PRINT December 2020


Gene Youngblood's Expanded Cinema

Photo: Brian Green

Stan VanDerBeek coined the phrase “expanded cinema.” But it was Gene Youngblood who put it on the cover of a book, filled it with rocket fuel, and sent it buzzing through the late-1960s art world like a heat-seeking missile. For its fiftieth anniversary, Expanded Cinema has been lovingly reissued by Fordham University Press with a substantial new memoir-ish introduction by the author. The volume reminds us to locate the techno-anarchic edge of what became “new media” on the left coast, where filmmakers, psychedelic engineers, and intermedia practitioners wrested cybernetics from its military command-control origins in machine feedback loops and put it in dialogue with the autopoiesis of self-regulating, life-entangled systems mixing “mescaline and logarithms.” From VanDerBeek’s “culture intercom” of images projected in a dome detoured from agricultural silos in rural New York to the “holy” suffusion in Jordan Belson’s “Vortex Concerts” that paired electronic music and interference patterns in the dome of the San Francisco planetarium, the “expansion” Youngblood chronicled was intended to produce a collective “humanity total brain-eye.” Needless to say, when this condition finally arrived (in the cortical synchronization brought about by social media), it wasn’t the utopia Youngblood predicted—but reading about the art and artists who shared the dream, unaware of the baked-in bias and white male privilege they coasted on, is nonetheless worth the trip. What makes the book so terrific is Youngblood’s heartfelt embrace of all these performative tinkerers trying to blast humanity into a higher state. His generosity is everywhere on display in these pages: a willingness, on our behalf, to sit, to listen, to endure, to space out, to vibrate with, to drift off, to rock out, to witness, and to report in gorgeous prose on the “shimmering trilling universe” he experienced. This immersion in the social spaces of projective video experimentation is a gift for contemporary readers (particularly those of us trapped in solitary, virus-free bubbles). And it’s a vacation from art history to read contemporaneous reviews of Carolee Schneemann events next to takes on Nam June Paik, Stan Brakhage, VanDerBeek, and the brothers John and James Whitney—artists all, geeking out on techniques of visual electronics such as debeaming, keying, scanning, and stochastic analogue computing, but always putting their bodies in line with the electromagnetic waves.

Caroline A. Jones is a professor of Art History in the Architecture Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA, and Director of MIT’s Transmedia Storytelling Initiative.