The Last Video Utopian: “Douglas Davis: Inter-Actions (Selected Works 1970-1980)” | Film | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
click to enlarge The Last Video Utopian: “Douglas Davis: Inter-Actions (Selected Works 1970-1980)”
Venus At Her Sony (after Velazquez), Douglas Davis, 1984. Two-color Polaroid print.

"If you look at this, it's heartbreaking, in a way," remarks Tilman Baumgartel, a visiting media scholar from Berlin standing on the second floor of the Greene County Council of the Arts in Catskill. We are surrounded by artifacts from the life of Douglas Davis, a video pioneer who died in 2014. Soon after his death, these videocassettes, film canisters, posters, silkscreens, and photographs were taken from Davis's studio at 80 Wooster Street in SoHo and deposited in an old house in Saugerties. In the intervening nine years, mice and silverfish have thrived among the artworks, and the roof of the house nearly collapsed. Now the materials have been cleaned and sorted, but it's still unclear if the videos will play.

Baumgartel opens one of the 16mm film cans and smells it: "No vinegar!" This is good news. When film decays, it smells like vinegar.

"Douglas Davis: Inter-Actions (Selected Works 1970-1980)" is a retrospective of the influential Fluxus artist opening on April 15 in two locations: CREATE Gallery in Catskill and Hudson Hall in Hudson.

"Davis had two super-successful careers, one as a writer and one as an artist," says Baumgartel, who is researching and cataloguing the artist's archive. Douglas Davis was the art critic for Newsweek for 19 years, and quite possibly the first person to use the term "postmodern" in print. He penned three books, including Art and the Future (1973). Davis was also one of the earliest video artists, experimenting with the new medium in the 1960s.

Davis broke the "fourth wall" of video, by directly addressing the screen itself. He would erect a free-standing window in front of a camera so he could press his face and other parts of his body, against it. (Sometimes he performed naked.) Davis appeared to be pushing himself against the viewer's TV screen. The intention was to make a human connection through the cold medium of television.

Electronic Hokkadim (1971) was a performance at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC, in which Davis arguably invented the call-in TV show. Images on the screen would respond to sounds listeners made over the phone. The intention was to make television a two-way medium, not simply a broadcast. Idealism was at the foundation of his art. Davis envisioned a worldwide democracy where everyone participated at home, electronically—a self-governing global village.

He also created more abstract works, such as Present Tense (1975), an installation consisting of a TV turned toward a wall. An observer could only see the faint reflection of the screen—television transformed from a source of entertainment to a flickering light, intended as an aid to meditation.

click to enlarge The Last Video Utopian: “Douglas Davis: Inter-Actions (Selected Works 1970-1980)”
Feeting, Douglas Davis, from the "Keeping Time" series, 1976. Printed using a variety of techniques:lithography, photoengraving, half-tone plates, and etched/engraved plates. Time stamped as each significant process of the print was completed. Ink on paper.

For a retrospective of his work at the Whitney Museum in 1994, Davis created The World's First Collaborative Sentence, one of the earliest artworks on the Internet. Anyone could add to the sentence, and write anything they wanted, as long as they didn't use a period. The Collaborative Sentence combined many of Davis's ideas: democracy, spontaneity, the liberating power of technology. This conceptual work went into the Whitney collection and is currently available online.

What was revolutionary 52 years ago appears charmingly quaint today. Davis's 1970s mustache makes him look like an undercover cop. And most of the images from the videos are in black and white. By the `70s, broadcast TV had gone to color, but the avant-garde still worked in shades of gray.

The person who rescued Davis's archive was Margaret Nowack, a Catskill resident with a master's degree in museum studies from George Washington University. She worked as curator at two historic houses, the Woodrow Wilson house in Washington, DC, and Villa Finale in San Antonio. Last October, she hired three helpers and a U-Haul trailer and saved Douglas Davis from oblivion.

"Douglas Davis: Inter-Actions (Selected Works 1970-1980)" will run April 15 through May 28 at the CREATE Gallery in Catskill and at Hudson Hall.

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