At Black Mountain, he was inspired by a landmark performance, later called Theater Piece No. 1, staged by the avant-garde composer John Cage in the school dining hall in the summer of '52. At the same time: Cage and poet Charles Olson stood atop ladders reading aloud, Robert Rauschenberg showed abstract paintings and played records, David Tudor played piano, Merce Cunningham danced, others projected movies and still pictures.
VanDerBeek stayed late at the CBS studio to work on his own films, which mixed live-action clowning with collage animations that anticipate Terry Gilliam's Monty Python cartoons. His Science Friction (1959) features mutant bodybuilders, a man staring down a microscope, nuclear explosions, and the US Capitol, the Statue of Liberty, and the Kremlin blasting off like missiles. President Eisenhower and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev pop out of the back of two rockets and shake hands. VanDerBeek hoped his surreal satires would "point out the insidious folly of competitive suicide (through rockets)."
At Fluxus impresario George Maciunas's AG Gallery in New York in 1956, VanDerBeek projected three of his own films plus found footage, slides, and drawings onto three of the gallery's walls. In the early '60s, he filmed Claes Oldenburg's absurdist Happenings. In '65 and '66, VanDerBeek collaborated with Nam June Paik, Cage, and Cunningham on a performance by projecting films, newsreels, and television footage behind dancers.
>> SLIDESHOW: "Stan VanDerBeek: The Culture Intercom" at the MIT List Visual Arts Center <<
Between '65 and '67, at the Gate Hill Co-Op at Stony Point, New York, VanDerBeek constructed his 31-foot-high Movie-Drome, which he built from a mail-order grain silo. He outfitted the dome's inside with sound and projection equipment for audience members to take in while lying on the floor. He saw this as a prototype for a network of domes to be erected around the world, with images transmitted among them via satellite. VanDerBeek continued to explore such installations in 1970s projects; one of those involved eight hours of projections inside a planetarium in the hope of inducing a group dream among the audience members. There were also images projected above and below the water of an MIT pool, as well as onto steam. Visitors were invited to "come in your bathing suits and be part of the world's first Dive-In Movie Theatre!"
At the List, a re-creation of a 1968 Movie Mural gives a sense of what a VanDerBeek screening was like. Across various screens and gallery walls flickers footage of a band playing, motorcycle stunts, women disrobing, geometric Spirograph-like designs, baseball batters, football players, a movie gunfight, and the Statue of Liberty. It's a strange, immersive, overwhelming, channel-surfing montage that after a while can feel like a bad trip.
The space/nuclear-weapons race increased American funding for science and technology. And that trickled down to artists like VanDerBeek, who for much of his career bounced between residencies at institutions like MIT and NASA. Broadcast by WGBH television in Boston in '69 and '70, Violence Sonata is an earnest 49-minute montage of boxing, Klansmen, surrendering Nazis, Superman, women dancing in bikinis, a protester dragged away by police, a nuclear-bomb test, a slapstick pie fight, boys playing Rock'em Sock'em Robots, a rocket blasting into space, and a white guy and a black woman naked together in bed. The compost of images becomes tedious, but parts still feel groundbreaking. What's the last time you saw a white guy and a black woman in bed together on television?