Kansas City

Magic Theater

Nelson Gallery

As a coherent presentation of an art which is overpoweringly theatrical, an environmental art which literally assaults the eye, the ear and the skin, and as a nominally esthetic array of complex, skillfully crafted technological devices, Ralph T. Coe’s Magic Theater at Kansas City’s Nelson Gallery surpassed anything of its kind that I had ever seen. This was the third and by far the most ambitious of Coe’s “psychic art” shows, though most of the eight artists represented had figured in his earlier productions. Having been more or less familiar with the work of each, and having in advance read some description of their pieces for the present show, I was still almost totally unprepared either for the overall impact of the experience or for the extravagance and polish of the exhibition. But in spite of all this, I feel that the effort failed to justify itself esthetically and, consequently, that it constituted another major obstacle in the way of those who would argue for the ascendancy of an art in which contrived, multi-sensorial effects, forced spectator participation and implicit idolatry of “new technology” are everything. It is not enough to be entertained, and such works are nearly always diversionary above all.

It is true that this observation has been made before; the accusations seem always to be the same, and the issues become not more subtle but increasingly clearer. The entire Magic Theater had nothing to challenge the propositions that, in combination with extended temporal and/or kinetic elements, the single fact of restriction to a single mode of sensory experience (visual, audile, tactile or olfactory) is advantageous, and, secondly, that the more effect-producing mechanisms are concealed or deemphasized, the better.

With or without these assumptions in mind, Boyd Mefferd’s Strobe-Lighted Floor was for me unquestionably the most important work in the exhibition. In it, one entered a large, carpeted room containing square lucite floor insets spaced regularly in a simple grid pattern, each surmounting a strobe light made to fire with capacitor overflow, and thus “randomly,” as the viewer walked about the room. The lights were placed beneath colored filters, but appeared white on actually looking at the flash—only the after-image took on color. On first entering the room, my impression was that the lights emanated from walls, ceiling and floor, and even when I had become oriented to the location of the light sources, it was impossible to look at them, or to discover by looking at any particular spot in the room precisely what was happening all around at a given moment. In short, what Mefferd presented was a way of seeing (retinal images) that does not relate to looking directly at an object or objects. Unlike most of the other environments in the exhibition, the spectator was not compelled to move in any specific way, or to “play” the work, in order to fully apprehend it. Certainly the dream-like sensation of having one’s head filled with vaguely colored images which endure, multiply and actually seem to assume different shapes, and to expand or contract, to sharpen and fade, is an extraordinary state. By limiting himself to a basically simple format and allowing only the effect that interested him to make itself discernible, Mefferd succeeded in exploiting that effect to a high degree.

Howard Jones, like Mefferd, explored limited perceptivity (audile, this time) but in a more detached, almost clinical, way. Jones’s Sonic Games Chamber was an 18 square foot insulated cubicle fitted out with four phonic-shaped aluminum sound units, mounted at about eye-level on the walls. Each externally illuminated unit had seven small apertures containing light sensors which, when the spectator’s shadow passed over them, activated varying sound patterns played through ceiling-mounted speakers. All but two of the sound channels emitted “abstract” electronic noises (beeps and blips of various durations and frequencies); two released recorded music or radio commercials. The elements, on the one hand of individual spectator control, and on the other of randomly produced sound sequences coming into play when more than one person was wandering freely about the room, are presumably what Jones was referring to by calling it a “games chamber.” I could not help but see it as a sort of distasteful pseudo-scientific laboratory, presumptuously set forth in the name of art.

I am even less certain what it was that James Seawright thought he was achieving with his Electronic Peristyle—what he did achieve was merely an elaborate piece of equipment with no apparent function, esthetic or otherwise. The work suffered gravely from a false intellectuality and a detractive multiplicity of effects. In relation to what I know of Seawright’s earlier production, it struck me as a perverse negation of the best possibilities latent in at least some of the older work. For example, instead of allowing the innate attractiveness of delicate, complex light circuitry to function openly as a positive visual element of the whole affective situation, Seawright encased each electronic system—involving, respectively, light, sound and blown air—in a pretentiously designed set of twelve columns encircling a central “brain.” Each black Formica paneled column contained a sound speaker, a glass-enclosed set of blinking orange lights and a blower. The electronic brain which transmitted signals to each columnar unit was housed in a clear plastic globe, exposing some rather impressive hardware. The spectator was supposed to move around between brain and receivers, thereby interrupting the circuitry and—though this was unclear to me—himself “controlling” the sequentially programmed bombardments of sound (beeps and blips), air and blinking light. As opposed to Mefferd’s environment, in which one was simply placed into an episode, experienced in the most immediate and involuntary way, the Electronic Peristyle continually demanded cerebral investigation, never facilitating so much as a moment of unlooked-for pleasure or surprise.

Stanley Landsman’s Walk-In Infinity Chamber provided some relief from the general din, being both stable and quiet. It was a 6 1/2 foot cubicle, faced on all sides with dark miropane, behind which were 6,000 small lights set into another mirror layer. One stood in a fairly deep apparent space, confronted everywhere with a wall of centrifugally reflected points of light. It didn’t quite approximate the sensation of floating within a limitless space, since the reflections were somehow deflected back, or contained, within an illusionistic area which appeared to extend outward only about three or four feet. Still it was a pleasing and rather dramatic experience.

Entering Robert Whitman’s Vibrating Mirror Room, one returned to a profusion of audile, visual and kinetic activity. This environment seemed to be a sort of crude, exteriorized metaphor of body functions—pulse, heartbeat, nervous impulses. It was a dark-curtained room, 12 by 20 feet, paneled on one side by a large, stretched mylar mirror, and, on the opposite wall, by two smaller mirrors, one square and one round. Each mylar panel vibrated in programmed sequences, rippling or pulsating in and out; accompanying this, high mounted strobe lights sputtered erratically, with a crackling sound, and a rhythmic thumping noise was occasionally pounded out from somewhere. The timing of each sequence was not coordinated in such a way as to create a sense of total or simultaneous involvement at any one moment; this must have been intended, but I have no idea why, since, as a result, one had continually to turn, stand, wait and watch (feeling less expectant than ridiculous) his own, or others’, reflections as they simply stared back or, when you made the right move at the right time, undulated frantically. Whitman must be said to have captured the atmosphere of a circus funhouse quite accurately.

I never did get the full effect of Terry Riley’s Time Lag Accumulator, because the first time I ventured through it there were several dozen other, equally crowded and confused, “participants” with me, and the second time, alone, its recording system was turned off. Basically it was a tall glass and aluminum labyrinth, with twelve cubicles surrounding, and each opening into, a central compartment. The outer cells contained microphones which registered the words and sounds uttered by those who (eyes glazed, arms extended before them like robots seeking egress) passed through—these noises, then, were recorded on tape and replayed within two minutes in the inner chamber. Like Jones’s sound chamber, the Accumulator had the laboratory mystique—a little human reactor, driven by an unseen mechanism. I suppose there are potentials for humor and surprise in this contraption, depending, of course, on the willingness of its activators to be deceived, perhaps at their own expense. The explanation we are offered in the program text—that “Riley skims off the surface of the conversation and asks us to study for an instant what was spoken, parlaying a casual activity into reactivated consciousness,” won’t fool anybody any of the time.

The showy Walk-On Neon environment by Antonakos was a case, like Seawright’s, of a not uninteresting artist having squandered his energy in a bizarre excess of means for this exhibition. Briefly, it consisted of a raised glass platform, surmounting twelve boxes full of variously colored and shaped configurations of neon tubing which blinked on and off, and through whose center three sets of neon tubes emerged upward, the tallest being 16 feet. Finally there was Charles Ross’s Forest of Prisms, which was just that––rearrangeable, but no moving parts. Ross’s inclusion in the exhibition is somewhat mystifying. His work (48 water-filled prisms, each 8 feet high) fared well in the Magic Theater ambience.

Despite the Magic Theater’s almost unremittingly disappointing level of quality, it deserves recognition, and even admiration. It represents an astonishing feat of salesmanship and logistical skill; it was accomplished within less than a year’s time, and drew upon literally scores of corporations for donations of materials and personnel; if nothing else, their cooperation bodes well for the advent of a kind of substantial art patronage by large industry which has been so much discussed and, by some, so eagerly awaited, but which has seldom been as dramatically forthcoming as it was on this occasion.

That the event elicited, at the same time, phenomenal public interest and negative critical response is almost inevitable given that it was so patently diversionary. Ted Coe’s exaggeratedly theatrical way of presenting the works at the Nelson Gallery added to their intrinsic showiness, but one can safely predict that the audiences in St. Louis, Toledo, Minneapolis and Seattle, where it will travel, will be equally responsive.

There was no comprehensive catalog available when I visited the Magic Theate, but there was a modest program, with notes by Mr. Coe. Even if one read it while touring the premises, all its talk about mental catharsis, magical transference, occult powers, and other imponderables, never seriously influenced the picture, for better or worse. The inherent aura of the exhibition reflected Coe’s sensibility rather in spite of than owing to his dogged literary espousal of the transcendental, for the works remained, nearly every one, mundane.

Jane Livingston