A Room With A Field: Stan VanDerBeek’s Poemfields
Stan VanDerBeek at Andrea Rosen Gallery
May 1 to June 20, 2015
525 W 24th Street (between 10th and 11th avenues)
New York, 212 627 6000
During his time as artist-in-residence at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies, the prolific media artist Stan VanDerBeek composed a list of reflections of human experience in relation to the developing technologies of the 1960s. This typewritten list, exhaustively titled “RE:LOOK – COMPUTERIZED GRAPHICS Light Brings Us News of the Universe,” begins with a dictum: “1. The mind is a computer — not railroad tracks.”
For VanDerBeek, who self-identified as a “technological fruit picker,” the mind is essentially dynamic. Unlike a regulated path that shuttles objects and information ever forward, it is field of experimentation, reconfiguration, process, and error that caters to an individual’s imagination. Rather than dwelling on technology’s dystopian association with war and capitalist control, VanDerBeek was committed to finding new processes for connecting human experience with images that enhance a viewer’s relationship with and perception of her environment. In a series of computer-generated films known as the Poemfield series, made between 1966 and 1971 and currently on view at Andrea Rosen Gallery, his effort is achieved with subtle intensity.
Within the gallery, VanDerBeek’s films are accessible through heavy, black curtains that give way to a darkened room where looping projections illuminate each of the four walls. The exhibition hosts five of the seven films and a remastered version of Poemfield No. 1 — transferred to digital video from their original 16mm format — that play together in staggering synchrony. Each film was created with the same meticulous process, culminating in glittering mosaics of color and light. A cacophony of digital and instrumental music accompanies the moving images, and a pile of furrowed cushions rests in the center of the gallery floor. The environment is a frenetic distraction from reality; it is difficult to leave.
Each Poemfield combines poems written by VanDerBeek with digital illustrations ranging from vibrant mandalas to geometric groupings of monochrome patterns, created with the movie program BELFLIX, which was developed by Bell Telephone Laboratories programmer Kenneth Knowlton. The films were created via an ornate process: an IBM 7094 was fed instructions for BELFLIX to translate into a programming language. The code was transferred onto punch cards to be read by a computer that assembled a picture and record it to tape. “To visualize this,” VanDerBeek writes, “imagine a mosaic-like screen with 252 x 184 points of light; each point of light can be turned on or off from instructions on the program.” The nearly 50,000 triggered lights transform into silent black-and-white motion pictures. VanDerBeek sent the films to artists Robert Brown and Frank Olvey, who treated them with a special coloring process. (In the remastered version of Poemfield No. 1, the color is removed and substituted with cerulean blue to emphasize the result of the initial BELFLIX programming.) Then sound is added.
Just as each Poemfield is uniquely written, specific compositions are assigned to the seven films, ranging from computer-generated sounds to manipulated recordings by John Cage and Paul Motian. In the installation at Andrea Rosen, these soundtracks overlap in a delightful and confusing collage as the surrounding projections illuminate and conceal VanDerBeek’s words.
The Poemfield series relies on the intermingling of VanDerBeek’s accumulated visual languages to produce this overwhelming array of image and sound. These languages were gathered throughout the artist’s eclectic education, which appropriately began at the legendary Black Mountain College in the 1950s. He initially studied painting until, inspired by instructors such as John Cage and Merce Cunningham who combined disparate media in performative and immersive staging, he began conceiving physical environments to screen his experimental films. In 1965, he completed the immersive Movie-Drome — a Buckminster Fuller-like geodesic dome covered with moving-image murals — which he wrote about as encouraging an “expanded cinema.” VanDerBeek’s writings on his work and his hopes for the future of cinema are not unlike his Poemfields, where a systematic form is filled with playful content and ultimately relies on the viewer’s individual experience.
Exhibited in simultaneous loop, the Poemfields require active and solitary engagement from each viewer. I entered the gallery and found the space empty and undisturbed, as if stumbling upon a naturally occurring digital phenomenon. The walls flicker off kilter as the points of light scatter across each wall in systematic motion, shifting between bold phrases and abstract disorder. The erratic sounds cloak the spaces that the light fails to touch. My presence only adds to the gaps of the darkened space, filling it with my movement as I shift my perspective between films. VanDerBeek’s technological experiments result in a physical maze, where every component of the Poemfields requires an all all-encompassing encounter. Phrases pulse on the screens, awaiting consumption and interpretation. Patterns of light become arbitrary and subjective. Overlapping sounds momentarily combine into one deafening tone. VanDerBeek uses his technology to create physical manifestations of the imagination, forming real environments of jumbled thoughts. The experience is a walk through a manifestation of one’s own mind.
In the darkened room of the gallery, two walls momentarily return to black before the credits begin to roll. The audio is noticeably less muddled, and the words “free fall” are uttered in surprise over sounds of wind and digital sighs. The purple grid shrouding the screen of Poemfield No. 5 begins to deteriorate, replaced with fields of red. Images of falling bodies materialize behind the newly colored wall. Then the letters F R E E F A L L litter the screen in varying compositions. To free fall is to move through space, impelled by nothing but gravity. VanDerBeek’s films encourage the imaginative leap from convention and expectation (in both the act of creating and of viewing), and provide a regenerative space in which to fall.
 VanDerBeek, Stan. “New Talent: The Computer,” Art in America (January 1970): 86.