Douglas Davis (1933–2014)

Douglas Davis, The World’s First Collaborative Sentence (detail), 1994.

DOUGLAS DAVIS was an artist, art critic, and teacher whose work with a remarkable variety of mediums—including video, television, performance, and later, the Internet—was prescient in its consideration of the social relationship between people and technology. I didn’t know him personally, but I’ve been told that he was a bit of a dreamer in the day-to-day—a visionary, even. He must have been, since he observed in his art—and equally, if not more perceptively, in his writing—the subtle shifts in public behavior around television that would come to inform the complex (if not outright ambivalent) personal relationships that most of us have with digital technologies today. Tinged with an almost mystical sense of optimism tempered by the counterculture of his day, Davis’s particular brand of wide-eyed intellectual openness positioned him perfectly as an early adopter of the Internet, a space whose potential as a social and artistic medium he clearly recognized.

Davis is perhaps most famously remembered for co-organizing, with Nam June Paik and Joseph Beuys, a then-unprecedented live telecast of performance-art pieces that were broadcast to twenty-five countries as part of Documenta 6. In his personal contribution to the project, a video titled The Last Nine Minutes, a youthful, T-shirted Davis appears to be trapped inside a television set, pressing his palms and banging his fists against its glass in an attempt to . . . what? Communicate with the pair of hands on the other side of the glass—presumably, the viewers’—that press against his own? Call for help? In Write With Me on Your TV Screen, another work made a few years later, in 1979, Davis, presumably trapped inside his television (yet again!), scrawls the simple command of the title in reverse, to ensure its legibility to the viewer.

Davis’s video works were exceptionally earnest in tone. Yet in watching him inscribe relationships between his own body, the screen, and some other, imagined viewer, we can still see that for Davis, television (and later, the Internet) wasn’t simply a vehicle for passive consumption, even if it is perennially and all too easily dismissed as such. He described the “exhilaration” he felt, as an artist, while acting live: “To know that the moment the camera turns on is the moment of record or of broadcast is to experience a heightened reality, to perform at another level.”

Some of the real poignancy—and foresight, for that matter—of Davis’s work may be seen and felt in the way he negotiated with language. He effectively predicted the social Web to come, after all, with The World’s First Collaborative Sentence, an interactive work made in 1994 for the then-nascent World Wide Web and acquired the following year by the Whitney Museum of American Art through a donation by the work’s first owners, Barbara and the late Eugene M. Schwartz. The Sentence is perhaps best considered as a functional, interactive expression of Davis’s keen social observations. Users—the first were visitors to Lehman College Art Gallery, in the Bronx, where the piece was shown in 1994 as part of “InterActions,” a survey of Davis’s work—were invited to add their own texts, images, and sound files to an online “performance” of a never-ending stream of consciousness: The project’s only rule was that each user’s contribution could not end with a period.

As a Web-based project exhibited in several galleries over the course of time—in 1995, the piece was installed in the Gwangju Biennale, as well as the School of Visual Arts’ “Digital Salon” exhibition, which toured internationally; in 1999 it was exhibited at the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie in Karlsruhe, Germany, as part of the exhibition “net.condition”—the effect of the (very real) physical relationship between people and the Web can be felt in the polyvalent nature of its contributions. In 2013, the Whitney executed a preservation project around the work, effectively saving it from digital demise while preserving its original interface, designed by Davis, and allowing for new user contributions. This interface invited users to interact with the Web in a way that blogs and social-media platforms would beg—nay, demand—years later. The Sentence has effectively invited users to write what now, in 2014, amounts to an ungodly number of Web pages devoted to the inner musings of thousands of people; produced collaboratively but read as an endless stream of consciousness, the work both imitates and challenges the solipsism of the social Web as we now know it. It is comforting—satisfying even—to place Davis and his work in historical post-mortem terms, given the series of rapid technological developments that marked the decades in which he lived, worked, wrote, and taught. The Sentence, it turns out, was likely the first known work of Net art, a genre whose ephemeral and yet incredibly specific nature continues to trouble the art world’s market-driven sensibilities.

Identifying “firsts” is a standard art-historical practice—a means of manufacturing value through precedence; it’s one way academics and institutions lay claim to artists. And considering the practice of historical claim-laying can be productive here, if we recall just how radical the domestic arrival of the Internet during the 1990s really felt as a social phenomenon—how enormously novel it truly was to build communities of shared interest by interacting with other, unknown people in other, unknown places through a computer. On the 2.0 (and now, post-2.0) social Web, however, to “call firsts” is to lay a different kind of historical claim: The phrase describes the practice of bragging loudly online that one was the first to react or to serve as the original source for a piece of information that gained subsequent digital traction. A social byproduct of the intersection of digital technology with late capitalism, “calling firsts” reeks of frantic editorial desperation, smacking of a desire claim supreme and unassailable ownership over shared experience—over time, even.

Everything arrives at once in the great and terrifying enterprise that is today’s Internet: I believe that Douglas Davis and his Sentence in particular are best remembered as agents in a messy, unwieldy digital emergence that can’t be fully known or understood. Davis came before “firsts”—but he also didn’t need them.

Sarah Hromack is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She works as the director of digital media at the Whitney Museum of American Art and teaches in the department of art and art professions at New York University’s Steinhardt School.