
3. Clement Greenberg "Modernist Painting," from Art in Theory 1900-1990 Charles Harrison and Paul Wood p.755
4. From an essay written in for the exhibition Video Art ICA Philadelphia Catalogue. Also quoted by David Antin in Video Art an Anthology, Ed Ira Schneider Beryl Korot, p.174
5. David Hall, "Before the Concrete Sets" in AND Journal of Art No.26 1991 p4
6. Peter Wollen, "The Two Avant-Gardes," Studio International November 1975 p.171
7. Ibid p.171
8. The British Avant-Garde Film 1926-1995: An Anthology of Writings Edited by Michael O'Pray (University of Luton Press, Arts Council of England, 1996), p.145
9. Milton Cohen of the ONCE group from Gene Youngblood Expanded Cinema (Studio Vista, 1970), p. 371
10. Kisses Sweeter than Wine, and Open Score by Robert Whitman have been documented by Billy Klüver and were recently presented by him at Evolution 2002, part of the Leeds International Film Festival.
11. Nicholson's description of her work in Perspectives on British Avant-Garde Film Hayward Gallery Catalogue, 1977.
12. See Michael O'Pray The British Avant-Garde Film 1926-1995, p213
13-19. From the catalogue for Perspectives on British Avant-Garde Film, Hayward Gallery 2nd March-24th April 1977.
20. AL Rees A History of Experimental Film and Video, British Film Institute, 1999, p 30.
21. Ibid p.33
22. Ibid. p.30
23. Ibid pp. 30-33
24. Ibid p.33
25. Ibid p.34
26. Ibid p.34
27-29. Women and the Formal Film, Annabel Nicolson, Felicity Sparrow, Jane Clarke, Jeanette Iljon, Lis Rhodes, Mary Pat Leece, Pat Murphy, Susan Stein, statement from Film as Film, Formal Experiment in Film 1910-75 , ed. Phil Drummond, Arts Council of Great Britain, 1979, p.118
30. "Film, Feminism and the Avant-garde," Laura Mulvey, written as a lecture for 'Women and Literature,' Oxford Studies Committee 1978, published in The British Avant-Garde Film 1926 to 1995, p199
31. Gill Eatherley "Filmmaker's statement" "The Avant Garde" exhibition, Gallery House, London 1972, taken from Peter Gidal's Structural Materialist Film (Routledge, 1989), p118

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Monday, March 29, 2010

Systems Aesthetics and the System as Medium, Francis Halsall


From: Francis Halsall, Systems of Art, (Peter Lang, 2008)


In 1968 the artist, critic and art-historian Jack Burnham made the prophetic claim that "a Systems Esthetic will become the dominant approach to a maze of socio-technical conditions rooted only in the present"[1]. Burnham’s claim, in a number of publications at the time, was that a burgeoning interest in systems amongst artists and writers on art would lead (in both art practice and discourse) to a paradigm shift from object to system.

In this chapter I outline the implications of Burnham’s claim by exploring the key characteristics of a "systems-esthetic" (hereafter "systems aesthetics"). To do this I look at the ways in which a system can be conceived as an artistic medium. I do this from three main perspectives. These are:

1. The historical perspective – from which I look at how in the 1960s there was an interest in systems as both a theoretical and artistic concept and how artists began to use systems (broadly conceived) as artistic mediums.

2. The contemporary discursive perspective – from which I look at how "system" may be employed as a key term in what Peter Osborne calls a "retrospective critical discourse"; that is, as a means by which to rethink art practice at the end of the 1960s.

3. The contemporary practice perspective – from which I look at some examples of how contemporary practice engages in systems aesthetics through the use of system as a medium.

My central argument is that the concept of system can be used as an effective heuristic tool that provides a coherency amongst these three perspectives. It does so by demonstrating that all three positions share an investment in the idea of system as an artistic medium. Thus it allows for a wide variety of practices to be inscribed within the single rubric of system as medium. And it can therefore be applied to historical examples as well as contemporary practice and subsequently used as a means by which to map an expanded field of art displaying systems aesthetics up to the present day.

In what follows I will give a description of the historical conditions of the emergence of systems aesthetics and relate this to its reconstruction within the critical discourse of systems-theory. I will conclude with some examples from contemporary practice that can be productively contextualised through the application of systems aesthetics and the idea of system as medium. In doing so, one can begin to see a preoccupation with system as medium operating across different art-historical periods and across a diverse range of artistic practices. These practices are not necessarily concerned purely with the effects of a new technology[2] (although many recent practices which explore the aesthetic possibilities suggested by new media are compatible with what I’m identifying as systems aesthetics). Systems aesthetics can also include new re-engagements with art from the end of the 1960s in which some contemporary artists have found a precedent for a socially integrated art practice that participates in social systems.

1. The Historical Context of Systems Aesthetics

The historical interest in the aesthetics of systems between the late 1960s and the early 1970s emerged from a matrix of influences. At the time a number of key exhibitions and publications based around the theme of systems, structure, seriality, information and technology (broadly understood) took place. These are discussed in further detail below. Such exhibitions and works drew upon popular understandings of systems theory and most notably cybernetics, information theory and general systems theory. They attempted to find artistic and curatorial expressions for such relatively new ideas. Significantly this interest dovetailed with three other important developments taking place at the time.

First, increased interest in the sociological and artistic significance of new technology meant that theories such as Marshall McLuhan’s were increasingly explored in art and technology groups (such as E.A.T [Experiments in Art and Technology], Billy Klüver’s collaboration with Robert Rauschenberg). As a result, several attempts were made to use new technology in transforming traditional object-based artistic practices into new, system-based ones.

Second, general social and political changes also raised interest in the notion of systems. For example the civil unrest around the year 1968 included student riots in Paris and Germany (the so-called 68er-Bewegung); civil rights marches (e.g., in America and Ireland); assas­sinations in the United States (including Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968); and worldwide anti-Vietnam war protests. Such civil disobedience often directed its anti-establishment and anti-authoritarian rhetoric against the "system". Hence systems became associated with institutional power or a prevailing social order. A similar concept of systems had also permeated the counter-culture and psychedelic movements of the 1960s. In art practice, this led to the belief that the social system could be changed by active artistic participation in it. Jack Burnham claimed, for example, that systems artists like Hans Haacke could integrate their work into the "real world"[3], a sentiment echoed in Haacke’s own claims that his art had a political agency due to its participation in and use of systems:

Information presented at the right time and in the right place can potentially be very powerful. It can affect the general social fabric ... The working premise is to think in terms of systems: the production of systems, the interface with and the exposure of existing systems ... Systems can be physical, biological, or social.[4]

Third, the pre-occupation with system as a medium had parallels in the radical art practice of the late 1960s, which both questioned and then replaced the singular art object of modernism with the "de­materialised" art object of conceptualism, minimalism and other postmodern art practices. The outcome of these multiple influences was a number of different attempts to replace traditional media of artistic expression with the medium of systems.

1.1 Jack Burnham and Systems Aesthetics
Jack Burnham was a central, if mercurial, figure in the theorising of systems aesthetics and the idea of system as a medium at the end of the 1960s. He began his career as an artist in 1955 and until 1965 he (like Hans Haacke, his friend and collaborator) made kinetic sculptures and light based installations before he moved to art criticism. From 1968 onwards he was a contributor for Arts magazine and became Associate Editor from 1972 to 1976. Between 1971 to 1972 he was also contributing editor for Artforum, which he wrote for until 1973. It is for this activity as a critic and theorist (and briefly a curator of the exhibition Software) that he is now most recognised. His collected essays are reprinted in The Great Western Salt Works (1973), which includes the two key statements of his conception of an artistic application of systems aesthetics. These are "Systems Esthetic", which had previously appeared in Artforum (1968) and "Real Time Systems" (1969).

In 1968 Burnham published the book for which he is best known, Beyond Modern Sculpture: The Effects of Science and Technology on the Sculpture of This Century. It is a survey of modern sculpture using vocabularies drawn from systems theory including cybernetics[5]. It concludes with a statement on the future development for art via the use of system as an artistic medium. Such sentiments are explored further in Burnham’s essay of the same year in which he defined "Systems Esthetic." Burnham’s conception of systems aesthetics was an attempt to think together, under the rubric of systems, issues regarding artistic, technological and social conditions shared by a variety of groups including artists, scientists and social theorists. It was, in part, an account of artistic responses to new technologies manifested, for example, in early computer and video art. But Burnham also noted[6] that such an artistic turn to systems-thinking was a reflection of a growing interest in systems spilling over from biological and cybernetic research into open systems and communication networks found in the writings Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Norbert Weiner, Claude Shannon, Ervin Laszlo (amongst others) into society at large.

Such concerns with systems in the 1960s included the infamous interest in systems analysis that President John F. Kennedy and Robert McNamara brought into the United States government, largely as a strategy for modern warfare[7]. One manifestation of this was the development of Project RAND which was established by the United States Army Air Forces in 1946 and took its name from "Research and Development". RAND was central to the implementation of systems-analysis in military and strategic decision-making in the decades following World War II. It pioneered the development of systems analysis and its particular application for defence. As a result, in the late 1950s RAND began offering short courses on systems analysis to "senior military officers and civilians associated with the Armed Forces"[8]. These lectures were subsequently published under titles such as Analysis for Military Decisions[9] and advocated a systems-thinking approach to military decision making. In a publication from 1968, the use of systems-thinking as a defence strategy was clearly stated as the aim of such publications:

"One of the key problems of contemporary national security policy," as Henry Kissinger has said, "is the ever widening gap that has opened up between the sophistication of technical studies and the capacity of an already overworked leadership to absorb their intricacy." This book, a survey of the nature, aims and limitations of systems analysis in current defense planning, is an attempt to close that gap. We focus on systems analysis because it is unquestionably the most powerful and widely influential approach to systematic inquiry that decision makers and policy-orientated analysts have at their disposal today – and are likely to have in the foreseeable future.[10]


Since 1961, the United States has introduced a new philosophy, technique and style of defense management ... In its research for the United States Air Force, The RAND Corporation has played a leading role in developing an approach to the full range of these problems and in bringing the methods used to national attention. This approach, which we call ‘systems analysis,’ is the subject of this book.[11]

The potential for systems-analysis was enthusiastically pursued as a new paradigm in social thinking. For example, Norbert Weiner’s development of cybernetics had an early manifestation in his collaboration with Julian H. Bigelow on anti-aircraft defence systems in World War II (although he was later to move to more humanist applications of cybernetics); and in 1967 M. Ways could write the following optimistic analysis of the efficacy of systems-thinking as a military and strategic decision-making tool to implement "world system" policy decisions which reads chillingly today:

That the US still retains its limited-war option is due in no small measure to the confidence that a large part of the public and the white-house have in McNamara’s system of planning; it is deemed sensitive enough and effective enough to maintain a level of operations in Vietnam calibrated to our limited objectives there, and to changing circumstances. True there have been shortages of specific materials and underestimations of cost. Nevertheless, the Vietnam war thus far has been the best calculated military supply effort in 20th century US History. If McNamara’s planning system successfully demonstrates in Vietnam that the US can maintain an adequate, though limited, response then the consequences for foreign policy in the next ten years may be profound.[12]

Burnham was familiar with such applications of systems-thinking. In "Systems Esthetics" he cited the following directly from E.S. Quade’s essay, Methods and Procedures in Analysis for Military Decisions: "Systems Analysis, particularly the type required for military decisions, is still largely a form of art. Art can be taught in part, but not by the means of fixed rules."[13]

The use of the citation by Burnham presents a problematic conflation of military strategy with art making. It also, however, demonstrates Burnham’s equation of systems-thinking with a certain type of aesthetic sensibility as will be discussed in further detail below.

1.2 Exhibitions & Publications
By the end of the 1960s the interest in the application of systems-thinking by the military-industrial complex began to filter into cultural life. Between the years 1966 and 1972 there were a number of important exhibitions and publications that took the idea of systematicity as their central organising principle, with titles such as Systems; Information; Software and Radical Software.

For example, Kynaston McShine’s (with Lucy Lippard) Primary Structures show in 1966 (The Jewish Museum, NYC) was a key exhi­bition of forty artists (including Carl Andre, Walter de Maria, Dan Flavin, Robert Smithson and Sol Lewitt) documenting the crystallisation of minimalism in the investigation of simplified sculptural form. Importantly, however, the exhibition emphasised the systematic structures that underlay such minimal forms. In a similar way, Harald Szeemann’s When Attitudes Become Form: Concepts, Processes, Situations, Information (Kunsthalle Bern/ Institute of Contemporary Art, London, 1969) explored sculptural possibilities of post-minimalism, while its subtitle invoked systems-thinking (albeit implicitly, by using vocabularies grounded in information theory and communication theory. In 1969 the British artist Jeffrey Steele organised an exhibition of English artists at the Amos Anderson Museum, Helsinki, under the title Systems, focusing on abstract art. Early the following year Steele and another artist, Malcolm Hughes, formed a group that focused on the discussion, promotion and exhibition of systems art. The main outcome of this group activity[14] was the exhibition Systems, organised in conjunction with the Arts Council, which opened March 1972 at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. The exhibition focused upon how both system and structure (mostly mathematically understood) could be used as a foundation for abstract art.

In addition, there were also a number of exhibitions that took the intersection of art and technology as their central theme[15]. These included Cybernetic Serendipity: The Computer and the Arts (I.C.A., London, 1968) curated by Jasia Reichardt[16]. Reichardt deliberately invoked Norbert Wiener’s definition of cybernetics as a title around which to co-ordinate works that, as was claimed in the press release:

... are either produced with a cybernetic device (computer) or are cybernetic devices in themselves. They react to something in the environment, either human or machine, and in response produce either sound, light or movement.[17]

The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1968) curated by K. G. Pontus Hultén also explored the connections between art and technology. It included works from over a hundred artists drawn from the fifteenth to the twentieth century and presented ways in which technological systems historically featured as part of artistic media. Amongst the works shown were drawings by Leonardo Da Vinci of flying machines, the first artistic exhibition of a video cassette recorder used by Nam June Paik and the winning entries to a competition organised by E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology) promoting the collaborations between artists and engineers using new technology.[18]

Such themes were mirrored in Kynaston McShine’s international show Information (Museum of Modern Art, NYC, Summer, 1970), which Lucy Lippard described as follows:

Born of an art-orientated interest in systems and information theory, and then transformed by the national rage attending Kent State and Cambodia, it became a state-of-the-Art exhibition unlike anything else that cautious and usually unadventurous institution had attempted date. The handsome catalogue looked like a conceptual artists book, with its informal "typewritten" text and wild range of non-art imagery from anthropology to computer science, and an eclectic, interdisciplinary reading list.[19]

Hans Haacke’s MOMA Poll (1970) was included in the exhibi­tion. It was one of the several "Visitor’s Profiles" projects Haacke conducted between 1969 and 1970 to collect statistical information from various galleries. For the installation at Information the 25,566 participants who took part voted either "yes" or "no" to the question, "Would the fact that Governor Rockerfeller has not renounced President Nixon’s Indochina policy be a reason for you to not vote for him in November?" The results were subsequently collated by an electronic counting device and displayed.

The aforementioned exhibitions were important public expressions of the emerging systems aesthetics. They were not, however, the only expressions. The journal Radical Software, for example, also explored the intersections between technological systems and art. Eleven editions were published by The Raindance Corporation between 1970 and 1974. The Raindance Corporation was formed in New York in 1969 by the artist Frank Gillette. As Davidson Gigliotti recounted:

It was Gillette’s intention to found an alternative media think tank; a source of ideas, publications, videotapes and energy providing a theoretical basis for implementing communication tools in the project of social change. To make his point, Gillette chose the name Raindance as an ironic reference to the Rand Corporation, then and now an establishment think tank advising government and industry.[20]

Staff at Radical Software included Michael Shamberg (publisher), Ira Schneider (co-originator) as well as Beryl Korot and Phyllis Gershuny (editors). Radical Software was concerned primarily with the artistic possibilities of low-cost portable video equipment (such as the Sony CV Portapack[21], which had become available in 1965). Contributions included those by Nam June Paik, Douglas Davis, Paul Ryan, Frank Gillette, Beryl Korot, Charles Bensinger, Ira Schneider, Ann Tyng, R. Buckminster Fuller, Gregory Bateson, Gene Youngblood, Parry Teasdale and Ant Farm. Although also concerned predominantly with the artistic and social implications of new technology, the journal also frequently included polemic articles that fall within the orbit of a "systems" outlook. As Bijvoet noted, Michael Shamberg actively engaged in the use of "new lexicons" such as:

Cybernetics and systems notions with their accompanying vocabularies were mainly applied to the possibilities of new media systems, such as video, cable, satellite, etc. Words like system, feedback, information, software, parameter, entropy and negentropy, process, pattern became the principal vocabulary in the writers’ argumentations.[22]

These include, for example, an article by Paul Ryan declaring the need for an "information economy" in issue 3 (Spring, 1971), and pieces by Gregory Bateson and Gene Youngblood on ecologies of media and media systems.

1.3 Software and Systems Aesthetics
In the midst of this curatorial and publishing activity was Burnham’s own exhibition Software (The Jewish Museum, 1970) which to date has been the only curatorial expression of his ideas on systems aesthetics. As Edward A. Shanken noted, the uniqueness of the show lay in its attempt to express thoroughly Burnham’s concept of systems aesthetics:

In contrast to the numerous art and technology exhibitions which took place between 1966-1972, and which focused on the aesthetic applications of technological apparatus, Software was predicated on the ideas of ‘Software’ and ‘Information Technology’ as metaphors for art. He conceived of ‘software’ as parallel to the aesthetic principles, concepts or programs that underlie the formal embodiment of the actual art objects, which in turn parallel ‘hardware’.[23]

The show contained a number of potentially innovative exhibits that explored ideas of systematicity, interactivity; the use of new technological systems in art making and the shift from singular art objects to systems of art. Several of the works were intended to be controlled by a DEC PDP-8 Time Share Computer (which, Shanken noted, failed to work for the first month.) Many works were conceived of as completely interactive with full visitor participation.

Paradigmatic works from the show included Labyrinth by Ted Nelson and Ned Woodman, described by Shanken as a "hypertext system" in which:

Users could obtain information from an ‘interactive catalogue’ of the exhibition by choosing their own narrative paths through and interlinked database of texts, then receive a print-out of their particular ‘user history’.[24]

Les Levine’s Systems Burn-Off X Residual Software was also intended to be fully interactive:

The original installation at the Phyllis Kind Gallery in Chicago was comprised of 1000 copies of each of 31 photographs taken by Levine at the March, 1969 opening of the highly publicized ‘Earthworks’ exhibition in Ithaca, New York ... Most of the 31,000 photographs, which documented the media event, were [according to the catalogue] ‘randomly distributed on the floor and covered with jello; some were stuck to the wall with chewing gum; the rest were for sale’ ... Levine conceived of the 31,000 individual photos as the residual effects or ‘burn-off’ of the information system he created – as the material manifestation of software.[25]

There were also two pieces contributed by Hans Haacke: News (fig. 3) and Norbert: “All Systems Go”. News presented several Teletype machines upon which reports of local, national and international news spilled out on continuous rolls of paper into the gallery. It thus brought communications systems directly into the gallery space and encouraged direct visitor participation. Norbert: “All Systems Go” (fig. 4) on the other hand was another of Haacke’s engagement with "Real-Life Systems" that is work produced with live animals or biological organisms. In this case a mynah bird, sardonically named after Norbert Weiner, was trained to say "all systems go".

As Burnham explained, Software was:

... an attempt to produce aesthetic sensations without the intervening ‘object’; in fact, to exacerbate the conflict or sense of aesthetic tension by placing works in mundane, non-art formats.[26]

As the rationale and exhibits in the show demonstrate he was able to do this by invoking the concept of "software" as both a central dynamic and metaphor for an interactive art practice. To thus understand art as software is to invoke the paradigm of the coding of a computer program which is not copied in different hardware, but is rather given other manifestations. Les Levine, for example, saw his contribution to Software in these specific terms: and wrote the following description of Systems Burn-off X Residual Software in the Software catalogue: "In many cases an object is of much less value than the software concerning object. The object is the end of a system. The software is an open continuing system."[27]

More recently, Lev Manovich argued that the application of the metaphor of "software" should be extended beyond computers to a definition of art since the advent of modernism in general:

To summarize: from the new vision, new typography, and new architecture of the 1920s we move to new media of the 1990s; from ‘a man with a movie camera’ to a user with a search engine, image analysis and visualization programs; from cinema, the technology of seeing, to a computer, the technology of memory; from defamiliarization to information design. In short, the avant-garde becomes software. This statement should be understood in two ways. On the one hand, software codifies and naturalizes the techniques of the old avant-garde. On the other hand, software’s new techniques of working with media represent the new avant-garde of the meta-media society.[28]

Manovich, like Burnham, was looking for an adequate vocabulary to describe a variety of diverse artistic practices. Both recognised the potential in systems theory to reframe a discussion of the avant-garde. For Burnham in particular this entailed a formulation of an aesthetic theory based upon the central paradigm of the possibility for a system to be conceived as a medium. A further discussion of what this means from a contemporary perspective follows below.

2. Systems Aesthetics as a Retrospective Critical Discourse

To talk about art in terms outlined by Manovich and Burnham, that is, as software and system, is to invoke terms from cybernetics as well as information and communication theory. It means, therefore, to talk in terms developed in the 1960s and thus exclude the later configurations of systems theory (such as the social systems theory developed by Luhmann) that I wish to employ in my account.

To understand art as software is to understand it in terms of codes and information rather than in material or medium-specific terms. Burnham proclaimed that systems aesthetics necessitated the dissolution of the material specificity of traditional artistic mediums so that the traditional "objet d’art" would eventually be replaced by "aesthetic systems"[29]:

[The] cultural obsession with the art object is slowly disappearing and being replaced by what might be called ‘systems consciousness’. Actually, this shifts from the direct shaping of matter to a concern for organizing quantities of energy and information.[30]

In his advocacy of "the organizing quantities of energy and information" for a new type of art making Burnham advanced an art that was both ontologically unstable and interactive. He thus specifically linked a post-formalist artistic attitude prevalent in the art world at the time that was also interested in exploring de-ontologized and interactive art to the contemporary discourse of systems-theory. In 1968 he wrote:

The post-formalist sensibility naturally responds to stimuli both within and outside the proposed art format ... [but] the term systems esthetic seems to encompass the present situation more fully.[31]

In doing so Burnham articulated in systems-theoretical terms the emerging historical situation in art practice toward the end of the 1960s. We need not, however, be constricted by Burnham’s definition alone. Systems aesthetics can also operate as what Peter Osborne called a "retrospective critical discourse", which "does not need to discover its terms literally or empirically within the discourse of the period under discussion"[32]. This means that systems aesthetics can also be identified as a function of the discursive system from which it is observed and constituted; it thus can be integrated into a coherent historical and sociological narrative[33]. It is from this perspective that I wish to continue.

It is my argument here that Burnham’s systems aesthetics is compatible with a variety of art-historical descriptions and can therefore be employed as part of a retrospective critical discourse of systems aesthetics. Thus conceived, systems aesthetics allows for an expanded field of practice implying a shift from singular art objects to the use of systems as artistic mediums. These descriptions include: the "dematerialised" art object (Lucy Lippard); "Intermedia" (Dick Higgins); and the "post-medium condition" (Rosalind Krauss).

Lucy Lippard’s definition of the "dematerialised" art object highlighted what was at stake when the anti-modernist aesthetic lead to a dismantling of the modernist art object. In 1973, looking back on the immediate past, she observed that the six years following 1966 had been characterised by what she termed, "the dematerialisation of the art object". Lippard related how an interest in singular objects, adhering in specific mediums, was replaced by work which explored its relationship with its various systemic environments. Her micro-history of the six years at the end of the 1960s focused, in her terms:

... on so-called conceptual or information or idea art with mentions of such vaguely designated areas as minimal, anti-form, systems, earth or process art, occurring now in the Americas, Europe, England, Australia, and Asia, (with occasional political overtones).[34]

At the heart of these activities lay a series of practices which radically challenged the faith in an ontologically stable, modernist art object; one that subsisted in a specific medium. In doing so it operated according to a self-aware artistic practice that placed the questioning of the relationship between a work of art and its various environments at the very centre of the work’s meaning. Such work can be understood as exploring an aesthetics of systems and in doing so thus functioned by investigating the ways in which it was embedded in various networks of display, representation, meaning and control.

Dick Higgins used the term "intermedia" in 1966 to explain the same historical situation that he described thus: "much of the best work being produced today seems to fall between media. This is no accident"[35]. He observed that the use of a wide variety of media in, for example: conceptual art; mail art; performance art (and so forth) was a means by which art of the age (which he called the "third industrial revolution") would identify its distinction from that of the art of the Renaissance. Given its plurality, intermedia art is resistant to an account of it in terms of the material specificity required of it by a limited account of modernism. Thus, the term "intermedia art", is, like Lippard’s phrase, combatable with Burnham’s account of a practice that attempted to make art without the production of unique art objects.

The condition of the dematerialised or intermedia art after modernism was called the post-medium condition by Rosalind Krauss. Krauss grounded her discussion in the specific historical role that the technological development of photography played in post-war artistic practice. In particular she focused on the convergence of art and photography in the 1960s. Photography, she argued with Benjamin, brought about a challenge to the unique status of art by challenging the status of the specific aesthetic object of art. Krauss argued that this challenge plays out in a lack of faith concerning medium specificity and in a "re-invention" of the conceptual coupling between modes of artistic production and the media within which those modes are enacted. It is worth quoting Krauss at length on this issue:

This time, however, photography functions against the grain of its earlier destruction of the medium, becoming, under precisely the guise of its own obsolescence, a means of what has to be called an act of reinventing the medium. The medium in question here is not any of the traditional media – painting, sculpture, drawing, architecture - that include photography. So the reinvention in question does not imply the restoration of any of those earlier forms of support that the ‘age of mechanical reproduction’ had rendered thoroughly dysfunctional through their own assimilation to the commodity form. Rather, it concerns the idea of a medium as such, a medium as a set of conventions derived from (but not identical with) the material conditions of a given technical support, conventions out of which to develop a form of expressiveness that can be both projective and mnemonic. And if photography has a role to play at this juncture, which is to say at this moment of postconceptual, ‘post­medium’ production, Benjamin may have already signalled to us that this is due to its very passage from mass use to obsolescence.[36]

Krauss thus argued that post-medium art required a jettisoning of a certain modernist understanding of medium specificity most commonly associated with Clement Greenberg:

At first I thought I could simply draw a line under the word medium, bury it like so much critical toxic waste, and walk away from it into a world of lexical freedom. ‘Medium’ seemed too contaminated, too ideologically, too dogmatically, too discursively loaded ... That such a definition of the medium as a mere physical object, in all its reductiveness and drive toward reification, had become common currency in the artworld [via Greenberg]. Indeed so pervasive was this drive to Greenberg-ize the word that historically previous approaches to its definition were now stripped of their own complexity.[37]

Krauss, however, did not wish to completely dismiss the concept of medium and advocated instead a definition of medium as the "technical support" for the work of art. The benefit of this expanded definition of medium is that it does not make medium reducible to, "the specific material support for a traditional aesthetic genre". As Krauss argued, such an expanded definition of "technical support" is beneficial:

‘Technical support’ has the virtue of acknowledging the recent obsolescence of most traditional aesthetic mediums (such as oil on canvas, fresco, and many sculptural materials, including cast bronze or welded metal), while it also welcomes the layered mechanisms of new technologies that make a simple, unitary identification of the work’s physical support impossible (is the ‘support’ of film the celluloid strip, the screen, the splices of the edited footage, the projector’s beam of light, the circular reels?) If the traditional medium is supported by a physical substance (and practiced by a specialized guild), the term ‘technical support,’ in distinction, refers to contemporary commercial vehicles, such as cars or television, which contemporary artists exploit, in recognition of the contemporary obsolescence of the traditional mediums, as well as acknowledging their obligation to wrest from that support a new set of aesthetic conventions to which their works can then reflexively gesture, should they want to join those works to the canon of modernism.[38]

The idea that medium be understood as the "technical support" for a work of art means that its definition is grounded upon a set of historically situated practices rather than a particular set of material conditions. Thus painting, for example, is not explicable by the existence of paint, canvas and brushes alone, but instead must be understood as the set of historical conditions that allow for the identification of a set of technical procedures (such as historical precedents and studio practices) to be acknowledged as painting[39]. This is, crucially, a description of medium that is expansive enough to include system as a medium.

Krauss’ notion of the post-medium condition takes account of a situation in the 1960s, which was also described by Lippard Higgins and, crucially Burnham. This was a situation when artists began to critique ideas of modernist medium-specificity. The systems aesthetic thus provides the opportunity to re-inscribe materially diverse practices (such as minimalism, conceptualism and new media art) within the single medium of system. In doing so the "retrospective critical discourse" of systems theory provides the vocabulary to map different artistic strategies within a single rubric. One may thus discuss historical examples as contiguous with more recent ones. And it is to these that I turn in the concluding section.

3. Systems Aesthetics and Contemporary Practice

3.1 Open Systems and Relational Aesthetics
Recent curatorial interest in systems has demonstrated both its effectiveness as a descriptive paradigm and its relevance to contemporary practice. For example in the exhibition Open Systems: Rethinking Art c. 1970, held in 2005 at Tate Modern, the curator Donna de Salvo used the concept of system as an organising principle to arranged art from a few years either side of 1970. The show demonstrated that as an organising principle system was both flexible and suggestive enough for "rethinking" historical practice whilst also providing a focus that is effective, rigorous and engaging (and popular). The concept of system thus provided an opportunity to reevaluate the chosen work in a broader historical and aesthetic context in which the often unhelpfully narrow titles of minimalism, conceptualism and so forth could be sidestepped in favour of critical descriptions grounded upon a shared interest in systems of display, representation, meaning and control. The art historical benefit of this was demonstrated by the exhibition uncovering interesting connections between artists who produced work as visually diverse as Robert Smithson, Carl Andre, Lygia Clark, Andy Warhol and Bruce Nauman. To reflect this systemic connection De Salvo explained in the accompanying catalogue that all works on display were, "linked by their use of a generative or repetitive system as a way of redefining the work of art, the self and the nature of representation"[40]. She further explained that the most interesting work from the late 1960s and early 1970s, both historically and in terms of its influence on contemporary practice, are minimalism, conceptualism, fluxus and neo-concretism. Da Salvo’s claim on the persisting relevance of systems art is supported by three instances of contemporary curatorial and artistic interest in systems.

First, there was the appearance of several shows between 2004 and 2006 that concentrated on a reappraisal of art from the late 1960s and early 1970s. These included several high profile retrospectives of Donald Judd (London, Düsseldorf, Basel); Dan Flavin (Washington, Forth Worth, Chicago); Robert Smithson (in Los Angles, Dallas and New York) all of which were accompanied by both critically important catalogues and several definitive publications such as Donald Judd: Complete Writings (Nova Scotia Museums, 2005) and Robert Smithson: Spiral Jetty (University of California Press, 2005). This was followed by contemporary installations by artists who had been active since the 1960s, including Bruce Nauman’s Raw Materials (2004–2005, Tate Modern) which served as a type of audio retrospective of his work and Richard Serra’s 2006/07 installations at the Guggenheim in Bilbao and New York. All this activity re-enforced the cues that contemporary artists (for example Liam Gillick, Carsten Höller and Mark Dion) were clearly taking from conceptualism, minimalism and institutional critique; and thus demonstrated how systems could be employed to map an expanded field of practice from historically different times.

Second, such a mapping would draw direct connections with other artists who have specifically investigated how their own bodies are situated within various social, physical and psychic systems. An exemplary artist is Stellarc. In his bodily modifications he subordinates his physical body to cybernetic and technological systems. For example in Ping-Body performance (10 April, 1996, 8.00 pm at Artspace, Sydney, Australia, as part of the Digital Aesthetics Conference) his body was controlled by prosthetic extensions remotely controlled by users over an internet connection. Another, very different, example is Brian Eno’s 77 Million Paintings (Laforet Museum, Harajuku, Tokyo, Japan, 2006) for which he used self-generating and developmental algorithmic systems to create a sequence of evolving patterns or "paintings" displayed on monitors and television screens. These examples, although this is of course not an exhaustive list, demonstrate the diversity of art practices whose predominant mediums can be observed as systems.

Third, renewed contemporary interest in self-critical practice that expands its scope beyond the limits of a singular art work into the social systems within which it is placed has been the specific tenet of French curator Nicolas Bourriaud’s sometimes controversial practice and of his concept of "relational aesthetics". Bourriaud has attempted to engage with artistic practice since the 1990s (again, the examples of Liam Gillick, Carsten Höller and Mark Dion are appropriate) and has pushed for a move into "the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space"[41]. Such work arguably takes its cues from the rigorous probing of the status of art and its institutions that is characteristic of art that engages in systems aesthetics (for example Burnham and Haacke’s work from the late 1960s and early 1970s). In his Relational Aesthetics, Bourriaud argued that art institutions might become more than mere conditions of production and display. They are observable, he maintained, as part of the social systems that create new venues for relations among different practices and viewers; they are both "frame" for the work, and part of its medium. Relational aesthetics is thus compatible with systems aesthetics in so far as it radically reconceives the purposes and effects of art practice and thus puts into question common notions of the nature of art objects. This reconceived understanding locates art in a system of relationships between art and: its environment; its viewers and art discourse.[42]

3.2 New Media, Systems and Medium
I close with a further example of how the notion of system might be usefully employed by contemporary art historians. This is in providing an account of so-called "new media art". New media art has had a problematic reception in art historical terms. As Charlie Gere observed, it raises the question as to what critical discourse is supposed to deal with it: "If new media art wishes to be taken seriously then it is necessary to start to develop appropriately robust and convincing means by which it can be examined critically". He continued to argue that a potential problem facing discourse concerning so-called new media art was how it had been contextualised and historicised. In other words, as Gere explained, the point was "not that there is no critical discourse, but rather that it remains the preserve of those involved, with little or no connection or engagement with outsiders".[43]

Gere’s claim is one that art historians should take very seriously. However, this requires that a central problem needs be overcome. This problem concerns the traditional art-historical preoccupation with specificity of media and the question of how it may be reconciled with the proliferation of differing media employed in new media art. W.J.T. Mitchell diagnosed the problem in the following terms:

In the field of art history, with its obsessive concern for the materiality and "specificity" of media, the supposedly "dematerialized" realm of virtual and digital media, as well as the whole sphere of mass media, are commonly seen either as beyond the pale or as a threatening invader, gathering at the gates of the aesthetic and artistic citadel.[44]

However, given the wide variety of practices characterised by the systems aesthetic the art historian can take nothing for granted. This is especially the case in new-media art which Lev Manovich argues, in The Language of New Media, is characterised by "variability":

A new media object is not something fixed once and for all, but something, that can exist in different, potentially infinite versions. This is another consequence of the numerical coding of media ... and the modular structure of a media object ... Instead of identical copies [of what Manovich calls ‘old media’] a new media object typically gives rise to many different versions. And rather than being created completely[45]

Whilst the problems of critical purchase are undoubtedly foregrounded by new media art, they are not unique to it. However, if there is to be a convincing theoretical model for new media art, then it should not be tied to a specifically narrow set of artistic practices because this will rapidly open it to charges of anachronism or lack of relevance. Today’s new media quickly become defunct, and themselves become objects of nostalgia and aestheticisation. For example, the pioneering computer art of Ben Laposky and his Electronic Abstractions (from 1956 onwards) is a world away from the complex and aesthetically involving environments of recent popular video and computer games such as Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s Rez (for Sony Playstation and Sega Dreamcast) or Valve Software’s Half-Life I & II. Equally, given that they are all constituted by particular historical and technological social variants, the early video art of Bruce Nauman and Vito Acconci from the early 1970s has a clearly different aesthetic to that of the epic film projects of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle. W.J.T. Mitchell discussed some of these problems with anachronism in his What Do Pictures Want? (2005). The first two of the "Ten Thesis on media" he outlines there are: "1 – Media are a modern invention that has been around since the beginning (sic.). 2 – The shock of new media is as old as the hills."[46] Today's New Media, in other words, will always be tommorrow's old media.

Systems aesthetics and the vocabularies of systems theory, I argue, provide the basis for such an "appropriately robust and convincing" theory of new media art. They do so by expanding the discourse on new media beyond a discussion of a narrow set of art practices corresponding to a limited set of media into a discussion about systems art more generally. Systems theory and systems aesthetics thus employs the idea of system as medium to inscribe a coherency into what would otherwise seem to be utterly disparate works. This opens these works up to art historical analysis and provides continuity with historical precedents, which may, in the first instance, appear materially incomparable. My two closing examples demonstrate this.

Jeffrey Shaw is best known for his interactive multi-media environments. In Place–Ruhr (Computer graphic / video installation, 2000) the viewer negotiates eleven live-action and three-dimensional virtual environments from the industrial German region of Ruhrgebiet. The viewer participates in the work from a platform and an interface centrally located within the cylinder of the installation projection screens. From this platform the viewer controls both their spatial relationship to the screens and their progress through the environments that are realised as a sequence of cylinders. Upon entering these panoramic cylinders the environment is cinematically generated around the spectator in relation to them. The installation contains further elements of interaction by using sounds made by the participant to trigger projected words that move through the environment in paths dictated by the movement of the viewer. Mark Hansen describes this process of interaction in such computer-aided works as part of an embodied, phenomenological experience that:

... specifically invest the body as the site of a bodily, but also an ‘intellectual’ event. In these works, the body, rather than being assimilated into the deframed image-space, stands over against a now virtualized image-space and thereby acquires a more fundamental role as the source of the actualization of images. If the corporeal and intellectual processing it performs still functions to ‘give-body’ to the image, it does so by not lending its physical, extended volume as a three-dimensional screen for the image but rather by creating an image-event out of its own embodied processing of information.[47]

Shaw creates multi-media systems which the embodied participant actively reconfigures with each immersive interaction. It is thus an example of Burnham’s model of systems aesthetics in which aesthetic sensations are produced without an intervening object and in which the "viewer" fully participates in the production of the system.

My second example is provided by Pierre Huyghe and Phillipe Parreno’s collaborative project No Ghost Just a Shell (1999-2002), which is another contemporary expression of systems aesthetics. For the project the artists acquired the digital files and copyright for a minor, generic female Manga character called Annlee. (it cost $400, about 46,000 Japanese Yen). The character was an "avatar"; that is sufficiently anonymous to be used in any story and not expected to play anything other than a minor role. She was a prepubescent girl with wide eyes, blue hair and little in the way of specific features. Huyghe and Parreno commissioned a series of twelve works from different artists for an exhibition at the Zurich Kunsthalle and the San Francisco MOMA (2002/03). The works included animations, paintings, posters, books, neon works and sculptures. Thus AnnLee is both a "shell" for a variety of different manifestations and the medium for those manifestations. For example Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Untitled (Even Electric Sheep Can Dream), (2002) is an eight-hour digital animation in which the character Annlee reads the entire text of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep; Liam Gillick’s Annlee You Proposes (2001) is a digital film in which the character explores her environment and M/M produced silkscreen posters (2002).

No Ghost Just a Shell provides just one example of a post-medium practice that does not cohere with a specific material medium. Each of the different manifestations of it are a different form of Annlee. Crucially, each form of Annlee is materially very different from other forms and there is no material specificity to Annlee as a medium. Annlee is a set of conditions that may take a variety of material forms. Thus Annlee is a system that provides the possibility of forms within it (or a "shell" to be filled); but also there would be no Annlee without the various forms by which it can be observed. It is my argument that Annlee is both a system and a medium. That is Annlee is a set of elements integrated with one another to such an extent that they form a recognisable and coherent whole that performs some recognisable function. And Annlee is also recognisable as the medium of the work as she is a set of possibilities that allow for different and specific forms to emerge. No Ghost Just a Shell is thus exemplary of the move from object to system in the systems aesthetic; a move that, crucially, may have very different artistic outcomes (as illustrated by Spiral Jetty in the proceeding chapter).


[1] Jack Burnham, ‘Systems Esthetics,’ Artforum (September, 1968); reprinted in Donna de Salvo (ed.), Open Systems: Rethinking Art C. 1970 (London: Tate, 2005) pp. 166–69.

[2] Edward Shanken, for example, argued that, especially in the late 20th century, ‘little scholarship has explored the relationship between technology and conceptual art.’ He also claimed that there was an art-historical impetus to artificially distinguish information art from conceptual art. See E. Shanken, ‘Art in the Information Age: Technology and Conceptual Art,’ in Michael Corris (ed.), Conceptual Art: Theory, Myth and Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

[3] ‘Traditionally, artworks exist in “mythical time”, that is, in an ideal historical timeframe separated from the day-to-day events of the real world. Some systems and conceptual artists, such as Haacke, attempt to integrate their works in the actual events of the “real world,” that is the world of politics, money making, ecology and other pursuits.’ Jack Burnham, ‘Steps in the Formulation of Real-Time Political Art,’ in Kaspar Koenig (ed.), Hans Haacke/Framing and Being Framed: 7 Works, 1970–5 (New York: New York University Press, 1975) p. 143.

[4] Hans Haacke’s response (1971) to the cancelling of Haacke’s show at the Guggenheim. Quoted in Lucy Lippard, Six Years: the Dematerialization of the Art Object 1966–1972 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997 [1974]) p. xiii.

[5] Burnham continued his application of systems-theory as an art-historical strategy in Jack Burnham assisted by Charles Harper and Judith Benjamin, The Structure of Art (New York: George Braziller, 1971). Shanken described it as ‘one of the first systematic methods for applying structural analysis to the inter­pretation of individual artworks as well as to the canon of western art history itself.’ E. Shanken, ‘The House that Jack Built: Jack Burnham’s Concept of “Software” as a Metaphor for Art’, in Leonardo Electronic Almanac, 6 (Nov. 1998) p. 10. Also at: (10/08/2007).

[6] J. Burnham, Beyond Modern Sculpture – The Effects of Science and Technology on the Sculpture of this Century (New York: George Braziller Inc., 1970) p. 12.

[7] In ‘Systems Esthetics’ Burnham makes reference to the use of systems-theory by the Pentagon. For a fuller discussion on this topic see Paul Dickson, Think Tanks (New York: Ballantine Books, 1971).

[8] See ‘Preface’ to E.S. Quade and W.I. Boucher (eds.), Systems Analysis and Policy Planning: Applications in Defense. A report prepared for United States Air Force, Project Rand (New York: American Elsevier Publishing Company, June 1968) p. v. Also available at (10/08/2007).

[9] E.S. Quade (ed.), Analysis for Military Decisions (Chicago: Rand McNally & Company, 1964).

[10] Quade/Boucher, Systems Analysis and Policy Planning, p. v.

[11] Ibid. p. 1.

[12] M. Ways, ‘The Road to 1977’, Fortune (Jan., 1967) pp. 93–5; 194–7 (Time Inc).

[13] ‘Methods and Procedures’, from Quade, Analysis for Military Decisions. For a further discussion on the use of computers in warfare in the 20th Century see P. Edwards, The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in the Cold War (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996).

[14] The artists involved were: Richard Allen, John Ernest, Malcolm Hughes, Colin Jones, Michael Kidner, Peter Lowe, James Moyes, David Saunders, Geoffrey Smedley, Jean Spencer, Jeffrey Steele and Gillian Wise Ciobotaru.

[15] For a fuller discussion of the various manifestations of the art and technology movement see Marga Bijvoet, Art as Inquiry: Toward New Collaborations Between Art & Science (Oxford: Peter Lang, 1997).

[16] For a full historical discussion of the show see: Rainer Usselmann, ‘The Dilemma of Media Art: Cybernetic Serendipity at the ICA London,’ Leonardo, vol. 36, no. 5 (Oct. 2003) pp. 389–396.

[17] The press release for the exhibit curated by Reichardt is quoted from: Media Art Net: (10/10/07).

[18] E.A.T. followed from the event Nine Evenings: Theatre and Engineering, organised by Robert Rauschenberg and Billy Klüver at the Armoury Building, New York City, 13–22 October, 1966 to promote the collaboration between artists and engineers. They also organised the Pepsi Pavillion at the World’s Fair, Osaka, in 1970. For a detailed discussion of the project see Bijvoet, Art as Inquiry, ch. 2.

[19] Lippard, Six Years, p. xix.

[20] Davidson Gigliotti, ‘A Brief History of RainDance’ (2003) on the website for Radical Software (10/09/2007).

[21] ‘In 1963, the very first home videotape recorder appeared in the Nieman-Marcus Christmas catalog. It was from Ampex; it was called the Signature V; it cost $30,000 (...) It was the size of a coffin; it weighed more. (...) Sony, active in the industrial video arena for years, introduced its CV series half-inch, black/ white open-reel format in 1965. (...) ‘CV’ ostensibly stood for ‘consumer video,’ and machines actually were sold to home users in such big-ticket emporiums as Neiman-Marcus. The first CV machine (which weighed in at a mere 70 pounds) even had a built in nine-inch monitor that popped up for viewing. The format initially produced jittery, flickering images, but incorporated some features that later became well loved, such as timer recording. Although it didn't make much of a splash in the stores, CV made it into some school systems. One [Video Review] editor remembers making his television debut on his grammar school's closed circuit TV channel, which employed CV equipment. By the end of the 60’s, Sony went back to the drawing board.’ From Video Review (April 1991) pp. 32, 34–35.

[22] Bijvoet, Art as Inquiry, p. 75.

[23] See Shanken, ‘The House that Jack Built.’

[24] Ibid.

[25] See Shanken, ‘Art in the Information Age’.

[26] Burnham in personal correspondence with Edward Shanken quoted in Shanken, ‘The House that Jack Built,’ p. 2.

[27] Quoted from N. Wardrip-Fruin abd N. Monftort, The New Media Reader (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003) p. 255; emphasis added.

[28] Lev Manovich, ‘Avant-garde as Software,’ Artnodes, artnodes/eng/art/manovich1002/manovich1002.html (22/03/2006); emphasis added.

[29] ‘The substitution of “aesthetic systems” for the objet d’art within the confines of a gallery is something that should be fully developed in another book.’ Burnham, Beyond Modern Sculpture, p. 11.

[30] Ibid. p. 369.

[31] Burnham, ‘Systems Esthetics,’ Artforum (Sept. 1968).

[32] Peter Osborne, ‘Presentation’, Open Systems: Rethinking Art c. 1970 Sym­posium (16–17 Sept., 2005). Archived at events/archive/OpenSystems/#friday (11/10/2007). Osborne continued by saying that any attempt to ‘literally or empirically’ reconstruct the terms of one’s discourse from the historical period is a ‘phantasmatic illusion’ because the ‘criteria of validity for critical discourse are different from those of empiricist historiography.’

[33] And acknowledging this means recognising the relationship between the discursive position of systems theory and the historical phenomenon that it both observes and constitutes by virtue of that observation. Luhmann engaged specifically with the issue of discursive self-reflexivity and the contingent relationship between an observing discursive system and that which it observes. See Niklas Luhmann, ‘Deconstruction as Second-Order Observing,’ New Literary History 24, pp. 763–82. See also William Rasch, Niklas Luhmann’s Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000).

[34] See Lippard, Six Years.

[35] Dick Higgins, ‘Intermedia’ (1966), reprinted in Donna De Salvo (ed.), Open Systems Rethinking Art c. 1970 (London: Tate Publishing, 2005). See also Higgins, Horizons, the Poetics and Theory of the Intermedia (Chicago: Illinois University Press, 1984) and Y. Spielmann, ‘Intermedia in Electronic Images,’ Leonardo, 34.1 (2001) pp. 55–61.

[36] Rosalind Krauss, ‘Reinventing the Medium. (art and photography)’ Critical Inquiry, vol. 25, no. 2 (Winter, 1999) p. 289.

[37] Ibid. p. 5.

[38] Krauss, A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2000) pp 55–62.

[39] The example of painting as a medium in Krauss’ terms is illustrated in Courbet Painter’s Studio (1854-55) which Courbet himself identified as a ‘real allegory’ of the technical and historical conditions of the medium of painting at the time at which it was painted. Michael Fried has developed this further by arguing that the painting is (with The Wheat Sifters, 1853) an ‘allegory of its own production’ in which Courbet depicts himself as ‘already immersed’ in his medium and ‘physically enclosed, one might say subsumed, within the painting he is making, wherever the ultimate limits of that painting are taken to lie.’ M. Fried, Courbet’s Realism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990) pp.155–161.

[40] Donna De Salvo, ‘Where We Begin – Opening the System, c. 1970,’ in D. De Salvo (ed.), Open Systems Rethinking Art.

[41] Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Dijon: Les Presses du Réel, 2002, orig. 1997) p. 14.

[42] An important criticism of Bourriaud’s position is that he narrowly seems to prioritise the aesthetic in his appreciation of such human interactions with their social systems. Such objections have been voiced articulately by Claire Bishop who has questioned the utopian need in Bourriaud’s theory for a ‘unified subject as a pre-requisite for community-as-togetherness,’ as unrealistic given the ‘divided and incomplete subject of today.’ Claire Bishop, ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,’ October (110, Fall 2004) pp. 51–79.

[43] Charlie Gere, “New Media Art,” The Art Book, vol. 12, 2 (2005) pp. 6–8.

[44] Mitchell, W.J.T., What Do Pictures Want? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005) p. 205.

[45] Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001) p. 36.

[46] Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want?, p. 211.

[47] Mark Hansen, New Philosophy for New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004) p. 60.

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