Lye, Creeley, Cage and EAT: New York 1967
An excerpt from ‘Life in the Sixties,’ chapter 47 of Roger Horrocks’ Len Lye: a biography (AUP, 2001): 321-23. Reproduced with permission.
During January-February 1967, Lye took time out from the university to join a group of artists touring campuses around New York State. Organised by his friend John Hightower, Director of the New York State Council of the Arts, the tour also involved John Cage (composer), Robert Creeley (poet), Merce Cunningham (choreographer and dancer), Jack Tworkov (painter), Stan VanDerBeek (film-maker), and Billy Kluver (electronic engineer). Kluver, who had selected Lye's work for the Stedelijk exhibition in 1961, was currently the organiser of EAT (or Experiments in Art and Technology, Inc.). The seven artists all knew one another from the New York art world. Robert Creeley remembers that when some of the group were waiting at La Guardia airport at the beginning of the tour, they were having difficulty finding a place to be comfortable until Lye solved the problem: 'Len led us into a rather formal restaurant where a waitress immediately gave us large menus and waited for our orders. We simply wanted to talk and so Len with a lovely avoidance kept the whole scene in confusion. . .. There is a lag in the situation of the eye's response to projected film image . . . that lets the eye see a continuous image. . .. Just so in the proposal of the restaurant, the assumption of a necessary order let [us] use it in quite another manner, and we were thus able to enjoy the lag of their adjustment to the fact that we were there to do nothing more than sit comfortably and talk.
This was to be the first of many 'performances' on the tour. The basic schedule at each campus was a day of classroom talks - such as energetic attempts by Lye to explain to science classes why 'Art has got to be a magical business, absolutely’ - plus an evening group event (usually in a packed auditorium) where the artists performed simultaneously. As Grace Glueck of the New York Times described such an evening: 'On comes a multisensory blast of "media mix" that feels like a message directly from McLuhan. While some ten projectors bounce Stan VanDerBeek's "movie mural" off the walls and ceiling, John Cage's whiney electronic "white sound" throbs relentlessly through the room. . . . The collegiate audience was rocked. It giggled, applauded, whistled, stomped and twisted in its seats. "Oh, you're too far out," yelled a scornful sophomore, storming up the aisle.'
Glueck summed it up as perhaps 'the most exotic intellectual road show ever to hit the College Belt'. The aim, as Kluver expressed it, was to present the students 'with a kind of exploratory confusion that's very different from the structured, logical patterns of their lives at school'. Lye relished the idea of addressing all the senses at once and creating performance situations so busy that viewers had to divide their attention or keep making choices. Creeley saw the multiplicity as 'a whole new order for us to move in - we're used to apprehending only one thing at a time. Our environment is multiple now - we can't any longer escape it. We can't be single-channeled any more.' All these artists were tough old veterans with no interest in playing safe. As Cage observed: 'We're widening our sense of syntax. We feel expanded by the relationship - and furthermore, we're enjoying each other's company.
Some professors as well as students were disturbed by the 'primitive randomness' of happenings. How did Lye handle such situations? Creeley saw him as a ‘wild, heroic figure' who was 'always impatient with any located place,... walking around somewhat like a carnival barker, trying to get hold of the audience directly and admonishing them to admit the fact of their own feelings'. Lye would screen films and demonstrate 'Jump Fish', a very springy strip of steel suspended from the ceiling on a black cord. In his words: 'lt swings out and straightens and swings back and forth on its suspension cord and it makes a terrific resonating sound, for about 30 seconds to a minute.' He would hold the steel at each end, bend it outwards, then step back as it burst into action. Lye saw this 4-foot-long model as a prototype for giant versions that would be mechanically set in motion. In his sculpture park the 'Fish' would leap dramatically out of the water and dance to its own resonant sounds, then slide back into the water where it would be compressed ready for its next leap.
The tour ended in Manhattan on 25 February with a gala public performance at the 92nd Street YMHA. The event was called 'TV Dinner: Homage to EAT (Food for Thought)'. The artists sat around a well-stocked dinner table, some with their backs to the audience, getting up in turn to talk or perform. They wore microphones and were supposed to answer questions from the audience. Cups, glasses, and other objects were also wired for sound thanks to an intricate system engineered by Billy Kluver and Robbie Robinson (an engineer from Bell). There were television cameras and a number of film and slide projectors. Merce Cunningham danced behind a swinging strobe light. VanDerBeek projected images on the walls. Lye, wearing a strange pair of dark glasses with a cross-shaped opening for each eye, attempted to screen three films at once but only two projectors would start and one dropped out before the end. He then demonstrated his model for ‘Jump Fish', and Cage improvised beautiful bell-like sounds by rubbing a contact mike along the suspended sculpture.
To the audience these activities added up to chaos. No one could make out what the panellists were saying. The audience threw paper aeroplanes and coins, and tried to grab the microphones. Erik Shiozaki (whom Lye had invited along with other students from his class) recalls: 'People were screaming out "We want our money back!" and "What is this?" They didn't understand any of it. Len called it a happening, and the audience became part of it.' The audience seemed to find the food especially provocative. Ann Lye remembers her friend Ruth Richards walking over to the table and saying to the artists, 'I'm hungry and I'm not going to just stand here and watch all you people eating.' In Creeley's account: 'At one point apparently the Y's stage manager came up to Robinson and said, "You've got to do something, the crowd is very restless." Robinson continued with his own preoccupations. They were literally more interesting.' Ann summed up the evening with the phrase, 'lt was such a fiasco, it was a great success.'