- The Experience Machine: Stan VanDerBeek’s Movie-Drome and Expanded Cinema by Gloria Sutton
by Gloria Sutton. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, U.S.A., 2015. 257pp., illus. ISBN: 978-0-262-02849-3.
In 2012 the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York unveiled, as part of its show Ghosts in the Machine, a walk-in replica of Stan VanDerBeek’s prototypical Movie-Drome of nearly a half-century before—the dome of a farm silo, its interior converted to a hemispherical projection surface bathed in a stream of ever-changing, overlapping imagery. Ranging from photographs to abstract patterns, from paintings to computer-generated animations, the images, moving and still, were accompanied by a collaged soundtrack comprising what VanDerBeek called “sound-images.” Using updated digital technology (where VanDerBeek had, for the most part, relied on analog devices), the restaged Movie-Drome announced a resurgence of interest in a figure who, although he worked alongside John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Claes Oldenberg and other notables, has himself occupied a comparatively marginal position in histories of postwar art and culture. That situation seems to be changing. In the past few years, major exhibits have recreated, in addition to the Movie-Drome (1963–1966), VanDerBeek’s Movie-Mural (1965), a wall covered with overlapping projections and his pioneering Poemfields (1964– 1969)—digitally produced text/image/ sound animations originally meant to be projected in the Movie-Drome.
Making use of archival materials newly brought to light, this book represents an equally ambitious attempt to reconsider VanDerBeek’s significance, in his own time and in ours. Sutton has sifted through a wealth of documentary matter and unearthed details about a number of fascinating and sometimes forgotten projects that show VanDerBeek to be a seminal figure on the cusp of the avant-garde and new media at the end of the 1960s, whose work fused artistic methods (such as collage and abstraction) with electronic media in ambitious real-time presentations. As an artist and filmmaker, VanDerBeek did not so much produce objects (whether artistic or cinematic) as he designed experiences.
A proponent of “expanded cinema” (a term he likely coined, designating the opening of film into real space and time), VanDerBeek not only worked in different media; he also collaborated across media, as in the technologically ambitious 1965 work Variations V, which brought together composer Cage, choreographer Cunningham, and, in its second iteration, video artist Nam June Paik among others. For this work, VanDerBeek’s Movie-Mural served both as backdrop and as a performance element in its own right. Variations V is often [End Page 473] analyzed part by part, the whole conceived as an additive sum of media each with its own contribution and its own stake in the production. Sutton argues that a more nuanced understanding of “multimedia” is needed to describe the interactions whereby, for example, VanDerBeek’s film projections fall on Cunningham’s dancers while the dancers’ bodies cast shadows upon the projected backdrop. Adopting the concept of “remediation,” she defines multimedia as a qualitative shift, whereby “discrete forms . . . are mediated among and through one another” (p. 138) rather than as merely the quantitative accumulation and juxtaposition of individual media forms.
Ultimately for Sutton, the “object” of VanDerBeek’s work is precisely the viewing subject, transformed through the immersive experience of the Movie-Drome. VanDerBeek’s critical contribution was, she writes,
the introduction of a multimedia subjectivity and a changing conception of the audience . . . that no longer typified the standard viewing habits as conditioned by museums, galleries, or other institutions for the dissemination of art (p. 24).
This “multimedia subjectivity,” or what the artist himself called “communication consciousness,” represents a new relation of subject to work in the mass media environment. As the artist stated in his 1965 manifesto Culture-Intercom, “Each member of the audience will build his own references from the image-flow” (p. 93).
Although Sutton analyzes certain juxtapositions and sequences of VanDerBeek’s source images retrieved from the archive, it is ultimately the multiplicity and endlessly shifting relationships of all kinds of imagery that matters most. The effect is one of...