MICHAEL GLAWOGGER was my friend. I find myself encumbered with questions that I would like to ask him.
Michael, why did you make so few movies? Is your meticulous achievement its own explanation, or could you not get the resources to do more than you did? While you lived, I never thought to ask this, because why wouldn’t you make more movies? Why would you or I ever die?
(Michael, should I envy you? You escaped old age and died while you were working on what you wished.)
But what would you have done had you lived to a hundred? Do you feel that you accomplished enough? Megacities (1998) and Workingman’s Death (2005) are great works of art. They convey humanitas and diversity. A hundred years from now and more, if there are still people, people will be watching them, I hope. But what is your “message,” Michael? Perhaps your movies are so effective because you never had one and wished simply to show us how we are. I never asked you any such question, because it would have annoyed you. I suppose you would have said that the message didn’t matter unless I could see it.
Michael, you had a light and graceful way with people, but did people make you happy? Your movies are not.
Michael, what should I do now? Did you ever learn any more than I did how to help our brothers and sisters on this beautiful, miserable world?
William T. Vollmann is a writer and journalist based in California.
WHEN CORNELIUS GURLITT was recently laid to rest at a cemetery in DŁsseldorf, a eulogist, speaking in style, quoted the pessimist philosopher of life Arthur Schopenhauer: “We share the same environment, but each lives in a different world.” The funeral was the provisional end to a farcical episode in a long-running play: the politics of memory. Still, many unanswered questions remain. Reason enough for Passages to commemorate Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of Hildebrand Gurlitt, who died more than half a century earlier, in 1956, in a car crash.
The episode opened in November 2013 with the belated disclosure that in 2012, German officials probably acting without sufficient legal authority had confiscated more than twelve hundred works of art that Gurlitt had inherited. His father had been a protagonist of the Nazis’ “Degenerate Art” operation, and so they suspected that looted art was among the pieces in Gurlitt’s Munich apartment. Additional and apparently more valuable works were subsequently discovered in a house near Salzburg. It now appears that the actual number of looted works is in the single digits and might well be zero. Even cases that initially seemed clear-cut, such as that of a painting by Henri Matisse, have come to appear rather ambiguous; German authorities have received several requests for restitution. The potential heirs are confronted with two different testaments, one of which puts a Swiss museum in an awkward spot: Gurlitt bequeathed the collection of pictures, whose value was grotesquely overstated in early reports, to the Kunstmuseum Bern. Its trustees will have to consider how to deal with this inheritance—Swiss collections are already rife with works whose fates are intertwined with the baneful history of the Third Reich. This makes Gurlitt’s legacy both a challenge and an opportunity.
Gurlitt seems to have been an aging recluse and art enthusiast who now and then drew on his parents’ collection to help pay for what appears to have been a modest lifestyle. Some sales were transacted in Switzerland, and on one such occasion, Gurlitt attracted the attention of the German customs authorities by traveling with a considerable sum in cash; although he was under no obligation to report the money, his actions prompted suspicions of tax evasion. The ensuing firestorm in German newsweeklies and national daily papers as well as the international press was symptomatic of a media landscape in which some journalists seemed to have lost all sense of decency. Speculating wildly, commentators blew the case up into a sensation and created the sense that one of the last-surviving major war criminals had been caught. The reports and editorials with their sometimes-sanctimonious tone and lack of interest in the legal details was one thing; another was the glaring light the case shone on provenance research and restitution machinery, which is all too often driven by profit seeking and careerism beneath a moralistic veneer.
As it is, Germany has an image problem right now: Growing numbers of its citizens profit from speculative financial and real-estate investments; the social classes drift apart as the state gradually abdicates its responsibilities; and most pertinently, Germany is now a society of heirs, professional sons and daughters who strive as adeptly as possible to manage what has fallen into their laps. Inevitably, some of the riches are the direct or indirect fruits of the depredation of large parts of earlier populations: Germany’s, especially the German Jewish, as well as that of the entirety of Europe. Our country’s present wealth is founded on millions of wrongs, as the contemporary historian GŲtz Aly has trenchantly pointed out in his recent studies and opinion pieces. It is hard to acknowledge this history, and Germany’s failure to acknowledge it is the lasting stain on the character of a nation that often prefers to forget, its ostensible interest in history notwithstanding. Speaking in Berlin, Ronald S. Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, had every right and reason to point out one tip of the iceberg—the fact that works unlawfully acquired by the state still grace the walls of museums and administrative offices—reminding his listeners of the rather dilatory approach Germans long took to the task of accounting for their past. But there are also other voices in the debate, fewer but clearly audible, that have called for a sort of reconciliation with the past, and they cannot be dismissed out of hand as revisionist. One prominent advocate of this position has been the Munich-based contemporary historian Michael Wolffsohn, whose own family was affected by the Aryanization policies of the Third Reich. We should not callously ignore these voices, although the effort must be made to rectify flagrant wrongs.
The Gurlitt case may also be remembered as an object lesson in the waning of public outrage in the face of complexities that forbid any cut-and-dried judgment. But what does it teach us? The past keeps catching up with Germans, and with a vengeance: the Third Reich is a history that will not be bygone. Twenty or twenty-five years ago, it was the debate over possible financial compensation for former victims of forced labor; now it is the debate over the status of works of art in museums and private collections (which Lauder has described, with a skewed but striking image, as the “last prisoners of war”) and the need to reappraise the role of the international art trade. In that regard, the auction house Neumeister in Munich has demonstratively led the charge. The Gurlitt case, it seems, has added a new dimension to this issue, but then it only seems so. Thirty years ago, Martin Broszat advocated a historicization of National Socialism; by and large he was right, but we should make one minor addition: We need an analysis and historicization also of our mentality in dealing with the past. Perhaps we will then understand as well why we still fail to do our homework—for as the case of Cornelius Gurlitt has forcefully reminded us, “we share the same environment, but each lives in a different world.”
Translated from the German by Gerrit Jackson.
Olaf Peters is professor of art history and art theory at the Martin-Luther-Universitšt Halle-Wittenberg in Germany, and curator of “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany,” up through September 1 at the Neue Galerie, New York.
IN MARCH 1947 IN ROME, Carla Accardi, the only woman in an otherwise entirely male group, signed the Forma manifesto, immediately joining a debate that was animating the postwar art world, on “figuration/nonfiguration” and on whether or not to be “politically engaged.” Born in Trapani, Sicily, in 1924, she studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence and then, in 1946, went to Rome, where she would live until her death on February 23, 2014, in her studio-home on the Via del Babuino a few steps from Piazza del Popolo.
Photos from those early years in Rome depict a very young, slender woman with short hair and huge eyes filling a tiny face—an eternal adolescent, with a beauty all her own, outside the usual canons, decidedly ahead of her time, not just in the way she looked, but in her choices in life and work. She had just settled in Rome with Antonio Sanfilippo, her future husband, when she went to Paris, courtesy of an international exchange organized by the Fronte della Gioventý Italiana and by the Union Nationale des …tudiants de France. Her time there was spent visiting museums and galleries, one of which, “in the Place VendŰme . . . I only later learned was directed by Michel Tapiť,” the critic who soon would become a strong supporter of her work. Her early work, characterized by a formalist/Concrete art emphasis on color and geometric shapes, resulted in an invitation to participate in the 1948 Venice Biennale. (In 1952, in that same city, she would visit the Peggy Guggenheim collection.)
Around 1953–54, Accardi began working in a new direction, making her first black-and-white paintings, created with the canvas spread out on the floor, because “I couldn’t imagine drawing these signs in conjunction with easel painting. . . . 1954 was a decisive year, it’s true, but 1953 saw the birth of my first works with the sign.” These struck Tapiť, who from that point on supported her pictorial research, including her among the leading practitioners of art informel and writing a text for her first solo show in Paris (in 1956 at Galerie Stadler). Pierre Restany and Michel Seuphor also followed her development as an artist, and her career during this period was marked by her inclusion in the inaugural exhibition of the Rome-New York Art Foundation (1957), the Carnegie International Exhibition (Pittsburgh, 1958), “Painters of Rome” at the New Vision Center (London, 1959) and the Moholy-Nagy Scholarship Auction (Chicago, 1960); in 1961 she had her first solo show in New York at the Parma Gallery.
In the mid-’60s she made a radical material change, abandoning the use of tempera in favor of fluorescent colors, applied to sicofoil, a transparent plastic material. The result was plastic/pictorial compositions that were strongly environmental in nature, such as the Rotoli (Rolls), 1965, and Tende (Curtains), 1965–66, Triplice tenda (Triple Curtain), 1969–71 (now at the Centre Pompidou in Paris), and Ambiente arancio (Orange Environment), 1976. A similar impulse also persists in certain works from the ’70s, such as Lenzuoli (Sheets), 1973–74 and Ambiente origine (Origin Environment), 1976. It was during this period that Accardi somewhat withdrew from art-making to work in the militant feminist movement, along with the critic Carla Lonzi. From the ’80s on, she gradually returned to a traditional pictorial structure, employing a broad, distinct chromatic range, applied to works on canvas and in ceramic and to three-dimensional works in Perspex, as well as her spectacular “floors,” conceived at the turn of the new century.
She participated in major exhibitions during this period, including at Castello di Rivoli (1994), the Kunstverein in Ludwigshafen (1995), the Villa Medici in Rome (1977), the Kunstmuseum in Bonn (1999), MoMA PS1 in New York (2001), the Musťe d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (2002), Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Roma (2004), the marta Herford (2007), and the Museo Bilotti in Rome (2010). A catalogue raisonnť by Germano Celant was published in two volumes in 1999 and 2010. Until just hours before her unexpected death, Accardi continued to work with the energy of a young artist, creating new wonders, always capable of astonishing younger generations, to whom she never ceased relating. Proof of this can be seen, for example, in her recent exhibition with Paola Pivi in London (Carlson, 2013). Indeed, Carla Accardi was fundamentally an artist of the twenty-first century who, only by chance, was born in the twentieth.
Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.
Pier Paolo Pancotto is a curator and critic based in Rome.
THE FIRST TIME I saw Czechoslovakian director and writer Věra ChytilovŠ’s 1966 film, SedmikrŠsky (Daisies), it blew my mind. Why had I never seen this farcical feminist work? It was at once dark, absurd, political, philosophical, rebellious, outrageous, critical, hysterical, and subversive—all while featuring some of the most brilliant uses of optical printing, film collage, jump cuts, colored filters, textures, costumes, props, and food that I had ever seen. (The cinematography and special effects were the work of the great Jaroslav Kučera.) Eyeliner plays a role in the film, as do a host of symbolic foods—phallic ones such as pickles, bananas, and sausages, as well as similarly loaded others such as eggs, milk, and apples, are constantly eaten throughout. The ending features an orgiastic food fight that rivals that of Animal House (1978). But these exuberant, materially intoxicating “girls gone mad” scenes are intercut with bombs dropping and critiques of Czech culture and government.
The reason I hadn’t seen the film, it turned out, was that it had an extraordinarily mixed reception. It was banned by the government for a year after its original release in 1966. Released a year later, it immediately gained international acclaim at festivals (winning the Grand Prix of the Belgian Film Critics Association). Yet the work still saw limited circulation in the US and was mostly available in the 1990s on VHS and DVD. It was not until 2009 that a new, restored DVD was released with an edit approved by ChytilovŠ. ChytilovŠ was one of the leading figures of the Czech New Wave in the 1960s, and Daisies remains the film for which she is best known, despite its limited circulation. Over the years, I’ve heard or read various things about the controversy surrounding the film and its release. I heard that Jean-Luc Godard panned the film because it engaged with things that he considered bourgeois. I also heard that the pre–Prague Spring government denounced the film because of the amount of food destroyed in its making. The DVD extras feature ChytilovŠ discussing the controversy: The film was funded by the government and released two years before the Prague Spring, but was immediately banned and was not allowed to be shown in Czechoslovakia or distributed outside the country for a year. ChytilovŠ herself was not officially blacklisted, as most other members of the Czech New Wave were, but she was not allowed to work in her own country for almost ten years.
The film features two young Czech women, both named Marie, who decide to “go bad” because the world has gone bad. The film opens with aerial shots of bombs dropping in World War II and train wheels turning—this footage is intercut with the two Maries sunbathing, moving like mechanical puppets. In the opening dialogue, they determine that “nobody understands them.” In response, the Maries proceed to engage in a series of nonsensical, slapstick, sometimes surreal montages of actions and interactions with various materials. They constantly dress and undress, eat pickles and other phallic foods, and engage in a host of scenes inside their Prague apartment. Between these long interior sequences, the Maries go out to expensive restaurants to find older men who will pay for their meals. Scene after scene, these old men treat them to lavish meals, as the Maries pig out on cake, wine, and other fancy foods, only to ditch the old men later at the train station. The two women are the only young people in a world of older-generation types—they delight in getting drunk and blowing psychedelic bubbles in their drinks, falling down slapstick style, their kitten heels clicking along, their polka-dot dresses flash from tiny dots to large dots, their 1960’s cat’s-eye liner gets thicker and thicker throughout the film, until at the end it’s a wide band across their faces. They sunbathe and quite literally fall into a Garden of Eden, where they dance like rabbits and eat green apples. All this exuberance is laced with a dark irony.
My favorite scenes take place inside the Maries’ apartment. Here again, we see an incredible use of optical printing, collage, and cinematography, mixed with the textures of foods and fabrics. The Maries write all over the walls, light streamers on fire, and take baths in milk (while dissolving paper cut-out images of men they have taken into the bath with them) while eating tons of pickles; they roll each other up in blankets and off the bed, threaten to commit suicide with gas from the stove, and many more antics that range from disturbing to delightful, from playful to macabre. In one scene, the girls eat sausages, bananas, and eggs, violently slicing then with scissors—then they cut out images of foods and meats from magazines and eat the paper images, before lighting the room on fire. In another macabre scene, the Maries use scissors to cut each other’s clothes like paper dolls then turn the scissors to their body parts, cutting off each other’s arms and heads, the beheaded bodies still madly wielding scissors (like editors cutting film)—and eventually this collaged and optically printed scene creates a dadaist, Cubist cut-up of the entire room.
After all of this, the Maries find themselves in the countryside of Czechoslovakia, where they wander through small towns and farmers’ fields. They soon realize that the groups of workers there can’t see them or hear them. A striking montage of hundreds of close-ups of locks on doors follows. Eventually, the Maries find themselves in a large, very gray civic building covered in Communist posters, where they cram into a dumbwaiter. As they pass by each floor, they see glimpses of culture: a symphony performing on one floor, workers carving meat on another. They get out to find an empty chandeliered banquet room filled with grandiose table settings and a buffet with platters of meats, cheese, and endless deserts. Here, the hungry Maries engage in the most glorious, debaucherous food fight, destroying the entire banquet, dancing on the table, their kitten heels digging into cakes and foods and swinging from the giant chandelier. They fall from the chandelier into a lake, and typewritten words appear on the screen: “There was only one way to finish up. Is there any way to mend what’s been destroyed?” The wet Maries call for help, and as lumber workers lower logs into the lake for them to climb up, they say, “We’ve gone bad!”
The film cuts to them back in a banquet room covered from head to toe with suits made from newspaper and twine. Somehow, the Maries are back in the banquet, putting back together the table settings—broken plates are reassembled; cakes are pushed back together. Their own loud, illegible whispers are the only sounds while they work, moving like puppets in fast motion to repair the damage they have done. The film ends with them still in their newspaper suits, bound by twine and lying on the table. A chandelier falls onto them, and the film cuts to an intertitle that reads, “Dedicated to Those Whose Sole Source of Indignation is a Messed-Up-Trifle,” over the same aerial footage and sound of bombs dropping onto buildings with which the film opens. A call to action for anger and madness not to be trivialized.
Some of the moves used in Daisies were picked up by parts of the Third Wave feminist movement, as exemplified by riot grrrls and grrrl power, which emerged at a time when women were actively redefining the roles and definitions of feminism to be more inclusive and open. This involved exploring sexuality as power and an attempt to embrace what “grrrlness” was in its many forms. Presenting girls as ravenous and hungry is a statement that Godard misunderstood. Yet, in the years since, we have often seen similar statements evidenced in cult, avant-garde, and popular film: In Chantal Ackerman’s I’m Cold, I’m Hungry (1984); in the cult film Ladies and Gentlemen: The Fabulous Stains (1982, directed by Lou Adler and written by Nancy Dowd under the pseudonym Tom Morton), where eyeliner is again a material in exaggerated use; the girl duo shows up again in Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974, Jacques Rivette) and in the escapades of Thelma & Louise (1991, directed by Ridley Scott and written by Callie Khouri). The apocalyptic feminist ending of Daisies (as the Maries are seemingly killed by the chandelier) is shared with Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames (1983), a futuristic feminist film that addresses race and class. The body is seen as a tool for pleasure and power through Jane Fonda’s character in Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy (1968). The girls/women in films and videos such as Spring Breakers, Bridesmaids, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Ryan Trecartin’s work all contain aspects of Daisies’ conceptual or stylistic approach.
Then again, most of the films above do not share Daisies’ deployment of experimental film techniques such as optical printing, collage, and nonlinearity. Through these techniques, ChytilovŠ’s film finds another wide set of resonances—the list is too long to even start, but think of filmmakers such as Man Ray, Maya Deren, or Pat O’Neill, or a film such as Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970) (which ends with an epic ten-minute scene of a building blowing up in slow motion, set to Pink Floyd music). That is where the film’s brilliance lies: It collapses approaches ranging from the comedic to the political to the experimental. On the DVD extras, ChytilovŠ notes that “in the late 1960s, Czech films that experimented with form, or filmmaking techniques, were criticized by the authorities for their inaccessibility.”
Once I saw Daisies, it immediately rose to the top of the most important films to me as an artist and as a person. I’ve watched it dozens of times, shown it to everyone I know, taught the film to my students, and gotten my daughter and her friends into it. Its influence runs the gamut—just the other day I saw a new music video that was a remake of Daisies. It’s a cult film forty years after its release in Prague, screening with new prints regularly at art-house cinemas such as Los Angeles’s Cinefamily. While many in the mainstream might not know this film, it functions as cult films do—with an intense following. I am grateful to this great filmmaker for her lasting and influential work—Daisies—captivating, psychedelic, intoxicating, dark, and powerful all at the same time. Rest in peace, Věra ChytilovŠ. Your work and influence lives on.
Jennifer West is an artist based in Los Angeles.
Douglas Davis, The World’s First Collaborative Sentence (detail), 1994.
DOUGLAS DAVIS was an artist, art critic, and teacher whose work with a remarkable variety of mediums—including video, television, performance, and later, the Internet—was prescient in its consideration of the social relationship between people and technology. I didn’t know him personally, but I’ve been told that he was a bit of a dreamer in the day-to-day—a visionary, even. He must have been, since he observed in his art—and equally, if not more perceptively, in his writing—the subtle shifts in public behavior around television that would come to inform the complex (if not outright ambivalent) personal relationships that most of us have with digital technologies today. Tinged with an almost mystical sense of optimism tempered by the counterculture of his day, Davis’s particular brand of wide-eyed intellectual openness positioned him perfectly as an early adopter of the Internet, a space whose potential as a social and artistic medium he clearly recognized.
Davis is perhaps most famously remembered for co-organizing, with Nam June Paik and Joseph Beuys, a then-unprecedented live telecast of performance-art pieces that were broadcast to twenty-five countries as part of Documenta 6. In his personal contribution to the project, a video titled The Last Nine Minutes, a youthful, T-shirted Davis appears to be trapped inside a television set, pressing his palms and banging his fists against its glass in an attempt to . . . what? Communicate with the pair of hands on the other side of the glass—presumably, the viewers’—that press against his own? Call for help? In Write With Me on Your TV Screen, another work made a few years later, in 1979, Davis, presumably trapped inside his television (yet again!), scrawls the simple command of the title in reverse, to ensure its legibility to the viewer.
Davis’s video works were exceptionally earnest in tone. Yet in watching him inscribe relationships between his own body, the screen, and some other, imagined viewer, we can still see that for Davis, television (and later, the Internet) wasn’t simply a vehicle for passive consumption, even if it is perennially and all too easily dismissed as such. He described the “exhilaration” he felt, as an artist, while acting live: “To know that the moment the camera turns on is the moment of record or of broadcast is to experience a heightened reality, to perform at another level.”
Some of the real poignancy—and foresight, for that matter—of Davis’s work may be seen and felt in the way he negotiated with language. He effectively predicted the social Web to come, after all, with The World’s First Collaborative Sentence, an interactive work made in 1994 for the then-nascent World Wide Web and acquired the following year by the Whitney Museum of American Art through a donation by the work’s first owners, Barbara and the late Eugene M. Schwartz. The Sentence is perhaps best considered as a functional, interactive expression of Davis’s keen social observations. Users—the first were visitors to Lehman College Art Gallery, in the Bronx, where the piece was shown in 1994 as part of “InterActions,” a survey of Davis’s work—were invited to add their own texts, images, and sound files to an online “performance” of a never-ending stream of consciousness: The project’s only rule was that each user’s contribution could not end with a period.
As a Web-based project exhibited in several galleries over the course of time—in 1995, the piece was installed in the Gwangju Biennale, as well as the School of Visual Arts’ “Digital Salon” exhibition, which toured internationally; in 1999 it was exhibited at the Zentrum fŁr Kunst und Medientechnologie in Karlsruhe, Germany, as part of the exhibition “net.condition”—the effect of the (very real) physical relationship between people and the Web can be felt in the polyvalent nature of its contributions. In 2013, the Whitney executed a preservation project around the work, effectively saving it from digital demise while preserving its original interface, designed by Davis, and allowing for new user contributions. This interface invited users to interact with the Web in a way that blogs and social-media platforms would beg—nay, demand—years later. The Sentence has effectively invited users to write what now, in 2014, amounts to an ungodly number of Web pages devoted to the inner musings of thousands of people; produced collaboratively but read as an endless stream of consciousness, the work both imitates and challenges the solipsism of the social Web as we now know it. It is comforting—satisfying even—to place Davis and his work in historical post-mortem terms, given the series of rapid technological developments that marked the decades in which he lived, worked, wrote, and taught. The Sentence, it turns out, was likely the first known work of Net art, a genre whose ephemeral and yet incredibly specific nature continues to trouble the art world’s market-driven sensibilities.
Identifying “firsts” is a standard art-historical practice—a means of manufacturing value through precedence; it’s one way academics and institutions lay claim to artists. And considering the practice of historical claim-laying can be productive here, if we recall just how radical the domestic arrival of the Internet during the 1990s really felt as a social phenomenon—how enormously novel it truly was to build communities of shared interest by interacting with other, unknown people in other, unknown places through a computer. On the 2.0 (and now, post-2.0) social Web, however, to “call firsts” is to lay a different kind of historical claim: The phrase describes the practice of bragging loudly online that one was the first to react or to serve as the original source for a piece of information that gained subsequent digital traction. A social byproduct of the intersection of digital technology with late capitalism, “calling firsts” reeks of frantic editorial desperation, smacking of a desire claim supreme and unassailable ownership over shared experience—over time, even.
Everything arrives at once in the great and terrifying enterprise that is today’s Internet: I believe that Douglas Davis and his Sentence in particular are best remembered as agents in a messy, unwieldy digital emergence that can’t be fully known or understood. Davis came before “firsts”—but he also didn’t need them.
Sarah Hromack is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She works as the director of digital media at the Whitney Museum of American Art and teaches in the department of art and art professions at New York University’s Steinhardt School.
Douglas Davis, The World’s First Collaborative Sentence, 1994.
DOUGLAS DAVIS, critical and theoretical writer, teacher, and media artist, died in relative obscurity this past winter. No museum organized a memorial exhibition, and while a few obits appeared, the art world did not make much fuss. Yet Davis deserves to be celebrated for a life devoted to challenging many of the assumptions and attitudes that still hamper our understanding of the times in which we live. Technology was the focus of Davis’s work as an artist and as an art and architecture critic. His fundamental concerns were not, as his friend and collaborator Nam June Paik often said, with the problem of our understanding of technology per se, but rather with how we can come to grips with the impact that technology has had upon individual consciousness and social relationships.
I first met Davis in 1971 when I was a (very) young curator of video art—a unique title at the time—in the Jim Harithas era of the Everson Museum in Syracuse, New York. Davis was one of the circle of artists, writers, and assorted characters that followed Harithas to Syracuse after Jim resigned his directorship at the Corcoran Gallery after a fight with its notorious board of trustees. At the time, Douglas was both art critic for then-highly-influential Newsweek magazine and an artist exploring the potential of television as a creative medium. This dual role made him both widely envied and widely suspected of playing both sides, using his role as a critic to promote his own art and that of his peers. But Davis ignored his critics and in fact helped to establish the idea that artists could also assume the role of media activists, by publishing his ideas about the future of video and the media culture in Radical Software. In those days, Davis lived at 80 Wooster Street in the building organized by SoHo loft pioneer and Fluxus master George Maciunas. The first-floor tenant was Jonas Mekas and the Anthology Film Archive. Fertile ground.
Davis was devoted to applying his reading of Walter Benjamin (especially Benjamin’s perennially relevant essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”) to what Paik termed “cybernetic times.” How were we to define what constituted a work of art in this new age, and what would the artist’s job be? He focused on what was lost and was gained as the notion of mass media was inverted or transformed in ways that are now still not fully understood: Could the human touch survive, for example, in an era of bits and bytes? And finally, he asked how artists could challenge and transform the institutional infrastructure—including the actual architecture, as well as operating assumptions of industries ranging from art museums to universities and publishing houses.
One of Davis’s first works that truly impressed me and still does is Backwards TV, 1971, perhaps his simplest. It consisted of a standard television set turned close to the wall, tuned to no channel, and emitting the blue-white light of video snow. The ghostly glow that surrounded the TV was more than just beautiful; it constituted a direct rebuff to the idea that content rather than structure lay at the base of our understanding of new media. Like Paik, Davis believed that the one-way notion of commercial television and radio (the condition Brecht described in his 1939 “Theory of Radio”) was the core of the problem. And his major contributions were an attempt to entice viewers to abandon their role as passive receivers of one-way communication and to insist upon their right to write as well as read.
From his 1971 interactive-performance video work Electronic Hokkadim, in which actions of audience members were integrated into a broadcast program, to his 1977 Documenta 6 collaboration with Paik and Joseph Beuys (a live international satellite-telecast performance), to his extraordinary Internet project of 1994, The World’s First Collaborative Sentence, Davis remained fixed on the idea of interactivity. In the Documenta piece, Davis placed his hands on the inside of the television screen and invited viewers to place their hands on his from the outside, creating a virtual union. In The World’s First Collaborative Sentence, a work in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art (and still functioning online), Davis initiated a text to which thousands of other individuals have continued to append their own thoughts. It remains an interactive piece that may never be finished.
As both an artist and critic, Davis realized and actively celebrated the impending blurring of the difference between writers and readers. He took pleasure in the idea of a new kind of communion implied by new media technologies. He was also openly willing to accept changing notions of authority and promoted the idea that ownership of information was inherently antidemocratic. In other words, Davis had the courage to acknowledge and engage a new art world—one not defined by the marketplace, but rather as a continuous global conversation in which he was simply one participant. His life and work are worth remembering.
David A. Ross is the former director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. He currently chairs the MFA in art practice at the School of Visual Arts, New York, and performs with the band RED.