Phil Morton and Jane Veeder: Our Desired Futures and the mobile Media Art lab
Before the present discourses on New Media Art had formed, Jane Veeder and Phil Morton were already actively articulating radical, experimental and immersive technosocial theory-practices across multiple Media Arts. Veeder is a literal pioneer of Digital Art, who discovered new spaces of possibilities in the decade of the 1970’s in Chicago. She arrived in Chicago as a young artist, to attend graduate school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She quickly found and then began to co-create a community of what would become known as the ‘Chicago School’ of Video Art, a school of thought and feeling that would become a basis for subsequent New Media Art theory-practices in the local and international contexts of Chicago and beyond.
In 1986 Jane Vedeer delivered a lecture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in which she described interactivity as idiomatic of and critical to understandings of Digital Art. In her lecture she stated that in order to understand digital media, we must engage with projects, co-creating projects together through collaboration and play. As Veeder told me in a 2003 interview in which she recounted her lecture: viewers have become players. Almost 30 years later, Contemporary Art worlds do not yet fully embrace these facts but are still attempting to understand what Veeder knows and has shared for over 40 years now.
In the early 1970’s a Media Arts community formed in Chicago around a shared set of open technosocial theory-practices and engaged commitments to new artforms. These artforms were new in both form and content because the artists involved in their collaborative co-creation were literally developing these systems from scratch while living their lives through and with these systems. A short list of the systems that this community organized around includes the Sandin Image Processor, the Bally home computer / arcade (which would become known as the Astrocade) and the ZGRASS computer programming language. The Sandin Image Processor is an analog computer optimized for processing (or synthesizing) audio and video, designed by Dan Sandin (of the University of Illinois at Chicago [U of I Chicago]) and documented (made distributable via an open source ethic of COPY-IT-RIGHT) by Phil Morton (of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago [SAIC]). The Bally home computer / arcade system was, one of the first affordable home computers and video game platforms to be released in the United States by the Chicago-based company Bally-Midway. The ZGRASS programming language, a powerful computer graphics language was developed by Tom DeFanti (of the U of I at Chicago), Jamie Fenton (of Bally-Midway, who went on to MacroMind [later known as Macromedia]) and Nola Donato (then of the U of I at Chicago, presently of Intel). (1)
Veeder worked across all of these systems and more. Her artistic approach originated from the lens-based disciplines of Photography, Film-making and then into the newly emerging art of Video. Video, the new media of it’s time, always already involved analog and digital computing and realtime animation (in the context of these academic programs [i.e. at SAIC and U of I Chicago] as well as involving gaming [i.e. in the connections to the professional video game industry in Chicago]). As a result Veeder’s attention moved to the digital as she became deeply involved in and central to the community forming around these theory-practices and systems.
After arriving in Chicago, Veeder met Phil Morton, who had recently founded the Video Department at SAIC. Veeder had moved into the same neighborhood (Pilsen, a neighborhood on Chicago’s near South Side) and they met in the Spring of 1976. Jane and Phil fell in love and began an experimental Media Arts adventure which transformed their lives and artistic theory-practices. Their collaborative projects involved cyberpsychedelic roadtrips across the American imagination from Chicago to California, throughout the American West. Artists collaborate for various reasons such as love, desire and friendship. Artists may also work together for personal or professional reasons, augmenting each others existing or complementary skills or in order to expand their abilities by learning together or from one another. Artistic collaborations occur in contexts and in their own times. Veeder and Morton’s collaborations took place in the context and times of their communities and systems, interlocking their technosocial theory-practices.
Veeder and Morton made a series of artworks, known as video ‘programs’, that exist in multiple versions and variations, having a remixological basis that spans the categories of Video Art and New Media as well as hybridizing subgenres. Their programs are highly personal, playful and self-reflexive. As cyberpsychedelic communications and distribution systems, these programs document and extend a way of life, a way of living technosocially while electronically visualizing artistic futures. Veeder and Morton lived this life on long hunts for data (i.e . audio-video footage and approaches to systems of computer programming), traveling the continental United States in a mobile Media Art lab they built into a customized General Motors van. (2)
As Gene Youngblood has said of this work, these programs are ‘road movies to the American Badlands’ in which the mythopoetic characters of Veeder and Morton travel nomadically out West, into the American imagination during academic summers, acquiring content to process in winter back in Chicago. One such program is Program #7, produced by Veeder and Morton in 1978. This program begins with a “Lifestyle” report on the evening news covering the fact that Veeder and Morton (who news anchor refers to as “some Video Artists… visiting from the Midwest”) had traveled to California to discuss “the future of communication”. Later shots follow of Veeder and Morton documenting themselves with their equipment as they exploring desert landscapes. Veeder literally programs an animated map, tracing their travels, an animation overlaid visually in realtime during the running of the ZGRASS program she authored to generate the map. Multiple audio tracks of Veeder and Morton’s voices combine, overlaying moments as they construct / recount their own histories in the moment. They laugh together, playing a game of co-creation onscreen. Later in Program #7 multilayered and Image Processed footage of Veeder and Morton electronically visualizing themselves in front of the van in which they traveled with their Sandin Image Processor, video cameras and audio equipment, further contextualizes these artists who consistently visualized with their cyberpsychedelic convivial tools, small scale tools for technosocial and personal transformation. (3)
Veeder and Morton’s projects enacted collaborative co-creations of new worlds and new versions / visions of themselves. Morton explained this to Gene Youngblood in an unpublished interview, saying that they were transmitting themselves into “different worlds — perceptual, conceptual, physical, survival” in order to “process those worlds electronically.” In the same interview, Veeder reflected on the imaging aspect of this process, saying that their projects include simulations of themselves and their desires. She told Youngblood: “We work hard out there every summer collecting documentation with which to simulate our desired future. And we do it electronically.” Theirs were ongoing conversational processes with each other, their communities of collaboration and transformational technologies. As they said, they did it ‘electronically’, immersed in living and sharing their theory-practices.
Veeder continued working in these directions, developing some of the most early Digital Art projects. Veeder herself would specifically continue to work within the fields of Computer Graphics, programming and Video Game technologies as an artist and as an educator. She subsequently became the Department Chair of and Professor in the Department of Design and Industry in the College of Liberal & Creative Arts at San Francisco State University. In the early 1980’s she created fully digital interactive installations, i.e. ‘Warp it Out’ in 1982, followed by ‘Visgame’ in 1985. Her work is held in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, commissioned by Ars Electronica in Austria and exhibited internationally as definitive works of early Video as well as early Digital Art.
Morton founded the Video Area (which would become the Video Department and then part of the Film, Video, New Media and Animation department [FVNMA]) and the Video Data Bank [VDB] at SAIC. Recognized as a ‘visionary’ ‘cybernetic folk hero’ Morton created numerous Video Art works and realtime Media Art performance events, exhibiting internationally. His life / art philosophy of COPY-IT-RIGHT, a now influential ethic that copying is morally correct and necessary, anticipates current Open Source approaches. Later in life Morton literally dropped out of the academic and art systems, returning to the American West to live close to the land via hunting and trapping.
1. The ZGRASS language was based on DeFanti’s previous development of the GRASS (GRAphics Symbiosis System) programming language for the creation of computer graphics and realtime animations.
2. This General Motors van was the centerpiece of Phil Morton’s most well known Video Art work, itself a remixological and conversational process, titled General Motors. For more information and to watch General Motors in its entirity, see the Phil Morton Memorial Research Archive at: copyitright.org
3. Program #7 and other collaborations between Jane Veeder and Phil Morton are also available via the Phil Morton Memorial Research Archive at: copyitright.org
CHICAGO, JANUARY 2014