I began my scholarly work on the history of multimedia when I discovered, much to my surprise and dismay, that most people thought it all started in the 1980s with the personal computer and the CD-ROM. Nothing could be further from the truth! I was living in San Francisco, not far from Silicon Valley, where the technological intelligentsia believed you needed a computer to experience multimedia. I was determined to get to the truth: my training as a composer and media artist had already informed me that there were numerous artistic precedents prior to the CD-ROM. In fact, the word “multimedia” (or “multi-media,” as it was first spelled) had been around since at least the 1960s, describing various manifestations of avant-garde theater, mixed-media, performance art, installation, and other uncategorizable forms involving video, film, and electronic music. In the course of my research, I eventually settled on the 19th-century opera composer Richard Wagner, who believed that music drama constituted the greatest synthesis of the arts, as a good place to begin my history. This led to the publication of my book in 2001: Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality.
Fast forward to my MoMA course, Catalysts: Artists Creating with Sound, Video, and Time. I sped past Wagner in order to concentrate on the installation and performance art that revolutionized the 1960s, in order to shed light on the multimedia works of today. This historical research, based on MoMA’s extraordinary role in helping to shape the medium, only confirmed what I had been saying all these years: it’s not only about the personal computer; it’s also about how we experience the integration of media through our senses. It’s about how artists have exploited media to create a more total experience, what Wagner called the Gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork), a term that helps to describe the multisensory immersion in sight and sound we now associate with the advanced technological forms of digital multimedia. In Catalysts, we navigate the extraordinary range of video, sound, and networked art that finds its roots in the avant-garde of the 1960s.
In the course, we begin our history with Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely’s seminal 1960 work Homage to New York, the infamous self-destructing sculpture that blew itself up in front a crowd of startled guests in MoMA’s Sculpture Garden. I interviewed the art historian Dore Ashton, who was there on that cold, rainy day, and experienced the 27-minute spectacle that engulfed the spectators’ senses in a fabulous display of noise and smoke and destruction. Yes, the 1960s had begun.
In the next week, we look at how Homage to New York took place at the same time that the early Happenings were exploding on the scene in downtown New York, a notorious avant-garde movement led by painters and theater artists, most notably Allan Kaprow, Robert Whitman, Claes Oldenburg, and Jim Dine. Dine, in his 1960 performance The Smiling Workman, took the sensory nature of multimedia to heart, drinking a bucket of paint on stage while emoting on the tribulations of life, love, and existence.
Our largely untold history of multimedia as catalyzed by the artistic avant-garde tells a very different story of the origins of multimedia, a narrative that sheds new light on the emergence of the personal computer and the CD-ROM in the 1980s. It is important that the record books give credit where credit is due; neither Steve Jobs nor Bill Gates invented multimedia! Let us hope that cultural history can guide our understanding of technological achievement and its impact on the arts, even when that achievement only lasted for 27 minutes, in one glorious act of mechanical suicide.
The full spectrum of content covered in this course—including video, sound, performance, and network art—can be found online. This instructor-led course, along with six others, begins on October 9, 2013.