Stan VanDerBeek was a revolutionary experimental filmmaker, video artist, and visual theoretician who began working in the 1950s and continued innovating right up until his untimely death in 1984.
He was famous early on for this collage films, in which he would manipulate, through animation, paper cutouts to create satirical comments on society, as in his films Breathdeath (1964), which VanDerBeek dedicated to Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton, and described as being a “surrealistic fantasy based on the 15th century woodcuts of the dance of the dead. A film experiment that deals with the photoreality and the surrealism of life. It is a collage-animation that cuts up photos and newsreel film and reassembles them, producing an image that is a mixture of unexplainable fact (Why is Harpo Marx playing a harp in the middle of a battlefield?) with the inexplicable act (Why is there a battlefield?). It is a black comedy, a fantasy that mocks at death … a parabolic parable,” and Achoo Mr. Keroochev (1959), described by its maker as a “sneezing, displeasing, crooked-looked of visual pratfalls by a patented politician in animation and live [action],” to mention just two of the many, many films he made during his lifetime.
But arguably his greatest achievement was the creation of his Movie-Drome, a geodesic dome whose interior served as a projection surface for a dazzling display of multiple images, in 16mm film or slide format, projected on the ceiling of the dome.
VanDerBeek wrote a manifesto describing his work with the Movie-Drome, which operated only briefly between 1963 and 1965, stating in part that: “it is imperative that we [the world’s artists] invent a new world language, that we invent a non-verbal international picture-language. I propose the following:
* The establishment of audio-visual research centers, preferably on an international scale. These centers to explore the existing audio-visual hardware. The development of new image-making devices (the storage and transfer of image materials, motion pictures, television, computers, videotape, etc.)
* The immediate research and development of image-events and performances in the Movie-Drome. I shall call these prototype presentations: Movie Murals, Ethos-Cinema, Newsreel of Dreams, Feedback, Image Libraries.
* When I talk of the Movie-Dromes as image libraries, it is understood that such life theaters would use some of the coming techniques…and thus be real communication and storage centers, that is, by satellite, each dome could receive its image from a world wide library source, store them and program a feedback presentation to the local community that lived near the center, this newsreel feedback, could authentically review the total world image reality in an hour-long show.
* Intra-communitronics, or dialogues with other centers would be likely, and instand reference material via transmission television and telephone would be called for and received at 186,000 m.p.s., from anywhere in the world. Thus I call this presentation,a newsreel of ideas, of dreams, a movie-mural. An image library, a culture de-compression chamber, a culture inter-com.”
Happily, The Movie-Drome has been recreated at The New Museum in New York as part of their “Ghosts in the Machine” show for a brief period of time — now through September 30, 2012 — and those lucky enough to live close by can experience it for themselves, a wondrous and humbling display of visual wizardry that has long been excluded from the conventional cinematic canon.
As the Museum writes in their program notes for the show, “the installation at the New Museum will include artists, writers, and visionaries whose works have explored the fears and aspirations generated by the technology of their time. From Jacob Mohr’s influencing machines to Emery Blagdon’s healing constructions, the exhibition brings together improvised technologies charged with magical powers. Historical works by Hans Haacke, Robert Breer, Otto Piene, and Gianni Colombo, amongst others, will be displayed alongside reconstructions of lost works and realizations of dystopian mechanical devices invented by figures like Franz Kafka. “Ghosts in the Machine” also takes its cue from a number of exhibitions designed by artists that incorporated modern technology to reimagine the role of art in contemporary societies, including Richard Hamilton’s “Man, Machine and Motion” (1955). Exploring the integration of art and science, “Ghosts in the Machine” also tries to identify an art historical lineage of works preoccupied with the way we imagine and experience the future, delineating an archeology of visionary dreams that have never become a reality.
Many of the artists in the show take a scientific approach to investigating the realm of the invisible, dismantling the mechanics of vision in order to conceive new possibilities for seeing. Central to the exhibition is a re-examination of Op Art and perceptual abstraction, with a particular focus on the work of painters Bridget Riley, Victor Vasarely, Richard Anuskiewicz, and Julian Stanczak, amongst others. Op Art was unique in the way it internalized technology and captured both the ecstatic and threatening qualities it posed to the human body. Furthermore, the exhibition will include a number of kinetic and “programmed” artworks as well as expanded cinema pieces, which amplify the radical effects of technology on vision.
A section of the exhibition will present a selection of experimental films and videos realized with early computer technology. One highlight of the installation will be a reconstruction of Stan VanDerBeek’s Movie-Drome (1963–65), an immersive cinematic environment where the viewer is bathed in a constant stream of moving images, anticipating the fusion of information and the body, typical of the digital era.”
The image at the top of this post is from the original Movie-Drome; the image directly above is from the recreation at the New Museum, now open to the public. If you live in the vicinity of New York City, and have any interest in the arts or cinema history at all, you owe it to yourself to see this once in a lifetime recreation of an authentic cultural phenomenon of the 1960s, which still resonates today with artists, critics, and even the most casual of observers as a refreshingly original and daring conception, from a time when cinema ruled the arts. It’s a uniquely life-affirming experience, as is all of VanDerBeek’s work.