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Repurpose and Remake

Stan VanDerBeek, 'Violence Sonata', 1970. Courtesy StanVanDerBeek Estate
Stan VanDerBeek, The Colloquy of Mobiles, Pratchaya Phinthong, Sung Tieu, Chloé Delarue/TAFAA, Dana Liljegren on Ndary Lô, Vuth Lyno on the White Building
Stan VanDerBeek, ‘Violence Sonata’, 1970. Courtesy StanVanDerBeek Estate

By the 1970s, television had penetrated most homes in America, Europe and Japan. New forms of information circulation ushered in an age of new media that included telecommunications, telematics and cybernetic feedback. In parallel to this rapid spread, TV became a prime vector for the diffusion of violence. In Violence Sonata (1970), media artist and experimental film-maker Stan VanDerBeek uses TV as means by which violence impregnates the collective body to reflect on that same violence. The work, which involves video and live performance in a studio setting, intervenes in this violence that the artist described as ‘the digestive act of our inability to communicate’. ‘Man’s frustration at not being able to communicate with words leads him to violence’, said VanDerBeek. ‘Centuries of words have meant centuries of violence. We must explore all other ways to communicate if we hope to live non-violent lives.’ 01 To that end, the artist appropriated and expanded TV’s material apparatus to render it a site for the articulation of a language – informational and aesthetic – beyond words.

Aired on channels 2 and 44 of Boston’s WGBH TV on 12 January 1970 from 9 to 10pm, VanDerBeek defined Violence Sonata as ‘TV as an “information concert”; TV as a “sensory experience”; TV as a form of “pre-fab theatre”; TV as a psycho-drama and feedback’. 02 Already known for his experimental animation work and as a pioneer of Expanded Cinema – a term he coined – VanDerBeek was no stranger to forays into mass media and technology, having previously collaborated with computer scientist Ken Knowlton at Bell Labs, working with his BEFLIX (‘Bell Flicks’) computer language. 03 This work led to the series Poemfield (1966–71), bringing together experimental film, visual poetry and programming ‘conceived for use in VanDerBeek’s multi-screen installations and performances as well as for single channel projection’. 04 The search for a new formal language through novel technologies was entwined here with the exploration of the different social forms of installations, performances and screenings. And with Violence Sonata, this search could be taken to the level of what the artist referred to as the ‘city’s communal nervous system’. 5 Structured in three parts – man; man-to-man; man-to-woman – Violence Sonata unfolded on a TV studio set with an audience of about 300 people, 35mm film and slide projections, several TV monitors and a group of performers staging live actions (happening, drama, soap opera) in response to the real-time TV transmission. These two simultaneous live broadcasts, which included footage from newsreels, political events, sports, performances and animated collages by VanDerBeek, were processed by the artist using a range of techniques afforded by the WGBH equipment: image juxtapositions, fades, distortions and transitions that resulted in a large-scale intermedia, multisensory, multi-temporal, collage/ theatre piece, all via mass communication.

Stan VanDerBeek, ‘Violence Sonata’, 1970. Courtesy StanVanDerBeek Estate

The ambition behind the work was that it foster a non-violent culture, predicated on notions of audience participation and the reuse of materials, performing cybernetic feedback – the regulation, that is, of the production and circulation of information in the Boston area. The area is here conceived as a kind of ‘nervous system’ organised and regulated through retroactions. The audience could respond to the studio during the broadcast by telephone to which performers would react. In this ‘pre-fab theatre’, the video tapes, slides and films that would ‘become the sets needed for the theatre’ were also intended to be reused by other local TV channels and theatres ‘for interpretation and adaptation of the central premise’, triggering reflexivity around issues of violence. 05

Bearing in mind the kind of techno-utopianism of much early media art, to which VanDerBeek was not immune, Violence Sonata was nonetheless compellingly cognisant of a context marked by the emergence of ‘real-time’ and the parallel development of a fragmented social body, as well as of telematics and networked cultures. In this regard, it is also prescient today, and offers tools that, following the artist’s own wish, can be reused, adapted and reoriented in other contexts and towards different ends. In TV VanDerBeek seemed to have seen a pharmakon (both poison and cure, according to Plato) for an increasingly violent society; he offered a techno- pharmacological apparatus to a public that had become atomised behind their monitors. The artist saw Violence Sonata as part of his concept of Expanded Cinema, or a ‘culture-intercom’, made up of audio-visual centres for the production, storage and distribution of information.06

In the spirit of the ‘information concert’, the works gathered here pay homage to Violence Sonata and exist as the result of, or engage with, repurposing, reuse, recombination or re-creation in the face of the changing futurity that stems from the current crisis. As VanDerBeek concluded in a long-ago project proposal: ‘THE FUTURE IS NOT WHAT IS USED TO BE.’ 07 Proceeding through montage, free but concrete associations, and heterological connections, this constellation of meta-stabilising objects adopt the logic of the remainder, the non- original, questioning how the future is not what it used to be.

Stan VanDerBeek, ‘Violence Sonata’, 1970. Courtesy StanVanDerBeek Estate

In his recent essay ‘One Hundred Years of Crisis’, Yuk Hui makes the claim that an optimistic politics is grounded in concrete processes (of solidarity, of technical objects). With regards to the current crisis – immunological in its nature – the philosopher writes that a ‘True co-immunity’ needs to be articulated that ‘is not abstract solidarity, but rather departs from a concrete solidarity whose co-immunity should ground the next wave of globalization (if there is one)’. 08 Unlike the abstract imagination of the Futurists on the one hand, and the ‘cancellation of the future’ by neoliberalism discussed by theorists Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi and Mark Fisher on the other, one might look at ‘biographies of objects’ and their concrete modes of individuation. 09 What do operations such as repurposing, reuse, recombination or recreation tell us about our relationship to temporality and futurity? Artworks and other cultural artefacts produced as non-originals or unfolding from remains – reproduced, recast or resampled – speak to a non-linear conception of time. Untying themselves from the finality to which they were once assigned, they generate bifurcations and are reinscribed in different, perhaps unexpected, time-axes suggesting, perhaps, how to reinhabit the world differently.


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