– Autumn/Winter 2014

Beyond Technology: Juan Downey’s Whole Earth

Julieta González

Juan Downey in Caracas, 1977. Photograph: Marilys Belt de Downey. Courtesy Marilys Belt de Downey

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky. [...]

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labours
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.
Richard Brautigan1

Richard Brautigan’s cyber-hippie poem of 1967 eloquently captures the spirit that animated the US countercultural technological utopias of the late 1960s and early 70s. The social movements that emerged during this period promoted an ecological relation between mankind and technology — one which challenged the defence-oriented culture of the early Cold War years and its use and control of scientific information in the arms race for world domination against the Soviet Union. The shift from post-War technocracy to the technological communalism promoted by US publications such as The Whole Earth Catalog or Radical Software also parallels the transition from first- to second-order cybernetics. Also known as the cybernetics of cybernetics, second-order cybernetics’ new paradigm for

  1. Richard Brautigan, ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace’, The Whole Earth Catalog, Winter 1998, 30th anniversary celebration, p.41. This publication featured a re-edition of the first issue of The Whole Earth Catalog as well as an issue of CoEvolution Quarterly. The poem appears in the facsimile of the first issue, credited to ‘The Realist’; Brautigan's name does not appear. The poem was originally self-published by Brautigan as part of a mimeographed book of poems in 1967.

  2. While Downey never participated in any of the New Tendencies exhibitions, his early electronic sculptures are clearly influenced by this movement. He was also included in the Corcoran Gallery’s presentation of Jasia Reichardt’s exhibition ‘Cybernetic Serendipity’ (Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 1 August—20 October 1968 and Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 16 July—31 August 1969), very close to the New Tendencies vision.

  3. Max Bill, ‘The Mathematical Approach in Contemporary Art’ (1949), reprinted in Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz (ed.), Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings, Berkeley and Los Angeles: The University of California Press, 1996, pp.74—77.

  4. Jack Burnham has traced the genealogy of technological art to the Productivist desire to enter production and in particular to Karl Ioganson’s conception of the artist as technician. See J. Burnham, ‘Systems Esthetics’, Artforum, vol.7, no.1, September 1968, p.31.

  5. ‘Editorial’, Radical Software, vol.1, no.1, Spring 1970, p.1.

  6. Ibid.

  7. ‘Some More Beginnings’ (Brooklyn Museum, New York, 25 November 1968—5 January 1969) was the result of an international competition launched by E.A.T., an organisation founded by Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman and engineers Billy Klüver and Fred Waldhauer in 1966 to promote collaborations between artists and engineers. The competition had initially been part of the exhibition ‘The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age’, organised by Pontus Hultén at the Museum of Modern Art, New York that same year, but given the overwhelming response E.A.T. decided to present the submissions in a separate exhibition. Downey and Pitts’s partnership began at around the same time as their participation in ‘Some More Beginnings’.

  8. These polls also figure in A Research on the Art World and 7 Critics (both 1970).

  9. Juan Downey: Electronic Sculpture (exh. leaflet), Corcoran Gallery, Washington DC, 1969, unpaginated.

  10. Max Bense coined the term ‘generative aesthetics' to refer to artistic practices that circumscribe ‘art-generating processes into a finite number of constructive steps’, and ‘lead to the deployment of “programmes” that serve to produce aesthetic states.’ We could inscribe Downey’s work, as well as earlier Conceptual text-based experiments such as Dan Graham’s Schema (1966), within this type of operation, given their kinship with cybernetic notions of pattern, coding, noise and redundancy. M. Bense, ‘Aesthetics and Programming’ (1968), reprinted in Margit Rosen (ed.), A Little-Known Story about a Movement, a Magazine and the Computer's Arrival in Art: New Tendencies and Bit International, 1961—1973, Karlsruhe and Cambridge, MA: ZKM | Center for Art and Media and the MIT Press, 2011 pp.296—300.

  11. Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mankind (1972), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000, p.459. For an in-depth analysis of the Macy conference debates on reflexivity and the role of the observer, see N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999.

  12. Juan Downey, ‘Architecture, Video, Telepathy: A Communications Utopia’, International Review of Video and the Mass Media, vol.5, no.1, 1977, pp.1—4.

  13. In his travelogues Downey wrote: ‘Many of the cultures of the Americas exist today in total isolation, unaware of their overall variety and of commonly shared myths. This automobile trip was designed to develop an encompassing perspective among the various populations which today inhabit the American continents, by means of a videotaped account, from the northern cold forest to the southern tip of the Americas — a form of evolution in space while infolding time, playing back one culture in the context of another, the culture itself in its own context, and finally editing all the interactions of space, time and context into one work of art. Cultural information is to be exchanged mainly by means of videotapes shot along the way and played back in villages, for people to see others and themselves. The role of the artist is here conceived to be a cultural communicant, as an activating anthropologist with visual means of expression: videotape.’ J. Downey, ‘Travelogues of Video Trans Americas, 1973—5’, Journal of the Centre for Advanced TV Studies, vol.4, 1976, p.22. Downey’s travelogues are also reproduced in Nuria Enguita Mayo and Juan Guardiola (ed.), With Energy Beyond These Walls (exh. cat.), Valencia: Institut Valencià d’Art Modern, pp.330—36, and Julieta González (ed.), Juan Downey: A Communications Utopia (exh. cat.), Mexico City: Museo Tamayo, 2013, pp.296—331.

  14. See Michael Shamberg, Guerrilla Television, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.

  15. The conception of social agency among some of the artistic avant-gardes of the late 1960s and early 70s was often spoken about in terms of ‘guerrilla warfare’, testifying to an identification with the struggles for decolonisation of the Global South. Notable examples include Radical Software’s and Shamberg’s notion of ‘guerrilla television’, the Guerrilla Art Action Group (founded in New York in 1969), Germano Celant’s 1967 manifesto ‘Arte Povera: Appunti per una guerriglia’ (‘Arte Povera: Notes for a Guerrilla War’) and Mario Merz’s sculpture Igloo di Giap (1968), which refers to the guerrilla tactics of the Vietnamese general who fought against French colonial rule and US forces.

  16. Nicolás Guagnini, ‘Feedback in the Amazon’, October, vol.125, Summer 2008, p.102.

  17. Downey was in New York, and had recently returned from the first Video Trans Americas expedition, when Allende was deposed and died on 11 September 1973, and in the travelogues that he wrote while producing Video Trans Americas he constantly reflects upon the events that were unfolding in Chile. He also repeatedly refers to colonial and neocolonial forms of oppression and sketches a critique of colonial structures through an analysis of Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656), in which he likens the play of gazes and reflections in the painting to video feedback, writing that ‘Velázquez identified the monarchs with their subjects, infolding space and centuries in a video manner: bestialism [sic], colonialism, gesticulation, stupidity, right-wing, decadence, crumbling, animalisation, the wife of the cop, superimposed, antihuman, International Corporations, extortion, bloodshed, oppression, repression, death... and rebirth’. See J. Downey, ‘Travelogues of Video Trans Americas, 1973—75’, op. cit. ‘This would become the basis for The Looking Glass (1981), a video from his later series The Thinking Eye (1974—89), which he first presented as a video performance at Artists Space in 1974 and the Center for Inter-American Relations in 1975, both in New York.

  18. Artist’s notebook, unpublished.

  19. ‘Qué es el CAYC?/What is the CAYC?’, Argentina Inter-medios (exh. cat.), Buenos Aires: Centro de Arte y Comunicación, 1969.

  20. Ana Longoni has called attention to the radical politics of the artists’ collective at the core of the CAyC (Grupo de los Trece, or Group of Thirteen), pointing to links between some of its members and armed groups. Longoni argues that this radicalisation coincided with the hardening of censorship that led to the closure of the Instituto Torcuato di Tella in Buenos Aires in 1969, through which its director Jorge Romero Brest promoted experimental conceptual art in the 1960s. See A. Longoni, ‘El arte, cuando la violencia tomó la calle. Apuntes para una estética de la violencia’, paper presented at ‘Poderes de la imagen: I Congreso Internacional de Teoría e Historia de las Artes. IX Jornadas del Centro Argentino de Investigadores del Arte', Buenos Aires, 2001, available at http://servicios2.abc.gov.ar/lainstitucion/sistemaeducativo/educacionartistica/34seminarios/htmls/descargas/bibliografia/ problematicas-arte/10-Longoni.pdf (last accessed on 29 July 2014).

  21. Jorge Glusberg, Hacia un perfil del arte Latinoamericano (exh. cat.), Buenos Aires: Centro de Arte y Comunicación, 1972, unpaginated.

  22. Ibid.

  23. For more on these works, see J. González, ‘From Utopia to Abdication: Juan Downey’s Architecture without Architecture’ in Valerie Smith (ed.), Juan Downey: The Invisible Architect (exh. cat.), Cambridge, MA and New York: MIT List Visual Arts Center and Bronx Museum of the Arts, 2011, pp.59—75, and J. González, ‘Juan Downey’s Communications Utopia’, Juan Downey: A Communications Utopia, op. cit.

  24. See J. Downey, ‘Technology and Beyond', in Radical Software, vol.2, no.5, 1973, and ‘Architecture, Video, Telepathy’, op. cit.

  25. Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2006, p.38.

  26. J. Downey, ‘Technology and Beyond’, op. cit., pp.2—3.

  27. R. Brautigan, ‘All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace’, op. cit.

  28. In May 1975, Downey writes: ‘The Video Trans Americas black-and-white expeditions have been completed. Like a chemical catalyst I expected to remain identical after my video exchange had enlightened many American peoples by the cross-references of their cultures. I proved to be no real catalyst, for I was devoured by the effervescence of myths, nature and language structures. Pretentious asshole levelled off!! Only then did I grow in creative and manifold directions. Me, the agent of change, manipulating video to decode my own roots. I was forever deciphered and became a true offspring of my soil, less intellectual and more poetic. An unexpected level had been reached among the strange roads of the heart!’ See J. Downey, ‘Travelogues of Video Trans Americas, 1973—75’, op. cit.

  29. J. Downey, ‘The Blueprints of Power: A Documentary on Permanence and Transition in the Architecture of the Indians of the American continents’, unpublished proposal for public TV documentary, August 1987, available at http://www.fundaciontelefonica.cl/arte/downey/archivos/THE_BLUEPRINTS_OF_ POWER20100405115952.pdf (last accessed on 29 July 2014).

  30. Pierre Clastres, Society Against the State: Essays in Political Anthropology (1974), New York and Cambridge, MA: Zone Books and the MIT Press, 1987.

  31. Circle of Fires is the title of both a 1979 installation by Juan Downey and a 1976 book by anthropologist Jacques Lizot, translated into English as Tales of the Yanomami: Daily Life in the Venezuelan Forest (1976, trans. Ernest Simon), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

  32. J. Downey, ‘Technology and Beyond’, op. cit.