The instigators called it a work of “media art.” The press labelled it a hoax, postal inspectors and police declared it a felony, and in April a federal grand jury said it added up to four counts of fraud, using fictitious names or addresses, mailing obscene matter and conspiracy.
Whatever it was, the “media inversion” produced in San Francisco in March by a trio of Berkeley artists known collectively as Sam’s Cafe was one of the most effective large-scale stunts of its kind. It drew hundreds of thousands of people, including you, dear reader, into its scheme. And it forced the attention of ordinary, non-art-loving people onto a new phenomenon that has been sweeping the chic, relatively hermetic world of avant-garde art for the past few years, known variously as conceptual, process, performance or “force” art — —or non-art, depending on your point of view.
The piece of “media art” by Sam’s Cafe (a husband-wife team, Marc and Terri Keyser, and a roommate, David Shine) came in two related parts. One was an elaborately packaged “press kit” in the form of a glossy gold placard carrying three plastic containers, like the charity contribution boxes propped beside the cash register in a cafe. In this case, the three containers held tiny turds, with the implication that they might belong to each of three garishly costumed figures overprinted in red above, along with the letters “Religious Excrement” and “Touch Our Sacred Stools.” There was also a “Brand New Testament” which prophesied the destruction that could befall the Establishment’s communications network if. . .
While city editors were still puzzling over this strange accretion to the morning mail, switchboards at one newspaper, two television stations and the Bank of America World Headquarters were already jammed with telephone calls prompted by the second part of the “work.” This consisted of 20,000 super-professional-looking bills sent by a mythical Sam’s Collection Agency (using the address of KRON-TV) to an equal number of middle-income San Francisco families. The bill demanded immediate payment of a fictitious and unexplained $76.40, and gave the telephone numbers of the Chronicle, KRON and KQED-TV, and the Bank of America to call for further information.
The whole event was diabolically calculated to strike at the deepest roots of human nature, namely greed, and to take advantage of the Pavlov’s Dog’s Response with which the media react to anything that deeply affects them, like calling a press conference. When something like a thousand calls before lunch happens to the media, it is hard news that can’t be ignored, and for an investment of $2,100 in stamps and printing costs, Sam’s got mileage that any PR firm might envy: frontpage space in both San Francisco dailies, several minutes of prime time on radio and television news, and wire service coverage. They also managed to involve everyone as a witting or unwitting “participant” in the art event. Inspectors inspected, police policed, reporters reported, critics criticized, and camermen took pictures, together creating the “documentation” that is an indispensable ingredient of conceptual or process art, and the “documents” were then placed on “display” before thousands of readers and viewers in their homes.
The whole affair wound up with a bizarre, Felliniesque press conference staged on the front stairs of the First Unitarian Church. At this event, Sam’s brought along some friends with video tape equipment, and they took pictures of press and police cameramen taking pictures of Sam’s. Then they screened the tapes over a TV receiver, and the press and police cameras took pictures of the pictures, like a boggling hall of mirrors.
Well, the affair was not precisely wound up; shortly after the press conference, police busted the trio, and the art work continues to create residual documentation like this story. The coming trial will no doubt be the work’s climactic moment. Sam’s “media inversion” is a far from isolated example of a revolutionary phenomenon that has produced such other art works as:
•A New York artist sent out cards announcing that the first death to occur in a certain city after a specific date would be a work of art — more precisely, his work of art. “In this event, the artist assumes the role of God,” he modestly explained.
•An artistic drifter named A.M. Fine goes around the country signing his name to walls and fixtures, usually in the lower right-hand corner, thereby appropriating entire rooms and buildings as personal art works, or found objects. •
Hans Haacke, a pioneer of the field, was recently banned by the Guggenheim Museum from showing art works that consisted of documentation on slum lords of various New York ghetto properties. •
A San Francisco artist and his friends called several dozen Yellow Cabs to the same location and then took aerial films showing the yellow patterns converging. •
The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge was closed to traffic for several hours one early morning late last year while a bomb squad cautiously investigated a strange object lying on the lower deck. It turned out to be a wheel of cheese. Actually, no one has yet come forward to identify this as a work of art; it may have been mere accident. If that is the case, I myself could lay claim to it as a “found object” or “found event” under the ground rules of the new art game. Or you could, or anybody else.
“Marcel Duchamp took a shovel out of a hardware store and put it into an art gallery. We’re putting the shovel back in the hardware store,” Marc Keyser explained over a year ago in a daring prophesy of Sam’s media inversion, in a loose paraphrase of the historical facts (the first “readymade” to which Duchamp put his signature was actually a wine bottle rack). His statement provides as succinct a rationale as any for the twists and turns of modern art history which have, with their own inexorable logic, led up to such new means of artistic expression.
While previous revolutions had drastically altered the appearance and themes of art, Duchamp and the Dadaists in a few fell swoops completely altered its entire definition. To the Cubist, Futurist and Expressionist revolutions in style, Dada added a revolution in medium, technique and basic concept. Duchamp’s declaration that a bottle rack, a snow shovel, or a urinal were works of art constituted a manifesto that made three revolutionary points: (1) an art work need not involve paint, canvas, marble, bronze, or any other traditional medium, even the new medium of collage; (2) the artist need not have any part in its fabrication; and (3) art, like beauty, lies in the eye of the beholder. In case anyone had missed the message, Duchamp declared “art is what the artist says it is”— — although unfortunately (or wisely) neglecting to say who says what makes the artist. Asked what was art, his Dada colleague Kurt Schwitters replied, “What isn’t?”
For all their anti-art fervor, the Dadaists consistently displayed their wares within an “art” setting; their contributions became a major chapter in modern art history. Dada was superseded by Surrealism, which revolutionized subject matter but returned to largely traditional media, techniques, and aesthetic ideas. But subsequent developments contributed important precedents for the later birth of contemporary “conceptual,” “process” or “force” art. Alexander Calder’s mobile sculptures brought natural air currents into play as artistic forces. Abstract expressionism stressed the act of painting, so that the finished work was like a document of the process that went into it, and it also revived the use of large scale; large scale expanded to environmental dimensions, and environments became inhabited with people and Happenings. The art of assemblage revived the Dadaists’ use of readymades, junk and other found objects, and Jean Tinguely’s machines that destroyed themselves made the object synonymous with its performance.
Meanwhile, there was the precedent of Duchamp himself, who spent years working on his great glass painting, “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even” and also jotting down all his ideas and sketches for it on papers that were collected in a little green box, which he considered an art work of equal importance. Duchamp devoted most of his later years simply to playing chess, and many of his followers, if not necessarily the master himself, saw this as his greatest work of all. Pop art, like Surrealism, seemed at first to represent a reactionary return to traditional ways of painting under the guise of another revolution in subject matter; actually, it was built on a radically new conceptual foundation. “If a man takes 50 Campbell’s soup cans and puts them on canvas, it is not the retinal image that concerns us,” Duchamp said of Andy Warhol. “What interests us is the concept that wants to put 50 Campbell’s soup cans on a canvas.”
It remained only for minimal sculpture to come along, with its emphasis on the self-contained object (sometimes just a log, rock, or mound of dirt) and the self-sufficient space, for the process of “putting the shovel back in the hardware store” to begin. Acclimated by years of seeing increasingly far-out things displayed in museums and galleries, exegeted and explained in criticism and aesthetic theory, a hip, aware audience educated to accept practically anything as art if it were presented within an art context was ready to find artistic meaning in similar things seen in their everyday setting; they were able to read into cues, clues, and paraphrases all the things they stand for.
What happened is comparable to the evolution in comedy since the days when Mort Sahl used to crack up audiences with his comments on news items in the daily paper. Later on, Jean Shepard did a beautiful parody of Sahl with a recorded routine that had audiences in stitches at the mere mention of Eisenhower, Nixon, or Billy Graham. Eventually, no one needed Sahl any longer to point out that the news section is the funniest part of the paper, and while everyone cracks up over the headlines, one-liner stand-up comics line up at the unemployment windows. The soup cans and Brillo boxes went back on the supermarket shelves, while their designs were reproduced on bourbon tumblers and waste baskets, and Warhol, having made his point, could retire from painting dull pictures and turn to making dull films. In the musical world, the sound of typewriters that Satie integrated into his score for Parade, the insect chirps that Bartok duplicated in his “night music,” became music themselves via such composers as John Cage.
Most of the new, far-out forms share in common the fact that it’s the thought that counts, and in that sense, they could all be considered primarily conceptual. But whichever label or labels you settle on have to cover a broad and varied territory:
In its strictest sense, the art work is purely an idea, but since ideas can’t be displayed, they are usually illustrated with some kind of proposal, mock-up, or blueprint. An example is Claes Oldenburg’s drawings of skyscraper-sized Eskimo pies and other colossal pop monuments, which are neither “drawings” in the usual sense nor designs for actual structures, but essentially documents of an idea. There are mock-ups for wrapping entire skyscrapers in plastic, and drawings for lacing together the San Andreas fault. Many conceptual pieces are reductio ad absurdum extensions of the “ready-made,” found-object area.
At a show in Seattle two years ago, an artist displayed “Three Views of Lake Washington,” consisting of three paintings of the lake by other artists from the Seattle museum’s collection; more recently, Warhol rummaged through a museum basement and put together a show of the things he found there. In these examples, the display of “found objects” overlaps the curatorial function. Edward Kienholz has proposed placing a plaque on a hill above Hope, Idaho, to proclaim the whole world a “found object.” This is clearly a game that anyone can play, provided you get there first; government surveyors, for example, have already identified and named most of the nation’s mountains, rivers, and other natural features, and future art history books may recognize their important contributions. The barroom drunk, with his wild schemes for scaling the Seagram building or erecting a giant bagel around Coit Tower, is the neglected genius of conceptual art.
This is probably the easiest form to comprehend as it usually involves the display or making of objects and is a more or less natural extension of minimal sculpture. Earth art falls into two distinct categories. In one form, dirt, mulch, or other kinds of crud are displayed in a traditional gallery setting; sometimes with an underlying conceptual basis, as in phials of soil “displaced” from specified locations, sometimes as self-contained formal abstractions.
The other form, also known as site art, takes place on an environmental scale and can involve anything from excavating huge holes in the desert to erecting great spiral-shaped jetties into the Great Salt Lake, often involving big construction crews and great expense. Something like the spiral jetty, by Robert Smithson, becomes a more or less permanent feature of the topography and competes with the achievements of landscape engineering — —or of land development and other phenomena that methodically fuck up the environment, depending on your point of view. Excavations, miles-long chalk lines, and other varieties of site art are intended to disappear as time and nature take their course, and these works therefore shade into process art. Since works like these are too big to be shown in galleries, they are usually displayed by way of films, photographs, and other documents, although size doesn’t prevent them from being “sold”; many “belong” to the collection of the New York pop patron, Robert Scull.
Like earth art, and unlike conceptual art, this art form involves a physical change and often the creation of objects or arrangements of objects. These, however, are by-products of the work of art, which is the act of change, the process of creation itself. Being temporary by nature, it, too, is recorded and immortalized in photographs, films, news stories, and whatever other medium from which the artist or his agent can get attention. Process art probably accounts for the largest number of far-out new art works, and it also falls into two distinct categories. Performance art is basically an extension of art into theater, often involving more or less set programs performed at specified times and places before an audience. A night of “Sound Sculpture” recently produced by Tom Marioni at the San Francisco Museum of Conceptual Art provided a few typical examples: in one piece, an artist fired a blank from a pistol; in another, the telephone rang several times while no one answered; in a third, an artist who had been drinking beer all afternoon climbed a step ladder and pissed into a galvanized tub. The latter piece was billed as a work by Allan Fish, but was performed by Marioni, and it is generally assumed that Fish and Marioni are actually the same person. If so, Marioni has managed to create a literal conceptual artist.
A more far-reaching work of performance art was staged by Paul Crowley last year from a vantage point high above San Francisco on the summit of Twin Peaks. Crowley gathered together a Moog synthesizer and several cars whose drivers all sounded their horns according to a prearranged score, and the noise was broadcast by a local radio station; at the same time, people in the city below switched houselights on and off according to a second score which had been published earlier that day in the morning paper. The entire city in effect became the medium, and the audience was also the performers.
Some performance pieces are done in isolation, with perhaps only a cameraman present to record the event, often in the form of film loops. A recent example portrayed conceptual artist Paul Kos trying to lasso a remote butte in the Wyoming desert, over and over. Force art uses as its media natural and man-made forces, elements, systems— — and the people these systems include— — that are already present in the everyday environment, usually feeding an object into a system and observing physical, physiological, social or human nature take its course. Often force art emphasizes the action of physical laws, such as the melting of huge blocks of ice or the collection and measurement of rain water in “art works” that are sometimes hard to distinguish from high school physics experiments. A growing body of force art centers on body phenomena, such as Bruce Nauman’s studies of the various positions into which the human face can be distorted, and Dennis Oppenheim’s endurance works in which he bridges his body from one support to another placed at ever increasing distances.
Haacke’s legalistic documentation on slumlords examines a sociological system, and Sam’s Cafe’s “media inversion” is a demonstration in reverse of environmental systems engineering, feeding a relatively small number of alien elements into the highly structured network of modern communications to turn the network against itself.
Many works are mixtures of concept, performance, and process, such as Robert Morris’ “Shot Heard Round the World” — —a blast of buckshot was fired into a wall, creating a hole which was then photographed: the photograph was blasted and re-photographed, and so on, throughout a series of international exhibitions. While much conceptual art has a literary, extra-artistic basis, some of it borders on pure literature. A work by Howard Fried describes in words and pictures the various decisions and indecisions that went into moving a table from one studio to another, the abandonment of the project halfway through, and then the abandonment of the abandonment. Other works of this kind involve pages of paper filled with permutations of words and sentences. In San Francisco recently, an artist sent out several thousand mailers that simply invited people to his home, which was open for “display” over a month-long period. There is a large body of conceptual art, called Fluxus, which is carried out almost entirely by mail, like chess by correspondence. It would be conceptually possible to organize an entire exhibition of ideas presented over the telephone — —and, by playing back tapes, to “view” and review the “show” in the same way.
While many of these avant-garde art works are so inconspicuous they could easily pass unnoticed, others, like Sam’s media inversion, can clearly be just a semantic twist away from old-fashioned publicity stunts and practical jokes— or acts of sabotage. This fact points to a central paradox— or hypocrisy —involved in various forms of conceptual art. Conceptual artists are generally zealous in claiming that their work is anti-museum, antigallery, and anti-Establishment — —yet much of their work relies upon the context and promotional apparatus supplied by the art Establishment for its very existence as a work of “art”— — in its natural setting, unidentified and unexplained, a hole is simply a hole and a pile of dirt is a pile of dirt.
Conceptual art is often as illustrational as the most grandiose mythological paintings churned out by academic hacks in the 19th century, and though conceptual artists form one of the most verbose schools of speculative thinkers since Scholastic philosophy, their theories are often infinitely more exciting than their manifestations; whatever thought may lie behind it, it’s not worth your trouble to go to the museum just to see a rock. One man’s Nirvana is simply another man’s business as usual.
A number of conceptual works that are incomprehensible without explanation turn out to be relatively pointless with explanation, although this simply means that there are bright ideas and dull ideas, as there is heavy work and mediocre work in other forms of art. Conceptual art has yet to come to grips with this question of artistic— — or conceptual —— quality, or who says an artist is an artist. So far, conceptual art shows have generally alternated between invitational displays drawn from a closely inbred group of self-perpetuating “artists,” or they have been open to everyone, like the Whitney Museum’s recent “Correspondance Show” that included more than 2,000 things sent by mail; in either event, the issue of having to screen out any ideas is neatly side-stepped. A system that contains an infinite number of variables is simply a non-system with a different name. Or, if everything is “art,” nothing is art.
In line with Mailer’s observation that the news about events becomes more important than the events themselves, conceptual art often seems to be about art rather than a manifestation of it, an extension of journalism, criticism and aesthetic theory rather than of artistic creation. Still, art is a legitimate subject matter of art, and the best conceptual works extend beyond self-comment to express an artist’s personality, focus attention on creative forces at work in the environment or comment on various facts of life. The slum-lord documentation is a sweeping indictment of its subject— — though it would be more effective or “functional” as an exhibit in a court of law.
Sam’s Cafe’s media inversion commented on a number of things— — the contemporary installment plan system, greed and anxiety, the self-centeredness and interdependence of the communications media, the mail — in the most graphic way possible, by example. Hopefully, Sam’s attorneys will score the point during Sam’s coming trial that 20,000 phony bills are only a drop in the bucket compared to the millions of fraudulent, fictitious, and obscene advertising claims that pass through the mails every day.