An open-ended look at contemporary art – both inside the Walker and out – as framed by our Visual Arts curators.
To commemorate today’s opening of the Walker’s new Vineland Place entrance, Visual Arts curator Pavel Pyś talks with Los Angeles–based artist Liz Larner about X (2013), the gleaming stainless steel sculpture that welcomes visitors. Working with abstract and geometric forms, Larner has consistently explored the possibilities of sculpture, and in particular the relationship between solid mass and volume. Oscillating between the […]
To commemorate today’s opening of the Walker’s new Vineland Place entrance, Visual Arts curator Pavel Pyś talks with Los Angeles–based artist Liz Larner about X (2013), the gleaming stainless steel sculpture that welcomes visitors. Working with abstract and geometric forms, Larner has consistently explored the possibilities of sculpture, and in particular the relationship between solid mass and volume. Oscillating between the two- and three-dimensional, between drawing and sculpture, Larner’s works draw attention to the relationship between ourselves and the surrounding environment.
Pavel Pyś: Throughout your practice you’ve worked with a variety of materials, ranging from traditional ones, such as clay, steel, copper, and bronze, through to unstable ones, like champagne, caviar, and sour cream. How do you choose the materials you work with?
Liz Larner: That’s a great place to start. I really feel that material gives a sense of understanding and that it’s always a part of it. I choose materials by their significance, either playing a part in actual applications in the form or in terms of an attitude. So I use it for both, kind of. The same material can function for both. But that doesn’t always happen. The material is how we receive the content, the vehicle for the reception, a lot of times. And so it’s a part of it. I want that part of it to play a significant role in terms of how you understand the sculpture, whether it be the subject or the form or in-between those things.
Pyś: You mentioned that the material carries the content and the conceptual meaning. How does your experience differ when you have the material right to your hand and can touch it versus starting with the work that you can’t touch when you’re making it, for example as a rendering?
Larner: I think that has changed over time. For me, it has almost happened in reverse. I’m now at a point where I really want to have my hand be in the work, which might be part of the reason why I’ve moved to clay. When I started out, it was a more conceptual approach to “what materials are these?” I’ve always been interested in the difference between what something is called and what something is and how we receive it. I guess that was what was more important to me in the beginning, and it was almost some of the linguistic and somatic kind of interactions that the material produces. Now I find any individual hand very interesting. I think it’s something that we haven’t seen as much of recently; he digital has really changed that. In a way it’s more exciting to have a hand up against the digital in these times, when most objects that we encounter have some kind of digital aspect to their making.
Pyś: When we think of sculpture, we usually think of solidity, mass, and sculpture being stable. However throughout your work—and this is also the case with X (2013)—there is a relationship in the work between volume and density. Looking across your practice, there is a consistent interest in how to achieve a sense of volume without a lot of stable, solid material.
Larner: Yes. I think that there’s so much there historically in the way that modernism ended. The beginning of postmodernism began, I think, in the late ‘60s with minimalism and post-minimalism. There was a kind of agreement a lot of times, and I think it was seen as the truth to the materials that mostly sculptors and specific object makers were abiding by. A lot of the current industrial methods were being used in sculpture. Though I think they were not interested in illusion, and so I feel that it kept them very true to the mass and density of the material. I looked at that a lot when I was thinking about making sculpture. And ways of changing those relationships between the mass and the volume, or the density and the mass, or the density and the mass and the volume, became something that I sense. Just even seeing a volume at that size, that isn’t made to seem like a solid or is a solid, kind of puts your senses on notice to look more intensely and explore the space of the sculpture and the sculpture itself more intently. I think it intensifies the reception because there’s the sense that it may not be real even though it obviously is real.
Pyś: The line has played a key place in your practice, and indeed X looks a bit like a drawing that has been pulled and pinched and moved into space. How important is drawing to your practice?
Larner: The two-dimensional is important to me. I do make drawings, and I make a lot of drawings in preparation for sculptures. And I make a lot of models. But drawing is not a primary part of my practice. For me, the kind of blurring of the distinctions between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional has been something that I’ve been trying to do for a long time, and that’s kind of where drawing comes in. And it has come in in many different ways.
Pyś: You talked a little bit about the relationship to material and the digital. X was entirely computer-generated. How did you conceive of the work, as you were working with computer imagery?
Larner: Well, I had already made a form on the computer, a model. I wanted to use that form and sort of destabilize it or make it even less readable by imposing “X” over it, and then deleting that amount of form that was in those empty spaces. So “X” took on that form, without relaying the rest of it but just giving a partial aspect of it. That was done digitally as well.
Pyś: How does that shift your approach to the work? I imagine that when you have access to something that’s right at your hands, such as a pen and paper, then there is a certain immediacy. How does that sense of immediacy shift when you’re working with something that’s on the computer screen?
Larner: It’s not that immediate. I mean, it’s very immediate, in the sense that you can do things quickly, and you can do things that you can’t do by hand. So it’s a really good tool for mocking up. But in the end, it’s so different because you’re still not seeing the same thing that you’re going to have. It’s a much different kind of experience to try to make something from the ground or by hand than to have the computer to relay something, and you have to give over to it. Then what happens is when you get it to the stage of making the thing from all of this computer information, you see what you’ve got, so in a weird way, although it has been very clearly rendered, still it’s the spatiality of it in a real space that shows you what you have. So there’s an area of not knowing. Even though it clearly spells it out while you’re making it, you can’t really—as a sculpture, it can’t truly be imagined even though these tools are so powerful that you can move things around and look at them from many angles and simulate surfaces.
Pyś: The version of X in our collection is made of mirror polished stainless steel. In 2013, you showed another version of the sculpture, made of maple, at the University of Texas. How would you describe the difference in experiencing these two materially very different works?
Larner: It goes back to your first question. It was absolutely interesting for me to see the same form in the final scale in the two materials because they have such a completely different feeling to them. The one in maple is warm and inviting, and it served to let me experience the form in full scale. I think that one of the things about X that’s important to me is that one can be inside the sculpture which we’re talking about, about not having the full mass with the volume, you know, being able to enter into the space of the sculpture and be in the middle of it. That’s something that the experience in the maple is—I mean, the wood is warm and kind of golden, there’s a sense of stability in that and it gives you a completely other feeling than the bright, hard, reflective, fast-moving surface of the stainless steel. So it couldn’t be more different even though they’re the same form.
Pyś: Would you consider the maple X a model or an independent, separate work?
Larner: I wanted to make it in another material. I didn’t want to go directly full-scale into the stainless steel. Stainless steel was a huge commitment; there needed to be something that was in another material so that I could see the form. So I decided to do it in maple and thought that it would be interesting to see the two different materials. But the main reason was simply to have another material that wasn’t quite as extreme in all ways as the stainless steel before I committed to that. But it’s a piece on its own. I don’t think of it now as a model, even though it served that purpose in the kind of trajectory of which piece I made first.
Pyś: I want to ask you about “X” as a glyph, which recurs throughout your work as a sign of potential of the unknown, as you mentioned before. How did you arrive at this particular character or glyph?
Larner: Well, Variable (1990) was the first piece that I did, which was an addition of an “X” that has two very different sides and, I think, five different colors that went throughout, so it’d mostly be different colors on different sides. It’s a mathematical idea of a variable. It’s such a great idea, the simple graphic form can contain anything. It’s illimitable. I felt like that’s such a usable form for a series of sculptures, because I think it allows an abstract sculptor, to be able to have a motif that changes– use it as a variable but in a sculptural way. Each time I do it, it has a different trajectory, I think, it’s going in a different direction, and can be something else.
Liz Larner discussing X during installation at the Edith O’Donnell Arts and Technology Building (ATEC), The University of Texas at Dallas © The University of Texas at Dallas, 2013
In the “Second Thoughts” series, Walker curators reconsider earlier presentations of art, articulating new or refined conclusions. Here, Pavel Pyś considers the 1967 Walker exhibition Les Levine: Two Environments, focusing on the artist’s installation Slipcover through the lens of works by Levine’s peers, environmental art, and institutional critique. By the time of his exhibition at Walker Art Center […]
In the “Second Thoughts” series, Walker curators reconsider earlier presentations of art, articulating new or refined conclusions. Here, Pavel Pyś considers the 1967 Walker exhibition Les Levine: Two Environments, focusing on the artist’s installation Slipcover through the lens of works by Levine’s peers, environmental art, and institutional critique.
By the time of his exhibition at Walker Art Center in 1967, Les Levine had established a firm presence in the New York art world. Dubbed “Plastic Man,” he worked with materials such as fiberglass, acrylic, plastic and mylar, and championed the concept of “disposable art” that be “destroyed as soon as the owner wishes.” Made of plastic and white foam, Levine’s “disposables” took the form of inexpensive, modular, machine-produced reliefs and freestanding objects that Levine encouraged buyers to arrange as they pleased. “Accumulation of any sort is a constipated activity,” the artist proclaimed, and as a result many of his works from the late 1960s were discarded and survive via photography or moving image documentation.
Curated by Dean Swanson, Les Levine: Two Environments included two room-sized installations: Slipcover and Primetime Star. To realize Slipcover, Levine lined all of the gallery’s surfaces with silverized mylar, while inside the space large mylar bags inflated and deflated. In addition, multiple slide projectors showed images of recent installation views of exhibitions that took place in that exact gallery. Discussing Slipcover with Swanson, Levine said: “I’ve been calling my things places … something that completely encirclates [sic] you, and you become involved in the whole experience rather than it becoming part of another experience.”
Levine’s emphasis on the specificity of “place” and the totality of an aesthetic experience as opposed to the viewing of discreet individual works, speaks directly to the notion of the “environment” as conceptualized by Allan Kaprow (1927–2006) from 1958 onwards. In Assemblages, Environments and Happenings (1966), Kaprow argued that “the line between art and life should be kept as fluid, and perhaps indistinct, as possible,” with the boundaries separating the space of the spectator and the space of the artwork dissolved and shared. Kaprow, and peers such as Jim Dine (b. 1935), Claes Oldenburg (b. 1929), and Geoffrey Hendricks (b. 1931), pushed this logic further through happenings—conflating not only the space of the spectator and artwork, but also pulling the activity of the viewer into the environment itself, positioning the audience as an active participant.
Levine distanced his work from happenings, dissatisfied with the notion of the script or planned action, instead arguing that Slipcover operated beyond his control, at any point offering the audience an “immediate, personal reality.” For Levine, “the room is the subject,” and by incorporating kinetic elements, Slipcover challenges the viewer’s very perception of space and their own place within it. Inflating and deflating, the mylar balloon bags prescribed one’s movement around the gallery space, at once obstructing and then giving way. In Italy, Gianni Colombo (1937–93) explored similar concerns in the installation Spazio Elastico [Elastic Space] (1967–68). Within a dark cube, Colombo stretched a three-dimensional, layered grid of elastic cords, each treated with fluorescent paint. Illuminated by black light, the strings were motorized and slowly pulled, skewing and distorting the viewer’s spatial coordinates. Colombo conceived of Spazio Elastico as “an experimental test-construction to research the optical and psychical behavior of the users, who … themselves will end up self-determining, in part, the image they perceive, open to associations of the possible space-dynamic relationships.” Just as Levine placed emphasis on the present, embodied moment, so too Colombo directed attention towards the relationship between the body, mind and surrounding architectural space. Seen together, Colombo’s Spazio Elastico and Levine’s Slipcover (especially with its pulsating, breathing “lungs”) share common ground with the Brazilian Neo-Concretists, for whom the artwork was an “‘almost-body,’ a being whose reality is not exhausted in the external relationships between its elements; a being which, even while not decomposable into parts through analysis, only delivers itself up wholly through a direct, phenomenological approach.”
With their slick, reflective surfaces, Levine’s Slipcover occupied a material register at odds to those environments created by Kaprow, Dine, Oldenburg, and others. While the latter preferred organic materials and haphazardly painted cardboard and canvas, Levine opted for mylar, plastic, and steel, bringing about connotations to NASA and the Space Age, the futuristic and the industrial. Levine’s preference for the shiny and new chimes with Warhol’s contemporaneous Silver Clouds (1966), the inflatable floor sculptures made for his 1968 retrospective at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, and the tin foil-covered interiors of the Factory. Both Levine and Warhol arrived at Slipcover and Silver Clouds, respectively, via painting, rather than sculpture. For Warhol, the helium-filled floating “pillows” were conceived as of as a means of “finishing off painting”—freeing painting from the space of the wall. Entirely in line with Levine’s notion of “disposable art,” Warhol saw his Silver Clouds as ultimately throwaway—to be “fill[ed] with helium and let out of your windows.” For Levine, Slipcover grew from the artist’s dissatisfaction with painting as bound to perspective and illusionistic space. By positing on space rather than object or plane, Levine sought to temporarily reframe the audience’s encounter with and experience of what a gallery could be.
Levine’s choice of materials and his emphasis on the architectural, share much in common with the sculptures and experimental architecture of British artist Graham Stevens (b. 1944). Throughout the mid 1960s and early 1970s, Stevens created a number of large-scale pneumatic sculptures, using inflated polythene forms. Inspired by the kinetic experimentations of artists exhibited at London’s Signals Gallery (1964–66) and collaborative practices such as Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV, 1960–68), Stevens employed inflatable plastics to propose new forms of “total architecture” and means of transport. His projects Walking on Water (1966), Atmosfields (1970), and Wavetube (1971) offered participatory spaces that questioned not only the possibility of what architecture could be, but also how it can exploit natural atmospheric resources, such as the sun, wind, and water. These concerns reached their height in Stevens’s mid-1970s work Desert Cloud (1974), a hovering, reflective structure that harnessed solar power and captured water.
Projected directly onto Slipcover were installation views of exhibitions held in the surrounding gallery space, offering those familiar with the Walker’s program a reminder and of what had recently been on view. By layering images of the recent past, Levine sought to give the viewer a “new version of the room and all that space along with the memory of what it had been, [so that] the room became information about itself.” In doing so, Levine points to the economy of the museum space—the comings and goings of works, and the inherently transient nature of the exhibition format. A year following Levine’s exhibition at the Walker, Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers (1924–76) began the project Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles [Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles], an itinerant conceptual museum that operated between 1968 and 1972. A forerunner in the history of institutional critique, Broodthaers’s sprawling project brought together the usual museum furnishings and didactic materials (announcement cards, labels, etc.) with empty shipping crates (each labelled “picture” or “keep dry”) and reproductions of artworks shown as postcards or projected images. While Levine imprinted imagery of the Walker’s recent past onto itself as a mnemonic means, Broodthaers staged the museological site to question how it produces aesthetic experience and creates meaning. With no actual permanent site or collection, Broodthaers’s museum was his self-proclaimed fiction, a vehicle to unpick and study the methods of creating, collecting, and displaying artworks, and the means by which order and context are imposed upon them.
Levine’s nod towards the Walker’s institutional history dovetails with the approach taken by British artist Simon Starling (b. 1967) in Never the Same River (Possible Futures, Probable Pasts), an exhibition the artist curated at London’s Camden Arts Centre in 2010. Starling selected works from the past 50 years of exhibitions held at Camden and installed them in precisely the same places where they had once been seen before. Criss-crossing vastly different times in the institution’s history, Starling’s exhibition created a composite, layered collage of Camden’s past, highlighting the movements of each artwork, and the shifting contexts they are subjected to. Both Never the Same River and Levine’s use of projected installation views in Slipcover beg the question of how the museological space structures our experience and memories of artworks. Levine and Starling suggest that artworks never exist in their own isolated reality, but instead pick up the traces of where and in what dialogue they had been previously exhibited.
 David Bourdon, “Plastic Man Meets Plastic Man,” New York, February 10, 1969, pp. 44–46 / Artforum
 Les Levine quoted in Rita Reif, “And the Walls Come Tumbling Dow,” New York Times, April 19, 1967
 Les Levine quoted in “Les Levine: the image breaker,” The Aspen Times, August 17, 1967, pp. 7C
 Levine exhibited an earlier iteration of Slipcover at the Art Gallery of Ontario (September 23–October 23, 1966). Here, in addition to projected images, the installation included closed circuit TVs that showed the audiences movement delayed by three seconds, as well as amplified sounds picked up by microphones in the gallery space. While it is possible to trace the use of projectors in the materials held in the Walker’s archives, it is uncertain whether Levine used TVs and sound within the installation of Slipcover at the Walker.
 Transcript of conversation between Les Levine and Dean Swanson held in Walker Art Center archives, pp. 1
 Allan Kaprow (1966) Assemblage, Environments, and Happenings. New York: Abrams, pp. 31
 Transcript of conversation between Les Levine and Dean Swanson held in Walker Art Center archives, pp. 4
 Transcript of conversation between Les Levine and Brydon Smith held in Walker Art Center archives
 Gianni Colombo, Spazio Elastico. Ambiente visuocine-estetico programmato (progetti: Milano 1964-67), typescript in the Archivio Gianni Colombo in Milan, published in C. Steinle, ed., Gianni Colombo. Ambienti (Graz: Neue Galerie, 2007), p. 50 quoted in Beccaria, M. The Body in the Net: Gianni Colombo’s Spazio elastico in Christov-Bakargiev, C. (ed.) (2009) Giannni Colombo. Castello di Rivoli / Skira
 Neo-Concretist Manifesto, Rio de Janeiro, March 1959, signed by Amilcar de Castro, Ferreira Gullar, Franz Weissman, Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, Reynaldo Jardim, Theon Spanudis reproduced in Clark, L. and Bois, Y., “Nostalgia of the Body”, October, vol. 69, Summer, 1994. Italics in original, p. 93.
 Andy Warhol quoted in interview with Gretchen Berg, “Nothing to Lose,” Cahiers du Cinéma, May 1967, pp. 43
 Ibid, pp. 43
 Transcript of interview with Les Levine held in Walker Art Center archives, interviewer unknown
This past weekend, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin hosted Building Bridges, a symposium reflecting upon curatorial practice and how curators move from educational to institutional contexts. The conference was held on occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Young Curators Residency Program (YCRP), which annually brings three non-Italian recent graduates of curating courses to […]
This past weekend, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin hosted Building Bridges, a symposium reflecting upon curatorial practice and how curators move from educational to institutional contexts. The conference was held on occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Young Curators Residency Program (YCRP), which annually brings three non-Italian recent graduates of curating courses to Italy to research contemporary Italian art. During the residency, the curators travel across the country, meet artists and visit museums, and complete the project by curating an exhibition drawing on their research.
Following a welcome by foundation President Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, the foundation’s curator, Irene Calderoni, introduced the symposium’s aims and key themes. Looking back at the residency since its inception in 2007, the symposium sought to evaluate its goals, structure, and influence on the field. Firstly, Calderoni addressed how training and educational contexts facilitate a move into institutional employment and, in particular, how study, research, and experimentation translate into professional modes of working. Secondly, Calderoni positioned the conference as a means for the foundation to evaluate its approach as both a contemporary arts institution and an educational organization (aside from YCRP, the Foundation runs Campo, a curating course established in 2012 for students based in Italy).
The first panel brought together Beatrix Ruf (Director, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam), Tom Eccles (Executive Director, Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College), Dr. Simon Sheikh (Reader in Art, and Programme Director of MFA Curating, Goldsmiths College), and me, moderated by Mark Rappolt (Editor-in-Chief, ArtReview). All of the panel’s participants had arrived to curating from a variety of paths—semiotics, dance, sociology and art history. Each emphasized the very inceptive nature of contemporary art, which has meant that curating is inherently cross-disciplinary, informed by lateral thinking and hybrid approaches that pool together knowledge from vastly different places. How then do you teach a profession which doesn’t comfortably sit within a single discipline and university department? Eccles and Sheikh both agreed on the importance of combining theory and practice and providing young curators with practical experience while still studying. We all emphasized the importance of the physical, embodied encounter with art, rather than its digital representation. As an example, Eccles pointed out that the first assignment students at Bard College face is to select a work from the CCS Bard collection and propose its display and interpretation. Ruf, Sheikh, and Eccles all drew attention to the waning viability of working as a freelance curator, and the shift from the model of the “independent curator” popular in the 1990s to professionals increasingly affiliated with ever-larger institutions. Following a round of questions, all of the panel’s participants noted that curating courses lack a more informed and detailed approach to teaching fundraising, as well as management and leadership skills.
The second panel brought together João Laia (Co-Founder and Curator, The Green Parrot), Francesco Manacorda (Artistic Director, Tate Liverpool), Kate Strain (Director, Grazer Kunstverein), and Joanna Warsza (Head of CuratorLab, Konstfack). The afternoon’s conversation centered on themes of audience engagement and fostering relationships between institutions and visitors. Strain argued for curators to work in a variety of contexts and cited her own experiences ranging from running a vegan cafe to collaborating with universities as giving her a strong sense of the importance of hospitality and working with a different demographics. Warsza responded that it is the curator’s very responsibility to deal with their audience, while Laia argued for sensitivity towards the geopolitical nature of local contexts and how projects are translated and adapted to these. Manacorda stressed the need for institutions to collaborate directly with audiences and cited the recent Tate Liverpool exhibition An Imagined Museum as an example of the museum engaging in direct dialogue with local audiences. The exhibition drew on Ray Bradbury’s 1953 science fiction novel Fahrenheit 451 to propose a fictional scenario in which the exhibited artworks will cease to exist. As part of the exhibition, Tate Liverpool asked local audiences to memorize the works, and then removed these from view in the exhibition’s final weekend. Visitors were then invited to return to Tate Liverpool and recollect and narrate the missing artworks, sharing their personal experiences and readings.
Sunday’s sessions brought together past YCRP participants and artists previously invited to exhibit their work as part of the curators’ final exhibition. Moderated by Stefano Collicelli Cagol (Curator at Large, Trondheim Kunstmuseum, and previous YCRP co-ordinator), the discussion focused on the curators’ and artists’ experiences of collaborating, their expectations and the challenges they faced. Artists including Rä di Martino, Cesare Pietroiusti, and Chiara Fumai shared their experiences of working with non-Italian curators and the memories of the final YCRP exhibitions they participated in. In particular, the artists noted their enthusiasm for establishing relationships with curators, which often translated into long-term conversations. Curators including me, Rosalie Doubal (Associate Curator, ICA London), Kate Strain, and Andrey Parshikov (Head of Research, Manege Museum Association) recounted their expectations and experiences of working in Italy, the challenges of working with curators they had previously never collaborated with, as well as questions of sensitivity towards local context and artists. Both the artists and curators discussed the long-term results of the YCRP, which has nurtured ongoing collaborations and extending invitations to artists to participate in further exhibitions. The legacy of the YCRP program lies largely in this network of ever-growing exchanges and dialogues between Italian artists and non-Italian curators.
Building Bridges made apparent that there is no fast-track, linear, logical, and formal path for curators to move from the educational to institutional contexts. Instead, curators enter institutions through a series of both formal educational experiences as well as self-organized professional ones. The YCRP, along with opportunities such as the Walker Art Center Curatorial Fellowship and Cubitt Curatorial Fellowship, provide a vital in-between stepping-stone from study to work. Crucial to the YCRP is the ability to spend time with artists and peers, talking, exchanging ideas and engaging with a new cultural context. Driven by research, the residency teaches young curators how to work together, often beyond a linguistical boundary, and collaborate to create a culturally sensitive and timely exhibition. Here, at the Walker, the Curatorial Fellowship program provides young curators with a wide scope of experiences. The program places fellows at the center of the visual arts department, offering the opportunity to work closely with senior curatorial colleagues and directly with artists, the collection and across the visual arts program. The fellowship provides a firm grounding in curating in an interdisciplinary and institutional context and allows young curators to contribute to an exhibition from its conception through to fruition. Fellows are also exposed to good working practices, such as team-building, management skills and collegiality, which as Building Bridges saw are usually values and skills learned on the job, rather than as part of a structured working environment. Opportunities such as the YCRP and the Walker’s Curatorial Fellowships are key ways of developing professionals in the field, embedding curators right at the heart of an institution’s mission.
While the “Golden Age of Television” is said to have lasted from the late 1940s through to 1960, few visual artists engaged with the TV set until the early 1960s. Nam June Paik’s (1932–2006) Exposition of Music—Electronic Television, held in March 1963 in Wuppertal in Germany, is widely seen to mark the advent of “video […]
While the “Golden Age of Television” is said to have lasted from the late 1940s through to 1960, few visual artists engaged with the TV set until the early 1960s. Nam June Paik’s (1932–2006) Exposition of Music—Electronic Television, held in March 1963 in Wuppertal in Germany, is widely seen to mark the advent of “video art,” and the point at which the television became both the subject and object of an artwork. Originally titled Symphony for 20 Rooms, Paik’s exhibition was considered a total environment, drawing on the spirit of Surrealism (a severed ox head greeted visitors in the first room, while in a bathroom a human mannequin lay submerged in a tub) and Fluxus (via treated instruments, such as “prepared pianos,” adapted by wedging objects between their strings). The exhibition also brought together an installation of 13 television sets, arranged either directly on the floor or stacked on top of one another. Each transmitted distorted live signals—some as stripes or wavy lines, others collaged so as to simultaneously show overlaid moving images.
A number of TV sets on view required activation by the viewer. One television was connected to a microphone and transmitted a signal affected by the one’s voice. Another TV was attached to a pedal and would similarly show a distorted image if handled by an audience member. “Television has attacked us for a lifetime, now we fight back,” declared Paik, who conceived of the television as an object to be exploited, tinkered with, and ultimately humanized. As in his later works, such as TV Bra for Living Sculpture (1969) and TV Cello (1971), Paik subverted the notion of the TV as a determined instrument of power. Instead, under his influence, television sets and the televisual became instruments for performance and play, either by invited performers, such as Charlotte Moorman (1933–1991) or the active, participating viewer.
A few months after Paik’s exhibition, German artist Wolf Vostell (1932–1998) opened Wolf Vostell & Television Decollage & Decollage Posters & Comestible Decollage1 at Smolin Gallery in New York. Vostell presented a number of TVs placed on office furniture, each set to receive a slightly different, modified signal. Upon entering the exhibition, audience members received bottles of liquid, which they were encouraged to smear on wall-mounted LIFE magazine covers. For Vostell, the exhibition was a place of activity, where one could “participate in the creation of Décollage at the opening […] to eat art and to make art by eating.”2 Vostell had begun to orient his practice around the term “dé-collage” in 1954, upon spotting the word used in a newspaper to refer to an airplane crash. For the artist, “dé-collage” meant the inverse of collage—the erosion and destruction of an existing image, as opposed its formation through cumulative addition of multiple elements. Vostell applied the term to his engagement with televisions, which he incorporated into his work as early as 1958 in Theater in the Streets, a happening staged in Parisian public spaces. Throughout his practice, Vostell posited on the very materiality of the TV set, embedding these in concrete, arranging motorized TVs on broken glass, and “dé-collaging” live television signals.
While both Paik and Vostell employed the television as an object for performance, Vostell’s happenings emphasized destruction, a theme he believed it was his duty to reflect upon as an artist. Staged contemporaneously to his exhibition at Smolin Gallery, TV Burying was an event Vostell organized as part of the Yam Festival in New Jersey, which included actions by artists Dick Higgins (1938–1998), Allan Kaprow (1927–2006), and La Monte Young (b. 1935). In Vostell’s performance, televisions broadcasting live footage were attacked with custard pies, wrapped in barbed wire, and then carried in procession and buried in the ground. Part flagellation ritual, part crucifixion, TV Burying ceremoniously sacrificed the TV set before an audience.
Paik and Vostell developed their 1963 exhibitions while Marshall McLuhan (1911–1980) would have been writing and editing Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, published only a year later in 1964. The book includes McLuhan’s phrase “the medium is the message,” whereby “the message of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.”3 Paik and Vostell were among the first artists to critically engage with the television as an everyday object, stripping away its connotations as a prized possession or marker of class distinction. Slathered with concrete, upturned, or placed casually on the floor, their TVs are ordinary, part of everyday life. By turning televisions into playful instruments and modifying their signals, Paik and Vostell subverted the notion of the TV as a conduit for the passive reception of ideology. In their hands, televisions were controlled by human will and manipulated by the body. They rendered the viewer a participant and the television as subject to anyone’s influence, a medium for play and experimentation.
1 McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, p. 9
2 Also referred to as TV Trouble or 6 TV Dé-coll/age in existing literature.
3 As can be seen on the exhibition preview card.