Stan VanDerBeek: The Culture Intercom at MIT List Visual Art Center

I’m reluctant to quote from Emerson’s Quotation and Originality, but it really does add to a conversation about the Stan VanDerBeek exhibition at MIT. While Emerson is obsessed with verbal communication and upholding the cannon as a garden that we can “honestly” borrowed from, The Culture Intercom actively fights the idea that “all minds quote” and “the originals are not original.”

VanDerBeek’s career was filled with experimental projects in film, early computer art, and the cybernetic-tinged utopian non-verbal communication that moved art into uncharted waters. If Al Gore invented the internet, than VanDerBeek envisioned it first. The working model of visual and cultural lateral leaps found in Mankinda (1957) carries through his later works like Newsreal of Dreams (1976). Each relies on associative leaps made out of a psychedelic arrangement of random things– frenetic, non-stable images morphing and fluctuating their meanings in the blink of an eye. The central work, a recreation of Movie-Drome, contains popular movies, art history slides, and contemporary music entangled in an overwhelming collage that is impossible to completely experience.

The show’s title comes from one futuristic option that came out of his Buckminster Fuller-esque dome for the original Movie-Drome, at Gate Hill Co-op in Stony Point NY. The idea was, that “non-verbal international picture language” could be beamed out via satellite to other domes. These were not motion pictures, but emotion pictures, filed with deep utopian notions of what we are capable of becoming in the future. Today we just make do with UbuWeb, YouTube, and tabbed browsing, but an alternative art broadcast system would be an excellent invention.

VanDerBeek’s cybernetic cold-warrior surroundings pop up in Breathdeath (1963) a few times. This and other works were a huge influence on Terry Gilliam, both during the Do Not Adjust your Set and Monty Python eras. Both Gilliam and VanDerBeek grew up in the post world war era and wore their politics on their sleeves. A central concern was if these new technologies would end in mutually assured self-destruction or if they would free us. There was a fear that technology was out to get us.

His Violence Sonata is probably the most utopian of the work shown. It’s a two hour video that was broadcast on channels 2 and 44 in Boston on January 12, 1970. He hoped that neighbors would get together and watch two televisions simultaneously. This experiment was designed to spark discussions about race relations and violence. There was even a live call-in portion and a studio audience who were asked  “Can man communicate?”

Part of VanDerBeek’s originality stems from his quoting. The use of altered, but popular and accessible images and their loaded messages allowed for cybernetic feedback loops and open systems that MIT was known for during VanDerBeek’s tenure as a Fellow at CAVS. I think in 2011 it is easy to see this type of artwork unconsciously quoted by freshman video classes, but this exhibition creates a coherent vision of VanDerBeek trying to harness these technologies for art’s sake, even if he wasn’t sure that it was possible.

Stan VanDerBeek: The Culture Intercom Will be on view at MIT List Visual Art Center from February 4- April 3, 2011. There will be a gallery talk by Fred Barzyk and David Atwood of WGBH on Thursday March 10 about Violence Sonata. March 31 there will be a screening of 16mm films not included in the exhibition. It will also be on view at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston from May 14- July 10, 2011.

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