In 1967, Stan VanDerBeek became an artist in residence at MIT’s nascent Center for Advanced Visual Studies, founded two years earlier by György Kepes. VanDerBeek, a filmmaker and a pioneer of what would soon be termed ‘expanded cinema’, was deeply interested in technology, which he called the ‘amplifier of the human imagination’. By this point, VanDerBeek had been working on the fringes of new technologies for several years. He created several experimental films in the 1950s and 1960s, and began working with computers in 1965. He had embarked, in collaboration with Ken Knowlton at Bell Labs, on a series of computer-generated films, using a programming language Knowlton wrote in 1963 called BEFLIX.
At ‘Stan VanDerBeek: The Culture Intercom’, the eye-opening recent retrospective of his work at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center (organized with the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston), punch-cards and yellowed print-outs of arcane BEFLIX code lay side by side with ‘Poemfields’ (1966–9), a stunning series of structural film collaborations with Knowlton. The hard lines of the bitmapped graphics are softened by the flicker of 16mm film, lending a haunting, ethereal effect as words in block lettering slowly fade in and out: ‘LIFE’; ‘THINGS’; ‘YOU’. The code nearby is covered with VanDerBeek’s copious notes and revisions in red and blue ink, and the punch-cards on view are the actual ones used; a computer scientist and I attempted to decipher the patterns of punches on VanDerBeek’s punch-cards, matching them to the lines of mostly inscrutable BEFLIX code. While VanDerBeek’s work has been shown in several other venues – a 2008 show at Guild & Greyshkul in New York, in particular, stands out – there is something peculiarly personal about seeing his work at MIT, where he worked for several years. One wonders what VanDerBeek would have thought of the MIT Media Lab, where the List is housed; the Media Lab was founded in 1985, a year after he died of cancer aged 57.
The List retrospective, which focused on VanDerBeek’s prolific output from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, functioned as a curious time-capsule of the history of art and technology. By tracing the arc of VanDerBeek’s life and work, the exhibition chronicled a period of remarkable convergence, one not only of the senses, and of multiple forms of media – concepts that VanDerBeek and other proponents of ‘expanded cinema’ embraced – but also of people and disparate institutions. It chronicled a time when an idiosyncratic artist like VanDerBeek could float between rural artist communes and Bell Labs, studying with both John Cage and MIT engineers.
In the 1950s VanDerBeek attended Black Mountain College, the legendary progressive school where Cage, Buckminster Fuller, Merce Cunningham and Josef Albers were among the instructors. His experience there was a major turning point in his life and, by the early 1960s, VanDerBeek had moved to an artist commune in upstate New York, where Cage was living for a time. Inspired by Fuller’s domes and Cage’s crash-collision of art forms, VanDerBeek began work on a 9.5-metre-high geodesic dome, planning for its interior to be awash in multiple film projections. This immersive environment, dubbed the ‘Movie-Drome’, would be a ‘prototype for a new kind of cinema-stage,’according to VanDerBeek.
In retrospect, the Movie-Drome seems like a quaint, trippy historical curiosity. At the List, the Movie-Drome was shown in the form of black and white photographs and written descriptions, making it difficult to visualize its breadth and vision. A motley assortment of projectors of various ages and sizes arranged on a table recreated a VanDerBeek ‘movie mural’ on a nearby wall; the riot of light and colour helped to simulate what the interior of the Movie-Drome may have been like. VanDerBeek’s overarching thesis is the most appealing: ‘The future holds unknown combinations of some of the present loosely knit ideas,’ he wrote during the time of the Movie-Drome. ‘Integration of cinema, theatre, dance, drama, electronic sound and sights, movie-dromes, video tape, libraries of film, kinetic and “expanded” cinema, “movie-murals,” “movie-mosaics”.’ It was the List exhibition’s emphasis on VanDerBeek’s internal dialogue, even more than the works themselves – his numerous notes, schematics, scrawls, drawings, diagrams – that made this survey so engrossing. ‘I like the process of making films,’ he wrote in 1966, ‘because it is a way for me to have dialogues with myself.’
Much of VanDerBeek’s most intriguing work occurred after he left the commune in upstate New York and came to MIT, where he ventured further into computer graphics, communications, and other emerging fields. His grasp of new technologies became more sophisticated, and better integrated into his artistic vision. Two works from this period, in particular, stand out: Violence Sonata, a double-channel video piece produced for public television in 1970 that instructed the viewer to take two television sets and place them next to each other, and the epic Telephone Murals (1970).
At the List, a massive telephone mural, conceived at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies in 1969 and sent, page by painstaking page, to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 1970, hung on one wall. Next to it were VanDerBeek’s detailed notes and instructions. It took two weeks to transmit a low-resolution black and white mural over telephone lines using a Telecopier, an ancestor of the fax machine. It was not only a technical feat, given the limitations at the time, but a visionary statement on the future of communication. In VanDerBeek’s voluminous writings from that period, he predicts the existence of the world wide web, Photoshop, YouTube, and much more. ‘The full flow of colour, sound, synthesized form, images changing image-ideas, and images of plastic form (abstract expression) have in no way begun to be explored in man’s experience,’ he wrote. VanDerBeek contributed to this full flow, in his work towards what he called a ‘non-verbal international picture-language’. As this inspired retrospective demonstrated, we are still catching up with his visions for the future.