LINDA WERTHEIMER, host: Stan VanDerBeek is a legendary name in experimental film, but the scope of his work is not so well known. He filmed performance art, designed windows for Tiffany's; explored the artistic possibilities of video, computers, even fax machines. VanDerBeek was artist-in-residence at Bell Labs and NASA. A survey of his work is at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston.
Pat Dowell reports.
PAT DOWELL: Stan VanDerBeek's 1963 film "Breathdeath" is full of animated collages satirizing gender roles and politics. There's also an arresting staged scene; a woman sits on a bed nuzzling a figure made from an empty shirt and trousers, topped by a television set showing men's faces.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BREATHDEATH")
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) I don't care if you don't want me, I'm yours right now. I put a spell on you...
DOWELL: Stan VanDerBeek did not start out as a filmmaker. He attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina to study visual art. There, he met people who were transforming art: composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham, painter Robert Rauschenberg. But painting wasn't enough for VanDerBeek.
JOAO RIBAS: VanDerBeek called himself a technological fruit picker.
DOWELL: Joao Ribas is curator at MIT's LIST Center, the first stop of the VanDerBeek exhibition, which he and Bill Arning, director of the Houston Museum, organized. Ribas says VanDerBeek reached higher and higher for more interesting fruit.
RIBAS: Everything that artists made art from, or with, in the second half of the 20th century, he pretty much touched. The medium, whatever he was working with, was not adequate enough. Painting was too static. And then one film was too linear, and four films were too cumbersome - this sense of constantly trying something else that could get closer and closer to what he saw.
DOWELL: VanDerBeek's only technical training in filmmaking came from working on animation for a CBS children's show in the 1950s. At home he made his own films, as his oldest daughter, August, recalls.
AUGUST VANDERBEEK: I would sit on his lap and he would show me how to edit and move and cut collages around. He had magazines and I'd help cut.
DOWELL: Her father's vision expanded to multimedia works with dance, performance, slides, movie clips. In the mid-'60s, he ordered a grain-silo kit and used the top to build a domed theater in the artists' cooperative, where he lived in rural New York. The inside space was 31 feet high. August VanDerBeek says she helped build what her dad called the Movie Drome.
A. VANDERBEEK: There was, of course, a big event when everybody came from New York City. Andy Warhol and different people came to see the first showing. We had a beautiful cloth and pillows. There was a circular tray that was about probably 10 feet, 12 feet in diameter that had many slide projectors - a lot of 16mm projectors - so that it would just spin around the whole room. And we would lie down and just watch this incredible collage of images.
DOWELL: Her father made a somewhat portable version called the Movie Mural that curators have tried to approximate here.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DOWELL: VanDerBeek envisioned a global network of these linked by satellites. He called it the Culture Intercom, a prescient imagining more than 40 years ago of today's World Wide Web and social media. VanDerBeek recorded his exuberant notes and proposals for the future on now obsolete media: notebook paper, paper punchcards used with some of the first computer-imaging software at Bell Labs, floppy disks, film stock. The exhibition reclaims all this and VanDerBeek's vision of the artist's role in the flood of technology, says curator Joao Ribas.
RIBAS: I think he really thought that artists were supposed to interject into the process of a technology being developed, and in a sense humanize its potential.
DOWELL: Sara VanDerBeek, Stan's younger daughter and an artist herself, worked closely with the curators. She says the family wanted to convey Stan VanDerBeek's approach and spirit rather than following a diagram. After all, he didn't. He improvised.
SARA VANDERBEEK: He did not document his installations very extensively. So I'm working off of photographs and notebooks that have sort of charts of what was on the different carousels, and different film programs.
DOWELL: Stan VanDerBeek made few recordings of himself, says his daughter Sara. A video called "Newsreel of Dreams," however, caught her ear while installing the exhibition.
S. VANDERBEEK: And it was as though he was there. It really struck me - his voice in the context of all this whirling machinery and everything, and him speaking about dreams. It was kind of this beautiful succinct moment that really explained his whole perspective.
STAN VANDERBEEK: If this project interests you and you would like to offer me or dream-related experiences for future projects, please write them to me: Stan VanDerBeek, care of the Art Department, Dream Media Research
DOWELL: People did accept the invitation Stan VanDerBeek extended to the world. They sent him their dreams and he made them into art.
For NPR News, this is Pat Dowell in Houston.