Technological innovation is the hot-button topic of two major exhibitions that opened almost simultaneously earlier this year in art museums on opposite sides of the United States. “Coded: Art Enters the Computer Age, 1952–1982,” an elegantly shaped historical show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, celebrates the fascination that some visual artists have had with computers and artificial intelligence since the technology was in its infancy. “Signals: How Video Transformed the World” is an extravaganza that fills the sixth floor of the Museum of Modern Art in New York; its curators are embracing, with both enthusiasm and trepidation, today’s raucous wired universe. Taken together, “Coded” and “Signals” aim to bring museumgoers up to speed on the tangled relationship between people and machines as it has evolved in the past seventy or so years.
Among artists and intellectuals, technology has always been double-edged, utopian and dystopian. In the introduction to the catalog of “Coded,” Leslie Jones, the curator of the exhibition, looks to a group of artists at the University of Vincennes who fifty years ago saluted the computer as “a machine for expressing dreams.” They weren’t alone. Nam June Paik, famous for sculptural arrangements of heaped-high television sets, declared that “revolution in 1960 means electronification.” But technology’s “revolutionary dreams,” as Michelle Kuo and Stuart Comer, the curators of “Signals,” write in the introduction to that exhibition’s catalog, can be good news and bad news. While facilitating “the participatory network” and the “democratization and decentralization of information,” the same developments can lead to “the disintegration of those publics into niche audiences, the atomization of politics into a seemingly limitless series of echo chambers.” Kuo and Comer believe that technology can provide the tools for a modern-day David in a fight with some Goliath. But creative spirits who grapple with technology also find themselves confronting some dark myths. New media can be a Pandora’s box.
I want to put my cards on the table. I’m anything but enthusiastic about much if not most of the work in these shows. Artists, critics, curators, and museumgoers who respond enthusiastically to “Coded” and “Signals” will argue that for the twentieth- or twenty-first-century artist, a computer program, a Sony Portapak, or an iPhone is as legitimate a medium or tool as the lost wax process was for sculptors in ancient times or oil paint in flexible tubes was for the nineteenth-century landscape painter. I worry that the artists featured in “Coded” and “Signals,” infatuated as they are with some new or newish medium, have confused means with ends, experiments with results.
The act of creation always involves a certain element of magical thinking, a belief that craft, technique, and virtuosity can forge meaning from inert matter. More than a century after Duchamp first declared that a readymade industrial product—a bicycle wheel, a bottle rack, a snow shovel—could be a work of art, the old magical thinking has taken on, at least for some, a chillier mystique. In “Coded” and “Signals” technology becomes a form of magical thinking—the ultimate, the chilliest mystique. For the technologically oriented artist, the latest computer program or video camera can function as a kind of readymade. What “Coded” and “Signals” suggest is that the creative spirit is no longer the maker, the homo faber of classical thought, but is now an operator or facilitator with a shiny high-tech toy.
Half a century ago Jasia Reichardt, the curator and critic who organized the landmark “Cybernetic Serendipity” show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1968, made a rather significant observation in her book The Computer in Art (1971). She confessed that the movement had not as yet produced anything “that can be called a great work of art.” She hastened to add that this didn’t detract from its “importance as the means of reformulating the boundaries and definitions of creative activity as a whole.” For all I know, Reichardt, an admired figure in the London art world of the 1960s and 1970s, was waiting for that great work to appear. Or maybe not. As a teenager, she lived with her aunt and uncle, Franciszka and Stefan Themerson, whose Gaberbocchus Press celebrated Dadaist and anarchist strains in avant-garde thought. There is at least a bit of a Dadaist swagger in Reichardt’s declaration, in The Computer in Art, that “anyone able either to write a computer program, or to use a computer program,” can become an artist.
Computer and video art, for all their sophistication, have a way of degenerating into an elaborately engineered amateurism. In both “Coded” and “Signals” technological savvy and artistic naiveté all too often go hand in hand. In 1966 Leon D. Harmon and Kenneth C. Knowlton, at Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey, made an enormous image of a reclining nude woman by scanning a photograph into an IBM 7094 computer so that the grays of the photograph were turned into a series of lighter and darker groupings of graphic icons. No more than an exercise, this work, titled Studies in Perception I (Alpha Serendipity), received a good deal of attention in the years after it was produced, and it is displayed, all 60 by 144 inches of it, in the central gallery of “Coded.” Harmon and Knowlton may have regarded both the picture and the title as a bit of a joke. But is it really all that funny? Stunts and documents aren’t necessarily works of art, although the curators at LACMA and MoMA wouldn’t be sorry to have us think otherwise.
The giddy dawn that “Coded” sometimes suggests, with early adopters blissed out by the new technological possibilities, is roiled if not obliterated in the stormy weather of “Signals.” This is not to say that the dangers of technology weren’t already evident in the 1960s, certainly in the stern warnings issued by Lewis Mumford but also, at least implicitly, in the frenzied, almost bacchic celebration of innovation in the writings of Marshall McLuhan and others. In both “Coded” and “Signals” the technological imagination is all too often divorced from any clear concept of artistic process. That confusion, already well advanced in the midcentury experiments traced in “Coded,” dominates “Signals.”
At the beginning of the exhibition at MoMA, live segments from Fox, CNN, and MSNBC blare from the twelve TV monitors in an updated version of Gretchen Bender’s TV Text and Image, originally presented in 1990 (see illustration below). Does anybody think they need to go to a museum to see clips of Whoopi Goldberg or Rishi Sunak? Some of the most honorable and engaging work in “Signals,” videos documenting injustices and protests around the world, have nothing to do with the ability of the photographers and filmmakers involved to structure or shape their undeniably worthwhile material. A visitor to “Signals” can be left with the impression that the onslaught of technology has rendered artfulness and artifice beside the point. What need is there for art in the age of artificial intelligence? That may be the question that haunts these shows.
Installed in five generously proportioned rooms at LACMA, “Coded” exudes a mid-twentieth-century chic. The gray walls, with the works on display serenely spaced, suggest an idealized laboratory, everything spic-and-span. The opening gallery sets the stage. We are given a taste of the Mad Men glamour of the postwar corporate world, when there was a fashionable mythology around computers. The new machines were given an avant-garde edge by creative types, prominent among them Charles and Ray Eames, who produced striking films and exhibitions for IBM. “Coded” includes IBM Box, a suave metal sculpture by Thomas Chimes that suggests something Joseph Cornell might have dreamed up if he’d wanted to kid around about computers. Apparently the publicity people at IBM liked IBM Box so much—it’s a sort of Neoplatonic riff on computer engineering, a nonutilitarian joke about utilitarianism—that they included it in a promotional brochure for the System/360 Model 44.
Leslie Jones has brought a broad perspective and a deft touch to this exhibition and the accompanying catalog, in which more than a dozen contributors survey a complex landscape with admirable clarity. Jones is interested in what in a wall text is referred to as “computational aesthetics.” This is a sensibility that draws on age-old affinities between art and mathematics and reflects a desire “to depersonalize the creative process and challenge notions of the unique art object in favor of math’s seeming universality.” Algorithms (which she defines as “a prescribed set or sequence of well-defined rules used to carry out a task or solve a problem”) attracted many artists, musicians, and writers, whether or not they turned to computers. In a gallery where works by Donald Judd, Bridget Riley, and Victor Vasarely, all done so far as I know without the intervention of a computer, are juxtaposed with works that do involve one—including drawings by the painter Frederick Hammersley and the filmmaker John Whitney Sr.’s PERMUTATIONS (1968)—Jones nails down what has often been thought of as the 1960s sensibility. It was a time when very different artists, doing work variously described as Pop, Minimalist, and Conceptual, were rejecting the hot, Expressionist ethos of much of the art of the 1950s. The computer—the coolest of all machines—fit right in.
The urge to collaborate with the computer, to see it not only as a tool or technique but maybe even a source of inspiration, percolates all through “Coded.” This is a new chapter in the old romance with the machine. But what the exhibition suggests is that to the extent that an artist can coax artistic surprise or inspiration from the computer, it’s because the artist already knows enough about art to see how to use one. Among the few artists in “Coded” who generate something that’s visually convincing out of the mundane marks made by early computer printouts is Hammersley, who has long been admired for the hard-edged, austere geometric abstractions that he made in California in the 1960s. In 1969, using an IBM 360/40 computer and an IBM 1403 printer at the University of New Mexico, where he was teaching, he marshaled the available symbols (letters, numbers, punctuation marks, and blanks) and the possibility of overprinting a second layer of symbols to produce a series of piquant abstractions. By emphasizing contrasts of darker and lighter and straight, angled, and curved forms, he managed to construct, with rather limited means, a dynamic, dramatic chiaroscuro that obviously depends on his own sense of pictorial possibilities. Because Hammersley is a highly sophisticated artist, he knows what to do with the technology, which is inherently inert, inexpressive. He’s fully in control.
In the 1960s artists, musicians, and writers used computer programs to generate random or unexpected arrangements; “Coded” touches to one degree or another on work in all these disciplines. What seems obvious, at least to me, is that in every case the interest in effects that are random, arbitrary, or unexpected precedes the effort to generate new arrangements with the computer.
John Cage, the composer whose sibylline observations serve as a prologue to the “Coded” catalog, could hardly have gotten very far with his sometimes computer-assisted music if he hadn’t found inspiration in sounds and sensations produced before the appearance of computers, in works including Erik Satie’s Parade (1917) and any number of compositions by Edgard Varèse. Innovation is fueled by a tradition of innovation. As for the literary arts, “Coded” includes some examples of the computer-generated concrete poetry of the time. Looking at Brion Gysin’s I Am That I Am (1959), a poem that repeats the same three words over and over again in slightly different arrangements, I found myself wondering if anybody would have thought to program a computer in this way if Gertrude Stein, in Tender Buttons (1914) and other early works, hadn’t already achieved something similar without any computer assistance—and with far more convincing poetic results. I’m not saying that the computer doesn’t have its creative uses. But a lesson to be learned from “Coded” is that you can’t get out more than you put in.
It seems to me that the whole question of the relationship between art and artificial intelligence is only the most recent episode in a discussion about the rival claims of the human and the machine that goes back to Leonardo and even earlier. Some of the more persuasive works in “Coded” exude a cautious optimism about that relationship, as if the artists were feeling the afterglow of an attitude we tend to associate with the Bauhaus, where there was an expectation that new technologies would make it possible for artists to produce a better or at least a more beautiful world. Some of the abstract films shown in “Coded”—by Richard Baily, John Stehura, and John Whitney Sr.—bring to mind experiments with photography and film that developed not only at the Bauhaus but all over Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. The artists are explorers and technology is a new, exotic landscape.
M 3×3 (1973), perhaps the most captivating work in the exhibition, is a record of a dance performance by the Brazilian choreographer Analivia Cordeiro. This brings to mind the Triadic Ballet that Oskar Schlemmer developed at the Bauhaus in the 1920s. Cordeiro filmed a group of dancers in stark black-and-white costumes performing on a black-and-white gridded floor, their movements determined by a computer. The dancers, the costumes, and the movements combine to create a cycle of unfolding abstract signs. There’s a winning combination of intricacy and lucidity about the way the dancers perform the programmed choreography. The flesh-and-blood women become abstractions of themselves—and there’s a kind of glory in that. Cordeiro is reimagining a very old idea of the dancer as other than (or beyond) human, a figure whose muscular prowess and sophistication suggest something mechanical but also almost divine.
“Coded” concludes in the 1980s, well before the computer achieved the ubiquity it has today. By then the sense that there was something esoteric or even aristocratic about these machines had already given way to a more casual, user-friendly, even populist sense of the computer. Some of the projects in “Coded” seem downright silly, the urge to do something with a computer becoming its own rather trite justification. A. Michael Noll’s and Frieder Nake’s computer-generated variations on works by Mondrian and Klee are just copycat stuff. Hans Haacke’s News (1969), an RSS feed that spews reams of paper with summaries of the news of the day, won’t give you anything you can’t find on your smartphone. If “Coded” loses focus in the later galleries, it may be because the subject itself becomes more and more of a sprawl. Computer art, initially conceived in the light of the old modern virtues of austerity, sobriety, and intellectual complexity, has turned into a postmodern or antimodern free-for-all.
Although “Signals” reaches back to the 1960s and 1970s, the show really takes off in the 1980s, at the point where “Coded” concludes. The curators at MoMA are interested in how video technology and computer technology were merging—a synergy that shapes how we’re living now. From the vantage point of the rampaging technology of “Signals,” the relationship between art and technology in “Coded” can seem like an old-fashioned minuet. Nam June Paik, with work in both shows, illustrates an evolution from the inventor-in-the-garage spirit of “Coded” to the industrial-strength work that dominates “Signals.”
In “Coded,” Paik is represented by a modest black-and-white lithograph from 1966 that reproduces a page of binary data received from the Mariner 4 spacecraft; it consists of rows of 0’s and 1’s that transmit information about the surface of Mars. Paik’s main contribution to “Signals” is an arrangement of four color television monitors playing differently edited versions of Good Morning, Mr. Orwell, a noisy video collage with contributions by Paik’s friends, including Laurie Anderson, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham; it was broadcast on New Year’s Day, 1984, from studios in New York and Paris. Although I don’t have anything good to say about either work, the modesty of First “Snapshots” of Mars is certainly easier to take than the shouting match of Good Morning, Mr. Orwell. Designed as a riposte to Orwell’s vision of the oppressive power of television in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Paik’s visual onslaught is oppressive in its own way, the avant-garde attitudinizing so self-absorbed as to feel autocratic.
The curators of “Signals” see the artist as wresting control of technology—if not exactly from the military-industrial complex then certainly from the media-industrial complex. But it may be that the development, however liberating, of machines that anybody can use without any particular effort—whether the personal computer, the portable video camera, or the smartphone—has robbed the artist of the opportunity to master a challenging medium. In the “Coded” catalog John Cage declares (this is from his 1967 book A Year from Monday) that “what we need is a computer that isn’t labor-saving but which increases the work for us to do.” However skeptical you may be about some of Cage’s music, it’s impossible not to admire the Victorian sobriety of this declaration that hard work ought to be the artist’s lot. After his own fashion Cage was still homo faber confronting a herculean task.
There could be no greater contrast between Cage’s words and a declaration made by Tiffany Sia, whose Never Rest/Unrest (2020), an assemblage of smartphone videos made during the protests in Hong Kong in 2019, is one of two works that frame the entrance to “Signals.” In a catalog essay she writes:
The smartphone affords a view of the front lines anywhere in the world, in any crisis and sometimes in real time. Anyone with a phone could have shot Never Rest/Unrest. This is the democratization of video, and it’s happening at an unprecedented scale. It’s a mass medium in which we are all literate, that we all intimately know.
But if anyone with a phone could have shot Never Rest/Unrest, does it follow that there’s no particular art or artistry involved?
“Signals” is confusing and chaotic, perhaps intentionally so, an effort to reflect the stress of the twenty-four-hour news cycle, if not the stress of contemporary life. In part the situation is logistical, because museumgoers are almost inevitably confounded by a very large show with many individual videos and video assemblages that they would need ten, twenty, thirty, or more minutes to watch from end to end. But the confusion is also integral to the interactive nature of the wired world, where the relationship between the artist, the artwork, and the audience is meant to be fluid. At least a couple of works in “Signals” involve surveillance cameras installed in the gallery, so that you look at a screen and find that you’re looking at yourself. Julia Scher’s Information America (1995) is an assemblage of office furniture and electronic equipment, including three surveillance cameras. When we see ourselves on one of Scher’s grainy, black-and-white monitors, I suppose we’re expected to feel we’re being watched by the FBI or CIA (or MoMA?). But to what purpose? To what end?
In Wipe Cycle (1969) by Frank Gillette and Ira Schneider, black-and-white video clips appear and disappear on nine monitors, one of which is always blank and several of which beam back images of whoever is standing in front of the display. The nine screens stacked in three rows create a grid against which images play leapfrog and hide-and-seek. The movement of images from screen to screen has an inviting rhythm. Writing about Wipe Cycle in 1970, the year after it was first exhibited, the critic Richard Kostelanetz found it “compelling and mysterious.” I wouldn’t necessarily disagree, but I’m not sure the mystery is deepened or sustained if you linger. “Signals” asks a lot of museumgoers. At times, as in Information America, we’re supposed to be citizens confronting hard facts. At other times, certainly in Wipe Cycle, you might find yourself thinking of Rilke’s fifth Duino Elegy and the travelers who are “even more transient than we ourselves.”
John Akomfrah’s Handsworth Songs (1986), a standout in “Signals,” expects us to be both citizens and poets. Working with other members of the Black Audio Film Collective, Akomfrah explores the life of the British Caribbean community in the Handsworth section of Birmingham, England. He presents an unflinching account of the confrontations between rioters and police that consumed Handsworth in 1985, but he’s equally attentive to the optimism of immigrants first arriving in Great Britain after World War II, the terrific music they brought from the Americas, and the honorable efforts at integration that never went far enough. There’s something of a sketchbook informality about this nuanced film. Akomfrah is attuned to the beauty of figures and faces and streetscapes as they emerge in the black-and-white and color footage. He finds a plangency—a casual splendor—in a hardscrabble, sometimes brutal world. At MoMA Handsworth Songs plays in a black box gallery fitted out with comfortable seating, but from what I could gather very few museumgoers had the inclination or the patience to sit for more than a minute or two of this hour-long movie.
There are videos in “Signals” that have a forthright documentary impact, at least if you stay with them long enough to absorb the stories they’re telling. Among the works presented on monitors near the beginning of the show is Four More Years, a record of the 1972 Republication National Convention in Miami Beach produced by a collective called TVTV using the Sony Portapak. Friends of Minamata Victims—Video Diary by the artist Fujiko Nakaya is an account of the eighty-first day of the 1972 protests against the Chisso Corporation, which had released toxic waste into Minamata Bay in southern Japan. Although these half-century-old videos speak to current political and social concerns, museumgoers may be hard-pressed to respond, when so many more immediately beguiling attractions are on offer.
However determined Kuo and Comer are to confound any fixed distinction between art and life or art and politics, all too often the documentary material included in “Signals” feels uncomfortably aestheticized—and, frankly, trivialized—by the self-conscious, museum-ready presentation. Dara Birnbaum’s Tiananmen Square: Break-In Transmission (1990), with tiny LCD screens mounted on black pipes that angle out of the ceiling, strikes me as a disturbingly icy way to present footage from the protests that ended with bloodshed in Beijing in 1989. What does Birnbaum have in mind when she gives authoritarian evil the kind of deluxe minimalist presentation we’d expect for jewelry in a SoHo boutique? I find it inexplicable. I also have reservations about the presentation of Artur Żmijewski’s Democracies (2009), a collection of high-definition videos documenting popular protests over a couple of years in Austria, France, Germany, Poland, and the Middle East. Displayed on twenty monitors mounted ten to a wall on two sides of a corridor at MoMA, this altogether honorable material takes on a disarmingly decorative quality—a sort of drumroll of disquieting images saluting museumgoers as they amble along the hall. A few people stop and take a look, but I worry that the twenty monitors turn a worldwide crisis into a visual smorgasbord.
Many of the works in “Signals” were created for particular places or as responses to particular events. At MoMA some are now double dated, indicating that what we’re seeing is a reconstruction or perhaps a reinvention of the original work. I’ve already mentioned Gretchen Bender’s TV Text and Image, which although originally created in 1990 is shown at MoMA with the latest news shows on a live feed. At the very beginning of the exhibition there’s a reconstruction of Hole in Space by Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, a 1980 project that set up a live interactive video/audio satellite link between pedestrians in Los Angeles and New York. The crowds laugh, clap, and cheer at the crowds on the other coast, but it all feels remote, the washed-out video suggesting some of the blurred nostalgia that we know from old home movies. For years MoMA has been building a video collection from which much if not most of the exhibition has been drawn. Its studious preservation of all these old experiments has a way of turning the progressive impulses of many of the artists inside out. Present tense becomes past tense. The result is a retrofuturism.
“Signals” sets out to explore what the French Marxist Guy Debord, in a book first published in 1967, dubbed “the modern spectacle.” Video documents the contemporary spectacle even as it becomes part of the spectacle. “Video is everywhere and nowhere at once,” the curators announce at the beginning of the catalog. “It surrounds us as signals and waves and data flows, but it remains ephemeral, shape-shifting, endlessly dispersed and dislocated.” The results can be beguiling and bewildering. It’s not always easy to know if the curators are approaching their subject in a spirit of celebration or critique. I don’t know if they’re more interested in highlighting the social and political fevers of our time or in making a spectacle of the museum itself. I’m not sure they know the answer.
In the catalog, an inchoate (perhaps calculatedly inchoate) document with contributions from nearly thirty writers, the work on display is often put through a theoretical meat grinder. Having celebrated the idea of the artist on the barricades with a video camera at the ready, many of the contributors find themselves bewildered not only by the rightward drift of many countries around the globe but also by the apparent inability of artists to make much of a difference—or any difference at all. Writing about Black Celebration (1988) by Tony Cokes, a gathering of newsreel footage from 1960s uprisings in various American cities that incorporates some quotations from Debord, the artist Aria Dean sees in images that “ultimately blur into an indistinct montage” a frustrated response to a “police procedural operation and regime of representation that deftly maintain a white-supremacist status quo.” Is that just a fancy way of justifying a formal failure?
The scholar Ravi Sundaram, on a catalog page featuring a shot of supporters of Narendra Modi waving and taking smartphone pictures as his plane leaves a rally in Bangalore, expresses a pessimism that a museumgoer will certainly encounter in the show: “How do we re-energize critique in the post-pandemic landscape, amid the hegemonic power of media-driven platform capitalism?” Sundaram’s heavily armored theoretical thought is symptomatic of “Signals,” where artists and writers seem primed for a battle they fear they will lose. In the labyrinthine logic of the exhibition, both the failures and what Sundaram calls the reenergizing of critique are somehow lashed to the failures and successes of the artist. In place of Roland Barthes’s mandarin reflections on the death of the author, we now have the battle-weary videographer, the artist as a guerrilla activist trying to stare down defeat.
“Fakes and leaks and fiction inundate the circuits,” the curators observe. “Video evidence is all too often drowned out. If we are to survive the noise, if we are to find new publics and politics and forms of communion amid the din, we might look to the artists in these pages.” I’m interested by the tentative note struck by the word might. The artists, having gone out into the world with all their fancy new equipment, have staggered back to the museum with more questions than answers. Much of what they’ve produced is little more than documentary evidence—and in the age of fake news all evidence is suspect.
This isn’t the first time that either MoMA or LACMA has explored contemporary art in the light of technological innovation. Beginning in 1967, under the auspices of the curator Maurice Tuchman, LACMA organized an Art and Technology Program that brought together artists and corporate sponsors to produce unexpected visual results and received a good deal of national attention. Although MoMA never worked quite so overtly to bring artists and engineers together, the museum was certainly eager to embrace technological trends in the 1960s and 1970s.
It was MoMA, in 1960, that sponsored the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely’s Homage to New York, a vast kinetic sculptural assemblage that was designed to self-destruct in the museum’s garden; it became the subject of an essay in The New Yorker that launched Calvin Tomkins’s career. Eight years later MoMA mounted “The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age,” an exhibition that included a fragment from Homage to New York and traced the tangled relationship between artists and technology all the way from some drawings by Leonardo in the Codex Atlanticus to the digitized nude that Harmon and Knowlton dreamed up at Bell Labs. “The Machine” incorporated some projects that had been sponsored by Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT), an organization that Robert Rauschenberg helped put together.
At MoMA “The Machine” show was followed in 1970 by “Information.” The curator, Kynaston McShine, focused on artists who, as he described in a press release, “are part of a culture that has been considerably altered by communications systems such as television and film.” In his foreword to the “Signals” catalog, Glenn D. Lowry, MoMA’s director, draws a direct line from “Information” to “Signals”; both shows emphasize interactivity and the idea of the observer as actor or maybe even artist. Michael Govan, LACMA’s director, in his forward to the “Coded” catalog, makes a similar connection between LACMA’s Art and Technology Program and the current show. Some sixty years after tech first burst into the museums, everything that was new then is new again.
Pontus Hultén, the Swedish curator and museum director who organized “The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age,” was also instrumental in organizing the pioneering “Movement in Art” show at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1961. He devoted much of his career to making connections between the experimental spirit of European art in the 1920s and 1930s and a resurgent optimism in the postwar period—a creative optimism I’m not sure we can easily embrace today. In an incisive introduction to the catalog of “The Machine,” Hultén entertained many of the same questions that the curators of “Coded” and “Signals” must consider today. Fifty years ago Hultén was frightened by what he called “the notion that modern technology has an evolution of its own, which is uncontrollable and independent of human will.” He worried that “deterministic laws, analogous to natural laws,…govern the development of technology.” And he hoped that the “human capacities, freedom, and responsibility that prevail in art” might somehow make a difference in the wider world. The questions remain. What can artists do with technology? Will it free them or imprison them?
If “Signals” offers even a partial answer to this question, I would look for it in a work that happens to be almost technologically primitive, at least by comparison with everything else on display. This is Stan VanDerBeek’s Movie-Drome (1964–1965; see illustration above). A capacious metal dome, large enough to accommodate a dozen or more museumgoers, is the staging ground for a wraparound kinetic collage, with VanDerBeek’s mythomaniacal vision kept in perpetual motion by a half-dozen film and slide projectors. VanDerBeek, a legendary figure in experimental film, is also included in “Coded,” with the brief Poemfield No. 1 (Blue Version) (1967), made in collaboration with Kenneth C. Knowlton. In “Signals” he appears as an ancestor of the video movement, because although his dreams for his Movie-Drome remained unfulfilled, his idea was that there would be a worldwide network of such displays, which some see as prefiguring the World Wide Web. But what museumgoers who linger inside VanDerBeek’s montage are going to feel isn’t so much the universality as the particularity of his vision.
Movie-Drome feels like an art history lesson gone wild, with slides of sculptures from different times and places reeling across the domed space along with photographs of men and women and animals and landscapes. There’s hardly anything that VanDerBeek doesn’t seem to want to include. Faces, bodies, streets, buildings, and glimpses of sky and water overlap, rotate, and careen through what amounts to a many-layered cosmology. Words and phrases appear, both printed and handwritten, but they’re generally gone before we can figure out what they’re meant to tell us. The color, rich and varied, suggests a shattering rainbow, but there are wonderful grays as well. It was all originally generated—and remains basically generated, despite some digitizations of select films and 70mm slides—by 16mm film projectors and old-fashioned slide projectors, equipment that for contemporary museumgoers can feel positively antique. There’s a pleasure in this primitivism. We have no trouble seeing how the machines actually work, while the technology of the smartphones we hold in our hands remains, at least for most of us, mysterious. We can see that VanDerBeek is bending the technology to his own will. Movie-Drome is one of the rare instances in either “Coded” or “Signals” where the machine doesn’t threaten to get the better of the artist.