Thursday, October 11, 2007

Game and Match

I remember reading in Calvin TomkinsOff the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time about Robert Rauschenberg’s performance piece Open Score from 1966, where art and technology met in the strangest tennis game ever (above). Of course, reading about that performance was a poor substitute for actually being there that night. Microcinema International now offers a better alternative in their new DVD Open Score by Robert Rauschenberg, which offers archival footage and a great documentary to transport you back to that unique moment in art history.

In 1966, Rauschenberg joined forces with a group of engineers and scientists at Bell Telephone Laboratories to help realize some of his more unusual concepts for performance art. When Rauschenberg wanted to create a bizarre game of tennis featuring resounding booms, they hollowed out the handles of tennis rackets and inserted transmitters that would broadcast the ball hitting the strings of the rackets. Rauschenberg then asked that each strike of the ball be matched with a light going out, until the players were in total darkness. After the engineers and scientists had solved that problem, Rauschenberg arranged for a performance at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City, historic site of the 1913 Armory show that introduced modern art to America.

“They [the engineers and scientists] were working for nothing. We [the artists] were working for nothing. What a way to run a business!” Rauschenberg recalls in the documentary accompanying the performance film. The project ran on pure enthusiasm for technology and art. Some claim that Open Score marked the first time artists truly used technology in art, perhaps opening the door for the ever-increasing interchange continuing today. Watching the scientists recall the now-crude solutions to the problems they faced, you still get a sense of the excitement they felt back then.

The footage of the actual tennis game is surprisingly good, considering the state of video at the time. Fellow artist Frank Stella and the tennis pro from his club gamely rally on as the "booms" surround them and the lights soon go completely out. Once those lights go completely dark and the game becomes impossible, Rauschenberg introduces act two, in which 500 people come on stage in total darkness and perform tasks such as taking off their jackets, walking around, and hugging any others they bump in to. Meanwhile, using infrared cameras, Rauschenberg projects their actions upon screens suspended above the crowd. The infrared cameras transform all of the figures into eerie Nordic types. As they move around in the darkness, a voice reads names slowly over the public address system. This part of the performance struck me as especially haunting from the perspective of 2007, where we associate the readings of names in such a fashion with tragedies such as 9/11. Hearing the names read and seeing the ghostly figures milling about, I imagined for a moment that they were the spirits of the 9/11 attacks in some form of the afterlife, ferried over to the other side. The performance ends with Rauschenberg himself carrying a woman placed in a bag from place to place as she sings over the loudspeakers, another haunting image that must have been even more stirring in person than it was 40 years later in a grainy video.

“It couldn’t be done today,” Rauschenberg laments in the documentary. “It was done before its time. And it’s too late now.” Sadly, Rauschenberg is right. Open Score stands as a work without a time or place, questioning the very concepts of time, place, and identity. Fortunately, this video allows us to experience Rauschenberg’s unique perspective and to enjoy the first awkward stab at the marriage of technology and art that flourishes today in contemporary art.

[Many thanks to Microcinema International for providing me with a review copy of this DVD.]

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