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<nettime> Interview with Douglas Davis
Tilman Baumgaertel on Sat, 13 May 2000 00:32:02 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Interview with Douglas Davis

german version at: 

"I just want to GO!"

Interview with Douglas Davis

Douglas Davis has often been considered to be a pioneer of video art, but
he is much more. To him as an artist the production of video tapes was
secondary to the act of communication that most of his works and projects
were about. Since "TV Hokkadim" from 1969 his work constantly involved
interaction and communication with as large an audience as possible. So it
doesn't come as a big surprise that he was among the first how used the
internet as an artistic tool, and was the first art work who created and
sold an art work on the WorldWideWeb. In the following interview he talks
about the art pieces that he created with Video, on TV and with
communication satellites, but more importantly with the participation with

?: You are normally refered to as a video artist, but a lot of your
projects involved telecommunication rather than the production of video
tapes. Can you explain this bent in your works?

Douglas Davis: I was never never a pure videotape artist or pure video
artist. I always lusted to push images, ideas, and sounds through the
so-called media category walls. Almost never have I made anything in one
medium always. I gleefully combine video or webvideo or websites with
drawing, photography, printmaking, objects, theaters, everything. I am
dedicated to destroying media.  The message is the medium, or so I argued
with McLuhan's daughter, whom I dated briefly in the 70's. She agreed.

The other myth about me is that my work is dedicated to "communication."  I
don't believe in communication! I believe in the great adventure of TRYING
to communicate, particularly across vast stretches of time, language,
space, geography, and gender. It is thrilling to try. It almost never
succeeds, except for a brief instant or two.

You are absolutely correct that most of my work in video is dedicated to
this adventure, not to being a videotape on a monitor in an art gallery.
That is no fun. It's much more fun to speak out to the entire distant
world, or to try. That is what motivated my satellite performance "Seven
Thoughts," performed in the Astrodome in 1976.

?: You started out as a critic before you did your first performances in
the late Sixties. Can you talk a little about the development from writing
about art to the creation of art?

Davis: Another myth. The writing and the art are one performance. I have
been writing and drawing since I was a small boy. Nobody told me they
contradicted each other until I began publishing and exhibiting a lot. Then
the world explained that I couldn't do both and remain pure. Well, impurity
is more interesting.

?: You said about your performances that the idea was to "de-mass" the mass
media. Can you explain this statement?

Davis: Well, the "Austrian Tapes" and the "Florence Tapes" were not only
tapes but interactive performances. In the first I ask you to touch my
hands on the screen with your hands, chests, backs, etc, and to think about
whether we are really touching.  In the second I ask you to completely
disrobe with me and put your feet up on the screen against my feet and
decide "Who is up, who is down?"

Whenever I do any performance in a gallery or theater I try also to involve
the listening or watching audience on radio or catv or the web by asking
them questions and inviting their responses--in "Double Entendre", which
linked the Whitney and Centre Pompidou in 1981, I asked the outside
audience to phone in advice for me when I had to decide whether to fly
across the ocean to save my love affair. I also often speak to the live
audience in front of me in the gallery or theater and ask them to advise
me. In the very last performance of "Terrible Beauty", the global narrative
now evolving on the net, the audience is going to take over completely: I
will be bound, gagged, and helpless. They will wrap up all the plot lines

Sometimes I sit down beside the viewer. Last fall in a  performance of my
internet piece "Terrible Beauty" in San Francisco I sprayed the audience
with computer scents and asked them to spray me back: we then sniffed each
other- anything to get you to act, not just sit there.

Most of my prints and drawings and photos coax you to move or touch them.
When you take these actions - not just spectate - you not only de-massify
the contact between us. You understand you are the key agent here, not me.
It is your perception that defines the work. I don't believe in a mass
anything, not even a mass crowd, where lots of people are swept along by
force and don't agree with what is happening.

?: In the early Seventies there was a number of video groups in the US,
that were trying to make the own TV rather than just video tapes, such as
the Videofreex. Were you involved with these groups?

Davis: In the beginning I worked with something called The New Group in
Washington, D.C., dedicated to performances,events, and interactive media,
in the late 60's.  When I moved to New York I often worked in informal ad
hoc alliances with artists like Paik, Campus, Viola, and many others. I
knew the Video Freex and Raindance and collaborated with them in informal
ways.  The group phenomenon tended to disappear when the 80's descended.

?: Tell me about "Seven thoughts", the piece you did at the Huston
Astrodome in 1976...

Davis: I was obsessed with using satellites. It was the great unknown and
therefore exotic. I wanted to use it to broadcast very avantgarde,
conceptual video, precisely what no one expected or desired.  At that time,
no artist had gotten his or her hands on any satellite.  We thought we'd be
lucky to convince a TV network to allow a "live" performance or show a few
minutes of video art.  I decided this was tame, not worth all the time and
boot-licking required to achieve it. I decided to try to get
the satellite for myself, even in a tiny way.  This seemed the radical step.

I found support from the Contemporary Arts Museum in Huston, directed by
James Hariths, who had established the the first video department at the
Everson Museum in Syracuse, when he hired David Ross as is curator. We
decided to rent time on the ComSat satellite for an uncompromising
performance. It was the first time that any private citizen did this,
apparently. That was a wonder to me: our tax dollars created the satellite
system, why don't we use it?

The moment I started to think about Houston, I thought of the Astrodome, at
that time the largest roof stadium in the world, but more importantly, it
was circular. I kept thinking about the link between the satellite and the
dome. Eventually we managed to get the permission to use the Astrodome on
the evening of December 29, 1976, when it was empty, unused, and cheap to
rent (not that either the CAM or i had a dime to spare: if Giuseppe Panza,
the collector from Milan, hadn't given us the cash - in exchange for a
piece - Seven Thoughts would never have been uttered).

?: Was there any audience?

Davis: There was nobody in the Astrodome - except for the people involved
in the performance. But people could have picked up the signal anywhere in
the world with their receivers. TV and radio stations anywhere could have
retrieved our signal and broadcast it.  The Seven Thoughts were free
thoughts. We sent a telegram to all Comsat receiving nodes everywhere. I
offered seven very personal thoughts to the citizens of the world.
Stressing the privacy of the transmission mattered. I wasn't offering a
mass or imperialistic message. I wanted one to one contact...with
you...wherever you were.

It all began at 9:30 pm--we could only afford to rent that huge place, ist
lights, its scoreboard for thirty minutes.  At about 9:28, just when I had
to begin, a groundkeeper called out to me, holding a phone on the sideline,
where the teams sit on the bench.. He yelled: "Bombay, India, is calling!
You have to tello them what the seven thoughts are before they'll let them
be heard on the radio by everyone."  But I had no time to spare: "Tell them
it's a good will message for the new year", I said, and ran out on the
field, to begin exactly at 9:30, in the nick of time.

That's when the silent performance began, viewed from cameras above,
suspended from the dome's ceiling, I walked in circles carrying the small
black box containing the seven thoughts. about 20 minutes later, I reached
the middle of the Astrodome, where a microphone was lowered over my head
from the camera platform, which descended steadily downward. Between 9:40
and 9:50 I spoke up through the roof of the stadium to the orbiting
satellite down to the ears of the world.  Ten minutes of direct
transmission was our budgetary limit. Well, I loved that density and
compression. Then, when I finished talking, I locked the little black box
where the thoughts remain to this day, in Milan.

?: Do you know if the thoughts were broadcast in India?

Davis: No.

?: What were the seven thoughts?

Davis: Once they were free. Now they were secret. Not even Panza knows--he
agreed to keep them locked forever.

?: The performance you did for the opening of the documenta in 1977 also
involved satellites...

Davis: It was called "The last nine minutes", produced by Hessischer
Rundfunk, and broadcast around the world to many nations, even in the
Soviet Union. It must have been the largest audience that any art event
ever had, up to that date.

There were three performances. The first one was by Nam June Paik and
Charlotte Moorman. Than Joseph Beuys came on, and gave a very beautiful,
totally anarchist message to the world--despite persistent threats to
censor him. Words seemed more of a threat than Paik's images or my silent

My piece was "The Last 9 Minutes," because I had the last 9 minutes for my
performance. Once again I circle: you see me going around the perimeter of
your TV screen, trying to find you, speak to you, touch you. My recorded
voice says twice, once in English, once in German, while a Spanish text
rolls over the screen: "Wherever you are in this room, I will find you in
nine minutes. I will search all  the angles, all the spaces in this room,
in your room. Hold up your hands to the screen, let me hear the ticking of
your clock. I will find you. We will destroy this barrier between us in
nine minutes."

It concluded with a count-down, from "10" to "1", called in spanish from
Caracas by a performer there, across the atlantic. I also asked everybody
watching to crash through the TV monitor on "1". By some miracle, the two
of us hit the screen exactly on point,, then the screen went black.  On the
next day in Kassel a woman came up to me in the supermarket and said: "I
saw you last night on TV. Now you must come home with me and repair my
broken screen." Well, she got the point didn't she?

?:  Another satellite piece you did is called "Double Entendre", that was
performed in New York and Paris in 1981. What was it about?

Davis: That was the next satellite piece after documenta. It was a link
between me at the Whitney Museum of American Art and Centre Pompidou. There
was a woman in Paris and I was in New York.  We engage in a conversation
that turns into flirtation and seduction. I am speaking only in english,
and she is speaking only in french, but we are saying the same things to
each other, doubling the language.  Often the lines played with a new text
by Roland Barthes, Discours Amoreux (A Lover's Discourse).  It was the
beginning of his break from the myopia of Structuralism and I loved it and
him. He died not longer after I met him, in 1977, a pivotal year in my
life, obviously. It was also filled with comic ecstasy, as is the piece, I

This was a video piece that had to depend for most of its 30 minutes on
audio, primarily because of the budget but naturally I loved the doubling
of the media. When you don't have a lot of money, you become very clever.
We could afford only five minutes of satellite video, the rest had to be
audio. So during the performance you just heard these people speaking. The
words were on the screen, but you didn't see the speakers until the last
five minutes.

At the end of the performance I say: "I can't stand the seperation anymore,
I am coming across the Atlantic Ocean right now." That related Barthes
text, where he talks about both love and language being a kind of leap. So
I plead with her to stay where she is and run out of the Whitney theater.
Next you finally see on the video running down Park Avenue. She
soliloquizes with the audience, asking them if she should leave or if she
should stay. Finally she decides to run away. So she races down to the
Plaza in front of Centre Pompidou, and I land live in front of her, right
there! We chase around, and I finally embrace her. "Double Entendre" ends
with our embrace, far away, in the twilight - it's evening in Paris,
afternoon in New York. As we stand there, merging into the darkness, two
voices speak simultaneously, in French and English, speculating on the
double meaning of what just occured live.

?: So that means that you were in Paris all the time?

Davis: No. It means the Double is everywhere, as intended in the title. He
was a really incredible double, he looked and walk exactly like me. I went
to Paris, and rehearsed with him. All the critics who saw the work were
convinced the landing and running action had been taped, but it was
absolutely live.

?: In your bio you also mention a number of performances you did with Komar
& Melamid in the 70's, when they were still living in Moscow. Wasn't it
difficult, to get in touch with dissident artists behind the "Iron Curtain"
in that time?

Davis: That came from going to Russia in Middle of the 70ies during the
cold war. I arrived there the week Breshnev signed the SALT I treaty, which
meant that for the first time in decades it was OK for an American to be in
Russia.  I was allowed to go to the Rodchenko studio. The last time an
American was there was Alfred Barr in 1955.

I also met some of the young russian dissident artists, and was most
impressed by the works of Ilya Kabakov and conceptual artists Vitaly Komar
& Alexander Melamid, who I see a lot now, because they live in New York.
But in those times, we expected to meet each other again. It was like a
miracle that I was there at all. So we decided to create a transatlantic
art work together, using the only mediums that was allowed to us at that
time: the telephone and a photocamera.

I spoke no russian, they spoke no english, but there were friends on both
sides to help us. I had this idea that if I painted a line on my wall and
they painted one on their wall, we would take photographs, and hold up
questions about the meaning of the line, and exchange them by mail, so in
each city the work would exist, spliced down the middle. I took my first
picture at midnight on Dec 31. 1975, and they took their picture at 8 AM on
January 1. 1976--the same instant.

There weren't any  collaborations like that going on at that time, so it
enlisted a lot of interest of the secret services like the KGB and the CIA.
Vitali's and Alexander's idea was to be very open, because if we tried to
hide anything, they'd think we meant real political trouble.

So we talked very openly about the telephone, and I was able to get
material from them that I published in "Domus" Magazine, which went to
every russian library, so the work - we called it "Questions Moscow New
York" -  got very well know. The KGB asked questions, but they never
stopped it. The CIA didnt ask any quesions, but they didn't call a halt,

We had four pictures in mind at first: One at New Years Eve, one on May 1,
one on the 4th of July, and one on November 25th, the anniversary of the
October  Revolution. In the last picture they are wearing over-coats, like
they are getting ready to leave, and the next thing I know they
successfully imigrate to Israel!

So the fifth picture was taken in Tel-Aviv and New York, and for the last
picture, or what we thought was the last picture, my finally got to New
York, and we did a picture in my gallery, Ronald Feldman, called "The End
of the Line", where we tear the line down off the wall.

15 years pass, it's Perestroika, and in 1991 I go to Moscow. We decided to
do one more picture, where everything is  reversed: I am on Red Square, and
they are in Rockefeller Center. It's a beautiful color-mural. 

?: But you never worked together in a situation where you were physically
in the same room?

Davis: Only once, in the sixth picture in 1978.  In 1991, I am holding the
line, it's going down from my hands on Red Square, and they are kind of
grabbing the line at Rockefeller Center. We will probably do another one in
2000. It depends on one of us going to some exotic place. Like the moon, or
Jupiter. (laughs)

?: Your "World's Longest Sentences" was one of the first art works for the
internet, if not the first at all. How did you get the idea to do something
online? And what was your experience with this piece?

Davis: All miracles. A tiny art gallery in the Bronx, the poorest
legislative district in the U.S., got a server in 1994, a very rare event
then. The director, Susan Hoeltzel, asked me if I wanted to create a new
work linked to the title of my exhibiton then installed there, entitled
"InterActions (1967-1981)", which was about my early work.  She also
planned to put the whole show up there.

Immediately I thought of the keyboard, the means of interaction allowed by
the Web but not by video or flat art. the big difference between broadcast
TV and the Web is the keyboard: that people can say anything with it, they
have full expressive capacitiy. This means a more intense and personal link
could occur between me and the audience - and why not get the whole world
together to write a sentence?

?: Were you aware of any other artist using the internet as a medium at
that time?

Davis: This was in 1994. The use of the home computer of getting online was
pretty heavy after 1994 in the US. Al Gore even made it an issue in the
presendential campaign in 1992. But nobody was using it to make art. The
museums were all online. You could go to the Web and see the collection of
the National Museum in Canberra or something, but no new art for the internet.

When we began to plan it, my colleagues Robert Schneider and Gary Welz
confirmed that we could devise a program that would keep you from typing a
period. This means that the moment you address the "Sentence" you
understand you are a part of an ongoing statement that will never end. My
experience with you and the world on this piece is a unending adventure.
Every day, every month, every year it changes. The contributions now are
much more graphically sophisticated than before.  The Sentence is hot pink
now, pulsing with Java, video, audio, color, everything. In the beginning
it was black and white but rich with soul and personality.

All the original passion is still there - but designed so well that you
miss what the world is really saying.  What matters about the "Sentence" is
the content above all. In 2000 the Whitney - which now owns the "Sentence"
- and Printed Matter will combine with me to "print out" the work for the
first time, to create "The World's First Collaborative Book."

?: Do you think that the internet has accomplished what you were aiming at
with your performances? To de-mass the mass-media?

Davis: Yes. It is the ultimate means of getting really intense response,
and hearing from people. With works like "The world's longest Sentence", it
is a way of getting people actively involved in the creation of something.
I am still absolutely overwhelmed by the amount of people who come onto it
and what they do. Then again: Down with mediums! Down with the Web! Up

?: But how "interactive" is it to add to a sentence that nobody will ever

Davis: But people do read the sentence. When we make a book out of it, more
people will read it. If you spend a lot of time adding to the sentence, you
can be sure that you tell lots of friends about it. If you read the
sentence you get a sense of the interaction that is going on between
people. There are different subjects and themes that persist: the
linguistic nature of this thing (is it a real sentence?), loneliness, words
as lifelines, time, space, love, lust, art, poetry, politics.

There is also a certain amount of personal revelation going on. it's
certainly much deeper than the usual shit that goes on on chat lines.
People reveal things about themselves, about watching their parents die or
horrible break ups of relationships or problems with the police. There is a
lot of heavy stuff going on. Then there is also a lot of humour, gaming,
word play and things like that.

?: But technically, all people do is filling out a form that somebody else

Davis: That's your read on it, but it's not everybody else's, thank god. I
could say the reverse. The reason why the sentence is an interactive marvel
is that there are no rules, except...you can't type a period. They put up
images, they link to their sites, they shout, sing, bitch, praise the
world. The success is basically due to it's highly deceptive simplicity.
Deceptive because the result is a very rich thing, not a gimmick at all. So
many people come to it, often again and again, because they know they can
speak freely here, and be heard.

?: I understand you sold the piece?

Davis: The collectors' name was Eugene M. Shwartz. He was a great collector
of contemporary art in New York, he had a avantgarde edge. He called me,
and asked: "What is this about? When I told him, he said I want to buy it."

?: Did it occur to you before that the piece could be sold?

Davis: No. It is still hard to sell video, you know. Video has become
collectable, but still at very low prieces. If you compare it to
impressionism: the impressionists started to earn good money way before we
did. Manet got some big medal from the king of France twenty years after
his first exhibition. So actually we are still more avantgarde than the
impressionists (laughs).

It seemed too early for me to sell web art, but I hadn't counted on Gene.
The piece went up in September 1995; he bought it in January 1995. There
wasn't a lot of stuff up at that point. If you look on page 4 of the
sentence, you can read that he is buying it, because he typed in his
intention. The Sentence stayed on the Server of Lehman  College, but his
widow gave his collection of my work to the Whitney.  It was a daring
commitment for a traditional museum, surely fired by the director at the
time, David Ross, who was in fact the first video curator, at the Everson
in the 70's, because they must maintain it like a painting, except that it
can go on changing, growing,expanding for eternity.

?: I guess the same thing can be said about your project "MetaBody", where
people  contribute pictures of the human body instead of parts of a

Davis: "MetaBody" is also in the collection of a private collector. He is
not worried about it, but it will "MetaBody" is enormously fun to look at
and also very sexy. When we put up "MetaBody" we couldn't take any file
larger the 100 K. There are some technical strains, but I have a great
computer now, so I was finally able to download the whole thing myself.

?: Is the idea to move your own body online? Is that the logical
consequence of what you were doing as an artist?

Davis Yes, certainly, and my body is already up there, naked and unashamed,
along with yours, on "Metabody". I also obviously lust after linking to the
Other over long distances. The further away, the happier I am. As long as
we can collapse the gap between us and touch. I am very interested in
quantumteleportation these days. The theory of teleportation has been
proven: you can read the results on the IBM website. it is possible to move
matter instantly from one end of the universe to the other--a form of
quick-faxing the body. The only draw-back right now is... the master copy
destroys itself. So if you go, your body evaporates in the send mode. I'd
love to do that... (laughs)

?: That might be your last piece...

Davis: Yes. Then again, it might be a series. I might be able to come back.
I guess I like not really knowing what's going to happen. All these things,
that I did and still want to do, have open-ended consequences. The second
obsession is the Other, the other person. All these media are just
different ways to do massage these needs. They are just different ways to
go - to go far away, to another space and time and culture and make some
kind of one-to-one-connection.

?: So were would you like to get teleported to?

Davis: Oh, that wouldn't matter. I just want to GO! (laughs)


Douglas Davis Homepage

"World's First Collaborative Sentence" 


"Terrible Beauty" 

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