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Dan Graham: Rock My Religion – Kodwo Eshun

To remember Dan Graham (1942–2022), we have made available an extract from Dan Graham: Rock My Religion by Kodwo Eshun. A rock-history lesson in video-essay form, Rock My Religion is, as Eshun writes, a ‘portrait of Graham as a fan, a participant and an observer of a new teenage ritual’; it’s ‘a method for elevating one’s obsession to the dimensions of mythology.’ To learn more about this book, part of the One Work series, see here.

On First Encounter

Close-up, bare-chested and livid, Henry Rollins bangs his head in time to inaudible riffs. He is performing onstage along with the other members of his band Black Flag, but the image is silent. Rollins untangles his right arm from the microphone lead and moves left across the frame while his body fires another short burst of spasms. He pauses for a few seconds and tenses his torso once more, gathering himself to headbutt the air, when the sound of an electric guitar chord bursts forward. The camera pulls back through the thick of body-slamming fans, allowing us to briefly see more of the stage. The frame goes black, and we are left with just the guitar’s reverb.

A work song ousts Gregg Ginn’s distorted guitar and, after a few more seconds, a white text, scrolling upwards, fills the black with the doctrines of Puritanism. A voice-over introduces Ann Lee, the founder of the Shakers, while a second sound channel is abruptly added; it is Sonic Youth’s song ‘Shakin’ Hell’ (1983), which plays on while archival images interconnect the Shakers with illustrations of the making of the English working class. These shots are in turn interrupted by additional footage of the Black Flag gig and a brief sequence of Joe Strummer performing on stage taken from from Rude Boy (1980), a part-fiction, part-documentary film following a Clash fan who becomes a roadie for the band. Rock My Religion’s title appears three times in this opening sequence, in yellow capitalised font, firstly for ten seconds at 0:58; then again after an image of an etching of Shakers performing the Ring Dance; and finally for less than a second, just before Black Flag reappears, saturated by a crimson light. The author’s name, Dan Graham, can also be seen then in red capitalised font, for one second at 02:11, looking as if it were due to a minor malfunction or seizure of the equipment.01

The Patti Smith Group is then introduced. Their outdoor performance becomes the background for the transcribed text and a live version of Patti Smith’s song ‘Piss Factory’ (1974). The movement in the footage is jerky, as if frames had been dropped from the original video recording to give the impression of stop-motion animation. This is followed by footage of a water turbine and the exteriors and interiors of an unidentified historical Shaker settlement, soundtracked by Glenn Branca’s ‘The Ascension’ (1981). A detail of the contorted faces of Adam and Eve from Masaccio’s La Cacciata dei progenitori dall’Eden (The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, 1424–25) is accompanied by Johanna Cypis’s and Graham’s voices explaining Ann Lee’s Biblical diagnosis of the oppression of the working class and women, while white text on orange background scrolls upwards, describing her divine revelation.

Another Patti Smith performance — this time paused as frames — becomes the background for the transcribed translation of Arthur Rimbaud’s letter to Paul Demeny in 1871, in which the poet proclaims his revolutionary theories of poetry and life.02 A live recording of Smith reciting ‘Histories of the Universe’ at St Mark’s Church in the Bowery on the 1 of January 1975 can be heard. Later, a scene of a white religious congregation dancing is visually echoed by a sequence showing a Native American man spinning in the snow and by another with Black Flag fans swinging their white arms in the dark. The band’s ‘Nothing Left Inside’ (1984) accompanies the images.

This accumulation of moving images and sounds, texts and pictures, explanations and interruptions continues for nearly one hour, building upon each other to construct a historical narrative that focuses on a specific form of popular culture (rock music, in its broadest sense) and places it at the centre of the construction of an idea of America — a construction that starts with the religious communities that left the England of the Industrial Revolution (and even earlier) for the New World, and that finds a culmination of sorts in the social formations that emerged after World War II, shaped by new urban structures, mass cultural production and unprecedented forms of consumerism.


Although Rock My Religion is dated 1983 to 1984, Rhea Anastas has suggested that Dan Graham actually began working on it in 1980 or 1981.03 After its first screening at the exhibition ‘Dan Graham Pavilions’ at Kunsthalle Bern in 1983, Graham reworked the video for ‘Flypunkter/Vanishing Points’ at Moderna Museet in Stockholm one year later.04 The various versions of the script offer insights into the editorial process that led to the work as it exists today. The earliest version currently available, however, is not a script, but the digital file of a Memorex cassette recording titled My Religion: Extract from a Work Tape: Ann Lee, released as a 7-minute and 8-second soundwork by Audio Arts Magazine in 1982.05In 1983, a subsequent version of the script was published in the exhibition catalogue for ‘Scenes and Conventions in Architecture by Artists’ at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, under the title ‘Rock Religion’.06A third version was published as ‘Rock My Religion’ in TERMINAL ZONE, the magazine project edited by artist Fareed Armaly from 1987 to 1988.07The fourth version of the script, also titled ‘Rock My Religion’, differs significantly from the actual voice-over of the video, and was published in Graham’s volume Rock My Religion: Writings and Art Projects 1965–1990, in 1993.08

The shifting emphasis of the script suggests the project’s changeable, unstable nature. In the years following its completion, however, Graham sought to stabilise its reception. Rock My Religion, he wrote in 1988, aimed to ‘restore historical memory’ by reconstructing an ‘actual, although hidden past’ that was mostly eradicated but still ‘briefly available’.09 To do so it was necessary to challenge, firstly, the ‘dominant ideology of newness’; secondly, the Baudrillardian notion of ‘history as simulation’; and thirdly, the ‘historicist idea’ that ‘everything we know’ about the past is ‘dependent upon the present’.

Brian Wallis’s 1993 essay ‘Dan Graham’s History Lessons’ popularised Graham’s convincing position. Since then, curators such as Philippe Vergne have tended to take Graham’s reading at its word, approaching the work as an illustration of his intentions. By taking ‘rock music and entertainment both as tools and subjects’, Rock My Religion, Vergne has written, functions as a ‘history lesson crystallising qualities specific to Graham’s aesthetic programme’.10

Recent thematic exhibitions such as ‘Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll Since 1967’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago (2007–08) and ‘See This Sound: Promises in Sound and Vision’ at Lentos Kunstmuseum in Linz (2009–10) have confirmed the conception of Rock My Religion as a rock-history lesson in video-essay form.11Arguably, the recent retrospective exhibition ‘Dan Graham: Beyond’ at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis served to institutionalise this reading.12

In their book Black Sound White Cube (2010), Dieter Lesage and Ina Wudtke challenged this tendency, concluding that Rock My Religion is often integrated into exhibitions with the intention of informing an audience about the history of rock music. However, obvious obligatory historical references to black culture in general (the dancing and trance in black ‘sanctified’ churches) and black sound in particular (rhythm and blues) are almost completely missing from this ambitious attempt to ‘contextualise’ one’s ‘own’ (rock) culture and background. Given that, it is far from certain whether the ‘lesson’ approach is the right curatorial way of presenting the video.13

Their response echoed the first substantial critical response to Rock My Religionin the 1980s. In ‘From Gadget Video to Agit Video: Some Notes on Four Recent Video Works’ (1985), Benjamin Buchloh articulated his unease with the video’s exclusions:

Thus it is astonishing that Graham should omit from his construction of the panorama of religious and musical consumption any reference whatsoever to the fact that this history cannot possibly be written without considering the contribution of the black working class and its musicians or reflecting on its cultural contribution in the context of its role as the traditionally exploited and oppressed proletarian class of American society.14

Rock My Religion, then, did not seek to restore ‘historical memory’. It emphasised specific moments in white working-class histories while excluding those of the black working class.

Separated from the authority of Graham’s reading, it becomes possible to understand Rock My Religion as a video-essay that works with historical images and sounds in ways that are not historical, but rather ahistorical and transhistorical; not academic or theoretical so much as associative and speculative. Hal Foster discerned Rock My Religion’s desire to thwart academic expectations when he pointed towards the ‘hint of the vengeful nerd as well as a touch of the provocative adolescent’ contained within the ‘quirky versions of cultural history pioneered by Graham’.15

Rock My Religion directed its provocation, highly valued within punk culture, towards art culture. In 1984, it brought with it a powerful sense of artistic grievance that targeted critics of contemporary art. Today, after Graham’s video has been canonised by younger art historians and critics, that sense of revenge remains palpable. Its vengefulness stemmed from the belief that the rock culture that mattered to artists in the 1970s and 80s had been ignored by art critics unschooled in such culture, indifferent to its impact and convinced of its irrelevance. In this sense, Rock My Religion operated, and continues to operate, as an object lesson that demonstrates how artists can rewrite the history of the present according to their own enthusiasms.

What Buchloch failed to consider was that Rock My Religion’s omissions of African American music could repel and attract in equal measure. For every artist demoralised by its inexcusable exclusions, another artist, perhaps even the same artist, might discern a refusal to give ground on one’s convictions. Within Rock My Religion could be discerned a method for elevating one’s obsessions to the dimensions of mythology. The subjective intensity of Rock My Religionappeals to artists whose preoccupations have nothing whatsoever to do with rock culture. Its appeal lies in its autodidacticism, its amateurism and its do-it-yourself perseverance. Each of these qualities encourages artists, especially the fraction of artists who write, to make works about what matters to them, using material collected over years.

Even as its exclusions disqualify it as reliable history, Rock My Religion can be understood in other ways. As a synthetic ethnography on tribes, sects, fans and anti-families. As a series of speculations on shared states of sensation. On dance as a method for ecstatic belonging. On the necessity of forgetting as the route to immortality. As an amateur anthropology of the founding of America.

Rock My Religion often feels like a white dream of America divested of African presence, with the exception of an appearance by Jimi Hendrix, a single reference to Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B. Goode’ (1958), a reference to Jerry Lee Lewis’s ‘Great Balls of Fire’ (1957) that omits its songwriter Otis Blackwell, Little Eva singing ‘The Loco-Motion’ (1962) and the presence of one unidentified slave spiritual about the day of Jubilee. And yet, Rock My Religionis not so much a wish fulfilment of a whitened America as a new mythology of origin fashioned from the images and sounds of working-class religious rituals. Given the political climate of Christian Republicanism in the 1980s, its preoccupation with the fundamentalist theologies of white America was perceptive.

To summon the memory of the Shakers at the precise moment when evangelicalism resurged on radio and television allows one to pose a question. Had Rock My Religion found a way to match the rhetoric of conservative family values with the anti-family principles of American celibate communists? Situating rock culture within the wider context of the political theology of America drew attention to rock music’s capacities of identification and projection. The close-up shot of glistening black ants crawling over the face and torso of a toy model of Christ in David Wojnarowicz’s film A Fire in My Belly(1986–87) offered one response to Pentecostal demonology. Graham’s position, by contrast, was harder to read. Rather than a critique of organised religion, Rock My Religion invites viewers into the ecstatic dimension of becoming born-again. It seeks to invoke the power that brings those congregations into existence.

This invocatory capacity is specific to the video-essay. Bennett Simpson has suggested that Rock My Religion is ‘essentially a textual critical work that Graham’s video and audio montage serves to illustrate’.16 On first viewing, the role of audio and video does indeed appear to illustrate the ‘textual’ and ‘critical’ work of the essays on rock culture produced by Graham from 1980 to 1984. Graham and Cypis actually do read scripts that extend ideas initially formulated in published essays. Their voices address the viewer with a guileless didacticism and the images often illustrate what the voices say. Indeed, Graham favours Victorian illustrations as a source of historical imagery. The texts, or to be more precise the ‘text-overs’ generated by the edit suite, do make words visible within generic parameters.17

Repeated viewings and listenings, however, begin to reveal a performative dimension that exceeds illustration. What distinguishes the video-essay from other forms of video art is its ability to perform the states it seeks to articulate. Because the video-essay inhabits the same medium as its subject, it can enact its speculations in ways that a textual essay cannot. Since it uses the same sounds, images and voices that it speculates about, it is capable of sharing their powers of seduction. This capacity of exemplification is the promise of the genre. Each video-essay has to discover its own methods of actualisation; the task facing the video-essayist is to invent forms capable of animating arguments.


On first viewing Rock My Religion, what strikes the viewer is the poor quality of the images and the blurred sound. The horizontal hold of the image continually gives way, the picture is always collapsing. At moments of silence, the ghost-voices of Patti Smith can be heard, leaking between channels. These slippages indicate the attrition suffered by the work they make you protective of it. Each fault is not so much a flaw as a scar that attests to its difficult existence. This sense of infirmity in the image brings a corresponding sense of imbalance in the sound. On first listening to Rock My Religion, what impresses is the insistent insecurity expressed in the voice-overs of Graham and Cypis. What imprints itself is the imperfection that articulates the position and the stance of New York’s post-punk culture, which Rock My Religion emerged from and participated in.

Cypis’s and Graham’s reading voices are monotonous, depressive, excitable, serious, determined, thoughtful, introspective, amateurish, persistent. Neither is in control of itself, nor its environment. At three different moments, the voices can be heard to stumble over words. Twice, bumps are audible — the microphone has picked up the movement of the body, or perhaps someone has leaned too close to the microphone and has managed to hit it. The levels at which the voices are recorded continually fluctuate; no attempt is made to match the tone of speaking voices from one take to another. All of these factors produce a shifting unsteadiness, and build a portrait of making do with what one has. The viewer becomes attuned to the provisional nature of each assertion, instead of assuming it to be an accomplished fact that must be deconstructed. The reading voices are often supplanted by the voices of rock stars: Eddie Cochran; Jerry Lee Lewis; Patti Smith; Robby Krieger, Ray Manzarek and Jim Morrison of the Doors, each of whom takes over responsibility for narration. The New Jersey-accented nasal voice of Patti Smith recorded on cassette tape, recalling a visitation by the ghost of Jimi Hendrix arguing with a radio deejay — declaring Radio Ethiopia to be ‘an alternative to your alternative’ — and riffing on Rimbaud at St Mark’s Church. The intimacy of Jim Morrison reciting a childhood recollection, slurring his words, haranguing his audience from a stage in Miami. The bootlegged voice of Jerry Lee Lewis arguing with Sam Phillips. The cavernous echo of Eddie Cochran bidding farewell to a Buddy Holly ascended to teen heaven. Each voice is distinguished by the conditions of its recording. The muffled pause of the cassette recorder; the sound of something being pounded; the crude edits; the fluctuating volume levels; the room tone; the proximity of the microphone; the expressive dimension of guitar distortion, of shouts, screams, hollers, yells, whispers, sighs, dead silences.

On first reading Rock My Religion, you realise that the screen has become the support for a scriptovisuality. It demands double vision and twin hearing. The capitalised font, its size and the number of characters in each line are fixed, as are the direction and speed of the textual flow. However, the text’s and screen’s colours are variable. Within the parameters set by the video editing suite, each move away from white font on black screen draws attention to the combined action of reading and looking at reading, while listening to one or more voices and or one or more songs. The challenge of Rock My Religion is to watch, listen and read the screen with two kinds of twin attention.



  • The timings noted throughout this book refer to a copy of the work viewable on Vimeo at the following address These timings are different from the timings of the version Graham now exhibits, and which is available from Electronic Arts Intermix, which is itself different from the version included in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Dan Graham does not have an ‘official’ version of Rock My Religion — his practice, as acknowledged by his studio, in many ways defies notions of singular discrete art objects. Email to the editors, 1 May 2012.
  • See Arthur Rimbaud, ‘À Paul Demeny’, 15 May 1871, available at h​t​t​p​:​/​/​a​b​a​r​d​e​l​.​f​r​e​e​.​f​r​/​t​o​u​t​_​r​i​m​b​a​u​d​/​l​e​t​t​r​e​s​_​1​8​7​1​.​h​t​m​#​l​e​t​t​r​e​_​d​e​m​e​n​y​_​1​5​_​m​a​i​_​1​8​7​1.
  • See Rhea Anastas, ‘Chronology of Works and Writings 1965–2000’, in Marianne Brouwer (ed.), Dan Graham: Works 1965–2000 (exh. cat.), Düsseldorf: Richter Verlag, 2001, p.209.
  • Dan Graham: Pavilions’ took place from 12 March to 17 April 1983; ‘Flypunkter/Vanishing Points’ from 14 April to 27 May 1984.
  • Dan Graham, ‘My Religion: Extract from a Work Tape: Ann Lee, in Live to Air — Artists Sound Works’ (1982), Audio Arts Magazine, vol.5, no.3 and 4 (3 × C-82), 1982. This recording may have provided the basis for the script published as ‘My Religion’ in Museumjournaal, vol.27, no.7, 1982.
  • ‘Rock Religion’ was published in Scenes and Conventions in Architecture by Artists(exh. cat.), London: Institute of Contemporary Art, 1983, pp.80–81. According to Rhea Anastas, it was first published in North America as ‘Rock Religion’ in Just Another Asshole, no.6, 1983. ‘Rock Religion’ is republished in M. Brouwer (ed.), Dan Graham: Works 1965–2000, op. cit., pp.210–11.
  • D. Graham, ‘Rock My Religion’, TERMINAL ZONE, issue 1, 1987–88.
  • D. Graham, ‘Rock My Religion’, Rock My Religion: Writings and Art Projects 1965–1990 (ed. D. Graham and Brian Wallis), Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1993, pp.80–96.
  • Quoted by B. Wallis, ‘Dan Graham’s History Lessons’, in ibid., p.viii.
  • Philippe Vergne, ‘Don’t Trust Anybody’, in Bennett Simpson and Chrissie Iles (ed.), Dan Graham: Beyond (exh. cat.), Los Angeles, Cambridge, MA and London: The Museum of Contemporary Art and The MIT Press, 2009, p.146. Simpson writes: ‘Underlying this dense weave of subject matter, images, sounds and words is an attempt, Graham said, “to restore historical memory”.’ B. Simpson, ‘A Minor Threat: Dan Graham and Music’, in ibid., p.47.
  • ‘Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll since 1967’ took place from 29 September 2007 to 6 January 2008; ‘See This Sound: Promises in Sound and Vision’ from 28 August 2009 to 10 January 2010.
  • ‘Dan Graham: Beyond’, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 15 February–25 May 2009. It then travelled to the Whitney Museum of American Art (25 June–11 October 2009) and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (31 October 2009–31 January 2010).
  • Dieter Lesage and Ina Wudtke, Black Sound White Cube, Vienna: Locker, 2010, p.64.
  • Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, ‘From Gadget Video to Agit Video: Some Notes on Four Recent Video Works’, Art Journal, vol.45, no.3, Fall 1985, p.220. Buchloh writes that the ‘idiosyncratic and eclectic compilation of the material in Graham’s subjective history of the relationship between Rock and Roll and religion is highly original and it would be foolish to judge the results by the standard of academic historical research in the field of the history of religion or that of mass-cultural practices of delirious consumption. Yet even if one grants the tape all the individual rights to select at will and compile at random from the complex history of that inter relationship in artistic bricolage manner, it also provokes a response to the subjectivity of that choice and the construction of the history resulting from it.’
  • Hal Foster, ‘Dan Graham, Whitney Museum of Modern Art, New York’, Artforum, vol.48, no.2, October 2009, p.226.
  • B. Simpson, ‘A Minor Threat’, op. cit., p.48.
  • It is likely that Graham used the Sony Series V editing suite popular with artists in the early to mid-1980s for typing text and for converting images into backgrounds.