The world turns, transitioning from day to night, initially slow, over and over. There is a sonic texture to the music, rapidly looping and layering around itself, the bright rhythmic sound playing at a pace that soon turns concerning. Behind the wall of sound, a voice triumphantly reads: “We won the race of discovery against the Germans. We have used it to shorten the agony of war to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans.” This condensed radio report, uttered by President Harry S. Truman at the Potsdam Conference, encapsulates the idea that peace is achieved through devastation.
In the wake of the atom bomb’s destruction, what follows is a montage of naked men and women, rebuilders continuously engaging in menial tasks: swinging an axe, ascending a set of invisible stairs, spinning, running, climbing a five-step ladder. Humble, old-world gestures seek to forge a better future. Undercutting their efforts is an ominous laugh track, a cacophony of distorted and hollow chuckles. These laughs are layered with an unsettling echo reverberating over everything, creating an atmosphere of foreboding. Clouds pass, and suns rise and fall. Two men engage in endless hand-to-hand combat, practicing strikes and judo takedowns, while newspaper headlines proclaim doom and gloom in the background.
This is Stan VanDerBeek’s short film After Laughter (1982), which was exhibited in the 1983 Whitney Biennial and created as part of a series of videos made with Kentucky Educational Television (KET), Lexington. Far from his first experience working with a television station, before his numerous collage films during the 1950s and early 1960s, VanDerBeek’s sole formal instruction in filmmaking stemmed from his time animating segments for a children’s program on CBS during the 1950s. From 1969-1970 VanDerBeek participated in the iconic “Rockefeller Artists-in-Television” residency program with the Boston public television station WGBH-TV, where he created “Violence Sonata,” which blends live studio performance with preexisting video material to explore themes of violence, racial dynamics, and human communication. As a two-channel piece, VanDerBeek instructed viewers at home to take two television sets, set them on channels 2 and 44, and place them beside each other. In the spirit of inviting direct participation, viewers at home were encouraged to call into the station and leave their reactions between the acts.
1969 was an important year in the history of video art, as the still-young medium staged a guerrilla-style incursion into mainstream broadcast television (WGBH). This audacious maneuver was a program titled “The Medium Is the Medium,” which they advertised as “six avant-garde artists (Allan Kaprow, Nam June Paik …) taking control of television” as they unleashed a relentless onslaught of pulsating abstract visuals and disconnected imagery. Television studios became experimental spaces for artists to learn and innovate. WGBH provided artists with producers, editors, and directors, offering residencies that allowed artists to use equipment for broadcast.
During the 1950s and 1960s, marked by the formative development of what could be programmed on television, more artists emerged from the postwar era to explore the medium and push its parameters. For many, it offered utopian visions aimed at dismantling the barriers that separate museums from the public, that cut out the institutions and bring art directly to our living rooms. They were driven by the belief that their work could bring transformative change to the world.
After starting his career as a painter, VanDerBeek attended Black Mountain College, where he found himself amid a community of artists dedicated to experimentation and exploring novel visual concepts, providing an environment where he could enhance and broaden his creative endeavors. He began his experimental film work not long after. From the start, his films and videos blended diverse imagery of found footage, animation, still images, and dynamic soundtracks, all flying energetically frenetic. Exploring the crossroads of art, technology, and communication, he referred to himself as a “technological fruit picker.” He was an artist-in-residence and researcher at numerous television stations, universities, foundations, scientific laboratories, and government agencies. Among them were Bell Labs, MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies, CBS-TV, the United States Information Agency (USIA), and NASA.
Established in 1968, Kentucky Educational Television (KET) has a long history of cultural programming and art-related content. Since the start, the station has highlighted regional cultural activities and created documentaries and profiles on local artists. However, in their history, I could find no other instances of artists in residency at the station. The relationship with VanDerBeek started in 1973 when he received a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Grant for Experiments in Video. In 1980, he began working on three videos at the studio (After Laughter, Micro Cosmos 1-4, and Self-Poured Traits) and a KET-produced documentary, Form Comes Out of Chaos, which gave a glimpse into the working process. It’s always fun to see the colossal monitors, but beyond the multiple cameras, synthesizers, and switchers, what was interesting was the sheer number of staff members working with VanDerBeek to see how collaborative the process was.
In recent years, the landscape of public television has changed with the advent of digital media and the internet. These stations provided a platform for artists and creators to express themselves freely, unburdened by commercial constraints. It offered an outlet for underrepresented voices and unconventional narratives. Artists have turned to online platforms and streaming services to showcase their work, which has broadened their reach but also altered the dynamics of public television. VanDerBeek was among the first to utilize the platform. He recognized the potential of television as a means of reaching a broader audience and used the medium to challenge conventional narratives and engage with contemporary issues. His legacy in the realm of experimental cinema and digital art continues to inspire artists who explore the boundaries of technology and artistic expression in the digital age.
Many thanks to Institute 193, Lexington, KY for making these videos accessible to me.