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The Experience Machine: Stan VanDerBeek’s Movie-Drome and Expanded Cinema

The Experience Machine: Stan VanDerBeek’s Movie-Drome and Expanded Cinema

by Gloria Sutton
The MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2015
257 pp., illus., 79 b/w. Trade, $35.00
ISBN: 978-0-262-02849-3.

Reviewed by Stephen Petersen


In 2012 the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York unveiled, as part of its show “Ghosts in the Machine,” a walk-in replica of Stan VanDerBeek’s prototypical Movie-Drome of nearly a half-century before-the dome of a farm silo, its interior converted to a hemispherical projection surface bathed in a stream of ever-changing, overlapping imagery. Ranging from photographs to abstract patterns, from paintings to computer-generated animations, the images, moving and still, were accompanied by a collaged soundtrack comprising what VanDerBeek called “sound-images.” Using updated digital technology (where VanDerBeek had, for the most part, relied on analog devices), the restaged Movie-Drome announced a resurgence of interest in a figure who, although he worked alongside John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Claes Oldenberg, and other notables, has himself occupied a comparatively marginal position in histories of postwar art and culture. That situation seems to be changing. In the past few years major exhibits have recreated, in addition to the Movie-Drome (1963-66), VanDerBeek’s Movie-Mural (1965), a wall covered with overlapping projections, and his pioneering Poemfields (1964-69)-digitally produced text/image/sound animations originally meant to be projected in the Movie-Drome.

Making use of archival materials newly brought to light, this book represents an equally ambitious attempt to reconsider VanDerBeek’s significance, in his own time and in ours. Sutton has sifted through a wealth of documentary matter and unearthed details about a number of fascinating and sometimes forgotten projects that show VanDerBeek to be a seminal figure on the cusp of the avant-garde and new media at the end of the 1960s, whose work fused artistic methods (such as collage and abstraction) with electronic media in ambitious real-time presentations. As an artist and filmmaker VanDerBeek did not so much produce objects (whether artistic or cinematic) as he designed experiences.

A proponent of “expanded cinema” (a term he likely coined, designating the opening of film into real space and time), VanDerBeek not only worked in different media; he also collaborated across media, as in the technologically ambitious 1965 work Variations V, which brought together the composer Cage, choreographer Cunningham, and, in its second iteration, video artist Nam June Paik among others. For this work, VanDerBeek’s Movie-Mural served both as backdrop and as a performance element in its own right. Variations V is often analyzed part-by-part, the whole conceived as an additive sum of media each with its own contribution and its own stake in the production. Sutton argues that a more nuanced understanding of “multimedia” is needed to describe the interactions whereby, for example, VanDerBeek’s film projections fall on Cunningham’s dancers while the dancers’ bodies cast shadows upon the projected backdrop. Adopting the concept of “remediation,” she defines multimedia as a qualitative shift, whereby “discrete forms … are mediated among and through one another” (138), rather than as merely the quantitative accumulation and juxtaposition of individual media forms.

Ultimately for Sutton, the “object” of VanDerBeek’s work is precisely the viewing subject, transformed through the immersive experience of the Movie-Drome. VanDerBeek’s critical contribution was, she writes, “the introduction of a multimedia subjectivity and a changing conception of the audience … that no longer typified the standard viewing habits as conditioned by museums, galleries, or other institutions for the dissemination of art” (24). This “multimedia subjectivity,” or what the artist himself called “communication consciousness,” represents a new relation of subject to work in the mass media environment. As the artist stated in his 1965 manifesto Culture-Intercom, “each member of the audience will build his own references from the image-flow” (93).

Although Sutton analyzes certain juxtapositions and sequences of VanDerBeek’s source images retrieved from the archive, it is ultimately the multiplicity and endlessly shifting relationships of all kinds of imagery that matters most. The effect is one of open-endedness that Cage, a sometimes collaborator with VanDerBeek, compared to the strategic elimination of authorial intent in his own works and in the “white paintings” of Robert Rauschenberg. With VanDerBeek, however, Cage believed the “renunciation of intention … is effected through the multiplication of images” (153). Consciousness-like, many things happen at once, appearing and disappearing, their meaning in flux.

Proposed as a prototype for a new, satellite-based art form, the Movie-Drome was, VanDerBeek declared in Culture-Intercom, an attempt to “combine” “existing audio-visual devices” into an “experience machine.” As Sutton observes, this experience is bodily as well as visual and aural. In the Movie-Drome, she writes, “The space itself gives you a message before the message itself” (86). A domed arena with no seats, allowing the audience members to improvise their own activities, the Movie-Drome has “no prescribed viewing position” (185). The fragmented and layered imagery on the ceiling is echoed by the lack of a fixed viewpoint from the floor (compare the standard movie theater, designed so that everyone sees essentially the “same thing” no matter where they sit). The Movie-Drome’s viewers are brought into the space of the work and given a freedom of both action and interpretation. Ultimately VanDerBeek envisioned the possibility of two-way communication via multiple Movie-Dromes.

Fostering dynamic rather than static viewing conditions had, Sutton notes, preoccupied twentieth-century avant-garde exhibition designers, foremost among them El Lissitzky, Frederick Kiesler, and Herbert Bayer. Placing VanDerBeek’s work in this tradition, she explores the Movie-Drome’s “particular intervention into display and exhibition techniques” (151), notably VanDerBeek’s adoption of Bayer’s “field of vision” concept-where the viewing body is encompassed by visual stimuli on all sides-but also his signal departure from the didactic aims of Bayer’s Bauhaus aesthetic. For VanDerBeek, the goal of immersing the viewer was never to convey a specific message but rather to open up the subject to new modes of consciousness, an ethical distinction.

The book’s penultimate chapter is devoted to the hypnotic Poemfields, made with Bell Lab physicist Ken Knowlton. These computer-generated films, writes Sutton, “melded the syntax of concrete poetry with the programming mechanics of early computing to generate a new type of animation that presented poetry in cinematic time” (16). In 1969 VanDerBeek showed the Poemfields in Tokyo as part of the Cross Talk Intermedia festival. Displayed on moving screens from projectors on rolling carts, the images became spatially as well as temporally dynamic. Recalling the event, festival organizer Joji Yuasa summed up what was at stake-and what, for Sutton, is VanDerBeek’s ultimate legacy: “What we saw here was not just a transformation in art, but also a transformation of the spectator” (187).

Emphasizing the Movie-Drome and related works, Sutton’s book basically ends in 1969, although VanDerBeek’s career would extend another decade and a half (he died in 1984). Not discussed is a later series of projects, done in collaboration with Joan Brigham, consisting of moving images projected onto steam. Starting with Fog, Mist, and Dreams, performed at MIT in 1975, and leading up to Steam Screens, done at the Whitney Museum in 1979, VanDerBeek and Brigham’s ephemeral works were intended to integrate private vision and public space (the use of steam as a projection surface harks back to Robertson’s Phantasmagoria of the 1790s). Viewers moved through the steam, seeing images as if from within, while becoming part of the work. Said Brigham, “As the steam changes the audience, the audience changes the steam.” For his part, VanDerBeek emphasized how the works mixed reality with unreality: “The audience walks through or lingers inside the physical image, experiencing something close to a mirage or hallucination.” VanDerBeek had originally called his Movie-Drome a “newsreel of dreams.” In his final decade, his art and writing were focused increasingly on dreams and dreaming, a field he termed “Dream Media Research.” Intuitive rather than intellectual, this oneiric aspect of his work begs for further exploration.

Last Updated 1st February 2016

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