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Rodenbeck / Skodnick Exchange

Judith F. Rodenbeck


Art Journal

Division of Visual Culture

Sarah Lawrence College

1 Mead Way

Bronxville, NY 10708

November 26, 2008


Dear Judith F. Rodenbeck,

Something odd is going on in William Kaizen’s piece on Dan Graham and “the legacy of Gregory Bateson.” It seems as if he is playing a game of genealogical exclusion, for he gives a very skewed and partial history of the ecology-video-art interface, or loop de loop, of 70s art and media ecology and its relation to the “mother of us all” Gregory Bateson. Certainly, Radical Software was the prime vehicle for a reconfigured field of art, ecology, video and cybernetics. The work of Paul Ryan and Frank Gillette in establishing multiple grammars of perception for the body, the body with other bodies, and all those bodies in the ecology of mind and landscape made possible by portable video systems were grounding events in early guerilla video culture. Everything they confronted so presciently then, with peers and mentors (Beryl Korot, Ira Schneider, Michael Shamberg, Andy Mann, Victor Gioscia, Warren Brodey, Buckminster Fuller et al) is now a matter of public record; apparently, Dan Graham got on board too, and he was acknowledged even if his address was unknown, Why this carping? Graham never published anything in Radical Software and I don’t think he knew Gregory Bateson, even as he used his work. There were lots of us rolling around on the floor of the noosphere. The video movement was a generous, playful and inclusive movement; but now in the rear view mirror there seems to be some special pleading, even ill will. Those who come after do not get to assign ranks, when everyone then knew who was who. 


Meeting Gregory, sharing ambience and mentation with the gentle giant, was precisely how many of us took our first baby steps to an ecology of mind. Frank Gillette and Paul Ryan were among the first, meeting him in Princeton in l969, through Vic Gioscia, who had come across Gillette using a portable video system, doing interviews on St. Mark’s Place in l967. I also met Bateson through Vic Gioscia, that great intellectual Lenny Bruce whose floating seminar on time and mind drew some penetrating savage minds, Al Scheflen, Harley Shands, David Ritz Finkelstein, Randy Sherman, Gillette, Ryan and anyone likely who happened to be in town. Randy was Vic’s video guy at Adelphi where Vic taught sociology and Randy moved from math to psychology, becoming a family therapist.


That’s another connection, Gregory was one of the founding fathers of family therapy; Vic, Al Scheflen, Harley Shands and Ray Bhirdwhistell, were all using “kinesics” (Bhirdwhistell’s term) to map behavior in groups and extended networks. Scheflen asked, “How Behavior Means” and Shands wrote a profound introduction to semiotics and psychiatry, “War with Words”. They were all working on parallel tracks analyzing social behavior, graphing and visualizing small group and large group interaction. Scheflen, Bateson and Bhirdwhistell worked together in Philadelphia in the sixties; Scheflen, Shands and Gioscia worked together in New York a decade later, with Bateson coming through from time to time. Video was an exciting, new tool to study all that. I remember Vic saying, as we were watching a tape, “Watch Gregory hide behind his Lucky Strike!” There he was hunching his huge frame down into his chair, poising his cigarette, as questions buzzed around him in response to the gnomic point he had just made. Before I met him, I had seen the surprising modesty this alpha male exuded, watching his peers consider the meaning of a “difference that makes a difference” and how it might be embodied in behavior, mental and physical. I also remember Vic walking into class with an advance copy of “Steps," flashing his cosmic grin, saying, “We’re saved!” I studied with Bateson at Naropa in 1974, and since Gregory was open to all comers, it was wonderful to continue talking after class, meeting his shy, sly, curious gaze, eyes wide and opening merrily as students began to outfox the hydra-headed beast of all the double-binds they (we) were mired in; he was a compassionate shepherd challenging us to look at life on earth, whole, all signifying systems coming into possible view.


Kaizen’s narrative touches on much in his references but excludes much more of what went on, certainly the feel and velocity of the time. It is less important to establish who did what first in video grids of mind and perception and more important to emphasize that all these movement were converging, with Bateson as principal guide to the complexities of nature and culture. Gillette did it; Ryan did it; Randy Sherman did it, and apparently Graham did it too. Anyone who happened to get hold of a portable video system at the time immediately overloaded on circuits, playback, feedback and fabulous loop de loop. 


However, as far as the early architecture of emergent media ecology, it seems to me and everyone I knew back then, that “Wipe Cycle” by Frank Gillette and Ira Schneider was the first piece to really open things up, by building a “tangled bank” of video circuits that could wipe away the seemingly hard-wired broadcast frame of normative media culture. Nam June Paik was also an early player (McLuhan gave the first 3 portable video systems from Sony Corporation to Ryan, Gillette and Paik); but Paik’s fluxus orientation led him to explode the media not use it to map social or natural ecologies. Vic Gioscia and Randy Sherman at the Institute for the Study of Social Change in New York built a set of circuits they called the “Ecolotron," feedback so massive that viewers got their minds blown, as we used to say.


Paik took on all the white noise of existing systems, but Ryan, Gillette and Radical Software set up a wild and sophisticated study sheet for systems and theory. Bateson and his wife Lois had used video in their study of dolphins; video was popping up everywhere; in experimental situations and through Ryan and Gillette in the art world, through the New York State Council of the Arts, an early source of funding, as well as the ground breaking exhibitions at the Howard Wise Gallery. 


The original reel-to-reel Sony portapak was a beautiful system, empowering anyone who mastered it to not only track social behavior but also to get behind how social behavior is framed. I always think of that great line from “Breaking Through the Sound Barrier”, but instead of the pilot in the plane saying, “buffeting, buffeting, I’m pushing the stick forward!” with playback and more playback, video guerrillas said, following Husserl, “bracketing, bracketing, I’m pushing the frame forward”, thus the topologies that Ryan maps and Gillette’s work in video, photography and computer-generated art. TV, what we were born into, suddenly dissolved into a more plastic language. Broadcast! Remember, there was a full-bore media war of information then, and visual information was finally up for grabs. We could put ourselves in it, see ourselves seeing ourselves and even enter and joust with the “news cycle” emptying out as was demonstrated in “Wipe Cycle.” This was the radical political ecology of Radical Software and no one did it earlier, better, more brashly or more bravely than Frank Gillette. He founded Raindance, got the funding, and nursed it along, and everyone knew that and acknowledged that.


So it seems graphically odd (and frankly a bit opportunistic) to see those four beautiful covers of Radical Software insigniate the article, with very partial discussion of Ryan and only passing mention of Gillette (once)! Especially in the face of the generosity, permeability and liminal torque of that wild publication. Furthermore, it is disquieting to follow Kaizen’s siphoning off of Radical Software and its relation to Bateson without acknowledging how far Ryan has gone in modeling circuits that satisfy the full panoply of C.S. Peirce (which he has been doing for nigh on twenty years, all this is documented in major Peirce literature); and then not to hear about Wipe Cycle and Gillette’s heuristic presence at all when the category of “surveillance” is discussed; all this is to willfully reduce or entirely omit the long careers of two players who were truly “present at the creation.”


It also seems weird to begin such an investigation by immediately reducing the subject, saying that ecology in art has dwindled to nothing except earthworks (and then not to unpack that at least a little, but just leave that conundrum dangling). It also seems pointless to simply put it that ecology as heuristic category was replaced by phenomenology, semiotics and what not, when a phenomenology of forms, a semiotics of sign systems, natural and cultural, is precisely what Ryan and Gillette have continued to devote themselves to; Ryan’s grammar of Klein form feeds through itself and is triadic, as it involves others in complex variations of containing the contained and uncontained, as relationships necessarily triangulate. Ryan is triadic man, and Kaizen makes it seem that he is trapped in the dyad of a Mobius strip. Nonsense; that was just the beginning. Ryan’s work is a complex perceptual and relational logic, which he has developed in major work since his early “Cybnertics of the Sacred”; for example, his l993 book “Video Mind, Earth Mind (Peter Lang Press) and to take no account of that when Graham’s collected writings are referenced seems slack and egregiously dismissive. Nor is Gillette’s important, early book “Between Paradigms” mentioned. I might add that it was Vic Gioscia’s editorial work at Gordon and Breach that published the Gillette book, as well as the Ryan book (republished by Doubleday) as well as other titles by Scheflen and Brody (on bio-topology); G&B also continued to distribute Radical Software. This was a movement, and the players knew each other intimately. I don’t know where Graham figured in all that, but I do know where Gillette, Ryan, Bateson et al did.


The omission of Gillette is derelict in yet another sense, as Gillette is the video-artist and theorist whose work most clearly fuses the painterly tradition, which Kaizen glosses with Meyer Shapiro’s 1957 Houston lecture. Gillette was someone trained in fine arts who recognized the information economy very early, l967. No one who came to New York City in the late fifties knows more about Abstract Expressionism than Frank Gillette. His sensibility is founded on the most minute particulars of painting as it was dispersed, dematerialized and dissolved in the face of media of all kinds, that extraordinary implosive but recalcitrant moment when fine art finally faced up to the media “music” far, far outside the restraints of Greenbergian formalism and necessarily dealt with kitsch. First came the explosion of pop, and then the silence and cunning of conceptual and minimalist strategies.


Gillette was one of the first to investigate and execute what it means to go from the circuit of eye-hand-brush to eye-hand-sign-signal through camera and monitor in real time. Not only his early video pieces (“Aransas” et al) but also his Polaroid grid pieces of specific landscapes meticulously transpose the mark of the painter’s brush strokes into multiple flashes or photographic marks to map biological forms and gradients that transform figures into grounds and grounds into figures. Gillette is a Joycean and his work releases “teems of time and happy returns.” Not to mention the computer work of the last fifteen years that continues to meticulously fuse fine art and media imagery with torrential torque and subtlety.


Speaking of “Jeems Joker” (as Pound called Joyce), one could say that Gregory taught everyone to become his/her own HCE (here comes everyone). Gregory was devoted to William Blake, and I see him as Urizen turning into Los, mythic forms gulping after formlessness, as Wallace Stevens said. In any case, there’s more than enough Gregory to go around, “river run past Eve and Adam’s...” But the commodious vicus of recirculation that any scholar attempts in the reconstruction of intellectual and artistic genealogies must be truly commodious. Let’s distinguish those who happily met the gaze of the man himself (GB), and those who joined the video stream a bit further down stream, re-circulating circuits too, but not present when art and ecology smoked their first martini in Princeton at that incredible conference attended by Bateson, Gioscia, Shefflin, Ryan, Shands and Gillette. 


I must disclose that I have ridden in that elegant chariot of mind, which Gillette, Ryan and their peers rode into cultural battle; I met them hard on the heels of Radical Software, Cybernetics of the Sacred and Between Paradigms. Then I published both in a short-lived but still pertinent journal All Area, where I paired Frank’s Aransas with Charles Olson’ poetics of landscape, and Paul’s interview with Gregory. In the second issue, Frank, Paul, I (and a few others) engaged Kenneth Burke, who was also present at the 1948 California symposium with Gregory and Duchamp that Kaizen alludes to, another pivotal connection. Burke put us down in his calendar as “The Bateson boys” and was writing a piece on Gregory at the time, He hilariously recalled how he sang “everywhere the double bind” upstaging Gov. Gerry Brown at a banquet honoring Gregory’s work as a regent of the University of California. Frank also provided one of the first meditations on  teleconferencing, Arpanet, as they proceeded internet (along with Brendan O’Reagan, John Hanhardt, David Ross and James Harithas).


A final word about the Macy Conferences, another crucial allusion Kaizen makes but does not follow up. Burke, Bateson and Duchamp (along with McLuhan, Fuller, Weiner et al, seemed to be the really big guys (Margaret Mead also as the usual woman biggie in those early days)) who were thinking far outside the box in the 40s and 50s. Charles Olson in a class at Black Mountain said the Macy conferences lacked one crucial figure, the poet!  In any case, poet or no poet, it took 30 years for this nexus of ideas (and others like it in California and Texas) to surface in culture in the 70s. Since then, we are all riding that tiger.


Distinguishing an important opposition between media and fine art seems tenuous; it certainly did not last, and re-reading Schapiro’s 1957 essay in the wake of reading Kaizen makes me think even the great Meyer (whom Gillette and I studied with at Columbia) sometimes nodded. He seems to be pleading for an uncharacteristic rear-guard action, defending the hand-made against ad, media and sociological culture; yes at the time, one understands the reason for that gesture, but in the face of the kind of material onslaught that Shapiro himself traced so incredibly in his courses on impressionism and modernism, when he had two slide projectors going and was usually translating at breathless speed from another language, “next slides, please!” and put in motion the entire acceleration of perception that the nineteenth century and early twentieth century were, despite his allegiance to De Kooning et al as contemporaries, that conjunction seems lame. After all, Schapiro was one of the founders of visual semiotics, and there is no contradiction at all between all those intellectual categories and ecologies of mind. Kenneth Burke by the way was one of the first to invoke that term very early on. As Olson said, when he assembled the chockablock, “Let this swirl like Crab Nebula,” and anyone doing intellectual history of such scale is also so enjoined.


Nor is Duchamp’s intervention on creativity in any way surprising to those who had started to step out of the retinal frame of painting; in this incredible set of conversations among thinkers on the scale of Bateson, Duchamp, Burke, Schapiro et al, who else but the Rouen mage could have so totally flipped the whole art world over and taken painting to the mat, a gesture as seamless and perfectly executed as Buster Keaton or that of a Judo master (Yves Klein, perhaps?) As if choosing ready mades were not a creative act! Retinal thinking, embodiment of color, line and form, had to be violated, which Duchamp did by selecting odd physical objects and invested them with powerful visual authority that defied brush strokes on canvas. The spectator or posterity completes the circuit and certainly those circuits have long since been completed and used throughout the art world, ad nausea. Duchamp wanted readymades to be chastely chosen, he did not want to addict his audience to them, as has happened since.


Gregory, K.B. and Duchamp, in parallel methodologies (which often seem like gnomic “Zen” non-methodologies), along with Olson (Gregory and the “big O” were both 6’8”) provided that little piece of steel, deeply impregnated with mind, against which the whole structure of the universe could be poised, and so any investigator (artist, sociologist, psychiatrist, biologist, poet) embraces the parallel tracks of co-creation, which video allows. Gillette and Ryan were two of the big ones who started all that with Radical Software.  There’s no problem. “Everything solid melts into air” but as it does so, let’s keep the record straight of exactly who introduced Bateson into the ecology of art and video. This is documented in Radical Software, books and articles, as well in the conferences that honored Gregory a few years back. Both Paul and Frank were present, along with Mary Catherine Bateson and others intimately associated with the big man who still is; that record is clear.  Blake also wrote, “the cistern contains; the fountain overflows.”




Roy Skodnick

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