As Daniela Zyman has observed, the work of Diana Thater is concerned with a kind of critical conceptualism.1 Thater’s thinking also displays the kind of idealism which characterized the collaborative spirit of the 1960s and early 70s, a period by which she is deeply influenced. The future that almost wasn’t, a new collaborative performance piece made by Thater and musician and composer T. Kelly Mason during Thater’s ArtPace residency, is a synthesis of these two strands of thinking. The piece adopts a critical approach to what both artists perceive as an absence of content and an empty spectacularity in much recent video projection and contemporary music performance.
Working with two other film and video artists from Los Angeles, Jessica Bronson and Jennifer Lane, and two guest-DJs from Los Angeles, Chris Wilder and David Hollander, Thater and Mason created a live video projection and sound environment, within which the artists and musicians performed for five hours on two occasions. Following Guy Debord’s logic that plagiarism is essential if history demands it, six video projectors and fourteen video decks were used to mix video images live, selecting from 300 videotapes containing clips from the history of moving images, including film, television, art, advertising and the artists’ own work.
Sequences, appearing in up to ten-minute clips, included 1960s television news footage of the Black Panther movement, scenes from Zabriskie Point, Bruce Nauman’s performative videotapes, a psychedelic sequence from an avant-garde film by Jordan Belson, clips from Fluxus films, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, performance documentation of the Viennese Actionist Otto Muehl, Werner Herzog’sThe Enigma of Kasper Hauser and footage of Esther Williams. On both occasions, the performance began with six clips from films depicting the Big Bang, suggesting both the beginning and the end of the world. The clips, juxtaposed by the VJs, were projected around the walls of the gallery, which were covered with white vinyl screen material to create a kind of soft architecture. White foam squares, on which the audience sat, were scattered across the floor.
This marathon DJ/VJ performance has four distinctive elements which appeared during the 50s, 60s and 70s and have recently re-emerged in the intensely pluralistic cultural climate of the late 90s: collaboration, duration, a strong connection between art and experimental music and a rebellion against the commodification of art. The collaborative format of The future… recalls participatory expanded cinema environments of the 1960s such as Andy Warhol’s multi-media Exploding Plastic Inevitable event of 1965, which combined film, slides and live music by the Velvet Underground. John Cage’s multi-media event HPSCHD, produced in collaboration with Ronald Nameth and Lejaren Hiller in 1969, is perhaps closest to The future…’s live interaction between images and sound. Cage, Nameth and Hiller projected over 100 films and 8000 slides onto windows and a circle of screens covered in white polyethylene, with Cage using the I-Ching to determine the selection of sounds produced by the computer.
Unlike Cage’s collaborative piece, in which the slide and film sequences were pre-determined, the VJs and DJs in The future… exercised their choices with equal randomness, each responding to the other’s decisions. Mason, working with Chris Wilder inside a small enclosed booth covered in a white scrim in the gallery space, used two turntables, keyboards, drum machines, a computer and a ‘midi’ (a ‘musical instrument digital interface,’ through which sounds can be electronically pre-recorded and manipulated). Their performance included commercially and independently recorded music, live sound and pre-recorded compositions by Mason, mixed live according to the video imagery appearing on the screens around the room, which, in turn, changed in response to the DJs’ experiments.
Video has been linked with electronic experimental music since its inception in the mid-60s. The first video image processing (some of which appears in the performance) used audio synthesizers, echoing earlier experiments in electronic music by artists such as LaMonte Young, David Tudor, John Cage and Tony Conrad. Mason and Thater’s collaboration reflects the reappearance of the close connection between music and video art in the work of a new generation of artists. Video projection and VJs are simultaneously beginning to appear in nightclubs in cities such as New York, Berlin and Los Angeles, repeating the mesmeric spectacle of 60s psychedelic light shows. The video and performance artist Joan Jonas has recently collaborated with DJ Spooky in live performance, and musicians are playing live, alongside silent 16mm film and video projections by young artists, in alternative spaces in New York.
All the artists participating in The future… live and work in Los Angeles, which has a tradition of fostering crossovers between art and music. Mason, trained in composition and classical music, was once a member of a punk rock band. Influenced by Terry Riley, David Tudor, La Monte Young and Stockhausen, as well as the collaborative activities of the 60s group E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology, run by Billy Klüver), his dense, loud, physical compositions are written for the computer. The texture of the compositions evolves in the performance context according to the overlays of other musical sources and the stimulus of the imagery being mixed live in the room. This densely textured sound inside the open-ended framework of a constructed democratic social space complements Thater’s own desire to transcend the trend toward the superficiality of “pretty sculpture or competent photographic compositions [which fail] to deal with the content—be it social, political or formal conditions—of their making.”2 Thater’s interest in “freeing space and time from the single artwork”3 is matched by Mason’s pluralistic improvisations. Thater, Mason, Bronson, Lane, Wilder and Hollander create a shared space in which individual artistic authorship becomes blurred, and the sequence of the VJ’d video images takes on a musical structure.
The integrity contained within the random collision of imagery and sound which marks this absence of “one single artwork” is made evident in John Cage’s remark that “I like to think that each thing has not only its own life, but also its center…there [is] a plurality of centers, a multiplicity of centers. And they are all interpenetrating and…non-obstructing….”4 Cage’s zen approach to meaning arguably echoes the search for substance which the artists feels is lacking in much contemporary art. The random juxtapositions of images within The future…’s panoramic collage also suggest the anonymous hand of technology, randomly channel-zapping through the interwoven histories of television, news broadcasting, avant-garde film, art, Hollywood and advertising. This apparent anonymity is belied by the relationship between the three VJs, however, whose work, tastes and influences possess a certain shared sensibility. The resulting apparently random sequences, whose contents have, nevertheless, been pre-selected, create, according to their own internal, anarchic logic, a particular film and art-historical narrative.
The multiple projections in The future… encourage the viewers to turn their attention from one wall to its opposite or to sit in any chosen spot and observe the room as a whole. The viewer is encouraged to look at the edges of the space and the image, as well as at other members of the audience. There is no single, frontal screen or stage. Like the projection environments of the 60s, the sound and images create not a concert nor a film presentation, but a circular, communal dream space, shared by viewers and artists alike. Within this environment, the visual and aural experience of the viewer becomes transformed into a fluid exchange between an individual and a communal subjectivity. This movement between the individual and the communal lies at the heart of Thater and Mason’s collaborative, utopian thinking and forms the core of the group’s attempt to construct an ethical and meaningful role for the moving image within an alternative social space.
Chrissie Iles is the Curator of Film and Video at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
1. Daniela Zyman, ‘Foreword,’ The best animals are the flat animals—the best space is the deep space, Peter Noever, ed., Los Angeles: MAK Center for Art & Architecture, 1998, p. 9.
2. Ibid, p. 30.
4. John Cage in conversation with Daniel Charles, For the Birds, Marian Boyers, ed., London, 1981, p. 91.