Juan Downey, Information Withheld, 1983, still from a color video, 28 minutes 27 seconds. From the series “The Thinking Eye,” 1974–89.

Juan Downey, Information Withheld, 1983, still from a color video, 28 minutes 27 seconds. From the series “The Thinking Eye,” 1974–89.

Juan Downey

Juan Downey, Information Withheld, 1983, still from a color video, 28 minutes 27 seconds. From the series “The Thinking Eye,” 1974–89.

Juan Downey’s video Plato Now, 1973, combines footage of the artist’s early-1970s performance-installations with studio images, often shot through water. A motif that runs throughout his work, water’s many potentialities—to flow, to mark time, to distort whatever is beyond or submerged within it, to signal its own mediating presence via ripples on its surface, and to reflect its viewer—echo the layered aims of this Chilean-born artist, whose formal training in architecture, abiding interest in cybernetics, and quixotic faith in combating late-capitalist alienation through technologies both high and low were readily apparent in this, his posthumous and first stateside retrospective. Curator Valerie Smith used Downey’s concept of “invisible architecture” (which his notebooks describe as “the understandment [sic] of energy and the manipulation of this wave-material”) as a linchpin for the artist’s poetic and evolving oeuvre, touching on at least five interrelated phases: late-1960s electronic sculptures; initial explorations with video in the early ’70s, resulting in his groundbreaking travelogues Video Trans Americas (1973–76); para-anthropological videos made between 1976 and 1977 in response to periods spent living in the Brazilian Amazon; sustainable architecture and design proposals from this same period; and several series of experimental pedagogical videos, including “The Thinking Eye,” 1974–89.

The body and machine and the organic and electronic were often linked in Downey’s late-’60s interactive works, which he produced while a member of Washington, DC’s New Group. In 1971, he would go on to join Perception, the New York–based video collective that also included Frank Gillette, Beryl Korot, Andy Mann, and Ira Schneider. With this latter community, his work grew more ambitious and complex, synthesizing a diverse mix of media, geographical sites, and modes of inquiry. For example, returning to Plato Now, among the work’s many parts is the original 1973 performance-installation at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York. This component featured nine meditating performers who listened, via headphones, to individual Platonic dialogues generated by the electric impulses of their own alpha waves. Live feed of their faces appeared behind them on monitors, while shadows of the audience were projected on the wall they faced. Another component of Plato Now, a sketch of the 1973 performance that Downey drew by hand, served both as a record for that iteration of the work and a discrete piece in its own right; thankfully, Smith included many such examples of Downey’s fantastical-yet-functional draftsmanship.

A frequent contributor to Korot’s Radical Software, Downey took the journal’s utopian hopes for feedback as an agent of global connectivity seriously. With Video Trans Americas, he explored the possibility of using video to link disparate modernized, underdeveloped, and effectively pre-Hispanic regions in the Americas. The project began with Downey, Gillette, and Willoughby Sharp making Easy Rider–esque trans-American trips (by car, by plane, by boat) and culminated in 1976 with Downey staying (sometimes with his wife and stepdaughter) among indigenous Guahibos and Yanomami of the Amazon. At the List, the early phase of this work was represented via a room-size, floor-bound map of North and South America with “dialectical” pairs of videos corresponding to respective regions; on the surrounding walls were “meditation drawings” and photo-collages related to Downey’s pseudo-fieldwork. Elsewhere in the show, representations of his “media ecology” were less successful, as in the following two galleries where audio tracks from four simultaneous videos bled into incoherence. These included the masterful Abandoned Shabono, 1978, and Laughing Alligator, 1979, which recount his time in the Amazon by triumphantly inverting the anthropological film genre, repeatedly turning the camera back onto the artist and viewer alike and, in the case of the latter, introducing the advanced editing and graphics of his late work.

While Downey’s outraged response to the 1973 Pinochet coup in Chile was only touched on in this show (via announcements for the televised protest works Chilean Flag, 1974, and Corner, 1985), his disgust with the dictatorship and with imperialism in general was still palpable in the many late videos on hand: dense, made-for-TV expositions on canonical works of music, literature, and painting such as The Looking Glass, 1981, Information Withheld, 1983, J. S. Bach, 1986, and Hard Times and Culture, Vol. 1: Vienna fin de siècle, 1990, produced prior to the artist’s death in 1993. The very first of these, Las Meninas, 1974, offers a Foucault-inflected analysis of the eponymous Velázquez painting that tethers Downey’s earliest and later concerns. By his account, the painting situates, in the very place of the enlightened viewer, the ruthless sovereigns responsible for the conquest.

Daniel Quiles