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.