Jun 7, 2008

Notes on "intermedia"

Images from More than Meets the Eye (2007, Juul Sadee, video loop)

Thinking again about the Experimental Intermedia Foundation and Elaine Summers' orphan films. Bits of film made for and used as parts of live performance pieces have an extra layer of orphanhood. How and why to preserve, for example, an 8mm film loop made for a site-specific presentation? Might it be put to a new purpose, something other than re-presenting the 40-year-old performance piece?

If "they" began using the term intermedia in the 1960s and 70s to describe performance with film, video and audio elements, who were "they"?

Fluxus artist Dick Higgins makes a solid claim for the coinage. His note "The Origin of Happening," published in the journal American Speech (Autumn-Winter 1976), points out that he first used the word intermedia in his foreword to The Four Suits (Something Else Press, 1965 -- said press being one he founded in 1963). He was looking for a term that would shed some of the connotations with which happening had already been encrusted. In "Intermedia," Something Else Newsletter (Feb. 1966), he credited the British poet-critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) with using the word (the late eighteenth century being the heyday for the electronic arts, of course).

Curiously, Higgins's 1976 piece does not mention the words film or video in his definition.


Intermedia covers those art forms that are conceptual
hybrids between two or more traditional media, such as concrete poetry (visual art and poetry), happenings (visual art, music, and theater), and sound poetry (music and literature). The term is sufficiently technical in effect that, though it has enjoyed some popular use, it is still applied only to the arts and, except for some careless confusion with "mixed media" (in which the elements remain distinct though simultaneous), is usually applied in my original sense.

The earliest use of the word I have found in the daily press was in Vincent Canby's New York Times article, "How to Succeed as a Film Festival Bum," Aug. 28, 1966. Canby's glossary said:

expanded cinema: Also known as intermedia, expanded cinema may be any of various combinations of films, slides [Remember slides? -- ed.], lights, live actors, live dancers, live musicians and previously recorded announcements [announcements??]. Some demonstrations are expected to be arranged as part of the Lincon Center festival's program of Special Events this year.

A few days later John Brockman, organizer of said Special Events for the New York Film Festival, was quoted in the Times: "Hate Happenings. Love Intermedia Kinetic Environments." The 25-year-old curator was described in the phrase of the moment as being "where the action is." Brockman was said to be

plugging into the switched-on 'expanded cinema' world in which a film is not just a movie, but an Experience, an Event, an Environment. This is a humming electronic world, in which multiple films, tapes, amplifiers, kinetic sculpture, lights and live dancers or actors are combined to Involve Audiences in a Total Theater Experience.
(Elenore Lester, "So What Happens after Happenings?" Sept. 4, 1966)

Sign me up.

Although the cache of "intermedia" might have been strongest in the 1970s, some artists and groups do still embrace the category. There's an organization in New York simply called Experimental Intermedia (www.experimentalintermedia.org, naturally) which has been offering performance series continuously since 1973. EI's most recent season concluded (a week before Orphans 6) with this from artist Jean Piche: "Three triple-channel videomusic works. . . forming a suite that has helped define a particular genre of pluridisciplinary work: the composer as visual artist; fabricating color and sound, stream and movement, shape and timbre, the artist articulates a highly kinetic discourse at the juncture of abstraction and documentary."

Abstract enough that one has difficulty imaging what would happen at Piche's happening.

Finally, we should note the Belgian cousin (www.experimentalintermedia.be), whose website asks "What's Happening?" Answer: a video series, of which the most recent installment was More than Meets the Eye (2007), a 7-minute video loop by Dutch artist Juul Sadee. "The video captures a moment in the life of an Alzheimer's patient who can no longer trust his own eyes."

How to conserve, preserve, or re-present such material is what Mona Jimenez and Howard Besser are teaching students in our MIAP Program at NYU.