Joseph Kosuth's The Second Investigation in Vancouver: Art on TV
John C. Welchman
The following discussion of Joseph Kosuth’s exhibition at the Douglas Gallery in Vancouver in the fall of 1969 has two important contexts, neither of which I can attend to in detail here. The first is defined by the situation of this show as one of fifteen exhibitions in North and South America, Europe, and Australia that made up The Second Investigation, which Kosuth conceived in 1968, planned during the last months of that year, and launched between December 1968 (Kosuth’s exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, opened December 29, 1968) and January 1969 (Seth Siegelaub’s January 5–31 in New York).1 Each appearance of The Second Investigation was based on contiguous text derived directly from one of the eight classes established for the “Synopsis of Categories” developed by Peter Mark Roget for his Thesaurus, a “classed catalogue of words” that he first drafted in 1805 and brought to completion half a decade later following his retirement as secretary of the British Royal Society.2 Specific sections or subsections from the “Synopsis” were identified and selected for a particular “campaign,” typographically transcribed (as necessary), and then relocated into one of more than half a dozen media delivery systems, either by a process of standard submission (such as advertising copy for newspapers and magazines) or by enlargement and reformatting (for the billboards, for example)—in all cases with the minimum possible “artistic” interference. The media infiltrated by the Second Investigation included national, regional, and local daily newspapers published in a wide range of cities and towns in the US, UK, Australia, Sweden, and Switzerland; weeklies and periodicals such as the Nation, the New Republic, and the Village Voice in the US; special interest magazines and journals, including Women’s Wear Daily and the New York Review of Books in the US and Exchange and Mart in the UK; art magazines, such as Artforum, Art International, Museum News, and Art News; interior advertisements posted inside public buses; billboards sited in both urban (St. Margaret’s Bay Road, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada; Solferino Square, Turin, Italy; Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena, California, US; Bern, Switzerland) and rural (Portales, New Mexico) locations; posters (kiosk advertising in Bern); handbills (some distributed in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Toronto, Canada; others dropped from an airplane over Antwerp, Belgium); mailers sent from Amsterdam, the Netherlands; and, finally, TV slots intended to be aired on Canadian national television. It would appear that The Second Investigation also spawned an unauthorized, or at least unplanned, radio component in the form of a broadcast connected to the effort to purchase and air the TV segment, which I discuss below. Most of the distributions were effected in 1969 and 1970, but The Second Investigation continued intermittently until February 1974 when what appears to be a final instalment was published in a number of Swedish newspapers.
Progressive public and commercial galleries and educational institutions in Canada played a leading role in The Second Investigation. Hosting the first exhibition in the series, the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, printed five thousand handbills marked with “Sensation. V. Sight” from class five of the “Synopsis of Categories,” which were “placed door-to-door” on Tuesday, December 30, 1968, during an exhibition that ran from December 29, 1968, to January 10, 1969. The Nova Scotia College of Art in Halifax put on an exhibition (October 25 to November 9, 1969) featuring four different media presentations from class one of the “Synopsis of Categories”: “Abstract Relations. X. Power.” Four hundred handbills were printed and distributed; an advertisement placed in the Mail Star T.V. Guide (Saturday, October 25); advertising posters bought for twelve routes of the Halifax City Bus network (October 25 to November 1); and a billboard located on St. Margaret’s Bay Road. My focus here is on the third Canadian manifestation of The Second Investigation at the Douglas Gallery in October 1969, which, uniquely, attempted to program “Synopsis” text on broadcast television.
The second context for these remarks concerns the relation of television—variously conceived as a physical object or broadcast medium, as entertainment or information, public service or licensed commercial business—to avant-garde art in the 1960s. In what seems like a foreshadowing of debates over dating, innovation, and prioritization during the early years of conceptual art, critics and advocates of Nam June Paik and Wolf Vostell—including the artists themselves—have made various claims about the incorporation of television in their work beginning as early as the late 1950s. Paik was probably the first to offer an extended demonstration of his interest in television in a public exhibition during his first major show, Exposition of Music—Electronic Television at the Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal, Germany (March 11–20, 1963), run by the architect Rolf Jährling. Paik’s deployment of a dozen variously modified TV sets, which were scattered and stacked in one area of the sprawling exhibition (originally titled “Symphony for 20 Rooms”), bore witness to several valences of the first wave of experimental work with television, the stakes of which were quite different from the approach of Kosuth to the medium some half a decade later.
First, as Dieter Daniels and others have argued, Paik seemed to be motivated in part by a critical antagonism toward television flavoured by the corrosive skepticism of Guy Debord and manifest in an often aggressive bid to destroy, undermine, or radically repurpose the normal TV signal (at the time Germany had only one channel with limited broadcasting times—which dictated the brief evening opening hours of the Galerie Parnass exhibition).3 Using both broadcast programs and TV sets themselves as “found” materials, Paik, secondly, intervened in the consumer-oriented technical neutrality of the “set” or “tube” by rewiring, retuning, and electronically recoding its signals: he thus distorted “both broadcast image and monitor by way of magnetizers, rectifiers, and oscillators” in order to “defamiliarize and thus transfigure a visual medium into an expressive instrument operating across multiple senses.”4
Experimental work using or addressing television was present from the very beginning among the diffuse body of work associated with happenings, events, and Fluxus and anticipated by developments in the 1950s such as Lucio Fontana’s “Television Manifesto of the Spatial Movement” (1952).5 A photograph of Wolf Vostell’s TV-dé-coll/age (Ereignisse für Millionen, Partitur [Events for millions, score], June 1959), for example, was included as the second item in a list of ten under the heading “1959” exhibited in the Dokumentationsstrasse (Documentation street)—and published in the catalogue—of Harald Szeemann’s Happenings and Fluxus (Kunstverein, Cologne, 1970). Like Paik, Vostell is a key figure in the early attention to TV as an object and medium: his first “happening,” Theater Is in the Street (Paris, 1958), incorporated auto parts and a TV, while a notebook sketch dated by the artist to 1958 or 1959 (TV-Décoll /age no. 1) outlines a project to mount differently sized TV sets behind and against “clean white canvas” to highlight constantly changing, crypto-pictorialist effects produced by “interference built into” the TV sets.6 While Vostell’s 1958/59 notebooks contain sketches for unrealized projects addressing TV more directly, the first public manifestation of these interests was shortly after Paik’s Wuppertal exhibition, in May 1963 in New York. During the 1960s and ’70s, Vostell and Paik subjected television sets, as well as their programs and signals, to a wide variety of appropriations and modifications. Beginning with their presentation atop filing cabinets in TV-Dé-collage (1963), Vostell, for example, conscripted televisions as headboards for the beds in You (1964), set them in an arena of broken glass surmounted by found and reconfigured objects, including a bicycle wheel, skis, and various comestibles (in Elektronischer dé-collage Happening Raum, 1968), and used them as moulds for concrete sculptures and as units to articulate a fifteen-set-high obelisk (TV Obelisk, 1979); he even posed two giant TV sets in the centre of a freeway intersection in a photocollaged project for a “Drive-in Museum” (1970).
There are a number of parallels between the careers of Vostell and Kosuth, including their early recourse to plans and diagrams for work—Vostell in the late 1950s, Kosuth in the mid 1960s—that was realized later, giving rise to intense debate about the timing and “priority” of their innovations. More tellingly, both also made recourse to dictionary definitions during their early investigations (Kosuth in the photostat definitions of The Protoinvestigations and The First Investigation, which immediately preceded The Second Investigation). Vostell’s exhibition at Smolin Gallery in New York (which opened May 22, 1963) was marked on the front of the folded invitation card as a “presentation” of “Wolf Vostell & Television Decollage & Decollage Posters & Comestible Decollage.” The inside pages provided an exhibition history and details of the participatory possibilities of the exhibition: an invitation to “eat art and to make art by eating” and a “Do It Yourself” opportunity “to participate in the creation of Décollage at the opening” (along with a telephone number to call to “reserve the area in which you wish to create” and a statement that “the gallery would supply the materials”), flanked by a gridded array of Life magazine covers, the axes of which were supplied with the numbers 1–17 (horizontal) and the letters A–O (vertical). The verso of the card, however, was reserved for a photographic transcription (apparently taken from a French-German dictionary) of the German translation and definition of “décoll-age.”7 Of interest for my discussion here is Vostell’s decision to include in his reproduction the first line of the definition that follows next in the dictionary sequence: “décolourer”—to “fade” or lose colour.
Commenced before the advent and availability of portable video in the mid and later 1960s, the interventions of Paik and Vostell were based on the appropriation, modification, supplementation, and reimagination of television as a material object and/or of its broadcast contents. While it often radically refigured or scrambled its materials, the work of Paik and Vostell was predicated on and tethered to the sign system of television as a set of manufactured and broadcast givens—conditions emblematized by the recourse of both artists to devices (Vostell termed them “oscillographs”) that recoded TV signals into other visual or sonic forms.
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About the Author
John C. Welchman is Professor of Art History in the Visual Arts department at the University of California, San Diego, and chair of the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts. His books include Modernism Relocated: Towards a Cultural Studies of Visual Modernity (Allen & Unwin, 1995), Invisible Colors: A Visual History of Titles (Yale, 1997), Art after Appropriation: Essays on Art in the 1990s (Routledge, 2001), Vasco Araújo (ADIAC, 2007), and Paul McCarthy: Caribbean Pirates (forthcoming, JRP|Ringier, 2016). He is co-author of The Dada & Surrealist Word-Image (MIT, 1989), Mike Kelley (Phaidon, 1999), On the Beyond: A Conversation between Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw and John C. Welchman (Springer, 2011), Kwang Young Chun: Mulberry Mindscapes (Skira Rizzoli, 2014), and Joseph Kosuth: Re-defining the Context of Art, 1968–2014. The Second Investigation and Public Media (forthcoming, Sternberg, 2016); and editor of Rethinking Borders (Minnesota UP/Routledge, 1996), the writings and interviews of Mike Kelley (3 vols., MIT/JRP|Ringier), and Sculpture and the Vitrine (Ashgate, 2013). Past Realization: Essays on Contemporary European Art (XX to XXI, vol. 1), the first of a six-volume series of Welchman’s collected writings on art and visual culture, will be published in fall 2015 by Sternberg.