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Contemporary Arts Museum Houston Opens Stan VanDerBeek: The Culture Intercom

The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston and the MIT List Visual Arts Center present the first museum survey of the work of media art pioneer Stan VanDerBeek (1927-1984). On view May 14 – July 10, 2011.

Surveying the artist’s remarkable body of work in collage, experimental film, performance, participatory, and computer-generated art over several decades, Stan VanDerBeek: The Culture Intercom highlights the artist’s pivotal contributions to today’s media-based artistic practices. The exhibition features dozens of early paintings and collages, an exhaustive selection of his pioneering animations and films, re-creations of immersive projection and “expanded cinema” environments, documentation of site-specific and telecommunications projects, and material related to his performance and durational work.

Describing himself as a “technological fruit picker,” VanDerBeek consistently turned to new technological means to expand the social and emotive potential of emergent technology and media. Emerging from the progressivist and intermedia tradition of Black Mountain College, VanDerBeek created technologically hybrid and participatory artworks through the 1960s and ’70s. His early drawings and collages, heavily influenced by Dada and the expressionism of the Beat Generation, already hinted at the artist’s interest in the transformation of perception and knowledge in an electronic age and the relationship between art, technology, and the human condition.

VanDerBeek’s animations and short films, beginning in the late 1950s, made him a central figure in American underground film. Combining stop-motion animation drawn from collages of magazine illustrations and advertisementsn with filmed sequences and found footage, films such as Achoo Mr. Kerroochev (1960) and Breathdeath (1963) fused avant-garde cinematic techniques with social critique and Cold War politics.

VanDerBeek’s interest shifted to “expanded cinema” and immersive and multimedia work in the mid-1960s. His Movie-Drome (1963-1965), an audiovisual laboratory and theater built in Stony Point, New York, was conceived as an environment to present multiple film projections. These so-called “movie-murals” or “newsreels of dreams” were part of the artist’s research into developing new visual languages that could be used as tools for world communication.

Always at the forefront of new information, communication, and visualization technologies, VanDerBeek readily embraced computer graphics, image-processing systems, and various new technological forms through the late 1960s and early ’70s. At Bell Labs, working with the first moving-image programming language, he produced Poemfields (1966-1969), a series of computer-generated films. As a research fellow at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) and artist-in-residence at Boston’s public television station WGBH, he began to develop new forms of interdisciplinary work and integrated forms of visual information that now stand as significant experiments in early new media art. For Telephone Mural (1970), developed and conceived at CAVS in 1969, VanDerBeek experimented with transmitting art over telephone using a Xerox machine called a “Telecopier.” A mosaic-like mural of images would be composed in “real time,” sent from his studio at MIT to any location in the world that had access to a telephone line and a similar machine, and then reordered on site.

Working with WGBH television, VanDerBeek produced Violence Sonata (1970), a mix of live studio television transmission and prerecorded video work that questioned violence and race relations in America. VanDerBeek went on to conceive several complex cinematic and performance events at planetariums and museums before his untimely death in 1984.

Beginning with a selection of early abstract paintings, watercolors, and photographs the exhibition features a rotating three-hour program of more than a dozen of VanDerBeek’s renowned animations, along with over forty of the existing collages from his films. The artist’s series of computer-generated films, Poemfields (1966-1969), exploring early computer graphics and image-processing systems, are included as four multiple screen projections, along with Variations V (1966), VanDerBeek’s multi-media collaboration with Merce Cunningham, John Cage, David Tudor, and Nam June Paik. The exhibition also re-creates two of VanDerBeek’s significant works: Movie Mural (1968), a multimedia installation comprised of several slide and video projections, and a version of the large fax murals created at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies and the Walker Art Center in the early 1970s. Immersive, participatory, and media-based projects such as Violence Sonata (1970) and Cine-Dreams (1972) will be featured through rare footage, original drawings and texts, and extensive documentation.

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