With Juan Downey: Radiant Nature — part of the Southern California art initiative Pacific Standard Time LA/LA — curators Robert Crouch and Ciara Ennis have teamed up with the Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) and Pitzer College Art Galleries to showcase multimedia works by Chilean artist Juan Downey (1940-1993) that have not been visible to the public for many years.
Downey is best known for his video and interactive art, particularly for his fascination with experimental autoethnography — the close study of himself as artist, city-dweller, and community member. A pioneer of electronic sculptural art, he made a splash in 1960s and 1970s New York by bridging traditional Chilean worldviews with experimental communication technologies, in an attempt to rigorously critique Eurocentric views of Latin American identity.
In shedding light on marginalized communities, Downey took to the environment in which he lived to suggest new organizations of space, sound, and cultural responsibility. He approached the world as would an architect. Experimenting with the ways in which cybernetics affect our relationship with art making practices, he believed that information systems needed to be restructured in order to allow for invisible architecture, a term he defines as “an attitude of total communication within which ultra-developed minds will be telepathically cellular to an electromagnetic whole.” To that effect, he stepped away from traditional art making practices, such as painting and drawing, and focused instead on performance and electronic sculptures in which photoelectric cells activated sound and light with the movement of spectators.
Radiant Nature centers on Downey’s theories of movement, mind, and psychogeography. The exhibition is organized into three areas: video work, performance documentation, and archival material, focusing primarily on the artist’s early work, which carefully studies the aforementioned topics. On the walls are photographs of performances that took place in New York, while the center of the space is occupied with various video pieces Downey orchestrated. One particularly striking piece is an enlarged photographic documentation of a video-performance, Nazca, which took place at The Kitchen in New York in February 1974. With this performance, Downey highlighted the devastation of the natural environment caused by the construction of the Pan American Highway, a road that connects South and North America. The artist traced the outline of a bird in ancient geoglyphs and lay still in the center, as two performers, Carmen Benchat and Suzanne Harris, moved diagonally across the space, with white chalk filling their shoes and coating their faces. The residue of the white chalk on an otherwise intact geoglyph symbolizes human interference in natural sites.
The political and cultural topics addressed in Nazca mirror perfectly the effect the artist sought to elicit, that of a traceless, invisible intervention in space — one that can remain telepathic and out of the physical realm, once the artwork has run its course. The only traces that remain are the photographs taken at the time.
In Three Way Communication by Light (1972), a video installation with three monitors and three Portapak videos transferred to digital media, Downey features three performers using video and laser technology to communicate. Each performer has a Super 8 projection of another’s face onto his or her own. The participants hold handheld mirrors to their faces to see the effect of the projections and use the laser technology to speak to each other. The work is soundless, though much is being said. Another instance of invisibility, the work diffuses the energy required for language to inhabit each crevice of the performance and communicate effectively with the viewer.
The viewer is usually present without being seen. In Plato Now, first performed in 1972, nine performers wearing headphones face a wall, with their backs to audience members, who come and go anonymously. Each performer is connected to a biofeed that monitors brain activity. When the performer enters a clinically meditative state, excerpts from Plato’s Timaeus, Theaetetus, and The Republic are transmitted through the headphones. These texts address in one way or another the physical world, social life, and the nature of knowledge. While the performers are under Plato’s spell, their faces are broadcast on television monitors behind them, which the viewers can see. The only trace the performers have of the viewers are their shadows on the wall.
Radiant Nature is an exciting contribution to Pacific Standard Time LA/LA. It brings attention to performances that ended long ago, as well as the issues they address — issues of marginalization that remain familiar and relevant in the United States today — and the continuing fight against the erasure of cultures from history. With his work, Downey found new modes of communication, creating a space in which bodies and pure thought constitute our known structures for knowledge and information.
Juan Downey: Radiant Nature continues at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (6522 Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles, California) through December 3. A joint exhibition continues at Pitzer College Art Galleries through December 8.