Anyone who recollects New York City’s adventuresome 1960s downtown avant-garde art and performance scene that synergized and expanded boundaries between art forms (decades before the personal computer and on internet) will quickly realize those daring multimedia artists’ risk-taking explorations pioneered our digital world. Experimental artists probing how the different arts could mix and interface were the first to multitask, create exciting hybrid genres prior to software and websites, and to navigate simultaneous virtual POVs—“windows”—long before Microsoft (1985). Now that everyone is a digital junkie holding a supercomputer in the palm of their hands, AI power and cyber symbiosis co-opt and compress decades of artistic endeavor by instantly enabling users to create an extraordinary range of virtual performativity through making, sharing, and disseminating photographs, videos, performances, texts, and movies while accessing and managing unlimited information sources. Since the number of cell phones exceeds the entire U.S. population, cyberthesia now challenges, informs, and counterbalances the omnipresent manipulation of media interplay.
Artists began manipulating media before media exploded modernity. After all, art depends on seizing and transforming materials: paint, canvas, musical instruments, page, words, stage or performance space, moving bodies, light, voice, videotape, screens, movie cameras, celluloid, projectors, etc. Artists have always sought new ways to combine and extend materials, and starting in the 1960s, the decade following World War II’s consumerist groundswell, technology offered an unprecedented horizon of new possibilities. Artists undoubtedly started moving and breaking boundaries after Hollywood, TV, electronics, and transistorized appliances created a fission of expanding vistas.
Happenings started it, instigated by musicians, painters, and performing artists. John Cage’s first musical happening at Black Mountain College, in 1952, featured Merce Cunningham and R. Buckminster Fuller, though the term wasn’t coined until 1959, by Cage’s student Allen Kaprow, who by then had become Happenings’ prime mover. Happenings created a new hybrid performance genre [End Page 63] that involved chance and happenstance. They broke the theatre’s traditional “fourth wall” as well as a reliance on plot or script—no director needed. Happenings were eclectic, unpredictable, improvisatory, interactive, immersive, even madcap, celebrating spontaneity, simultaneity, and pluralism. Anything could happen—artists, performers, and friends showed up with disparate costumes, props, and gear and enacted what might have been further out than Reality TV. Soon afterwards, before word and image became byte, icon, and meme, painters, dancers, musicians, actors, and filmmakers began manipulating an assortment of media including photographs, spoken and projected texts, film, slides, spontaneous dialogue, musical instruments, singing, and chanting. Mixing art and media reconceived and reinvented performance and began creating hybrid forms. Before multi-track recording studios, Sixties choreographers lugged around bulky gunmetal Wollensak tape recorders, spools of reel-to-reel magnetic tape, a small metal splicing bar, and editing adhesive to make sound collages for their dances.
A multiplicity of means, POV, and ways to read simultaneous events prefigured our digital, pulsing, information-driven world. Collage moved from canvas and page into three-dimensional space. Robert Rauschenberg expanded the canvas surface by incorporating disparate found objects such as a tire and stuffed goat into his paintings to create “combines.” Media guru Marshall McLuhan knew TV and media were turning linear perception inside out, creating an inevitably exploding new Gutenberg galaxy of syncretic programmatic possibilities. Film-maker and performance artist Jack Smith capitalized on fugitive randomness by assembling “superstars”—bohemians, underground rebels, and drag queens who would show up and improvise without a script for his provocative films Flaming Creatures and Normal Love (1963). By 1966, Andy Warhol had realized that media programmed reality; his Exploding Plastic Inevitable featured the Velvet Underground rock band in a nihilistic strobe-driven light show with projected films and performers at the Dom, the Lower East Side’s forerunner of disco. His early unscripted films also foreshadowed Reality TV. It wasn’t long before mainstream culture and commercial advertising began appropriating these emerging techniques.
In 1966, 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering pioneered large-scale performance art and technology collaborations at NYC’s 69th Regiment Armory at 28th Street and Lexington Avenue, catalyzed by Bell Lab’s technology wiz Billy Kluver and fellow engineers, and featuring works...