Douglas Davis Interview 2004

Photo: Douglas Davis performing the pioneering satellite telecast, "The Last 9 Minutes" — Documenta 6, 1977. Also part of the Telecast was Joseph Beuys and Nam June Paik.

"OUTER SPACE: The Past, Present and Future of Telematic Art - 07"
INTERVIEW WITH DOUGLAS DAVIS ABOUT EARLY TELEMATIC ART BEFORE AND DURING OPEN SPACE’S SAT-TEL-COMP. 
BY JEREMY TURNER (Conducted by e-mail, January & February, 2004). 
 
Part of this Interview is to be used for another feature on Douglas Davis by Jill Martinez and Lani Boyd at —www.Jetbunnymagazine.com— Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
 
JT:  As mentioned in your website, you are officially acknowledged as being the very first artist to work with satellite technology for artistic purposes ("Seven Thoughts" - Dec 29, 1976).  How important do you feel it is to be the very first representative of an emerging artistic medium?  Did being the first in this inherently networked medium filter the way you perceived your collaborators and colleagues who may have been second or third by the time you met them? 
Was there a kind of unconscious hierarchy involved or was it still truly a collaborative process?
 
DD:  I was the first entirely because of the political and cultural barrier that had been wrapped around television broadcasting and most of all the satellite.  At first I wanted to do it entirely to make a statement of political resistance: at that time nobody was allowed to SPEAK on TV--and most of all the live satellite, which meant a global audience--except governments and corporate TV networks and the military.  Remember the date, 1976.  Like many of my friends in the video art network and everywhere else, we were fresh from resisting the War--as the 1776 Declaration of Independence leading to the American revolution demanded and our Constitution later ratified (we may gather "peacefully" to protest the actions of King, President, or Congress in the USA).    SEVEN THOUGHTS WAS PEACEFUL RESISTANCE... against the idea that only the mighty and powerful could speak or broadcast to the world.  BUT AS SOON AS I DECIDED TO DO IT, ART BECAME MY MISTRESS.  And I began to think about the beauty of doing it all alone in the middle of a big domed stadium with nobody watching...of speaking the seven "private" thoughts only into the ears of those allowed to hear at that moment (so the Electronic Arts Intermix videotape recording, made by the amazing Andy Mann hanging from the roof of the Astrodome in Houston simply shows you my lips moving: the words were meant to be heard only live, which made them more precious, like a lovely, sweet woman who won't let you touch her; it also raised the question WHO DIDN'T ALLOW ME TO HEAR THIS WHEN IT WAS BROADCAST).  In the end, this is the point, art not politics became my real mistress and the fact that it was FIRST--which surely liberated lots of others to play with the Satellite, including friends like Willoughby Sharp, Keith Sonnier, Nam June Paik, Joseph Beuys, and Documenta 6--meant nothing to me.  What mattered was the still, silent beauty of it all. 
 
JT: Care to elaborate on your telecom collaborations?
 
DD: It was intense and intimate and REAL. Everybody involved was close to me except perhaps the one or two maintenance men on the field, sent there by the President of the Astrodome because he was in love with Marilyn Lubetkin, lovely collector and chair of trustees at the Contemporary Arts Museum, without whom I never would have gotten the Astrodome...James Harithas, director of the CAM, old and mad friend who wrote the most beautiful description of it ever written (it's short and i will try to find and send it to you), the late Andy Mann, of course, who was also a major Video pioneer, Chris Burke the photographer beside him on the roof, still alive, still a friend, and his late wife, Carmen Quesada who took those incredible photos on the field, and, finally, Giuseppe Panza, the Italian collector who gave me the money to rent the Astrodome at a very bargain rate (thanks to Marilyn}: he got in return the 7 pieces of paper I read up to the satellite that night, ending the work, then dropped into a locked black box that he either still possesses or has given to the Guggenheim Museum, which hasn’t the foggiest idea what it is, nor do they care--it was touched by Panza's hand, therefore it must be valuable: that is the way many museums think...but not all, thank God.  And of course I cannot forget Jane Bell, my wife, and Paul Schimmel, the curator at that time for the CAM (though I think he has forgotten what a fantastic thing he did in the Astrodome when he was about 20 years old).
 
JT:  Was Telecom on your mind before knowing that the Satellite technology would even be available in 1976?  Also, what is your opinion of contemporary artists who are seeking to become the first pioneers of Biotech and Nanotech?  Do you feel that they will have the same spirit as yourself when you become the first in Telecommunications art?
 
DD: Yes and No.  The politics are gone.  And the idea of being First, of doing something nobody else has ever done before, is now highly active throughout our entire society, in medicine, commerce, telecommunications, the digital industry,sexuality.   NOW EVERYONE WANTS TO BE FIRST AT SOMETHING.  As a Quantum man, I applaud it.  The universe is just beginning....
 
JT:  I was wondering if you could recollect some details of individuals such as Robert Adrian in Vienna, Hank Bull in Vancouver and Bill Bartlett in Victoria?  I am thinking in particular of the "Artists' Use of Telecommunications Conference" hosted by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (Bill Bartlett) and The Center for New Art Activities in New York?   If a new project were to come up similar in spirit to Interplay and ARTEX, would you be interested in working with these people again?  And if yes, in what capacity?
 
DD: I knew Robert Adrian directly and personally.   I knew about Hank Bull and Bill Bartlett and I did participate in the event you described and would again, for sure.  But to be interesting, the medium needs to be changed.  Now it has to involve both seeing and touching.  At St. Petersburg U. I met a man who is developing instant translation language for multi-cultural discussions.  He, too, ought to be included.  The closer we come to each other's soul if not sole, the more peaceful and imaginative the world will come.  As I once said in a Terrible Beauty performance: "Everybody has to speak to every one else about everything."   Or else.  What we have now.  Death and terror.
 
JT: Over the years have you noticed any visible evidence of a shift away from New York as a cultural center as a result of telematic projects such as ARTEX, Worldpool and Interplay when exhibitions became more collaborative and global in scope?  Along the same lines, were you at all surprised at the time to see locales like Victoria and Hawaii sharing the same bill with New York, Vienna and San Francisco? 
 
DD:  Yes and no.  In the first place, Place is less FUNCTIONAL than ever before, in terms of determining how artists and scientists and writers think or work: we are all in closer touch with each other than ever before--and the contacts are both immediate and spontaneous, which permits deeper modes of reflection.  But in the second place, as always, any single trend or movement generates the reverse, as Modern architecture inspired Post-Modern architecture and the Video-Conceptual-Performance art of the 70's and 80's brought on a flood of bad, glorious painting  in the 90's (leading Dave Hickey to predict on a late 90's panel that the "next" obsession was going to be with "Beauty," resolutely shut out by both the Moderns and Post-Moderns: I think he was right and Beauty has me in her claws right  now).  So now we have a growing obsession with intimacy, with touching, with being in the same room if not bed or sofa with each other.  Virtuality was always destined, as I said in a panel in 2000, imitating Hickey, to promote a fascination with and re-discovery with Reality.  What is the difference between a "real" as opposed to "virtual" experience.  Well, the more vivid, sensual, and multi-dimensional videoconferencing comes, for example, the more intricate this difference--certainly there, certainly "real"--becomes. As for New York, where I domesticate, I have been hearing all my life that this or that city is about to replace it, from Los Angeles to Dallas to London to Paris (remember Paris?).
 
It will never happen: the 9/11 terrorists insured that: ten  million people went to Ground Zero last year just to gape at a hole.  What nobody understands about New York is its meaning, that is, what it represents or stands for.  Instead I think all those other great cities I mentioned, including Vancouver, are going simply to re-discover and re-define themselves, and their own meanings, which can't be New York's any more than New York can be New Orleans.,
 

 JT:  What was the general reaction in New York at the time to Telecom art in general? 
 
DD: If you mean the beginnings of video around 1965-1970, it was of course hated by the makers and purveyors of traditional art and welcomed by the lively vanguard minds attracted to this city.  I started making video in Washington, D.C. but had to move to New York to get anything significant done.  In 1971 I got a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts to buy a video portapak.  No place else in the world at that time would have forked over $2,000 for something so mad, except perhaps Poland:
 
JT:  In my interview with Robert Adrian he mentions how the WorldPool Collaboration in 1977 was at a time when experiencing the fax medium back then was equivalent to experiencing "magic".  I think it was Arthur C. Clarke who felt that any good science was "indistinguishable from magic".    Do you feel that there is still "Magic" left in some of the newer technological experiences out there?  Or in other words, do you see Telecommunications Media as having metaphysical properties?
 
DD: Yes, it is magical because we are magical: Robert Adrian is a Swami.  I will be very surprised if we ever discover any other human race in the universe.  My instinct is that God/Goddess put us here for some inexplicable reason we can only discover through high art made in high technological terms.
 
JT: Part of why I ask you this is that I am very interested in more details about your piece "Joseph, when will you call?" (1993/1994/1996)- where you attempt to contact Joesph Beuys from beyond the grave using mobile phone technology.  Is this telecom work directly inspired by Edison's early attempts to contact people in the afterlife? 
 
DD: It is a solid, real work of blackboard sculpture on the surface of which I re=drew Joseph's  Sun State, a drawing he made at the Chicago Art Institute in 1974, the first time he came to America, after years refusing to go because of our genocidal wars in Vietnam and Cambodia (akin to the genocidal war conducted by his own nation, which nearly killed him in a flight over Russia--where he as a young kid drafted in desperation he sat beside the pilot of a bomber that was shot down).   I believe the Art Institute now owns the blackboard: in any case, inspired by Rauschenberg's Erased DeKooning, I then erased my/his Sun State and chalked over it in red "JOSEPH, WHEN WILL  YOU CALL?"  I did it because the Art Institute was then parading a very quiet, formal, pathetic exhibition of Joseph's drawings, with all the fire and politics withdrawn, and the School had invited me to talk to their students about my collaborations with Joseph: they wanted me to talk about him as a man, not as a clump of art history.  But why not invite Joseph himself?  So I used HIS medium, the blackboard, found a new gallery  called "312" off in Chicago's warehouse district, and hung a cel phone on the frame, so that he could call us whenever he wished during the 30 days it hung there.  In truth I didn't believe Joseph was REALLY dead in 1993, just as I don't believe Spalding  Gray , my missing friend and beloved monologist, is dead, either.  Now, eleven years later, after all this silence (nobody else has heard from Joseph, either), the cel phone never ringing, not even when I show the work in public to a large audience, the size he loved to confront, talking for hours about how we can as a race improve our state, I now concede he probably is in the state we call "death."  But certainly that doesn't mean he can't talk.  The  so-called "dead" talk to us all the time, if we can but listen: in books, films, video, memory, in the quiet of the middle of the night, and in our own voices: I often find myself suddenly talking, in my sleep or near sleep, and it's always somebody else's voice, words, or ideas that I'm being driven to repeat and remember.  I speak Joseph's lines without prompting, Jack Kennedy's, Martin Luther King's, many others--my Grandfather, for example, and most of all my Grandmother, over and over.  The most fun is when I am talking to Marilyn Monroe. Edison?  No.  I didn't have him consciously in mind at the time but when you mentioned his experiments, of course I remembered them.  Perhaps they were inside me...subconscious.
 
JT:  With regards to your "Last Nine Minutes" Telecom performance collaboration at Documenta 6 with Joseph Beuys and Nam June Paik - if you had to produce the "Last Nine Minutes" of Telecom history, what shape would it take and what would be the central message for those who wish to remember the totality of Telecom Art?
 
DD: The Last Nine Minutes is the work I am proudest of--save only a few pieces I'm working on right now--and Joseph inspired it.  Not consciously.  He gave me a freedom, a sense that I could be as serious, as much on the Edge as I wanted to be, simply because he was there.  Nobody could object to what I wanted to do on the ground of radicality if Joseph were going to be allowed to speak--which he was, in the end, though the right wing tried to stop him.  I meant a lot of things by the title--The Last 9 minutes of our program, the last 9 minutes you and I will ever share together at this moment in the world when an artist can finally use the satellite to reach out and...destroy  your TV screen...in order to touch you, to make human, not media touch (which we did, together,  you and me).  It wasn't about telecom history.  In fact  it DEFIED telecom history, in the sense that it had been and still is driven by the notion of "mass" communication.  When there is no mass.  There is just...you and me.
 
What would I do now?  I don't know.  Once, around 1980, I think, I made a performance in Columbus, Ohio called How to Make Love to Your Television Set.  Not today.  Today I want to make love with...everyone....in the universe.
 
JT:  What is your opinion on the current state of telematic art and/or emailed art?
 
DD: Obsessed with itself.  What matters in art is not how it is made or delivered but where--and how--it ends.  My guess is for example that Joseph WILL talk to us in Vancouver but in a totally startling and unpredictable way.   One morning we may approach the gallery to open it and hear the phone ringing.  Excited, we fumble and lose the keys while the phone goes on ringing.  When we finally get in--perhaps breaking the door down--it stops.
 
JT:  What kind of future do you envision for telematic art and/or emailed art?
 
DD: Glorious.  As soon as we forget what it is and think only about...the Other.
 
JT:  Are you actively interested in the increasing trajectory towards video-game environments (avatars and bots) and software emulation as an art-form? 
 
DD:  Sure.  I am interested in anything that extends me...into you...into another state...beyond where I  am now.
 
JT:  Do you have any advice for online artists of today's generation?
 
DD: GO, GO, GO,  AS FAR AND AS FAST AS YOU CAN....BUT BRING SOMEONE ALONG WITH YOU.
 
Bios:
 
Douglas Davis is a unique American artist, writer, performer, critic, teacher, and digital media consultant. Widely exhibited and published, he has often constructed  seminal works of theory and championed the work of unfashionable artists later seen as central to contemporary culture. His first book, Art and the Future: A History/Prophecy of the Collaboration between Science, Technology, and Art (1973), now out of print, is a widely translated classic. Arthur Danto said of The Museum Transformed (1991) that it "sets the standard" for all subsequent works in this field. Donald Kuspit has called him "one of the more magnificent minds engaging modern art and media."
 
His groundbreaking work as an artist employs the content, identity, time, space, and gender in equivalent degrees, both comic and tragic modes. Among the first artists to use both video and the Web, he pioneered the use of "live" video transmission on CATV and satellite, working on both coasts (at the Long Beach Museum of Art, the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston, in New York at the Whitney and Guggenheim, and in Europe at Documenta and the Center for Art & Media in Karlsruhe. And his early prints brought the spontaneity and immediacy of video to flat paper while his later installations and mural-scale digital  photographs bring the distant "virtual" Web down into the viewer’s space.
 
 The World’s First Collaborative Sentence, commissioned in 1994 by the Lehman College Art Gallery, was purchased early in 1995 by Mr. and Mrs. Eugene M. Schwartz, then donated to the Whitney Museum of American Art, which now maintains its ever-evolving content. "The true significance of Davis’ art," says David Ross, "is the transformation of immediacy into discernible form."
 
 He has taught widely and often, at Bard College, Columbia University, UCLA and ArtCenter in California, as well as throughout Europe and Asia. In 1995 he was Fulbright lecturer at the Russian State University in Moscow.  In 2002 and 2003 he received grants from the Trust for Mutual Understanding to both teach in Eastern Europe and foster a dialogue between countries like Russia, Croatia, Slovenia, Estonia, Poland, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, and perhaps beyond, on the proper potential and direction of a "virtual culture."  Its beginnings can be seen at http://virtual-culture.net.
 
Recently he was appointed Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence and College of Art and Design ((Nadine Russell Chair), Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge.   In the year 2004, he will also perform and exhibit in New York, Moscow, and New Orleans.
 
URLs, images, and texts by Douglas Davis can be accessed and downloaded at http://www.douglasdavis.net.  An excellent biography, created by a group of Danish artists and critics in 1999, is available at http://www.afsnitp.dk/dd
 
 
Jeremy Turner is the current Digital Archivist working on contract at Open Space in Victoria, Canada.  He is also an interdisciplinary artist, writer , composer and curator. He is a Co-Founder of the 536 Media Collective in Vancouver.  In addition, he is a Co-Producer of the very first Machinima Documentary, "AVATARA". To date, he has conducted interviews and written articles about innovations in New Media for: C-Theory, Shift, Intelligent Agent, Extropy, Rhizome, Offbeat and Front Magazine.  He is on the Board of Editors for the Digital Salvage Online Journal hosted by Trace Reddel at the University of Denver, Colorado.
 
Email: jerturner536@yahoo.ca