PRINT May 2008

MAY ’68

speaks with Michael Callahan about USCO

A MNEMONIC MIASMA hangs over the late 1960s, this haze only heightened by the recent spate of exhibitions devoted to Op and the Summer of Love. However saturated with psychedelia, mysticism, and electro-euphoria, though, the period’s history might also lend itself to starker views.

To better understand this moment, Artforum senior editor Michelle Kuo spoke with Michael Callahan of USCO, the collective whose kaleidoscopic intermedia events took place in communes and museums alike. Callahan, an engineer who had previously worked at the San Francisco Tape Music Center, founded USCO in 1964 with poet and former ichthyologist Gerd Stern and painter Stephen Durkee. The group lived communally in an abandoned church in Garnerville, New York, and hosted collaborators from filmmaker Jud Yalkut to Stewart Brand. Under the aegis of Marshall McLuhan, their conceptual guide, USCO enlisted all manner of audiovisual and spatial effects—including slide projections, closed-circuit television, oscilloscopes, strobes, amplifiers, and computerized control systems—producing performances that enveloped spectators in a penetrating sensory surround. But were these shows merely trips, or were they more complex and critical expeditions? The World, 1966 (dubbed the first discotheque), strangely paralleled later works such as Imagimotion, 1968 (an “information column” with eighteen projectors forming a mosaic of televisual political imagery), in exploring both the dysgenic and the utopian dimensions of mediatized life. Callahan’s imaginative use of surplus parts or underdeveloped technologies likewise defied the technological determinism of the time. In this view, then, USCO appears more sharp than blurred.

MICHELLE KUO: What’s all too often associated with the late 1960s discourse of Brand or McLuhan or Fuller is an unbridled technophilia. But could you speak to another side of technology and communications media—the other dimension to what McLuhan called the “extension of the central nervous system”? McLuhan, in a very dystopian way, actually speaks of the privatized manipulation of that nervous system, the control of the senses. Likewise, it seems that USCO was, in fact, profoundly aware of this alternate dimension and aimed to intervene in technological development and use.

MICHAEL CALLAHAN: Our work was really drawn from McLuhan. We looked at McLuhan as the theoretician—and we were the practitioners. It was the scientist versus the engineer; we were the applied science. We had a mission to bring about public awareness of the impact that all this instantaneous communication was having and was going to have—to attempt to be prepared for it and to change it if necessary.

I remember when we met with McLuhan at the University of Rochester in October 1964 during an early USCO performance. Gerd [Stern] drove Marshall to the airport. Those days, you could walk out to the plane; it was a little propeller plane with stairs going up into the tail. I remember Marshall walking up the stairs and us standing below and seeing him disappear into the plane. But then we saw his legs, his feet came back a few steps, and he leaned out and said, “Disregard the content and concentrate upon the effect.”

MK: And how did USCO come about as a group—how did its very structure or organization reflect its thinking and purpose, and what was its relation to radical politics at the time?

MC: USCO came into being because Gerd and Stephen [Durkee] and I had all done work under our own names, but we wanted to be more inclusive. Somehow the name USCO, “Company of Us,” came up, which I was never all that fond of. But it worked. We were able to bring people together in an ad hoc living arrangement. We were always anonymous; it was a way of recognizing people who normally don’t get acknowledged but are central, like those who built the Chartres Cathedral.

In terms of radical politics—well, between the USCO Garnerville church, the Gate Hill Co-op [the community of former Black Mountain College students, founded by Paul and Vera Williams], and Woodstock, we were trying to figure out how to operate against this horrible background of Vietnam. I think we were trying to warn of the potential for manipulation by commercial and especially government-military forces. I felt that we were having an effect, even with just a slide projector, and that our work could be very powerful if done correctly. It was like high voltage: Properly applied, it could be constructive. But it could also be downright dangerous. Our politics were definitely leftist—but I think what we were up to was beyond politics. It was relations rather than direct political action.

MK: In terms of relations, USCO also often used the word experience: How did you originally envision experience, and how might that have changed?

MC: Something that intrigues me about the use of experience is that it is one of those words that has lost its meaning. In the ’60s in the USCO show, people referred to experience, but there was always an adjective associated with the word. Now it’s just experience. Period. Experience great savings. Shopping experience. Online experience. In the ’60s, it would be psychedelic or sexual experience. But now it’s just existence: Experience great existence. This is how the onslaught, the explosion of media is changing the lexicon.

MK: Many see the late ’60s as a moment when the counterculture inadvertently provided training for new kinds of experience. I wonder how this might relate to USCO performances and their physical impact.

MC: In the USCO shows, there was always a section of sensory overload. Back in the ’60s, you could overload people with four slide projectors, two movie projectors, and a couple of tape recorders playing at once. You can’t do that anymore. For instance, Gerd’s show Verbal American Landscape [1963] had slides on three screens with images of words in public, on signs—many of the slides were shot by Stewart Brand—accompanied by a four-channel audio collage: cut-ups from radio. People would complain that it was too much. They were used to the linear, literary narrative. And it was taxing—they were trying to hang on and make sense out of it. We realized at some point that we were overloading people; subsequently, we used the technique sparingly. We were learning to modulate the experience the way radio waves are modulated.

But at Rochester, there was an English professor who said, a day or two afterward, “I always hated the supermarket, but after seeing the show I really enjoyed looking at the labels,” like Joy, the U-No candy bar, all the product names. I guess that certainly had some pop aspects to it.

MK: How did you choose the images and effects?

MC: A group aesthetic evolved out of necessity. People would send us slides, and we all knew when they worked. It was quite empirical. Sometimes we wanted to take advantage of new equipment—for example, what would be the effect of “strobing” images? We took the incandescent lamps out of slide projectors and replaced them with intense strobe bulbs, so the projected image itself would flash on the screen, leaving an afterimage; we used this in November ’65 with Carolee Schneemann.

MK: Stern felt that through sensory overload, you could heighten awareness. Rather than a linear model of communication, he called for “the environmental circumstance.” But did you believe in this kind of direct correlation between environmental surround and cognitive effects?

MC: I wanted a little more direction or substance rather than just “heightening consciousness”—heightening, well, why? What’s the point? I think it’s the same thing with psychedelics, people who were always trying to push acid. You know, it’ll mellow you out. Well, maybe people were happy the way they were. So I wanted to do something more than just the experience. I wanted to provide rationale as to why one wanted to raise one’s consciousness. The urban milieu was nowhere near as frenetic as it is now. In fact, there might be a good reason for being able to keep sensory input under control—to turn the volume down.

But I’ve been thinking a lot about getting the media back. The thing I am really concerned with is fragmentation, everybody on his or her own channel, listening to his or her own iPod, talking on his or her own cell, text messaging. It’s probably naive that we had thought these forms of connectivity would be good, that they could lead to the global village, understanding through communication, through technology. And it wasn’t feasible then, but we talked about the big project to end all projects. We called it the Transformer. It would have been a huge database that anyone could tap into. It was sort of like the Web, although the Web has far surpassed anything we were thinking of. But it wasn’t possible in those days with the technology.

MK: Yet you often used technology from surplus parts, reworking or repurposing available technology for your own ends.

MC: Yes—IBM had a big facility in Kingston, New York, right next to Woodstock; in 1964, the company introduced the System/360 computer, which was making all of IBM’s existing computers obsolete. The old ones went to a junkyard, P&D Surplus in Kingston. That’s where we got a lot of the parts we used. There wasn’t much money—I look back and I can’t believe we pulled all this off. Even though we did not have a lot of equipment, we worked for it or traded for it or got it on surplus. And controls for the slide projector and lens weren’t commercially available, so we built them. The availability of equipment would determine the work, so a number of decisions were made for us automatically. A self-organizing system, if you will. This is what I’d been doing at the SF Tape Music Center, scrounging, building, because that was also a no-money situation. One really learns to get the max out of what’s there.

MK: That makeshift character continues even with The World in 1966, which you might say was your most mainstream project.

MC: The World was certainly mainstream. Jonas Mekas had hired John Brockman to manage the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque in Manhattan; Brockman had just received an MBA from Columbia, speaking of mainstream. And Michael Myerberg, the Broadway producer, had leased an aircraft hangar out in Long Island; he and Brockman decided to produce a disco there. Myerberg wanted to tap the underground filmmakers from the Cinematheque—Andy Warhol, Robert Breer, Ken Dewey, Ed Emshwiller, Stan VanDerBeek. Everyone except us had the sense to bail out early, though, so we wound up doing all the equipment, the projection, and the film. It was Long Island; it wasn’t St. Mark’s Place. It was Top 40. Murray the K, you know, was the disc jockey, so it was more teenybopper than stoner.

MK: And yet you hoped that it would broaden the audience?

MC: Yes. It was an opportunity to use television. There was a three-camera setup, and we had the Eidophor video projector as well; much of this equipment was actually surplus from the 1964 World’s Fair. The Eidophor was incredibly complex—NASA used it at Mission Control: The image was formed by an electron beam on a rotating disc coated with oil, and light from a 2,500-watt xenon bulb was diffracted off the image onto the screen. In The World, three TV-camera operators would zoom in on people dancing and project this on the big screen. And they could do a disorienting visual mix of fading, juxtaposing the images. This was quite something at the time. The Eidophor was as brilliant as 35-mm film—a huge, bright, crisp, immersive image. And on each side of the Eidophor screen was a 16-mm film, from beautiful Philips projectors. There were also nineteen slide projections on peripheral screens; these were all controlled from a console I built, largely from salvaged IBM computers. Slides would sometimes go along with the songs: With Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” there would be pictures of boots. And Murray the K had his go-go girls. But it was strange because it was so suburban, pretty straight, and we were dropping this pseudo-psychedelic event—it was too wholesome.

This all has to be against the backdrop of Vietnam and war protests: At that point, any film or television coming from Vietnam was probably three days old; it was shot, flown to Hawaii, processed, then flown to LA or San Francisco, where there was a network feed. This was in 1966, before instant satellite transmission. The hope that I had had was that if the horrors of war could be depicted in real time, we would stand up against it; but then the Gulf War happened and we just changed the channel.

There was so much anger in the country. The real radicals lived on anger. But Middle America was also angry. And I think that the media was communicating the anger and in some ways inciting it, amplifying it, for the next news cycle.

Tools were getting co-opted as well. With Stewart [Brand] and the Whole Earth Catalog, it was all about access to tools. Then these media tools and techniques were just co-opted for commercial and political manipulation.

MK: McLuhan’s warning about the manipulation of media systems and the senses, then, seems very much tied to this disenchantment after ’68.

MC: We were all intrigued by McLuhan from the beginning. Gerd got hold of a report that McLuhan did for the National Association of Educational Broadcasters; he used it for a performance at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1963, to try to implement McLuhan’s theoretical writing. Then in January ’64, there was an arts festival at the University of British Columbia where McLuhan was going to speak. And we were also invited to do a presentation there—Gerd and Judi [Stern] and I—before we were USCO. That was the first time we met McLuhan. At UBC, McLuhan was arguing that if Western consciousness had been hugely fragmented, now it was being drawn together through electronic media. So, he asked, “What’s a valid strategy for dealing with this?” I could see that things were indeed becoming more integrated in the ’60s due to electronic media providing a shared experience, and I always assumed that these converging tributaries would come together as one. But as it happened, even when they did cross, they kept going their separate ways. I really think that in 1968–69, we were as electronically “together” as we were going to get.