Stan VanDerBeek

UC Press/Afterimage Link


MIT List Visual Arts Center
Cambridge, Massachusetts
February 4-April 3, 2011

“It is imperative that we (the world’s artists) invent a new world language . . .” – Stan VanDerBeek

If we tend to see the present through a rearview mirror, as Marshall McLuhan observed, “Stan VanDerBeek: The Culture Intercom” revealed an artist who drove everywhere in reverse in order to perceive the future. A self-described “technological fruit-picker,” the late VanDerBeek guided film and other time-based media into uncharted territory with an inner compass trained in equal measure to the vicissitudes of technological progress and the ways this progress would impact the human experience. A student at both Cooper Union and Black Mountain College, VanDerBeek began his artistic career as a painter in the 1940s. By the early 1950s he had become an influential underground filmmaker, and by the end of that decade he was a pioneer of what critic Gene Youngblood dubbed “expanded cinema.” As a result, through the variegated constellation of artistic thought and production on display in “The Culture Intercom,” the viewer comes to appreciate just how long and indelible a shadow VanDerBeek cast across our present media-based artistic environment.

“The Culture Intercom” effectively integrated two core valences of the artist’s work, one personal and the other global in scope. On one hand, a personal mythology and iconography permeate VanDerBeek’s artistic production, foregrounding opinions, humor, dreams, visual incantations, and idiosyncrasies that arise from a culturally and historically conditioned human being. On the other hand, one senses an attempt to facilitate and manifest universal dialogue – by means of what VanDerBeek termed a “non-verbal, international picture language” – behind everything he did. “The world hangs by a thread of verbs and nouns,” he once proclaimed.

Indeed, all of VanDerBeek’s work seems intent on freeing humanity from the snares of its own creativity; as critic Sheldon Renan observed, “he sees a race between world destruction and world communication, with the lack of the latter accelerating the former.'” Yet VanDerBeek’s work is decidedly Utopian, exposing the social, political, and technological milieu in which he lived, and at the same time striving to unify world cultures vis-à-vis a media-based, non-verbal means of communication – a strategy he pitched as “Culture Intercom.” If this sounds old hat, the exhibition actually provided a wake-up call. At first glance, VanDerBeek’s works, which often employed inchoate methods, may not seem all that groundbreaking. Yet they allow us to better perceive the lack of critical distance that characterizes today’s cultures of connectivity and media convergence. Whether painted by his own hand, collaged and animated from various media sources, or produced in alliance with the logic of a Bell Labs computer program, VanDerBeek’s artistic voice reverberated throughout “The Culture Intercom.”

A creative omnivore, VanDerBeek’s sources of inspiration were legion and far-flung, ranging from dadaist collage and the staccato rhythms of the Beat Generation to the cinema of Georges Méliès and Buster Keaton, the Utopian teachings of R. Buckminster Fuller, and the exploding fields of information theory and cybernetics. Beginning with his earliest animated collages, such as Mankinda (1957), Breathdeath (1963), and The Human Face is a Monument (1965), we witness VanDerBeek find his artistic voice amid bits of juxtaposed news, found footage, and ephemera. Often blended with his own hand-painted imagery, these frequently satirical and stirring evocations can be seen as his first attempts to use media imagery to achieve emancipatory effects.

Standing amid what VanDerBeek termed the “image flow” of his Movie Mural (1968), and what critic Howard Junker referred to as “a multiple-projection image bath,” the guiding impulse to unshackle the mind seems to reach an apogee. Amid the hubbub produced by more than fifteen overlapping slide, video, and overhead projectors, a sonic and visual web gave the viewer a taste of the artist’s original immersive environments. In an adjacent room, a film entitled Home Drome (1963) documented VanDerBeek’s construction of the Movie-Drome, an aluminized steel dome thirty-one feet in diameter, built to “[envelop] visitors lying down on the floor with a total flow of images – what the artist called the environment’s ‘visual velocity.'” 2

While many additional works included in the show deserve mention, in Movie Mural, and in the erection of his MovieDrome, we witness the crystallization of something essential to VanDerBeek’s oeuvre. In the final analysis, the core of his art may not lie in the artworks themselves, but in the process of social attunement they facilitate. As the critic Jürgen Klaus has written, VanDerBeek’s “intention went far beyond the [MovieDromé] itself and moved into the surrounding biosphere, the cosmos, the brain, and even extraterrestrial intelligence.”3 These “collages of media,” as Sheldon Renan observed, were intended to allow viewers to assimilate, in their own way, vast amounts of information by optical means. This valorization of subjectivity was about more than simply achieving universality; VanDerBeek may have believed it provided immunization against the ravages of pre-packaged narrative, demagoguery, advertising, and propaganda.

The immediacy of the media messages that VanDerBeek captured, painted, and juxtaposed was maintained beautifully throughout “The Culture Intercom.” The messages appear selfevident, as if more suspended in amber than carried by humanmade technologies. If there is a ghost in the machine, it just may be VanDerBeek, whose work, in Youngblood’s words, is about “man’s ongoing historical drive to manifest his consciousness outside of his mind, in front of his eyes.”4

NOTES 1. Sheldon Renan, An Introduction to the American Underground Film (New York: Dutton, 1967), 190. 2. Chris Salter, Entangled: Technology and the Transformation of Performance (Cambridge: The MTT Press, 2010, 157). 3. Jürgen Klaus, “Stan VanDerBeek: An Early Space Art Pioneer” Leonardo 36, no. 3 (2003): 229. 4. Gene Yorngbhad, Expanded Cinema (New York: Dutton, 1970), 41.

Publication: Afterimage
Date published: May 1, 2011